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Last Words

On March 2, 2010, Michael Adam Sigala was executed by the state of Texas for?the double murder of Brazilian newlyweds Kleber and Lillian Santos. Just before his lethal injection was administered, Sigala was given the opportunity to make a last statement, and he offered?these words:

I would like to ask forgiveness of the family. I have no reason for why I did it, I don’t understand why I did it. I hope that you can live the rest of your lives without hate. I pray the Lord grant me forgiveness. All powerful and almighty Lord I commit myself to thee, Amen.

Texas – where?more than a third of our nation’s executions have occurred since 1976 – has routinized the administration of justice, and preserves on a single?webpage the final statements of the 450 inmates the state has executed since 1982.??? A?2009 New York Times op-ed cataloged a number of excerpts taken from the Texas site, including:

Nothing I can say can change the past.
I done lost my voice.
I would like to say goodbye.
My heart goes is going ba bump ba bump ba bump.
Is the mike on?
I don’t have anything to say. I am just sorry about what I did.
I am nervous and it is hard to put my thoughts together. Sometimes you don’t know what to say.
Man, there is a lot of people there.
I have come here today to die, not make speeches.
From Allah we came and to Allah we shall return.
For everybody incarcerated, keep your heads up.
Death row is full of isolated hearts and suppressed minds.
Mistakes are made, but with God all things are possible.
I am responsible for them losing their mother, their father and their grandmother. I never meant for them to be taken. I am sorry for what I did.
I can’t take it back.
Lord Jesus forgive of my sins. Please forgive me for the sins that I can remember.
All my life I have been locked up.
Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my life back.
I am tired.
I deserve this.
A life for a life.
It’s my hour. It’s my hour.
I’m ready, Warden.

The ritual of offering condemned men and women the choice of a last meal and the opportunity to articulate last words has served a variety of functions, which are explored by Linda Meyer in?this essay.? The ritual can provide evidence of an inmate’s (in)competency to be executed – “as in the case of Ricky Ray Rector, who left some of his ‘last meal’ pecan pie ‘for later.'”? At times, inmates in their last moments have provided valuable information – disclosing, for example, the location of victims’ remains.
Meyer emphasizes the liberating aspect of an inmate being able to say what he or she wants without earthly ramifications:

It is an almost-perfectly Kantian moment, when one has the chance to act without concern for consequences, when the pressures of finitude are lifted and our position almost resembles the perfect being of reason who has no inclinations contrary to reason.

A new empirical article by?Stephen K. Rice, Danielle Dirks and Julie J. Exline statistically examines?what happens during this “Kantian moment.”
The authors find that in 36 percent of the last statements, the inmate admits responsibility, and in 32 percent of the statements, the inmate expresses sorrow or seeks forgiveness from the victim’s family.? In contrast, only 10 percent of the last statements were coded as criticizing the legitimacy of the death penalty.
But what’s really interesting is how the content of final statements changed after Texas, on January 12, 1996, began allowing family and friends of homicide victims to attend executions.
After that date, inmate final statements were more likely to admit guilt (43 percent vs. 14 percent), and more likely to seek forgiveness of the victim’s family (41 percent vs. 6 percent).? Of course, other things may have happened in society in these later years that drove this increased contrition.? And the authors of the study are careful to point out that the time dummy is merely a proxy for “homicide survivor attendance” because, for some of these post-January 1996 executions, the victim’s family and friends were not in attendance.? Still, the study at least suggests that context matters.? Humans who know they are about to die are not solely focused on themselves or on their hereafter.? They are attentive to their audience.
The study is not the “last word” on the subject.? This data set grimly grows over time.? Texas has two more executions scheduled for later this month.