An article Tuesday about a Louisiana execution reported incorrectly that a 24,000-volt electrical charge was used. The correct figure is 2,400 volts. (Published 8/28/87)
ANGOLA, LA., AUG. 24 -- A guard's gun holster brushed against the dress of a nun, a Daughter of Charity, and, under the glare of floodlights, Alma Reese, mother of a murdered child, brandished a banner reading: "Tell them about Jesus, then put them in the Chair."
"Did my daughter have the chance to meet the Lord before she was hung from a tree?" she asked reporters leaning on a barrier outside the Louisiana State Penitentiary Sunday night.
Her face contorted with anguish as she looked at nuns praying near candles set on the hood of their car. More banners rose from a cluster of deck chairs in the midnight forest gloom.
"I would like to turn that switch, and I'd turn it real real slow," said Vernon Harvey, a murder victim's father. "He should die the way the victim died."
Reese chimed in: "We were cheated. Our murderer didn't go to the chair. It does us a little good to be here when other vicious murderers are getting killed."
Protests and vigils outside this prison are a regular occurrence as supporters and opponents of capital punishment react to Louisiana's increased use of the electric chair inside.
The execution at 12:16 a.m. Monday of convicted rapist and murderer Sterling R. Rault was the state's eighth in 10 weeks.
Of 87 executions nationwide since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, Louisiana has performed 15, the nation's highest rate per number of state residents.
Since a Supreme Court ruling in April lifted major legal barriers to capital punishment, courts have rapidly set aside stays, and executions have occurred in this state at a faster pace than at any time since 1941.
Those who track capital-punishment cases have said this pattern will be reflected in other states and that a record number of executions is possible this year.
C. Paul Phelps, secretary of Louisiana's Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said the number of executions here is expected to remain high as death-row inmates exhaust legal remedies. Rault, 36, of New Orleans, had been given six reprieves since being sentenced to death Oct. 19, 1982.
Judie Menadue, legal coordinator of the Louisiana Capital Defense Project, said, "There have been so many here that we must take care it doesn't become mundane."
Inside the prison Sunday evening, authorities said, everything was routine and the media presence was light.
"There were banks of TV cameras here when they first started" executions again, "but now it is no longer big news," said Jim Engsler, a reporter with the Louisiana Radio Network.
By law, all executions in Louisiana must take place between midnight and 3 a.m. The explanation most often heard is: "It's just written in the law that way."
But Sister Helen Prejean, a nun who acts as spiritual adviser to death-row inmates, said, "It's a dirty deed done at the dead of night away down there where the world can't see" in relatively remote Angola.
At 10 o'clock on execution nights, Warden R. Hilton Butler regularly takes his seat for the first news conference of the evening.
"The meal of his choice," Butler said Sunday, referring to Rault, "delivered at 6:30 p.m., was a T-bone steak, 12 fried shrimps, french fries, a Pepsi and strawberry shortcake." A guard stood chewing behind him. "I have talked to Rault, and he is taking it real calm, real good," Butler said.
At 11:30 p.m., the seven witnesses prepared to leave for the five-mile drive to the death chamber, deep in the prison grounds.
A telephone lay off the hook to ensure an open line for a news agency, and an official asked, "Which are the guys with the deadlines who'll want to know right away?"
An official commmented, "This used to be okay when we got paid overtime, but now that's stopped."
An inmate in white overalls collected plastic coffee cups. Asking not to be named, he said he, too, had been on death row.
"I feel for the guy that is being executed," he said. "It's kind of lonely on death row. I got lucky when they changed my sentence to life. I guess I won't be looking for any more luck from now on in."
At 12:15 a.m., a reporter looked at his watch and said, "It should be happening right now."
The door at the end of the corridor swung open. "It's over: 12:16," Assistant Warden Roger Thomas said.
Fourteen minutes later came the written statement: "Sterling R. Rault was pronounced dead at 12:16 a.m., Monday, Aug. 24, 1987."
At 12:45, the witnesses returned, and spokesman Roy Brighthill, a wire service reporter, told the media:
"He was strapped in the chair and gave a thumbs-up sign with both hands. He then looked toward his aunt, a Catholic nun, Sister Mary Rault, and said, 'I love you.'
"The first jolt passed through at 12:10 p.m. His body arched sharply against the straps, and his fists were clenched. He appeared to remain in this position with his fists clenched when the subsequent jolts were administered."
Rault, an accountant and father of two, had been condemned for the rape and murder of his secretary, Jane Francioni, 21, on March 1, 1982. During his trial, prosecutors said he murdered Francioni because she knew of his involvement in an embezzlement plot.
Francioni was raped, shot twice, her throat slit and her body doused with gasoline and set alight in a deserted part of New Orleans.
"He raped her with a bullet in her belly," prosecutor David Paddison said. "It was meaner than the way he is going to die. I think the execution should be broadcast from the Superdome," referring to New Orleans' indoor arena.
In an interview last week, Rault said he accepted death. "I still say I am innocent, but I am sorry about what happened to the girl. She was very young."
Sitting in handcuffs and leg irons in a small office on death row, he said, "I am going to join God. I am transferring from death row to life row."
He said the attitude of death row inmates was, simply, "Hang tough."
"A lot of the guards have treated me nicer since I knew I was going to die," he said. "They maybe don't want me to kill myself and cheat the state.
"Others say things like 'You're finally going to get your issue, and we are going to fry your brains out.'
"It's been hard the past few weeks. It's hard when one of the guys walks down the tier, and you know he's not coming back. I usually stay up to see if it's confirmed."
With Rault gone, the number of prisoners on death row here is 38. No further executions are scheduled until at least October.
The death-row area is known as G camp, a small group of one-story, green, concrete buildings, neat flower beds and triangular exercise pens bordered with razor-sharp wire. The area sweats in the heat at the back of the 18,000-acre prison ground known as the "plantation." Rifle-toting guards on horseback watch the outdoor work force nearby.
Two miles away is "death house," the cell next to the death chamber, where the condemned prisoner is taken the day before his execution.
Inside the death chamber is the wooden chair formerly transported around the state when executions were carried out at the scene of the crime.
The chair faces a glass screen and a row of orange plastic chairs where witnesses sit. The executioner is a man known only as "Sam Jones," who has performed 13 executions.
"Nobody knows who he is," Warden Butler said. "We just know him as Sam Jones. He calls in when he knows there is an execution, and we go and pick him up.
"He gets paid $400 each time, but I expect we could find any number of people to do it for free."
Inside the death chamber, Assistant Warden Richard Peabody explained the execution procedure:
"First, his head and left leg are shaved, and then he is strapped to the chair. The electrodes are fixed on, and then the warden comes in. We administer 24,000 volts for 10 seconds, 500 volts for 20 seconds, 24,000 volts for 10 seconds and then 500 again for 20 seconds."
Peabody said the system was chosen to avoid what he termed "overkill" and scarring. "It is our belief that the man is dead when the first jolt is administered," he said.
"There is then five minutes' pause to allow the witnesses to collect their thoughts. Nobody looks forward to this, but it's just their job. We treat them as good as we can and as bad as we have to."
Puffing a pipe and lifting his feet onto his desk, Butler agreed, saying, "I don't get personally involved. It's just part of my job."
In another office across the grounds, Capt. James Arnold, who runs the death-row camp, seated himself in front of a row of photographs of death-row inmates. Several spaces were blank.
"We don't have many problems here on death row. The guards are handpicked, and it's just part of their job," he said.