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

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border