LIVINGSTON, Texas – 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.
But twice over the past year and a half, Foster has come within moments of being escorted through the door, only to be told 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 less than 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 past 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,” denied his role in the murder. Prosecutors said DNA tied 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 argued 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.”
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 Friday 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-hourlong 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’d 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,” he said.
As he waddles the 111 steps, he gets acknowledgement from fellow prisoners who tap on the glass of their cells.
At the prison gate, armed officers stand by as he’s put in a van and secured to a seat for the roughly 45-mile trip to Huntsville that he says feels like a “90-mph drive.” There are no side windows in the back of the van where Foster, accompanied by four officers, rides to the oldest prison in Texas. Only the back doors have windows.
“Going inside, it’s a little spooky. You can tell it’s been there awhile,” he said. “Everything’s polished, but still it’s real old. You look down the row. History just screams at you.
“It’s almost like ‘Hotel California,’ ” he said, referring to the song by The Eagles. “You can check out anytime, but you can’t leave.”
Both times he’s been there, most recently last September, he’s been treated “like a human being,” Foster said. Officers look at him but don’t smile, he said.
At one point, he saw someone walk by with a bulging envelope that he assumed contained the lethal injection drugs.
At 4 p.m., during his first trip to the death house in January 2011, he was served a final meal. He’d asked for several items, including chicken.
“It tasted so good,” he said. “It actually had seasoning on it.”
Two hours later, at the start of a six-hour window when his execution could be carried out, he received the Supreme Court reprieve.
Since then, inmates no longer get to make a final meal request. Procedures were changed after a state lawmaker complained that condemned inmates were taking advantage of the opportunity and that murder victims never get that chance.
Foster was looking forward to nachos and chicken, the same food served to other inmates the day last year that he made his second trip to the death house, but he never received it. Instead, his attorney tearfully brought him news of another Supreme Court reprieve just before dinner time.
He asked for a doggie bag but was refused. He was put back in the van and returned to death row.
“I’ve already told the chaplain: Take the phone off the hook before 4 o’clock,” he said, anticipating his next trip Tuesday. “I want to get that last meal.”