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Commentary : The Dancing Over a Man’s Execution Recalls Other Days, Other Deaths

<i> Jim Carlton is a Times staff writer</i>

While watching television last week as several thousand people milled about outside the Florida death chamber and cheered the execution of serial killer Theodore Bundy, I felt a sense of deja vu.

Five years ago, when I was covering executions in the state of Texas for the Houston Chronicle, I witnessed the same macabre atmosphere outside the state death chamber in Huntsville.

Like Starke, Fla., where execution revelers chanted death slogans and bought up souvenir electric-chair pins, death-penalty enthusiasts in Texas gathered by the hundreds outside the death chamber in downtown Huntsville and cheered until they became hoarse the executions by lethal injection of the condemned men inside.

I will never forget the first time I encountered that scene. It was Oct. 4, 1983, less than a year after the death penalty had been reinstituted in Texas, when convicted killer J.D. Autry was scheduled to die for gunning down a convenience store clerk and then taking a six-pack of beer.

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Autry was not scheduled to die until after midnight, but by late afternoon scores of death-penalty advocates already had begun showing up on the street outside the Texas Department of Corrections’ red-brick death chamber. The great majority of the advocates were young students from nearby Sam Houston State University, many of them future police officers and prosecutors enrolled in the school’s criminal justice program.

As the evening wore on, other journalists and I were amazed--and horrified--as a crowd that swelled into the hundreds chanted slogans, drank beer and waved placards celebrating the condemned man’s imminent demise. One placard, depicting a beer-filled needle being inserted into Autry, read: “Hey J.D., this Bud’s for you!”

And also like Florida, a tiny knot of death-penalty opponents stood by in a candlelight vigil; all shocked and sickened, as we were, at the grotesque display.

Inside the death house, where witnesses said the cheering could be heard, an ashen-faced Autry was strapped to a gurney a half hour before midnight, and prison officials inserted a needle to begin a saline solution that would later carry a lethal chemical.

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But as fate would have it, Autry got a last-minute court reprieve, and prison officials were ordered to pull out the needle and unstrap him from the gurney.

Moments later, as Texas Atty. Gen. Jim Maddox was announcing from an outdoor podium that the execution would not take place, the festive, inebriated crowd turned ugly. These college students and aspiring police officers began shouting down the state’s top law enforcement officer, demanding the blood they had come to celebrate. Finally, after much concern that the scene would deteriorate into a riot, the revelers sulkily stalked home.

Six months later, however, their blood thirst was quenched. Autry, unable this time to gain a last-minute stay, was executed March 14, 1984. A crowd of hundreds outside roared its approval, as they did when Bundy was electrocuted last week.

Almost as a bonus, the death-penalty supporters of Huntsville were treated to the execution only 2 weeks later of one of Texas’ most notorious and hated killers.

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The killer, Ronald Clark O’Bryan, was known in the state as “the Candy Man” because he had been convicted of poisoning his 9-year-old son’s Halloween candy so that he could collect on his son’s insurance. That crime so alarmed parents in Texas, and other parts of the country as well, that it ruined Halloween for countless children who otherwise would have been allowed to go out trick-or-treating on their own.

Before O’Bryan died, he granted an interview to me and other journalists who were allowed to speak with Death Row inmates after Autry had been executed. O’Bryan and half a dozen other condemned men who spoke with us through a protective glass panel appeared badly shaken, as Bundy reportedly had in the hours before he died.

I remember asking O’Bryan--a mild-mannered, bespectacled man sporting a middle-age paunch--what he thought about the carnival-like display that had accompanied Autry’s execution. His eyes narrowed, and he only shook his head in disgust. Then he proceeded to lecture on how we should all, like himself, find God to attain eternal peace.

O’Bryan also steadfastly maintained his innocence, as most of the other Death Row inmates did that day.

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If Autry’s crowd was festive, O’Bryan’s was doubly so. What made this scene even more bizarre was the fact that, in showing up to cheer, many of the Sam Houston State College students dressed in Halloween costumes. They broke into wild cheers, especially, as the bright lights from television cameras panned the crowd.

One young lady, dressed appropriately as a witch, attracted special media attention when she claimed that she had been a neighbor of O’Bryan’s and that the poisoning of his son had made her terrified to venture outdoors any time of the year.

As the TV cameras rolled to capture this poignant account, I happened to notice that several young male friends of the woman were chuckling to each other in the background. The woman, too, had laughter in her eyes. Suddenly I realized that she was putting us all on, and I told her so. At that, the television lights switched off, the reporters moved on, and she was left alone with her embarrassed friends.

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” I called out to her, as I, too, left for another interview.

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From her dejected expression, she was.

Today, executions in Texas are no big deal. Because there have been 29 of them, the state’s media now pays them scant notice. Even the bloodthirsty crowds have apparently found better things to do, as Texas prison spokesman Charlie Brown said this past week: “Almost nobody shows up now.”

Executions in Florida had also been old hat, until, of course, Ted Bundy came along. In my view, the taking of another human being’s life, regardless of reason, should never be considered so trivial as to merit little attention, or so grandiose as to warrant festivity.

Although I support the death penalty in certain cases, I agree with one Gainesville, Fla., woman, who was moved to say last week outside the Florida death chamber: “I think it’s fair to execute him. I just don’t think it’s fair everyone is dancing around, having fun.”

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No doubt, though, that if and when California starts up its death chamber, there will be those who will dance in the streets.


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