Reflections from Death Row

How long have you been on Texas death row?

I committed this crime in August 1991. I wasn’t a suspect and was not arrested until July 1996. I was sentenced to death in June 1997, and I arrived on Texas death row, then at Ellis unit, on September 17, 1997. So it has been over 16 years since my crime.

Do you feel that the process that put you here was handled professionally?

That’s a tough one. It was handled by hard-working professionals. I understand that the members of our police force, as well as prosecutors and judges, have a very difficult and demanding job. This terrible crime was one incident during a time when I was breaking down under mental stress—I was having flashbacks, displaced emotions, panic attacks, and using alcohol and drugs to try to cope, as well as committing crimes to support myself financially.

After I began to face my responsibility and change my life (which began in December 1991, when I quit drinking and drugs), I went through a dark time where I was very close to suicide. I had to change or die. I can only imagine how it would be for law enforcement professionals to have to deal with this kind of trauma and filth every day. People must get jaded by repeated exposure to such wanton violence and destruction, and start seeing such broken, degraded human beings as less than human.

Did they do a professional job, handling me as a criminal and probably a “psychopath”? Maybe—I’d say yes. Just looking at the horrific crime scene photos would color any normal human being’s chance of seeing me as “possibly innocent,” much less “not a future danger.” There’s almost no way they could see me as a fellow human being who was just messed up by trauma in my past.

Did they treat me professionally, equally, as a fellow citizen? As a human being? No, of course not.

Do you feel justice served you or failed you?

When does justice ever serve the poor? These days, in the United States, almost never. Even innocent men are left in prison until they gain enough outside support to turn the tide of systematic injustice. Court-appointed attorneys, plea bargains, elected judges, and prosecutors have added the deadly influence of political ambition to what is already a hard job: meting out punishment and mercy to create justice.

If the law said “an eye for an eye,” I never would have appealed; I never would have gone to trial. I would have gone to the gallows, full of remorse but resigned to my fate. However, the law in Texas requires that someone sent to death row “probably” would commit future, violent criminal acts—and for me, that is absolutely, 100-percent not true. Even without the evidence they neglected, the lies they insinuated at my trial were based on a few handpicked facts, and then spun into a story. What’s worse is that the judge barred the testimony of an expert witness for the defense who was ready to rebut this half-truth, and then my lawyers refused to call witnesses back (friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers) who had come to my trial to demand to be heard. And finally, when I was ready to take the stand, despite all, even knowing they might not even ask me crucial questions—they got my mother and father to tell me, “Son, don’t do this. It will be legal suicide.”

If I have any great regret since December 1991, when I changed my life, it is that I did not at least take the stand to look into the victim’s family members’ eyes, and say: “I am so sorry for what I did.”

Nothing can make up for that. I am well aware that, to those people, my every breath and heartbeat must seem like proof of the injustice of life. The only reason I have not dropped my appeals is that death seems to be too easy a way out—and for the sake of my mother. Just as I killed that innocent young woman, her goodness has haunted me. The only reason I did not kill myself in 1992-93 when I felt I had to “change or die,” is because I found a purpose in life. I felt suicide would be the coward’s way out. Instead I chose to live, to try to learn and change, to try to do some small good each day in that dear woman’s name.

I can never do enough to amend the wrong I have done; but I cannot go back, so I go forward and do my best. With the help of many good friends, by the grace of God, there have been miracles and changes.

How could I, or someone like me, ever be a “future danger?” I tell you the truth with all my heart: I would not lie to save my own life—to save someone else’s, perhaps. But not where justice was concerned. Other than basic self-defense, I would never harm another human being, ever. At Ellis unit I was nearly raped because I didn’t even want to involve myself in a mere fistfight. But I finally realized I was naĂŻve, idealistic, and that sometimes hitting a fool in the mouth opens his eyes and ears.

How do you feel about the victim’s family or survivors?

There are not enough words to say how sorry I am, and how indebted I am to them for the rest of my life, until they feel they can forgive, until they feel justice has been done.

Do you think execution will change anything for the victim’s family? Or just cause more hurt and more victims?

I can completely understand how it might temporarily satisfy the victim’s family. I would not resist their vengeance; but it is that kind of hate and hurt that destroyed me.

How about your family? How have they dealt with this situation?

My mother has tried to commit suicide many times. It took me half my life to realize that it wasn’t that she didn’t love me, but that she was so destroyed as a child that she is still mostly like a little girl inside.

For me, this is the hardest thing. I don’t mind dying at all; even my own suffering in prison I do not complain about, I strive not to complain about, because suffering expiates sin. The fact that my entire family has been torn apart; that my friends have lost faith in themselves, in our justice system, because they were denied the right to answer pertinent questions—to me this is also an evil. We like to say that “eye for an eye” is just, but the truth is that we are often blinded by our own prejudice, our fallible system—because who will stand beside a murderer?

How has this process changed or colored your view of the justice system?

How can the system learn from its crimes and mistakes? When a new death house chaplain ends up becoming jaded and destroyed after months, or years, of watching men die, they just replace him with a new recruit. When guards burn out, there are always more people desperate for a job—and the prosecutors, police investigators, the judges at trial and especially on appeal—they never have to talk to me, they never have to see me as a human being, or the consequences of their decisions when I die. They say that aloofness makes justice impartial, but it also removes the responsibility from their actions.

Are you ready to die?

In a sense, I died years ago. All the good in my life, the people I may have helped over the years, the changes in myself and my life, all these lie at the innocent feet of my victim. And if I truly thought my death would do any good, I would have died years ago by my own hand, or by simply dropping my appeals.

“To die is nothing; not to live is terrible,” Victor Hugo once wrote, and I believe that. I am so sorry that I did not begin to understand life until after I had done such an irrevocable wrong.

Over the years of being caged, condemned to die, how have you dealt with it? How do you keep from going crazy?

Who says I’m not crazy? Life is crazy. The experience of being human is one full of isolation, fear, and suffering. If you understand this, if you are willing to face this like facing death, then everything else comes naturally.

What has happened for me is that I have learned that this life on death row is no different from life being free. Sure there are difficulties and daily challenges, but aren’t there everywhere? Victims of Hurricane Katrina still haven’t completely recovered; there are wildfires in the west, hurricanes in the east, tsunamis on the other side of the world. The Middle East, including Palestine and Israel, explode with the violence and suffering of the innocent and guilty alike. An innocent child, right now, is being beaten; another innocent child is being possessed sexually for some idiot’s selfish pleasure. That is life. It’s terrible and unfair at times.

Either you accept it as it is and embrace it, a package deal, or you end up running all your life. Instead, get real inside. You go within and seek God in that stillness, and come back. You learn to live with all your heart, mind, body, and soul. That’s all.

Even on death row I love life, the people and everything in it, with all my heart. I might have to deal with some gung-ho OJT (on-the-job trainee), or a lieutenant who’s out to make a name for himself by being tough, but you can’t let them grind you down. The circumstances in life, wherever you find yourself, are no deterrent to the great joy, peace, and love within each breath, each heartbeat.

If you want to be great in life, do this one thing: don’t complain; instead, be grateful. If you need help, if you need support, it’s okay to ask for that, but be extra grateful. Gratitude changes everything.

I’ll tell you something terribly private. This is from a private journal, the margins of a book I study daily. This guru, my beloved teacher, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, in Sadhana of the Heart (SYDA Foundation, p. 91), says,

Don’t wait for favorable change in your destiny. Smile at your destiny right now. Don’t turn away from an unfavorable shift in your fortunes. Smile at your destiny. What you think is favorable may not be so great. What you think is unfavorable may be to your advantage.

It reminds me of how Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again, Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4).

This is what I wrote in the margin of that journal: “Become more aware of the musical, magnetic, delicious dance of the tragedy and fortune. It is always wondrous how they masquerade as each other, and turn our lives upside down.”

The greatest gifts in my life have been the tragedies. To be used and abused as a child gave me wretchedness, and a great hidden longing for God, Love, and Truth. All of life comes down to one question: Are you grateful for this? Or are you hurt, sad, mad, confused, or resentful? Really, it’s your choice. I have had to fearlessly accept my own responsibility to be a healthy human being.

God hears your prayers, and your innermost prayers create your destiny. Period.

Your scheduled execution by Texas has been set. Do you expect to die this year? How do you feel about this?

The issue before the Supreme Court is most likely a delay—a question of the drugs and procedures for lethal injection—and truly I would rather have real issues addressed in my case. But anything may happen.

Right now, the future is not my concern. I might die tonight. This might be the last sentence I type in all my life. So right now, am I doing something meaningful? Am I living with love and peace and truth?

Isn’t a smile important? Sometimes a smile can change your whole day. A smile at the right moment, in the right place, can change your whole life.

Are you grateful for your life right now? Do you realize what a precious, infinite gift your life is? If not, look within, look at yourself, look at your life. Because I am sitting here on death row, and I am smiling. Maybe I paid such a high price for this that I don’t want to let it go to waste; maybe I began to realize what a precious gift life is; maybe I want to pass it on, somehow. Actually, I am wondrously, inexplicably happy—and yet filled with a sense of duty.

How does death watch in isolation and under 24/7 surveillance affect you, knowing you’ll have no privacy on your last days?

To be kept in a state of helplessness and despair—sure, that’s torture. American Friends Service Committee did a wonderful report on this called Survival in Solitary. I recommend it—it’s scary but true.

Over your years on death row, what stands out the most?

The people. I have met some really great, beautiful human beings inside these walls, and from the outside. I have met people here, and I am at peace with death just for the opportunity to have met them.

I have also faced some really terrible fears, sufferings—and I am so thankful for that. I am very glad to have come to death row. I’d prefer not to die here; I believe it would be more my duty to live knowing that I cannot ever make up for what I’ve done, yet live and keep trying to do good.

Is there anything you’d like to tell our readers?

One thing that gets me about this system is how it has all become political. But in the process, everybody passes the buck; nobody takes any responsibility. My trial attorneys put me off saying, “We’ll bring that up later”; then when later came they said, “You’ll win on appeal.” On appeal, my state habeas attorney told me, “We’ll bring it up in federal”; and when I saw my appeal it was mostly excerpts from my letters, taken verbatim, with no legal work—that’s when I got outraged. Unfortunately, I also learned that I can’t bring up anything in federal court that wasn’t already exhausted in my state appeal—so I lost everything.

The jury doesn’t sentence anyone to death; they just answer the question: “Is there a probability that the defendant would commit future violent criminal acts that constitute a danger to society?” How do they know?

You know what the irony is? People are people wherever you go; so some guards around here know the score, some of them know we are better behaved; some are by-the-book, but some are easy-going, and others are downright lazy—so sometimes they won’t even handcuff me, and I’ll just walk along with my hands behind my back as I did at Ellis. One guard handed me the cuffs so I could hand them to his partner when I got to my cell—she was new, so she freaked out and got really angry at him, but of course he thought it was funny.

Is there anything you want to share or say to your family and friends reading this?

Sure. Momma, I love you utterly and unconditionally with all of my heart. You are my sunshine and my Queen; I thank you for this precious gift of life, and the love you have had for me. Thank you for putting up with all my mistakes.

And for everyone else, remember, as Christ said, “The kingdom of heaven is within,” so also do I tell you, God is within. Seek God’s face.

Much love, and sincere respects. Glory be to God.

Karl Chamberlain

Karl Chamberlain is a prisoner on death row in Texas. He was convicted in 1997 of the murder of Felicia Prechtl on August 2, 1991. He writes that he turned his life over to the will of God on December 1, 1991. He also writes that he has found his spiritual home with Friends, and he has corresponded with several individuals. Three of his poems have been published this year inFriends Journal, two in January and one in February. The questions and answers here are modified from his recollection of an earlier interview he did. His scheduled execution date, originally set for February 21, has been withdrawn pending U.S. Supreme Court decision.