Once a comfort to the condemned, TDCJ employee now supports victims
Their heads rested only four inches apart against a common wall, yet the two women couldn’t see each inside the divided death chamber at the Huntsville “Walls” Unit that night five years ago. On one side of the wall stood the mother of a little girl who had been raped and murdered 13 years earlier by the man strapped to the execution gurney sitting just a few feet beyond the window of the witness room. On the other side was the mother of the convicted killer. Both women were crying, dealing with their loss in the same way as the warden signaled for the lethal injection to begin.
|From outside this holding cell in the execution chamber, Jim Brazzil prepared more than 140 convicted murderers for death by lethal injection over a five-year period before joining the Victim Services Division as a training coordinator.
Photo by David Nunnelee
From where he stood at the foot of the gurney, prison chaplain Jim Brazzil could see both women clearly, their heads so close together as they leaned against the wall at opposite angles. And what he saw forever changed his life.
“I saw so much pain, so much loss” he recalled. “And I knew there was something I needed to do. I realized at that point that when it comes to this, there are a whole lot of hurting people out there. So I knew I was looking for a change.”
So in 2000, after 25 years as a pastor and five years preparing condemned murderers for death by lethal injection as a TDCJ chaplain, Brazzil looked to the agency’s Victim Services Division for the change that now has him aiding those victimized by violent crime instead of the offenders. As the training coordinator for Victim & Community Support & Education, Brazzil and his two associates are responsible for guiding the loved ones of capital murder victims through the execution process. They also tour crime victims through TDCJ facilities and provide agency staff and others with victim sensitivity and post-trauma training.
“That moment just opened up a whole new thing for me because this whole time I was strictly focusing in on the offender,” Brazzil said about his role reversal. “That was my job, and I would do it again. But I don’t see it as changing sides. I see it as changing the perimeters of my ministry. To me, I feel like I’m working with the whole picture here. That day in the death chamber where I saw those two mothers and the pain that was so real, I realized that there was so much of the picture that wasn’t being painted.”
Brazzil said the first time he worked with the family of a crime victim during an execution instead of with the offender was “strange.”
“It was different in that there was some anger there,” he said. “In dealing with the offender, my purpose was strictly spiritual. With the victims, it’s not preparing them to die, it’s assisting them with living the rest of their lives.”
A Temple native, Brazzil was pulled toward prison ministry while traveling in Russia in November 1992 and preaching in prisons there.
“While I was in Russia, I knew that I really had a strong desire to go into criminal justice work,” he said. “It’s all about the ministry to me. It’s not a job. It’s a calling. I knew I had found my niche.”
Two years later, Brazzil joined TDCJ as a chaplain at the Wynne Unit in Huntsville. He lost his father the following year and put in for a chaplain’s job at the soon-to-open Woodman State Jail in Gatesville so he could be closer to his mother, then living in nearby Nolanville. He got the job but was called back to Huntsville soon after unpacking his belongings and asked to fill in for the Huntsville Unit chaplain who had retired.
“They said, ‘Oh, and by the way, there’s an execution tonight and we need you to handle it,’” Brazzil said about his first day on the job at the unit.
That execution didn’t go through, but four days later, Brazzil prepared another offender for death and witnessed his first execution. More than 140 others followed.
“I knew I was coming to an end,” Brazzil said about the execution that refocused his life. “I was emotionally tired and I just felt like there was something more I needed to do. I went home and cried that night. I really cried.”
Brazzil said most of the victims he works with in the execution process know about his former role in aiding offenders.
“At first, some of them are a little apprehensive,” he said. “But in some cases it works to my advantage because they want to know all they can about what’s going on. I believe doing what I did with the offenders gave me the capacity to help the victims with what they want and need to know.”
Two years ago, Brazzil, 55, was diagnosed with leukemia, a blood disease that has no known cure and last year claimed the life of his brother. He said his illness has added a different dimension to his work with victims.
“While I was a pastor I dealt with funerals all the time,” he said. “When I was a chaplain I buried more than five hundred offenders. I’ve dealt with death. But in working with so much loss in this job, being confronted with my own mortality has added another dimension to that. It has helped me be more compassionate and more understanding.”
“Working with victims gives me an opportunity to make a difference,” he added. “I don’t ever want to be rich. I don’t have any desire to be famous. I want to be able to make a difference in people’s lives, to give them hope, to give them love, and to show them compassion. I feel like where I am now I’m doing as much ministry as I’ve ever done. I can touch people’s lives. I can be with people. It’s my calling and I’m here for the long haul.”
back to top