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Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Viewing Executions - The Victim Witness Preparation Process

The Victim Witness Preparation Process was initiated by the Victim Services Division Assistant Director, Dan Guerra, who felt victim witnesses needed to know about the execution process before witnessing an execution.
The Texas Board of Criminal Justice, at the urging of victims and victim advocacy groups, decided in late 1995 to allow victim witnesses the opportunity to view executions. Linda Kelly and her family from Houston, Texas were the first victim witnesses to view an execution on February 9, 1996. Dan had spoken to her by telephone and sent her a packet of information that could be used as preparatory material.
Later that year, executions were stopped as attorneys challenged a new law that sought to trim the average nine years it took between conviction and execution. During this lull, it was decided that victim witnesses needed to actually meet in person with a Victim Services division representative to discuss the execution process. By "personalizing" the exe6ution process, the victim witnesses would at least know one person when they arrived in Huntsville, Texas, on the day of the execution. Hopefully, this would diminish some of their anxiety.
With that in mind, victim services staff began making personal visits to the victim witnesses prior to the execution date, to meet and discuss the execution process. If a witness was traveling from out of state, arrangements were made to meet the witness upon their arrival in Huntsville, Texas at which time the execution process was discussed.
While the execution preparation meetings are not mandatory, victim witnesses are encouraged to participate. Historically, almost all the victim witnesses have participated.

During the victim witness execution preparation meeting, the rules and regulations that the TDCJ Institutional Division have developed for victim witnesses are discussed. The rules are outlined in a brochure, and range from what victim witnesses should not wear, to what time to arrive, and that tobacco products are not permitted in the Huntsville prison unit where the execution takes place, or in the "support room".
The "support room" is a room where victim witnesses and those accompanying victim witnesses assemble prior to, during, and after the execution.
Also, during the preparation meeting, a video is also shown that discusses the execution process, including the types of drugs administered, a view of the execution chamber, and victim witness room. A packet of newspaper articles covering other executions is provided as well so the victim witnesses can read execution related articles, including some of the statements other victim witnesses have made to the media after viewing an execution.
This is also an opportunity for victim witnesses to ask questions and be made aware of scenarios of other executions, so they will have an idea how other executions went, and how it affected victim witnesses.

Initially, victim services representatives were not viewing every execution. They accompanied the victim witnesses only if they requested. By mid 1997, Dan decided the victim services representative that prepared the victim witnesses in viewing the execution should also accompany the victim witnesses in viewing the execution, as the staff member was already dealing with the witnesses before and after the execution.
It didn't make sense to contact the witnesses after the execution to see how they were doing, if victim services staff were not there personally to see how the victim witnesses reacted when viewing the execution. Many victim witnesses have been appreciative that a victim services representative was with them when viewing the execution.
On the day of the execution, the Institutional Division victim liaison, TDCJ's Emergency Action Center staff, and members of the TDCJ Huntsville Regional Post Trauma Staff Support Team are involved with the victim witnesses while they are awaiting to view the execution.
They are in the support room throughout the execution process and the TDCJ victim liaison will also accompany the witnesses in viewing.
After the execution, the Post Trauma Support Team members assist in the debriefing of the victim witnesses. This allows the victim witnesses to vent and discuss the viewing in a confidential setting and to discuss post trauma symptoms to look for in the days to come.
Several weeks after viewing the execution, the victim witnesses are individually contacted by a victim services representative and asked if they experienced any emotional or physical problems after viewing the execution. For the most part, the majority that have viewed have expressed no regrets in their decision to view and did not suffer any post trauma symptoms.

Recently, our office decided to go one step further in determining if victim witnesses were suffering any post trauma symptoms. We enlisted the help of the University of Texas at El Paso, Social Work Program, to assist in developing a research instrument to determine if victim witnesses suffered from post trauma symptoms within a year or so of viewing the execution. This project is still in the inception stage, but should be up and running by this summer.

We believe our victim preparation process is one of the best in the nation. We have had other states contact our office asking for information on how we prepare victim witnesses, and we are always willing to oblige. Our program has also been mentioned on Court TV, Dateline NBC, and was a workshop at the National Organization for Victims Assistance (NOVA), 23rd Annual North American Conference in Houston, Texas in August, 1997.

Last year, Texas had thirtyseven executions, twentythree of which had victim witnesses. Some of the families that did not wish to view were contacted by telephone immediately after the execution, if they so desired. We work closely with the Attorney General's Office crime victim assistance coordinator, who communicates with potential victim witnesses so they will know to contact our office.