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 at crime at age 17. If Cannon was alive today, he would have turned 56 on January 13, 2016. 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. 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 five 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 two curtained windows, both with light green colored jail bars. Each window represented two separate rooms, one for his family, and one 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 five to ten 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 twenty 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.
The five sons of Anne C. Walsh noticed the man strapped to the gurney appeared far different from the way he looked in 1977. 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.
In September 1977, the teenage Cannon thumbed a ride as far as San Antonio where he was soon arrested on a burglary charge. He was given a court-appointed attorney, Dan Carabin, who secured probation for Cannon. Knowing he was homeless, Carabin called his sister, Anne Walsh, also an attorney, to discuss the situation. Mrs. Walsh, the mother of eight, had teenage children living at her home on North Babcock Road and decided to allow Cannon to stay with them while they helped him locate a job.
The teenagers found Cannon to be somewhat socially awkward, but kindly invited him to various social events and family activities. Walsh’s 13-year old son became especially alarmed after a few nights of Cannon staying in their home. He later told an investigator assigned to the case that Cannon had threatened his family.
It was a week into Cannon’s stay with the Walsh family, on Sept. 30, 1977, that Cannon called Mrs. Walsh’s brother, his attorney Dan Carabin. It was about 9:30 a.m. and Carabin had clients in his office, but took Cannon’s call. The teenager wanted to know how he was going to pay him or his sister for staying in their home. Carabin, testified that this question didn’t make much sense because there had no talk about Cannon having to pay them anything. He told Cannon he would call him back after he finished with the clients in his office. When he returned the call about an hour later, no one answered the phone at his sister’s house.
At about 10:30, Stephani Walsh, Anne’s daughter went to her mother’s office to trade their cars. After agreeing they would meet at home for lunch, Stephani drove off in her mother’s stationwagon, leaving her 1974 white Ford Maverick for her mother.
Shortly afterwards, Anne Walsh drove home and saw Cannon trimming bushes near the entrance to her property with a sickle. She rolled her window down and Cannon walked toward her.
“That’s looking good Joseph,” commented Walsh. “I am going to make some sandwiches. Why don’t you wash up and come in to get a bite and something to drink to cool off for lunch?”
Later, downtown in an interrogation room of San Antonio Police Department, Cannon told Homicide Detective Frank Castillon that he guessed he “just went crazy…The next thing I knew was that Anne was on the floor of the den crying and saying ‘please don’t shoot again’” and I don’t know why but I kept shooting.”
As Anne Walsh cried for him to stop, Cannon shot her three times in the chest, one in the center of the abdomen, once in her head and two in her arms.
“While I was shooting her she crawled under the pool table. I then pulled her out from under the pool table and ripped her clothes off,” Cannon continued as he explained he attempted her rape her dead body. “I then got up and pulled up my jeans and went to the kitchen where I found Anne’s purse on the counter.”
Cannon kept the gun while he gathered money and prescription drugs from Mrs. Walsh’s purse. He ran outside to the white Maverick and sped off almost hitting a car on Babcock Road. Reserve Deputy Constable Robert Wenzel was driving by the Walsh home when he saw Cannon get into the Maverick. Through his rear view window, Wenzel saw the Maverick traveling erratically behind him. It soon sped past him and Wenzel gave chase.
A bartender, Kenneth Kizer in“Al’s Corner” bar, saw Cannon crash into a chainlink fence, get out and run across the street to a brushy wooded field at Babcock and Huebner Road. Kizer called the police as he noticed Cannon throwing his shirt down. About 20 minutes later, Cannon walked into the bar and bought a Coke. When Cannon heard police vehicles approaching, he tried to escape but Wenzel restrained him until officer Shelton Spears arrived. When Spears discovered Cannon was not the owner of the wrecked vehicle, he took the teenager to the Walsh home where he found Anne Walsh lying in a pool of blood.
During his 1980 trial in Bexar County before Judge Mike Machado, Cannon was assigned a court appointed attorney, William Brown. Private investigator Jack Dennis was hired by Brown and the Sheriff’s Department to assist in the case.
Dennis was asked to track down Cannon’s mother and any other family member who might be helpful to the investigation. After a few days of tracing Mrs. Cannon who was thumbing rides with truck drivers in truck stops along Texas highways, Dennis found her in a dance hall at the western city of Odessa and brought her back to San Antonio.
On the return trip, Mrs. Cannon detailed her son’s troubled history. At age four, Joseph was hit by a car and remained in the hospital for almost three months. Doctors told her Joseph had sustained brain injury. Mrs. Cannon said Joseph could barely talk “to where no one could even understand him until he was around eight or nine.”
“He was also hard to handle and caused so much trouble that the schools would not keep him,” Mrs. Cannon maintained. “He even broke one little girl’s arm. That was, I guess, the last straw.”
As Dennis was able to gain more trust on the ride back, Mrs. Cannon revealed several bombshells. When Joseph was nine, and they were living in Louisiana, he pushed a boy into a bayou where he drowned. Before age 16, he had been arrested six times on burglary and theft charges. She blamed Joseph’s violent tendencies on shocking reasons, including the brain injury.
The other two explanations were family oriented. Mrs. Cannon admitted she had a big problem with relationships and that was why she traveled from truck driver to truck driver often. Although she’d been married and had several longer lasting relationships, she had a tendency to choose violent men. Some of these men had viciously and sexually abused Joseph. She then became very emotional and revealed a family secret that has never been publically revealed until this article.
Joseph’s mother said her own father had kidnapped her from her Houston residence after she was ran way as a teenager. Her father took her to his home in south Texas. He chained her to a tree or post and repeatedly raped her.
“I think my father, his grandpa, may be Joseph’s father,” Mrs. Cannon sobbed. “It was after he let me go, that I found out I was pregnant with Joseph.”
When Mrs. Cannon revealed this to Joseph’s attorney, William Brown, at his Tower Life Building office in San Antonio, he advised her to keep that information to herself unless she could prove it. He also asked Dennis to locate Mrs. Cannon’s father, Joseph’s grandfather so he could question him.
Several days later the old man came to Brown’s office and admitted his grandson “was crazy, but I think she (his daughter) is crazier and don’t believe anything she tells you because everything out of her mouth is a lie.”
Brown elected not to have the grandfather testify at the 1980 trial. Cannon pleaded insanity with Brown presenting psychologists and other experts to testify to his low intelligence and mental instability.
During a mid-morning break in Judge Machado’s court, a bailiff and Dennis remained with Cannon in a holding room in the courthouse to keep from sending him back and forth from the Bexar County Jail. Cannon was sitting across a table from Dennis, when he suddenly admitted that a couple of nights before he murdered Walsh, “I woke up in the middle of the night feeling real sick and I could see like bubbles floating around. Something inside my brain kept telling me to kill everyone in the house that was sleeping.”
When Cannon saw Dennis and the bailiff look at each other in surprise, he followed up with “I don’t know what was wrong with me. They were all very nice, very good to me. They were helping me. They were good people. I just don’t know why I was thinking that way.”
The inmate then asked for a pencil so he could draw something. Cannon asked Dennis if he could tell what his drawing was. Dennis said it was a lightbulb. Cannon laughed as he sketched two lines to make it appear like someone was bending over exposing their buttocks.
“It’s magic,” Cannon giggled and then tried to stab Dennis with the pencil. Dennis wrestled the pencil from Cannon as the bailiff ran to help restrain the inmate. “You are not treating me right and I will kill that DA (District Attorney) motherfxxxxr.”
The bailiff and Dennis went into the judge’s chambers to explain what had occurred. When court was back in session the bailiff testified for the record about the threat to the district attorney. Mrs. Cannon testified about Joseph’s violent childhood. The jury sentenced him guilty and to death.
Cannon was granted a second trial in 1982, with new attorneys and was again sentenced to death. Because Cannon was 17 when he killed Anne Walsh, his case worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. His attorneys argued Cannon should be spared because international law sets 18 as the minimum age for executions. The high court rejected the appeal without dissent.
Laying strapped in the death chamber gurney in 1998, Cannon could see a dozen people peering at him through the plate glass window. In what was intended to be his last statement, he mumbled something no one could understand. He then closed his eyes for a moment and suddenly turned back to the witnesses.
“It’s come undone,” he said.
A prison official shut the draped curtain to block Cannon from the witnesses.
“His blood vein blew. He’s doing fine. They’re just going to restart it,” Chaplain Brazel told them. Awkwardly, the two groups of witnesses were escorted outside while the prison medical technicians attempted to establish another injection. It took about 15 minutes before they were led back into the rooms.
“I kind of lost my cool a while ago,” a smiling Cannon greeted the returning witnesses. He could see his mother and friends crying and praying for him. He peered over to the adult children of Anne Walsh and spontaneously gave last attempt of his final statement.
“I’m sorry for what I did to your mom,” Cannon stated. “It isn’t because I’m going to die. All my life I have been locked up. I could never forgive what I done. I am sorry for all of you. I love you all. Thank you for supporting me. I thank you for being kind to me when I was small. Thank you, God. All right.”
Warden Willett gave the signal to the medical technician who released the first solution, sodium pentathol into Cannon’s veins to shut down his central nervous system. This was followed by pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant causing his diaphragm to stop. When Cannon let out his last breath, potassium chloride flowed through the line to end his heartbeat. After several minutes, Willett called the doctor in to pronounce him dead. It was 7:28 p.m., 70 minutes from the time Cannon was originally escorted from his holding cell to the death chamber.
The witnesses were then led outside separately where Cannon’s mother fainted and was taken to a nearby hospital to be examined. Moments later, the family of Anne Walsh came out. When a reporter asked the sons for a comment, Christopher Walsh simply responded, “Job well-done, end of story.”
Note: Jack Dennis, the writer of this article, was the private investigator in the first trial of Joseph John Cannon in 1980.