Advertisement
News

Delaware brings down relic of death penalty

SMYRNA, DEL. — SMYRNA, Del. - Shortly before 9 a.m. yesterday, a backhoe yanked a chain attached to the Delaware Correctional Center's gallows, and the ghastly relic of this state's 341-year-old history with the death penalty crashed to the ground.

State officials could have quietly disassembled the rickety wooden structure - 23 steps, a trap door and a cross beam from which to hang a noose. But this device, built 17 years ago and used in the last hanging execution in the United States in 1996, carries too much symbolism to do that, they decided.

Advertisement

So under a still sky highlighted with wispy clouds, they gathered a crowd of reporters who watched as a method of execution was put to death.

The demolition is scheduled to be completed today.

Advertisement

"It's definitely a day in history," said the prison's deputy warden, Betty Burris. "It's the end of hanging in the state of Delaware."

In 1986, the First State changed its main method of execution to lethal injection, but permitted those already sentenced to death the option of hanging.

That was how Billy Bailey died on these gallows Jan. 25, 1996.

Two other inmates were left with the possibility of hanging. William H. Flamer chose lethal injection and was killed five days after Bailey's execution, and James W. Riley refused to choose.

Then, on May 19 this year, Riley was resentenced to life in prison, and the gallows became obsolete.

Delaware's switch to lethal injection leaves New Hampshire and Washington as the only states in the country that conduct hangings, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, an information clearinghouse in Washington, D.C.

In Washington state, which last conducted a hanging in 1994, it is an option available to death row inmates, though lethal injection is the standard. The same applies in New Hampshire, where the last hanging was held in 1939.

Most states, including Maryland, use lethal injection. The last hanging execution in Maryland was June 10, 1955, state officials said.

Advertisement

For death penalty opponents, yesterday's destruction was a small victory, they said.

"The challenge that remains for us is to have the death penalty go the way of the gallows," said Sally Milbury-Steen, the treasurer of Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty.

David Elliot, a spokesman at the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, based in Washington, D.C., said his group rejoiced when the electric chair was banned in other states.

"We're quite delighted to see the gallows go away as well," Elliot said. "Having said that, there's no truly kind way to kill people."

Bailey's attorney agreed. He became a death penalty opponent during the course of his client's case.

"I'd be happier if you told me they got rid of the gallows and the lethal injection chamber," Edmund D. Lyons Jr. said.

Advertisement

Delaware's history with justice also includes the fact that, in 1972, it became the last state to outlaw the whipping post, though the last whipping had been 20 years earlier.

The oldest record of an execution in Delaware predates its statehood. In September 1662, a hanging was carried out, but details aren't available, according to the Delaware Department of Corrections.

Since 1976, when a death penalty moratorium imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court ended, Delaware has executed more people per capita than any state, according to an April 2002 report by the Death Penalty Information Center. It has put 13 people to death, which translates to 0.166 people per every 10,000 who live here.

Fourteen inmates are on Delaware's death row. The next execution is scheduled for Aug. 8.

Billy Bailey was executed for the 1979 murders of an elderly couple in their home. Seventeen years later, he stood atop the gallows on a bitterly cold night for at least 20 minutes as the noose danced in the wind.

"The clouds were just scudding across the sky," said Lyons, his attorney.

Advertisement

Two men in masks stood beside Bailey. The executors placed the noose formed from inch-thick rope around his neck. They allowed 5 feet of slack. Given too much slack or too little and he might either be decapitated or die a slow death from strangulation.

It was the right amount. The rope pulled taut. His white sneakers dangled below the gallows.

No crowds had revisited the scene of Bailey's death until yesterday. The correctional center is about 14 miles north of Dover, the state capital.

The gallows toppled yesterday stood at the back of the 2,400-inmate correction facility and were constructed in 1986, specifically for Bailey. They were made from treated southern yellow pine, which has begun to turn green.

Twelve stairs - each with a slip-resistant covering - led to a landing. At the landing, the stairs turned left, leading to the platform.

The platform measured 11 feet by 11 feet and was covered by a small wooden roof. In the middle of the platform was a 4-foot-by-3 1/2 -foot trap door.

Advertisement

The platform's floor stood 10 feet 10 inches above the ground. It faced the witness area.

The apparatus was surrounded by a two-story stockade fence to prevent unwanted witnesses. At first glance, the tower looked something like a treehouse, but with a haunted aura about it.

"It did what we needed it to do," said corrections spokeswoman Beth Welch.

After determining this summer that the gallows were no longer needed, the state contacted the Historical Society of Delaware, which declined to take the device.

Instead, the gallows are being disposed of in an undisclosed way that involves a locked trash bin so souvenir seekers can't snare pieces, Welch said.

A small historical society wanted pieces for a fund-raiser. Frightland, a Halloween-oriented amusement park in St. Georges, Del., also sought parts. The state denied both, Welch said.

Advertisement

Maintenance workers began the process of destruction about 8 a.m. yesterday. Nick Loebe started sawing at a U-bolt, and Joey Simpler used a backhoe to slap and punch at the stockade fence.

They finished the first part of the job with a blowtorch.

With the peripheral part of the structure strewn on the ground, the workers turned their attention to the tower. They chained it to the backhoe. Then the backhoe pulled away.

One chain pulled taut. The gallows fell forward and crashed on broken cement.

Then all was still.


Advertisement