Radio Show Is Death Row Vigil
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed the founder of Execution Watch and misidentified Mike Gillespie in the photo.
By Ann Choi
For Reporting Texas
HOUSTON – Ray Hill, 72, steps into the small booth and prepares for the latest edition of “Execution Watch,” a program that airs on a community public radio station only in the Houston area, and only when the State of Texas carries out an execution.
6 p.m.: The show goes live.
“Good evening. This is Ray Hill. Tonight, they are going to kill Tommy Sell.”
The next voice on 90.1 KPFT-FM, belongs to Sell, 49. Hill had interviewed Sell in March on Death Row at the Huntsville Unit, 70 miles north of Houston.
“I consider myself as a poster boy of the death sentence,” Sell says. “They are doing me a favor. I am ready to get the hell out of here.”
On the last day of 1999 in Del Rio, Sell sexually assaulted 13-year-old Kaylene Harris, then murdered her. He slashed her friend Krystal Surles, 10. Surles survived the attack, and her accounts led to Sell’s arrest. In custody, Sell claimed responsibility for more than 70 killings around the country. Prosecutors, however, found no evidence to verify his claims and suspected that they were part of an effort to bargain for a life sentence by confessing to crimes he didn’t commit.
Sell was the first Texan to be executed with a compound drug that the Department of Criminal Justice bought from a supplier it refused to identify. Sell’s execution was briefly halted by a federal district judge, who ordered the department to disclose information about the drug to Sell’s lawyers. A few hours later, however, the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Court overturned the ruling, clearing the way for the execution the next day.
When the news came that the execution was back on track for April 3, Hill and his crew began their usual preparations. Jim Skelton, the legal expert for “Execution Watch” and a former prosecutor, said he had known that the effort to delay the execution was futile because the circuit court previously had denied motions to delay executions on similar grounds before.
“I don’t believe in filing things just to get [the execution] delayed,” Skelton said. “I wouldn’t have done it if I were in charge.”
Hill started Execution Watch in 2008, later joined by Skelton. Six years later, “Execution Watch” has a listener base of several hundred, including people in Europe who tune in online. Hill, a retiree on Social Security, is a volunteer. He said the show was the “brain child” of his other radio program, Prison Show, which ran for 32 years.
His initial goal with “Prison Show” was to give legal and administrative tips to people with family members in prison. The show attracted an unanticipated audience.
“The audience I got was inmates, cops, prison guards, other prison officials and families of inmates,” Hill said. “And you do radio for the audience you get.”
Hill covered “everything prison.” He won awards, including a lifetime achievement award from the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, for his radio and community work. For 32 years, Hill said, he became an authority on prison topics and attracted fans. But one subject called for more of his attention.
“Death row is an integral part of prison,” Hill said. “You can’t do community service radio for prison and find your way around death row. You have to deal with it.”
Prison is a familiar topic to Hill. In 1975, he was sentenced 160 years in prison – eight years each for 20 counts of commercial burglary. Hill represented himself, negotiated his sentence down to eight years and served only little more than four years before he was released.
“I was famous in the prison world,” Hill said.
6:03 pm: On the air, Hill calls a volunteer in Huntsville who reports that Sell has entered the execution chamber.
Hill and Skelton always brief the audience on the crimes that put inmates on death row; as the show evolved, Hill has sought to put a more human face on inmates.
“It seemed like I was talking about someone who existed only on a piece of paper,” Hill said.
So far, he has interviewed about half a dozen death row inmates, including Sell. Hill said that makes his show more compelling.
“When they kill somebody, it’s actually somebody I know. I’m not as objective. And that’s all right. Because not being objective doesn’t mean bad radio,” Hill said.
Both Hill and Skelton see the capital punishment system as flawed. They decry bias in both the legal and political processes involved in sentencing someone to death.
“Someone in a rural area is a lot more likely to get a death sentence than someone who committed the same crime in Harris County,” Skelton said, referring to jury biases.
Juries from small towns tend to be harsher towards minorities and more prone to give death sentences, he said. African-Americans make up almost half of the death row inmates, although they made up just 12 percent of the Texas population in 2013.
In addition, because appellate judges are elected in Texas, they must keep popular sentiment in mind to stay in office, Skelton argued. According to a poll conducted last year by the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Tribune, 74 percent of Texans said they either strongly or somewhat support the death penalty.
Skelton said he defended about a dozen – he didn’t remember exactly how many — death-row inmates after he left his job as a Harris County prosecutor for private practice in 1997. In 1999, the State Bar of Texas disbarred him over a complaint that he improperly represented a client.
“I have had several run-ins with the state bar over the way they handle complaints,” Skelton said. “I resolved the complaint by telling the State Bar to take a hike, and they responded by giving me the boot.”
He stressed that his opposition to the death penalty is not rooted in emotional or moral grounds.
“It’s a corrupt, biased system that unfairly tries and kills people,” Skelton said. “The fact that I don’t believe in the death penalty doesn’t make me any more moral or better person than the people who do.”
Since 1989, Texas’s Board of Pardons and Paroles has exonerated four death row inmates. But Texas remains a leader in capital punishment, having executed 513 inmates by lethal injection since 1982. Last year, executions in Texas accounted for 42 percent of the U.S total.
6:34 p.m.: Hill stops playing the pre-recorded interview with Sell.
“Tommy Sell is dead,” Hill says. “We got the word that the witness had come out.”
Advocates such as Hill who support abolishing the death penalty pin their hopes on several recent developments. The Legislature has given jurors in capital cases the option of a life sentence without parole instead of the death penalty. Also, the shortage of execution drugs raises new potential challenges.
“Public conversations about the manner in which Texas can or can’t actually carry out executions and the question on what level of transparency Texas death penalty should have are growing,” said Jennifer Laurin, a criminal law professor at University of Texas. Laurin chaired a committee commissioned by the American Bar Association that evaluated Texas’s capital punishment system.
“Once those conversations start, it’s difficult to imagine that they will be isolated only to accountability and transparency of the system,” she added. “It will have ripple effects.”
Nine Texas inmates have been sentenced to death row in the past two years. As of this year, death row housed 274 inmates, the lowest count since 1989, according to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, a non-profit group.
6:55 p.m.: Hill begins to wrap up the show. He thanks Sell on air for sharing life experiences that are foreign to most people.
“I want to tell you from having lived in prison,” Hill says, “if you’ve been a nobody all of your life and of no consequence to anybody… you wound up in Texas prison.”
His guest, Susan Ashley, a Houston criminal lawyer, interjects, saying that people can be “somebody” to others when they care about people and do good things.
“Somebody should have told Tommy Sell that when he was about 13 years old,” Hill says.