“I’m ready to be released. Release me.”

18 02 2009

Right before Texas death row inmates are executed by lethal injection, they are given the floor to say their ‘last words’. It is a little known fact that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice makes these statements publicly available on their website. These data are as gripping as they come, and Janelle Ward and Andreas Schuck really made them speak for themselves during a compelling DiO workshop last week.

Resisting the temptation to turn their analysis into a political statement, Janelle and Andreas ignored inmates’ demographics (ethnicity, age, sex, criminal record) and instead drew on terror management theory and 283 final statement texts to show how inmates employ strategies of self-presentation. In doing so, they coin a hitherto unexplored genre: that of death row discourse (my term, TVH).

Janelle and Andreas strip the genre down to its basic features. Surprisingly, their discourse analysis brings out a dynamic degree of stability in inmates’ final words which patterns in six sequential discourse functions:

  1. Self-referencing, followed by an expression of intention or denial (‘I’d like to…’)
  2. Addressing relevant others (‘To my family’)
  3. Expressing internal feelings (‘I am sorry for…’)
  4. Framing their situation in terms of acceptance or denial (‘I know I allowed the devil to rule my life’)
  5. Dealing with situation: a show of agency, i.e. self-comfort, self-punishment, asking for forgiveness and accusing (‘you are murdering me’)
  6. Closure (‘Send me home’)

In essence, these data show inmates’ attempts at constructing a positive self-image. Apparently, when facing a certain death, humans image manage. At another level of theoretical abstraction, these data force attention to the heteroglossic nature (layering of voices) of genres. In inmates’ final statements, there are for instance micro-narratives (e.g. expressing denial), conversational bits (closure), presentations (self-referencing), etc.  And as an aside, I happened upon a number of websites devoted to capital punishment, ranging from the respectful to the very distasteful.


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