Willie Lloyd Turner is on death row in Virginia because while robbing Smith Jewelers in the town of Franklin on a July morning in 1978, he coolly shot the owner, William Jackson Smith Jr., 54, in the head and then twice more to make sure he was dead.
A witness testified that Turner walked over and "just looked at Mr. Smith and fired the gun at Mr. Smith." Another "heard Mr. Smith yell like a puppy" as he fell. The town was in an uproar at the murder of a respected citizen, a loving father who sang in his church choir and had worked hard 24 years building his business.
At the time of the murder, Turner was out on probation for another murder he was convicted of 4 1/2 years earlier.
For the family and friends of Jack Smith, the case of the Commonwealth of Virginia vs. Willie Lloyd Turner is a source of never-ending bitterness. They think the case was so mishandled that it has shaken their faith in the criminal justice system and left them wondering if society is capable anymore of rendering punishment.
Not only was Turner on probation when he shot Smith, but his behavior prior to the murder was bizarre and violent--yet police, alerted to this, failed to act. Police bungled the handling of the robbery itself, and later Turner escaped from the local jail for a day, terrorizing everyone involved. It took authorities 1 1/2 years to prosecute him and now, four years after the crime, he sits on death row with little likelihood of ever being executed. To those who knew Smith, it's as if the system is so incompetent it can't even execute a man after vowing to do so.
Many Americans today share that view. Although more than 1,000 convicted murderers sit on death rows in prisons across the country, some legal experts think there is little possibility that the U.S. will ever again execute criminals in large numbers. As long as the criminal justice system allows seemingly limitless appeals, the fate of men like Turner will remain undecided.
For those touched directly by the criminal and his actions, there is another kind of anguish. When Betty Smith talks about her murdered husband, tears well in her green eyes: as long as Turner's appeals continue and his legal status remains uncertain she is haunted in a strange, unsettling way.
"I don't care if Willie Turner is executed," she says. "I just want him to be put away where he won't do any harm . . . I think it'd be a relief for Willie Turner to be killed. If they'd just go in and settle it so we could get back to normal. Willie Turner was scheduled to die 15 September 1981. I purposely planned to be out of town . . . so I would not have to be where I heard and knew everything. But before I left, the prosecutor called and said, 'He's gotten a reprieve.' I thought, 'I wish they'd say he's not going to be executed . You think you're through with him and then something else comes up."
Jack Smith and Willie Lloyd Turner lived in the same town but were of different worlds.
Turner, 36, is the son of itinerant laborers. He was born and raised on farms around Franklin, a rural lumbering town of 7,000 in Southampton County an hour west of Norfolk. In 1831 the county was the scene of Nat Turner's slave rebellion in which 57 whites were killed and 16 slaves later executed.
Willie Turner's alcoholic father was abusive, according to court records. Turner never finished fifth grade or had close friends. He was unpredictable, violent. He became a barber but had trouble holding jobs, losing one not long before the Smith murder--while on probation--for slapping a customer who didn't like a haircut.
Jack and Betty Smith met in Richmond when he was at Randolph-Macon College and she in nursing school. They married in 1948 and moved to Franklin in 1957 with their two small children. Smith opened the jewelry store and his wife went to work in the county hospital to help "support us because . . . we did not have any money." After "many hard years of doing without," the business and Betty Smith's career both flourished. In 1967 she became chief of the hospital's 175-member nursing staff.
On July 12, 1978, the couple's tranquil life was shattered. According to court testimony, this is what happened:
At 11:20 a.m. Turner entered the store on Second Avenue with a sawed-off shotgun hidden in a pillowcase. Jack Smith was inside with clerk Mary Huffman and customer Shelton Smith, 18, a college student not related to the jewelry store owner.
Jack Smith asked Turner if he wanted money and Turner motioned with the gun. The owner began stuffing money into a jewelry bag.
Another customer, Judy Cosby, wife of the high school football coach, entered the store.
Turner motioned everyone behind the counter as Jack Smith took jewelry out of display cases. He activated a silent alarm installed after a 1973 robbery.
At 11:21, Franklin police officer Alan D. Bain Jr. got the alarm call in his squad car, drove to the store and walked in.
"Hey, your silent alarm is on," he said, according to Cosby's testimony. "Is something wrong?"
Turner silently aimed the shotgun at him and disarmed him. He put Bain's pistol in his belt.
"Is this alarm still on?" Turner asked.
Smith nodded yes.
Turner told him to cut it off.
Turner told Smith to get more jewelry bags. Smith got some and started filling them.
The telephone rang.
Turner motioned with the shotgun for Cosby to answer it. As she took a message from a customer, Turner aimed the shotgun at her ear.
After the call and as Smith was filling bags, Turner took the police pistol from his belt, examined it and casually fired it once toward the back of the store.
Outside, two off-duty Richmond policemen heard the commotion and radioed for help from Bain's car.
Then, Cosby said in court, Turner "walked back over to the middle of the room in front of Mr. Smith and just looked at Mr. Smith and fired the gun at Mr. Smith 's head . . . I saw Mr. Smith fall back and slump across the counter and then he fell."
Bain said Turner "just pointed right at Mr. Smith and fired. There was no warning. He just pointed and fired. At that time I started talking to him . . . I offered to carry the stuff and take him anywhere he wanted to go."
Meanwhile Huffman and Shelton Smith scrambled out the front door. Police thought Shelton Smith was a robber and fired. Shelton Smith hit the ground, was handcuffed, put in a patrol car, then later released.
Inside the store Turner said, "I'm going to kill this. . . squealer for snitching on me ," according to Bain's testimony.
He leaned over the counter and, Cosby said, "took the pistol and pointed it right over there at Jack Smith and fired, and I saw myself the impact of the bullet as it hit his chest and Mr. Smith jumped and I didn't see him move any more after that."
Then Turner walked to the back of the store. Bain jumped him and "yanked the weapons out of his hands and ordered him to the floor."
Police rushed in.
Jack Smith was pronounced dead on arrival at Southampton Memorial Hospital at 11:30 a.m. Photos in the thick court jackets show bullet holes in his back, right temple and behind his ear.
As Smith's body was taken into the emergency room, Betty Smith was upstairs conducting a head nurse's meeting. She remembers how "somebody came up and wanted the head nurse from the emergency room. I said, 'The way they're acting is so strange, you'd almost think it was one of us.' And then in a few minutes the administrator came up. He just said, 'Let's go downstairs.' My son had just graduated from high school and was doing yard work for the hospital. I thought it was Billy out in the yard. 'Is it Billy?' He said, 'No.' They took me down to the board room. 'It's Jack.' I said, 'Let me go to the emergency room,' and they said no. Finally someone said, 'He's been shot.' I think they had one of the doctors tell me. Then somebody went and got Billy."
The story of Turner's release on probation prior to the Smith murder shows a corrections system rife with guesswork and error.
Turner's criminal record began at 18 with arrests for assaults and weapons concealment. In 1970 he received a five-year sentence in Virginia for malicious maiming after shooting someone in a pool hall. He escaped in 1971, was recaptured, and for that was sentenced to a year in jail with two months of it suspended. He also received a five-year sentence for malicious wounding in connection with the escape, but this was overturned on appeal and after a retrial Turner received a two-year sentence.
In 1973 he received a five-year sentence, with four years of it suspended, for stabbing another inmate at Powhatan Correctional Center.
On March 21, 1974 he was sentenced to 10 years for second-degree murder for stabbing to death another Powhatan inmate.
On Nov. 28, 1975, after serving 20 months or one-sixth of his 10-year sentence, he was released on parole by the Virginia Parole Board, but only because he went directly to a federal prison to serve a five-year sentence imposed in 1970 for a federal firearms violation.
When Turner arrived at the federal penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pa., he was credited with having already served 16 months of his federal sentence in a state prison, because when the judge had imposed the sentence he had set it to begin Aug. 1, 1974.
Federal officials kept Turner another 25 months, releasing him Jan. 5, 1978. At that point he had served 41 months of his 60-month (five year) federal sentence--the 19 months taken off his sentence for "good time," or good behavior in prison.
A federal prison spokesman said Turner's release from Lewisburg was "mandatory" because criminals cannot be required to serve "good time" in prison but instead are released on probation until their sentences end. In Turner's case, he was to remain on probation for 19 months after his release. After six months of that, he murdered Smith.
Billy Torrans, chief U.S. probation officer in Norfolk, said Turner reported to his office Jan. 5, 1978, and a probation officer regularly met Turner in his home and in the Franklin barbershop where he worked. The officer also checked police records, Torrans said.
Virginia Parole Board Chairman Pleasant C. Shields said Turner would not have been paroled if he had not gone directly to federal prison.
"The record was not good, but he was paroled to a federal detainer," Shields said. "We release convicts when we believe that it is safe for a person to be released . . . He does not have to be considered safe to go to a detainer."
Shields said convicted murderers in Virginia given sentences of less than life are eligible for parole after they serve one-quarter of their sentences minus "good time." He said when Turner entered prison in Virginia in September 1970, his parole eligibility date was set for June 1971. He was interviewed and turned down for parole in 1971, 1972, 1973, and 1974, and finally paroled in 1975.
Shields said that when the Virginia board paroled Turner to federal authorities, "I don't think we knew how long they were going to hold him. I don't know. We live and operate day-by-day in life-and-death situations. We know that. It doesn't make the job any easier knowing that. But we, in spite of our efforts, we're not God. We have no way of knowing precisely what one of these convicts is going to do."
There are other parole rules for convicted murderers in Virginia. A murderer given a life sentence on a first offense may be paroled after 15 years. Other murderers--including those with two or more life sentences, and those convicted of capital murder but given life instead of death--may be paroled after 20 years. The only cases in which a murderer serving a life sentence can never be paroled are:
When the murder was committed while the murderer was on parole from a previous life sentence.
When he was given a death sentence that was commuted to life by gubernatorial, not court, action.
Betty Smith and her daughters believe, incorrectly, that if Turner's death sentence were commuted to life in prison through court action, he would never again be eligible for parole.
In fact, Shields confirmed, having served four years, Turner would be eligible for parole in 16 years.
After Turner's release, there were signs something was wrong. According to psychiatric reports filed in court, he drank heavily, lost a job after slapping a customer, told his wife he was coming home to commit a robbery, and sat on a sofa one night in Franklin caressing, kissing and talking to a gun. The incidents were apparently not detected by probation officials or police.
However, police knew that Turner was misbehaving because Turner's mother, Gussie Mae, was so frightened by his behavior that she called them twice. "At times it seemed like he was in a daze, looked like he was living in another world," she testified. She thought he was dangerous, and when she learned in June that he "had a sawed-off shotgun in the street . . . I called the police to check on him because that was one of the days he was in a daze."
Police came to the house but couldn't find the gun or Turner. His mother told them "he needed treatment" and they told her to bring him downtown before a judge. She didn't because she didn't see him again for several days, and police never followed through.
Then Turner chased an acquaintance around the house with a gun, his mother testified, and said he was going to kill her. His mother again called police and said he needed help "because his mind wasn't right . . . I was thinking he needed treatment for his mind." Again police came, found nothing, and failed to follow through.
Q. "Mrs. Turner, as a mother did you think Willie Lloyd Turner might hurt somebody when he was in one of those dazes?"
A. " . . . I felt he would if anybody would push him."
Q. "Was it your hope that the police officers would take him and get him where he needed to be?"
Psychiatrist Dr. Robert C. Bransfield testified that at the time of the murder Turner could tell right from wrong and was in contact with reality. He said Turner was manipulative and antisocial but that, "During the robbery, he did not make any statements which sounded psychotic. The policeman entering and announcing that the silent alarm had been set off did not result in any immediate impulsiveness on the part of Mr. Turner. One must consider the question of irresistible impulse in the shooting that he was obviously angry after he realized that the silent alarm had been set. He did not react to this immediately. He methodically continued the robbery, and then committed the murder."
Turner was convicted by a jury in December 1979 in another county where the trial was moved because of pretrial publicity in Franklin. The jury sentenced him to death and the judge, who could have reduced the sentence to life, left it intact. The Virginia Supreme Court upheld the conviction and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider Turner's appeal.
The execution was set for Sept. 15, 1981, but was stayed when Turner filed for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. That appeal was denied last January, and Turner is filing other appeals. As long as there are issues to appeal, there will be no execution.
"My husband was a very fine man, well respected in the community, an honest man," said Betty Smith. "He loved to work in the yard. He was a Mr. Fixit . . . He played golf a lot. He was just a good man. Do you know, after he died I had many black people come and give me money that Mr. Smith had loaned them. I had no idea he'd done that. He'd just done that."
She held up a picture of her husband. "See how handsome he was? . . .
"Jack and I were just where we could really enjoy life--financially. Both the girls were married and Billy was going to school. We worked all those years to be ready for it, and then what good does it do?"
She and her daughters went to Richmond to confront the parole board. "I'm very bitter against them. They said they did the very best they could. They said they did make a mistake and they were sorry . . . I can't understand how the court works. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Turner's appeal, and then this [defense] lawyer just keeps on . . . I can't understand how they keep getting appeals." Vicki Moore, one daughter, said her mother is careful in newspaper interviews because, "She's afraid she might say something that would get Willie Turner off the hook."
On death row, Turner is cool and collected, and continues to profess his innocence. He wears his hair in an Afro and his prison clothes as if they were designer casuals--shirt open over dungarees, brown loafers, no socks. His face is scarred under one eye.
"During the trial they talked about me so bad, as if I'd kill someone just by looking at him . . . You set forth your best effort to prove your innocence. It's hard to tell someone you didn't do something; they don't believe you . . . I feel like in due time I can build up enough evidence.
"The most terrorizing part of being on death row is to come up with some future hope, some plan. The future is black. You can't say, 'Next week, next year . . . ' It's a sad thing. If you go into your imagination to escape reality , then you go insane . . . I am involved in prison lawsuits and it gives me something to do . . . I got to keep on trying, as long as I got a tomorrow . . . I read mostly on anything concerning law . . . I do a lot of inventions. I got one patent application on a hair-cutting device as I am a master barber and hair stylist . . .
"I escaped from the Southampton County Jail . . . The plan was perfect, the plan was great . . . It sends cold chills down my back. I walked right through a steel gate, cut into the lock mechanism with a hacksaw blade obtained from careless plumbers . I could leave here if I wanted but I got too much respect for my family. I don't want to terrorize society. My friends have confidence in me. I don't want to mess their confidence up. The ideals that I have: escape doesn't serve my purpose because I couldn't take care of my family and be respected . . . They said the escape was the work of a genius. If I can think of that kind of stuff, I can think of something to help my family. That's why I'm trying inventions. Even if I was to be executed, I'd have something to leave my family."
The town of Franklin was, and remains, deeply shocked by the Smith murder and the official bungling that accompanied it.
"This is a senseless experience which grabs each of us where we live," said the Rev. Wade Munford at the crowded funeral, "but we must not allow ourselves to lash out in bitterness and hatred because that will destroy us."
Nevertheless, there was great bitterness.
"Why in the hell was Turner out on the streets in the first place before he killed Mr. Smith?" asked Huffman, the witness to the murder, in a letter to the local paper.
" . . . It really hurts me to know that a Dear Boss and Friend is gone on account of a criminal out on probation for no reason . . . The state is now paying for Turner to lie in that jail cell . . . The state ought to have him out digging ditches or cleaning out toilets to let him know what it is to work."
For some, the bitterness is very sharp, and sharply expressed. "They take all this time to prosecute this b------," said the jewelry store's current manager, William R. Atkinson Jr. " . . . Why spend all that money? Tell me why they didn't hang him ? . . . I blame the policeman Bain for not blowin' his guts out when he had 'im here."
"As far as I'm concerned, people like that, you might as well . . . put them in the chair," said local lumber salesman Lloyd (Bud) Brotzman, a friend of Smith's. "I know there are situations where you get into 'premeditated' and all this jazz, but take a guy like Turner, how the hell he got out to begin with? I have no sympathy for him. I have more sympathy for the system that let it happen."
"Why is nothing done?" said Dottie McFatter, who works at the jewelry store. "We the taxpayers pay to let that son of a gun eat better than many of us eat. If they don't put the electric chair back into use, I believe there's going to be more of this sort of thing."
One of the most thoughtful analyses came from Judy S. Riddick, a neighbor of the Smiths. "They were just an average American family," she said. "It's just a tragedy, an awful thing that tore us all to pieces and has ever since -- the loss, living with the family, and the family having to cope with this. We've never experienced anything like this. You lose somebody and they die, but cold-blooded murder, you can't relate to it because you've never experienced it before.
"I guess as long as he is on death row, the case is not closed . . . It's very difficult to put in words because it's always present. We've gone through the trial, the time when he ecaped from jail. Each time it comes up, you can't close the book, even though your life has to go on . . .
"I think in some situations I would have to be for the death penalty . You know, I'm not saying I am or not in this particular one. This was cold-blooded murder. I think the disturbing thing in this one is why was he on the street, why was he paroled? His record speaks for itself. My feeling is there are millions of people out here who are law-abiding, everyday Americans who go to work and raise their families. We have a right to be protected from people who cannot function in society . . . I'm not saying I believe in an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. My thought is: he is not safe to be on the streets, somebody else is going to get killed if he's on the street again . . . We hear all the time about the rights of these individuals, but what about the millions of other people who are faced with these people on the street, not knowing what they are going to do and when? It's time that we be protected from them, and if it means putting them away then it should be done."
Every day, Betty Smith drives past her husband's grave, which is marked by a plain gray stone under a big tree in Poplar Springs Cemetery. On the stone is carved: SMITH William Jackson Smith Jr. Tec. 4 U.S. Army World War II April 10, 1924-July 12, 1978