J.B. Hubbard's failing body kept him lying in bed -- a bunk on Alabama's death row -- most of the last days of his life. Other inmates say they walked his wobbly frame to the showers and listened to him complain about the pain: the cancer in his colon and prostate, the hypertension, the aching back. They combed his hair because he couldn't. They washed him.
When spasms of dementia made him forget who he was -- what he was -- they told him: a 74-year-old, small-town Alabama man gone bad, a twice-convicted murderer, the oldest inmate on "the row." He left them behind, these most unlikely of caretakers, one month ago and was transported south to a drab, gray prison set back in the cotton fields of lower Alabama. As the sun was tipping toward the horizon, Hubbard was put to death there Thursday, becoming the oldest inmate executed in the United States in more than six decades.
His case has set off a wave of debate about the death penalty -- and its lengthy, sometimes decades-long, appeals process -- while refocusing attention on the legions of aging men in the nation's prisons.
"If we're going to call ourselves a civilized society, I see no point in it," said Lucia Penland of the Alabama Prison Project, a Montgomery-based advocacy group for death row inmates. ". . . It seems mean-spirited."
Protesters gathered at the state Capitol for a candlelight vigil, hoping for a last-minute reprieve that never came from Gov. Bob Riley (R). The U.S. Supreme Court also refused to intervene, though by the narrowest of margins, denying Hubbard's appeal on a 5 to 4 vote hours before the execution.
Hubbard's attorneys had argued that his execution for the 1977 killing of Lillian Montgomery, the 62-year-old owner of a Tuscaloosa general store, would be an act of "cruel and unusual" punishment and an indefensible stroke of public vengeance against a man they said had a low IQ to go along with a host of ailments, including hepatitis and emphysema.
"An old, frail man isn't dangerous," said Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer with the advocacy group Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, who had consulted with Hubbard.
But prosecutors said long-overdue justice was being done and railed against a court system that took 27 years to execute a two-time killer.
"The reason he is this old is because his appeals have taken so long," said Tommy Smith, who prosecuted Hubbard's case and is now the district attorney in Tuscaloosa County. "It's ridiculous -- unconscionable -- for any process to take this long."
Hubbard first killed in 1957, teaming with his uncle to rob and murder a Tuscaloosa man. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison but was released in October 1976, in part because a widow agreed to give him a job and help ease him back into society. Lillian Montgomery's sons remembered letters bouncing back and forth between their mother and the inmate who had once lived in the trailer park not far from their store.
"She got to being lonely," said her oldest son, Jimmy Montgomery, 66. "He conned her, and she fell for his story."
The Montgomerys were "dirt-poor farmers" who had no indoor plumbing until the 1950s and did a little bootlegging on the side, selling strong corn liquor to make a few extra dollars, said another son, Johnny Montgomery, 58.
Hubbard worked in the family's store after being released from prison. But not long after he was freed, Hubbard moved into Lillian Montgomery's home, though Johnny Montgomery doubts his mother and the newly released inmate were romantically involved.
He said he saw Hubbard's things in the house and shook his head with disapproval the last night he saw his mother alive when he picked her up for an Elvis Presley concert in Tuscaloosa.
Not long after, on a winter evening in 1977, police say Hubbard shot his benefactor three times in the face. Hubbard, who was 47 at the time, used a gun -- a Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver -- that Jimmy Montgomery had given to his mother so she could protect herself at the store.
After his arrest, Hubbard told police he needed something "to calm his nerves" and they gave him a glass of whiskey, a gesture that his attorneys later used to question the investigation during failed appeals of his conviction and death sentence. Hubbard claimed Lillian Montgomery committed suicide, a contention he held even in the days leading up to his execution.
With his appeals exhausted on Thursday, Hubbard ordered his last meal: fried green tomatoes, bacon and pineapple slices slathered with mayonnaise.
Jimmy Montgomery watched as prison officials at Holman Correctional Center injected his mother's killer three times. The first to put him to sleep, the second to stop his lungs, the third to stop his heart.
"I'd just as soon see the electric chair or the firing squad; it looked like he went kind of peaceful, just dozed off," Montgomery said afterward. "I would have just loved to see him suffering a little more."
Johnny Montgomery stayed home in Birmingham, unable to watch. He said he was thinking about the letter he sent Hubbard three days ago and hoping that the condemned man looked it over.
It said Johnny Montgomery had forgiven Hubbard. And there was one more thing, a few lines of timeless wisdom: "The Sinner's Prayer."