Oklahoma is very serious about its death penalty. When the U.S. Supreme Court approved the resumption of executions in 1976, the Oklahoma state legislature rushed into a special session for the sole purpose of enacting death penalty statutes. The following year, the lawmakers debated the innovative idea of death by lethal injection, as opposed to going back to Old Sparky, the state's dependable electric chair. The rationale was that chemicals were more merciful; thus, less likely to attract constitutional attacks of cruel and inhuman punishment; thus, more likely to speed along executions. In the excitement of the moment, with the press watching closely and the voters egging them on, the legislators debated the various ways in which to take human life. Some hardliners wanted hangings and firing squads and such, but in the end lethal injection was approved overwhelmingly, and Oklahoma became the first state to adopt it.
But not the first state to use it. Much to the frustration of lawmakers and police and prosecutors and a wide majority of the public, Oklahoma quickly fell behind the other active death penalty states. Thirteen long years passed without an execution. Finally, in 1990, the waiting ended, and the death chamber was used once again.
Once the dam broke, the flood came. Since 1990, Oklahoma has executed more convicts on a per capita basis than any other state. No place, not even Texas, comes close.
Executions in Oklahoma take place at McAlester, a maximum security prison a hundred and twenty miles southeast of Oklahoma City. Death row is there, in an infamous section called the H Unit.
Practice makes perfect, and executions at McAlester are carried out with precision. For the inmate whose time has come, the last day is spent receiving visitors-family members, friends, usually his lawyer. Of course the visits are painful, made even more so by the fact that there can be no physical contact. They chat and cry through a thick wall of glass while talking on a phone. No farewell hugs or kisses from the family, just a gutwrenching "I love you" through a black receiver. Often the inmate and his visitor will symbolically kiss each other by pressing their lips against the glass. They also imitate touching with their hands.
There is no law that prevents physical contact before an execution. Each state has its own rules, and Oklahoma prefers to keep the rituals as harsh as possible. If the warden is in a good mood, he allows the inmate to make some phone calls. When the visiting is over, it's time for the last meal, but there is a $15 limit on the menu, and the warden can veto anything on it. Cheeseburgers, fried chicken, catfish, and ice cream are the most popular items requested.
About an hour before his death, the inmate is prepped. He changes clothes and puts on a light blue outfit, much like surgical scrubs. He is secured to a gurney with wide Velcro straps, and as he begins his final ride, there is a pep rally of sorts thrown by his comrades. They shake and kick their cell doors. They rattle the metal bars. They yell and whoop and the racket continues until just after the scheduled moment of execution, then it stops suddenly.
As the inmate is being prepared, the death chamber is waiting and very well organized. Witnesses somberly file into the two viewing rooms- one for the family of the victim, one for the family of the killer. The room for the victims has twenty-four folding chairs, but some are reserved for the press, usually four or five seats, a couple for the lawyers, and a few for the warden and his staff. The local sheriff and prosecutor seldom miss the event.
Behind this room, and behind panels of one-way glass, is the witness room for the family of the killer. It has twelve folding chairs, but often a few are empty. Some inmates do not want their families to watch. Some inmates have no families.
And some victims have no families. Occasionally, their witness room is half-empty, too.
The two rooms are separated, and the two groups are carefully kept away from each other. As the witnesses take their places, they stare at nothing-mini-blinds block out the view of the death chamber.
The gurney enters and is wheeled into place. Technicians are waiting with intravenous tubes, one for each arm. When everything is properly inserted and adjusted, the miniblinds are raised and the witnesses can see the inmate. One-way glass prevents him from seeing the victim's family, but he can certainly see his own and often acknowledges them. A microphone protrudes from the wall two feet above his head.
A doctor attaches a heart-monitoring device. A deputy warden stands at a small white podium in a corner and records everything in a notebook. Next to him on the wall is a phone, just in case there is late-breaking news on the legal front or a change of heart in the governor's office. In years past a chaplain stood in another corner and read Scripture throughout the execution, but he retired.
The warden steps forward and asks the condemned if he or she has any last words. They often do not, but occasionally one will ask for forgiveness, or proclaim his innocence, or pray, or launch into some bitter denunciation. One sang a hymn. One shook hands with the warden and thanked him and his staff and the entire prison for taking such good care of him during his prolonged visit.
There is a two-minute time limit on the final words, but it is never invoked.
The condemned are always relaxed and low-key. They have accepted their fate and had many years to prepare for this moment. Many welcome it. They prefer death to the horror of living another twenty or thirty years on H Unit.
In a small room behind the gurney, three executioners are hiding. They are not to be seen. Their identities are unknown around the prison. They are not state employees, but freelancers of some variety who were secretly hired by an old warden many years ago.
Their arrivals and departures to and from McAlester are mysterious. Only the warden knows who they are, where they come from, and where they get their chemicals. He pays each of them $300 in cash for an execution.
The tubes from the inmate's arms run up and through two two-inch holes in the wall and into the small room where the executioners do their work. When the formalities are tidied up, and the warden is certain there will be no last-minute phone calls, he nods and the injections start.
First a saline solution is pumped in to open the veins. The first drug is sodium thiopental, and it quickly knocks out the inmate. Another flushing of saline solution, then the second drug, vecuronium bromide, stops the breathing. Another quick flush and the third drug, potassium chloride, stops the heart.
The doctor appears, does a quick check, pronounces death. The mini-blinds close fast, and the witnesses, many of them quite emotional, leave quickly and quietly. The gurney is rolled out. The body is taken to an ambulance. The family must make arrangements to retrieve it, or it goes to a prison cemetery.
Outside the prison gates, two groups hold two very different vigils. The Homicide Survivors sit in front of their RVs and wait for the welcome news that the execution is complete. Nearby is their display, a large three-panel memorial to the victims of the killers. Color photos of children and smiling students; poems to the dead; enlarged headlines announcing some horrific double murder; lots and lots of photos of those butchered by the inhabitants of death row. The memorial is called "Remember the Victims."
Not far away, a Catholic priest leads the other group in a circle of prayer and hymn singing. Some opponents of the death penalty attend every execution, praying not only for those condemned but also for their victims.
The two groups know and respect each other, but they strongly disagree.
When word comes from inside that the execution is over, more prayers are offered. Then the candles are extinguished, and the hymn-books are put away. Hugs are exchanged, farewells given. See you at the next execution.
When Ron Williamson arrived at McAlester on April 29, 1988, the H Unit was being discussed but not yet being built. Prison officials wanted a brand-new death row to house their growing inventory of capital inmates, but the legislature wouldn't spend the money. Ron was taken instead to F Cellhouse, home to eighty-one other condemned men. F Cellhouse, or The Row, as it was commonly called, comprised the bottom two floors of a wing of the old prison house, or Big House, a mammoth four-story building constructed in 1935 and finally abandoned fifty years later. Decades of overcrowding, violence, lawsuits, and riots led to its inevitable closing.
In the vast, empty, and decaying Big House, only F Cellhouse was used, and its sole purpose was to house condemned men in a lockdown environment.
Ron was processed at F Cellhouse. He was given two pairs of khakis, two blue shortsleeve shirts, two white T-shirts, two pairs of white socks, and two pairs of white boxer shorts. All the clothing had been well used. It was clean, but with permanent stains, especially the boxers. The shoes were black leather work shoes, also used. He was also given a pillow, blanket, toilet paper, toothbrush, and toothpaste. During his very brief orientation it was explained that he could purchase other toiletries, along with food and soft drinks and a few other items, at the prison commissary, better known as the canteen, a place he was not allowed to visit. Any money he received from the outside world would go into his account, from which he could purchase his "canteen." A man's canteen was his private little stockpile of goodies, something he protected fiercely in his cell.
When he had changed into his prison clothes and completed the processing, he was led to the wing, or run, where he would spend the next several years waiting for the state to execute him. His hands and ankles were cuffed. As he clutched his pillow, blanket, extra clothes, and other items, the guards opened the huge barred door and the parade began. Above his head, painted in large black letters, was his address: DEATH ROW.
The run was a hundred feet long and only twelve feet wide, with cells packed together on both sides. The ceiling was eight feet high.
Walking very slowly, Ron and his two guards proceeded down the run. It was a ritual, a brief welcoming ceremony. His neighbors knew he was coming and the catcalling began:
"New man on the run!"
"New meat!" "Hey, baby!"
Arms hung through the bars of the cell doors, almost within reaching distance. White arms, black arms, brown ones. Lots of tattoos on the arms. Act tough, Ron told himself. Don't show fear. They kicked the doors, yelled, called him names, threw out sexual threats. Always act tough.
He'd seen prisons before, and he'd just survived eleven months in the Pontotoc County jail. Nothing could be worse, he thought. They stopped at cell 16, and the noise went away. Welcome to The Row. A guard unlocked the door, and Ron entered his new home.
There's an old saying in Oklahoma that refers to someone incarcerated at McAlester -
"He's doing time at Big Mac." Ron stretched out on his narrow bunk, closed his eyes, and couldn't believe that he was locked away at Big Mac.
The cell was furnished with a set of metal-framed bunk beds, a metal desk with a metal stool that was mounted into the concrete, a stainless-steel toilet/sink combo, a mirror, a set of metal bookcases, and one light-bulb. It was sixteen feet long, seven feet wide, eight feet high. The floor was covered with black and white linoleum tiles. The brick walls were white and had been painted so many times they were smooth.
Thank God there was a window, he thought, and though it provided no view, it did let in light. There were no windows in the Ada jail.
He walked to his door, which was nothing but a set of bars with an opening known as the bean hole for food trays and small packages. He looked into the run and could see three men-the one directly across from him in cell 9, and the ones on each side of him. Ron did not speak, nor did they.
Most new inmates usually said little during the first days. The shock of arriving at a place where they were to live for a few years before being killed was overwhelming. Fear was everywhere: fear of the future, fear of never again seeing what had been lost, fear of not surviving, fear of getting knifed or raped by one of the cold-blooded killers you could hear breathing just a few feet away.
He made his bed and arranged his things. He appreciated the privacy-most death row inmates were single-celled but had the option of a cell mate. There was a constant racket in the run-chatter among the inmates, guards laughing, a loud television, a radio, someone yelling to a friend far down the hall. Ron stayed away from his door, as far from the noise as possible. He slept, read books, and smoked. Everybody smoked on The Row, and the smell of old and new tobacco hung over the run like a thick, pungent fog. There was some ventilation, but it was too old to work. The windows, of course, could not be opened, even though they were covered with thick bars. The drudgery hit hard. There was no daily schedule. No activities to look forward to. One brief hour outside, sometimes. The tedium was numbing.
For men locked up twenty-three hours a day and with very little to do, the undisputed highlight was eating. Three times a day food trays were wheeled along the run and slid through the bean holes. All meals were taken in the cell, alone. Breakfast was at seven, and it was usually scrambled eggs and grits, some bacon on most days, and two or three pieces of toast. The coffee was cold and weak, but treasured nonetheless. Lunch was sandwiches and beans. Dinner was the worst meal-some vile mystery meat with halfcooked vegetables. The portions were ridiculously small, and the food was always cold. It was cooked in another building and pushed over on carts at a very slow pace. Who cared? They were dead men anyway. The food was dreadful, but mealtime was important. Annette and Renee sent money, and Ron bought food, cigarettes, toiletries, and soft drinks from the canteen. He filled out an order form that listed the few items available, then handed it to the most important man on The Row. The Run Man was a prisoner who had found favor with the guards and was allowed to spend most of his time out of his cell, running errands for the other inmates. He passed along gossip and notes, picked up and delivered laundry and canteen goods, gave advice, occasionally sold drugs. The exercise yard was sacred ground-a fenced area the size of two basketball courts next to F Cellhouse. For an hour a day, five days a week, each inmate was allowed into "the yard" to get some sun, visit with fellow prisoners, and play basketball or cards or dominoes. The groups were small, usually five or six at a time, and tightly controlled by the inmates themselves. Friends, and only friends, went into the yard together. A new inmate had to be invited before he could feel safe. There were fights and beatings, and the guards watched the yard closely. For the first month, Ron preferred to go out by himself. The Row was full of killers, and he had no business being there.
The only other contact point for prisoners was in the shower. They were allowed three per week, fifteen minutes max, and only two men at a time. If an inmate didn't want, or didn't trust, a shower partner, then he was allowed to bathe alone. Ron showered by himself. There was plenty of hot and cold water, but it didn't mix. It was either scalding or freezing.
Two other casualties of the Pontotoc County judicial system were on The Row when Ron arrived, though he didn't know it at first. Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot had been waiting there for almost three years as their appeals were grinding through the courts. The Run Man handed Ron a note, or a "kite," an unauthorized message that the guards generally ignored. It was from Tommy Ward, saying hello and wishing him well. Ron sent one back and asked for some cigarettes. Though he felt sorry for Tommy and Karl, he was relieved to know that not everyone on The Row was a butcher. He had always believed they were innocent and had thought about them often during his ordeal. Tommy had spent time with Ron in the jail in Ada and knew he was emotionally unstable. The guards and other inmates there had taunted both of them. Years earlier, in the middle of the night, a voice called out from a dark end of the hall, "Tommy, this is Denice Haraway, please tell them where my body is." He heard the police whispering and other inmates suppressing laughter. Tommy ignored the head games, and they finally left him alone.
Ron could not. "Ron, why did you kill Debbie Carter?" a haunting voice would echo through the Ada jail. Ron would bolt from his bed and begin screaming.
On death row, Tommy battled with his sanity every day. The horror of the place was bad enough for real murderers, but for an innocent man it was literally maddening. He feared for Ron's well-being from the moment he arrived.
One of the guards on The Row knew the details of the Carter murder. Not long after Ron arrived, Tommy heard a guard call out, "Ron, this is Debbie Carter. Why did you kill me?"
Ron, who was quiet at first, began yelling and protesting his innocence. The guards enjoyed his reaction, and the taunting began. The other inmates were also amused and often joined the fun.
A few days after Ron arrived, Tommy was suddenly pulled from his cell and draped with chains and cuffs by several gruff and heavy guards. This was something serious, though he had no idea where he was headed. They never tell you. They marched him away, a skinny little boy surrounded by enough security to protect the president. "Where are we going?" he asked, but the answer was much too important to reveal. He shuffled down the run, out of F Cellhouse, through the dome-like rotunda of the Big House, empty except for the pigeons, and into a conference room in the administration building.
The warden was waiting, and he had bad news.
They kept him shackled and placed in the hot seat, at the end of a long conference table that was jam-packed with assistants and clerks and secretaries and anyone else who wanted to participate in the macabre announcement. The guards stood stonefaced and sentry-like behind him, ready just in case he tried to bolt somewhere when given the news. Everyone around the table was holding a pen and ready to record what was about to happen.
The warden spoke gravely. The bad news was that he had not received a stay of execution, so Tommy's time had come. Yes, it did seem rather early-his appeals were not yet three years old, but sometimes these things happen.
The warden was very sorry, but just doing his job. The big day was two weeks away. Tommy breathed hard and tried to absorb this. He had lawyers working on his appeals, which, as he'd been told many times, would take years to complete. There was a good chance of a new trial back in Ada.
It was 1988. Oklahoma had not pulled off an execution in more than twenty years. Perhaps they were a bit rusty and didn't know what they were doing. The warden continued. They would begin making preparations immediately. One important item was what to do with the body. The body, thought Tommy. My body?
The clerks and assistants and secretaries all frowned at their notepads and scribbled the same words. Why are all these people in here? Tommy asked himself. Just send me to my mother, I guess, Tommy said, or tried to say. His knees were weak when he stood. The guards seized him again and marched him back to F Cellhouse. He crawled into his bed and cried, not for himself but for his family and especially for his mother.
Two days later he was informed that there had been a mistake. Some paperwork had been mishandled somewhere along the way. A stay was in place, and Mrs. Ward would not be collecting her son's body anytime soon.
Such false starts were not unusual. Several weeks after her brother left Ada, Annette received a letter from the warden. She assumed it was correspondence of a routine matter. Perhaps she was right, given the trigger-happy mood at McAlester.
Dear Ms. Hudson:
It is with empathy that I must inform you that your brother, Ronald Keith Williamson, Number 134846, is scheduled to be executed on 18 July 1988, at 12:02, A.M., at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.
Your brother will be moved from his current cell to another cell on the morning prior to the execution date, and at that time his visiting hours will be changed, and will be as follows: 9:00 A.M. to 12 Noon, 1:00 P.M. to 4:00 P.M., and 6:00 to 8:00 P.M. Visiting during the last 24 hours will be limited to clergymen, Attorney of Record, and two other visitors who have been approved by the Warden. Your brother has the right to have five witnesses present at the execution. These witnesses must be approved by the Warden.
As difficult as it may be, funeral arrangements must be considered, and these arrangements are the responsibility of the family. If this responsibility is not assumed by the family, the State will attend to the burial. Please inform us of your decision in this matter.
If further information is needed, or if I may be of assistance in other ways, please contact me.
James L. Saffle, Warden
The letter was dated June 21,1988, less than two months after Ronnie arrived at McAlester. Annette knew that appeals were automatic in capital murder cases. Perhaps someone should inform the authorities in charge of the executions. As unsettling as the letter was, she was able to set it aside. Her brother was innocent and would someday be proven so in a new trial. She adamantly believed this, and would never waiver. She read her Bible, prayed continually, and met often with her pastor. Still, she had to ask herself what kind of people were running the prison over at McAlester.
After a week or so on The Row, Ron walked to his door one day and said hello to the man in cell 9, directly across the hall, twelve feet way. Greg Wilhoit said hello, and they exchanged a few words. Neither was anxious for a long conversation. The next day Ron said hello again, and they chatted briefly. The next day Greg mentioned that he was from Tulsa. Ron once lived there, with a guy named Stan Wilkins.
"Is he an ironworker?" Greg asked.
Yes, he was, and Greg knew him. The coincidence was amusing and broke the ice. They talked about old friends and places in Tulsa.
Greg was also thirty-four years old, also loved baseball, also had two sisters who were supporting him. And he was also innocent.
It was the beginning of a deep friendship that helped them both survive their ordeal. Greg invited Ron to attend chapel, a weekly service held off The Row and attended by many capital defendants. Cuffed and shackled, the inmates were herded into a small room where they were led in worship by a saintly chaplain named Charles Story. Ron and Greg seldom missed the services and always sat together.
Greg Wilhoit had been at McAlester for nine months. He was an ironworker, a tough union man with a record of marijuana possessions but nothing violent. In 1985, Greg and his wife, Kathy, separated. They had two infant daughters and a lot of problems. Greg helped Kathy move into an apartment and stopped by almost every night to see his girls. They were hopeful the marriage could be patched up, but both needed some time alone. They remained sexually active and faithful; neither slept around.
On June 1, three weeks after the separation, a neighbor in Kathy's apartment building became alarmed at the nonstop crying of the two daughters. The neighbor knocked on the door, and when there was no answer, she called the police. Inside, on the floor downstairs, they found Kathy's body. Upstairs, the two toddlers were in their cribs, hungry and frightened.
Kathy had been raped and strangled. The time of death was between 1:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. When the police interviewed Greg, he said he was at home, asleep by himself, and thus had no alibi witness. He adamantly denied any involvement in his wife's murder and resented the questioning from the police.
The investigation produced a fingerprint on a phone that had been ripped from the wall and was on the floor near Kathy. The fingerprint matched neither Greg nor his wife. The police found pubic hair and, most important, what appeared to be a bite mark on Kathy's breast. A crime lab expert confirmed that the killer had bitten the breast hard during the attack.
Being the estranged spouse, Greg was soon the leading suspect, though the fingerprint did not match. Melvin Hett with the state crime lab concluded that the pubic hair was not microscopically consistent with Greg's sample. The police asked Greg to submit an impression of his teeth to compare with the bite mark.
Greg did not appreciate being a suspect. He was completely innocent and didn't trust the police. With the help of his parents, he paid $25,000 and retained a lawyer. The police did not appreciate Greg hiring a lawyer. They obtained a court order requiring him to submit an impression of his teeth. He did, and heard nothing for five months. He was raising his two daughters, working full-time as an ironworker, and hoping the police were history when they arrived one day in January 1986 with an arrest warrant for firstdegree murder, punishable by death.
His first lawyer, though well paid and with a good reputation, was far too interested in negotiating a plea bargain. Greg fired him a month before trial, then made the enormous mistake of hiring George Briggs, a washed-up old lawyer at the end of a long, colorful career. His fee was $2,500, a bargain and a red flag.
Briggs was from the old school of country lawyers. You get your witnesses, I'll get mine, and we'll show up at the courthouse and have a good fight. No pretrial discovery. When in doubt, just trust your instincts in court and fly by the seat of your pants.
Briggs was also an alcoholic who was addicted to painkillers that he began taking a few years earlier after a motorcycle accident left him partially brain damaged. On a good day he reeked of booze but could still go through the motions. On a bad day he'd been known to snore in the courtroom and urinate on himself and vomit in the judge's chambers. He was often seen staggering along the hallways of the courthouse. Greg and his parents became alarmed when Briggs drained a few bottles of beer during a lunch.
His drinking and drug addiction were well known to the trial judge and to the Oklahoma state bar association, but virtually nothing was done to either stop Briggs or help him, or protect his clients.
Greg's family located a highly regarded bite expert in Kansas, but Briggs was too busy or too hungover to chat with the man. Briggs interviewed no witnesses and, as far as Greg could tell, did little preparation.
The trial was a nightmare. The state called two bite experts, one of whom had finished dental school less than a year earlier. Briggs had nothing to rebut their testimony. The jury deliberated for two hours and found Greg guilty. Briggs called no mitigating witnesses, and the jury deliberated for one hour and set the punishment at death.
Thirty days later, Greg was taken back to court to receive his sentence of death. In cell 9, Greg hung newspapers across the bars of his door so no one could see him. He convinced himself that he was not on death row, but rather in his own little cocoon, somewhere else, biding his time reading voraciously and watching his small television. He spoke to no one but the Run Man, who, during his very first chat, asked Greg if he wanted to buy some marijuana. Yes, he did.
At first, Greg did not realize that a few lucky condemned men actually left The Row alive. Occasionally the appeals worked, good lawyers got involved, judges woke up, and miracles happened, but no one had informed him of this. He was sure he would be put to death, and, frankly, he wanted to get it over with.
For six months he left his cell only to shower, quickly and alone. Gradually, though, he made an acquaintance or two and was invited into the yard for an hour of exercise and socializing. Once he began talking, he became instantly disliked. Greg was a rarity on The Row, a man who strongly supported the death penalty. You do the ultimate crime, you pay the ultimate price, he argued loudly. Such opinions were unheard of. He also developed the irritating habit of watching David Letterman at full volume. Sleep is cherished on The Row, and many of the men spend half of each day in another world. When you're sleeping, you're cheating the system. Sleep is your time, not the state's. Condemned killers do not hesitate to threaten to kill again, and Greg soon heard the rumor that he was a marked man. Every death row has at least one boss and several who want to be. There are factions vying for control. They prey on the weak, often demanding payment for the right to "live" on The Row. When word filtered to Greg that he needed to pay rent, he laughed and sent a message back that he would never pay a dime to anyone for living in such a rat hole.
The Row was ruled by Soledad, the nickname of a killer who'd once spent time in the famous prison in California. Soledad didn't appreciate Greg's pro-death-penalty stance, and he really didn't like David Letterman, and since any boss worthy of respect had to be ready to kill, Greg became the target.
Everyone has enemies on The Row. The feuds are nasty and arise quickly over anything.
A pack of cigarettes can provoke an attack in the yard or the shower. Two packs can get you killed.
Greg needed a friend to watch his back.
Annette's first visit to McAlester was sad and frightening, not that she was expecting anything else. She preferred not to go, but Ronnie had no one but his sisters. The guards patted her down and checked her purse. Moving through the layers of the Big House was like sinking into the dark belly of a beast. Doors clanged, keys rattled, guards glared as if she had no business there. She was numb, sleepwalking, with a hard knot in her stomach and a racing pulse.
They were from a nice family in a nice house on a shady street. Church on Sundays. A thousand baseball games when Ronnie was a boy. How had it all come to this? This will become a habit, she admitted to herself. She would hear the same sounds and see the same guards many times in the future. She asked if she could bring stuff- cookies, clothes, cash. No, came the quick answer. Only small change, so she handed the guard a handful of quarters and hoped he passed them on to Ronnie.
The visitation room was long and narrow and split down the center with thick sheets of Plexiglas that were divided by partitions to allow some measure of privacy. All conversations were by phone through a window. No touching whatsoever. Ronnie eventually showed up. No one was in a hurry at the prison. He looked healthy, maybe even a bit chubby, but then his weight had always gone up and down dramatically. He thanked her for coming, said he was surviving okay but needed money. The food was awful, and he wanted to buy something to eat at the canteen. He also was desperate for a guitar, and some books and magazines and a small television, which could be purchased through the canteen.
"Get me out of here, Annette," he pleaded over and over. "I didn't kill Debbie Carter and you know it."
She had never wavered in her belief that he was innocent, though some family members now had doubts. She and her husband, Marlon, were both working and raising a family and trying to save a little. Money was tight. What was she supposed to do? The statefunded indigent lawyers were getting themselves organized for his appeals. Sell your house and hire a big lawyer, he said. Sell everything. Do anything. Just get me out.
The conversation was tense and there were tears. Another inmate arrived for a visit in the booth next to Ronnie. Annette could barely see him through the glass, but she was intrigued by who he was and whom he had killed.
Roger Dale Stafford, Ronnie told her, the famous steak-house murderer. He had nine death sentences, the current record on The Row. He executed six people, including five teenagers, in the rear of a steak house in Oklahoma City in a bungled robbery, then murdered a family of three.
They're all killers, Ronnie kept saying, and all they talk about is killing. It's everywhere on The Row. Get me out! Did he feel safe? she asked.
Hell no, not living with a bunch of killers. He had always believed in the death penalty, but now he was a die-hard supporter of it. He kept such opinions quiet, though, in his new neighborhood.
There were no time limits on the visits. They eventually said goodbye with sincere promises to write and call. Annette was emotionally drained when she left McAlester. The calls started immediately. On The Row they put a phone on a cart and rolled it to the cells. A guard punched the numbers, then handed the receiver through the cell door. Since all calls were collect, the guardsreally didn't care how often they were made. Out of boredom and desperation, Ron was soon yelling for the cart more than anyone else.
He usually began by demanding money, $20 or $30, so he could eat and buy cigarettes. Annette and Renee each tried to send $40 a month, but they had their own expenses and little extra money. They never sent enough, and Ronnie reminded them of this over and over. He was often angry, claiming that they didn't love him or they would get him out. He was innocent, everybody knew it, and there was no one on the outside to free him but his sisters.
The calls were rarely pleasant, though they tried not to fight with him. Ron usually managed, at some point, to remind his sisters how much he loved them.
Annette's husband sent subscriptions to National Geographic and the Ada Evening News. Ronnie wanted to monitor things back home.
Not long after his arrival at McAlester he heard for the first time about the bizarre confession of Ricky Joe Simmons. Barney knew about the taped confession, but chose not to use it at trial and didn't tell his client. An investigator with the Indigent Defense System took the video of the confession to McAlester and showed it to Ron. He went ballistic. Someone else admitted killing Debbie Carter, and the jury never knew about it! Surely this news would soon break in Ada, and he wanted to read about it in the local paper.
Ricky Joe Simmons became another obsession, perhaps the principal one, and Ron would fixate on him for many years.
Ron tried to call everybody; he wanted the world to know about Ricky Joe Simmons. His confession was Ron's ticket out, and he wanted someone to step forward and bring the boy to trial. He called Barney, other lawyers, county officials, even old friends, but most refused to accept the collect charges.
Rules were changed and phone privileges were restricted after a couple of death row inmates were caught making calls to the families of their victims, just for the sport of it. On the average, two calls per week were allowed, and every phone number had to be preapproved.
Once a week the Run Man pushed a cart of well-used paperback library books through F Cellhouse. Greg Wilhoit read everything that was available-biographies, mysteries, westerns. Stephen King was a favorite, but he really loved the books of John Steinbeck. He encouraged Ron to read as an escape, and they were soon debating the merits of The Grapes of Wrath and East ofEden, unusual conversations on The Row. They stood for hours, leaning through the bars of their doors, talking and talking. Books, baseball, women, their trials. Both were surprised to learn that most death row inmates do not maintain their innocence. Instead, they tend to embellish their crimes when talking among themselves. Death was a constant topic-murders, murder trials, murders yet to be committed. When Ron continued to claim he was innocent, Greg began to believe him. Every inmate has his trial transcript close by, and Greg read Ron's-all two thousand pages. He was shocked by the trial in Ada. Ron read Greg's transcript and was equally shocked by his trial in Osage County.
They believed each other and ignored the skepticism from their neighbors. In his early weeks on The Row, the friendship was therapeutic for Ron. Someone finally believed him, someone he could talk to for hours, someone who would listen with an intelligent and sympathetic ear. Away from the cave-like cell in Ada, and able to unload on a friend, his behavior was stable. He didn't rant and pace and scream his innocence. The mood swings were not as dramatic. He slept a lot, read for hours, chainsmoked, and talked to Greg. They went to the exercise yard together, each watching the other's back.
Annette sent more money, and Ron purchased a small television from the canteen. She knew how important a guitar was to Ronnie, and she relentlessly went about trying to get one. The canteen didn't stock them. After phone calls and letters she convinced the officials to allow a local music store in McAlester to sell one and send it over. Trouble started when it arrived. Anxious to impress the others with his talent, Ron played it loudly and sang at full volume. The complaints came with a fury, but Ron didn't care. He loved his guitar and he loved to sing, especially Hank Williams. "Your Cheatin' Heart" echoed up and down the run. The others shouted obscenities. He shouted them right back.
Then Soledad got fed up with Ron's music and threatened to kill him. Who cares? Ron said. I've already got my death sentence.
No effort was made to air-condition F Cellhouse, and when summer arrived, it baked like a sauna. The inmates stripped to their boxers and huddled in front of the small fans sold at the canteen. It was not unusual to wake up before dawn with the sheets soaked with sweat. A few spent the days completely nude.
For some reason, the prison conducted tours of death row. The tourists were usually high school students whose parents and advisers were hoping to scare them away from crime. When the weather was hot, the guards ordered the inmates to get dressed, a tour was coming through. Some complied, others did not.
An Indian nicknamed Buck Naked preferred the native look and was perpetually nude. He had the rare ability to pass gas on demand, and when the tour groups drew near, his favorite trick was to press his rear cheeks against the bars of his door and discharge a thunderous blast of flatulence. This shocked the young students and disrupted their tours.
The guards told him to stop. He refused. His colleagues egged him on, but only during tours. The guards finally hauled him away when visitors arrived. Several others tried imitations but lacked the talent. Ron just played and sang for the tourists.
On July 4,1988, Ron awoke in a foul mood and never recovered. It was Independence Day, a time for celebrations and parades and such, and he was locked away in a hellhole for a crime he did not commit. Where was his independence?
He began yelling and cursing and proclaiming his innocence, and when this prompted catcalls up and down the run, he went crazy. He began throwing everything he could find-books, magazines, toiletries, his small radio, his Bible, clothes. The guards watched and told him to set-de down. He cursed them and got louder. Pencils, papers, food from the canteen. Then he grabbed his television and slammed it into the brick wall, shattering it. Finally he took his cherished guitar and slammed it repeatedly into the bars of his cell door. Most death row inmates took a daily dose of a benign antidepres-sant called Sinequan. It was supposed to calm nerves and help with sleep. The guards finally convinced Ron to take something stronger, and he became drowsy and quiet. Later in the day, he began cleaning up his cell. Then he called Annette and, in tears, told her about the episode. She visited him later, and things were not pleasant. He shouted into the phone, accused her of not trying to free him, and again demanded that she sell everything and hire a big-time lawyer who could fix this injustice. She asked him to settle down, stop yelling, and when he didn't, she threatened to leave.
Over time, she and Renee replaced the television, radio, and guitar. In September 1988, a lawyer from Norman by the name of Mark Barrett drove to McAlester to meet his new client. Mark was one of four lawyers who handled the appeals for indigent defendants in capital cases. The Williamson case had been assigned to him. Barney Ward was out of the picture.
Appeals are automatic in capital cases. The necessary notices had been filed, the slow process was under way. Mark explained this to Ron Williamson and listened to his lengthy proclamations of innocence. He was not surprised to hear such talk, and he had not yet studied the transcript of the trial.
To assist his new lawyer, Ron handed over a list of all the witnesses who had lied at his trial, then, in minute detail, described to Mark Barrett the nature and extent of their lies. Mark found Ron to be intelligent, rational, clearly aware of his predicament and surroundings. He was articulate and spoke at length and in great detail about the lies the police and prosecution had used against him. He was a little panicky, but that was to be expected. Mark had no idea of Ron's medical history.
Mark's father was a minister in the Disciples of Christ denomination, and this bit of background prompted Ron into a long discussion about religion. He wanted Mark to know that he was a devout Christian, had been raised in the church by Godfearing parents, and read his Bible often. He quoted many verses of Scripture and Mark was impressed. One in particular was troubling him, and he asked Mark for his interpretation. They discussed it thoroughly. It was important for Ron to understand the verse, and he was clearly frustrated by his inability to grasp its meaning. Attorney visits had no time limits, and the clients were anxious to stay out of their cells. They talked for over an hour. Mark Barrett's first impression was that Ron was a fundamentalist, an easy talker, perhaps a bit too slick. As always, he was skeptical of his client's claims of innocence, though his mind was far from closed. He was also handling the appeals for Greg Wilhoit, and he was thoroughly convinced Greg did not kill his wife.
Mark knew there were innocent men on death row, and the more he learned about Ron's case, the more he believed him.
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