Casey Tolan

HOUSTON—Texas has executed 1,291 inmates in the last century. And each of those people has a file in Pat Hartwell’s filing cabinet.

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Hartwell, 64, has dedicated her life since retirement to ending the death penalty in this state, and that starts with keeping attention on the issue. Mugshots of death row inmates tend to make the news on the day they’re arrested, the day they’re sentenced to die, and the day they’re executed. And then for most of the world, these men and women are forgotten.

A small but dedicated group of activists like Hartwell are working hard to make sure that that doesn’t happen.

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“You’ve taken a relatively healthy human being and you’ve killed him—not in a robbery, not in a burglary, not in a rape, but in a calculated, state-sanctioned moment, you’ve killed a man," she told me. "There should be something wrong with that."

One tool in her fight is her encyclopedic, printed-out database of executed Texans. Hartwell, who has short sandy hair and a strong handshake, gave me a tour on a Saturday morning earlier this month. She's dedicated a room in the back of her sunny apartment south of downtown to a makeshift library on the death penalty. On the top of the bookcase are wanted posters of former Gov. Rick Perry, calling him a "serial killer."

Pat Hartwell's bookcases are filled with files on the men and women Texas has executed.
Casey Tolan

Below, separated with paperweights in the shape of Buddah heads, are colorful binders containing a file on every Texas death row inmate, organized by the number the state gives them. The files go back to 1924, when the state legalized the electric chair and took over executions from the counties.

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Hartwell flipped back to No. 000001, pulled out a sheet of paper and read an old newspaper clipping. Mack Matthews, a black man, was scheduled to die on Jan. 16, 1924, but the warden of his prison resigned instead of carrying out the execution. “A warden can’t be a warden and a killer too—the penitentiary is a place to reform a man, not to kill him,” the warden was quoted as saying. Matthews was executed the next month, under a new warden, along with four other black men.

For everyone up to death row inmate No. 999601 (Mark Gonzalez, who was sentenced to death earlier this year), she's kept meticulous records, researching court documents, mental health issues, and studying the particulars of the gruesome crimes that put them on the row. She prints out all the information on each inmate from the state Department of Corrections website, and fills the margins with notes in her clear, steady handwriting.

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Further down on her shelf there's a binder marked innocent—containing the records of all the inmates who claimed they were innocent—and a much, much thinner one marked "released." On another bookshelf is a framed photo of Hartwell hugging former inmate Alfred Dewayne Brown, who was released last year. “Those are the pinnacle moments,” she said.

One of the files she keeps on every death row inmate.
Casey Tolan

Fighting the death penalty in Texas is more or less a full-time job. Hartwell writes letters with about 60 or 70 death row inmates, relaying messages to family members or just letting them know someone on the outside is thinking of them. She also contributes to a weekly show on a local radio station where she talks directly to the death row inmates—they’re allowed to have radios but not TVs—and tells them about any recent death penalty news or court rulings.

But she stressed that she's not doing it alone. She's part of a much larger movement fighting the death penalty in Texas.

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Most weeks, Hartwell drives back and forth to West Livingston, the northern Houston suburb where male death row inmates are housed, to meet with them. On execution days, she’ll instead head to Huntsville, the site of the state’s execution chamber, and help organize protests outside the prison walls. Sometimes one of her six grandkids will come with her, and help her carry the signs.

When it's an inmate she knows well, Hartwell heads to the local funeral home afterward, to say goodbye. And then she usually drives back to Houston by herself. “After an execution, I spend that hour and a half alone,” she said. “I think about the execution and what it’s done to the families.”

Hartwell first got into activism as a high school student in the ‘60s, growing up in the Austin suburbs. “I came of age when you could walk out your door any given day and there’d be a demonstration,” she said. “The Vietnam War, the gay rights movement, the Chicano rights movement, MLK, the Black Panthers… you would have had to have a pillowcase on your head not to get involved in something.”

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Meanwhile, she became one of the first female telephone pole climbers in Austin, she said, and later one of the first female plumbers in Houston. When she had three daughters, she put aside most of her activism. But once they grew up and left home, she realized she had some time on her hands, so she got involved with the anti-death penalty movement. Before long, she found herself clearing out a room in her apartment and filling it with files and letters and photos of death row.

Pat and her grandson Christopher, 12, hold up an "Abolish the Death Penalty" poster.
Casey Tolan

Some observers are hopeful that changes to the death penalty could be coming. Supreme Court justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in a dissent last year that they believe it is “highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment.”

Unless the Court declares the death penalty unconstitutional for the entire country, Hartwell doubts that Texas will ever repeal it. After all, the state has executed 536 people since 1976, more than the next top six states combined. “We have the attitude of ‘Don’t Mess with Texas,’ and that’s more than just a slogan,” she said. “It’s an arrogant pride.”

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For now, she’ll keep going to protests, writing letters, raising attention, and paying witness to the death penalty. And she’ll keep her binders updated.

“I don’t think any of my children are going to want it,” she said of her self-made library. “When I die, I don’t know who to give it to.”

Pat with a string of origami birds that a death row inmate made for her.
Casey Tolan

Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.