Fran's Market killer dies awaiting appeal

Billy Ray Hamilton, the long-haired hit man who fired a sawed-off shotgun to kill three young people inside Fran's Market in Fresno 27 years ago, has died, prison officials said Wednesday.

His death in a San Joaquin Valley hospital was from "natural causes," the California Department of Corrections reported.

Hamilton's death at 57 came before the state could carry out his execution, first imposed by Judge Roy MacFarland in Glenn County Superior Court in 1982.

Margot Bach, a Corrections Department spokeswoman, said she could only confirm that the death row inmate died at 3:18 p.m. Monday in "an outside hospital."

That bewildered Roy and Nadine White, parents of Douglas White, an 18-year-old clerk killed by Hamilton on Sept. 5, 1980.

Why, they asked, had Hamilton's death taken 27 years, while the murder of White, Josephine Rocha, 17, and Bryon Schletewitz, 27, took only minutes?

Why couldn't the state legally execute their son's killer, instead of allowing Hamilton to die naturally? Why had they and other taxpayers had to pay to keep him alive so long?

"Goodness sake!" Roy White said. "He should have been shot outside the market. I'm glad he suffered."

Hamilton was convicted of being the trigger man for Clarence Ray Allen, a Folsom Prison convict who at that time was serving a life sentence for an earlier murder. Prosecutors convinced jurors that Hamilton had killed the three young people to carry out Allen's revenge against the owners of Fran's Market, Ray and Fran Schletewitz, for testimony against him in an earlier case.

'We're both glad he's dead'

Over the years, the victims' families had argued that if the death penalty is a deterrent and if Hamilton and Allen were convicted of a revenge killing in retaliation for testimony against Allen, what better grounds could there be for execution?

The Whites had written to Gov. Schwarzenegger about the time it takes to carry out death penalties in California.

"Once it's committed, it should take 72 hours" from conviction to execution, said Roy White.

Nadine White said, "You just kind of stick your head in the sand."

Hamilton had been "kept alive at our expense. We all paid for that -- to keep him alive and kicking and causing more problems."

Asked whether the killer's death would bring them peace, Roy White said, "I hope so. This just keeps going. We're both glad he's dead."

Allen, the inmate who ordered the killings from inside prison, was executed on Jan. 17, 2006. His motive, according to court testimony more than a quarter-century old, was revenge. Allen was angry that Ray Schletewitz and his son, Bryon, had testified against Allen, leading to his 1977 murder conviction.

Hamilton, who committed the murders shortly after his release from prison, was convicted, then sentenced to die for the market killings as Allen's hit man.

The case lasted years on appeal, going to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lawyers recall case

Gerald Kahl, who once represented Hamilton as a public defender, called the triple homicide "a horrendous thing." His client's defense, Kahl said, was that authorities had captured, tried and sentenced the wrong man.

"It surprises me that it's been 27 years, and that the matter hadn't been resolved," said Kahl, who is now retired. "I assume it hadn't gone completely through the system."

The lawyer made clear that he had always spoken with his client in safety, when Hamilton was locked up and under guard.

Rendered harmless, Hamilton struck Kahl as "a nice guy. He didn't try to overwhelm you or tell you how to do the case."

Kahl said Hamilton's acquiescent personality -- once he was disarmed, locked up and thoroughly controlled -- led him to wonder whether Hamilton had acted under the influence of disorienting drugs to commit the brutal killings.

Hamilton's case remained on appeal. He had asserted that he suffered from inadequate legal representation.

Ward Campbell, now supervising deputy attorney general, served as a prosecutor in the Fran's Market case, becoming familiar with Hamilton's role in the killings. Campbell said the time it took for Hamilton to die, so long after his death sentence, is far from unique.

"A significant number of people on death row die of natural causes," Campbell said.