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Executions aren't news - why they should be.


Why They Should Be

When Louisiana held its first execution in 22 years, there was a line to get in. More than a hundred reporters from across the country trekked to the remote state penitentiary on December 14, 1983, the night Robert Wayne Williams died in the electric chair. The national television networks were there. The New York Times was there. Photographers competed for portraits of grief as the condemned man's mother prayed outside the prison gates. Television cameramen lined the road as Williams's hearse crept from the death house, its red emergency light circling in the darkness.

Thirteen months later, Louisiana had executed more people per capita than any state since executions resumed in 1977. But by then most everyone had lost interest. In January 1985, when David Dene Martin became the seventh man to die in Louisiana's resurrected electric chair, even the newspaper in the town where he committed his four murders failed to send a reporter. Before the first execution, dozens of reporters vied in a lottery to be one of three press witnesses allowed in the execution chamber. For the seventh, I was drafted as a witness late in the day, when one of the reporters originally selected decided the trip wasn't worth the trouble. In that judgment, he is not alone. A recent Gallup poll showed 75 percent of the public supporting executions. For most news agencies, the death penalty is no longer much of a story. "There's no interest,' a television news director told The Miami Herald last year. "The only interest would be if they pull the switch and the guy lives. If he dies, it isn't news.'

Interest in capital punishment is fading just as the business of execution is about to boom. In the first six years that followed the U.S. Supreme Court's approval of new capital punishment laws in 1976, only six people were executed--four of them with their own consent. But since the beginning of 1983, executions have proceeded at a rate of about one every three weeks. And that place promises to accelerate. More and more people are further along in their appeals. And since 1983, the federal courts have been setting policies making it easier for prosecutors to pursue death sentences.

Currently, the Supreme Court is considering a major death penalty case involving charges that the jury selection process is unfair. And in another case, attorneys have asked the Court to consider evidence suggesting racial discrimination in capital sentencing. If the Court resolves those cases in favor of the prosecution, as most legal scholars predict, it will remove the last major legal hope for many of the nation's 1,500 inmates on death now. Within several years we may be witnessing a pace of executions in the United States unequaled since the 1950s, a pace attorneys thought unimaginable as recently as a decade ago.

In the past two years, I've covered all seven Louisiana executions and witnessed one. I've interviewed about a third of the men on Louisiana's death row, including four who are now dead, and I've talked at length to their families and to the families of their victims. In addition, I've covered about a dozen murder trials and interviewed dozens of police officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, legislators, and prison guards. In doing so, I've had a number of experiences that have fueled what was for me an instinctive opposition to capital punishment--and a few that have challenged that opposition. These experiences, described below, are the kind that won't be getting much attention as executions become an accepted part of American life.

No solutions

On January 5, 1979, Robert Wayne Williams killed a 67-year-old security guard with a shotgun blast to the face. Both men were black. It was Williams's first violent crime. At age 27, Williams was an eleventh-grade dropout whose life had begun to unravel: he was fighting an addiction to heroin, had lost his job, and was in a troubled marriage to a 17-year-old wife. She found him that night at a party, drunk and stoned, and told him to get in the car with her and her uncle, Ralph Holmes. They handed him a sawed-off shotgun and told him they were planning to rob an A&P grocery store they had previously cased.

Williams's wife waited in the car and he and Ralph Holmes entered the store shortly before midnight, their faces covered by ski masks. A dozen late-night shoppers fled to the rear of the store or crouched in the aisles as Williams held the shotgun on security guard Willie Kelly while Holmes attempted to remove Kelly's pistol. When the guard moved his hand toward his gun, apparently to help unbuckle the strap, Williams screamed, "Don't do it!' The shotgun went off, and Kelly slumped face down on the counter.

Williams claimed up to the time of his death that the gun discharged accidentally. It is possible; the gun was missing its firing pin, and other witnesses testified that it discharged accidentally several minutes later, when Williams laid it on the ground. The robbers escaped with $2,500 and were caught several weeks later. Williams's wife turned state's evidence and was released. Holmes got life, Williams got death.

Five years later, when I first heard of Robert Wayne Williams, he had 36 hours to live. Word of his failed court appeal caught the newsroom by surprise and an editor sent me to Baton Rouge to find William's family and the family of his victim.

When I knocked on the Williams's door at 10 that night, I was reluctant, on the one hand, to add to their grief, but hungry, on the other, to hear what they had to say. Rose Williams, the condemned man's mother, was a hospital supply clerk, and a weekend minister in the Church of God. Was she angry or resigned? Hateful or forgiving? I didn't find out that night. She said she was too tired to talk and in the middle of setting her hair for her final visit with her son the next day. If I came back early in the morning, she said, she would talk to me.

On the way to my car I bumped into 14-year-old Troy Williams, the condemned man's son. My empty notebook quickly began to fill. "Killing him just because he killed somebody else ain't solving a thing,' he said, squirmining nervously and staring at the ground. "He didn't mean to shoot him. It just isn't fair. He's a real nice guy.' I was standing in the street scribbling when the boy's aunt emerged from the house and caught me. "Didn't we ask you to leave?' she asked angrily. "Why are you violating our wishes?' I went back into the house and apologized to Rose Williams. I hadn't meant to antagonize her, I explained, I just happened to bump into her grandson. She heard me out and responded to my second intrusion simply and with dignity. "We accept your apology,' she said.

I saw Rose Williams the next morning minutes before she left for the prison for her last visit with her son. She is a small, quiet woman who projects a sense of strength. She told me that she had contacted the victim's family, hoping to gain their forgiveness, but that they didn't want to talk. She was praying, she said, and she had contacted the governor's office to make a request: in the event the execution went through, she wanted to watch. "I saw my boy come in this world,' she said. "I want to see him go out of it.' She left for the prison and I remained in the small house with Williams's other relatives, who said I was welcome to stay. Of the four Williams siblings, only Robert had seen trouble with the law. The other three had settled comfortably into jobs as a speech therapist, a carpenter, and a cabinetmaker. Despite the terrible tension of the day, they seemed open and at peace. As we sat in the living room, a television "bulletin' flashed on the screen and our heads jerked, only to see a Christmas advertisement from a furniture store. A few minutes later, a real bulletin flashed. "Condemned killer Robert Wayne Williams is scheduled to die tonight,' declared a somber newscaster before "The Price Is Right' returned to the screen. On top of the television, a plaque of the Ten Commandments warned against killing. Behind it hung a portrait of Rose Williams's condemned son, smiling, in a blue denim penitentiary shirt.

Across town, Charles Kelly, the victim's son, paid a compliment to the Williams family, whom he had met at a clemency hearing several weeks earlier. "My heart goes out to them,' he said. "They're decent people.' But Kelly's sympathies didn't detract from his desire for the justice he said he and his family deserved. His tone was reasonable but firm. "My philosophy is that if a guy commits murder, then he should die.' After 15 minutes he grew weary of my questions and left for his job as a correctional officer at a juvenile detention home. I then visited Willie Kelly's old neighborhood and interrupted a driveway conversation between two of his former neighbors. "Did I know him?' one woman screamed. "That was my brother!' She left little doubt where she stood on the execution. "[Williams]'ll just have to suffer the consequences,' she said. "It's in God's name with me--I'm a Christian.' With that, she ran into her house and slammed shut the door. The other woman, also a sister of Kelly, said she was too distraught to discuss the execution. "It makes my heart weak to think about it,' she said and retreated indoors as well.

But in the next house over, another Kelly relative was taking a different attitude toward the execution. Willie Kelly's 76-year-old cousin, Mattie Chinn, had watched the two sisters run from me, and she invited me inside. On the one hand, she shared their hurt. "Willie was going about his own business and wasn't hurting anybody and that man shot him in the face,' she said. "I haven't gotten over it yet.' But Chinn said the execution didn't settle well with her either. Somewhere the killing had to stop. We sat in a room decorated with a portrait of the two slain Kennedys and Martin Luther King. "Killing that man ain't going to bring Willie back,' she said. "Need to do something about all these people killing folks. Need to get these people straightened out.'

"Tears of joy'

It was already dark when I reached the state penitentiary, an 18,000-acre prison farm tucked between a remote bend of the Mississippi River and the Tunica Hills. At the gate, dozens of helmeted guards kept watch behind a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. Opposite them, the Williams family and a handful of supporters held placards and prayed in the rain. Reporters were searched at the gate and directed to the prison administration building several miles away.

There, the mood was light. A grandmotherly press officer from the Department of Corrections dispensed coffee, sandwiches, and copies of Regulation 10-25, "Procedures for the execution of the death penalty.' Most of us had written our stories before we arrived, leaving blanks ("His body twitched . . . get details,' "He was pronounced dead at . . . get time') that could be filled in quickly after the execution. As the evening dragged on, reporters renewed acquaintances, fretted about deadlines, played cards, and promised to exchange recipes.

When an ACLU attorney was delayed in getting to Washington to file his appeal, the governor issued a one-hour reprieve--drawing groans from the reporters and an exasperated, "Oh, horseshit,' from the night editor at the Picayune. The appeal was denied and the hour counted down.

At 1:01 a.m., Williams entered the execution chamber. He told his executioners that "God has entered my heart and saved me.' At 1:06 a.m. an electrical charge "sufficient in intensity and duration to cause death' was passed through Williams's body, in accordance with Regulation 10-25. The press witnesses returned and provided the details--the body stiffened, the smoke was blue--and we filled in the blanks and raced for the phones. The cheerful corrections press officer told us how pleased she was that everything went so smoothly and urged us to get in touch if we needed to know about future executions.

The next day's headlines featured Williams as the "convicted killer.' Several days later, however, his funeral featured a different Williams--Robert Wayne Williams the Christian convert. Three hundred mourners crowded into the 16-pew Faith Chapel Church of God, where Rose Williams serves as assistant pastor. They filed past Williams's open casket, past the burn marks visible on his shaved scalp. A note explained that Williams hoped the sight of the scorch marks would encourage people "to fight against capital punishment and help others turn away from crime.'

Crying what he called "tears of joy,' the Reverend J.D. Brown recounted the events leading up to Williams's conversion. "Robert saw himself forever banished in hell for the crime he committed,' Brown said. "He felt the horror of seeing his hands blood-stained.' In his frequent visits to the prison where Williams had awaited trial, Brown reminded him that other men had recoiled when faced with their own crimes--like King David, who plotted the death of his mistress's husband. Brown urged Williams to study King David's plea, as recorded in Psalm 51, to pray, "Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, oh God.' Shortly thereafter, Williams asked to be baptized, and he lived out his last four-and-a-half years on death row a born-again Christian.

Brown and Williams had counted down the hours to the execution together, and Brown began to sob as he described the condemned man's last act. "They put the [electric chair] buckle around him,' he said, laboring to catch his breath as the church rocked with shouts, "and he pulled off his watch and he said give this watch to Troy.' Brown leaned across the podium, thrust the watch in 14-year-old Troy Williams's direction, and thundered: "Troy, your Dad said this is your Christmas present. He said, "Tell my children I love them. Tell them to live right.'' Troy Williams passed out and was carried from the church.

In the cemetery the next morning, Brown stood poised over the grave. "The deterrence for crime is not the chair,' he said. "The deterrence for crime is Jesus Christ. Earth to earth, ash to ash, dust to dust.'

Looking for humanity

In thinking about who the condemned are, there are at least two important questions to keep in mind: Will the death penalty deter others like them? And, for all their violence, is there anything redeeming about them, any point in keeping them alive?

While the backgrounds and personalities of the condemned men I've talked with differ significantly, some important generalizations can be made. For one, most of those who wind up on death row are young. Studies show that the propensity for violence decreases with age and that men usually become less dangerous after age 40 or so. Second, most of them committed their crimes spontaneously, often in a moment of anger or fear. Some, like Robert Wayne Williams, reacted in the course of a robbery. And frequently, like Williams, the murderers were under the influence of liquor and drugs. Others killed in a sudden rage. But only a few of the murderers I spoke with had planned their murders calmly in advance.

To believe that capital punishment deters acts of violence, one must assume a rational calculation that the criminal rarely makes. Take, for example, David Dene Martin, whom I saw executed last year for killing his wife's lover and three others who happened to be present. At the time of the murders, Martin was fueled by a passion for revenge and a heavy dose of PCP; he was found dazed in the street afterwards, with no recollection of the shootings. When he committed the crime, his chance of receiving the death penalty was the farthest thing from his mind. In fact, Martin, a fundamentalist Christian, was at the time in favor of capital punishment. "I'd have said, hey yeah, you can't let people go around killing people,' he told me in an interview shortly before his execution.

But for most supporters of capital punishment, deterrence is a secondary issue. Punishment, the desire to get even, comes first. Typically this feeling is accompanied by the sense, as one prosecutor said, that the people on death row are "scum,' beyond any possibility of redemption, beyond all worth. This attitude is not confined to law-and-order conservatives. A lawyer with a lengthy record of service to liberal causes told me last year that he was growing weary of the fight against capital punishment. After 25 years of advocacy, he too was beginning to feel that some people just weren't worth preserving.

In writing about condemned men, I've tried to combat that feeling in myself, but I haven't always been successful. A year ago I interviewed Robert Lee Willie several days before his execution. Willie was sentenced to die for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of an 18-year-old girl. In addition, he had confessed to another kidnapping and rape, another murder, and an attempted murder that left his victim paralyzed below the waist. In seeking the interview I had hoped for an explanation for his crimes that would make them in some way comprehensible, to find some glimpse of humanity behind his reputation as killer without conscience. But Willie seemed determined to deny me.

"If I could live my life over again, I'd join a terrorist organization,' he said. "Electric chair don't worry me, man. I have a lot of pride. I don't run from nothing.'

He then spent two hours detailing his exploits, in a voice that hinted of pride.

"We got loaded one night, man, about 4:30 in the morning,' he said. "We was gonna rob this store . . . but too many people was there so we blowed it off. I had a sawed-off shotgun. We seen this broad walking along the side of the road, so I asked her did she want a ride.'

Willie and his companion, Joseph Jesse Vaccaro, then each raped Faith Hathaway in the back of their Ford. They drove her to a remote wooded area where "she kept saying, "Don't hurt me,'' Willie said. They stabbed her 17 times. Willie blamed Vaccaro. Vaccaro testified that Willie "jugged her and jugged her until she begged us to kill her.'

Several days later they were cruising again. They found 20-year-old Mark Brewster parked with his girlfriend in a lovers' lane, kidnapped the couple, and raped the girl along the way. Willie then led Brewster into the woods, planning, he said, just to tie him up.

"We wasn't planning on hurting him until he got kind of smart, you know,' Willie explained. "Got to making all kinds of demands. He demanded to be let go. I had a little pocket knife. I cut his throat. I stabbed him in the side. He slumped over and I kept wondering, "Man, is this dude gonna die?' Then he'd raise back up [as if to say], "I'm still alive, asshole.' That's when I left and got Joe and told him, "Hey, man, this dude won't die, you know.' Joe said, "Yeah, he'll die.''

Vaccaro left Brewster with a bullet in the head that paralyzed him from the waist down. When Brewster appeared to testify in court, Willie mocked him by drawing his finger menacingly across his throat. He blew kisses at Brewster's girlfriend, the victim of his repeated rape.

I asked him if he was an animal.

"People say I'm an animal,' he said. "But they wouldn't say it to my face. I wouldn't say I'm an animal. But I am a cold person.'

Following the interview, the author of one letter to the editor called the profile the best argument for capital punishment he'd ever read. But if the letter-writer had read the paper more closely that week he might have drawn a different lesson from the case of Wilbert Rideau.

As a 19-year-old porter in 1961, Rideau robbed a Lake Charles bank, kidnapped three witnesses, and attempted to kill them all. When one of the tellers begged for her life, Rideau told her, "It'll be cool and quick,' and cut her throat. Convicted of her murder, he was sentenced to die. His sentence was overturned twice and twice reinstated in new trials. Following his third conviction, Rideau spent more than a decade on Louisiana's death row. In 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down death penalty laws as they then existed, Rideau's sentence was commuted to life in prison.

Rideau used much of his time on death row to improve his ability to read and write. Several years after his sentence was commuted he became editor of the prison magazine. Today it is nationally acclaimed, the first prison publication ever to win such honors as the Robert F. Kennedy, the George Polk, and the Sidney Hillman awards. He travels the state with an unarmed guard and lectures to schools and civic groups. He has been the subject of laudatory profiles in Time and The New York Times. When Rideau's application for release went to the state prison board, even the penitentiary warden and the secretary of corrections endorsed his release. "If anybody in this state has ever been rehabilitated,' wrote corrections chief C. Paul Phelps, "it is Rideau.'

These are Rideau's own thoughts on his rehabilitation:

"I violated the most basic law of mankind-- the right of another person to live in peace and free of harm. Words are inadequate to apologize for a crime such as this but I have expressed my remorse and will continue to feel that regret for the rest of my life. . . . I am not the person I was a quarter of a century ago. I desperately wish for the opportunity to be free, not just for the beauty of freedom itself, but to prove to society that their forgiveness and trust would not be misplaced.'

Shortly before Christmas 1984, the Louisiana Pardon Board unanimously recommended Rideau's release, but Governor Edwin W. Edwards refused to sign it.

Tumbling dice

Using a skillet, a stool, and a television set, Timothy Baldwin bludgeoned to death his child's 85-year-old godmother. Baldwin killed her while robbing her home. He had an extensive prior record that included burglary, bad checks, and jail escapes. In 1984 Baldwin was executed.

Using a soda bottle and a wire, Ledell Chew beat and strangled to death his girlfriend's 85-year-old neighbor. Chew murdered her while robbing her home. He had a prior conviction for attempted murder. But a jury spared Chew's life. He is serving life in prison.

Earnest Knighton Jr. fired the shot that killed a 52-year-old gas station manager during an armed robbery. Knighton had an extensive criminal record that included drugs and burglaries. In 1984 he was executed.

Charles Hodges fired the single shot that killed a 48-year-old food store clerk during an armed robbery. Hodges had a lengthy prior record that included another armed robbery and auto thefts. But a jury spared Hodges's life. He is serving a life sentence.

When an elderly woman resisted his attempt to snatch her purse, Curtis Kyles took her life with a shot to the head. Kyles had no prior record. In 1984, Kyles was sentenced to die. He is awaiting execution.

When an elderly woman resisted his attempt to snatch her purse, Derrick Bell killed her with a shot to the head. Bell had no prior record. But a jury spared Bell's life. He is serving a life sentence.

These cases, and hundreds of others like them across the United States, typify the randomness of capital punishment. Similar crimes often send one man to prison for life and leave another condemned to die.

The arbitrary nature of capital punishment in the United States is significant for several reasons. First, it raises questions about the fairness of the judicial system. Second, the issue of randomness was precisely the issue cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 when it declared capital punishment unconstitutional. In a key opinion, Justice Byron White held that the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment because "there was no meaningful basis for distinguishing the few cases in which it is imposed from the many in which it is not.'

Following that decision, a number of changes occurred in death penalty law. Statutes prescribing capital punishment for rape, kidnapping, and armed robbery were thrown out. Now only a few specific types of murder can be punished by death. In addition, to provide jurors with more information on a defendant's background, most states set up a two-phase trial system. In the first phase, the jury decides whether the accused is guilty or innocent. In the second, the convicted man has the chance to present character witnesses and mitigating evidence in arguing that his life be spared. After surveying these changes, the Supreme Court in 1976 approved the reinstatement of capital punishment, arguing that the reforms would rid the courts of their previous, erratic sentencing patterns. But that prediction has proved to be wrong.

Last year I conducted a computer study of 504 capital murders in Louisiana in an effort to find out what factors truly govern the death selection process. Using FBI crime reports, I was able to record data for each crime, including the age, race, and sex of the victim and the killer; the type of weapon used; the judicial district in which the crime occurred; and the type of additional felony, like rape or robbery, that may have accompanied the crime. Using records from the Louisiana Supreme Court, I was able to identify those cases that resulted in death sentences. The computer program allowed me to assess the impact of each variable on a death sentence. What I found is that the decision to spare some murderers and execute others frequently hinges on factors that are beyond a criminal's control and are irrelevant to his guilt. Race, geography, the inclinations of the prosecutor, the talents of the defense attorney, and simple luck all play important roles in what amounts to a lottery of death. Confronted with the abundant evidence, supporters of capital punishment admit as much. "I hate to use words like "random,' "chance,' "throw of the dice,'' New Orleans district attorney Harry Connick told me. "But that's what we have. One guy can get the death penalty while the guy next door doesn't for the same thing.'

One of the most important factors in determining who lives and who dies is the race of the victim. Of the 504 cases I studied, 14.5 percent of the men who killed whites were sentenced to die. But only 4.1 percent of those who killed blacks received the death penalty, and no whites received the death penalty for killing a black. In part, those numbers reflect a racial bias--juries, which in Louisiana are predominantly white, seem to value white lives more than black lives. In addition, a type of economic bias is at work. Juries tend to punish attacks on the affluent more severely than attacks on the indigent.

Two New Orleans murders show the discrepancies in sentencing that race and class can produce. Two years ago Curtis Kyles killed a 58-year-old woman in the parking lot of a grocery store while stealing her purse. Kyles is black and lived in a New Orleans housing project. His victim was white and married to a local contractor. While the killing was tragic, it was his first criminal conviction and his lawyers thought they had a good chance of receiving a life sentence. The jury sentenced him to die.

By contrast, consider the case of a man who a few years earlier killed an entire family. Kenneth Vincent bound and stabbed to death a husband, wife, and their 11-year-old daughter; a fourth victim, found with a knife stuck in him, survived by feigning death. The judge who tried the case called it "the most heinous in the city of New Orleans.' But while Kyles's victim was white, Vincent's were black; while Kyles's victim was middle-class, Vincent's were poor. And while Kyles was sentenced to die, Vincent received a life sentence.

Other decisions are influenced by geography. In New Orleans, I found that 8.6 percent of the murders resulted in the death penalty. In the surrounding suburbs, where largely conservative jurors reside, I found the death penalty rate almost twice as high. Crossing the parish line brings not only different jurors but different prosecutors. Louisiana has 41 district attorneys and each has the sole authority, within his district, to decide whether to seek the death penalty. Differences in their policies contribute to the discrepancies in sentencing patterns.

Take, for example, the erratic policies of former St. Tammany Parish District Attorney Marion Farmer. On Labor Day 1978, two ex-convicts kidnapped a teenage couple, took them into the woods, and blasted them each four times with a shotgun, killing the girl. Given the men's records, the victims' innocence, and the strength of the evidence, one prosecutor working on the case said, "I'd have bet the ranch that was a death penalty.' But Farmer let the two men plead to a life sentence. The victim's family unsuccessfully petitioned a state court to force Farmer to seek the death penalty, protesting his "whim and caprice.' He said he reduced the charges in order to avoid the risks of trial and possibilities of lengthy appeals. But in his six years in office, Farmer sent four others to death row, one of whom has been executed.

In another parish, the district attorney allowed every accused murderer the chance to plead guilty in return for a life sentence. But when Timothy Baldwin refused to do so, prosecutor Johnny Carl Parkerson sought and received a death sentence. "Baldwin could have chosen life instead of death,' Parkerson told the Louisiana Pardon Board. "He chose to roll the dice.'

Of course the capabilities of the defense lawyer --usually court-appointed--also play a large role in the death penalty lottery. And defenses in murder cases can differ dramatically. I covered the trial of a New Orleans furniture store executive charged with killing his wife. He spent $250,000 on his defense, hired a Minnesota psychologist to help him pick the jury, and flew in scientific experts from across the country. "Thank God I had the resources,' he told me after an 11-day trial ended in his acquittal. "If not, they would have had me in jail.' By contrast, most court-appointed defense attorneys are paid only $1,000 and most capital murder trials are only two- or three-day affairs.

The case of Elvin Myles provides a good example of how a skilled attorney can save his client's life--and how a less-skilled one can lose it. Myles was convicted of killing a 69-year-old woman in a department store robbery. During the hearing to determine whether he would live or die, his court-appointed attorney made no opening statement, presented no witnesses, and offered only a brief summation. He didn't even ask the jurors to spare Myles's life, telling them instead to vote as they saw fit. The jury sentenced Myles to die.

But when a higher court reversed the sentence and gave Myles a new hearing, death penalty opponents recruited John Reed, a top New Orleans defense attorney, who later gained prominence for his defense of feminist Ginny Foat on murder charges. Reed donated about 200 hours preparing the case--time that would have cost about $25,000 at standard downtown billing rates. He spent three days grilling prospective jurors about their feelings on the death penalty. Among the witnesses he then presented were Myles's sister, a New Orleans deputy sheriff, who told the jury Myles's childhood had been filled with violence, including his father's murder of his mother. Reed's closing remarks lasted an hour and stressed the possibility of rehabilitation. This time, the jury spared Myles.

While factors like race, geography, and the skills of the attorneys all provide clues as to who gets executed and who doesn't, they don't tell the whole story. To a large extent, the death penalty lottery runs on a component that defies quantification: luck. "You have what I call the 20 percent gonzo factor with juries,' explained John Craft, who has handled capital cases both as a New Orleans prosecutor and defense attorney. "Any time you present a case, there's a 20 percent chance the jury will do something totally off the wall.'

For example, in 1981 a New Orleans man named McKinley Lonmire was convicted of beating and stabbing to death a 58-year-old woman while burglarizing her home. The jury voted 11 to 1 for the death penalty, thus sparing his life by failing to reach the unanimity needed under Louisiana law. What prompted the merciful vote?

"[The juror] came up to me after the trial and said, "I want you to know I thought the death penalty too good for him,'' the prosecutor told me. "I wanted the guy to languish in prison.''


I had covered the death penalty for more than a year before I finally witnessed an execution. My desire to watch someone die had several motives. As a reporter, I found it frustrating to rely on others' accounts when writing my stories. As someone spending a lot of time and energy thinking about the death penalty, I found it frustrating to be distanced from the act I was trying to fully comprehend. And perhaps I felt a little voyeurism, too, the same kind that causes necks to crane when passing wrecked cars.

I had known David Dene Martin slightly and liked him. I had spent some time with his friends and family and had listened to their accounts of his slide from evangelist to the PCP-crazed husband who killed his wife's lover and three others. On the day of his execution, I spent six hours sitting in the room with him as his lawyer unsuccessfully pleaded for his life before the pardon board. He and I chatted during recesses. I didn't want him to die, and I expected his execution to be an emotionally wrenching experience. But what turned out to be most disturbing about watching David die was how little it disturbed me at all.

Along with the other witnesses--three other reporters, a state senator, and a judge--I was bused several miles from the prison's administration building to a waiting room near the death house. We arrived shortly after 10 p.m., signed some forms, and settled down on vinyl-covered couches. We read the newspaper, gazed at a televised basketball game, and snacked on sugar cookies. For reasons I never understood, we were forbidden to read books or make telephone calls.

No one talked much, particularly about the execution. At 11:30 prison guards asked us to empty our pockets and then combed us with metal detectors. A 25-yard bus ride in 30-degree weather brought us to the death house door. At 11:50 we filed through a smoke-filled anteroom of guards and took our seats ten feet from the electric chair, separated from it by a Plexiglas barrier.

An assistant warden, like a respectful tour guide, furnished us with an orientation. He said the black rubber mat was spread beneath the chair to guard against others accidentally joining David in electrocution. Two red phones were ready, their lines tested, in case the governor changed his mind. The exhaust fan was turned on to eliminate the smell. There were wet towels in case anyone felt faint.

The execution chamber is built of pea-green cement blocks. Two wires run from a white cabinet to the brown oak chair. Beside the chair lie an executioner's hood and electrodes. On the wall behind the chair hangs a large white clock with crisp black numbers and a circling second hand. It was 11:58 and we talked only in whispers. By 12:02 we didn't talk at all. A minute later I felt a nervous flash travel through me. At 12:04 David walked in.

His eyes were wide and his nostrils flared--an expression I interpreted as fear and another reporter saw as anger. His head had been shaved and his arms and legs were locked in chains. He looked small and frail. He wore a long-sleeved, white undershirt, blue jeans, and beach sandals. A diaper poked out of his waistband, fastened there to collect intestinal discharge. He declined a final statement.

Four burly prison guards in penitentiary blue whisked him into the seat, where a flurry of strap-fastening began. They worked quickly and precisely, like department store clerks throwing ribbons around a Christmas package. The guards had trouble connecting the electrode to David's shaved left leg, and he winced as they yanked the straps. Then he closed his eyes and the expression drained from his face. The guards dropped the gray canvas hood over his head and left the room.

Two-and-a-half minutes after he had walked in, David was locked into the chair, spine straight, head titled back, fists clenching the chair's arms. He looked like an astronaut ready for launch. I prepared to gasp when the electricity hit. But I didn't.

The switch echoed with a metallic slam and David gave a slight heave forward, like a puppet twitching at his master's pull. His thumbs tucked inside his fists, which curled into purple knots. For the next 60 seconds all we heard was the clank of the switch as the executioner altered the current. There were no cries of pain or protest, no visible signs of suffering.

The coroner waited five minutes for Martin's body to settle, so that the body noises wouldn't be confused with a heartbeat. He probed his chest with a stethoscope and his eyes with a flashlight. Finding no evidence of life in either, he walked to the execution chamber microphone. "The inmate was declared dead at 12:16 a.m.,' he said.

The strange thing about an execution is that nobody actually seems to do it. Was David Dene Martin killed by the jury that sentenced him? The governor who acquiesced? The warden who presided? Covering an execution forces a reporter to violate one of the first rules of newswriting--it forces us into the passive tense. I had to write, "David Dene Martin was executed . . .,' because I couldn't say who executed him.

David Dene Martin's death was clean and efficient, wrapped in ritual and surrounded by bureaucracy, carried out in accordance with the lawyerly dictates of Regulation 10-25. It didn't seem real. As I walked out, I half-expected him to get up and follow.

Somehow I expected the taking of a life to be something more awesome. What I saw seemed to trivialize not only his life but life in general.

Photo: Kelton Willie and John Kelton Willie Jr., grandfather and father of Robert Lee Willie, who was executed December 28, 1984.
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Author:DeParle, Jason
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1986
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