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The Independent Archive: Just another day in the electric chair

28 August 1987

Sarah Helm reports from Louisiana, where executions have become so frequent as to pass almost unnoticed

THIS WEEK, the rate of executions in Louisiana reached its highest since 1941. The death of Sterling Rault in the electric chair was the eighth in the state in the space of 10 weeks.

Following a Supreme Court decision in April which removed major legal barriers, Louisiana courts had moved swiftly to throw out appeals and to clean out death row. "We still have the lynch mob down here," said Judie Menadue, of Louisiana Capital Defense Project. The pattern is expected to be reflected elsewhere, pushing the execution rate in 1987 in the US states which have the death penalty to its highest ever. "It's just becoming a routine - no one takes any notice any more," said one civil rights campaigner.

Inside Louisiana State Penitentiary on the night before the execution, the routine was running smoothly and the press attention was light.

All executions in the state must take place between midnight and 3am. The usual explanation is "it's written in the law that way". But as Sister Helen Prejean, who works with the death row inmates, commented: "It's a dirty deed and they do it at night in the bowels of the jail so no one will see."

At 10pm, the warden, R. Hilton Butler, gave his regular execution press conference. "For his last meal at 6.30pm, he chose a T-bone steak, 12 shrimps, French fries, Pepsi and strawberry shortcake. I have spoken to Rault and he is taking it real calm, real good," said Butler, with a guard chewing at his side.

At 11.30pm, a line of seven witnesses was driven off the five miles across the grounds to the death chamber. In the prison lobby, a telephone was lying off the hook, keeping the line open for an agency reporter. "You guys got deadlines, so you'll want to know right away?" asked one official. Another commented: "This used to be fine when we got paid overtime, but that's all stopped now."

At 12.15am, a reporter looked at his watch. "It should be happening just about now." The door reopened and the official walked in. "12.16. It's over." At 12.45am, the witnesses were back. "When he was strapped in the chair, he gave a thumbs-up sign with both hands and then looked over at his aunt, Sister Mary Rault, a Roman Catholic nun, and said, `I love you.' The first jolt passed through him at 12.10 and he arched sharply and clenched his fists. After the first jolt he appeared to remain with his fists clenched during subsequent jolts," said the spokesman for the witnesses.

Sterling Rault, a father of two, was convicted in 1982 of murdering his secretary, Janie Francioni. He raped her, shot her twice and set her body alight with gasoline.

Speaking two days before his execution, Rault said he had accepted death. "I will just be transferring from death row to life row. I will be going to join God."

Louisiana State Penitentiary is known as "the prison plantation". Covering 18,000 acres, it houses 4,760 prisoners, 80 per cent black and one third serving life. Death row is in Camp G. Its single-storey green buildings, housing 39 inmates, sweat in the heat, surrounded by neat flowerbeds and triangular exercise pens. Two miles away is "death house" where the prisoner goes the day before his execution - and next door to that, the execution chamber itself.

The prison's executioner is known as Sam Jones. "Nobody really knows who he is. He just rings up when he knows there is an execution and we go and pick him up. He gets paid $400 a time - but I'm sure we could find a load of people to do it for free," said the warden.

Richard Peabody, an assistant warden, explained the procedure. "We administer 2,400 volts for 10 seconds, 500 for 20 seconds, 2,400 for 10 seconds and then again 500 for 20 seconds. The idea is not to have any overkill - excessive scarring, for example. It is our belief that the man is dead from the moment of the first jolt." Peabody said none of the guards look forward to executions. "We treat them as well as we can or as bad as we have to - it's just part of the job." His feet on his desk and puffing a pipe, the warden agreed. "It's just part of the job."

From `The Independent', Friday