Stand Up and Holler
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.
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
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 practice.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?
Pardons are for wimps!
Pardons are for wimps!
"It shouldn't have been this way," Atwood said, shaking his head.
"I bet you have Monica Lewinsky sex!" shouted a particularly rabid member of Justice for All.
"Desperate times call for desperate measures," muttered Martel.
Nah, nah, nah, nah
Nah, nah, nah, nah
Hey, hey, hey
After failed attempts to ignore the demonstration, shout down the cheerleaders, circle the band and blame Canada for the fiasco, attentions finally turned to Martel, who seemed to be enjoying all the mischief a little too much. "You did this!" they shouted at him from both sides. "They're not here all the time?" he asked, pushing the limits of playing dumb. They wanted answers: "Are you pro or against the death penalty?" "I'm pro Texas!" he whooped.
In a place where affiliations are always clearly delineated, this was as infuriating as the cheerleaders themselves. Even the news media -- well, those outlets that didn't miss the demonstration for days by relying on the AP feed -- didn't know where to put the blame or the credit. Channel 2's Suzanne Boase called it an "anti-death-penalty commercial."
No one recognized Martel or his gonzo journalism as trademarks of Michael Moore's popular, populist and political television show, The Awful Truth. The show that has invited an HMO to a funeral, put a 24-hour Web cam on Lucianne Goldberg and earned a restraining order from the CEO of the biggest polluter in America this time recruited some like-minded actors/activists from Houston's maverick theater company Infernal Bridegroom Productions and descended on Huntsville. The piece, which will include a segment shot in Florida, is "a celebration," says Awful Truth producer Dave Hamilton, "of two states who have long embraced the death penalty and turned their ability to kill Americans into a state pastime." The episode is expected to air on Bravo sometime next season.
One man at the prison that night did know the score: Billy Hughes. Citizen provocateur and KPFT Prison Show host Ray Hill was a gold mine of information for Moore's segment producers. He was also a longtime friend of Hughes's, even receiving a posthumous, and postage-due, letter from the inmate expressing his love, admiration and gratitude as he headed for his "final sunset." Hill was sworn to secrecy when he was contacted by the show, but during his last visit with Hughes before the execution, he says, "I had to confide in Billy what was going on. My conscience required me to."
How did Hughes take the news that his death would be surrounded by satirical fanfare? According to Hill, he said, "Thank you."
E-mail Lauren Kern at email@example.com.
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