I MET a guy named Wilbert Lee Evans a couple of weeks ago. We sat across from one another, separated by a filthy glass partition, and talked using phones. Evans was in the Richmond State Penitentiary, a murderer scheduled to die six days later in Virginia's electric chair. I was covering the final days of his life.
I didn't want to see Evans as a man; I preferred to think of him as a murder story. I wanted him to deny his crimes and curse me as a cold-hearted bastard trying to milk a byline out of his almost certain death. I wanted to see myself in much the same way, to be able to describe him as if he were a character in a pulp yarn: a brutal, unthinking animal with eyes as empty as cigarette burns in an old sheet.
But Evans let me down. He was as complex and confusing and compelling as any down-and-outer whose bad decisions had ruined his life and the lives of others, and I resented him for that. The night the Commonwealth of Virginia plugged Evans into the wall and executed him, he picked himself out of the crime story in which I had cast him and became a man after all.
It's not easy to explain how he managed that. There isn't much to point to -- a dramatic moment or two in a life that's otherwise hard to get hold of. Wilbert Lee Evans's big story was his death.
Evans, 44 years old and a native of Raleigh, N.C., died because in early 1981, as he tried to make an escape from Alexandria's former Old Town jailhouse, he stripped away Deputy William Gene Truesdale's weapon and shot the officer once in the side. Evans admitted that much, though he insisted to the end that he hadn't intended to kill the man. He said he saw the old prison's broken gate standing wide open to the street and he seized the moment.
"They didn't close the gate," he told me through the filthy window. "It was broke. If the gate would have been locked I'd never have thought of it." Of course, a broken gate is no excuse for killing Truesdale; there is no excuse for killing Truesdale. An Alexandria Circuit Court jury subsequently found Evans guilty of capital murder, and, in a separate hearing, decided that Evans should die because he was by nature such a violent, misguided individual that he would probably kill again if given the chance.
The jury may have had good reason for that view. In the hearing, they learned Evans had convictions going back to his teenage years -- larceny, breaking-and-entering, assault and escape. When Evans killed Truesdale he was being held because police in North Carolina suspected that he shot another man to death over a card game.
But two months after he was sentenced, Evans found himself in the middle of an uprising at the Mecklenburg Correctional Center. Six death-row inmates armed with home-made knives captured a dozen guards and two nurses.
"I didn't care what they did," Evans said. "I just wanted them to get away from me." But when two inmates tore the clothes off one of the nurses and tied her hands and feet to the four corners of a bed frame, Evans stepped forward and told the two armed killers to stop.
If they harmed the guards or nurses, he reminded them, the police outside would never meet their demands. Evans became the difference between a frightening escape attempt and what could easily have become bloody chaos. No one challenges that.
Near the end, Evans granted interviews to every reporter in sight, trying to save himself. Who wouldn't? Evans said he was sorry for having killed Truesdale, and he dispensed deathbed advice, such as urging kids to stay in school. He turned introspective, examining his life to see what went wrong. Who wouldn't?
"If I would've gone to school I wouldn't have ended up in this situation," he said in the interview in a tiny booth next door to the room with The Chair. He left school after second grade. His mother died when he was 6; his father died while he was in prison. As a child, he made money scooping up rocks where a developer was building a golf course. As an adult, he came to the District. One of the things Evans left behind is a clemency petition to the governor with some old letters in it. Turns out Evans was a cook here for a while. "Evans was an employee of mine at Hofberg's Delicatessen in the late '70s," wrote local restaurateur Samuel Lipowsky. "He worked as a cook and was very interested and serious in learning to be more than just a short-order cook. He carried around a little spiral notebook and would watch and ask me questions about cooking -- he was always taking notes. He was a very reliable, very sincere individual and would do anything for me . . . ."
Turns out Evans played golf, of all things. "He was a generous, nice man and a good golfer. Lee was peaceable," it says in a letter from Harold J. Schwartz, a retired Washington real estate broker. "He was always full of life and entertaining and always wanted our group from the golf course to get together for a few beers." Another fellow golfer, Blair D. Howard of Alexandria, paused to note that Evans "was a better than average golfer and probably gained his skills as a caddy, as most of us did. He was unusual in that he played cross-handed." Turns out from the letters that Evans was a husband, a father, a cousin.
There's a letter from Officer Harold Crutchfield, one of the Mecklenburg hostages whom Evans helped. "I was moved by some of the escaping inmates to the plumbing chase, and later to a closet," Crutchfield wrote. "While I was there, I heard Evans's voice several times. I heard him ask Nurse Boyd, who had also been taken hostage, if she were okay. Later, I heard him say to the escaping inmates, 'You all said you wanted to break out but you said you weren't going to hurt anyone. You promised no one would get hurt.'" Anyway, on Oct. 17 they strapped Evans down and ran 2,400 volts through him -- twice, 55 seconds each time. Maybe one of the few things people knew about Evans is that when they turned on the current, he bled. A lot was made about that in media accounts. A reporter who witnessed the execution planted himself in front of the TV cameras and described how blood appeared to come from the eyes, ears, nose and mouth of Evans.
In fact, it was only a nosebleed. Dr. Carlos Silva, who has been treating electrocution victims for 20 years at the Washington Hospital Center describes what really happened to Evans. According to him, the current almost instantly paralyzes the heart, the lungs and the brain, sending the body's nervous system into a complete panic. The body's last breath is frozen in the lungs until that brief three second pause between surges of electricity. And though Silva said a man cannot consciously suffer throughout the onslaught of power, he almost certainly feels that first pulse as the power switch is thrown.
Dr. Balvir Kapil, attending physician at the execution, said Evans's body grew so hot that he waited two or three minutes for the corpse to cool before he checked for a pulse.
Kapil pronounced Evans dead at 11:09 p.m. "The body is not a very good conductor," Kapil said. "When electrical currents pass through poor conductors, they heat up." Like the elements of a toaster, the doctor said.
Evans's last statement was an apology to the Truesdale family. "I am dead," he said, "and you don't have to hate me anymore." Zita Truesdale, the widow and a truly brave individual, graciously accepted Evans's gesture, saying that she and her 10-year-old son could now "mentally bury my husband."
Those are the few facts about Evans. Not much, but enough to show that Wilbert Lee Evans turned himself from a crime story into a man because in some ways he was not unlike the rest of us. When the murderer died, so did the golfer, the cook, the friend, the husband, and the man who, at least once, may have cared for someone other than himself.
Robert F. Howe is a Washington Post reporter.