Cleve Foster has seen death’s door and lived to tell about it

What Cleve Foster remembers most about his recent brushes with death is the steel door, the last one condemned Texas inmates typically walk through before their execution.

“You can’t take your eyes off that door,” he said

By Michael Graczyk

But twice over the past year and a half, Foster has come within moments of being escorted through the door, only to be told that the U.S. Supreme Court had halted his scheduled punishment.

On Tuesday, Foster, 48, is scheduled for yet another trip to the death house for participating in the abduction and slaying of a 30-year-old Sudanese woman, Nyaneur Pal, a decade ago near Fort Worth.

It takes just under an hour to drive west from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Polunsky Unit, where the state’s male Death Row inmates are housed, to the Huntsville Unit, where condemned Texas prisoners have been put to death for nearly a century. The last 485 have been by lethal injection; the first 361, from 1924 through 1964, from the electric chair.

On execution day, the condemned inmate waits, usually for about four hours, in a tiny cell a few steps from the steel door to the death chamber.

Foster, a former Army recruiter known to his Death Row colleagues as “Sarge,” denies his role in the murder. Prosecutors say DNA ties him to the killing and that he gave contradictory stories when questioned about Pal’s death.

“I did not do it,” he insisted recently from a tiny visiting cage outside Death Row.

Appeals again were pending in the courts, focusing on what his lawyers argued was poor legal help both at his 2004 trial in Fort Worth and by attorneys early in the appeals process. Similar appeals resulted in the three previous reprieves the courts subsequently have lifted, but his lawyers argue his case should get another look because the legal landscape has changed in death penalty cases.

“I don’t want to sound vain, but I have confidence in my attorney and confidence in my God,” he said. “I can win either way.”

Execution day

Pal’s relatives haven’t spoken publicly about their experiences of going to the prison to watch Foster die, only to be told the punishment has been delayed. An uncle previously on the witness list didn’t return a phone call from The Associated Press.

Foster, however, shared his thoughts of going through the mechanics of facing execution in Texas — and living to talk about it.

The process shifts into high gear at noon on the scheduled execution day when a four-hour-long visit with friends or relatives ends at the Polunsky Unit outside Livingston.

“That last visit, that’s the only thing that bothers me,” he said. “The 12 o’clock-hour hits. A dozen or so guards come to escort you.”

By Foster’s count, it’s 111 steps to the prison gate and an area known as the box cage. That’s where he’s secured to a chair for electronic scrutiny to detect whether he has any metal objects hidden on his body.

It’s the legacy of inmate Ponchai Wilkerson. Wilkerson, asked by the warden if he had a final statement after he was strapped to the death chamber gurney for execution in 2000, defiantly spit out a handcuff key he had concealed in his mouth.

“You’re in handcuffs, you’re chained at the ankles, they give you cloth shoes, and you have to shuffle to keep them on,” Foster said.

As he waddles the 111 steps, he gets acknowledgement from fellow prisoners who tap on the glass of their cells.

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3 thoughts on “Cleve Foster has seen death’s door and lived to tell about it

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    > Subject: From the Guardian: Proposition 36 promises an end to California’s punitive three strikes law


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