“Presided over almost 100 executions” would stand out on any résumé, but in the case of Jim Willett, it would be the sole characterizing feature of his career. As a 21-year-old business major at Sam Houston State University, Willett accepted what he thought would be a temporary position as a guard at the maximum-security “Walls Unit” in Huntsville, Texas. He was given a rifle and a fabric patch and told to relieve the man coming off his shift in a guard tower. Fearfully, he obeyed. That was in 1971. Five years later, Texas reinstated the death penalty and executions by lethal injection resumed in 1982. By then, Willett had ascended up through the correctional officer ranks and even left Huntsville for a time to work at other units. He returned in 1998 as warden of the 1,500 men incarcerated in Walls. At that point, his responsibilities took on a challenging new dimension, and he found himself escorting a total of 89 condemned persons (88 men and one woman) to the death chamber. He watched them struggle violently or go quietly as they were led out of their cells. He watched them eat their final meals and heard them say their final words. He watched them as they were infused with a cocktail of chemicals. He watched the expressions on the faces of their families and relatives. He watched them die on the gurney. He clocked a record 40 executions in 2000. That same year, he won the James H. Byrd, Jr. Memorial Award for top correctional administrators at the larger facilities run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. But he wondered about the morality of putting prisoners to death, leading to this penetrating observation and question: “In most cases, the people we see here are not at all the people they were when they came into the system. . .does that mean we rehabilitated them?” At the end of the day, however, he chalked it all up to just doing his part of the job, and was glad that he had not been the judge or had served on the jury that had decided their fates.
Mr. Willett helped to narrate the Peabody Award-winning documentary “Witness to an Execution” that aired on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” in 2000. After he retired from Huntsville, he co-wrote the autobiographical book “Warden” with his friend, author Ron Rozelle. Willett’s exhibition case at the National Museum of Crime and Punishment held these and other objects relating to his remarkable 30-year tenure in the Texas prison system.