Crime

What was it like at a San Quentin execution? Reporter captured final moments in 1996

Outside the gates of San Quentin State Prison on May 2, 1996, Dan McCormick leads a mock funeral procession protesting the execution of Keith Daniel Williams. McCormick and protestors in black were members of Bay Area Death Penalty Activists Team. McCormick said, “every man, woman and child in the state of California will share in this violent act” – referring to the execution. Williams was executed after midnight May 3, 1996.
Outside the gates of San Quentin State Prison on May 2, 1996, Dan McCormick leads a mock funeral procession protesting the execution of Keith Daniel Williams. McCormick and protestors in black were members of Bay Area Death Penalty Activists Team. McCormick said, “every man, woman and child in the state of California will share in this violent act” – referring to the execution. Williams was executed after midnight May 3, 1996. Fresno Bee file

In the wake of Californa Gov. Gavin Newsom signing a moratorium on executions, The Fresno Bee looks back at past San Quentin executions.

Three men from the San Joaquin Valley have been executed since California reinstituted the death penalty in 1977. Clarence Ray Allen of Fresno in 2006 was the last California execution at San Quentin. Before Allen, Visalia’s Robert Alton Harris died in 1992, and Keith Daniel Williams, a Lodi resident, was put to death in 1996.

Fresno Bee reporter Pablo Lopez was one of the witnesses to Williams’ execution just after midnight Friday, May 3, 1996. This was his report:

The execution of Keith Daniel Williams at San Quentin State Prison was morbid theater played before a packed audience – standing-room only.

Passes for the event were a rare commodity. Hundreds had applied for them, but only 50 spectators were chosen to see the death of a man who had killed three Merced County residents in 1978.

About 11:50 p.m., the last group was allowed to file into the pale yellow observation room. Among those who gathered to see Williams die were his supporters, relatives of his victims, politicians, law enforcement officials and reporters.

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Spectators saw white curtains draped across the chamber. Their first order of business was to jockey for position on benches so they could crane their necks in hopes of getting a good view of him through the chamber’s windows.

M _ KEITH DANIEL WILLIAMS.JPG
Keith Daniel Williams, convicted in three 1978 killings, was executed at San Quentin Prison in May 1996. Fresno Bee file

Witnesses did not see the prison guards strap the gray-haired condemned killer to the gurney inside the apple-green execution chamber, which was formerly used as a gas chamber.

For his execution, Williams, 48, wore a new pair of prison-issued blue jeans, a short-sleeved blue shirt and gray socks. A Roman Catholic, he received his last rites from his spiritual adviser, Margaret Harrell, of the United Church of Christ in Marin County.

Among the witnesses were six family members of the victims. Three of them later identified themselves as Alma, Onix and Miguel Vargas Jr. – children of victim Miguel Vargas. They, too, are Roman Catholic. One of them was seen holding a crucifix.

Williams’ relatives declined to attend.

Prison guards controlled the execution with strict orders: no outbursts and no moving once the curtains were lifted. They separated reporters, relatives of the victims and Williams’ supporters from each other, and reserved the best viewing spots for the staffs of Gov. Wilson, Attorney General Dan Lungren and law enforcement officials.

Without fanfare, the curtains separated and there lay Williams. He could only gaze upward because his 5-foot, 7-inch body was bound. For eight eerie minutes, witnesses stared at the execution chamber, in which five people prepared Williams for his death.

The crowd was quiet, and no tears were shed. The only noise was from reporters scribbling notes on small pads and the hum of a machine.

As two prison guards stood nearby, a man in a plaid shirt supervised two women who searched Williams’ arms for veins that would accept the intravenous tubes. Awaiting Williams was a lethal injection of sodium pentothal, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride.

Williams wiggled his toes, and his eyes were blinking rapidly. His white, wrinkled, tattooed arms were not struggling, but his fingers were moving nervously.

After a few minutes, the women, wearing surgical gloves, finally settled for veins in his hands.

Once they had done their job, they left the chamber, leaving the two guards to hook up a heart-monitoring system that went from Williams’ chest to a room behind the chamber. Inside that room, the executioners, who could view Williams through a one-way window, were poised to release the deadly doses.

With Williams hooked up, the prison guards rotated his gurney slightly, giving his supporters a better view of his face. He raised his head slightly to mouth a message – what, it was unclear – to his supporters. Then he looked around the room one last time before a prison guard announced the commencement of the execution at 12:03 a.m.

His eyes closed and his body never struggled against the nylon and leather straps that bound him tightly to a gurney.

He uttered no final words.

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Witnesses could not see the injection because the fluids were colorless. They were alerted when Williams’ scraggly gray beard bobbed, his barrel chest heaved and his eyes closed in one simultaneous jolt.

Five minutes later, at 12:08 a.m., a doctor, hidden from view, pronounced him dead. The witnesses were then ordered to leave the observation room. Williams’ body was claimed by one of his lawyers, who had the consent of family members, prison officials said.

His body will be cremated.

Williams was given the death penalty for executing Merced cousins Salvador Macias, 41, Miguel Vargas, 31, and Vargas’ girlfriend, Lourdes Meza, 25, in October 1978. He shot the victims in an effort to recover a $1,500 check that he had used to buy Vargas’ 1973 Plymouth Roadrunner.

Although he was not convicted of rape, testimony from a co-defendant at Williams’ trial said he had killed Meza while raping her.

After leaving the observation room, witnesses stared at the full moon over San Francisco Bay. Some cried and hugged. Others hoped they would not be haunted by the killing.

Afterward, Merced County District Attorney Gordon Spencer, one of the 50 witnesses, said, “The execution concludes a long journey for justice.” His first telephone call was to Larry Howard, who prosecuted Williams. Howard is retired, suffering from multiple sclerosis.

“Williams is dead,” Spencer said.

“Good,” Howard replied. “He deserved it.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom put a moratorium on the death penalty in California on March 13, 2019, sparing the lives of more than 700 death-row inmates.

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