Monday, December 12, 2005


"Well they're building a gallows outside my cell
I’ve got 25 minutes to go and the whole town's waitin' just to hear me yell"
Those are lyrics from a Shel Silverstein song (yes, that same guy) called "Mexico." It's the first thing I think about when I hear about a pending execution. I think about the time that a person has left, knowing that it is a completely finite experience. I think about the movies that I could watch in the time that is left, the songs I could listen to.
Stanley Williams will be executed by lethal injection at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday for murdering four people in two 1979 petty robberies around Los Angeles. I would not entertain a long discussion about whether or not he deserves to die. That is not the decision I can render. I feel great sympathy for his victims' families, and I understand that their need for closure would most certainly be filled by the death of Stanley Williams. It closes the circle. The death penalty debate is almost too simple compared to the awesome physics of time running out. What would you do with your last hours if you knew with complete certainty that they would be just that: your last hours.
"Got 10 more minutes to go well I’m waitin' on the pardon that'll set me free
With 9 more minutes to go but this is for real so forget about me"
Knowing that your life would eventually wind down to the length of a network sit-com, what kind of resignation must occur?
"With 4 more minutes to go I can see the mountains I can see the skies
With 3 more minutes to go and it's to dern pretty for a man that don't wanna die"
The realization that we all have a limited time here on Earth is small consolation, since we can take solace in the tiny things we do to alter the flow of our lives: exercise, eat right, go to bed early. If you know that you are going to die and exactly when, all of that doesn't matter, does it? That's why the last meal is fried chicken and a pint of Ben and Jerry's Chunky Monkey. Executions are at a minute past midnight, you can stay up all night - and then retire rather abruptly after that.
In Shel Silverstein's song, the convict counts down to one, and then finds himself swinging "here I gooooooo." It stands in stark contrast to the last words of convicted murderer Perry Smith in the film "In Cold Blood" as he makes his way to his gallows:
Perry: When you hit the end of the rope... your muscles lose control. I'm afraid I'll mess myself. Prison Guard: It's nothing to be ashamed of. They all do it.
Stanley Williams has less than five hours to live.


Lauren said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't those opening lyrics from a Johnny Cash song, on that Folsom prison recordy deal that he released?

Robin said...

I'm with Lauren - could you clarify? Also there's a song on Dim Blue Light (Biscaynes) about the death penalty with lyrics that I always liked, but they don't seem so impressive without the music.

haywagon said...

"25 Minutes to Go" was indeed sung (nay, immortalized) by Johnny Cash on his "At Folsom Prison" LP, but the song was written by Shel Silverstein (who recorded it himself in 1962). Cash first recorded it in the studio in 1965, for his "Ballads of the True West 2" LP. The Seattle-based folk quartet, the Brothers Four, had a minor hit with it around the same time. It was revived recently by Jon Langford and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts for their excellent CD "The Executioner's Last Songs," and then again by Pearl Jam on a recent live CD.

Silverstein wrote several songs that you probably know through other people's performances, including "A Boy Named Sue" (from Cash's "At San Quentin" LP), "The Unicorn Song" (The Irish Rovers), and "Sylvia's Mother" and "The Cover of the Rolling Stone" (Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show).