by L. Kay Gillespie
[p.147]On 2 June 1967 Luis Monge was executed by hanging at the Colorado state prison for killing his wife. Monge’s would be the last execution in the United States until ten years later when the state of Utah executed Gary Gilmore. An unofficial nationwide moratorium on executions was observed beginning in 1967, and all executions ceased. Five years later, on 29 June 1972, in its 5-4 Furman v. Georgia decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the capital punishment laws of thirty-five states, sparing the lives of over six hundred men and two women awaiting execution on death rows across the country.
At the time of this decision five men were awaiting execution in Utah:
Darrell Devere Poulsen, age thirty-one, had been sentenced to die for raping and killing eleven-year-old Karen Ann Mechling of American Fork on 17 September 1961. Her father found her body under a tree in a vacant lot near the apartment building where she had been babysitting. Poulsen was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. [p.148]He entered the Utah state prison on 26 December 1961.
Myron Daryl Lance, age twenty-five, and Walter Bernard Kelbach, age twenty-eight, had both been sentenced to die for a killing spree during the week before Christmas in December 1966. Five people were killed in five days before the arrest of Lance and Kelbach in Parley’s Canyon. The victims included two male service station attendants, a cab driver, and two patrons of Lally’s Tavern in Salt Lake City. Both Lance and Kelbach had been released on parole from the Utah state prison just a few months before the killings.
Bennett Merle Belwood, supposedly accompanied by Ruth Ruby Bruce, killed Ronald Paul Smith at Big Hollow Canyon near Dugway by shooting him twice from behind. Belwood confessed to the killing, claiming he and his partner were like Bonnie and Clyde, and referred to the crime as a “Glory Sweep.” He pleaded innocent by reason of insanity but was found guilty of first degree murder. The jury did not recommend leniency, and he was sentenced to die by hanging. His original conviction was overturned, he was retried after the moratorium, and was found guilty again but this time was sentenced to life in prison.
Clark James Redford was serving time for forgery in the Utah state prison when he was arrested and returned to Eureka, Utah, for trial in the murder of Ann Levanger. Her body was found in the central Utah desert, where she had been raped and strangled. Redford had picked her up along the freeway after her car stalled. He was sentenced to death by firing squad on 10 September 1970 and given an execution date of 23 October 1970.
Of these five only Lance and Kelbach remain today in prison. They were resentenced in 1967 to two consecutive life sentences. Poulsen, Belwood, and Redford have all since been released. One of them has a new name; the others have families, sometimes jobs, and go about their daily activities for the most part unnoticed.
[p.Not until 27 November 1974 were there any new residents of Utah's death row. On that date Dale Pierre (who later changed his name to Pierre Dale) Selby and William Andrews entered the prison. They were to be followed by Gary Gilmore.
* * *
While on parole from the federal prison in Marion, Illinois, Gary Mark Gilmore entered a Sinclair station in Provo, robbed the attendant, Max David Jensen, then forced him into the bathroom and killed him with two shots to the head. The next night he robbed and killed Bennie Bushnell at the City Motel. While trying to dispose of the gun in some bushes, it went off, injuring his hand. He was later spotted by a service station attendant and was captured that same night.
Gilmore's execution was the first in the United States following the Furman decision. During the years after 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court in a series of cases had reaffirmed the constitutionality of the death penalty and set forth specific guidelines for its application. Had Gilmore chosen to fight execution, he could have drawn the process out for several years. Instead, he preferred death to the type of life he had already experienced in prisons, reform schools, and institutions in Idaho, Oregon, California, Texas, Washington, and Illinois. He first entered the justice system at the age of twelve when he was described as "spoiled, headstrong and hostile toward authority figures."1
Gilmore was the second of four children. His father had been married previously, his mother had not. One psychiatrist noted, "He was overindulged by his mother, his father was gone most of the time and the family moved a lot."2
Gilmore was disruptive in prison, and he received numerous write-ups for abusive language, spitting, throwing food, and so on. Following a failed suicide attempt, he bit and spit in the face of one of the nurses. At one point he [p.151]stated to those attending him: “If the state of Utah did not have the ‘guts’ to shoot him he would continue to try to take his own life.” He bragged that he would be successful even if it meant biting off his tongue and bleeding to death.3
Prior to his execution he ordered no special meal, only “regular prison fare.” His last request—”I would like to drink a few tall Coors, maybe a six-pack, if possible”4—was not granted. Early in the morning of 17 January 1977, Gilmore was strapped in an old office chair, a small black target with a white circle placed over his heart, and a black hood placed over his head. At 8:07 a.m. he was pronounced dead, the first indoor execution in Utah since 1951 and the first execution in the U.S. since 1967.
After Gilmore’s execution, his uncle, aunt, and two cousins wrote the following note to prison officials: “I would like to express my feelings, also my families’, to you. I don’t know how you feel or what might be going on inside you. But I would like you to know, speaking for all of us, we hold no hard feelings in any way, concerning Gary Gilmore. It is something that had to be. It was also what Gary wanted. Your shots didn’t kill Gary Gilmore, his LIFE did. I hope you take this as a feeling from our hearts.”5
Gilmore’s life was recounted in a book by Norman Mailer and in a Hollywood television movie Executioner’s Song. Utah’s first execution after 1967 was followed by executions in Nevada of Jesse Bishop in 1978 and in Florida of John Spinkelink in 1979.
* * *
Prior to closing time on 22 April 1974, Dale Pierre, William Andrews, and Keith Roberts drove past the Ogden Hi-Fi Shop at 2323 Washington Boulevard. Pierre and Andrews got out of the car a block down the street; Roberts remained in the van and drove to the back door of the Hi-Fi Shop.
Pierre and Andrews entered the shop and began looking around, preparing to rob the store. Before the night was [p.152]over, three people would be killed—Carol Naisbitt, 52; Michelle Ansley, 19; and Stanley Walker, 20. All were forced to drink a caustic drain cleanser and then shot; Ansley had been raped. Two others—Orren Walker, 45, and Cortney Naisbitt, 16—survived. Walker also had a ball point pen kicked into his ear. Three days later, Pierre, Andrews, and Roberts, all in the Air Force, were arrested and charged with murder.
At the trial, Pierre and Andrews were tried together. Roberts was given a separate trial, found guilty of two counts of aggravated robbery, and sentenced to prison. Pierre and Andrews were found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to death by firing squad.
Roberts served thirteen years and was paroled in May 1987 while preparations were being made for the execution of Pierre. Some believed it was actually Roberts who planned the Hi-Fi robbery, but that was never established.
While in prison, Dale Pierre changed his name to Pierre Dale Selby to avoid further embarrassment for his family. Selby and Andrews spent thirteen years on death row together. It was expected they would die together in Utah’s first double execution since Braasch and Sullivan in 1956. However, their appeals became separated in 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court turned down Selby’s appeal and the tenth circuit court became reinvolved in Andrews’s appeal.
Selby appeared before Judge Wahlquist for resentencing on 7 July. He refused to choose between firing squad and lethal injection and was sentenced to die 28 August by lethal injection. Hanging had been outlawed in 1980. On 13 August Selby appeared before the board of pardons in an attempt to have his sentence commuted. During two days of testimony, the board considered Selby’s plea:
I have often thought that if my death would restore the victims to life, then let’s carry out the sentence, but it doesn’t work that way…. also if it [p.153] would stop the hurt, but it just doesn’t work like that. My death would be just another death…. Anyway I would like to try to convince this Board my life is worth being spared, that there is something there worth saving. All I can offer is my sincere apologies the crime ever happened.6
The board also received a letter written by the mother of Michelle Ansley: “I once had a very loving, caring, beautiful daughter—my only daughter…. It is very difficult writing this letter because of the ache in my heart and the tears in my eyes get in the way. How much longer must I relive my daughter’s death?”7
The Board of Pardons refused to commute Selby’s sentence, issuing its ruling on 21 August at 11:30 a.m.: “Without assigning specific weight to each of the three areas of inquiry [circumstances of the crime; history of the offender and efforts at rehabilitation; the circumstances surrounding the penalty], the Board finds on balance that the petitioner has not met the burden required of him. Petitioner’s request for commutation is denied.”8
Shortly before his death Selby talked about the killings:
The crime took a course of its own. It wasn’t planned that way. People kept coming in and I just panicked. The only way to prevent what happened was to have been moved away from the Air Force entirely… Of course the alcohol and the pills I was consuming didn’t help—valiums, reds, black beauties and yellow jackets. Everyone has a limit beyond which they won’t go—drugs, etc., can alter that limit. I tell myself, “You have to accept responsibility for it—you did it, you were there. You can’t rationalize it” (interview).9
Selby was executed on 28 August 1987, the first in Utah [p.154]by lethal injection. He spent his last twenty-four hours fasting, reading the Bible, and completing Seventh-day Adventist reading assignments and lessons. He was calm, conversed with his minister and attorneys prior to execution, and then lay down on the gurney in the execution chamber. He was pronounced dead at 1:13 a.m. He was secretly buried in Salt Lake City.
His death was described by the Salt Lake Tribune on 29 August 1987:
Lying face up, clad in a white jump suit and bound to a gurney with heavy leather straps, Selby lay motionless in the brightly lit white room….
The tan-colored gurney was mounted on a steel pedestal bolted to the floor near a pane of one-way glass. From a small square hole beneath the window ran two plastic tubes that disappeared into white towels wrapped around each of Selby’s outstretched arms….
The warden broke the spell by stepping to Selby’s side, leaning over and speaking to him. The sound of his voice did not penetrate to the witness room, but we knew the warden was asking Selby if he had any last words.
Selby moved his head slightly to the left and mouthed something. The warden spoke again; Selby replied. The exchange took 30 seconds or so, during which Selby flexed the index fingers on both hands slowly and stretched his feet forward and back slightly.
The warden stepped away, stopped about 15 feet from Selby and gave a nod toward the executioner’s room….
And we knew that unseen, behind the one-way mirror, two executioners were pushing the plungers on the first of three syringes. One executioner was [p.156] now injecting sodium pentothal, a powerful anesthetic, into the tube that would carry it to Selby’s bloodstream. The other executioner’s syringe was filled with a harmless saline solution.
Two more chemicals would be injected into Selby, one at a time, over the next few minutes. Next would be Pavulon, a muscle relaxant that would stop his lungs from working. The last, potassium chloride, would stop his heart.
As the chemicals began to flow, Selby lay very still beneath a harsh fluorescent lamp hanging directly above his head. He licked his lips twice and his eyelids fluttered briefly. Thirty seconds later, Selby appeared to have fallen asleep….
Now the only sign of life in Selby’s body was a heartbeat evidenced by a quick pulsing movement beneath the jump suit near the area of his upper stomach. About three minutes later, his heart also stopped.
* * *
Over a five-year period beginning in 1979, five young boys from the Salt Lake County area mysteriously disappeared. The first was a four-year-old, the last a thirteen-year-old. Three of the victims were found buried in Cedar Valley, the other two were located in a log jam in Big Cottonwood Canyon. Arthur Gary Bishop confessed to all five killings while being questioned about the disappearance of the last boy. He had sexually molested all five, then killed them to keep them from telling. He was tried, found guilty, and on 23 March 1984 was sentenced to die by lethal injection.
Bishop had been a high school honor student, an Eagle Scout, and a Mormon missionary. At the time of his confession, he stated: “I’ve done a wrong to society here; I’ve killed their children that I’ve loved sometimes and…there’s no way that I can bring them back, there’s no way that I can really comfort their parents…. I wake up nights with [p.157]nightmares sometimes. I was afraid they’d be waiting any time in the dark for me” (Salt Lake Tribune, 10 June 1988, and my interviews).
Bishop, like Gary Gilmore, wanted to die. The guilt he lived with was intolerable. In response to a question from a group of teenagers, Bishop responded: “I feel that I…will serve my time in hell for what I have done. I feel strongly that there are mitigating circumstances which will affect my salvation. Honestly, I don’t totally understand why I did what I did. No man on this earth can give me a fair judgement…. The knowledge of my crimes often drags my soul through torment; to some extent I have already begun my time in hell.”10 Bishop dismissed his attorneys in order to expedite his execution. In a May 1988 interview with him he said, “I have messed up this life; I am anxious to get on with what needs to be done in the next one.”
On 8 June 1988 at 7:42 p.m. the process of execution began. Bishop was taken from his maximum security cell, strip searched, cuffed, and dressed in orange coveralls. He stood quietly with his head down—speaking only to offer assistance to those dressing him in the coveralls. At 7:58 p.m. Bishop arrived at the death watch cell, where he would be under constant visual supervision awaiting his 10 June execution. By 8:00 he was going through the housekeeping ritual that seems to preoccupy all inmates as they change cells—making the bed, washing the sink, arranging items in the cell—putting their personal mark on their territory.
While under death watch supervision, the condemned inmate is observed constantly, awake or sleeping. A continuous log is kept by each officer. The death watch log for Bishop documents his last hours of life:
JUNE 8, 1988
7:57 p.m. Bishop escorted to the Execution Building. Bishop cooperative during this operation. Placed into Death Watch Cell at 8:07 p.m.
9:12 p.m. [p.158]Inmate Bishop reading the Book of Mormon. Continued reading until 11:20 p.m.
11:20 p.m. Inmate Bishop made bed. Went to sleep at midnight.
JUNE 9, 1988
12:01 a.m. Inmate Bishop sleeping with towel over his eyes to shade the lights. Continues to sleep until 5:30 a.m….
7:20 a.m. Inmate Bishop reading Book of Mormon and praying. Very quiet.
7:30 a.m. Inmate Bishop refused breakfast. Stated he was fasting. Continued reading until 8:45 a.m….
10:08 a.m. Inmate Bishop still talking to [visitor] about the Book or Mormon and life after death.
12:28 p.m. Inmate Bishop was asked if he would like lunch. Bishop said “no.”…
1:49 p.m. Jay Lowe, LDS bishop, visits with Bishop. Bishop talks about feeling at peace; says he is not afraid to die; he talks to Mr. Lowe about funeral services….
3:30 p.m. Bishop is lying on his bunk and reading the Book of Mormon.
4:00 p.m. Bishop continues to read the Book of Mormon….
6:20 p.m. Inmate Bishop talkative. Appears to be in a good mood.
6:25 p.m. Inmate Bishop requested and received [Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price]. Inmate Bishop lying on bunk reading….
11:02 p.m. Bishop asked Heber Geurts to give him some time alone to pray. Mr. Guerts leaves the Death Watch area.
11:04 p.m. Bishop lays down on his bed.
11:18 p.m. [p.159]Warden Cook goes in to speak with Bishop. Bishop was praying and did not talk with the Warden nor was Bishop interrupted from his prayer….
11:42 p.m. Bishop was escorted to the Execution Chamber.11
At 11:50 p.m. Bishop was strapped to the gurney, his legs and thighs quivering. He licked his dry lips. Just after leaving the death watch cell he told me, “I did pretty good until about five minutes ago. Now my nerves are gone.” At 12:08 a.m. the lethal doses began. I watched his chest slowly rise and fall. Then there was nothing. He was pronounced dead at 12:15 a.m. In his last visit with his parents he told them, “In the quiet moments, be still and if I can I’ll come to you and let you know I am all right.”
The mother of his last victim said: “My anger has had an avenue, I could see the system, make it work, will it to work. But what do you do with all that without any excuse? Tell me…I don’t know how to let go with any of it. After he’s [Bishop] gone, it’s all up to me. It’s a hell of a lot to face. I’m afraid” (Salt Lake Tribune, 10 June 1988). The father of another of his victims said: “It is one thing to lose a child in an accident. But to have one disappear is more torment than a person can endure…. All I can do is try to cope…. Try to get through every day…. It is never gone” (ibid.).
One of Bishop’s last acts was to give me a letter he had written to a young man who had been sexually molesting children:
With all my heart I urge you to continue faithfully in repenting. Stop and think about the spiritual damage you’ve already inflicted upon some very choice souls. How do you think they feel about what you’ve done? It’s good that you’ve stopped molesting children, but what would happen if you lost self-con-[p.160]trol and started again? Eventually you would be caught. You would go to court and probably to prison. You would have disgraced yourself and your family. In prison you would be considered one of the least desirable of criminals and catcalls of “rapo,” “low-life,” “baby raper,” “sicko,” and “pervert,” would follow you. Your past is thrown unmercifully into your face, and you are never allowed to forget what you’ve done. Inmates can be cruel, and they are very slow to acknowledge any repentance efforts or change on your part. Is this the kind of life you want for yourself? I of all people have the least right to lecture you, and I sadly realize that the best advice I can give you is not to follow my bad example. Learn from my mistakes.12
At the time of Bishop’s execution eight men remained on Utah’s death row: William Andrews, Elroy Tilman, Ronnie Lee Gardner, Douglas S. Carter, Ralph Menzies, James Lewis Holland, Joseph Mitchell Parsons, and Ron Lafferty. In response to a question from my students at Weber State College after the Selby and Bishop executions, William Andrews wrote:
When Selby was executed I did not hear about it until the next morning over the radio. I guess my first reaction was an emotional disbelief with an intellectual acceptance of the fact…. I think it was maybe an hour or so later that my emotional self beg[a]n to accept the fact that Selby was dead. At this point I became very sad…. I had come to know Selby as a kind and giveing [sic] person to me and anyone else that would give him the opportunity to be h[i]mself…. Over the years we had come to be like brothers and now he was dead. I couldn’t help thinking of the people that died at the Hi Fi Shop and how [p.162] stupid and senseless their deaths were also and the sorrow their loved ones must of went throu[gh] also. And I knew that with Selby’s death the killing would not stop.13
Andrews was given an execution date of 22 August 1989. On 10 August he was granted a commutation hearing before the board of pardons. He pointed out that he was not convicted of killing anyone and should not be executed. The board refused Andrews’s appeal, but on 20 August, only two days before the execution, a federal circuit court of appeals issued a 160-day stay of execution. William Andrews still waits under sentence of death at the Utah State Prison. On 30 July 1992, Andews became the second man executed in Utah who did not actually kill someone.
* * *
I walked with William Andrews as he was led into the execution chamber. He was helped onto the gurney, and the tie-down team began strapping him down. With his last free arm he took off his glasses and, handing them to one of the men, remarked, “I guess I won’t need these anymore.” At that moment I could hear the telephone ringing in the area where the executioners were stationed. Lane McCotter, Executive Director of the Department of Corrections, stepped through the door and informed Andrews that the U.S. Supreme Court had requested a temporary delay while they considered several questions. He told Andrews that he would be returned to the death watch cell until further word was received.
I cannot imagine what must go through a person’s mind who, having reconciled himself to his fate and being only minutes from death, is then unstrapped and returned to await the whole process again.
I followed Andrews back to his cell and thought he might want to talk. He sat on his bed, his blanked wrapped around his shoulders, staring at the opposite wall. He didn’t want to [p.163]talk to anyone.
I had known Andrews for more than eight years. We met when I began my interviews on death row. He was the most willing to talk. We spent many hours together talking about everything from his life to his death—but very seldom about his crime. We corresponded regularly and, on a couple occasions, he answered written questions from my students at Weber State University. To one asking if he had found any purpose or hope during his years on death row. He responded: “Yes….It may not be much but it helps me to feel good about myself and it helps also. What I do is, in my interpersonal relationships, here with other inmates I try to encourage them to learn self control, I have more self respect, and to have a more positive attitude about themselves, other people and life in general.”
He did, as a matter of fact, have the most positive attitude of all the men I visited on death row. He continually reminded me of his philosophy: “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” He was disappointed when Art Bishop withdrew his appeals and prepared to die, believing that he should have kept trying to save his life.
During the last few weeks prior to his execution, Andrews became despondent. In his last letter to me, dated 5 March 1992, he wrote: “I haven’t been in the mood to do a lot of reading lately. My concentration hasn’t been good enough to do any serious reading. Its hard to keep ones interest in things related to the living when you are stareing death in the face. Almost everything seems irrelevant. Seems like I am just passing time until that fateful day. I haven’t given up, just put everything on hold until I know for sure if I will live or die.
That “fateful day” arrived in late July. Andrews was transferred from maximum security to the death watch on 28 July 1992 at 2304 hours. During the next twenty-four hours the clock would wind down on a predetermined [p.164]schedule. Andrews would be under constant surveillance and, outside the institution, the components necessary to conduct an execution would begin to move into place:
1600 Security sweeps begin at the execution chamber and move outward.
1700 A general briefing takes place at the Training Center, where the news media begins to set up.
1800 Command Post operational sets up, including roadblocks, crowd control, and security.
2000 All posts begin hourly radio check-ins.
While the department’s official machinery was being coordinated, Andrews began his last meal—a huge banana split, which he had requested. When it arrived, it was so large he was allowed to have his sister and niece, who were visiting, join him in his cell and share it. They ate and talked, even laughing at times as they remembered former friends, school experiences, and family memories. Both his sister and niece were present as invited witnesses at the execution.
The Supreme Court delay lasted about an hour. When advised that the state could proceed, a new time was set for 0135. At 0116 Andrews was returned to the execution chamber where he was strapped down and then waited for various witnesses—his invited witnesses, media representatives, and government witnesses. As I stood with the government witnesses, I could hear Andrews talking with warden Scott Carver. I later learned that he was recommending they pipe in music and commission a painting for the ceiling so that the condemned would have something to listen to and look at. He suggested one of the scenes they showed in the movie Soylent Green, a film that depicted the voluntary euthanizing of the elderly.
[p.166]When the curtains were drawn back for the witnesses, Andrews raised his head and mouthed, “I love you,” to his sister and niece. At 01:34 he was asked if he had any last words. These were given and, one minute later, the warden unbuttoned his jacked as a signal to begin. Andrews took several deep breaths, his head moved back and forth two or three times and I could see bubbles moving through the tubes attached to the needles in his wrists. He was pronounced dead at 01:46.
His last words were: “Thank those who tried so hard to keep me alive. Tell them to keep fighting for equal justice and tell my family that I love them.” Thus ended an eighteen-year nightmare that began on 22 April 1974 with the botched robbery of the Ogden Hi-Fi Shop at 2323 Washington Boulevard and ended with the execution of William Andrews.
The Hi-Fi Shop has been replaced with a modern shopping mall, and most of the young people growing up today in Odgen and the surrounding area have little sense of the anger, frustration, and evil that surrounded this crime and the community hatred that continued to fester as long as the “Hi-Fi killers” were alive. Every new appeal, date of execution, and hearing revived smoldering resentment. One anonymous letter Andrews received shortly before his execution symbolizes that resentment:
Your death will rid society of the threat you mad dogs pose to society….And the law and the people have condemned you to death—proved you guilty beyond all doubt.
Trying to oily mouth your way out of your guilt makes you not only a murdering, conscienceless monster, but a whining wimp who expects to do as he pleases without taking the consequences. You will be executed—too bad it can only be once.
[p.167]The next execution also came from Weber County.
* * *
On the day John Albert Taylor was executed in Utah, Delaware had scheduled an execution by hanging and Illinois was preparing to kill a woman who would have become the first woman executed in the U.S. since North Carolina’s Velma Barfield in 1984. In spite of these other newsworthy events, the focus of national and international attention was on Taylor, whose execution would be carried out by firing squad—the first since Gary Gilmore’s execution in 1977.
Why this interest? Because of the firing squad. The “medicalization” of the death penalty through lethal injection became popular because it assuaged the conscience of a guilty nation. Also of interest was the Mormon concept of “blood atonement,” which surfaces every time there is a Utah execution. The firing squad is the only method of execution used in the U.S. that actually involves a “bloody” death, and Utah is the only state that uses the firing squad.
On 23 June 1989 Charla King’s mother discovered her daughter’s naked body on the floor of their apartment in Washington Terrace, a neighboring community of Odgen City in Weber County. She had been raped and strangled with a telephone cord and her panties had been stuffed into her mouth. She was one day shy of her twelfth birthday. Five days later John Albert Taylor, a thirty-year old Florida parolee, was arrested. He was living with his sister in a neighboring apartment, and it was her suspicions that first brought Taylor to the attention of the police. His fingerprints were found on the telephone from which the cord that strangled Charla had been cut. Taylor admitted he had been in the King apartment, but only to rob it. He claimed no knowledge of the killing.
Taylor’s police record dated back to his adolescence. His sister, who turned him in, admitted to having been raped by him when she was a child. There were other instances of [p.168]sexual misconduct as well. In addition, Taylor had been previously charged with robberies, assaults, carrying a concealed weapon, sexual assault and battery, armed burglary, and armed robbery. He was incarcerated in the Florida State Prison at Broward in 1982, and had only recently returned to Odgen. Speaking of his past, Taylor told the Salt Lake Tribune on 26 January 1996: “When I raped or molested, it was a way for me to get back at the female race…Sex was one way for me to release the feelings I was going through. But I didn’t know how to express them so I would go out and do something deviant or I would use alcohol or drugs to get the same effect.” He maintained his innocence to the end. Shortly before his execution, however, he told me,” Sometimes I’m sorry I didn’t take the plea bargain I was offered.”
Taylor seemed comfortable on death row. He did art work and meditation for mental escape and used his prison job to buy “luxuries.” Because of the nature of his crime, he was not liked by other inmates. Utah keeps its condemned in the same unit as other maximum security inmates, not on a separate “death row.” In his section, for example, Taylor was the only one serving a death sentence. He told me, “I feel like I am in a day care center.” The other inmates kept their distance as word spread that “He has nothing to lose, you’re a damn fool if you push him.” On the other hand, Taylor felt pressure because of his “death row status”—“I can’t afford to back down,” he told me. At the time of my interview, he had been in prison five and a half years and his health had “constantly gone down hill.” He was afraid of dying alone in his cell. “Some days I wonder why I keep going,” he complained. A few months later he got tired of holding on and stopped his appeals. He told me he opted for the firing squad because “It is symbolic to me. I maintained my innocence. If they put a bullet in my they are murdering me. It is the most hassle and the most expensive.” Taylor told others he did not want to just lie there an “flop around like a fish.” This was a [p.171]constant theme among the condemned men I have interviewed. For them it was important to “die game,” not to show weakness or emotion. Many felt that lethal injection robbed them of their masculinity and “dignity” and that the firing squad, at least, allowed them to maintain both.
I was allowed to witness the execution as a government witness. We entered the execution area and positioned ourselves along the curtained windows. The time was 2400 (midnight). As the curtains opened, Taylor was already strapped to the chair and was looking directly at us. He continued to look at us as he was blindfolded. He sat motionless as he was asked if he had any final words. He expressed love to his family and friends and then stated, “I would just like to say to my family, my friends, as the poem was written, ‘Remember me, but let me go.’” I next heard a voice say, “Ready—Aim—1-2-3,” followed by one loud bang, four live rounds and one blank. The white target pinned to his dark blue jumpsuit flew off his chest. His body lurched, his hands clenched and unclenched twice, and he was still. I looked for blood but could see none. Others said they saw a dark discoloration on his jumpsuit where the bullets entered. From start to finish it had taken four minutes to execute John Albert Taylor. The curtains were released and we were escorted to the van and driven back to the training academy.
Because of the media attention, there had been an attempt in the Utah legislature, in session at the time of the execution, to eliminate the use of firing squad as an option. Once the execution was completed, however, and those involved with the execution saw how smoothly the process worked, the legislation was withdrawn.
My own observation is that the firing squad is a viable [p.172]option as a method of execution. I cannot say if it is more humane, although those who have been shot or wounded tell me there is an adrenaline surge or something that numbs the pain. From my experience, it takes less time and provides an appropriate setting for a process intended to mete out a sanction imposed by the justice system. Unlike lethal injection, there is at least some connection between the crime and the punishment and, once the execution is played out, the impression is left that justice has been served. It is not just another “operation.”
Delaware successfully conducted its scheduled hanging, the governor of Illinois commuted the death sentence of the woman scheduled to die there, and, ironically, the final autopsy report ruled Taylor’s death at the hands of the Utah firing squad a homicide.