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Author Biography: John D. Bessler is an attorney and Adjunct Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota Law School. He is the author of ‘Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota' and ‘Death in the Dark: Midnight Executions in America,' which is also published by Northeastern University Press. He lives in Minneapolis.
On Thanksgiving night in 1998, a convicted killer, Martin Gurule, and six other murderers gathered shortly after 8:00 P.M. in the recreation yard of the maximum-security prison fifteen miles outside of Huntsville, Texas. Normally confined to their cells for twenty-three hours a day, these death row inmates had been allowed into the caged-in yard after supper. Relying on special privileges they had earned in a prison work program, the men hatched a far-fetched escape plan that resembled the plot of a poorly scripted B movie. When the other inmates returned to their cells, Gurule and his six fellow convicts disappeared and were left unaccounted for by the guards.
Having made dummies out of blankets and pillows and put them on their cell cots to fool the guards, the seven men used a pilfered hacksaw blade to cut a small hole in an interior fence, which they climbed through to gain access to the Ellis I Unit's flat rooftop. There, while waiting for darkness, the men darkened their standard-issue long underwear to avoid detection, using black felt-tip pens and carbon paper from the prison commissary. After waiting more than three hours, the men-still not missed-jumped down from the roof shortly after midnight and dashed across the prison yard toward two chain-link perimeter fences topped with razor wire.
"Just run" was the death row inmates' strategy, as relayed later by Gustavo Garcia, one of the seven, a man facing execution for the shotgun slaying of a store employee during a robbery. As part of the plan, Martin Gurule wore cardboard under his clothes and wrapped magazines around his arms with elastic to protect himself from the fences' sharp metal blades. By the time Gurule reached the top of the second fence, though, the guards had spotted the men, sounded the alarms, and flicked on yellowish perimeter lights.
When the fleeing inmates were seen from two hundred feet away, multiple AR-15 rifle shots rang out from two watchtowers. Six of the inmates, all between the ages of twenty-two and thirty-one, immediately lay down and surrendered. But twenty-nine-year-old Gurule, leaving drops of blood on his way, cleared both fences. He disappeared into the foggy night, becoming the first Texas convict to escape from death row in sixty-four years-a member of Bonnie and Clyde's gang being the last, in 1934.
Gurule, convicted of killing a Corpus Christi restaurant owner during a robbery in which two people were killed, ran past the warden's house and into the 17,000 swampy, wooded acres surrounding the prison. The previously unthinkable was now a reality: a death row inmate was on the loose.
The jailbreak set off a media frenzy and a manhunt involving three helicopters, horse and boat patrols, five hundred searchers, and seventy tracking dogs. By scouring snake-infested woods and creek beds and areas crawling with fire ants and alligators, authorities made an all-out effort to recapture Gurule, who was now, with little food and no drinkable water, among the water moccasins of East Texas's mosquito-laden swamps and bayous. A Texas National Guard helicopter with special equipment capable of detecting heat sources was brought in to find him. "This helicopter can fly over an area, and when it senses a heat source, it can determine the difference between a person or livestock or a rabbit," explained prison spokesman Larry Fitzgerald.
In the days following the escape, prison officials insisted that Gurule remained inside the search perimeter set up around the Huntsville prison. Still, a "wanted" poster with three photos of Gurule, offering a $5,000 reward, was distributed statewide and on the Internet. This prompted several reports of sightings of Gurule throughout the state by nervous citizens. "Somebody saw him eating french fries in a café, or at church on Sunday, or in Dallas with a transvestite," one frustrated prison official told a reporter.
The escape was a public relations nightmare for Texas Governor George W. Bush, who had pushed for a 1995 Texas law to speed up executions by requiring that substantive appeals and habeas petitions be brought at the same time. Eyeing the presidency and having just returned from a trip to the Middle East, Bush was understandably livid about the fugitive's escape. "I'm upset about it," he said, emphasizing that he had asked the Texas Rangers, the state's investigative arm, to find out how it could have happened.
After seven days and seven nights, the huge manhunt came to an abrupt halt. Two off-duty correctional officers who were fishing found Gurule's bloated body at 5:30 P.M. beneath a bridge on Harmon Creek, which feeds into the Trinity River. At first, they thought the figure was a mannequin, but then one of the men, Mark Humphrey, said, "Oh, man, if it's got fingernails, it's not a mannequin." An autopsy showed that Gurule had a shallow, non-lethal bullet wound in his back, but had actually drowned in the creek, the weight of his makeshift cardboard body armor pulling him under the water.
In the end, Gurule got less than a mile away from the prison and probably lasted less than a few hours after his escape. Authorities surmised that Gurule was forced into the rain-swollen, swiftly moving creek by the sound of howling dogs and men on horseback. "I said a prayer for his family," Mark Humphrey said after finding Gurule's body. "I know he had a grandmother, and I feel for her. I feel for the victims, too."
The botched jailbreak and Gurule's desperate dash into an isolated swamp raised disturbing questions about the level of security at Texas prisons. A full-blown investigation quickly ensued, and just two months after the incident, the warden of the Ellis Unit, Bruce Thaler, was demoted to an administrative job, his two assistant wardens were transferred, and several correctional officers were reprimanded. "We're taking this very seriously," Wayne Scott, the prison system's executive director, said as part of the disciplinary actions. "We're changing the entire management team." The garment-factory work program for death row inmates was canceled, and motion detectors and more razor wire were installed. Gurule's escape was said to be the product of "human error." As one prison board member explained: "We have policies and procedures to prevent this from happening. But when employees are negligent or don't perform duties at all, systems break down."
Ultimately, the state's death row for all male prisoners was moved from the Ellis Unit to the Terrell Unit outside Livingston, Texas. At Ellis, overcrowding meant two death row inmates per cell; at the Terrell Unit, only one inmate occupies each cell and condemned killers have no physical contact with one another, even in the recreation yard. At the new prison facility, death row prisoners are handcuffed through a small metal slot for any movement from their cells, including showers.
Although the relocation of death row came after Gurule's escape, Texas officials denied his escape was responsible for the move. "The primary reason we transferred death row from Ellis to Terrell was for capacity," said institutional division director Gary Johnson. "We made a decision that for as long as we could, we wanted death row located at one unit, and that was not going to be possible anymore at Ellis. It really didn't have anything to do with the fact that we had an escape from death row." "You've got to be realistic," added Officer Reginald Bradford, a fifteen-year death row veteran. "Even if the guy hadn't gone over the fence, we were going to have to do something sooner or later, anyway. We were running out of room." In spite of its notoriety, none of the 119 officers who manned Ellis's death row put in for a transfer to the Terrell unit, where the condemned inmates displaced some five hundred administrative segregation inmates who got transferred to new, high-security facilities.
Americans were rightfully appalled by Gurule's escape, particularly as it was not the only escape from death row in recent times. In 1984, an astonishing total of six men-Linwood Briley, James Briley, Earl Clanton, Willie Leroy Jones, Derick Peterson, and Lem Tuggle-escaped from Virginia's Mecklenburg Correctional Center. After taking and locking up hostages, the Mecklenburg Six took control of the cell block, put on guards' uniforms, and fabricated a bomb threat. In the confusion that followed, the men-with Linwood Briley facing an imminent execution date-exited the death house and drove an old white van out of the prison gates. Just hours later, Virginia Governor Chuck Robb would find himself turning to the state's Army and Air National Guard for help in capturing the fugitives.
The scene was little different from the chaos that followed Martin Gurule's escape. After roadblocks were set up and hundreds of law enforcement officers were brought in to assist with the search, teams of bloodhounds and helicopters with infrared equipment scoured the area. Two of the fugitives, Earl Clanton and Derick Peterson, were captured by a SWAT team without incident in a laundromat after they had spent nineteen hours on the run. The other four fugitives had split off and would not be captured so quickly. (Tragically, one local resident, seeing the helicopters and a roadblock near his house and sensing danger, left a loaded pistol on his nightstand. Two days later, his nine-year-old son picked up the gun and, thinking it unloaded, accidentally shot a three-year-old neighbor girl between the eyes.)
After dropping off the Briley brothers in Philadelphia, Lem Tuggle and Leroy Jones, desperate for money, headed for Canada, camping along the way. Tuggle robbed a souvenir shop owner at knifepoint but was pulled over and surrendered peacefully after ten days at large. "I think you'll find I'm wanted pretty bad by the people back in Virginia," he said, raising his hands as a policeman approached him, gun drawn. A convicted rapist and murderer, Tuggle had been sentenced to die for killing a woman in 1983 after having been paroled just months earlier from a 1971 murder sentence. Just ten miles from the Canadian border, Leroy Jones, convicted of murdering an elderly couple, made a collect call to his mother, who convinced him to turn himself in. An unarmed Jones, who telephoned the Vermont State Police, gave himself up by waiting in the middle of a road.
The Briley brothers, who had committed at least eleven murders between them, were not captured until nineteen days after their escape. The two worked quietly as watchmen and handymen at Dan's Custom Car Factory in Philadelphia but were arrested after Lem Tuggle tipped off authorities as to the Briley brothers' whereabouts. On a hot evening in June, as the Briley brothers sat eating barbecued chicken, police officers surrounded the garage, yelling, "Freeze! FBI!" Armed with shotguns, M-16s, and rifles, the law enforcement officers left the brothers with no choice. They were led off in handcuffs without resistance. Robert Landon, the director of Virginia's prison system, called what led to the mass escape "a complete breakdown" in prison rules by the guards.
These two escape attempts and the ensuing manhunts lead to a host of questions: Just what exactly were these men thinking when they sprinted toward the razor-wire fences or, in the case of the Mecklenburg Six, rode a van out of the prison gate? Did these men really believe that they could, against all odds, escape from maximum-security prisons and not get caught or killed in the process? Even though the chances of successful escapes approached nil, there these men were, making mad dashes from the prisons where they were confined.
The men in Texas, running toward barbed wire fences amid gunfire, made a particularly pathetic sight. These hardened criminals were dressed in long underwear and white prison jump suits dyed with black Magic Markers. A stranger sight, except perhaps in a surrealistic film like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, is hard to imagine.
For us to comprehend the men's mindset, one fact cannot be overlooked: each of the men was living under a sentence of death. They had little to lose, as they were going to die in the end anyway. "I don't regret trying to escape," Gustavo Garcia told the Associated Press after taking part in the failed escape attempt. "It was worth the try." When asked to compare the risky escape attempt with the prospect of lethal injection, Garcia replied, "Facing execution is scarier."
On that Thanksgiving night in Texas, it was actually state prison officials who had the most cause for concern. They had neglected to put extra rolls of razor wire-at a cost of a few dollars per square foot between the two perimeter fences, making the escape possible. Not only did the lax security put lives at risk, but in the immediate aftermath of Gurule's escape, Texas officials feared that if Gurule made it to Mexico they might never get him back. As a San Antonio defense lawyer, Gerald Goldstein, explained, "Mexico, like most civilized nations in the world, does not have a death penalty. Their extradition treaty with the United States is clear; they will not extradite, meaning forcibly return, a person who is faced with that penalty."
Most people, like me, just read about Martin Gurule's escape and the escape of the Mecklenburg Six. They did not personally know Martin Gurule or any of the six Virginia death row escapees, whom they were convicted of killing, or the details of these inmates' lives. The names of the Mecklenburg Six and Martin Gurule became widely known only because of their reckless, foolhardy jailbreaks and the public safety issues created by them. Had the Mecklenburg Six not escaped from death row, their executions would have gone forward with little notice. And had Martin Gurule simply stayed put, his lethal injection in Texas would have drawn far less media exposure than that generated by his short-lived escape.
In this day and age, a typical execution attracts very little media attention, particularly outside the state in which the crime occurred. Our world faces so many threats and pressing problems that a convicted killer's demise is easy to overlook. Clifton Belyeu's execution was the thirteenth in a long list of state-sanctioned killings in Texas in 1997. It was reported without a byline and warranted only three sentences in the New York Times.
Indeed, newspapers like the Houston Chronicle have stopped sending reporters to cover Texas executions at all, relying instead on brief wire-service reports. Unless an execution involves a notorious killer like Timothy McVeigh or, perhaps, a foreign national, television stations have little or no interest and newspapers often cover executions in two-line blurbs in places like the Washington Post's "Addenda" section.
Excerpted from Kiss of Death by John D. Bessler Copyright © 2003 by John D. Bessler
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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