The carrying out of a sentence of death imposed by either a court or a jury following a conviction for a capital offense.

Since 1976 when the U.S. Supreme Court effectively reinstated the death penalty after a 10-year moratorium, all 1537 executions carried out since then have been for the crime of murder.

The American death penalty is inextricably woven, as it has always been, in the failed religious concept that murder can only be revenged through murder. The commandment that “thy shall not kill” inevitably introduced the revenge notion of an “eye for an eye.”

That is pretty much how the American death penalty works. The State commands that “thy shall not kill” while the murder victim’s family and friends demand “eye” of revenge.

On October 21, 2021, Willie B. Smith became the 1537th person put to death in this country since 1976. He was an African-American man put to death for the 1991 murder of a white woman in Birmingham, Alabama.

The Equal Justice Initiative informs that more death sentences are imposed per capita in Alabama than in any other state.  The state has executed 68 men and 1 woman since 1976. Thirty-one of those men were black. African-Americans make up 27 percent of Alabama’s population yet comprise nearly half of the state’s executions.

The EJI also reports that one-third of the death sentences imposed in Alabama came out of three counties: Etowah, Houston, and Mobile—all of which are predominantly white counties.

Gov. Kay Ivey, a white female, released a statement after Smith’s execution that, in part, read: “The carrying out of Mr. Smith’s sentence sends the message that the state of Alabama will not tolerate these murderous acts.”

There’s a problem inherent in Gov. Ivey’s statement.

The Death Penalty Information Center reports that only 21 white man have executed in this country since 1976 for killing black victims while 295 black men have been executed for killing white victims. In other words, the DPIC reports that 75 percent of executions in this country involved white victims while only 15 percent involved black victims.

Against the backdrop of these numbers, what can be reasonably read into Gov. Ivey’s statement is this: Alabama “will not tolerate” black people killing white people, especially black men killing white women.

Numbers don’t like.

In 1989, University of Florida sociologist Michael Radelet examined roughly 16,000 executions in America—of which only 30 involved the executions of white people killing black people.

And Alabama does not, as a rule, execute black people for killing black people.

This is evidenced by the fact that white male Alabamians have lynched 347 people—299 of whom were black. None of the black men lynched by these white male Alabamians were lynched for crimes against other black people. Those 299 black men were murdered because they were either involved or suspected of being involved in crimes against white people.

That is the Confederate execution mentality. Roughly 3 out of every four of the 1537 executions carried out in this country since 1976 have been carried in the former southern Confederate states.

It did not matter to the proud Confederate state of Alabama that Willie B. Smith was intellectually disabled with an IQ range of 70-75—a disability previously called “borderline mentally retarded.” All that mattered to Alabama was that Willie B. Smith, a black man, killed a white woman. For that, he had to die—the State wanted it and the victim’s family demanded it.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall made this clear in a post-execution statement:

“The family of Sharma Johnson has had to wait 29 years, 11 months, and 25 days to see the sentence of Sharma’s murderer be carried out. Finally, the cruel and unusual punishment that has been inflicted upon them—a decades long denial of justice—has come to an end. I ask the people of Alabama to join me in praying for Sharma’s family and friends, that they might now be able to find peace and closure.”

Revenge never brings “peace and closure.” It accomplishes one thing and one thing only: the perpetuation of violence, murder upon murder.

That’s what really happened to Willie B. Smith.



South Carolina recently became the fourth state in the nation to offer the firing squad as an alternative method to a lethal injection execution.

The change created considerable consternation among death penalty opponents and some media outlets. The general consensus of opinion is that any alternative method of execution reinforces the inherent barbarity of the death penalty itself.

I agree … but to a point.

There is nothing cruel and unusual about giving a condemned person the choice of execution method.

In fact, giving the condemned an alternative to lethal injection is actually humane. Lethal injection is the cruelest execution method ever employed in the United States—worse than hanging, the electric chair, and, yes, even worse than the gas chamber (the second worst execution method in America).

Facts bear on the tree of truth.

There have been more than 1300 lethal injection executions carried out in the U.S. since it was first used in Texas in 982. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, roughly 7 percent (or 75 altogether) of these needle executions were horribly botched inflicting immeasurable but certainly excruciating pain to the condemned person. That’s the highest botched rate of any other method of execution used in this country, with the gas chamber coming in second with a 5 percent botched rate.

Compare that to the 0% botched rate of firing squad executions—not a single botched firing squad execution over the past 140 years. The DPIC does point to an 1879 firing squad execution carried out in territorial Utah during which the shooters missed the condemned man’s heart creating a 27 minute death cycle.

The traditional firing squad involves five shooters, each armed with a 30-caliber Winchester rifle. The shooters stand behind a wall with rifles pointed through holes in it. Four of the rifles are armed; the fifth is not. This practice is done so no one in the firing squad will know for sure which fired the fatal shot. The condemned person is restrained in a chair in front of a wooden panel 25 feet from the wall. A target is placed over their heart. Four bullets, any one of which is capable of killing, will simultaneously rip through the heart, producing an almost instantaneous death. The condemned person will never hear the explosion of the rifles.

It is virtually impossible to botch a firing squad execution—even with three blind shooters. The 30-caliber Winchester rifle was not made until 1895—some 16 years after that 1879 botched execution in the Utah territory.

There will be more executions carried out in this country. The appetite for violence, especially state-sanctioned violence, is rooted in the American DNA.

Giving a person facing execution a choice in how that execution will be carried out is not cruel or unusual.

It is a humane grace.

There is ample space in the public marketplace for a continuing honest debate about either the humanity or morality of the death penalty.

The firing squad issue in South Carolina is rather simple: a condemned inmate is given a choice of how they want to die. There is no cruel or unusual debate in the exercise of that freedom. No one to my knowledge has ever argued the cruelty of a Last Meal. It has always been considered an societal acknowledgement of a condemned person’s humanity in their final hours. The individual choice of execution method should be viewed through the same social lens.

I am opposed to the death penalty. I spent six years on Louisiana’s death row followed by another 34 years in the state’s prison system. Had I been given a choice in 1966 between death in the electric chair or 40 years of imprisonment, I may well have chosen the electric chair.

Somehow, through the grace of God, I survived both fates. I entered death row in 1966 at age twenty and walked out of prison in 2006 at age sixty-one. I know about which I speak. All anyone must do is research the 1983 electric chair execution of John Lewis Evans in Alabama to know that the firing squad is a more humane method of execution.


The Death Penalty

There are “8 million reasons” why the death penalty should be abolished.

I will discuss only one of those reasons in this post. Not enough time to deal with the rest of the reasons today.

Inequality—the selection, imposition and executing of death sentences are not applied equally.

Take the case of Orlando Hall as an example.

On November 20, 2020, the federal government put Hall to death by lethal injection in the death chamber at the Terre Haute Federal Penitentiary in Indiana.

In September 1994, Hall and four other men—all of whom were part of an Arkansas-based marijuana drug ring—kidnapped a 16-year-old teenager in Dallas, Texas in response to a drug deal gone sour with her bothers. Over the next several days the men raped and abused the teenager multiple times.

They took the young girl with them to Arkansas where the sexual abuse continued. Hall and three of the men then took the teenager to a remote area where Hall and another man beat her about the head before they all buried her alive in a grave.

It was a horrific crime. No doubt about that.

Two of the men—Hall and Bruce Webster—were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Hall was tried in federal court while Webster was tried in an Arkansas state court. The other three men were given reduced sentences after they agreed to be witnesses for the prosecution.

On September 20, 2020—exactly two months before Hall was put to death—a federal appeals court vacated Webster’s death sentence, finding that he was “intellectually disabled.”

Here are the core facts of this case: five men took part in the kidnapping and rape of the teenage girl while four of them took part in her murder.

Only one of the five men was put to death. Three got preferential treatment from prosecutors because they became government witnesses. In other words, these three men got on the witness stand, mitigated their roles in the offense, and pointed the finger of primary responsibility at Hall and Webster. Prosecutors responded to this witness cooperation by saying, “Okay, good job – now, here’s your get out of jail free pass. Go and kill no more.”

Webster was spared his appointment with the lethal injection needle when a federal court determined that he is “intellectually disabled.” In other words, Webster was spared execution because he lacked the intellectual ability to understand what the death needle is used for.

Hall, on the other hand, was penalized by the federal government because he had the intellectual ability to understand exactly what the death needle is used for.

In effect, Orlando Hall was treated unequally from the other four men involved in the same crime—three of whom got differing reduced sentences because they “snitched” and Webster was spared actual execution because, as the condemned man put it, “what’s that needle for” while Hall was executed for no other real reason than he said, “I know what that goddamn needle is used for.”

If you put three primates in a room and gave each pen & paper, they could not devise a more unequal punishment than the death penalty as it was applied in the case of Orlando Hall.


The execution

In the first hour of December 14, 1983—a Wednesday—Robert Wayne Williams was put to death in Louisiana’s electric. His execution marked the first carried out by the state after the U.S. Supreme Court’s reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.

Like so many others before and so many others after him, Robert should not have been executed. He was executed for no other good reason than to fulfill Republican Gov. Dave Treen’s “law and order” bona fides at the time.

I knew Robert.

As an inmate journalist for the Louisiana State Penitentiary’s newsmagazine, I interviewed Robert several times on death row about his scheduled execution. Two things I took away from those interviews with the slight, soft-spoken man: he did not want to die and he was afraid of dying in the electric chair.

The Tuesday afternoon before Robert’s execution, Gov. Treen issued a statement rejecting a plea of mercy made by some of 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. Heavy rain began to fall, whipped about in a criss crossing frenzy by unusually high winds. Lightning darted, electrifying across the sky. It filled 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 had been ominous and foreboding, just 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 on death row 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 outside the prison and occasional rain to protest Robert’s execution. They sang and prayed for Robert’s soul.

Robert’s mother had joined the protestors. A minster close to the Williams family also took note of the weather, saying:

“This total darkness speaks well of the shame we’re witnessing here tonight.”

At 10:30 p.m. the lights were turned off in the prison, signaling an end to the day. Robert’s personal minister was sitting in front of his death cell. The minister had been talking to the condemned inmate about many things from his childhood to adulthood.  Robert was a troubled man at the moment.

“He had a problem understanding how inadequate, how unfair the justice system is,” the minister explained. “He didn’t understand why Mr. Treen, who is a Christian man, didn’t step 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 besides the pardon board member who had voted to give him relief; that there had never been a unanimous vote to see him executed. ‘Why don’t they stop this thing,’ he asked. ‘Why me?’ Why doesn’t someone stop this and see I didn’t intend to kill that man?’ But I was able to calm him down – and we went over the Psalms again.”

At approximately 11:30, as they were talking, Robert suddenly told the minister:

“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.”

The minister began to prepare Robert 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’,” the minister 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 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. Wednesday morning prison guards entered Robert’d cell. They placed shackles around his ankles and handcuffs on his wrists.

“Robert began repeating the Lord’s Prayer again,” the minister 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. the Warden walked into Robert’s 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. The minister accompanied the procession until it reached the witness room at which point he left Robert’s 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 since it was last used in 1961,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 Robert into the death chamber with the Warden. Two other guards remained outside the closed death chamber door. Robert stopped in front of the podium and looked the witnesses directly in the eyes. The Warden held the microphone for Robert 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 who think that it would be a deterrence 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 Robert, in a small concrete enclosure, the executioner waited. No one would see the man who was being paid $400 to carry out the politically motivated execution. He faced a panel of instruments, and through an opening in the wall, he would be able to see the Warden’s signal to carry out the execution.

After Robert 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 guards who worked methodically and efficiently.

Secured to the chair, the electrode was placed on the top of Robert’s head. As the hood, a piece of leather, was being lowered over the electrode and his head, he asked the Warden if it was necessary to use the hood.

“Yes, Robert, we have to use it,” the Warden 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. The Warden turned and 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,” the minister 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 for these injustices and they are so corrupt themselves.”

The minister walked out of the prison and embraced Robert’s mother. 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 assembled 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, a New Orleans-based criminal defense attorney who had waged a courageous pro bono effort to save Robert’s life, had this to say:

“I felt like I had been amputated when I heard that the execution had been carried out. 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.”

Robert’s mother was gracious in grief.

“My son did not ask to be released from prison,” she said, “but only that he be given a life sentence where he could help others.”

I think of Robert from time to time – just as I do other men I knew that died in prison. Any prison experience inevitably leads human carnage behind. Some died by their own hands, some by the hands others, and a few by the hands of the state.

If I was a betting man, and there is indeed a Heaven, I would wager that Robert is sitting at the right hand of the Lord while Gov. Treen is still trying to get his tender ass adjusted to the hot metal seats in that world down below.


Jodie’s Interview

Jodie’s May 20, 2020 interview with The Crime Report about her memoir, “Love Behind Bars: The True Story of an American Prisoner’s Wife,” is a great read. Being biased and all, it is a penetrating interview that touches on many issues about the criminal justice system; most importantly about the death penalty.

Please feel free to share the attached link. These are rough times for criminal justice with so much misinformation being thrown about. Jodie does speak “truth to power.”

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