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COLUMN ONE : Last Steps, Last Words on the Row : California has put 501 men and women to death since the state took charge of executions. Not all of them went quietly.

March 28, 1990|KEVIN RODERICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gireth was cooperative unless asked about Dorena, whom he refused to discuss. When newspapers began reporting that he was finally talking about Dorena, Gireth held a press conference in the warden's office and handed out beautiful, handprinted affidavits swearing he had spoken to no one.

On his last night, Gireth lay on his mattress in the death cell, smoked, and listened to "Clair de Lune." His last meal was a hamburger and Coke--his and Dorena's favorite treats.

The next morning Gireth walked strongly into the chamber, leaving behind a letter for Duffy: "There are times when one can say very little, but these few words I mean in all sincerity: Thank you so much for everything."

The ritual of death at San Quentin changed little over the years. Once brought to the holding cell, the condemned were watched all the time. They were given a last meal of their choosing, within reason.

In the last hour, the prisoner was dressed in blue jeans and a clean white shirt. They were taken barefoot to the gas chamber--or before 1938, to the robin's-egg-blue double gallows on the top floor of a building that held the prison wood shop. Most of California's executions--307 of the 501 conducted since the state took the job from county sheriffs in 1893--have been by hanging at San Quentin or at Folsom Prison, east of Sacramento.

Just like in the movies, a phone line was kept open to the governor for any last-minute news of a reprieve. Joseph Francis Regan got four reprieves this way--but the last, in 1933, didn't count.

Duffy, then secretary to Warden James B. (Big Jim) Holohan, was on the open phone to the governor's office in Sacramento. At 10:02, the governor's clemency secretary shouted at the other end, "Clint! Stop the execution." Duffy yelled into a prison phone for the hangman to hold up--then heard the thud of the gallows trap dropping.

Duffy wrote in "88 Men and 2 Women"--the title referred to the number of executions he oversaw--that he and the clemency secretary agreed between themselves to tear up the reprieve and never mention what happened, even to the warden. Duffy wrote that it was never revealed until his book was published a decade after he completed 12 years as warden.

Barbara Graham, the most celebrated of the four women to be executed in California, found her brief reprieves upsetting. The subject of a Susan Hayward movie, "I Want to Live," and a later made-for-television movie starring Lindsay Wagner, she was 32 when her time came in 1955.

Two stays were phoned in that morning--including one just as she was walking into the gas chamber.

"Why do they torture me? I was ready to go at 10 o'clock," Graham complained, distraught. When she finally entered the chamber at 11:30, escorted by two Catholic priests, she wore a blindfold--the only gas chamber victim who ever asked for one.

Joseph Ferretti, a retired San Quentin deathwatch guard now living in Petaluma, remembers Graham's reaction to the advice given most prisoners as they were strapped into the gas chamber: Take a deep breath when she smelled the gas and it would go easier.

"She said, 'How the hell would you know?' What could I say? She was right," Ferretti, 86, said recently.

The first woman to be executed legally in California was Juanita Spinelli, the coldblooded "Duchess" of a Bay Area robbery gang.

A grandmother and ex-wrestler, she had a reputation for being able to pin a poker chip with a thrown knife at 15 paces. She was convicted in the murder of a gang member she feared would inform on her.

"The coldest, hardest character, male or female, I have ever known," Warden Duffy wrote, "a homely, scrawny, nearsighted, sharp-featured scarecrow. . . . The Duchess was a hag, evil as a witch, horrible to look at, impossible to like, but she was still a woman and I dreaded the thought of ordering her execution."

After being held at the woman's prison in Tehachapi, she was driven to San Quentin two days before her date with the gas chamber. About 30 prisoners signed a petition protesting the execution of a woman and offered to draw straws among themselves to select a replacement. The governor granted her two stays.

But the day after Thanksgiving in 1941, her time came.

The Los Angeles Times reported that she wore a short-sleeved green dress and clutched a white handkerchief in her left hand. Photos of her children were tied over her heart.

She was being walked into the chamber when the warden noticed that the 100 or so witnesses were not in place. The Duchess stood outside the gas chamber and chatted about the weather as the witnesses filed in.

The Times story said her face, minus dentures, looked sunken as the gas began to rise. She coughed, her head dropped forward, then whipped back, streaming her long gray hair over the chair back.

"The Duchess coughed again, then blew out her breath with a sound like that a horse sometimes makes with his lips," The Times reported.

Five minutes later, a prison official barked: "That's all, boys."

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