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Executions : The South--Nation's Death Belt


August 25, 1985|MAURA DOLAN | Times Staff Writer

In Starke, Fla., the executioner wears a black hood and a long black robe. He earns $150 for each person he electrocutes.

In Parchman, Miss., the man who releases cyanide pellets in the gas chamber is a retired custodian who was appointed to the job by the governor and holds the official title of "Mississippi Executioner." Between executions, he sells vegetables at a roadside stand.

In Jackson, Ga., Death Row inmates eye their jailers uneasily, wondering whether the uniformed deputy who delivers their dinner will be the same one who sends a deadly shot of electricity through their limbs. For in Georgia, prison guards can volunteer to do the electrocutions.

Texas offers the "most humane way" to execute--"if there is a humane way of killing a person," said Robert Ott, 42, a member of the state's execution team in Huntsville. The team straps the condemned person to a gurney and injects a fatal solution that causes quick death.

Electric Chairs Nicknamed

The machinations of capital punishment vary from state to state like the nicknames of the electric chairs themselves: Old Sparky in Florida, Yellow Mama in Alabama, Gruesome Gertie in Louisiana. But it is no coincidence that all but three of the 47 people executed since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976 went to their deaths in the South.

The South has become what one attorney calls "the death belt" of the nation.

The three men executed outside the South voluntarily waived their appeals and asked to die. Since 1982 no one has been executed north of the Mason-Dixon line, but in the South the pace has quickened: 2 in 1982, 5 in 1983, 21 in 1984 and 15 in the first seven months of this year.

"Our people are tried quicker, our supreme courts don't sit on the cases and our laws were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court first," said Florida Assistant Atty. Gen. Ray Marky.

The bulk of the executions have been in Florida, Texas, Georgia and Louisiana. Three of these states--Florida, Texas and Georgia--were the first to adopt death penalty laws after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. None of the four provides public funds for the legal defense of the condemned after the first post-conviction appeal to the state supreme court, although Florida will set up an office for such appeals under a law passed this year.

There are signs of support for the death penalty throughout the South. Miniature electric chairs adorn the offices of some public officials. The toy chairs emit a tiny jolt to the touch.

Rowdy crowds occasionally turn out for executions, transforming prison surroundings with tailgate parties complete with fireworks, lawn chairs and heavy drinking.

After the bars close in Huntsville, Tex., on execution nights, students from Sam Houston State University often go to the state prison to continue their revelry. When a man who killed a clerk for a six-pack of beer was to be executed, the students carried signs, "This Bud's for You." The students booed when the attorney general announced that the condemned man had received a last-minute reprieve.

During Virginia's most recent execution in June, members of a cheering crowd hollered, "Bring back lynching!" and carried signs saying, "Fry the Nigger."

Supports Capital Punishment

In Florida, Wendy Nelson, 36, packs up her mobile home and drives 125 miles to the state prison on execution mornings. She stands in a cow pasture across from the prison to demonstrate support for capital punishment. Her daughter, Elisa, 10, was slashed and beaten to death by a convicted rapist who is now on Death Row.

Nelson wants him executed as "a statement as to the value of Elisa's life, that the state of Florida feels her life was so valuable that they're willing to commit this negative act."

In Macon, Ga., David's Lounge held an execution party the night a young man was electrocuted for the abduction, rape and murder of a nursing student. When the condemned man's death was announced shortly after midnight, patrons in the dimly lit tavern whooped and hollered. A live band played on a makeshift stage where a Confederate flag hangs.

David Little, 34, owner of the bar, advertised the party on a billboard. "He's just a son of a bitch," Little said of the man whose death he celebrated. "Lucky I didn't catch him in my sight."

But as executions grow more routine, the numbers outside the prison drop. There are usually bands of protesters who carry candles and sing "We Shall Overcome." And sometimes there are relatives of the condemned.

On a hot, humid June afternoon in Huntsville, Tex., a condemned man wrote his last statement, ordered his last meal and considered how to distribute his possessions as he prepared himself to meet the executioner's needle at midnight.

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