Prison made a new man out of Jonathan Nobles...But death row only has one exit
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.
One thing Jon and I don’t talk about much is the movement to abolish the death penalty. In fact, Jon is suspicious of abolitionists. We were "introduced" by a pen pal of his and an acquaintance of mine. She had heard that I sometimes corresponded with inmates and asked if she could give Jon my address. I said sure. Within a month, I received my first letter. It was a page and a half long in a beautiful flowing script. It contained a lot of the usual tough rhetoric and dark humor I had learned to expect in letters from inmates. After several readings, I realized that the jailhouse small talk was merely a medium, a vehicle for one pertinent piece of information—that Jonathan Wayne Nobles was guilty of the crimes he was charged with.
In 1986 Jon was convicted (almost entirely on the strength of his own confession) of stabbing Kelley Farquhar and Mitzi Johnson-Nalley to death. He also admitted stabbing Ron Ross, Nalley’s boyfriend, who lost an eye in the attack. Jon never took the stand during his trial. He sat impassively as the guilty verdict was read and, according to newspaper accounts, only flinched slightly when District Judge Bob Jones sentenced him to death.
When Jon arrived at Ellis he quickly alienated all of the guards and most of the inmates. He once broke away from guards while returning to his cell from the exercise yard and climbed the exposed pipes and bars in the cell block, kicking down television sets suspended outside on the bottom tier. On another occasion he cut himself with a razor blade, knowing that the guards would have to open his cell to prevent him from bleeding to death. He just wanted to hit one officer before he passed out.
But somehow, somewhere along the line, in what is arguably the most inhumane environment in the "civilized" world, Jonathan Nobles began to change. He became interested in Catholicism and began to attend Mass. He befriended the Catholic clergy who ministered in the prison system, including members of the Dominican Order of Preachers. He eventually became a lay member of the order and ministered to his fellow inmates, even standing as godfather at inmate Cliff Boggess’ baptism. He later helped officiate at the Mass that was celebrated the night before Boggess’ execution. I watched this transformation in the letters that I received.
The Jonathan Nobles who sits on the other side of the glass from me in September 1998 is a different man from the one the state of Texas sentenced to die almost 12 years ago. The greatest evidence of this fact is the way Jon is treated by everyone he encounters. A prison clerk, displaying genuine regret, interrupts our visit. She needs Jon to sign some papers. Jon does so and then informs me that the documents allow me to pick up his personal property and distribute it to a list of people detailed in a note the clerk will hand me on my way out. Inmate James Beathard, on his way down the line to visit with a family member, stops to talk and Jon introduces us. The guard patiently waits until the exchange is over before escorting him to his assigned cubicle. Socialization during inmate transfer is a clear violation of policy, but a lot of the rules have relaxed for Jon. He says it’s like the last week of the school year. I believe it’s more likely that he has earned the genuine respect of everyone here.
I excuse myself to go to the bathroom. The truth is, I simply need a break. On the way back I run into Father Stephen Walsh, a Franciscan friar from Boston who travels regularly to minister to the Catholic inmates at Ellis. He will serve as Jonathan’s spiritual adviser, waiting with Jon in the holding cell over at the Walls until he’s escorted into the death chamber itself. There, he will administer the last rites.
Every visit ends the same way. A guard gives us a five-minute warning, and Jon hurriedly dictates a list of "things to do" that I must commit to memory, since visitors are not allowed to bring writing instruments and paper into the unit. Then Jon presses his palm against the glass and I mirror his with mine. Jon says, "I love you. I’ll see you tomorrow."
OVER THE PAST FEW DAYS
The other witnesses have arrived in Huntsville. I had dinner with Dona Hucka, Jon’s aunt. She is the only blood relative to make the trip and she has driven all night to be here. Pam Thomas is in from England. Both are already on the unit when I arrive. We take turns leaning close to the glass while a prison employee takes Polaroid snapshots of each of us with Jon. The prison provides this service for the fee of eight dollars each.
It’s 10 o’clock in the morning. There isn’t much time left. At 12:30 we will be asked to leave the unit and Jon will be transported to the Walls. In the death chamber, we will be able to hear Jon over a speaker in the witness room, but this is our last opportunity to speak to him. Jon divides the remaining time between us more or less equally. I go first. Jon looks tired; the stress is showing for the first time. He leans down and motions me closer. I realize he’s assessing my condition as well. "You all right, man?" I tell him that I’m okay. Jon is not convinced.
"I’m worried about you. You don’t have to be Superman or nothin’. This is insane shit that’s goin’ on here today. You don’t have to be strong for the women if that’s what you’re thinkin’. They’re big girls. You need to take care of yourself."
"I know, Jon. I’m all right. I went to a meeting last night and my manager’s here now. I’ve also got a couple of friends up from Houston who have done this before."
"Yeah." That seemed to make him feel better. "Okay, but if you need to cry, it’s all right. Go ahead and cry."
"When this is all over, I’ll cry."
Jon shifts gears suddenly. Back to business. He looks both ways to make sure the guard isn’t watching. "Take this." With much effort he pushes a tiny slip of tightly rolled paper, the diameter of a toothpick, through the impossibly tight mesh. Somehow he pulls it off. "That’s my daughter’s phone number in California. My sister read it to me over the phone last night. They’re going to strip search me and I can’t take anything to the Walls and I’m afraid I’ll forget it. Give it to Father Walsh. Then I’ll have it when I make my last phone calls."
I poke the paper in the watch pocket of my Levi’s. There are a few other requests. He wants me to call his foster mother and his sister after the execution, and send flowers to two women who worked for the prison who were kind to him over the years. I promise that I won’t forget. "All right, bro. Take care of yourself and your kids. Tell Dona to come back." Hands against the glass one last time.
"I love you, Jonathan."
"I love you too, bro."
NOON I head back into Huntsville. My manager, Dan Gillis, arrived last night and not a moment too soon. Suddenly, driving has become difficult. The world has taken on a kind of surrealistic patina. I need someone to drive for the rest of the day. Also waiting at the hotel are two friends from the abolition movement, Karen Sebung and Ward Larkin. Both have witnessed executions, and they have made the trip to assist in any way they can. We talk over arrangements for the transportation and cremation of Jon’s body, which, as it turns out, Dan has already taken care of. I make a couple of phone calls and check my messages. Then I shower, shave, and put on a pair of black jeans, a blue short-sleeve shirt, and a black linen sport coat.
4:00 We leave the hotel. Dan drives us to Hospitality House, a guest residence operated by the Baptist Church for the families of in-mates. Dona and Pam, as well as Pam’s friend Caroline, are staying there. The two other witnesses, Bishop Carmody of the East Texas diocese and the Reverend Richard Lopez of the Texas Department of Corrections, are already there when we arrive. We are assembled here for an orientation session to be conducted by the Reverend Jim Brazzil, the chaplain at the Walls unit. He and the warden will be the only two people inside the chamber with Jon when he dies. He goes through the execution process step-by-step so that we will know what to expect and, though it’s obvious he speaks with authority, I’m not listening. I can’t concentrate, so I just nod a lot. It doesn’t matter. No matter how well or poorly the witnesses are prepared, they are going to kill Jon anyway.
5:05 Reverend Brazzil answers his cell phone. It’s Father Walsh, who’s over at the Walls with Jon and wants the phone number, the one that Jon passed me through the . . . oh my God. I can’t find it. I was sure that I transferred the slip from my other jeans into my wallet when I changed clothes, but it’s simply not there. Dan runs to the motel and checks my room, but it’s hopeless. Reverend Brazzil relays the bad news to Father Walsh. I feel awful.
5:30 We arrive at the visitors’ center across the street from the Walls unit. Karen Sebung accompanies me as far as the waiting area, where we witnesses are searched, then Dona and Pam are escorted to another room by a female officer. When they return, a large man enters the room and introduces himself as an officer of the prison’s internal affairs division. If we should feel faint, he says, medical attention is available. He also warns us that anyone who in any way attempts to disrupt the "process," as he calls it, will be removed from the witness area immediately. Nothing about my body is working right. My feet and hands are cold and the side of my neck is numb.
5:55 The corrections officer returns. "Follow me, please." We walk across the street and through the front door of the old Gothic prison administration building. We turn left as soon as we enter and find ourselves in the waiting area of the governor’s office, where we are asked to wait once again. There are two reporters there. The other three members of the press pool, along with the victims’ family members, have already been escorted to the witness area, which is divided by a cinder block wall. The two sets of witnesses will never come in contact with each other.
6:00 We’re led through a visiting area similar to the one at Ellis, then out into the bright evening sun for a moment and turn left down a short sidewalk. Another left and we enter a small brick building built into the side of the perimeter wall. We enter the tiny room in single file. Father Walsh appears from somewhere inside the death chamber to join us. The reporters enter last, and the door is locked behind us. I can hear the reporters scratching on their notepads with their pencils. There is only room for three of us—Dona, me, and Pam—in the front row. Dona grabs my left hand and squeezes it hard. She already has tears in her eyes.
Jon is strapped to a hospital gurney with heavy leather restraints across his chest, hips, thighs, ankles, and wrists.
His arms are wrapped in Ace bandages and extended at his sides on boards. At either wrist, clear plastic tubes protrude from the wrappings, snaking back under the gurney and disappearing through a plastic tube set in a bright blue cinder block wall. I think I see movement behind the one-way glass mirror on the opposite wall—the executioner getting into position. Jon is smiling at us, his great neck twisted uncomfortably sideways. A microphone suspended from the ceiling hangs a few inches above his head. The speaker above our heads crackles to life and Jon speaks, craning his head around to see the victims’ witnesses in the room next door.
"I know some of you won’t believe me, but I am truly sorry for what I have done. I wish that I could undo what happened back then and bring back your loved ones, but I can’t." Jon begins to sob as he addresses Mitzi Nalley’s mother. "I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I wish I could bring her back to you. And Ron . . . I took so much from you. I’m sorry. I know you probably don’t want my love, but you have it."
Turning to me, he seems to regain his composure somewhat. He even manages to smile again. "Steve, I can’t believe that I had to go through all this to see you in a suit coat. Hey man, don’t worry about the phone number, bro. You’ve done so much. I love you. Dona, thank you for being here. I know it was hard for you. I love you. Pam, thank you for coming from so far away. Thanks for all you have done. I love you. Bishop Carmody, thank you so much. Reverend Lopez and you, Father Walsh, I love you all. I have something I want to say. It comes from I Corinthians. It goes . . . " and Jon recites the lengthy piece of scripture that he agonized over for weeks, afraid he would forget when the time came. He remembers every word.
When he finishes reciting he takes a deep breath and says, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit." The warden, recognizing the prearranged signal he and Jon had agreed on, nods toward the unseen executioner and Jon begins to sing.
"Silent night / Holy night . . . "
He gets as far as "mother and child" and suddenly the air explodes from his lungs with a loud barking noise, deep and incongruous, like
a child with whooping cough—"HUH!!!" His head pitches forward with such force that his heavy, prison-issue glasses fly off his face, bouncing from his chest and falling to the green tile floor below.
And then he doesn’t move at all. I watch his eyes fix and glaze over, my heart pounding in my chest and Dona squeezing my hand. Dead men look
. . . well, dead. Vacant. No longer human. But there is a protocol to be satisfied. The warden checks his watch several times during the longest five minutes of my life. When the time is up, he walks across the room and knocks on the door. The doctor enters, his stethoscope earpieces already in place. He listens first at Jon’s neck, then at his chest, then at his side. He shines a small flashlight into Jon’s eyes for an instant and then, glancing up at the clock on his way out, intones, "6:18."
We are ushered out the same way we came, but I don’t think any of us are the same people who crossed the street to the prison that day. I know I’m not. I can’t help but wonder what happens to the people who work at the Walls, who see this horrific thing happen as often as four times a week. What do they see when they turn out the lights? I can’t imagine.
I do know that Jonathan Nobles changed profoundly while he was in prison. I know that the lives of people he came in contact with changed as well, including mine. Our criminal justice system isn’t known for rehabilitation. I’m not sure that, as a society, we are even interested in that concept anymore. The problem is that most people who go to prison get out one day and walk among us. Given as many people as we lock up, we better learn to rehabilitate someone. I believe Jon might have been able to teach us how. Now we’ll never know.
Jonathan Nobles was buried in Oxford, England. From Tikkun (Sept./Oct. 2000). Subscriptions: $29/yr. (6 issues) from Box 460926, Escondido, CA