Holding Vigils, Conversion to Catholicism, and Experiences at the Local Church
Intellectual Agnosticism and the American Society of Criminology
Career in Criminal Justice Policy Research and Findings on Public Support
Herrera v. Collins and the Execution of the Innocent
Teaching about the Death Penalty
Serving as an Expert Witness in Eric Nenno's Case
And I thought, my God, it does take a long time. There had been a van parked in a small driveway between two buildings that are part of the funeral home and
the van's back door was up, so I knew something was there; I knew someone was there, but I wasn't sure.
So we talked to Boris Karloff and Boris tells us, "There's nobody here."
And so the chaplain said, "But we're here to view the body from the execution." And the guy, the elderly man says, "I don't know anything about it. I don't
know if they're here yet. Maybe they're not here."
And so the chaplain said, "Well, normally they're here when I get here." So the elderly man just stood and looked at us, so I immediately turned and walked
down the small driveway to the van,
and I said to the chaplain, "Let's go find out who's driving the van. I'm sure they'll know something."
So we approach the van and there's nobody around, but the door is open. It's clearly a hearse that's been used to transport a body, and I hear a rumbling and
noises off into the left, and there's a ramp that I walk up, and as I walk up and into a small room, I call out, Hello? Hello? Anybody here?
And a young man immediately comes out. He's got green rubber gloves on and he's wearing an apron and he says, "Can I help you?" And I say, Yes. We're here to
view the body of the man who was just executed.
I said, We're here to view Eric's body, the man who was just executed, and he looked at me and he said, "Well, well, one minute."
And he went back into the room, and out of another door comes an older young man, probably in his late twenties, and he says, "Can I help you?"
And that time, the chaplain says, "We're here to view the body." And he says, "But they told us there was nobody coming."
And the chaplain says, "We called and we told you we would be coming." And he said, "Well, they told us there was no one coming," and stopped.
I said, I would like to view the body. I would like to see the body if it is possible, if it wouldn't be too much trouble. And he looked to the chaplain and
he said, "He's already in the cooler,"
and I thought to myself, I'm not going to know. And I said, I'd like to view the body. And the chaplain said, "Can you bring him over to the chapel, as you
And the guy looked at his friend, or his colleague, and both of them were put out at that moment, and he said, "Yes. Give us a minute."
I waited behind the van, and they ended up bringing Eric out within a minute. It wasn't— it didn't take long. It was probably less than a minute.
They transport Eric; they pull him out on the gurney, on wheels.
Eric's covered completely except for his head and they roll him in front of me and brought him into the— I followed them as they pushed him into the small
chapel, and one of the guys is struggling with Eric's head because Eric's head has fallen over and it's almost like it's falling off of the gurney.
And this guy's trying to get his head up and bolster it up with a pillow, so I said, "Don't worry.
You don't have to worry about that. I just want to spend a moment with him." And so he left. I then took the pillow and positioned it around so Eric's head
was upright and I felt Eric and he was still warm, even after having been in the cooler.
And so— and it was that moment when I touched Eric that I felt my own sense of existence,
my own human spirit be kind of re-enlivened, revived I suppose would be the word. I was almost in a trance kind of, a zombie-like state from the moment of,
from sometime during the hour between five o'clock and six o'clock when we were escorted over,
I had shut down, and didn't really come back alive until I felt Eric, and it was the realization that I had been truthful, well, that what I had said to this
poor young woman was true,
because I doubt there was any real delay in her experience. So I felt again a sense of life.
So that was my first and then again my most recent experience with the death penalty;
the inhumanity that Richard Moran shared with me that he felt, that I didn't consciously know I was feeling until I touched Eric and felt the warmth,
at which time I realized that I had, prior to that moment, turned off the human part of me.
PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: So I came to Huntsville opposing the death penalty, had an immediate experience with it, and then for twenty-four years or so
after that, I've held a vigil on a corner of the death penalty, of the execution, where the executions take place, for almost all of them.
I've probably missed about ten percent. I estimate I've been to ninety percent of the four hundred and seventeen or four hundred and eighteen or however many
it is that we've conducted today,
so three hundred and seventy-something executions I've held vigil.
Most of those vigils were silent. During the period of time I was associate dean at the College of Criminal Justice, I didn't grant any interviews.
I went there silently.Those silent vigils by an agnostic or by an intellectual agnostic professor were changed as I continued dating the woman that I
She's Roman Catholic, and so I started going to church with her, and eventually have converted to Catholicism, and I went through two years of the R.C.I.A.
[Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults] process.
It took two years for that intellectual agnostic to stop and to begin to acknowledge the presence of a higher power, and the power of that higher
So I became Roman Catholic in that process, and Roman Catholicism helps me on the corner a lot, because I know the Roman Catholic Church supports my cause
and supports my purpose for being there.
Even though the Catholic Church in my community does not have an anti-death penalty group, I tried to join a group of people in my church. There's only one
Roman Catholic Church, only one Catholic Church in Huntsville.
I tried to join a group in that church that was a pro-life movement.
Their acronym at the time, they were the Ladies of St. Thomas. The acronym is L.O.S.T. and there's kind of some profound awareness that that will bring.
I went to their first organized meeting, and they spent a lot of time talking about how they were going to do vigils, and do protests against abortion at the
local Planned Parenthood.
They then adjourned their first meeting and I said, Wait, and I was the only man there, and I said, One minute. What about the other protest that we need to
And they said, "What do you mean?" I said, "The executions." And at this time Texas was only executing three or four people a year, so it wasn't a huge
issue, but there were dozens of executions scheduled throughout the year.
Most of them were stopped because of appellate court decisions, but there were two or three or four a year, sometimes five, and I don't remember the specific
date that this happened,
this meeting with the Ladies of St. Thomas, but I was there because I wanted to begin a movement against the death penalty, and I thought that this pro-life
movement was the place to be.
They immediately silenced me, and they said, "We are against abortions. We are pro-innocent life, and the death penalty isn't part of our movement."
So I stopped going, didn't return. I've never organized anything myself in opposition to the death penalty, and I'm not there in the corner in opposition to
the death penalty.
I'm on the corner in support of life, and I am a pro-life Catholic who also supports choice, and pray that every woman who has that decision to make chooses
but I don't think that we should subject those who choose anything other than life to the torture of an abortionist who is on the side of a corner or having
to go through some kind of horrible procedure and so I pray that we give them hope
and give all people hope that gives them a hopeful choice in support of life.
So my vigil on the corner became broader as I've stood there.
My intellectual agnosticism was the product of an organization I've been a member of as an academic criminologist.
There's a group of scholars who study criminology who publish research in the field called the American Society of Criminology, and sometime prior to the
completion of my graduate degree, sometime in the late 1970s, it must have been seventy-nine,
I finished my Ph.D. in seventy-nine, so maybe in 1980 or '81, the American Society of Criminology, an intellectual, scholarly group of researchers,
passed a resolution opposing the death penalty, because at that time their deterrence research had pretty much played out any hope there was that there was a
supporting the empirical findings that the death penalty is no more effective than appreciably long life prison terms and that in fact there may be a
so that states that execute actually have higher levels of serious, violent crime than states that don't execute.
So there's the potential that there's a brutalization effect. The literature on brutalization is not solid in terms of supporting that brutalization
The literature on deterrence is. There does not appear to be a statistically significant deterrent effect associated with executions.
The American Society of Criminology in 1980, or so, had effectively defined capital punishment as bad public policy.
It wasn't good criminal justice policy.
So I was out there, as an academician, opposing bad public policy.
I became a Roman Catholic opposing the taking of life. And so my presence on that corner has transformed markedly over that period of time.
And so my entire career in criminal justice since I've come to Huntsville has been about the death penalty in some regard or another.
I have done public opinion research and almost always include questions about the death penalty when I am surveying people about policies.
Never have I conducted a death penalty survey. I always conduct general surveys about attitudes about everything from whether or not people should be allowed
to drink while they drive,
all the way to whether or not we should execute criminals.
So there's a wide variety of issues I focus on, but my heart has always been principally on the issues associated with the death penalty and questions about
the death penalty.
That research supports the broad body of opinion research that shows people say yes to the question, "Do you support the death penalty for the crime of
Anywhere, whether you're in Texas or whether you're in Wisconsin, seventy, sixty-five, seventy, to eighty percent of the people say yes.
When you ask them then questions, "Would you continue to support the death penalty if life without parole were an option?"
or "If you found out that innocent people were executed?" or "if you found out that the death penalty is only principally used against poor people or people
of color," or "if you knew that juveniles had been executed," or "if you knew that mentally ill people were executed, would you continue to support the death penalty?"
And inevitably, my research and the general body of research on death penalty support shows that the people who begin saying yes to begin with, begin saying,
no, no, no, depending on which questions you ask, so after you ask the series of questions, support for the death penalty remains at about ten percent.
So ten percent of the people in any state, and in Texas in particular, I know because one of the projects I did specifically looked at this, ten percent of
the people who say that yes, they support the death penalty, continue to support it, even though innocent people are being executed.
They are a hardcore group of supporters who support the death penalty no matter what, but ninety percent of the people who say yes to begin with back off
after they learn more about how the death penalty system actually operates, because we do execute innocent people.
Not intentionally, but we do it. It's inevitable. It's a human machine, and anything operated by man is destined to be flawed.
We don't acknowledge having executed an innocent person in the state of Texas although there are some cases where it's virtually impossible to deny the
When the U.S. Supreme Court struggled with the question of whether or not it was unconstitutional to execute an innocent person, in the case of Herrera
against Collins, the Supreme Court said, "Yes, it is still constitutional for us to execute innocent people provided that they have been given a fair trial."
And so that is what they said when we executed Lionel Herrera, who admitted to his crime that he didn't commit.
He confessed to having committed the crime to save his brother, who apparently was the actual killer, only to later recant his confession, but the Supreme
Court said, "He had a fair trial."
And that's questionable, but the Supreme Court said, "He had a fair trial, and so even if he is innocent and we execute him, it's not unconstitutional."
So it's not unconstitutional to execute an innocent person. It's inevitable if we continue the process, and we do.
So we continue the process knowing that it's flawed but constitutional.
So the questions around surveys about the death penalty and people's attitudes about the death penalty show that some people continue to perhaps be on the
same side as the Supreme Court,
that recognizes the flawed nature of the system but is willing to continue the machine, and let the machine go forward.
So my presence, my involvement with the death penalty has been largely an involvement that has been on the corner in silent vigil.
I obviously teach about it in my classes. I try to teach about it in such a way that the students realize they don't have to accept my position,
but I also teach about it very honestly, unlike some of my colleagues, if I daresay, many of my colleagues. I think that a professor has a responsibility to
let the students know where we stand and then let the students freely get to where they want to be,
but to pretend that I'm neutral on the matter is to suggest that when I took my Ph.D., I took an oath and became a moral eunuch.
I'm opposed to the death penalty. I'm opposed to racial profiling. I'm opposed to abusive force by police.
I'm opposed to abusive discretion by judges. And I ought to be. We all ought to be.
But I don't make you choose to be opposed to it. I just tell you I am and here's why, and then you figure it out and your grade is not dependent on whether
you convert to Longmire-ism or not.
And so I teach about the death penalty. One of the undergraduate classes that I teach, infrequently, but when I do teach undergraduates this is the class
that I teach, is called, "Professionalism and Ethics in Criminal Justice."
I think the death penalty is a legitimate topic for that particular class and we talk about the death penalty for one small section in that class.
The rest of the semester we talk about questions about whether it's ethical for prosecutors to prosecute someone they think is innocent, or whether it's
ethical for defense attorneys to defend someone, vigorously, that they think is guilty.
So there are all kinds of issues in ethics that face criminal justice professionals and we talk about them all, including the death penalty.
PROFESSOR DENNIS LONGMIRE: I also became involved in the death penalty as an expert in Eric Nenno's case.
And that's why I am a witness at Eric's execution last night.
That's why I chose to witness the execution, because it wasn't something that was distant from me. It wasn't an objective case that I'd read about.
I knew Eric. I had interviewed Eric in jail prior to his trial. I had been retained as an expert by one of the attorneys who represented him during his
I had worked for that attorney in a number of non-capital cases in prediction of future criminality, trying to get the then-defendant to be given probation,
should he be convicted rather than having him sent to prison.
On usually drug-related charges, sometimes they were sex offense-related charges, sometimes they were burglary of a habitation.
But I worked for him in pre-sentencing situations and had actually been testifying in cases that are non-capital having to do with future, with prediction of
future criminality, so that was one of the areas I had been certified as an expert in, and in which I had done some research. I worked with the Texas Probation Commission at the time they were
modifying their pre-sentencing instrument,
and I validated Texas' pre-sentencing classification instrument that was used in courts throughout Texas and helped judges determine whether to send someone
to prison or to sentence them to probation or to community supervision.
So my role as an expert in classification and in prediction of future criminality had been certified, but never in a capital case prior to Eric Nenno's
The judge in Eric Nenno's case gave his attorney sufficient funds to hire me as an expert and I interview Eric in jail and I was prepared to testify during
his sentencing phase.
I was at the court prior to the day of his sentencing. Eric Nenno's crime was a horrible crime.
Eric Nenno abducted, murdered, and raped a young seven-year-old child from his neighborhood. He then hid the child's body in an attic of his garage and for
two days helped the police search for the body,
only to then be interviewed by the police because one of the neighbors said that they thought they saw him one time messing around with a young child.
So they asked this, this guy in the community if he would agree to a lie detector test, and Eric said, "Sure." So they conducted a lie detector test and
during the lie detector test, Eric apparently failed.
And the person administering the lie detector test stopped talking for a long period of time. Five minutes passed, I think, where nothing was said. And Eric
then apparently said, "I failed, didn't I?"
And the polygraph examiner said, "Why don't you tell me what happened?" And Eric said, "I think that she was probably abducted and killed."
And the examiner said, "Where do you think she is now?" He said, "I think she's in my attic."
So they then took the lead and sure enough found the young girl in the attic. So she had been decomposing for two days.
Subsequent post mortem shows that she was raped before and then again after she was killed. Brutal crime.It was the first crime Eric Nenno had ever
It was such a horrific crime that Eric shut down and didn't remember it.
I believe him. He didn't remember it until the polygraph exam. Had he remembered I don't think that he would have consented to the process.
I think that the process of the exam opened up to him what had happened, and ultimately he confessed to the crime. His confession was admitted into the
So there was never really a trial about guilt or innocence, but there was a trial about his, the next question: What are we going to do with this monster,
who has brutally murdered and raped and then hidden the body of a seven-year-old neighbor?
And so my interview with Eric in jail showed Eric to be a very pleasant young man. At that time, by then he had acknowledged what he had done, he was aware
He was hugely remorseful. He was just almost to the point of despondent, because of what he had done and how he couldn't undo it.
And that was part of the testimony that I would be giving if I had been called to the stand.
The lawyers for Eric decided that— two things happened. The state presented an expert from the prison system who testified about conditions of life if people
were to be sentenced to life in prison.
They, the attorneys, believed that that witness had done a pretty good job talking about how secure Texas' prisons were, and how someone like Eric would be
sentenced to- should he be sentenced to prison- would be incapacitated.
He would be unlikely to be a future danger. Even though the testimony didn't specifically say that, his attorneys felt like that was probably pretty
They were worried that if I took the stand and testified that Eric was so remorseful, it might make the jury angry because they had just been through a trial
of innocence and questionable guilt,
and there was a fear there would be a boomerang effect and they might be more enraged rather than more sympathetic toward Eric because of this charade that
had just taken place for three days in the adjudication trial.
So they chose not to call me, and I was thrilled, I was relieved because I was very, very, very anxious. I was out in the hallway with easily thirty-five or
forty community members from the community,
all of whom were waiting to either testify or to hear the sentence because they were outraged and horrified by this monster who had lived amongst them.
So I was in their presence waiting for all of this. They didn't know who I was, but I was very, very worried.
So I was relieved when I didn't get called to testify. I was not surprised when, a day later—
but it actually took the jury eleven and a half hours in deliberation to decide whether to sentence Eric to death or whether to sentence him to life, and at
the time, life, capital life, was a forty-year sentence.
Eric would have had to be in prison for at least forty years before becoming eligible for parole.
I think he was thirty-three or thirty-four at the time, so he would have been seventy-three or seventy-four at the time.
Now that also happened at a time when Texas juries were not allowed to be told anything about parole eligibility for capital offenders,
and there had been some relatively infamous cases in the news not long prior to this where capital murderers had been sentenced to life and then paroled in
fifteen years, or twelve years.
The law had changed prior to Eric's trial so that anybody convicted of capital murder and sentenced to capital life was required to spend at least forty
years before becoming eligible for parole and then, whether or not they would ever be paroled was speculative.
SOLIS:[inaudible] change the tape?
PROFESSOR LONGMIRE: Sure. Certainly.
of "Interview with Professor Dennis Longmire."
Dennis Longmire is an anti-death penalty activist and a professor of sociology at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. In Video 1, Mr. Longmire discusses his background, his residence in Huntsville, his interest in the death penalty as a topic of research and activism, his first silent vigil outside the Walls Unit and his role in the case of Eric Nenno, including his experience witnessing Nenno's execution. In Video 2, Mr. Longmire expands on his role in Eric Nenno's case, and discusses the role of religion in his intellectual and activist commitments. In Video 3, Mr. Longmire discusses Eric Nenno's trial in more detail, expands on the history of the prison system and executions in Texas, and compares the hospice movement with standing vigil outside the Walls Unit. In Video 4, Mr. Longmire discusses his prayer vigils and witnessing in the context of other activist strategies, and talks about the role of the Hospitality House in Huntsville. In Video 5, Mr. Longmire elaborates on his experiences standing on the corner outside the Walls Unit during executions, and considers trends in attitudes towards both the death penalty and abolition of the death penalty in Texas. In Video 6, Mr. Longmire discusses the wider communal effects of the death penalty on the town of Huntsville, media coverage of executions, and the interactions between families of the executed and families of murder victims. This interview took place on October 29, 2008 in Huntsville, Walker County, Texas.
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Dennis LongmireRole: Narrator
Texas After Violence ProjectRole: Collaborator
Gabriel Daniel SolisRole: Interviewer
Virginia Marie RaymondRole: Videographer
Jorge Antonio RenaudRole: Transcriber
Virginia Marie RaymondRole: Proofreader
Kimberly Ambrosini-BaconRole: Proofreader
Texas After Violence Project
University of Texas Libraries
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