Execution of John Louis Evans May 4, 1983: First Person Account
Wed., May 4, 1983
Witness To An Execution
By Mark D. Harris United Press International
Ten hours before being led into a small room to witness the execution of John Louis Evans III, I learned my wife was pregnant with our first child, and in that brief span of time my notions of life and death became something abruptly personal - beautifully and horribly.
There is still a nagging regret that my joy over the impending birth was blurred by the chilling sight of Evans’ chest rhythmically rising and falling after what was supposed to be an instantaneously lethal dose of electricity.
And now a week after the fact, questions linger about whether Evans still felt anything after that first bolt of electricity ripped into his shaved skull.
Three reporters and the two witnesses Evans asked to attend his execution were searched at Holman Prison on April 22 and then ushered through a raging thunderstorm to a back door.
After a short walk along a hall lined by prison guards, we were in the observation room. Beyond a window was Evans, strapped around his legs, chest, arms and abdomen to the bright yellow electric chair. The leather straps pulled his shoulders back into an awkward and uncomfortable final position.
Eaglelike. That’s how he looked, with shaved head and sharp, handsome nose and chin.
But Evans’ face was pure calm. His pale blue eyes stared straight ahead, blinking occasionally. He had said he was prepared to die. If that wasn’t true, his face didn’t betray him.
Inside the red brick death chamber with Evans, attired in a white button-up prison smock and white socks, were Holman Warden J. D. White and two uniformed guards.
White, standing directly in front of Evans, read the death warrant. That was supposed to take three minutes, but it seemed much shorter -- perhaps because I was intent on committing the scene to memory. No paper or pen was allowed the media witnesses.
Evans, 33, a drifter from Beaumont, Texas, convicted of killing a Mobile Ala. pawnbroker, had asked that his final statement remain private. But when the warrant was read and it was Evans’ turn to speak, Prison Chaplain Martin Weber, one of nine men in the small observation room, began to quote the condemned man’s last words.
“He’s saying, ‘I have no malice for anyone, no hatred for anyone,’” Weber, apparently knowing what Evans intended to say, whispered to the witnesses. Prison Commissioner Fred Smith turned and shook finger as if scolding a child, and Weber fell silent.
One of Evan’s final wishes had been violated.
Evans’ words weren’t audible to the spectators, but he delivered them in unrushed sentences and even smiled once before the guards attached the electrode-filled skullcap to his head.
Evans’ head was made snug to the chair with a chin strap and black belt across the forehead. His causal expression disappeared behind a black veil.
Smith opened a telephone line to Gov. George Wallace in Montgomery.
I folded my arms across my chest and told myself I was ready. A man I love and respect had witnessed an electrocution as a young reporter. He had given me a novelist’s description of an electric chair execution, along with the warning, “It’ll be loud and it will stink.”
At the instant White pulled the switch and sent 1,900 volts burning into Evans, who clenched his fists and arched his body rigidly into the restraining straps, the folly of being prepared was gone.
A moment later, as spark and flame crackled around Evans’ head and shaved, razor-nicked left leg, white smoke seeped from beneath the veil and curled from his head and leg.
Midway through the surge of electricity, his body quivered and then fell back into the chair as the current ended.
We thought that was it - bad enough, but expected and bearable.
Two doctors filed out the witness room to examine the body and pronounce Evans dead.
The prison doctor, dressed in a blue surgical costume and tan loafers with tassels, placed a stethoscope to the smock, turned and nodded -- the natural signal for “Yes, he’s dead.”
But the nod meant he had found a heartbeat. The other doctor confirmed the gruesome discovery.
They and the warden walked from the death chamber, and a guard reattached the power lines to the chair and the electrode that fell away when a leg strap burned through.
Evans’ chest rose against the straps the first time. It rose evenly once, twice, maybe again.
A stream of saliva ran down the front of the white prison smock.
“God, he’s trying to signal them,” I thought.
I had been told a body might continue to jerk after taking a massive electric charge. I strained to figure out if this was convulsive movement in Evans’ strap-crossed chest, and concluded absolutely not. This was too measured. Just slow deep breathing.
Turning to another witness, I said, “He survived.” He nodded.
Behind us, Russell Canan, the lawyer who 90 minutes earlier lost a battle to win Evans a reprieve, stared resolutely ahead.
Spark and flame again accompanied the onset of the second charge. But this time, for a grim second, the veil slipped a fraction of an inch on the left side, giving the impression it was burning though and would fall away - exposing the face I’d noted was handsome minutes earlier.
Almost in unison a kind of shuddering grunt came from the witnesses, but the mask stayed in place.
When the second charge subsided the doctors re-examined Evans and again it was clear they found a pulsating heart. Smith knocked on the viewing room window for a clue to Evans’ state. Deputy Warden Ron Jones turned and shook his head.
From the back of the room, Canan suddenly, urgently blurted: “Commissioner, I ask for clemency. This cruel and unusual punishment.”
Smith, his back to Canan, did not respond or even indicate he had heard the plea, which Canan repeated, begging that the request be relayed to Wallace.
The commissioner then conveyed the appeal for clemency, but before a reply came from the governor's office in Montgomery, the third charge was administered.
Again, Evans’ head and leg smoldered. His fists, which clenched with the first jolt, remained locked on the chair’s arms.
The doctors went back for the third time and Canan begged for clemency “in case they have to do it again."
Smith, eyes welling, communicated the message. His voice broke.
I thought Canan had snapped. Surely he didn’t want Evans unstrapped at this point. I was convinced things were out of hand and was not sure the chair, for whatever reason, was capable of killing Evans. But surely the only thing worse than proceeding was stopping.
I seriously thought they would have to bring in a gun and shoot Evans in the chair.
Smith signaled White out of the death chamber as the doctors again listened for a heartbeat. The warden cracked the door to the witness room and heard Smith order: “Hold everything. They’re asking for clemency.”
Moments later, with things spiraling faster out of control, word came back from Wallace.
“The governor will not interfere. Proceed,” Smith said.
Almost simultaneously a witness to my right said, “He’s dead.”
Cold as it sounds, it was welcome news. Evans’ ordeal was over. And for the time being, so was the ordeal, however great or small, of those picked to watch him die.