Death Stories: Slice, Part 1

What’s past has been prologue, pretty much. The next Death Story is called Slice, and parts of it first appeared in The New Yorker. That appearance was a turning point in my career, because people sent me emails that said, in effect, “Wow, I didn’t know you were a real writer.” I tried to see those as compliments.

Pleased as I was with getting my name in such a good magazine, I was also dissatisfied. This story was way too big to fit into an article. It needed twice the room.

It’s way too long for a single blog post, too, so I’ll split it up over several. We begin with a murder.


On July 3, 1981, Paul Jernigan returned to Navarro County, Texas, looking for houses to burgle.  It was a county of 38,000 built on cotton, wheat, and cattle, where everybody seemed to know, or at least know about, everybody else.  Jernigan, 27, had grown up poor in Navarro County, though now he lived forty-five minutes away in Waco.  He had already done time twice for theft.  Newspapers would later call him a “former mechanic,” but burglary was more his line these days.

Jernigan and his acquaintance, 17-year-old Roy Lamb--they hardly knew each other well enough to be called friends--settled on a farmhouse near Dawson, on the northern edge of the county.  They had been smoking marijuana and drinking.  At first the robbery was business as usual.  They took a microwave oven, a radio.  As they drove down the dirt road toward freedom, they passed the man whose house they’d just robbed.  Edward Hale, also a mechanic, was 75, and his eyesight was failing.  It’s unlikely he could have identified the burglars or their vehicle, but Jernigan didn’t know that.  He turned back toward the house to eliminate the witness.

Back in the house, he pounded Hale with his fists.  The old man wouldn’t stay down.  Jernigan found a pair of heavy ashtrays and bludgeoned him.  When that tactic failed, he sent Lamb to the kitchen for sharp knives.  He stabbed and wrenched, breaking off the blade of the first knife in Hale’s body.  He kept stabbing and breaking off the blades.  The old man kept getting up.  By this time Lamb had found Hale’s shotgun.  Jernigan grabbed it, loaded, fired.  The old man was getting up again.  Jernigan calmed himself, took his time with the second shot.  He went for the heart.  The old man was persistent.  Jernigan loaded again.  This time he went for a head shot.  That did the job.

Jernigan’s next mistake was to tell his wife what he’d done.  Both husband and wife were alcoholics in full bloom; maybe that had something to do with her telling police the whole story.  In custody, Jernigan soon confessed everything.  Roy Lamb, his accomplice, was sentenced to thirty years, paroled after ten.

District Attorney Pat Batchelor, who prosecuted Jernigan, called him a “middle-of-the road killer”--a rougher character than some he’d dealt with, but not the worst.  “I’ve got two other guys on death row now who’d eat Jernigan up alive,” he told me.

Jernigan went to death row in Huntsville.  He seemed a changed man once he was incarcerated and free of his drug problems.  He started an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter for his fellow condemned men.  He wrote thoughtful letters; he made jewelry and furniture for friends on the outside.  “I have no one but myself to blame,” he said.  As his first execution date approached, he told a reporter, “I’m very scared.  I catch myself counting the days.  It’s hard for me to sleep at night.”  He passed that day alive as the usual appeals went on.  DA Batchelor remembers that Jernigan was always impassive in the courtroom, until his last appeal failed--then he fought his guards and had to be chained.

On August 4, 1993, Jernigan was served his last meal--two cheeseburgers, French fries, salad, iced tea.  He couldn't eat. Just after midnight on August fifth he went to the death chamber.  A needle was threaded into his forearm.  In dripped the lethal cocktail: the sedative sodium thiopental; the muscle relaxant pancuronium bromide, to collapse his lungs; potassium chloride, to stop his heart.  He offered no last words, merely nodding at his brother, who watched through a glass partition.  He was pronounced dead at 31 minutes past midnight.

His life was just beginning.

O Speculator! Concerning this machine of ours, let it not distress you that you impart knowledge of it through another's death, but rejoice that our Creator has ordained the intellect to such excellence of perception.
--Leonardo da Vinci



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