Hanging with Mr. X
Like Gary Graham, Quanell X spoke boldly last Thursday. Then he was gone.
Inside the Huntsville prison unit, Graham, the celebrity death row inmate, waited to be killed by the state of Texas. Outside the prison's high walls of red brick, a relentless sound warned of impending danger. Much of the noise rolled through the streets from the steady ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom rhythm of drum-toting Graham supporters.
Then came the screech. A constant distortion of the words by death penalty protesters shouting through an overmodulated public-address system. The welter of discordant sounds mixed impromptu speeches with continual chants: "Serial killer on the loose. What's his name? George Bush."
More noise flowed from the mouths of Quanell and some of his semiautomatic-weapon-toting entourage, a dozen or so members of the New Black Panthers and his New Black Muslims. The week before, this dynamic black activist and his team made headlines when they showed up to flash their guns outside the state Republican convention in Houston -- and when one of their group allegedly pushed a 71-year-old delegate from Kaufman County to the ground.
To be certain, hot-air-producing proponents of capital punishment formed their own parade amid the perspiring throngs. A bus arrived with the Cleveland, Texas, chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, including the grand dragon of the White Camellia Knights in high Klan drag.
A coalition of state law enforcement officers policed the grounds in their plan to keep the two factions at opposite ends of the exterior prison campus. But on this day, the pro-death-penalty forces did not command the same amount of attention, reach the same volume or attain the same numbers as the Graham supporters.
At 4 p.m., two hours before Graham's scheduled execution, the diverse demonstrations swelled to at least a couple of thousand participants and onlookers. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles had already had its say two hours earlier, voting 14-3 against a recommendation that Governor George W. Bush grant Graham a 30-day reprieve. That took Bush off the hook and left Graham's backers with the remote hope of new intervention from the U.S. Supreme Court. With each passing minute, Graham's troops seemed to grow more anxious.
Graham's case caused anti-death-penalty groups around the country -- around the world, for that matter -- to make their stand, to draw their line in the sand.
It could be argued that he was a poor choice as the anti-death-penalty poster boy, that if he hadn't actually killed anyone, it wasn't for a lack of trying. Just ask Greg Jones, one of the people Graham shot during a robbery spree just before Bobby Lambert was gunned down in a supermarket parking lot in May 1981. Lambert's killing led Graham to death row. Despite Graham's criminal history, the opponents of capital punishment hoped he would be the one they could use to put a human face on executions.
Early in the day, Quanell preached restraint. He made a point of warning his allies to be on their best behavior; that The Man had snipers on the rooftops and in the trees just waiting for any excuse to open fire. (There were armed guards along the top of the prison wall, but the trees seemed pretty benign.) However, as Graham's appointed time with the executioner grew closer, Quanell apparently decided to ignore his own advice.
Although prison security forces had, for the most part, kept the opposing groups separated, around 5 p.m. Quanell decided to stir things up a bit -- or at least to appear to. He and his group made their way to beyond the east side of the prison, to a Klan bus that was parked on a residential street.
With only a handful of seemingly intimidated young officers from the Huntsville Police Department to deal with, Quanell warily approached the bus. Occasionally a voice from inside the vehicle could be heard over a loudspeaker. It warned Quanell to "stay away from the bus" and added, "We don't want to talk with you." Undeterred, Quanell had a couple of his followers boost him up so he could look through the windows.
"They've got kids with guns in these buses!" he exclaimed as he was lowered back to the ground.
His inner circle and outer crowds swirled constantly around Quanell, making it impossible to ask him questions. Several reporters and photographers had all they could do just to keep track of him. They learned to watch for a glimpse of his striking burnt orange suit. And to scan the crowd for a placard that always seemed to be carried by someone near him, a sign that read: "Though! The white man is devil possessed. We shall overcome."
But despite the suit and the sign, before backup security arrived near the bus, Quanell and his men slipped away, disappearing for about an hour.
Just before the scheduled six o'clock execution, Team Quanell reappeared. This time it seemed a flash point was imminent. As most of the protesters awaited news from the Supreme Court, Quanell and about a dozen of his armed guards suddenly appeared. They walked at a brisk pace along Huntsville's main thoroughfare toward TDCJ headquarters.
Just as quickly, a group of riot-helmet-wearing Department of Public Safety troopers and white-hatted Texas Rangers materialized to head them off. After a brief exchange of words, Quanell's group retreated back down the street away from the building. They were followed for a couple of blocks by several Rangers; an obviously pissed-off Sergeant Drew Carter -- the man who brought in serial killer Angel Maturino Resendiz -- led the way.
Quanell re-formed his ranks on the eastern edge of downtown Huntsville. In front of an abandoned movie theater with a Laura poster still encased on the front wall, he climbed atop an automobile. Armed guards flanked Quanell as he invited questions. What, a white female reporter asked, what he was going to do?
"If I looked like you," he told her, "I wouldn't be around here when [Graham] dies." Quanell promised that he and his men would not leave Huntsville as long as Gary Graham was alive.
Perhaps prison officials decided to solve two problems at once. The Supreme Court declined another stay for Graham, and a final federal court appeal also failed. Graham gave his rambling six-minute final statement. His last words were "They are murdering me."
At 8:47 p.m., almost three hours behind schedule, Graham's 19 years on death row ended with his execution.
The tension in Huntsville was not quite over. Outside the prison walls, DPS troopers and prison guards in riot gear lined up several rows deep.
One trooper relayed the word: "Two minutes until the witnesses [to the execution] come out." Police braced themselves for the possibility that the protesters would mount one last rush to the prison gates.
The assault never came. In fact, at about the time Graham was dying, the drumbeats had stopped. Loudspeakers of protesters hushed to silence. A sudden, unsolicited quiet -- if not calm -- came over the crowd.
Only the crying was left. By then, Quanell X was long gone.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.