Experience

The Execution of Joseph John Cannon

New information in the case of Joseph John Cannon, being revealed for the first time today, casts a fresh look at the murder trial that reached the Supreme Court, prompted reaction from the Pope, and caused a nation to debate executing someone who committed a crime at age 17.

If Cannon was alive today, he would have turned 60 on January 13, 2020. But on April 22, 1998 the 38 year-old ate his last meal. Cannon ordered “fried chicken, barbecue ribs, baked potato, green salad with Italian dressing, chocolate cake or chocolate ice cream or both, a thick chocolate shake or malt and iced tea.”

The meal was delivered in the afternoon, not long after he entered a holding room located about 30 feet from where he was set to die. While eating, little did Cannon know that 160 miles away, at the State Capitol, Texas Governor George W. Bush had received pleas from Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa, and members from the Parliament in Italy, to stop the execution.

About 3 p.m. Warden Jim Willett reviewed the file of Cannon, known as inmate 634. Willett said he prayed for Cannon and asked “God to make this a smooth and trouble-free day for him.”

By 4 p.m. Willett entered the holding cell to find that Cannon had completed his meal. He verified that Cannon would make a last statement as this would help the warden cue the execution’s commencement.

Chaplain Jim Brazel stayed with Cannon while Willett went back to the office.

Wayne Scott, the director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, along with a few regional and deputy directors waited with Willett until about 5:45 when they received a phone call from Gov. Bush’s office confirming they could proceed. Shortly afterwards, the State’s attorney general’s office called to ratify the execution. Willett walked down to hall to the cell holding Cannon and the chaplain.

“Inmate Cannon,” Willett announced, “it’s time for you to go into the next room with me.”

Cannon stood up and followed Willett without saying a word.

Death Row, Huntsville.

When Cannon reached the doorway to the 9-by-12-foot death chamber, he paused. No one knows what was going through Cannon’s mind at the moment, but what he saw was a tie down team of corrections officers waiting for him in the light green room with white floors and brown coving.

He immediately walked to the gurney and laid down. The team began strapping Cannon in place with 5 yellowish-tan straps buckled across him. Looking up, he could see a 2-by-6 foot rectangle fixture crossing over him, casting light. As the straps began to tighten, he observed to the left of the light. Coming out of the ceiling, was a dark escutcheoned conduit bent to the right and downward so a microphone could record his last words.

Looking downward to his left, Cannon saw the executioner’s room through a window. He closed his eyes and gazed to his right. There were 2 curtained windows, both with light green colored jail bars. Each window represented 2 separate rooms, 1 for his family, and 1 for the victim’s family to watch him being executed.

Knowing Cannon was securely strapped, Warden Willett stood at the head of the inmate, while the chaplain stood at his feet.

Two members of the medical team entered the room, while the third member, the executioner, stayed in the room to Cannon’s left. Typically, the medical team takes about 5 to 10 minutes to insert and secure two IVs into an inmate, with one serving as a backup. Willet and the chaplain could tell the medical techs were having difficulty as the female tech prodded and poked Cannon’s arm.

Later, Willett would admit it was the longest IV preparation he’d ever witnessed. It took over 20 minutes before the technician peered up and asked, “Warden, I think we’ve got a good one in this arm. Can we go with just the one?”

Willett nodded affirmatively and the technician left the room. Cannon gazed at the IV in his arm and looked right to see people entering the first witness viewing room. Through the window, Cannon saw his mother. He looked at her with no expression. When someone nudged her she moved in closer to the plate glass window.

Cannon then looked over to the next window as members of his victim’s family entered their viewing room. It was the first time some of them had seen Joseph John Cannon since the day he brutally murdered their mother in 1977.

Mrs. Walsh, 45, was a San Antonio attorney. Her brother, Dan Cariben, also an attorney, had represented Cannon in a burglary case and persuaded her to let him live at her home in September 1977 so he could remain on probation and avoid jail.

A week later, Mrs. Walsh — the mother of eight — was shot six times at close range with a .22 pistol by Cannon after she came home for lunch. High on alcohol and drugs, he also tried to rape her dead body on the pool table and then drove away in one of the family’s cars.

“The good Samaritan story was turned upside down by him,” said Paul Canales, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Cannon in the second trial. “He’s the type of guy that makes you want to lock your doors and not pick up hitchhiker

After spending decades in prison, Cannon was now haggard and weighed far more than when he was 17, the age he decided to leave his home in Houston to hitchhike to Las Vegas, Nevada.

Cannon had already made his final statement and goodbyes when the first injection began.

After closing his eyes momentarily, he turned toward a window where witnesses were standing.

“It’s come undone,” he said.

Prison officials then shut a drape that blocked him from witnesses.

Witnesses were led outside, where they waited for 15 minutes while prison officials worked to establish another injection.

“I kind of lost my cool a while ago,” a smiling Cannon said, greeting witnesses as they entered a second time.

During a second round of final statements, witnesses for Cannon cried and prayed together.

During his trials there was a claim Cannon was not in full possession of his faculties when he killed Walsh.

At 4, Cannon had been hit by a car, resulting in severe head injuries. Beginning at age 7 was subjected to constant sexual abuse and beatings from his stepfather and grandfather.

At 9, he had pushed a boy into a Louisiana bayou. The boy drowned. At age 10, he was hospitalized for sipping gasoline to get high. At age 15, he was diagnosed as psychotic and attempted suicide by drinking insecticide.

Private investigator Jack Dennis was tasked by Attorney William G. Brown in 1980 to find witnesses including Cannon’s mother. Dennis traced her as hitchhiking, accepting rides at trucks stops on IH10 and 87 in exchange for food, booze and companionship. After a two day search, with only a photo and conversations with truck stop employees, Dennis found Cannon’s mother at a dance hall in San Angelo.

When Dennis interviewed his mother, she admitted she had suffered beatings and rapes by her father, Joseph’s grandfather. On the drive back to San Antonio she told Dennis she feared her pregnancy with Joseph could actually be the product from a rape by her father.

“He had me chained and tied outside to a tree,” she cried. “He beat me so much I thought I’d die right there. He was drunk and finally let me go. I got out of there and made it to Houston and never went back. This might be why he’s so crazy. He takes after his grandpa, my daddy.”

I’m sorry for what I did to your mom,” he said to five sons of victim Anne Walsh, all of whom attended the execution. “I am sorry for all of you. I love you all. I thank you all for being kind to me when I was small.”

After Cannon finally died from the injection, reactions of Mrs. Walsh’s sons were terse.

Son Christopher Walsh made a statement to the media, “Job well-done, end of story.”

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