The death penalty is state lynching.
It is an evil response to the primal need in man to take revenge. This need was graphically illustrated in a dank, foul-smelling Iraqi death chamber moments before Saddam Hussein’s neck was snapped by the hangman’s noose in December 2006 as his enemies celebrated.
Robert Wayne Williams was not a dictator. He was the tenth person executed in America, and the first in Louisiana, after the United States Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. He was no more, or less, important than the thousand of murderers who have been put to death in this nation since his execution.
The Williams case began on the night of January 5, 1979 in an A&P Supermarket in Baton Rouge. A 67-year-old security guard named Willie Kelly was bagging groceries when Williams and Ralph Holmes walked into the store. Both men wore ski masks. Williams was armed with a sawed-off shotgun. The two robbers approached Kelly. Holmes attempted to remove the guard’s weapon from his holster. The old man’s hand moved toward the weapon.
“Don’t try it!” Williams yelled as he pulled the trigger, striking Kelly in the face at point blank range with the shotgun blast.
The guard was hurled backwards, dead before his body fell to the floor. The two men continued the robbery. Some of the money had fallen to the floor. As Williams laid the shotgun down to pick up the money, the weapon accidentally discharged striking several customers in the leg and feet. There were screams of terror and pain. Holmes pistol-whipped one of the customers before he and Williams fled into the night.
Assistant District Attorney John Sinquefield arrived at the supermarket shortly after the robbery. It was a harsh, cool Friday night. He did not like being way from the warmth of his home, but he had to be there to assist the police in their investigation. Wounded and terrified witnesses had to be treated, calmed and questioned. Nothing could be done for Kelly, whose faceless body lay on the floor in a pool of blood.
Sinquefield studied the scene, He was repulsed by it. By the time he finished his investigation, the district attorney’s revulsion had been replaced with frustration. There were no leads, no evidence, to indicate who was responsible for the crime.
Several weeks of investigation left the police even more frustrated. It appeared the crime would go unsolved. Then they received a telephone call from an informant who named Williams and Holmes as the robbers.
Shortly after his arrest, Williams gave the police a video-taped confession. Sinquefield watched the interrogation through a two-way mirror, listening to Williams confess. He made a prosecutorial decision to seek the death penalty.
On April 10, 1979, just three months after the crime was committed, Williams, an African-American, was put to trial before an all-white jury in Baton Rouge. Sinquefield was methodical in his prosecution of the case. He was a career prosecutor who began his career as a prosecutor in the Lake Charles district attorney’s office before joining Brown’s staff.
Sinquefield told the Williams jury that the Kelly murder had been carried out in cold blood. Williams, he said, planned the robbery, borrowed the shotgun, leveled it at Kelly, and deliberately blew off the security guard’s head. The prosecutor stressed that Williams told Holmes to “get all the money” and forced another clerk to open a cash register to get more money. He said Williams later that same night participated in a poker game in New Orleans where he joked about killing the guard.
Court-appointed defense counsel argued that the shotgun was defective, saying it accidentally discharged and his client did not intend to kill Kelly. A weapons expert testified he gun could have accidentally discharged. Williams did not take the witness stand to tell the jury what his intent was.
The jury found Williams guilty, and recommended the death penalty. His case moved up and down the state and federal judicial ladder three times, appearing in twelve courts before the United States Supreme Court rejected his final appeal on September 8, 1983. It took just over four years to complete this judicial odyssey – a remarkably short period of time compared to length of time other Louisiana capital cases were taking to work their way through the death penalty appeal process.
An ominous and foreboding sadness stalked death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary following the rejection of Williams’ appeal. The week before the State of Mississippi had executed Jimmy Lee Gray, the first man to walk to that state’s death chamber in 19 years and the first since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Death row inmates across the country had anticipated resurgence in executions after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in a Texas death penalty case of Thomas Andy Barefoot. The Barefoot decision cleared the way for the lower federal courts to speed up the death penalty process.
Like so many of his fellow condemned inmates, Williams was impoverished and without legal counsel when the Supreme Court rejected his final appeal. His former attorney, Richard Shapiro, an anti-death penalty attorney based in New Orleans, had moved to New Jersey. Williams could only hope that one of the state’s anti-death penalty groups would come to aid. His family did not have the funds to hire an attorney to engage in the expensive litigation needed to save his life.
And like sharks circling for the kill, the Baton Rouge justice system moved swiftly at the smell of blood. State district court Judge Frank Foil less than two weeks after the final Supreme Court rejection issued a new death warrant. It marked the fourth time Williams had a death date. This time the execution date was set for October 25.
Williams had never met Sam Dalton. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund implored upon Dalton, an experienced death penalty attorney, to go to Williams’ aid until they could locate another attorney to represent him.
“Because Shapiro had moved out of state,” Dalton said, “I was simply asked to sign some pleadings as a convenience and courtesy to the NAACP Defense Fund. That was like putting my toe in quicksand. Suddenly I was up to my neck, facing an October 25th death date – and as things grew more desperate, I was drawn more into the case, from signing pleadings as a matter of courtesy to carrying the whole load.”
Dalton filed a standardized habeas corpus petition and application for a stay of execution in the state district court on October 4. Judge Foil denied the applications that same day. On October 13 the Louisiana Supreme Court also rejected Williams’ bid for a stay. He had seven days to live.
A quiet and intelligent man, Williams played chess and read to keep his mind off the fact that he had less than a week to live. He also spent many hours on bended knees in silent prayer. Death row had given him plenty of time to evaluate his life. During those frantic death-watch days, when the fear of dying almost paralyzed his thoughts, Williams reached out to the troubled young people attending his mother’s church. He wrote them letters about how futile a life of crime was and how drugs would inevitably lead to violence and ruin.
Lying alone on a steel bunk, Williams felt utterly alone, completely isolated from life. He looked at his life and it was not pretty. He left Sunday school at age thirteen and joined the obscene world of drugs, fast women and good times. He was from the lowest ranks of the Baton Rouge social order, the final product of the city’s growing cocaine/crack industry.
On October 20 Dalton filed a habeas corpus/stay application in federal court before Judge Frank Polozola. The judge was not about to block the execution of an African-American inmate – not even if Jesus announced his Second Coming.
“This court does not believe the court is required to stay all proceedings herein pending a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in [another] case,” Polozola said, in his typical blistering fashion that drove nails in Williams’ coffin.
In effect, it made no difference to Polozola if the Supreme Court could issue a ruling that might impact Williams’ case. His judicial concern was to expedite the death process. He made that clear by refusing to certify the issues raised in Williams’ habeas corpus petition for an appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. This judicial sentiment was also reflected in the way he handled the “abuse of the writ” issue. He alluded in his decision that Williams had “abused” the judicial system but he did not specifically rule that the condemned man had. Had the judge made such an explicit finding, he would have been forced to conduct an evidentiary hearing to justify the ruling.
The Baton Rouge power structure had targeted Robert Wayne Williams for execution – nothing was going to stand in the way of that execution.
“I think that is what they were doing,” Rosella Williams, Robert Wayne’s mother, said at the time. “I can’t understand why they pushed his case so fast, above other cases that had been there longer.”
Those other cases were from different parts of the state. There was no political objective involved in any of those cases in 1983. There was a political need for an execution in Baton Rouge in 1983. He was unfortunate enough to have his case procedurally postured in the appeal process where an execution could be moved swiftly through its final stages. Williams’ case raised substantial constitutional issues. Yet he never received an evidentiary hearing so that those issues could be developed. He always had dissenting judges at the state and federal level who voted in favor of evidentiary hearings, indicating he had raised significant constitutional questions.
The Williams case indeed had an added element of speed, especially in the manner in which his case was rushed through the appeals process to execution. In Williams’s first round of post-conviction appeals in 1981, Judge Foil, the Louisiana Supreme Court, and Polozola reviewed and denied relief in his case in a span of three days. Yet Polozola said in 1983 that Williams had received an “exhaustive review” of his constitutional claims.
Williams’ spiritual advisor, Rev. J.D. Brown, pastor of the Faith Chapel Church of God, also believed that Williams’ case had been deliberately and relentlessly rushed through the appeals process.
“Now, why Mr. (Ossie) Brown wanted to execute Robert Wayne Williams remains a question in my mind,” he said, pointedly laying the blame with Baton Rouge District Attorney Ossie Brown. “Why did he pick that particular case out? I don’t know – but I do know I was told that Robert was going to die in 1983. A reputable person in politics told me that he was going to die – that there would be an execution before 1983 was out and Robert would be the one executed.”
Did the Baton Rouge political system have the “power” to arrange a state-sanctioned execution? Sure it did.
The day after Polozola denied Williams a stay Dalton filed a motion for a stay with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court stayed the execution on October 23 but deviated from its normal procedure by issuing the stay while simultaneously upholding Polozola’s ruling.
“The Fifth Circuit issued that stay on the basis of what the Supreme Court had done in [another] case,” Dalton said.
Often torn between the utter joy of gaining a stay or the bitter disappointment of a late-hour denial, death row is a bitter world of extremes. It does not respect the rational balance. The news of the Fifth Circuit stay brought a sigh of relief into Williams’ dark world. But he still felt drained and depleted – the death watch was over but only for the moment. Standing at his cell door, he starred into the darkness of the night feeling the black pain of three centuries tearing at his soul. To ease the pain, he turned to scenes of childhood. Those were good times for him – a time when every act of growing up was a futile attempt to possess the world. He had not yet been introduced to the conscious brutality of man and his insatiable need to wield the harsh stick of power. He only knew the happiness of being alive and having a life promise born of hope.
While Williams enjoyed the momentary relief of the stay, Ossie Brown was not about to accept the Fifth Circuit’s ruling. He knew that law-and-order district attorneys had a friend on the Supreme Court in Chief Justice Warren Burger. These prosecutors knew that the Burger court was trying to make it clear to the lower courts that the death penalty was an acceptable reality in America. He filed a request with the Supreme Court that the Fifth Circuit stay be lifted. On November 7 the high court lifted the stay.
Associate Justice William Brennan dissented, saying the high court’s action was “an irrevocable decision that will result in Williams’ execution.”
The Supreme Court’s action effectively sealed Williams’ fate. He would be executed in the Louisiana electric chair. He sat alone in his death cell trying to digest things. Fear once again paralyzed his thoughts. Hope slipped through an hour glass. The steel and concrete that surrounded him constricted his emotions.
Still, the condemned man clung desperately to hope, to the belief that he would not die. It was the only thing he could do. He tightened his grip on life, trying to sustain the futile belief that another judge, in another court, would save him.
Sam Dalton could have walked away from the case. The Supreme Court had spoken the final word. But he didn’t. He was committed to perhaps the most courageous effort an individual can wage – an effort to stop the State from exercising its ultimate power to extinguish a human life. But Judge Foil was determined to see this power exercised in Williams’ case. He set Williams’ new death date for December 14. The judge was determined the condemned man would not see another Christmas.
Dalton did not believe that Williams should escape punishment. He simply believed that it was fundamentally unfair to execute Williams when worst murderers (such as Henry Lee Lucas who had been linked to 160 murders) were given life sentences. That reasoning prompted Dalton to make an extraordinary request for clemency for Williams. A total of nine state and federal judges had consistently dissented in Williams’ case, all being of the opinion that the death sentence was inappropriate in his case. The pardon board in an unusual move granted a hearing in the case.
Dalton had never read Williams’ trial transcript but he did so in preparation for the clemency hearing. The first thing that struck him was that Williams had not testified in his own defense that he did not intend to kill Kelly, that the shotgun had accidentally discharged.
“When I went to death row to talk with Robert Wayne,” Dalton said, “I asked him why he hadn’t taken the stand and talked to the jury. He told me his lawyer told him they were not going to use him and for him to keep quiet.”
Dalton was outraged, professionally. He said he was certain that had Williams testified in his own defense, he would not have received the death sentence.
“You have to understand what the defense attorneys were doing,” Dalton said. “Their defense was a lack of specific intent to kill. That’s called, of course, a state-of-mind defense. Now, there are two kinds of state-of-mind defenses. First, there is the kind where you plead insanity, but the attorneys did not plead insanity. So when you don’t plead insanity, you can’t sell your intent by the use of psychiatrists and doctors; you can’t even use those experts unless you’re talking about a plea of insanity.
“So, when you are using the kind of state-of-mind defense used by Williams’ attorneys, guess who your best witness is. That’s right – the defendant. The jury needs that evidence, it needs to hear that best evidence. They needed to hear this man get up on that witness stand and say, ‘look, I didn’t intend to do this – I robbed, I kicked somebody’s shins, I ran off with the money, but I didn’t intend to kill’. All you need is for one juror to identify with that.”
The trial court appointed two attorneys to defend Robert Wayne Williams. One was blind and the other had less than five years experience (and an attorney in Louisiana must have at least five years of experience before he can defend a capital case alone). Williams didn’t stand a chance against an experienced prosecutor like Sinquefield anymore than I did against the unethical Ralph Roy.
“Those attorneys didn’t do a good job,” Dalton said. “They concentrated on trying to establish their defense through a very weak expert. They should have done a much better job on that. If they were going to choose that, they should have demonstrated it but they chose to concentrate on the condition of the shotgun – to show that it was possible that it could go off accidentally. That was a very, very weak way of proving lack of intent, especially when your best evidence is sitting right there next to you. There was no reason not to use him. Even assuming that there was some reason to keep him off the stand during the guilt or innocence phase of the trial, there was absolutely no reason known to man to keep him off the stand during the penalty phase. The mere act of putting of a man on the stand and having him plead for his life is sometimes sufficient for some people to give him life. None of this was done.”
Rev. Brown agreed with Sam Dalton.
“I talked to the attorney that represented Robert,” he pastor said. “I told that attorney the one thing he should do was put Robert on the stand and let him talk about that he did not intend to do it. I consulted with the attorney for a long time about the case and I was there at the trial. I just didn’t feel like the attorney was competent enough to represent him, the blind one. I don’t know – it was just lacking somewhere.”
But the constitutional issue of ineffective assistance of counsel was not a matter of concern for Judge Foil or Polozola. The only issue that mattered was the politics of the death penalty case.
On December 5, 1983 the Louisiana Board of Pardons heard Robert Wayne Williams’ plea for clemency. Sam Dalton relied upon the issue of mitigation, arguing that Williams had not intended to kill Robert Kelly. Rev. Brown was also there to plead for Williams’ life.
“Robert was a Sunday school scholar of the Faith Chapel Church of God,” the pastor said. “But he drifted out of Sunday school and picked up with the wrong crowd. He stopped coming to church. He would only come to visit now and then. My real contact with Robert came after he committed this crime. A group of people came to see and said Robert was in trouble. I went to see him in the jailhouse and I’ve followed him since. He admitted to me that he committed the crime and he said he was worry for it. He told me it was an accident and that he was very, very sorry. He was in misery for six weeks while I was visiting him at the parish prison. It was there that he accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as his personal savior and I baptized him. He cried and cried, and said that if he could undo anything, he would undo his crime. He was sincere and sorry for what he done.”
(The large prison visiting room where the pardon board hearing was conducted was charged with emotion. I sat in a section of the room reserved for the press. I was covering the hearing for the prison’s newsmagazine, THE ANGOLITE.)
A demure, graceful woman, Rose Williams made an emotional plea for her son’s life. Tragedy hung heavy in the air as she spoke. Williams’ sister and son became too emotional to complete their pleas for mercy to the board.
The family of Robert Kelly sat apart from the Williams section. They sat in soft blue colored chairs. The Williams family sat in hard red colored chairs. The color contrast was obvious.
“This is the worst tragedy of my life,” Williams told the board. “It’s caused a lot of pain and suffering to the victim’s family, to my family, and to me. When I was raised, I never wanted anyone’s life to be taken by my hands. I had no intention of killing anyone that night. The gun had shells in it, but the guys who gave it to me said it wasn’t in working order – that it wouldn’t fire. But the gun discharged – it fired so fast. I live it every day. I wake up and pray for my family. I pray for the victim’s family, and hope that we can both come together. I wish that this had never happened – if there’s anyone in this world who wishes he could turn this thing around, it’s me. God only knows what the future holds – I just want the Kelly family to know that from my heart I am very sorry.”
Charles Kelly, a career correctional officer with the Louisiana Department of Corrections, was Willie Kelly’s son.
“I think there was a clear intent to kill my father,” he said, addressing the board for the Kelly family. “He was a very small man, about 5-foot-4 and weighed about 135 pounds. They could have easily manhandled him. Even if our father had tried to grab him [Williams], I think Mr. Holmes could have grabbed him. Like I said, he was small – he didn’t have to shoot him, and if he had to shoot him, he didn’t have to shoot him in the face.”
The Kelly family did not reflect any hatred toward Williams. Charles Kelly expressed the feelings of his family in non-inflammatory terms. He spoke with respect and consideration toward the Williams family. H said he had no personal animosity toward Williams personally. He simply asked the justice system to consider his interests as a crime victim.
“I respect the courts and all their proceedings,” he said. “I think they were conducted fairly and impartially up to this point. As a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen, it seems only fair to me that the judgment be carried out. I just want to say to the Williams family and to Robert that I mean no ill-will. My daddy is gone and I have a little son who will never see his grandfather.”
Kelly’s words trailed off as he got up and walked away from the board. It was a dramatic, powerful moment. The man’s grief was palpable.
Then Ossie Brown addressed the board. The media was watching. Brown knew he was facing a Federal indictment in a drug case. The obese and physically unattractive district attorney had to make an attempt, no matter how futile, to recapture his “law-and-order” image. He demanded nothing less than death for Robert Wayne Williams. The hypocrisy of his words would gag a maggot.
“The American public distrusts the justice system because we’re not carrying out the intent of the law,” he told the board. “My office did not single out Robert Wayne Williams and put a crime on him that he did not intend to commit. He killed a good, law-abiding citizen. It was a heinous, vicious crime, and we cannot excuse it.”
The next day, December 6, the pardon board voted 3 to 2 to deny clemency for Williams. Once again he got dissenting votes that wanted to spare his life. Two days later a group called the Religious Leaders Against the Death Penalty, a coalition of Baton Rouge and New Orleans ministers, called up Gov. Dave Treen to grant mercy to Williams.
“Redemption is what we are asking of Gov . Treen,” said Tim Lawson, an Istrouma Methodist Minister. “Rehabilitation, renewal of the life of Robert Wayne Williams.”
Gov. Treen, his own political past tarnished with segregationist, “states-rights” political views refused to meet with the ministers.
“In this holiday season of grace,” Rev. Steve Crump told the media, “we will opt for the religion of decency, or we will opt for the religion of vengeance, the religion of King Herod.”
Herod’s religion would prevail.
Williams had a final telephone conversation with Dalton.
“I want to thank you, and all the people who worked with you, for everything you did,” the condemned inmate said. “I really appreciate it – and I’m not going to let y’all down. I’m going to handle this thing with a lot of dignity – and I want you to know I am going to die with the truth in my heart, the truth that I didn’t intend to kill anyone.”
Tuesday, December 13, was the last full day of Robert Wayne Williams’ life. While Ossie Brown conferred with his attorneys about the federal investigation tightening its grip around him, Williams sat in a remote death cell in Camp F at the state penitentiary. He could not look out the window in front of his cell because a blanket covered the window. It began as a fair day but as the other inmates marched to the dining hall for their noon meal, the sky suddenly grew dark; so dark, in fact, that the prison’s night security lights had to be turned on. Booming thunder rumbled above and lightning bolts crackled across the darkened sky. It was as though in that isolated, rugged region of the world, the primal forces of good and evil had locked themselves in a titanic struggle. The plunging of the prison into a stormy darkness in the middle of the day was ominous and made everyone nervous. The rain began but soon stopped. The sky grew bright again and the security lights were turned off.
Sam Dalton was a man possessed. He moved from one court to another, from one judge to another. He knew the system was going to kill his client but that did not diminish his efforts to save the man.
“That last issue was a good issue [the issue of intent],” Dalton said. “But the courts said it came too late. Now, that goes against the grain of the writ of habeas corpus. I don’t care if you file a hundred habeas corpus petitions and 99 of them are bad, when you file a good one, it should be honored. It shouldn’t make any difference when it’s filed.”
That was not the judicial sentiment of Polozola. He believed that federal “judicial deference” should be paid to state court proceedings, no matter the issue.
Dalton addressed the issue this way:
“Since the state and federal constitutions prohibit the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, the courts have found a trick, a piece of terminology, to get around that constitutional safeguard. It’s called ‘abuse of the writ.’ They say, ‘well, we can’t talk in terms of suspension, so we’ll talk in terms of abuse’ which, in effect, is a suspension of the writ. That’s what the Fifth Circuit did on the last issue in Williams’ case. They said it should have been brought up earlier and by bringing it up at that late hour, it was an abuse of the writ.”
In summarily denying Williams’ intent claim, the Fifth Circuit deviated from its own case law on the “abuse of the writ” issue. A week earlier in another Louisiana death penalty case – a white inmate who brutally murdered an elderly woman in New Orleans – the Fifth Circuit stayed a scheduled execution and ordered a hearing on the “abuse of the writ” issue.
“They should have ordered a hearing in Williams’ case,” Dalton said. “There was absolutely no reason for them not to order such a hearing. We had presented a good solid issue. Their decision hurt – it hurt the legal system, the judicial process, because they ignored the strength of the Great Writ. Despite the constitutional prohibition that they shouldn’t, they used a trick of terminology to suspend the writ of habeas corpus [in Williams’ case] by calling it an abuse instead of a suspension. The fact is that they suspended it.”
That Tuesday afternoon Gov. Treen issued a statement rejecting the plea of mercy made by the state’s religious leaders:
“I have reviewed and given careful and prayerful consideration to the many arguments that have been advanced by those who seek Clemency for Robert Wayne Williams. I do not find that the judicial system has failed, or that there is any other justification for the extraordinary clemency power given the governor. It is my decision not to grant a reprieve or commutation of sentence.”
That night as the waiting reporters and witnesses prepared for the death ritual the sky suddenly grew dark again. Heavy rain began to fall, whipped about in a criss-crossing frenzy by unusually high winds. Lightning darted electrifyingly across the sky, filling the darkened night with flashes of intense light. For a half hour, the turbulent electrical storm unleashed a raging fury over the prison. The night seemed touched by evil, as if something sinister had risen from the bowels of the earth. Then, just as suddenly as it had hit the prison, the turbulence died. It was ominous and foreboding, as was the silence that followed.
“These white folks are crazy,” a tensed black correctional officer said. “They don’t understand this weather. They think it’s a storm. But that’s the Lord letting them know He doesn’t like what they’re about to do here. It’s evil – and you can feel it – the air is full of it. And it ain’t got nothin’ to do with the death penalty – this is about that dude over there and the people who want to kill him. There’s something that ain’t right about this thing. They can call it a storm if they want, but it ain’t natural.”
Approximately thirty demonstrators braved the cold winds and occasional rain to protest Williams’ execution. The group sang and prayed for the soul of Williams.
“I guess we are praying for a miracle,” said Tom Dyhdahl, a spokesman for Louisiana Citizens Against the Death Penalty.
Nick Trenticosta, a spokesman for the Louisiana Coalition on Jails and Prisons, added:
“We’re also praying that everybody else on death row there and elsewhere in this country will not face the same fate as Robert Wayne Williams.”
Members of Williams’ family, including his mother, joined the protestors. Rev. Joe Ingles, standing with the family, also took note of the weather, saying:
“The total darkness speaks well of the shame we’re witnessing here tonight.”
While the protestors sang hymns, Sam Dalton was a man possessed. The justice he was seeking for his client was like trying to find that proverbial needle in the haystack. Everywhere he turned the door was slammed shut in his face.
At 10:30 p.m. the lights were turned off in the prison, signaling an end to the day. Rev. Brown was sitting in front of Williams’ death cell. He had been talking to the condemned inmates about many things from his childhood to adulthood. Williams was a troubled soul.
“He had a problem understanding how inadequate, how unfair the justice system is,” Brown explained. “He didn’t understand why Mr. Treen, who is a Christian, didn’t stop in and stop the execution. I had to show Robert that Mr. Treen had his own convictions, that he was following the law, that he had sent his pardon board to the prison to hear his case, and that two of those board members voted for clemency.
“The next thing that bothered Robert was the fact that there had always been judges, even the two pardon board members, who had voted for him; that it had never been a unanimous vote to see him executed. ‘Why don’t they stop this thing,’ he said. ‘Why me?’ Why doesn’t someone stop this and see I didn’t intend to kill Mr. Kelly?’ But I was able to calm him down – and we went over the Psalms again.”
At approximately 11:30, as they were talking, Williams suddenly told Rev. Brown:
“Stop! I want you to cease saying anything else. Get me ready to die. I want you to really prepare me to walk into Heaven. I want you to tell me what it’s really like – tell me what I can expect when I get there.”
Brown began to prepare Williams for death by taking him through the Psalms again.
“We began to repeat the Lord’s Prayer – and when we got to ‘forgive me my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me’,” Brown said, “we paused and he repeated it over and over again. He said that ‘in order for God to forgive me, I’ve got to get everything clear in my mind’. Then he said, ‘thank you for letting me get that clear’ and at that point he said, ‘I don’t hold nothing against Mr. Treen or anybody else’.”
At 12:45 a.m. Tuesday morning prison guards entered Williams’ cell. They placed shackles around his ankles and handcuffs on his wrists.
“Robert began repeating the Lord’s Prayer again,” Rev. Brown said, “and then he stopped repeating it and followed me in repeating the 23rd Psalms. A halo came over him and he was not himself. He said these words to me: ‘You’ve talked to me about Jesus bearing my burdens, that Jesus is going to sit in that chair instead of me’. He paused and said, ‘I definitely believe and feel that it won’t be me going to the chair – I believe that Jesus is going for me’. When I saw that halo, I knew he had become embodied in Christ.”
At 1:00 a.m. Warden Maggio walked into Williams’ cell.
“Robert, it’s time for us to go,” he said.
The warden led the procession off the tier, down the hallway, through a lobby, and into another hallway that led to the death chamber. Rev. Brown accompanied the procession until it reached the witness room at which point he left Williams’ side and joined the other witnesses.
The procession took several more steps down the narrow hallway, turning right into the death chamber. There the electric chair sat, forbidding, in the middle of the room. It had been refurbished and polished but its crude ugliness still dominated everything. A large clock was mounted on a wall directly behind the chair with an exhaust fan positioned slightly to the right of the clock. In front of the chair was a rectangular window to allow the witnesses to observe the execution. A microphone was attached to a small podium to allow the condemned inmate to make a final statement to the assembled witnesses.
Two prison guards escorted Williams into the death chamber with the warden. Two other guards remained outside the closed death chamber door. Williams stopped in front of the podium and looked the witnesses directly in the eyes. Maggio held the microphone for Williams to speak into.
“I believe and feel deeply in my heart that God has come into my life and saved me,” he said in a firm, strong voice. “I told the truth about what happened. If my death do happen I would like it to be a remembrance for Louisiana and the whole country that it would a deterrence against capital punishment and show that capital punishment is no good and never has been good. I would like all the people who fought against capital punishment to keep on fighting not just on my behalf but on behalf of everyone else.”
Behind Williams, in a small concrete enclosure, the executioner waited. No one would see the man who was being paid $400 to carry out the Ossie Brown orchestrated execution. He faced a panel of instruments, and through an opening in the wall, he would be able to see Maggio’s signal to carry out the execution.
After Williams finished his statement, he turned and walked over to the electric chair and sat down. The two guards began to fit and tighten the straps on him – one for the chest and the other for the left leg where one of the electrodes was attached. One arm was taken out of the handcuff and secured to the chair, with the same procedure employed for the leg. Then the cuffs were removed from the other arm after which it and the leg were secured to the chair. Williams looked quizzically down at the two guard who worked methodically and efficiently.
“Secured to the chair, the electrode was placed on the top of Williams’ head. As the hood, a piece of leather, was being lowered over the electrode and his head, Williams asked Maggio if it was necessary to use the hood.
“Yes, Robert, we have to use it,” Maggio replied.
The hood was lowered. The room fell deathly quiet. It had taken 4 minutes and 20 seconds to walk from the holding cell to the death chamber. Maggio nodded to the executioner. The executioner pulled the switch, sending a charge of 2,000 volts of electricity surging through Williams’ body. He then lowered it to 500 volts. It took ten seconds to lower the charge. Then it was again increased to 2000 volts before being lowered to 500 volts. The entire execution process took one minute and ten seconds.
“As I looked at that execution,” Rev. Brown said, “there was a strong anger coming deep from within. As I watched Robert being executed, I realized that we, all of us here in America, are guilty of his death. We legalize alcohol and let our big politicians, our millionaires, control the drug traffic in this country, and it’s them, if anyone, who should be electrocuted – not the person who is down at the bottom. We only execute the ones down at the bottom, the ones who can’t afford a lawyer, the ones the state must furnish a lawyer. People with money who can hire the best lawyers are not on death rows. When I witnessed Robert’s execution, I was looking directly at the injustice of the system – and I was appalled. A deep dedication came over me and I said, ‘Lord, help me wake America up’. I was so hurt to know that I live in a country that’s suppose to be a Christian country yet so much injustice prevails; to know that men in high office are responsible fo
r these injustices and they are so corrupt themselves.”
Rev. Brown walked out of the prison and embraced a waiting Rosella Williams. Her son was dead. His body had been destroyed but not his memory. That provided small solace for her grief.
“They used my son,” she told the media, “and they’ve abused my family.
She was composed, her voice even, despite the grief. Her son had been strong in death and, as his mother, she would not dishonor his spirit by being less. It was all she had left of him. The tears would come later, but not there, not with the world watching.
Sam Dalton was also deeply affected by Williams’ execution.
“I felt like I had been amputated when I heard that the execution had been carried out,” he said. “It was a loss that I just couldn’t believe. We got two votes from the pardon board, and while I think their decision was pre-ordained, we still got two votes. We simply made a straightforward presentation of the case to them. Now, Jesus Christ, what would have happened if that same presentation had been made to the jury? I can’t help but believe that he would have persuaded at one juror to vote for life – and that was all he needed.”
Rosella Williams was gracious in grief.
“My son did not ask to be released from prison,” she said, “but to be given life where he could help others.
Charles Kelly refused to accept the non-intent defense.
“I never believed the shooting of my father was an accident,” he said. “I will never believe it was an accident. I believe in the death penalty in certain kinds of cases. I have three sons – one 22, one 19, and another small one – and if one of my sons did what Robert Wayne Williams did, I don’t think I could support him in trying to avoid the death penalty.”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The substance of this article appeared in the Jan./Feb. 1984 edition of THE ANGOLITE, the official newsmagazine of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The author was co-editor of the prison publication at the time, and had been the recipient of the George Polk, Sidney Hillman, and the American Bar Association’s Certificate of Merit for his death penalty articles.