Ron Rosenbaum

The Saddest Holiday Inn in the World

So I’m watching Monster’s Ball on cable and wondering why I’d resisted seeing it for so long. And I know it has something to do with my stays at what I’ve come to think of as “the saddest Holiday Inn in the world”.

The film, I’m sure you know, is set in the town attached to a Southern death-row prison. Billy Bob Thornton plays a prison guard who participates in the execution of Halle Berry’s husband. Without the two of them knowing of this fairly salient fact they enter into a highly charged affair.

Every time I’ve thought about renting it, however, it’s made me think about my two visits to Death Row in Huntsville, Texas, and my stays in the Huntsville Holiday Inn. I’d visited the Huntsville Death Row while investigating the now-notorious serial killer scam of Henry Lee Lucas. Henry was a drifter who’d killed, probably, two people, but discovered that by confessing to many more unsolved killings to the Texas Rangers he could buy himself some time, and as long as he continued confessing and “solving” unsolved murders for the Rangers he could get himself an air conditioned jail cell with premium cable tv and top notch take-out.

And even better, the more he strung out the scam the more he became a kind of star. His confessions mounted to 200, then 300, finally 600, as the Rangers flew him around the country like a serial killer rock star on tour, “taking cases”–confessing to unsolved murders–all over America. Discoursing on “serial killer psychology” to credulous shrinks, he became a kind of consolatory scapegoat figure to America. It meant there weren’t 600 uncaught vicious killers roaming the highways, looking for prey. There was just Henry. In a way he gave us a kinder gentler America.

Eventually the scam collapsed, Henry recanted his confessions, but the Rangers, embarassed to have been so badly conned, made him take the weight, the death penaalty weight, for one of the ones he clearly didn’t do. (The story is reprinted in The Secret Parts of Fortune–see left column).

In the course of interviewing Henry at Huntsville I stayed at that Holiday Inn and realized just what a strange gathering place it was.Since Texas executed the most prisoners of any state, on any given day you could find the relatives of murder victims, and the relatives of men about to be executed for those murders in close proximity. With the thin walls, virtually sleeping side by side. Cheerful!

I couldn’t sleep but it gave me time to think about the death penalty, which I’d long opposed in principle, although I think on the wrong principle, and then came to oppose on the basis of another principle.

I’d initally opposed it because of its inherent throwback barbarism etc. But in some ways I came to believe that it was not inherently barbaric, but that it was inherently unjust, inherently susceptible to irremedial injustice.

In other words I came to think that if there were a perfect way to know that a man sentenced to death was in fact guilty and not just on Death Row because–guilty or innocent–he couldn’t afford an expensive lawyer, then it could be argued that it would honor life to execute those who took it with premeditation. But there was no perfect way, no perfect justice and income inequity in a matter that might be fatal could not be shrugged off. And absent that certainty, and given that inequity between the poor and the rich’s vulnerability to lethal injection,and the inability to reverse errors, the death penalty was indefensible in practice if not in theory.

I can see the objections to Monster’s Ball. The executioner sleeping with the executed’s wife, the racial subtext, or, rather, hypertext. It made me uncomfortable watching it. Uncomfortable as a stay in the saddest Holiday Inn in the world. But it was one of those rare movies smart enough not to seem comfortable with itself. Made you realize that, wherever we are, we’re all still sleeping with the death penalty, 24/7, no holidays. We’re all still sleeping in the saddest inn in the world. Or in the words of the great baroque prose stylist of the 17th century Thomas Browne, “This world is not an inne, but an hospital.”