Every Execution Detail Prescribed
SACRAMENTO — Barring clemency from the governor or a last-minute stay, Stanley Tookie Williams will be expected to walk on his own to the death chamber Monday at San Quentin State Prison.
If all goes according to procedure, Williams will not struggle as prison officers strap him to the injection table, connect the monitors that will record the final beats of his heart and insert the needles through which lethal chemicals will flow into his arms, once massive from lifting weights.
The death chamber will be equipped with 12 rolls of adhesive tape, 20 syringes, 10 needles, 15 tubes of varying sizes, four bags of saline solution, scissors, six tourniquets, two boxes of surgical gloves and one box each of surgical masks and alcohol wipes. There will be handcuffs and leg irons.
FOR THE RECORD:
Death penalty —An article in Saturday’s California section transposed two of the drugs the state uses to carry out an execution by lethal injection. The article should have stated that pancuronium bromide paralyzes an individual, and potassium chloride stops the heart.
Nothing is left to chance. The choreography has been refined over the course of 11 executions at San Quentin since 1992 and hundreds before that. The smallest detail — including the dose and combination of chemicals that will sedate Williams, paralyze him and cause his death — is set forth in a 43-page document, San Quentin Operational Procedure No. 770.
Indeed, as the governor ponders clemency and as final appeals are readied, the steps laid out in Procedure 770 already are being taken. The long walk it prescribes for Williams — co-founder of the Crips street gang and convicted murderer of four people — began Oct. 26, when acting Warden J.D. Stokes appeared at his cell and read him the execution warrant.
Since that day, prison officials have been dismantling the life that Williams has known since he arrived on death row in 1981, and seeking to desensitize him to his impending death. The prison chaplain has visited Williams to “assess his spiritual and emotional well-being,” as the rules dictate, and his “attitudes or thoughts on death and dying.”
Williams was moved, in shackles, to a cellblock at the north end of the turn-of-the-century prison by San Francisco Bay. San Quentin houses 649 condemned inmates, but the 68 in “North Seg” — the original death row — have, in some ways, the best location. Cells are larger than most, inmates have their own exercise yard, and they can mingle on the open tier.
A team of officers began watching Williams around the clock Thursday, logging his activity at 15-minute intervals. Unusual behavior must be reported to the warden.
In 1967, Aaron Mitchell, condemned for the murder of a Sacramento police officer, ranted that he was Jesus Christ and slit his wrists on the night before his execution.
With his life perhaps measured in days, Williams does get some privileges. He can receive more visitors than usual. Celebrities, friends and reporters have come calling.
“The inmate and the visitor(s) may briefly embrace or shake hands at the beginning and end of the visit. No other physical contact will be allowed,” Procedure 770 says.
Williams’ lawyers have additional access but are limited to bringing “one pen or pencil, one note pad, necessary legal materials.” There will be “constant visual observation” by guards.
On the third day before an execution — today — the chamber will be closed to anyone not cleared by the warden. The lieutenant in charge of the chamber controls the keys.
The chamber is in a self-contained unit at San Quentin. It has two holding cells, in case two executions are scheduled for the same day. There is an officers’ area and a place for witnesses to stand. The unit is cleaned and sanitized daily.
On Sunday, the lieutenant must inventory the equipment and chemicals. Outdated items must be replaced immediately.
On Monday, the 5,500 inmates at San Quentin will stay locked in their cells.
It falls to prison officers to carry out the ultimate punishment, and they enlist the help of the condemned. “Our process begins with us interacting with the inmate,” said Lt. Vernell Crittendon, a San Quentin officer who has witnessed all executions since 1992.
The prison staff has no fewer than 40 conversations with the condemned inmate, he said. The prison wants to ensure that nothing comes as a surprise
“There is constant contact,” Crittendon said. “All subjects are covered. All are focused around the demise of the individual.”
Robert Johnson, professor of justice, law and society at American University in Washington D.C., said a condemned prisoner thinks about whether the death “will be a dignified one or undignified.”
“Cooperation, almost collusion, allows [prisoners] the sense of dignity,” said Johnson, author of “Death Work, a Study of the Modern Execution Process.”
For the most part, executions since 1992 have gone as planned, according to Crittendon, an accomplishment he attributes to “the preparation of the staff and the preparation of the inmate.”
So far, Williams “has not agreed to be a part of any of the normal procedures,” said Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Todd Slosek. The prisoner declined, for example, to specify whether he wanted to be executed by gas or injection. The default method is injection, Slosek said.
On Thursday, when procedure dictated that Williams’ belongings, including a toothbrush, be taken from his cell, he was “upset,” according to Slosek. Officers will return the items if he requests them, but he must give each back when he’s done with it.
Removal of such objects is “a security issue,” Slosek said.
Barbara Becnel, Williams’ close friend and confidant, said it’s a question of dignity; he must even give up his bedding when he wakes in the morning. And when she visited him Thursday, he was shackled, unlike on past visits.
Becnel said the prison has “created a more harsh reality for Stanley Tookie Williams.”
On Monday, one member of the execution team — whose identities remain secret under Procedure 770 — will take possession of the drugs needed to perform it, until the substances are needed or returned unused.
Officers will test the phone lines that run from the execution chamber to the California Supreme Court and the state attorney general’s office. That’s in case a stay is granted, as it was in 1992, after Robert Alton Harris, the first person executed in California after a 25-year gap, had been strapped in the gas chamber.
On Monday, an escort team will strip-search and shackle the prisoner in his cell. Then “the inmate, wearing only underwear, is escorted to the holding cell, where he is retained pending an unclothed body search, which includes a metal detector scan,” says Procedure 770.
The prisoner receives new clothes: undershirt, shorts, socks, blue jeans, blue shirt and canvas slippers. Once clothed and placed back in restraints, the inmate is walked to the elevator and rides down six tiers, to the death-watch cell.
The cell has a bed and mattress, blanket, pillow, heater, radio, television, three sets of state-issued clothes, towels and a chess and checkers set. A lieutenant will tell the inmate that dinner is served at 6 p.m., and introduces the sergeant and two officers who will stand watch throughout Monday evening.
Valium or another relaxant will be available if the inmate requests it and health authorities approve.
The condemned inmate is also allowed “reasonable last requests,” including special food and a choice of radio or television programs. Some inmates refuse last meals; Williams had not ordered one as of Friday.
Robert Lee Massie, executed in 2001, requested well-done fried oysters, french fries, two vanilla milkshakes and soft drinks. Harris’ 1992 meal included Domino’s pizza, KFC chicken and Pepsi.
Two hours before the execution — scheduled for one minute past midnight — the injection team will check that supplies are in place. An hour before the execution, the team readies the tubes and needles.
Visits to Williams will have ended, but the inmate’s attorney can call, and a spiritual advisor, if Williams wants one, can stay with him until 45 minutes before the execution.
The warden will arrive, speak briefly with Williams — perhaps hearing his last words — and direct that witnesses take their places.
There is space for 50 witnesses, whose identities the prison does not reveal. Among them may be five witnesses and two spiritual advisors chosen by the inmate, victims’ family members and reporters. Williams has not requested that any of his own family members or close friends be permitted to witness his execution, should it occur.
If it does, Williams will walk to the death chamber once witnesses are in place. The execution team will strap him to a gurney and connect him intravenously to two bags of saline solution. No member of the San Quentin staff may address team members by name or ask them anything that would require an oral response.
After a final time check, Warden Steven Ornoski will order that the flow of saline cease and be replaced with lethal agents: first, the sedative sodium pentothal, then potassium chloride to paralyze Williams and, finally, pancuronium bromide to stop his heart.
The identity of the person who has inserted the poison will not be revealed. The infusion will continue until the prison doctor pronounces Williams dead. The execution chamber will be shut with a curtain.
“The body shall be removed with care and dignity and placed in a body bag,” says Procedure 770. “The chamber should then be cleaned thoroughly.”
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