Angel on Death Row

Newspaper Accounts

Victim's parents watch Willie die


Copyright 1984 The Times-Picayune. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the Times-Picayune.
December 28, 1984

By Jason DeParle
Staff writer


ANGOLA, La. -- Robert Lee Willie, who raped and killed an 18-year-old Mandevile woman, was executed Friday morning after telling the victim's parents, "I hope you get some relief from my death."

Willie, 26, who was pronounced dead at 12:15 a.m., became the sixth Louisiana man executed in the past 13 months, and the 32nd nationwide since executions resumed in 1977.

Vern and Elizabeth Harvey, the stepfather and mother of murder victim Faith Hathaway, were among eight people witnessing the execution. The Harveys have been vocal supporters of the death penalty and have demonstrated in support of capital punishment at other executions.

The Harveys did not move or show emotion as Willie spoke to them.

But within a half-hour after the execution, a smiling Vern Harvey poured a drink for himself and his wife in their van parked outside the state penitentiary's main gate.

"Do you want to dance?" he asked a reporter. "First thing I'm gonna do is have a drink, then go home and get some rest."

Willie, who had said earlier that he was not afraid of the electric chair, was led into the death chamber just after midnight. He was wearing jeans, a white sweatshirt, and white slippers; and was escorted by six guards.

"I would just like to say Mr. and Mrs. Harvey that I hope you get some relief from my death," he said. "Killing people is wrong. That's why you've put me to death. It makes no difference whether it's citizens, countries, or governments. Killing is wrong."

He was strapped into the chair and a hood was placed over his head.

Then, he asked Angola State Penitentiary Warden Frank Blackburn to remove the hood, and he winked at Sister Helen Prejean of New Orleans, his spiritual advisor.

Prejean was praying, and said, "Forgive those who collaborate."

At 12:07, Willie was jolted by 2,000 volts of electricity for 10 seconds, and then 500 volts for 20 seconds. The sequence was repeated.

West Feliciana Parish Coroner Alfred Gould examined Willie at 12:13 and pronounced him dead at 12:15.

On his last day, Willie visited with his mother, Elizabeth Oalman of Covington, four brothers, and Prejean.

Blackburn said that Willie was served the last meal he requested -- fried fish, oysters and shrimp -- as well as some french fries and a salad.

Blackburn said Willie's mood before the execution was "quiet and somber ... appropriate to the occasion. He doesn't seem scared, but he's not lighthearted."

Outside the prison, Hathaway's sister, Lizabeth, 14, demonstrated for the death penalty along with a half-dozen members of Parents of Murdered Children, a group the family founded.

Death penalty opponents did not demonstrate at Angola, as they have in the past, but staged a vigil outside the Governor's Mansion in Baton Rouge. As they prayed, tourists took photos of the governor's 40-foot Christmas tree.

Before the execution, Vern Harvey said he regretted that Willie would not feel much pain from the electrocution.

"It's going to be quick for him. I'd rather it would be a lot slower. I think he deserves the painful death she had."

Willie sometimes said he's sorry for his crimes, but couldn't understand "why everybody keeps bringing it up." He said Harvey shouldn't dwell on the murder.

"It's like he's a glutton for punishment over her death," Willie said.

In interviews last week, Willie recounted his life of drugs, booze, and violence in remorseless terms, and said he was not afraid to die.

"Electric chair don't worry me, man," he said. "I have a lot of pride, I don't run from nothing."

Willie said he and a friend, Joseph Jesse Vaccaro, were "loaded" at 4:30 a.m. May 28, 1980, when they say Hathaway walking alongside Mandevile road. Hathaway was returning from a celebration on the night before she was scheduled to enter the Army.

Willie and Vaccaro blindfolded her, raped her, and drove her to a remote section of Washington Parish.

"She just kept saying, 'I won't identify y'all or nothing,'" Willie said. "She kept saying 'Don't hurt me.'"

Willie and Vaccaro offer different accounts of the stabbing that ensued, blaming each other for the 17 knife wounds that took Hathaway's life.

Willie said Vaccaro, unexpectedly began stabbing Hathaway and that he helped by holding her hands. But Vaccaro, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the murder, said at trial that "Willie jugged her and jugged her until she begged us to kill her."

Eight days later, Willie and Vaccaro kidnapped a Madisonville couple from a wooded lovers' lane and drove them to Alabama. They raped the 16-year-old girl, and then stabbed and shot her boyfriend, 20-year-old Mark Brewster, leaving him tied to a tree.

Brewster survived, but is paralyzed from the waist down, At trial, Willie mocked the victims by blowing kisses at the woman he raped and drawing his finger across his throat in a menacing fashion when Brewster took the stand.

After his conviction for Hathaway's murder, Willie pleaded guilty to the 1978 killing of Dennis Hemby near Covington. Willie said he and his cousin, Perry Wayne Taylor, beat and drowned Hemby and stole $10,000 worth of marijuana from him.

Taylor plead guilty to manslaughter and is serving a 21-year-sentence.

Willie was also given six life sentences stemming from those crimes.

John Willie, 53, the condemned man's father, served 27 years at Angola for cattle theft, aggravated battery, and manslaughter. He said that his son and Vaccaro both deserve to die.

"I believe more in capital punishment than those people on the juries," he said. "I'd like to pull the switch myself or shoot them down."

Wiring of chair account retracted

The father of convicted murderer Robert Lee Willie said Thursday he did not wire the electric chair at the state penitentiary at Angola in which his son was to be executed early Friday.

John Willie retracted an earlier account in which he claimed to have wired the chair when he was an inmate electrician in 1982. That claim was published in an article Thursday in The Times-Picayune/The States Item.

Angola Warden Frank Blackburn said Thursday the chair was wired before 1982 and that Willie was not an electrician and did no work on it. An inmate would not have been used for the job, Blackburn said.

Willie, responding to Blackburn's statement, said that while he was an inmate at the prison in 1982 he watched electricians work on the chair, but did none of the work himself.



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