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.