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2 Portraits of Grandmother's Killer Emerge

Justice: Stephen W. Anderson is seen as a 'poster child for the death penalty' and as an abused child and sensitive poet failed by the legal system.

January 27, 2002|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He is an instinctual killer, the government believes, a Vegas hit man, a "poster child for the death penalty" who learned how effortless murder can be when he caught a bird as a young man and crushed it in his palm without a second thought.

Years later, after he shot a grandmother in the face, prosecutors say, he cooked himself noodles in her kitchen and poured himself a glass of milk while she died. He would say later that he made just two mistakes: not getting out of the house sooner, and not trying to shoot his way past the cops once he was caught.

That's half the story.

Stephen Wayne Anderson, 48, scheduled to die by lethal injection Tuesday morning at San Quentin State Prison, also has an IQ of 136. Beaten as a boy, disowned at 17 and forced to live outdoors and alone in the hills of New Mexico, he has become an accomplished poet, writing behind bars about the smell of honeysuckle and the wind tickling the trees in the fall.

His supporters say he made up the hit man stuff, and many law enforcement officials are starting to agree. Friends say he never meant to kill, that he is the hapless target of cowboy prosecutors determined to see San Bernardino County's first death penalty case in 40 years to its ultimate conclusion. For the first time in California, his victims' survivors unanimously support his bid for clemency.

His trial attorney was so incompetent that two other killers represented by the same man have had their death sentences thrown out. He is the linchpin of allegations that Gov. Gray Davis should no longer address clemency pleas because he has never agreed to one--and has suggested that he never will in a murder case. Indeed, Davis denied Anderson's clemency bid Saturday, saying there is "no question of his guilt."

All told, Anderson's is one of the most convoluted cases to emerge from San Quentin, and is emblematic of the passion--and ambivalence--surrounding the debate over government-sponsored execution.

"This one," said Robert S. Horwitz, one of the lawyers fighting for an unlikely eleventh-hour reprieve, "has a lot of baggage."

With the governor's decision this weekend, it is now virtually certain that Anderson will be put to death early Tuesday.

Prison workers will open the tap of an intravenous line, delivering three drugs into Anderson's bloodstream. Each is lethal on its own. When served as a cocktail, they are more than sufficient.

Anderson, bearded and portly with an easy smile, would be the 10th man executed in California since voters reinstated capital punishment in 1978.

Meantime, in the days leading to the execution, two strikingly different portraits of Anderson have emerged.

There is the yin--the premeditated murderer who may have killed as many as nine people, who once befriended a prison guard, then told his new pal he'd kill him in a jiffy if it meant escaping from custody.

And there is the yang--the troubled, railroad-hopping hobo who blossomed into a poet and an intellectual, the fumbling burglar who fired his gun in the dark only when he panicked.

The surprising footprint of Anderson's case on those who have come in contact with him began the very night he was arrested. It was Memorial Day 1980. A San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy drove him away from a small home in Bloomington, an unincorporated community near Fontana, where he'd just shot and killed 81-year-old Elizabeth Lyman, a retired piano teacher.

Anderson asked whether California enforced the death penalty. "I hope so," he said. "I want out of this mess."

A homeless drifter who was riding the rails after escaping prison in Utah, where he was being held on several burglary charges, Anderson landed in Bloomington in spring 1980.

After casing the house of his victim for two days, he was sure no one was home--mostly because he saw no car in the driveway, his legal team has argued. But Lyman did not have a car, and she was inside.

On May 26, Anderson drank a pint of vodka, according to his lawyers, and then, shortly after midnight, spent an hour prying the hinges off the door.

When he walked into the bedroom, looking for cash, Lyman rose from her sleep. Anderson turned and shot her under the left eye with a .45-caliber handgun.

Authorities say he had taped down the gun's safety to ensure that it would fire quickly.

Then, law enforcement officers say--though it's one of many disputed facts in the case--he fixed himself a bowl of noodles.

"He simply made himself at home," David Whitney, San Bernardino County's lead deputy district attorney, wrote to the governor earlier this month.

Said Wes Daw, one of the original investigators in the case: "His hunger outweighed his conscience."

Anderson does not dispute charges that he pulled the trigger, though his supporters argue that instead of carrying out a premeditated killing, he panicked and shot wildly in the dark when Lyman rose from her bed.

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