Killer of 3 Executed as Final Appeal Is Rejected


Triple murderer Keith Daniel Williams, who lived on San Quentin’s death row for 17 years, was put to death by lethal injection early this morning after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a final plea to save his life.

Despite his lawyers’ contention that he should be spared because he is mentally ill, Williams, 48, became the fourth inmate executed in California since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978.

Williams was convicted of the 1978 Merced murders of two men and a pregnant woman he hardly knew in a bizarre attempt to steal back a bad check he had written to one of his victims.


Injected with a lethal series of drugs at 12:03 a.m., Williams was pronounced dead at 12:08.

On Thursday, Williams’ hope for a reprieve all but vanished when the 24 active judges of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied his request to convene a special 11-judge panel to consider his appeal.

James S. Thomson, an attorney for Williams, called the decision “absolutely outrageous” and maintained that the judges involved in the case had not even read the briefs filed by the defense.

“It’s shocking no court would intervene in such a tragic case,” he said. “It is a complete and utter travesty of justice.”

Thursday evening, the defense team asked the U.S. Supreme Court for the last-minute stay of execution, but the high court traditionally has opposed delaying executions and turned down this plea as well.

In a separate action, the Supreme Court declined to overturn a temporary injunction issued by a federal judge Wednesday granting the media and other witnesses the right to see the entire execution process--not just the final moment when the condemned man is injected with deadly drugs.


In the final hours leading up to the execution, Williams’ supporters said he had attempted to achieve a state of calm.

“He is going through this terrible, terrible process of watching the clock move to the month, the day and the minute of his death,” Michael Kroll, a spokesman for the defense team, said hours before the lethal injection was administered. “He is remorseful, indeed haunted. He has dreams about the murders. He wishes he could turn the clock back, but of course he can’t.”

Williams was served a last meal of fried pork chops, baked potato, asparagus, salad with bleu cheese dressing, French bread with butter, apple pie with ice cream and a glass of whole milk.

With an earlier federal court declaration that death in California’s gas chamber constituted cruel and unusual punishment, lethal injection now is the only method of capital punishment allowed here and in some other states. California’s execution procedure calls for the condemned man to walk into what is the former gas chamber and be strapped to a gurney, then injected with three drugs that render him unconscious, paralyze his muscles and stop his heart.

As many as 50 witnesses viewed the execution, barely two months after “Freeway Killer” William Bonin was put to death at San Quentin.

Six months before the Merced murders, Williams had been released from a federal prison where he was serving time for auto theft.


By chance, Williams met Miguel Vargas in the fall of 1978 at a yard sale, where he arranged to buy Vargas’ used car for $1,500.

Williams paid for the car with a stolen check, then decided later to retrieve the check before Vargas could deposit it.

When Williams and his partner in crime, Robert Tyson, arrived at Vargas’ house, Williams demanded the check and the pink slip to the car. Then he killed Vargas, 29, and his cousin, Salvador Vargas, 43, execution-style, shooting each twice in the back of the head.

Leaving the house, Williams and Tyson kidnapped Lourdes Meza, Miguel Vargas’ 24-year-old girlfriend, and drove to a secluded hillside where Williams repeatedly shot the pregnant mother of four in the head while he raped her, authorities said. He was acquitted of rape because Meza’s body was so badly decomposed when it was found that no physical evidence of the sexual assault remained.

Tyson, who later testified for the prosecution, said Williams bragged about the gruesome rape and killing, saying he wanted to experience Meza’s “dying twitches.”

After his arrest, Williams confessed to the murders. Over the years, his defense team said, he repeatedly expressed remorse.


“He always was sorry for the trouble he got into, and he couldn’t understand the trouble he got into,” Kroll said. “It is a reflection of [his] mental illness not to understand what is going on.”

Williams was sentenced to die for the three murders and arrived on San Quentin’s death row in April 1979. He had been awaiting execution longer than all but five other California inmates.

Williams’ attorneys argued that he deserved mercy because of his history of mental problems, which they say could have been successfully treated had he received proper care outside of prison.

Born prematurely in Pittsburg, Calif., in 1947 to an alcoholic mother, Williams was sickly and slow to develop--showing all the signs of fetal alcohol syndrome.

He was abused and beaten by his stepfather and suffered head injuries in three accidents before he reached adulthood, according to his attorneys. Williams was subjected to further abuse at the California Youth Authority, where he was sent for offenses as a juvenile, they said.

As an adult, he suffered from blackouts, epilepsy and bipolar mood disorder--commonly known as manic depression--which caused him to act out in aggressive, antisocial ways, his attorneys contended. His condition was worsened by his abuse of drugs and alcohol.


Convicted of nonviolent crimes such as auto theft, he spent most of his 20s in prison, where he was treated with drugs that improved his behavior so much that he was considered a model prisoner, his lawyers said. Unfortunately for Williams and his victims, they said, his treatments ended when he was released from prison.

“When he’s medicated, there’s no evidence of the illness,” Kroll said before the execution. “He comports himself very well. He’s very well liked by the staff and other inmates.”

Williams’ appellate attorneys agreed that the three murders were horrible but said Williams belonged in prison.

They argued that his trial attorney was incompetent because he did not present the jury with mitigating factors during the penalty phase of the proceedings. If the jury had been shown evidence of Williams’ mental disabilities, they argued, it might have sentenced him to life in prison instead of death.

Two weeks ago, defense attorneys received nearly 600 pages of long-sought documents from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons that they contended provided compelling evidence of Williams’ mental illness before the murders.

Based on the new documentation, they appealed to state and federal courts to order a new jury impaneled to hold a penalty hearing and resentence Williams.


“This case called out for a new penalty phase from the beginning,” Thomson said. “This man never had a penalty phase--not one witness, when there are so many that could have been called.”