Sunday, 13 January 2008

Execution questions evoke Evans’ death

Jan 12, 2008

Execution questions evoke Evans’ death

Ben Windham
Southern Lights

John Louis Evans III was a punk, a small-time hood with a major-league chip on his shoulder.

Paroled from an Indiana prison in 1976, Evans and fellow former inmate Wayne Ritter went on a crime jag through seven states. Evans said later they pulled about 30 armed robberies, nine kidnappings and two extortions.

And one murder.

On Jan. 5, 1977, he and Ritter gunned down Edward Nasser, a pawn shop owner in Mobile. They shot Nasser in the back as he crawled on the floor; his two young daughters were in the store. Then they stole another gun to use in future robberies.

The FBI finally nailed the ex-cons two months later in Little Rock. Evans didn’t give a damn; he provided a detailed confession, admitting to the murder, the robberies, the kidnappings, the works.

He went on trial in Mobile on a charge of first-degree murder committed during a robbery, a capital offense. He remained the little banty rooster, saying he felt no remorse for anything and vowing that he would kill again under the same circumstances.

Furthermore, he vowed, if the jury didn’t sentence him to death, he would escape and kill every single one of them.

The jurors didn’t have to be threatened a second time. They deliberated less than 15 minutes before returning a conviction of capital murder.

That set the stage for a date for Evans in Alabama’s “Big Yellow Mama” — the electric chair at Atmore’s Holman Prison, nicknamed for its garish paint job.

But oddly enough, it also posed something of a dilemma for Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

Wallace probably was more like Evans than he ever cared to admit. He was arrogant, angry, prole. He had a macho pride in his toughness. In his youth, he’d won a Golden Gloves boxing championship.

But whereas Evans went into crime, Wallace went into politics. He didn’t terrorize small businessmen or threaten jurors; instead he talked about running over civil rights demonstrators and giving “barbed-wire enemas” to federal judges.

Yet for all of his bluster, Wallace had presided over only two executions, by far the lowest number for any elected Alabama governor since the late 1920s. By contrast, there had been 17 executions during populist Jim Folsom’s terms.

One reason why Wallace had fewer notches may have been that the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 outlawed the death penalty, before reversing itself in 1976. Wallace had been elected for a second four-year term in 1970.

But that doesn’t account for the unusually low number of executions on the watch of a governor nominally committed to a “law and order” administration. One wonders if there wasn’t a twinge of conscience beneath Wallace’s tough exterior.

In any event, after the Supreme Court’s flip-flops, Evans’ capital sentence presented Wallace — elected for a third time in 1982 — with a very public decision on the death penalty. No criminal had been executed in Alabama since William F. Bowen Jr. went to his death during Wallace’s first term in 1965.

In the interim, Wallace himself had been the target of an assassination attempt in Maryland; though the wound left him crippled and in constant pain, he forgave the would-be assassin.

But the governor couldn’t see his way clear to commuting Evans’ death sentence. The convict’s mother, saying her son had a religious conversion in jail, pleaded to no avail; and her efforts to get a court ruling to spare her son’s life came to an abrupt end when Evans fired his lawyers and filed a motion to dismiss all further appeals.

After several delays, an April 22, 1983 execution date was set.

I was there, at the invitation of the state, covering the event for The Tuscaloosa News.

My feelings about capital punishment were ambivalent. I believed in the sanctity of life. But some people, it seemed to me, deserved to die for the crimes they committed against their fellow humans.

Whatever I believed was changed forever by what I saw at Holman.

I was one of 31 media representatives, plucked from the scores clustered at the prison that rainy evening, to witness the execution. Last week, I looked back on what I wrote about it:

We ran in single file through the narrow prison gate in the heavy downpour. Drenched, we lined up to be searched by guards, who directed us one by one into the monitor viewing room some 30 to 40 yards from the execution chamber.

We clustered in seats around the small visiting tables and stared at the color monitors about 15 feet overhead.

Sixteen special guards, dressed in green fatigues, filed in and stationed themselves around the walls. We were told they were there to protect us in the event of a disturbance.

But there was to be no disruption. Like the heavy rainclouds, an ominous stillness had hung over Holman all day long. There had been no sound of tractors in its hundreds of acres of fields, no voices of inmates. The entire prison population was “locked down,” awaiting Evans’ execution.

“You can talk,” we were told by a corrections department representative, bemused by our silence. But the mood of the prison had infected us. Nobody said much.

Down the hall, past the glass-paneled prison control unit, someone began singing a soft blues song in his cell.

But our attention was riveted to the television monitors. The image of Evans strapped down in the electric chair had just snapped on the screen.

Someone in our viewing room asked for the time. It was 8:17 p.m. Evans had 13 minutes to live.

He said something but there was no sound on our monitors.

As soon as Evans stopped speaking, two burly guards inside the 10-by-10-foot execution chamber went to work.

One lifted a maroon cap filled with electrodes from behind the chair and placed it on Evans’ shaven head. It perched there loosely, like a hideously outsized shower cap. The guard tightened a strap around its perimeter to fit it snugly to Evans’ skull.

The second guard fastened electrical connections to the condemned man’s left leg. Evans remained impassive.

One of the guards attached a strap under Evans’ chin, securing his head into position. After reaching behind the chair, the guard produced a black, flat, swallow-tailed mask and tied it over Evans’ face.

The guards double-checked the straps binding Evans to the chair. They seemed satisfied.

Then one stepped from the chamber, leaving his companion facing Evans from the condemned man’s left side.

I looked around the contact visiting room. Almost everyone was mesmerized by what was happening on the monitor. Even when the video signal was lost temporarily, hardly anyone moved a muscle.

The television image snapped back on the screen. Nothing had changed. Again, someone asked for the time. It was 8:29 p.m. We watched and waited, mentally counting off the seconds.

Suddenly, the guard began waving a yellow disc. It was a sign to begin the execution.

The guard moved away from the electric chair and only the image of Evans was left on the screen.

A charge of 1,900 volts of electricity blasted through Evans’ body.

His fingers curled. His arm and chest muscles convulsed. He seemed to be sucked slowly upward toward his cap of electrodes.

Someone gasped in our room. A plume of white smoke rose from Evans’ left temple; a burst of hot orange flame danced around it.

Evans went into a hard, slow electric shake. Another column of smoke puffed up from his left calf and flames and sparks were shooting out from it.

He was literally frying to death in the electric chair.

Then he slumped, shifting slightly. The monitor went dead.

Behind us, someone barked an order. The armed guards snapped to attention. We had to get out.

The tips of my fingers were white where I had gripped the table. I didn’t know it would be this bad.

It was worse still, as it turned out. We had only seen the first stage of the execution.

People inside the death chamber said it began to reek of burned flesh and clothing. Two doctors examined Evans. They determined that he wasn’t dead.

After the electrode on his left leg was refastened, the executioner tried again, sending a second half-minute torrent of electricity through Evans. There was more smoke from his leg and head.

Again, the doctors were asked to examine him. His heart was still beating, they reported.

By this time, the stench of burned flesh had become nauseating. One of Evans’ attorneys asked the prison commissioner, who had been keeping Wallace informed of the details on an open telephone line, to request that the governor stop the execution. The request was denied.

At 8:40, the executioner hit Evans with a third charge. That one did the trick.

Fourteen minutes after his execution began, Evans at last was pronounced dead.

I don’t like to think about it. But last week’s arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court over lethal injections impelled me to look back to that rainy night 25 years ago.

Evans’ botched execution was one of the reasons that Alabama adopted lethal injections in 2002 as a more “humane” means of capital punishment. The condemned inmate no longer is fried in Big Yellow Mama. Instead, he’s injected with sodium thiopental to make him unconscious; pancuronium bromide, to paralyze his muscles; and potassium chloride, to cause cardiac arrest.

But attorneys for inmates in Kentucky say that a mistake in administering the first drug can lead to excruciating pain that the paralyzed inmate is unable to express in his last moments of life. Even dogs get a more efficient, reliable process of euthanasia.

What’s the difference? Justice Antonin Scalia wondered. Dying is dying. There is no constitutional guarantee that death has to come easily for a condemned criminal.

And Justice Stephen Breyer said the plaintiffs’ argument left him “at sea.”

“You claim that this is somehow more painful than some other method,” he said. “But which? And what’s the evidence for that?”

He added, “I ended up thinking, of course there is a risk of human error. There is a risk of human error generally when you’re talking about the death penalty, and this may be one extra problem, one serious additional problem. But the question here is, Can we say that there is a more serious problem here than with other execution methods?”

In a sense— a twisted, perverted sense — Scalia is right. We have come a long way, perhaps, from the days when condemned criminals were stoned to death or drawn and quartered. But in the end, we’re still killing people in the name of justice.

Error be damned. Pain be damned. Feelings be damned. Dead is dead.

Reach Editorial Editor Ben Windham at 205-722-0193 or by e-mail at

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