Convicted murderer Billy Bailey was hanged today, dropping silently from an outdoor gallows at the state penitentiary here in the most violent legal execution Delaware has performed in half a century.
Bailey, who shotgunned an elderly farm couple to death without provocation in 1979, was already standing on the 15-foot wooden platform when witnesses entered the compound in a distant corner of the Delaware Correctional Center at midnight. The noose swung beside him in a bitterly cold wind.
Bailey, 49, faced forward without expression, flanked by guards wearing black jumpsuits and black hoods held in place by baseball caps. One faced forward holding Bailey's left arm. The other kept his back to witnesses and held the prisoner's shoulder.
Warden Robert Snyder, standing farther to the right, at first did not hear Bailey's reply when the condemned man was asked if he had any last words.
"Pardon?" Snyder said.
"No, sir," Bailey repeated.
The guards then led the squat, 200-pound man onto the trapdoor, placed a strap around his ankles and pulled a black hood over his head and upper chest. The noose was fastened over the hood and tightened beneath Bailey's chin.
Several times, Snyder felt at the hood to be certain that the top of the hangman's knot lay beneath Bailey's left ear, the placement old Army regulations specify to assure the straightening rope has the best chance of bringing quick death by severing the spinal cord. Finally, the warden stepped back and pulled a gray wooden lever with both hands.
The trapdoor opened with a thump. Five feet of manila rope followed Bailey through the hole and snapped taut 10 feet above the sodden ground.
Bailey's body spun counterclockwise six times, then rotated once in the opposite direction. In the perhaps 20 seconds before Snyder released a canvas tarp to conceal the body, witnesses said, they found themselves thinking of a rag doll. One sleeve of Bailey's denim prison jacket flapped in the bitter wind. His dangling feet wore new white tennis shoes.
Eleven minutes later, a voice behind the tarp announced that the official time of death was 12:15 a.m. A Correction Department spokeswoman later declared the execution had occurred "without complication." An independent trauma surgeon said 11 minutes was not an unusual amount of time to wait for the pulse to stop after the spinal cord has been cut.
"The heart beats on its own," said the surgeon, Willie C. Blair, of Greenbelt, Md. "That's why we can transplant them."
It was the first hanging in Delaware since 1946 and only the third in the United States since 1965. The two others took place in Washington state, where Delaware officials traveled to study a means of execution that in recent decades has given way to more sanitized methods.
After going decades without an execution, Delaware since 1992 has put to death five men by injection, which became the state's official method in 1986. But Bailey chose to be killed according to his original 1980 sentence.
The 19th of 23 children, Bailey grew up amid stark poverty and chronic physical abuse, state records show. As a young man, he was known to police as a brawler and a thief. On May 21, 1979, after he learned that under a habitual offender statute, he faced life in prison for a check forgery conviction, he walked away from a work-release center. Weeping, he held up a liquor store, then he murdered Gilbert Lambertson, 80, and Lambertson's wife, Clara, 73, in their farmhouse barely 10 miles from the gallows.
Bailey's execution was seen by the couple's sons, Saxton and Delbert Lambertson, who afterward shook hands with prosecutor Paul Wallace. A dozen other relatives and family friends waited outside, separated from death penalty opponents by two snow fences.
"When they know for a fact that someone did something, it shouldn't take 16 years to execute him," said Mary Ann Lambertson, who heard the shots and found the bodies of her in-laws slumped on the chairs where Bailey had arranged them. She said that half her father-in-law's face was blasted away and that Clara Lambertson was shot through the hand she would bring to her breast when startled.
"One of 'em watched the other one get blown away," said Dennis Lambertson, the grandson who now lives in the big yellow farmhouse where the murders occurred. "They were kind of old, feeble people. My grandfather kind of wobbled when he walked."
Bailey had told his attorney earlier that he hoped his death would bring the family peace. The lawyer, Edmund D. Lyons, declared the execution "medieval."
"The most chilling thing was the two fellows up on the platform with Bill with the hoods on their heads," Lyons said.
"If we are proud of what we've done today, ask yourself why we do it in the middle of the night. If we are proud of what we've done today, ask yourself why we hood those who are part of the execution."
Prison officials clearly were reluctant about the hanging, worrying openly about the mechanics of a process that can end in strangulation or decapitation. Officers spent hours practicing on gallows first refurbished for Bailey in 1986. Today a non-skid safety strip was affixed to each of the 23 steps.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Thomas R. Carper (D) acknowledged that the method was "awkward." It divided even those who braved biting winds to show their support for capital punishment.
"I don't think hanging is a good idea," said Kevin Gant, a Dover truck driver. "It's part of our history."
Beside him, retired police officer Roger Hollopeter wanted more. "I actually think that they should bring back the whipping post," he said. In fact, Delaware Senate Majority Leader Thomas Sharp (D) has repeatedly introduced legislation that would return lashing, outlawed in 1972, for some drug offenses.
"No fewer than five and no more than 40 lashes, well laid on" was the penalty prescribed in his first bill, which a colleague said would validate outsiders' impression of Delaware as "a little quaint and a little strange." CAPTION: Bailey, shown in a 1980 photo, was the third person hanged in the United States since 1965. CAPTION: The gallows at the prison in Smyrna, Del., where Billy Bailey, 49, was hanged early yesterday for the May 1979 murders of an elderly couple.