Stand Up and Holler

A Huntsville execution draws a strange crowd

Jay Martel wandered through the pro-death-penalty crowd outside the Huntsville prison on the night of January 24 without arousing suspicion. Wearing blue jeans, a baseball cap and a windbreaker that looked a lot like the state flag, he fit right in. He offered cans of ginger ale, passed out foam fingers and praised George W. Bush. If there had been a baby, you can bet he would have kissed it. If there had been cheerleaders, which there were, you can bet he wasn't surprised.

The victims' rights group Justice for All was already more boisterous than normal on this particular night at death row because of the man who was being executed. Billy Hughes Jr. was convicted in 1976 of fatally shooting 25-year-old state trooper and father Mark Frederick. But Hughes, who was wanted for credit card theft when Frederick pulled him over, claimed he had merely returned fire when the officers shot at him as he reached for his wallet, and he managed to avoid his death sentence for 24 years by launching numerous appeals. While the cop killer "abused the system," he also became a college graduate (with two degrees in religion), a paralegal, an anti-death-penalty lobbyist, a well-known cartoonist and, at least according to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a humanitarian. Needless to say, the anti-death-penalty camp was a little sadder than normal to see a "reformed" man die.

Beyond that, it was business as usual at the Walls Unit. Justice for All stood at the left end of the police line, holding signs that said, "No Murder Equals No Execution." The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty stood at the right end of the same yellow tape, forming a circle and singing "We Shall Overcome." Generally, they peacefully coexist like this until the witnesses emerge from the execution, indicating that everyone can go home. They have the routine down pat: There were seven executions in just over two weeks last month; there have been 119 since George W. took office.

A football fan cheered George W.on to his next lethal injection.
John Childs
A football fan cheered George W.on to his next lethal injection.
Cheerleaders performed in front of a gubernatorial scoreboard specially made for Billy Hughes's execution.
John Childs
Cheerleaders performed in front of a gubernatorial scoreboard specially made for Billy Hughes's execution.

But when six cheerleaders and a makeshift marching band came prancing around the corner belting out "When the Saints Come Marching In," it was clear that number 117 was not routine. In pigtails, letter sweaters and red-pleated skirts, the fresh-faced drill team chanted, "We are Texas" and "Go, George, Go." As the antis struggled to maintain their circle vigil, the pros turned into fans at a football game.

Fire up, fire up Fire up, and up And up and up and up!

They grinned, cheered and waved their foam fingers.

Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar All for the death penalty stand up and holler!

They were already standing, but they sure hollered.

P, P-O, P-O-W-E-R We've got power Woo! Killing power!

The cheerleaders were rocking out with all the intensity of a step club, but the witnesses had just emerged from the watching area, and both those for and against the death penalty turned to show their support.

Execute, execute, sis, boom, bah Lethal injection, rah, rah, rah!

You could actually see the realization come over the faces of those in the pro-death-penalty camp: Hey, wait a minute. These death row cheerleaders aren't on our side after all.

Florida oranges, Texas cactus We kill convicts just for practice!

That did it. Rick Lemmon, a man who has lost both his twin brother and only son to murder, shouted back through a megaphone: "We have never killed anybody for practiceŠ.Y'all don't forget the victim here."

Kill 'em to the left Kill 'em to the right Here in Texas We kill 'em every night!

David Atwood, president of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and Dudley Sharp, vice president of Justice for All, both visibly pissed off, yelled at each other at almost exactly the same time, "Did you do this?" then, "No!"

We're number one, can't be number two If you don't agree with us, we'll kill you too Texas is good, Texas is great We kill more than any other state!

"Is this what George Bush wants?" asked Atwood. "The cheerleaders?" Sharp put his hand on Atwood's shoulder and said, "Anti-death-penalty and pro-death-penalty strongly believe in what they're doing, and that doesn't include disrespecting the other side." Meanwhile, a bare-chested, body-painted, football-helmeted man ran through the crowd with a "Death" pennant.

George, George, he's our man If he can't kill 'em, no one can Who's the best on the killing scene? George Bush, he's a killing machine! He's a killing machine! He's a killing machine!

The confusion moved to a nearby parking lot where a scoreboard read: George 117, Jeb 2. (In all fairness, Jeb has only one execution to his credit. Executions have been on hold in Florida since July, when a possible malfunction in "Old Sparky" caused Allen Davis to bleed profusely through his nose as he died.) The cheerleaders spelled out the letters as they called them:

Gimme a "D" Gimme an "E" Gimme an "A" Gimme a "T" Gimme an "H" What's that spell? Death! Pardons are for wimps! Pardons are for wimps!

"It shouldn't have been this way," Atwood said, shaking his head.

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