Watching the Death of Inmate C29300
At 12:01 Tuesday morning, having exhausted all appeals, Stanley Tookie Williams walked slowly into San Quentin’s death chamber, shackled at the wrists and waist and escorted by four burly guards.
After he climbed onto a padded gurney, officers buckled Williams down with wide black straps across his shins, thighs, belly and chest. His arms, stretched out to the side, were secured with leather restraints.
At 12:03 a.m., two guards pulled on surgical gloves as another entered the mint-green chamber with a plastic tub of supplies. Three minutes later, a needle was thrust successfully home into Williams’ right arm and connected to an intravenous tube.
The rules, however, require a backup in case one tube is jostled loose or fails. And it was here that the carefully choreographed execution turned messy.
For 12 long minutes, a prison nurse -- her brow glistening with sweat -- poked the convict’s muscular left arm again and again, searching for a vein that would deliver a dose of poison. As his loved ones watched in distress, the inmate visibly winced in pain.
Ultimately, the needle found its mark, a stream of lethal chemicals flowed, and Williams -- convicted of murdering four people with a shotgun in 1979 -- drew his final breath.
Surprising many, he did not leave a statement for the warden to read. But his closest supporters made sure his departure from the world was not a quiet one. Filing out after witnessing the execution, they yelled a message in unison:
“The state of California just killed an innocent man!”
The startling cry pierced the silence that had cloaked the small observation room, and relatives of Williams’ victims appeared shaken. Lora Owens, whose stepson, Albert, was gunned down at a West Whittier convenience store, hunched forward in her brown metal chair and wept. Another woman wrapped her in an embrace.
Owens left the prison without talking to reporters. But earlier, the red-haired grandmother had said she hoped that watching Williams die would soften her pain by allowing her to “let it go” just a bit.
No family members of Williams’ other victims were present.
Williams, 51, became the 12th man executed by the state of California since voters reinstated the death penalty more than a quarter-century ago. Though capital punishment inevitably stirs a wrenching debate, this case prompted an extraordinary outpouring from celebrities, clergy and others who urged that his life be spared.
On Monday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declined to step in, and the courts rejected the convict’s final appeals.
That meant a lethal injection for Inmate C29300. California’s death row population was about to drop by one.
The drama at San Quentin began just shy of midnight Monday, inside the archaic chamber where condemned men used to be killed with poisonous gas.
As about 2,000 people outside the prison gates protested the execution, 39 witnesses were ushered briskly into a viewing area forming a semicircle around the windowed death chamber. Some stood shoulder to shoulder on risers; others were seated behind a white railing that left them separated by only a few feet -- and thick glass -- from the procedure about to unfold inside. Along with the victims and Williams’ friends and lawyers, there were 17 journalists and a handful of unidentified observers invited by the state.
The crowded room seemed airless, and not a word was uttered. Earlier, everyone had been admonished not to talk, move or “sob too loudly.” Violation of those rules, an officer said, meant immediate eviction “with no discussion.”
As prison authorities readied him for the execution, Williams lay still, dressed in white socks and prison blues. He wore a solemn expression and rimless spectacles. His hair and graying beard were neatly clipped.
Every so often, Williams tilted his head to the left, making eye contact in turn with his most ardent supporter, Barbara Becnel, and two other friends, who responded by pumping their fists in the air. Out of his line of sight sat John Monaghan, the deputy district attorney from Los Angeles who led the fight against his mercy plea.
As the uniformed prison nurse searched for a vein, Williams swiveled his head from side to side -- mouthing words of support to friends. In return, Becnel and the others blew him kisses and mouthed messages back -- “God bless you” and “I love you” among them. His lead attorney, Peter Fleming Jr., shifted uncomfortably, did several deep knee bends, and kept crossing and uncrossing his arms.
As the minutes crawled by, Williams grew increasingly frustrated by the continued prodding. At 12:12 p.m., he raised his head and spoke to an officer at his right shoulder, who swallowed and said nothing, but rested a gloved hand on the inmate’s biceps. Two minutes later, Williams craned his neck, peered up at the nurse and appeared to say: “Still can’t find it?”
Finally, the catheter was inserted, and two officers began securing Williams’ hands to the gurney with loop after loop of white adhesive tape. The officers swiveled the padded table counterclockwise 90 degrees so that he was facing his loved ones -- and left the room.
At 12:21, the death warrant was read, broadcast so loudly it caused a few witnesses to jump. Williams moved his feet and seemed to writhe. Then, an unseen hand behind the chamber’s steel walls began to pump three chemicals into him. First came sodium pentothal to put him to sleep, followed by pancuronium bromide to stop his breathing, and finally potassium chloride to stop his heart.
It was impossible to know exactly when the poisons began to flow, but their effect was visible in Williams’ body. His head -- held up throughout much of the preparations -- fell back at 12:23 a.m. and did not lift again. His heaving chest, not the 52 inches it was 30 years ago but still massive, stopped rising less than a minute after.
Still, no one budged, even when an unseen attendant yelled that the inmate had “flatlined.” Then, a porthole in a steel door slid open and a white paper appeared. Quoting Warden Steven Ornoski, an officer pronounced Williams dead. Soon after, the chamber’s curtains were closed.
As the witnesses walked out in single file, some thought back to words they had heard hours earlier from a prison psychologist charged with preparing everyone for the evening. Don’t be surprised, warned Gregory Goldstein, if you feel panic, anxiety or other emotions similar to those one might experience while “stuck in a natural disaster.” An execution, he said, is a “highly unusual event.”
For the families of victims, it was far more than that, marking the final official punctuation on their traumatic ordeal. “The court system has worked,” Lora Owens said later in the day. “Justice has been served.”