Saturday, April 27, 2002

For Coleman, death came gently

By Howard Wilkinson,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LUCASVILLE, Ohio — Alton Coleman's death by lethal injection Friday morning came quickly, with none of the terror and trauma he inflicted on his victims 18 years before.

        It came, too, with a prayer on his lips.

        In a small cinder-block room inside the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility's death house, a room bathed in eerie yellow light, the serial killer who took the lives of eight people in a six-state rampage in the summer of 1984 quietly slipped away at 10:13 a.m., six minutes after he was led into the death chamber.

[photo] Family members of Alton Coleman murder victims leave the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility on Friday after the serial killer was put to death.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        It was a death that came with barely a movement or sound.

        Instead of the last-minute expression of remorse or statement of defiance that often marks the last words of a condemned man, the convict quietly muttered over and over the lines of the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want ...”

        Barely six feet away from the gurney, in two small witness rooms, sat six witnesses. Three had been named by Mr. Coleman to watch his death and three were members of the family of Marlene Walters of Norwood, the 44-year-old mother and grandmother he killed in her Floral Avenue home in July 1984.

        Her husband, Harry Walters, was beaten and left to die by Mr. Coleman and his partner, Debra Denise Brown, on that summer day 18 years ago.

        Friday morning, he sat calmly in a chair next to the clear glass picture window with his sons-in-law, Scott Lillard and Michael Blunt.

        A few feet away, separated by a wall and an open door, sat the Coleman witnesses — the Rev. Robert Garland, the condemned man's spiritual adviser; Larry Warner, a “death row” minister from Columbus, and defense attorney Kathleen Cleary.

        The execution began seven minutes after the scheduled time of 10 a.m. Mr. Coleman was led by prison guards 17 steps down a short hallway from his holding cell to the death chamber.

        As he walked into the chamber with four prison guards and Warden James Haviland, he wore what the Rev. Mr. Garland later described as a “nondenominational prayer shawl” wrapped around his shoulders, decorated with several blue Stars of David, over his standard-issue prison shirt and navy-blue pants.

        With no resistance whatsoever, he was helped onto the gurney by the guards, who strapped him down and connected the tubes that would carry the lethal drugs into the shunts already placed in both arms.

        All but one guard and the warden left the room. Mr. Coleman was left lying on the slightly tilted table, looking at the particle-board ceiling and muttering prayers.

        At one point, the condemned man rolled his head over to look at the window of the witness room in which the Walters family sat, mouthing words that could not be heard. It lasted but a few seconds; Mr. Walters and his sons-in-law sat motionless and silent.

        At 10:09 a.m., Mr. Haviland took three steps toward Mr. Coleman.

        “Do you have any last words?” the warden asked.

        “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” Mr. Coleman said, clearly, his eyes closed. Then his voice trailed off as he continued the verse, almost inaudibly: “He leadeth me beside still waters; he restoreth my soul ...”

        Soon, the words could no longer be heard. Mr. Haviland walked away, but Mr. Coleman's lips still moved, mouthing the same words over and over again.

        He continued to mouth prayers until the $44.23 worth of drugs did their work.

        Up until that point, a saline solution was the only thing being pumped into Mr. Coleman's system.

        Then, sodium pentothal was injected to put him into a deep sleep.

        His eyes closed; the prayers ceased.

        Then came pancuronium bromide, a muscle-relaxing drug that paralyzed his diaphragm and lungs. There was a brief but rapid rising and fall of his chest. Then, stillness.

        Finally, potassium chloride was pumped into his system. It was the drug that would stop his heart and complete the cycle that began 46 years ago for the troubled youth from Waukegan, Ill., and led him to this cinder-block room.

        There was no reaction to the drug, except for a slight opening of his mouth.

        The guard walked to the windows of the witnesses' rooms and pulled white curtains as a doctor entered the room to check whether the convict was dead.

        One minute later, with the now-still body lying before him, Mr. Haviland picked up the microphone and made the official pronouncement: “Time of death was 10:13 a.m.”

        The Walters family members sat quietly in the witness room, staring silently at the body. Next door, in the Coleman witness room, Mr. Warner placed a hand on the window.

        “Lord, take your son,” Mr. Warner said. “No more pain: You're free.”

        Enquirer reporter Howard Wilkinson was a witness to the execution of Alton Coleman.


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