Steve Earle: A Death in Texas

Prison made a new man out of Jonathan Nobles...But death row only has one exit

| January/February 2001 Issue


Jonathan Wayne Nobles grins at me through inch-thick wire-reinforced glass, hunching over to speak in a deep, resonant voice through the steel grate below. A feeble "What’s up?" is the best I can manage. The visiting area in Ellis One Unit is crowded with other folks who have traveled, in some cases thousands of miles, to visit relatives and correspondents on Texas’ Death Row. They sit at intervals in wooden chairs surrounding a cinder block and steel cage that dominates the center of the room. There are cages within the cage as well, reserved for inmates under disciplinary action and "death watch" status. Falling into the latter category, Jon must squeeze his considerable bulk into one of these phone-booth-sized enclosures.

It’s an awkward moment for both of us. In the 10 years we have corresponded, we have never met face to face. The occasion is auspicious. Jon and I will spend eight hours a day together for the next three days and another three days next week. Then the state of Texas will transport Jon, chained hand and foot, 11 miles to the Walls unit in downtown Huntsville. There he will be pumped full of chemicals that will collapse his lungs and stop his heart forever. This is not a worst-case scenario. It is a certainty. Jonathan Nobles has precisely 10 days to live. And I, at Jon’s request, will attend the execution as one of his witnesses.

Over the next few days a routine develops. I arrive at Ellis at 8:30 in the morning. We usually spend the first two hours talking about music, politics, religion—subjects that we have covered thoroughly enough in letters over the years to know that we have widely divergent views and tastes. We fill the long awkward silences that seem inevitable in prison visiting areas with trips to the vending machines for soft drinks, candy, and potato chips. I pass Jon’s goodies to the guard on duty through a small opening in the steel mesh.

Inevitably, we move on to life behind bars, drugs, and recovery—topics where we share considerably more common ground. We are both recovering addicts who got clean only when we were locked up. Jon began reading about recovery and attending 12-step meetings in prison years ago. I can remember a time, back when I was still using drugs, when the recovery-speak that filled his letters made me extremely uncomfortable. Now it is a language that we share—sort of a spiritual shorthand that cuts through the testosterone and affords us a convenient, if uncomfortable, segue to the business at hand.

There are arrangements to be made. If Jon’s body were to go unclaimed, as is the case with half of the men executed in Texas, he would be buried in the prison cemetery on the outskirts of Huntsville. Called "Peckerwood Hill" by the locals, it is a lonely space filled with concrete crosses, adorned only with the interred inmates’ prison numbers. Those executed by the state are easily identifiable by the "X" preceding their number. There are no names on the stones. Jon doesn’t want to wind up there.

Instead, he wants to be buried in Oxford, England—a place he’s never seen. One of his pen pals, a British woman named Pam Thomas, has described it to him in her letters. He likes the picture Pam paints of the springtime there, when the bluebells are in bloom. Jon says that Pam is working on permission from a landowner there. I have Plan B on the back burner. A Dominican community in Galway, Ireland, has offered Jon a final resting place. At some point in the proceedings, it dawns on me that I have spent the past hour helping a living, breathing man plan his own burial.

2/26/2014 11:14:04 AM

Steve Earle was, and remains, a hero of mine, both as an incredible singer song writer and a recovering addict like myself. I, too, am opposed to the death penalty. I do not advocate opening death row and letting loose those convicted, but instead keeping them in prison until the time God, the One who will judge us all, calls them home. I grew up in Texas, not far from Steve, and count myself blessed. His music continues to gladden my heart and the times I've been able to talk to him have been very dear. God bless those who love the unlovable.

kayla parker_2
4/2/2008 12:00:00 AM

I am doing a quest project on the death penalty and i need to interview a person for a visual aid. You can contact me if you would be interested at the email address above. Thanks Kayla parker

kayla parker_1
4/2/2008 12:00:00 AM

Oh my gosh this story has changed my life soooo much.I was wondering if I could get an interview with someone because I'm doing a quest project over the death penalty. P.S. Reverend Jim Brazzil is my grandfather!!! sincerly, Kayla Parker