Angel on Death Row

Newspaper Accounts

Victim's parent says execution too painless
Nun says murderer felt God would receive him

Copyright 1984 The Advocate. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of The Advocate.
December 28, 1984

By Allan Pursnell and Bill McMahon
Capitol News Bureau

ANGOLA -- This morning's electric-chair execution of rapist-killer Robert Lee Willie was too quick and painless, said Vernon Harvey, who watched the murderer of his stepdaughter pay with his life.

"I feel it was... too quick -- too easy. He didn't have to suffer the pain my daughter had to," Harvey told reporters after he and his wife witnessed the execution.

He circulated written comments from the coroner's report that said his 18-year-old stepdaughter Faith Colleen Hathaway of Mandeville suffered a slow death from stab wounds. Some of her fingers were severed in the attack. "There's no comparison of how Willie died, compared to how Faith died," said Harvey. "He didn't even know what hit him..."

Willie had said he felt he would be received by God in heaven, according to his spiritual adviser, Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun who was with him to the last. Harvey said he thought Willie would burn in hell.

"I think that little jolt of electricity that they gave him over there that killed him...was just the begining of the heat that his soul is going to have to put up with for eternity," said Harvey.

Willie's death by electrocution was not without pain, Sister Prejean said, "To say that people don't suffer because electricity is quick -- you know the day and hour of your death and it's like psychological torture," she said.

Sister Prejean said after the execution that Willie was on the road to rehabilitation. "Robert, if he had a chance, was beginning to change," she said. "He died sorry for what had happened. He said 'Sister Helen, I think God is going to be waiting for me.'"

Willie, who prided himself on being a tough guy, shed tears Thursday when he met with members of his family prior to the execution, Sister Prejean said.

Mr. and Mrs. Harvey were composed after witnessing the execution. They talked with reporters outside the gates of the prison. "I wish this day could come for all the victims out there," Mrs. Harvey said.

"I am thankful that Robert Lee Willie will never be able to murder again. He won't be able to (add) any more victims to his list -- it's a long list," Mrs. Harvey said.

The victim's 14-year-old sister, Lizabeth Harvey, said she would have liked to watch Willie die in the electric chair, but she was too young to qualify as a witness. "He watched my sister die... He slit her throat and continued to rape her even after she was dead," Miss Harvey said. She was 9 at the time of her sister's murder.

She was among a small group of Harvey family members and friends that gathered at the gates of the prison to show their support for capital punishment and for Willie's execution.

One of the demonstrators, Buster Crawford of Pearl River, a friend of the family, said the concept of justice has changed for the worse. "I can remember a time when my grandfather wouldn't have spent $1 million to get rid of 150 pounds of trash," said Crawford, referring to the cost involved in the case.

Some people wore signs saying, "justice at last" and "justice prevails."

The Harveys were among eight witnesses to the execution, but generally, they were kept separate from the other six witnesses. All the witnesses left the execution chamber in single file, all with emotionless faces, after Willie was pronounced dead at 12:15 a.m.

When Warden Frank Blackburn gave the signal at 12:01 a.m. to begin the execution, Willie took a short walk of about 50 feet from his death-house cell to the electric chair. He was in leg irons and handcuffs and wore a T-shirt. His left arm, showing a tattoo of a woman's face, was bare. The left leg of his blue jeans was cut off at the knee, making room for the electrode. Despite his shaven head and pallid complexion, he looked younger than his 26 years.

His last words were brief and directed at the Harveys.

"I would just like to say, Mr. and Mrs. Harvey, I hope you get some relief from my death. 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," said Willie.

Willie, in earlier interviews, reflected with fond memories on the life of crime, booze, women and dope that led him to the executioner, making him the sixth man to die in Louisiana's electric chair since capital punishment was resumed in 1983.

The 1980 murder-torture rape of Miss Hathaway came after a high school graduation celebration.

Miss Hathaway graduated from Mandeville High School in May of that year. She planned to begin a tour of duty with the Army. But after saying goodbye to friends at a Mandeville disco on the night of May 27, she accepted what she thought would be a ride with Willie and his accomplice, Joseph Jesse Vaccaro, 31 of Pearl River.

The two ex-convicts drove her to a cave south of Franklinton, where she was raped by both men stabbed in the neck and some of her fingers were dismembered.

Willie was convicted of two other killings for which he received life sentences, assorted robberies and the kidnapping of a young couple in Madisonville. In the kidnapping, Willie raped a 16-year-old girl and attempted to kill a 20-year-old man. The man was paralyzed from the waist down after being shot and stabbed.

Willie pleaded guilty to robbing and killing Dennis Buford Hemby in St. Tammany Parish and, in an unrelated crime, he confessed to killing St. Tammany Parish Deputy Sheriff Louis Wagner III. Later, however, Willie recanted, saying he confessed to the deputy's killing only so he could stay in the St. Tammany Parish Jail, where he thought it would be easier to escape than in other institutions. Since Willie's confession in the Wagner case, serial murder Henry Lee Lucas confessed to that crime.

Willie denied he killed Miss Hathaway. He claimed Vaccaro did the stabbing.

Willie said earlier that he was ready to die. "I'll hold my head up. I've got pride." Willie said he had lived a good life, soothed by dope, alcohol and women.

"I've had a number of women, drugs. I've experienced about everything there is to experience."

Willie's 52-year old father, John Willie, who lives near Covington, also served time at Angola. He served sentences for crimes that included second-degree murder.

Louisiana resumed executions when Robert Wayne Williams, 31, was electrocuted December 14, 1983, for the shooting death of a Baton Rouge supermarket guard during a holdup.

Four other executions were carried out this year including:

-- Johnny Taylor, 30 electrocuted Feb. 29 for the stabbing death of a man in Kenner.

-- Elmo Patrick Sonnier, 35, electrocuted April 5 for killing two teenagers near New Iberia.

-- Timothy Baldwin, 46, electrocuted Sept. 10 for the beating death of an elderly West Monroe woman during a robbery in her home.

-- Earnest Knighton, Jr., 38, electrocuted Oct. 30 for shooting to death a Bossier City service station operator during a robbery.

Willie became the 32nd person to be executed in the United States since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.


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