Death row chaplain is last contact for the condemned in Texas

Posted: Friday, October 06, 2000

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) -- For some of the most vilified people in Texas, the comforting right hand of Jim Brazzil is their last human touch before they slip into unconsciousness and die.

''You watch that man take his last breath, and you watch his eyes set and they just have that blank stare ... You can see his shirt pounding, then all of a sudden you see it begin to slow and then it stops,'' said Brazzil, a Southern Baptist minister who for five years has been chaplain at the state prison that houses Texas' death chamber.

''The intensity of that moment -- sometimes you can feel the spirit leave -- I don't know how to describe it.''

Brazzil has prayed, laughed and cried with more than 130 murderers executed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

The busiest death house minister in the country, he shrugs off the scrutiny paid to Texas' aggressive execution pace and the role of Gov. George W. Bush, the GOP presidential candidate. ''The politics don't make any difference to me,'' he said.

What does matter is helping the person facing lethal injection.

''If I'm not in there, he's going to be by himself and I believe I can make a difference in his life just by loving him,'' said Brazzil, a 50-year-old father of three and grandfather of four.

''And I've had victims' families get angry with me because I've taken that position.''

The condemned inmate -- a needle in each arm -- is secured with cream-colored leather belts to the steel table. A warden stands close to the inmate's head. Brazzil is near the feet, his hand resting on the inmate's right leg between the ankle and knee.

''I feel his heart, I feel him tremble,'' Brazzil said. ''When that last moment is gone, he enters into the presence of God.''

Convicted killer John Satterwhite spent several hours with Brazzil shortly before he was executed in September.

''He's helped me in a whole lot of ways spiritually,'' Satterwhite told The Associated Press less than an hour before his execution. ''He's wonderful. You can't get a better person. I'm at peace.''

Born in Temple, Brazzil studied at Howard Payne University in Brownwood and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. After taking up church postings, he was drawn to volunteer ministry in county jails, and once, on a church-sponsored trip to the Ukraine, he preached at 11 prisons.

''I came back home with a firm commitment I really wanted to go into prison work,'' he said.

Two years later, he took a 50 percent pay cut to become a state prison chaplain.

He witnessed his first execution on Sept. 19, 1995, at the Huntsville Unit, commonly known as ''The Walls.'' Condemned murderer Carl Johnson, proclaiming innocence but saying he had found peace, received injection for gunning down a security guard at a Houston supermarket almost 17 years earlier.

''I felt like I had finally found a niche,'' said Brazzil, now in charge of prison chaplains over a wide area of East and North Texas.

Jim Willet, the Huntsville Unit warden, said Brazzil helps the inmates make it through their final day.

''He communicates with the inmate and he prefers approaching them through Christianity,'' Willet said. ''But if they're not willing, he's just willing to be a person available.''

Brazzil generally will go to the Terrell Unit, about 45 miles east of Huntsville where death row inmates are housed, a day or two before a scheduled execution to introduce himself to the condemned prisoner.

''I want him to see my face,'' he said. ''All they know is you're that 'killing chaplain' from over at The Walls.''

It's one of several nicknames given to Brazzil, who also acknowledges being known as the ''sinister minister'' or ''cardinal of the chamber.''

On execution day, they meet again and he introduces the prison staff when the inmate arrives at a holding cell adjacent to the death chamber at The Walls.

''I talk through the bars,'' Brazzil said. ''The most frustrating part to me is when he has something working in the courts. His lawyers have always said: 'Don't say anything to anybody and don't discuss your case with anybody.' He comes over here and that's on his mind and he's not ready to deal with his spiritual realm and not really ready to face death.

''When he hears from the courts and hears he's been denied, my time is very short. But that's the very most productive time I have, when reality hits.''

Besides addressing spiritual needs, he tries to calm the prisoner.

''He helps the officers as much as the inmate,'' said Maj. Kenneth Dean, who oversees many procedures that precede an execution. ''Just his presence kind of soothes everybody.''

What do inmates say to him?

Some make confessions, even after proclaiming innocence in public. ''I can't die hurting my parents,'' one told him. One cried uncontrollably, worried about God forgiving him. ''He reached through the bars and grabbed my legs, just weeping,'' Brazzil said.

The inmate asked if the chaplain would hold his hand during the execution. He couldn't, but offered to rest his hand on the prisoner's leg, something he often does.

Another sort of tradition is offering the condemned a chance to write in his Bible, and to read other inmates' final thoughts written there.

''Here's some guys who have been where you are,'' he has said, handing the prisoner the dog-eared, quarter-century-old book that has accompanied him around the world and hundreds of times into prison.

It has helped comfort many inmates since the first note he received.

He had been praying and reading Scripture with Karla Faye Tucker, the convicted ax killer, as she awaited execution in 1998. When Brazzil left to talk to the warden, Tucker borrowed his Bible.

The next day, while preparing for her funeral, he opened the book. She had written and signed a page inside.

''Thank you for bringing the love and fellowship of Jesus to me as I was preparing to be face to face with Him,'' she wrote. ''I love you in Christ.''

''It was very eerie,'' Brazzil said. ''It brought the tears.''

A few days later, another anxious inmate was awaiting death and Brazzil remembered Tucker's message.

''I have something that may give you comfort,'' Brazzil told him.

The inmate added another handwritten message. The messages now have grown to some two dozen, although Brazzil said he never asks an inmate to record his thoughts.

''I just do it when there's some pretty intense emotions, when there's some fear and they're needing some comfort.''

End Adv for Friday, Oct. 6

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