Victim Services Division
Victim Witnesses Viewing Executions: The Texas Experience
Texas offenders have always had the opportunity to have five witnesses at their execution. The only prerequisite is that they must choose their witnesses from their approved visitation list, which means the witnesses, can be anyone including immediate family, friends, and a spiritual advisor.
In late 1995, victim advocates and survivors met in Austin, Texas with several members of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, the nine-member oversight board for the agency. Their aim was to petition the Board to allow a capital murder victim's family the opportunity to view the execution of the offender. Many survivors at the meeting testified that viewing the execution would contribute to their healing process.
In January 1996, the Texas Board of Criminal Justice adopted a board rule permitting victim witnesses to view executions. At that time, viewing was limited to immediate family members and individuals with a close relationship to the deceased victim. In mid-1998, the rules were relaxed to allow victim witnesses to include close friends of surviving relatives. Other witnesses may be invited at the statutory victim's discretion. In May 2008, the Board adopted a new rule allowing victim witnesses to be accompanied by a spiritual advisor who is a bona fide pastor or comparable official of the victim's religion.
The Preparation Process
From the beginning, it was determined that victim witnesses needed to understand the execution process and know what to expect on the day of the execution. Prior to the execution date, a packet of execution related information that includes notification of the execution date, a brochure outlining procedures and a list to be completed and returned for the witnesses and support persons is mailed to the family members on file.
The Day of the Execution
Early in the afternoon on the day of the execution, the victim witnesses and their support persons meet with TDCJ-Victim Services Division staff members in Huntsville, Texas at a designated location away from the prison unit. Witnesses and support persons are given an overview of the execution process and schedule. A packet of information is presented to the witnesses. It includes information about the offender's offense, and official witness list of offender and victim witnesses as well as general death row information. Following the orientation, the victim witnesses will travel to the Huntsville Unit to await the execution. The offender's witnesses arrive at a different time and remain in a separate location until time to view. Procedures are in place to ensure that the victim's and offender's witnesses remain separated during the entire execution process.
The actual viewing process takes approximately 15 to 20 minutes. The witnesses are escorted into the viewing room along with representatives from the media. The media may have five witnesses, which are divided between the offender and victim witness rooms. The offender's witnesses will be in the room next door.
After the execution process is complete the victim witnesses are escorted back to a secure area for debriefing. For some witnesses, this process is very traumatic because it allows old wounds to be reopened. This time allows for the witnesses to come to grips with their feelings, express themselves in a safe, confidential environment, and refocus on the steps ahead. This time is vital for the witnesses as they begin the next step of the healing process.
Following the debriefing, the victim witnesses are offered the opportunity to speak with media representatives. If they elect to speak with media, Victim Services Division staff will accompany them to the media conference.
We in Victim Services consider it a privilege to share this time with the families. They have been through many years of stress, pain and grief. It is our goal to lift them up and to assure them that we do care. The execution process is long, painful and often times frustrating. It is our goal to offer victims our heartfelt compassion, our resources to assist them, and a professional, loving arm to help them along the path of healing.