• The victim’s family members watch as the killer chokes on cyanide.
PATTY MACHELOR Citizen Staff Writer
The agonizing choking and gagging continued over several minutes.
Finally, shrouded in poisonous gas, Walter LaGrand slumped forward.
The 37-year-old killer had breathed his last breath.
Arizona’s first gas chamber execution in seven years took 18 minutes before the condemned man’s heart flat-lined at 9:30 last night.
That’s seven minutes more than it took death row inmate Don Harding to die by cyanide poisoning on April 6, 1992.
Harding’s gruesome death prompted a change in law to allow inmates who committed murder before 1992 to chose between the gas chamber and lethal injection.
Walter and Karl LaGrand – two half-brothers on death row since 1984 for stabbing a Marana bank manager 23 times in a robbery attempt before slitting his throat because he didn’t know the safe combination – chose gas.
Karl LaGrand, 35, changed his mind at the last moment and was executed last week by the less-painful lethal injection.
Gov. Hull extended the same option to Walter LaGrand, but a 3 p.m. Friday deadline for such a request came and went – as did the traditional last-minute flurry of appeals for a stay of execution.
With LaGrand’s death, the question now is whether legislators will allow the remaining 30 or so death-row inmates to make such a choice of death and spectacle.
The LaGrand executions were objected to by Germany, where the brothers were born. Their deaths drew heavy media coverage in Europe.
”We have our laws, they have their laws,” said Gov. Jane Hull. ”We have respect for theirs. I hope they would have respect for our laws. Our state has capital punishment.”
More than 30 people including news reporters and family members of the victim witnessed last night’s execution.
As they moved into the room, witnesses faced a three-windowed capsule with blinds hiding the man who sat within it, awaiting his death.
A blue curtain sectioned off the injection chamber.
Creaking could be heard from behind the window, perhaps as LaGrand was fastened into the chair with a black harness, which was all that kept him from falling forward minutes later.
A Department of Corrections officer called over her radio, ”Witnesses are staged.”
The blinds were then raised, revealing the back of a man with thick, curly, dark hair clad in blue prison garb, which blended softly with the light yellow paint inside the chamber.
LaGrand’s face could not be seen except by a very few, perhaps offering the convicted killer a final shred of dignity.
He offered a final statement with a surprisingly steady voice as he asked for forgiveness and told surviving stabbing victim Dawn Lopez and relatives of slain bank manager Kenneth Hartsock that he hopes they ”find peace.”
”I just want to say sorry to the Hartsock family. First time I really got to see that picture,” he said, apparently referring to a photo of the victim being held up by Kathy Hartsock, the victim’s daughter.
”I am truly sorry. I hope you find peace. I want to thank Helen (Hartsock’s sister) for forgiving us. I want to say to her kids and to Lopez, Dawn Lopez, I hope you find peace.”
Moments later, the execution proceeded as cyanide pellets were dropped into the acid below the chair.
The witness room fell silent as a mist of gas rose, much like steam in a shower, and Walter LaGrand became enveloped in a cloud of cyanide vapor.
He began coughing violently – three or four loud hacks – and then, in what appeared to be his last moments of consciousness, he made a gagging sound before falling forward at about 9:15 p.m.
The method of death is comparable to having a heart attack, according to prison officials.
LaGrand had not been told by prison officials what death by lethal gas would be like, said Charles Ryan, deputy director of prison operations.
Minutes passed as LaGrand’s back rose and fell with shallow breaths and his head twitched.
In the witness room, the only sound was the continuing hum of the light overhead.
Lopez, the bank clerk who survived the stabbing attack by the LaGrands, began to quietly weep. Moments later, she was escorted from the room by Deputy Pima County Attorney David White.
A few minutes later, at about 9:18, Walter LaGrand’s right arm again twitched.
Kathy Hartsock then left the room, which had become uncomfortably warm.
DOC spokeswoman Camilla Strongin said from where she stood, she could see that LaGrand turned only once – apparently to see the photo Kathy Hartsock held of her father.
But shortly after, as the gas began to rise, Strongin noticed that LaGrand kept his eyes closed.
His hands, however, were red and clenched.
The LaGrands both chose to die by lethal gas weeks ago in order to appeal on grounds the method was a cruel and unusual punishment.
The tactic bought Karl LaGrand a few extra hours of life when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay, before the U.S. Supreme Court shot down the ruling without comment.
Changing his mind on the method of execution, Karl LaGrand died by lethal injection at 8 p.m. Feb. 24.
The German government, which banned the death penalty after World War II, tried to intervene and save the brothers but failed in attempting to have state officials await an investigation by the World Court.
Delays for Walter LaGrand began yesterday when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted an injunction over the method of execution Walter LaGrand was facing.
At about 7:30, the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the injunction and issued a ruling that when Walter LaGrand chose gas over lethal injection, he waived his right to appeal the method as being unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.
LaGrand’s hope was also that the World Court would be able to intervene in his execution.
Hull on Tuesday ignored a clemency board’s 2-1 recommendation that she issue a 60-day reprieve.
Hull met with Lopez and also with German Ambassador Jurgen Chrobog before deciding to go forward with the execution as scheduled.
Alexander Privitera, a German and bureau chief of the Washington, D.C., ProSieben television, said the German government was ”too little, too late” in its attempt to save Karl LaGrand.
But he said he was shocked by the ”immense arrogance” of Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano and Hull in ”ignoring international law” and not granting a stay for the World Court to investigate the Walter LaGrand case.
Hull noted that the World Court has no legal authority to stop Arizona from executing a prisoner.
Edward Levy, chairman of the Arizona Executive Board of Clemency, and member Kathryn Brown voted Tuesday to grant Walter LaGrand a 60-day reprieve.
Fellow member Edith Richardson opposed the request.
Napolitano defended the state’s position.
”I think that the United States cares about international law, but in this case it was too late,” she said at a press conference, when questioned by Privitera.
She also refused to disclose her feelings about death by the gas chamber.
”It was the punishment he chose, and it was administered in this case. It was an execution. It’s the law, and we carry out the law,” she said.
WALTER LaGRAND’S FINAL STATEMENT
”I just want to say sorry to the Hartsock family. First time I really got to see that picture (possibly referring to a photo of Kenneth Hartsock being held by his daughter). I am truly sorry. I hope you find peace. I want to thank Helen (Hartsock’s sister) for forgiving us. I want to say to her kids and to Lopez, Dawn Lopez, I hope you find peace. To all my loved ones, I hope they find peace. To all of you out here today, I forgive you. I hope I can be forgiven in my next life. That’s all I have to say.”
PHOTO CAPTIONS: Photos by MARY CHIND/Tucson Citizen
Monsignor Edward J. Ryle reads to other protesters outside the Arizona State Prison Complex-Florence yesterday. Walter LaGrand was executed inside despite the protests outside the prison.
Several people from Tucson drove to Florence to protest the gas chamber execution of Walter LaGrand.