Angel on Death Row

Reporter's Notebook


By Christopher Buchanan, Associate Producer

The first thing Elizabeth Harvey said to me when I walked into her home in Mandeville, Louisiana was, "Of all the people who have come to talk with us about Faith's murder, you're the first one who has gone down there to see where they stabbed her to death."

It had been a chilling experience, shrouded in the early February morning fog.

In Louisiana less than a day, it was already quite clear to me this story of murder and capital punishment was filled with layers and dimensions, facts and opinions that would need a lot of untangling: First, the grisly murder 16 years ago, then a number of trials, an execution, a book, "Dead Man Walking," and finally a movie of the same name.

The movie, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean, combined the stories of the first two men she counseled on Louisiana's death row: Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie. In rather broad strokes, it is fair to say the film captures Sonnier's crime and Willie's character.

The actual crimes took place years and miles apart. Sonnier and his younger brother, Eddie, killed two teenagers Loretta Bourque and David LeBlanc on November 4 1977 in an Iberia Parish sugar cane field, in the heart of Louisiana's Cajun country. Just as portrayed in the movie, the girl was raped and both were shot in the back of the head. Three years later, May 28, 1980, Willie and a friend, Joe Vaccaro, picked up Faith Hathaway as she was walking home alone from a bar in Mandeville, Louisiana, on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain. Stoned on a variety of drugs, they took her to a remote wooded ravine in Washington Parish, where they raped and stabbed her repeatedly in the neck.

Robert Lee Willie proved an excellent choice for the actor Sean Penn to use in creating the character of Matthew Poncelet. A cocky, self-assured high school dropout, Willie was well-known to the police in St. Tammany Parish long before he was arrested for Faith Hathaway's murder. He had a reputation for being a "knife man," carrying with him almost proudly a string of arrests that began at age 14 with a shoplifting charge and included burglary, assaulting a police officer, and breaking out of jail. A Sheriff's deputy showed me his rap sheet, still on file in St. Tammany Parish. It covers four, single-spaced pages. But most of the mug shots of Willie - a substitute family photo album that would show him becoming a man - have disappeared, probably souvenirs for those who worked on various cases against one of the area's most notorious criminals.

Across the 23-mile Lake Ponchartrain Causeway from New Orleans, people in St. Tammany and Washington Parishes don't need a movie to remind them of Robert Lee Willie. It is still a common family name in the area. Willie Road runs right by the cemetery where young Willie lies buried next to his father. For Robert, John Willie was a role model of the worst kind. "If you saw John Willie coming," a prosecutor told me, "most people would go the other way. He was one mean son of a bitch, who'd just as soon stab you as look at you." A guard at Angola State Penitentiary, where John Willie spent more than half his life for manslaughter and other crimes, remembers him as "Snitchin' Willie," a man eager to rat on anyone in order to get a small prison favor.

Jo Anne Smith, who works in the criminal division for the Washington Parish Clerk of Court, attended almost every hour of Robert Willie's murder trial in October, 1980. Seeing Sean Penn in the movie, she said, took her right back to those days in the small basement courtroom. Sean Penn is physically bigger than Willie, but otherwise, the similarity was almost frightening. "Remember in the movie when he makes that motion like he's slitting his throat?" Smith asked as we looked around the now-empty courtroom.

"That motion came straight from Willie. When he saw that young man he'd kidnapped and left to die, he looked right at him and made that slicing motion across his neck. Then he grinned. It just sent shivers down my back."

That 20 year-old boyfriend, who Willie and Vaccaro had kidnapped along with Debbie Morris three days after killing Faith Hathaway, did not testify at any of the trials. His throat had been cut so deeply that five months later he still could not speak. Now, 16 years later, he has recovered enough physically to hold a steady job.

Arriving in Louisiana as the movie was opening in the suburban theaters outside of New Orleans, interest in the real story was suddenly re-emerging. Mike Varnado, the Deputy Sheriff who investigated the murder, and Bill Alford, the prosecutor, were considering an angry letter to the editor of a local newspaper attacking Helen Prejean for "propagating the lies of two murderers." Another local paper ran a multi-part series on Faith Hathaway's murder, a crime 16 years earlier that convinced people of Washington Parish to start locking their doors at night.

The day I went looking for Debbie Morris just happened to be the same day she first met Sister Helen. In the years since her abduction and rape, Debbie had kept a low profile. Because she was a minor, she was never publicly identified in court or in newspaper articles. Some of her closest friends knew of her ordeal, but most didn't. That led to some awkward moments when people around her started talking about Willie and whether or not they thought he should be executed. "I usually just kept my mouth shut," she said.

But now she felt ready to talk. In our first meeting with Debbie, while her son played with his grandparents in another room, she began talking, tentatively at first, about the 30 hours she was held captive by Willie and Vaccaro. Gradually small details came back. "These guys were not rocket scientists," she remembered, recalling the moment when she became fed up with the loud acid rock tape they kept playing. "I had a splitting headache and finally just couldn't take hearing that song any more. So I reached over and pushed the button that turned off the tape player. This was when push buttons were pretty new in cars, and they couldn't figure out how to turn it back on."

It was Debbie's close attention to detail that made her such a compelling witness in the trials that followed. And although at the time Willie kidnapped Debbie he called her his "girlfriend" and later told his jailer he decided not to kill her because "she was too damn pretty," once Willie was on death row, he changed his tune. He is reported to have told fellow inmates at Angola, "If I ever get out of here, I'm gonna cut that bitch up into so many pieces even her mother won't recognize her." Debbie's relief at Willie's execution is, therefore, not at all surprising.

What is surprising to some is that Willie's partner, Joe Vaccaro did not also receive a death sentence. In trying to find out why two men, involved in the same crime, each accusing the other of doing the stabbing, would get different sentences, we heard two theories.

Although aggravated homicide is a capital offense in Louisiana, the death penalty is not mandatory. Some believe Vaccaro received a life sentence because Willie, not Vaccaro, took the lead. Contrary to what Helen Prejean writes in her book based on her death row conversations with Willie, Debbie Morris testified that Willie was clearly in charge. "Joe was so brain dead from drugs, he couldn't figure anything out," Debbie told us. "There's no question in my mind that Willie was in charge."

The second theory centers around jury selection. Willie and Vaccaro were tried at the same time in the same court house. The jurors in both trials came from the same jury pool. While selecting the jury for Willie's case, each potential juror was asked whether he or she could vote for the death penalty if the defendant was found guilty. One woman said she could not and was excused. A short time later, in the larger, upstairs courtroom where Vaccaro's case was being tried, the same juror was asked the same question. She apparently changed her answer enough to be seated on the jury. Four days later when the guilty verdicts were returned in both cases, the jurors were polled. In the Willie trial, all 12 jurors and two alternates responded "yes," when asked if they wanted the death penalty. In Vaccaro's case, both alternates and 11 of the 12 jurors went for the death penalty. But the juror who was excused from the Willie jury and then seated on Vaccaro's was the lone hold out. Because a death sentence requires a unanimous jury, Joe Vaccaro is alive today and serving multiple life sentences in a federal penitentiary.

Willie would most likely still be in a federal penitentiary as well had it not been for the intervention of Ronald Reagan. In addition to the murder trial, for which he received the death penalty, Willie also had to stand trial for the kidnapping and rape charges. In November 1980, in a state court in Baton Rouge, the prosecution presented its case against the pair, forcing Debbie, then a high school junior, to testify once again about her horrible experience. Then, surprising even their own court appointed attorneys, Willie and Vaccaro admitted their guilt, saying, "Yea, we're guilty. We just wanted to put y'all through this." They were each sentenced to four consecutive life sentences.

But that wasn't all. Because they took Mark and Debbie across state lines, through Mississippi and Alabama, Willie and Vaccaro faced federal kidnapping conspiracy charges as well. To those charges, Willie and Vaccaro simply pled guilty, and received additional life sentences. Although he may not have known how to turn on a tape deck, Willie was smart enough in the ways of the law to know that federal time is served before state time. Facing a life sentence at the maximum security federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, Willie figured he was protected from Louisiana's electric chair.

He guessed wrong.

Elizabeth and Vern Harvey were intent on seeing that the death sentence was carried out. One day they decided to contact their congressman, Louisiana Republican Bob Livingston. According to Elizabeth Harvey, Livingston's office put in a call to the White House, and not long after, President Ronald Reagan signed papers releasing Willie from the federal prison. He was free to go ... back to Louisiana and death row. It was like drawing a "get out of jail free" card and a "go directly to jail" card in the same turn in Monopoly.

On November 7, 1983, Mike Varnado's father, also a deputy sheriff, drove Willie back to Louisiana. Less than fourteen months later, he was executed as Helen Prejean, Elizabeth and Vern Harvey and Mike Varnado looked on. Another witness, a news reporter, said later that after the executioners placed the black hood over Willie's head, he asked that it be raised up one last time. That's when he winked at Helen Prejean.

Was it a wink that transcended the reality of his execution, as Helen Prejean would like to think, suggesting his last thoughts on earth were ones of love and being at peace? Or was it a wink of defiance and contempt, the view held by the Harveys and Mike Varnado, convinced to the end that Robert Lee Willie had no remorse for what he had done?

No one will ever know.


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