No tears for the 'Black Widow' of Death Row

Judy Buenoano is to be executed tomorrow. Phil Davison reports on why her grim fate excites little sympathy

AT 7.01am tomorrow, barring a last-minute reprieve, a 54-year- old Florida grandmother, Judy Buenoano, will be strapped to a three-legged electric chair known as "Old Sparky", so nicknamed because its victims' heads have been known to catch fire.

Beneath a black hood, a wet sponge between her shaved head and leather skull cap is supposed to ensure that she feels no pain when an anonymous citizen flips a switch to deliver 2,600 volts through her body at the Florida state prison in the northern town of Starke.

The convicted murderer, known as "The Black Widow," will be the first woman executed in Florida for 150 years, since a black slave called Celia was hanged for stabbing her owner to death in 1848, and only the third woman executed in the US since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

But unlike the outcry over last month's lethal injection execution of born-again Christian Karla Faye Tucker in Texas, Mrs Buenoano's fate has created little attention. She is not as photogenic as Tucker, she has rarely spoken to the media, she is far from a cause celebre. And then there is the nature of her crimes.

A former nurse, manicurist and cocktail waitress, she was first convicted of attempted murder in 1983 after her fiance, John Gentry, survived a car bomb in the Florida city of Pensacola. He told police she had earlier given him pills, saying they were vitamins, but which turned out to be poisonous. Investigators found she had taken out a $500,000 (pounds 300,000) life insurance policy on Mr Gentry.

That led police to look back into what had previously been considered the accidental deaths of her husband, US Air Force Sergeant James Goodyear, in 1971, and her 19-year-old handicapped son Michael, in 1980. In both cases, she had collected insurance money.

After the Gentry case, an autopsy on Sgt Goodyear's exhumed body revealed that he had been poisoned with arsenic. Prosecutors then tried Mrs Buenoano over the drowning death of her son. She had claimed he fell out of a canoe on a fishing trip but the court ruled that she had pushed him overboard to collect insurance money. A later autopsy also revealed he had swallowed arsenic.

Prosecutors in Colorado then said they had evidence she poisoned another boyfried with arsenic in that state in 1978. They decided not to file murder charges after she was given the death sentence in Florida.

Mrs Buenoano has been on death row since 1985. She received a first stay of execution in 1990 after "Old Sparky," carved from a single oak tree and in use since 1923, belched smoke and sparks during the execution of Jesse Tafero. That led to a temporary halt in executions.

Then, a year ago this month, flames a foot long burst from the hood of Pedro Medina after the chair short-circuited during his execution. Witnesses were shocked and executions were halted again, until last week. Experts concluded that Medina had died instantly without feeling pain. Leo Jones, a Death Row inmate, challenged the use of the chair, saying it represented "cruel and unusual punishment" under the US Constitution, but the Florida Supreme Court ruled against him, and the state legislature voted last week to retain the chair. Governor Lawton Chiles signed the bill into law on Thursday, effectively ending Mrs Buenoano's chances of postponing death.

Jones was executed last week, as was serial killer Gerald Stano, who admitted killing 41 women. In both cases, "Old Sparky", after an overhaul by electricians, functioned smoothly.

Karla Faye Tucker, who married her prison chaplain and gave regular TV and newspaper interviews before her execution in Texas in February, became a symbol for opponents of the death penalty, winning clemency pleas from the Pope, Jesse Jackson and the TV evangelist Pat Robertson. Judy Buenoano, by contrast, has kept virtually silent, although maintaining her innocence. Wardens at Broward Correctional Institution in Pembroke Pines, just north of Miami, say she has spent the last few days crocheting or knitting baby clothes which her daughter, Kimberly Hawkins, sells.

And unlike the Tucker case, there have been no demonstrations against Mrs Buenoano's execution, and little or no sign of outcry in Florida or elsewhere.

During one of her hearings, Mrs Buenoano, who was born in Texas and whose mother died when she was four, said she had been physically and sexually abused during her youth by relatives she stayed with. Unlike Mrs Tucker, she has not tried to play the religious card although she insists she is a devout Roman Catholic. She has said she would prefer to die than spend her life behind the drab grey walls of the Broward jail, where her only companions - during exercise hours - are two other women Death Row inmates. The three call themselves Las Tres Amigas (The Three Friends).

She has already decided on her last meal - a salad of broccoli, tomato and asparagus with a cup of tea. Her planned last words? "Vaya con Dios" - Go with God.

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