The heart to grieve for all America's Billy Baileys

John Carlin on why one Englishwoman campaigns against execution in the US

John Carlin
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:06
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Dover, Delaware - You look at Anne Coleman and you wonder how a human being can endure so much.

Her oldest son, Tim, is brain-damaged, the victim of a brutal, unprovoked assault by strangers. Her daughter Frances was murdered, aged 24, in a Los Angeles back street, leaving a two-year-old child. The youngest of her three children, Danny, devastated by his sister's death, committed suicide.

Tonight a close friend, a double murderer by the name of Billy Bailey, will hang from the Delaware gallows.

All these calamities seem a long way from Lutterworth, in Leicestershire, where she was born in 1941 and led, until her departure for the United States aged 17, an uncommonly theatrical, but far from tragic, family life. Shortly after the end of the Second World War her mother had an affair with a German prisoner of war who was 18 years her junior. In 1948 her parents divorced, and mother married her German lover.

When Anne was 16 and just out of school, she met an American air force sergeant, Claude Coleman, who was based at Lutterworth. Sgt Coleman was 30 and black. He was the first black person she had ever seen. In the face of fierce family opposition, she married him. "My father was outraged. He said it wouldn't last six months. We've been married 38 years."

That was the only piece of good news Mrs Coleman related during a three- hour conversation at her home in Dover, a small and unremarkable American town in a sliver of a state barely bigger than the county where she was born. Since moving to Dover three years ago from Buffalo in New York state, she has risen above her neighbourhood's tranquil anonymity, making a name for herself in Delaware as a fervent campaigner against the death penalty - a stand which seems hard to reconcile with the mother of a woman whose killer was never caught.

"Look," she said, "if someone had given me a gun at the time and said 'This man killed Frances,' I would cheerfully have killed him. But that was the heat of the moment. The anger, sorrow, everything. But rationally I know I couldn't shoot someone. And I would never countenance the state doing it for me. It is a sickening, barbaric and medieval practice."

In the US, in particular, it was "a terrible lottery", Mrs Coleman said, in which the more poor and helpless you are, the greater the chances that you will be convicted of murder and sentenced to die.

Had Billy Bailey been defended by OJ Simpson's "dream team" of lawyers, instead of by a public defender who had been disbarred from private practice for not caring enough about his clients, it is unlikely he would be on Death Row.

Bailey's crime, Mrs Coleman acknowledges, was horrendous. He shot dead an elderly couple in an alcoholic frenzy after robbing a liquor store. But the circumstances of his life, which she teased out of him during 18 months of Death Row visits, made such an explosion almost inevitable.

"He's been a thief all his life. Even as a child he had to steal food to survive. He was one of 23 children. They lived in a two-room shack with their father, who married four times. Billy's mother died when he was six months old.

"The woman his father remarried was brutal to Billy. When he was 10 his father died, and after the funeral was over she abandoned Billy and his 12-year-old sister at the cemetery."

A married half-brother brought him to Delaware. The half-brother abused and beat him and during all of his teens he was in and out of juvenile detention centres. "Billy, I think, is someone condemned to death the moment he was born," she said.

Prison was Bailey's first home. She was his first mother. "Even though he's only six years younger than I am, I feel very maternal towards him, because he's never had any affection in his life." When she visited Bailey for the last time on Saturday he asked her for a strange gift of love: to be his witness at the hanging. She agreed, but the warden refused.

That may be because the warden fears a botched job, and would rather avoid Mrs Coleman telling the world about it, drawing graphic attention to the fact that for its population Delaware has a higher execution rate than Texas, or any other American state.

"Last week," Mrs Coleman said, explaining her suspicions, "four people from the Delaware corrections department went to Washington state to learn how to hang people. No one here knows how to do it. In Washington state they've had two in the last five years, so they're the American experts. I believe they've been doing some hanging training with heavy sacks since they got back. They're weighing Billy daily."

Bailey has also had to suffer the indignity of having his false teeth removed, for fear that he deliberately chokes himself on them. But he has retained some vestiges of pride. A curious sense of pride. He was given the option of being executed by lethal injection - indeed, the authorities have pleaded with him to allow himself to be killed that way - but he was originally sentenced to hang and has exercised his legal right to ensure the sentence is enforced. "I'm not a dog," he has told Mrs Coleman. "I'm not going to let them put me to sleep".

Bailey is scheduled to hang one minute after midnight tonight (just after 5am British time tomorrow ). Mrs Coleman means to demonstrate all day today in protest at his execution outside the Governor's house. At night she will camp as near as she can to a barn inside the prison where the gallows has been erected. "You know the time of death when it comes," said Mrs Coleman, who has attended these grisly vigils before. "You feel it in the air. It's like a huge collective gasp."

When the gasping is done Mrs Coleman will return home and she will sit and grieve for Billy Bailey, for her son and daughter and all the other Billy Baileys, all 3,046 of them at the last count, that await his fate on America's Death Rows. She will grieve as only she knows how.

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