In 1976 the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the legality of capital punishment in their ruling on Gregg v. Georgia. In the 46 years since the decision was handed down, 1,551 convicted prisoners have been executed.
The United States is the only Western nation—and one of four advanced democracies—that regularly applies the death penalty. While the death penalty is legal in 27 states, only 21 have the means to carry out death sentences. Of those states, Texas has executed the most prisoners in recent history, condemning 578 people to death since the 1976 ruling, beginning with the death of Charlie Brooks in 1982. Texas retains the third-largest death row population behind California and Florida.
In the summer of 2020, the Trump administration broke a nearly 17-year stay during which the federal government did not sanction any executions when it put 13 inmates to death over six months. Seventeen of the 45 current federal death row inmates, the highest proportion of any state, are currently incarcerated in Texas.
Final Words is a project that addresses the death penalty in the United States as a violation of human rights. Consisting of a collection of government documents relating to the 578 executed Texas inmates, each set of pages reveals a portrait of a life bookended by violence in which final moments are often spent expressing words of love for family and friends, sorrow for victims, and gratitude for life lived. The compilation stands as a stark indictment of a system built by institutions rampant with racism, classism, and sexism. Each entry, each story, each utterance will challenge readers to answer the question: is there room for humanity in the American justice complex?
Foreword, by Randall Horton Sabrina Butler Kevin Cooper Ray Krone
Final Words is a compilation of last statements taken from executed Texas death row inmates since the resumption of U.S. capital punishment in 1976. The number of executed persons in the state will reach 578 in 2023.
During my first trip to the killing chamber, what I saw set my soul on fire. A fire that burns in me still. Almost forty years have passed, but the death penalty remains the greatest moral failure of our society — a system of legal lynching aimed at the poor and minorities, and that makes a mockery of the gospel to 'love thy enemy.' Part of the reason the death penalty has lasted so long is that the public doesn't get to see what goes on. Final Words, however, lets us hear what goes on. And what we hear is the cry of humanity. Tellingly, most of the prisoners want their last words to be words of love. 'I love you.' This is an important book that cannot help but till the soil of compassion.
~Sister Helen Prejean
The struggle against the death penalty, although based on a very simple idea (the state should not punish by killing), is extremely complicated when confronted to the political situation in non-democratic states, the economic crisis, anxiety of public opinion faced with real or so-called insecurity, the weakness of the judiciary the a in many states. In our main folded battel (together with the states, NGOs, victims' families, diplomates, judges, parliamentarians, journalists, etc.), we sometimes need a pause. Final Words is one of them: the simplicity and the elegance of the presentation, the written words we take time to read, the very realistic picture and the figure which give us a strong sense of the life in incarceration : all that forces us to stop and to breath and to come back to very simple arguments against the death penalty. On the long road to abolition. I hope that these words will not be final and that all over the world, in Japan, in Taiwan, in Nigeria, in Sudan, in the Caribbean, in Belarus, artists such as the author of this book will be inspired by this way of giving density to a hidden world, without pathos nor visual effects but also with sensitivity.
~Florence Bellivier, President of the World Coalition against the Death Penalty, Deputy Secretary General of the International Federation for Human Rights
Too often, we think of the death penalty as an abstraction. Final Words replaces statistics with voices, reminding us that each execution represents the end of a human life. This is an important and haunting book about a shameful practice.
~Kerry Kennedy, President of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights
As executive director of ECPM I am willing to support your wonderful project Final Words in order to bring the issue of the craziness of the death penalty among a large public in a way to question serenely, with equanimity and the dispassionately about the reality of this barbaric sentence. Sometimes we forget that prisoners are still part of our world and are part of humanity. Some of them are innocent, many of them are guilty. But they are all members of our human condition. All of us have part of monstrosity hidden deeply (or not) inside of each of us. You can call them monsters, freaks, butchers, fools; they nonetheless remain men and women, made of blood, thoughts, feelings and dignity. Their last words express it to perfection. Stop your activity, leave your apprehension and your prejudices, and read the 'monsters' words you will be surprised about them! And then, whatever they could have done in his life, you will not consider them anymore like the beats but like humans who deserve to be punished and put in jail without torture and cruel and inhuman treatments.
~Raphael Chenuil-Hazan, Executive Director of ECPM, Vice President of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty
A stark, unflinching, yet uniquely human, compassionate and sensitive perspective on the brutalizing reciprocity of crime and punishment. Final Words, is a powerful contribution to the critical discourse we must engage in, as citizens over what are 'the evolving standards of decency' regarding our constitution eight amendment prohibition of 'cruel and unusual punishments.' Hopefully it will influence us all hasten the progress of a 'maturing society' to restrict ad hopefully to ultimately abolish the death penalty.
~Sherman Teichman, Founding Director, Institute for Global Leadership Tufts University; Senior Fellow Harvard University; Research Associate Dept of Politics & International Relations at University of Oxford
This book will reveal men with real feelings accepting their fate, in the execution chamber A bone chilling account of men taking their last breaths to say goodbye to the rest of the world.
~Anthony Graves, Exonerated death row inmate, Founder of Anthony Graves Foundation AGF Innocence Project
When George Orwell served as an officer in the Burma police he was assigned to supervise a hanging. It seemed like just another dreary distasteful duty until, forty yards from the gallows, the condemned men stepped aside lightly to avoid a puddle. 'Till that moment,' Orwell wrote later, 'I never realized what is meant to destroy a healthy, conscious man...I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness of cutting short a life in full tide.' Final Words drives home that terrible recognition with every entry. On facing pages the institution's mugshot representation of the condemned aims to turn him into a thing: his final words prove that this a thinking, feeling man, reaching out when we kill him. Every conversation about capital punishment has to begin fight there
~James Doyle, Lawyer & Author of True Witness: Cops, Courts, Science and the Battle against Misidentification
An ancient Jewish parable tells of two identical brothers. One took the high road and became the king. One made bad choices and became a murderous bandit. Finally, the police caught the criminal and executed him, as the law provided. They hanged his body on a stake for everyone to see. As citizens walked by the bandits corpse, they recognized his face, and said: 'Look they killed the king.' This parable powerfully expresses the Bible's claim that every human being bears the image of God. Even a person who has done unspeakable things remains God's identical twin brother or sister. So whenever we see a debased human body, we see the broken image of God and sense that in some way the king is dead. This stark and arresting book brings the Talmud's parable to life in modern Texas. Although these men and women committed grave and horrid crimes, they remain human like you and me. They are afraid, remorseful, bitter, loving, angry, hopeful, grateful and sad. Like you and me. May we learn to recognize the humanity in everyone.
~Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, Jewish Theological Seminary, Author of Participating in the American Death Penalty, Serves on the Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards
Impressive! This is the term that I would attribute to the Final Words project. Impressive in its approach, impressive in its execution, and impressive in its usefulness. The educational philosophical, sociological and the aesthetic project appears extremely convincing in its strength and in the deep reflections it provokes. Beyond the fight against the death penalty that it intend to address directly, the project is a deeply critical reflection on the part of humanity that exits in everyone who commits the irreparable, the "inhuman". As a lawyer working with victims of mass crimes, I think it is essential that part of humanity which remains nevertheless present in any of the perpetrators of the worst atrocities, appears to victims and to society in general, whatever the nature of the crimes committed. The project is line with the very notion of justice in that brings out the human in a process which tend to the understanding and recovering both the victim and for the society as a whole.
~Julie Goffin, Human Rights and Protection of Lawyers' coordinator at the Union Internationale des Avocats
Final Words is a haunting read for a number of reasons, and one of its more poignant lessons has to do with how death curates priorities. Like anyone else, the men and women executed in Texas since 1982 approached their deaths with fear, faith, hopes for their families, and regrets about their transgressions.
The University Press of Kentucky recently published an extraordinary book called Final Words. It's an imposing volume that presents the final words of 578 people executed by the state of Texas since 1982. Each two-page spread contains a photo of the convict, a brief description of their crime and then a transcript of the words they uttered in the last moments of life....The prisoners' last words are haunting: confessions of love, expressions of gratitude, claims of innocence, statements of faith, apologies, sometimes cries of defiance, sometimes complete silence.
~The Washington Post