22 April 1983 – John Louis Evans
Indeed the execution was branded as being ‘a barbaric ritual that has no place in a compassionate society’, according to Evans’s lawyer, Russell F Canan.
The chair was built in 1927 at Kilby Prison by a Brit by the name of Ed Mason, who’d ironically had been a former Holman Prison inmate. It was shipped off to Holman in 1969 and by some accounts, it may well have been past its best as Evans shockingly found out.
The death-row inmate had been given the terminal sentence following a crazed two-month frenzy of robbery, kidnapping and extortion. This culminated in murder, where a pawn-shop owner was shot on his own premises while his own children were under the same roof.
Of course, Evans’s mum did her utmost to get her son’s sentence commuted and she nearly succeeded, alongside his lawyer, Canan, who was working for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
However, the Supreme Court over-ruled the appeal and reinstated the death penalty, backed in part by two judges. Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan agreed with the decision in this particular case, but were known for being anti-death penalty on the whole.
So, with no hope of freedom or even clemency, Evans rose above the impending doom of his execution to feature in an American documentary. He encouraged young people to toe the line rather than follow a life of crime.
Yet it was too late for Evans. He was on an unstoppable road to his own demise. But even as his execution day approached, one last-ditch appeal gained Evans a brief stay of execution. It was issued by US District Judge, Emmitt Cox of Mobile, while Evans was eating his last meal.
‘Alabama statutes stipulated the last meal be prepared in the prison kitchen’ says the witness. Evans requested ‘steak, shrimp and french fries’, however, ‘it was not available so it was ordered from a nearby hotel restaurant and the warden [JD White] paid for it out of his own pocket’.
Evans had also ‘requested a six-pack of beer with his last meal, but was denied by Alabama Prison Commission Fred Smith, because “alcohol is not allowed” on prison property’.
That last meal was to remain his last, according to prison system spokesman, Ron Tate, despite his stay. The last stab at commuting the sentence had failed, and, according to our witness, ‘the Department of Corrections moved quickly to carry out the execution’.
Evans was sent into the arms of ‘Yellow Mama’ to face his punishment. The electric chair was given the pet-name, because it was painted in the same shade of yellow that was used for road markings. And it certainly marked the end of the road for Evans.
Naturally, after such a long period of inactivity, the chair was apparently tested several times before they used it on Evans. ‘The execution was scheduled for 12:01am [on 22 April], not to avoid media attention, but to give the state a 24-hour window to carry out the execution’, says the witness. However, his execution eventually took place at 8:30pm later that day.
When they flicked the switch, 1,900 volts coursed through his body for 30 seconds, but the electrode below his knee broke free of the straps holding them in place and the helmet started sparking and there were flames.
According to many sources, after this first shocking surge of electricity, Evans was examined and his heart was still beating.
So imagine, when smoke emanated from under his helmet and from his leg, filling the room with the pungent odour of charcoaled, human flesh following a second bout. Yet, after the second examination, Evans was still found to be holding onto life. It took a third and final burst of electricity to barbecue the man.
At least that’s what the popular myths suggest.
Apparently, according to Canan, Evans strained against the straps binding him to the chair and ‘his fist clenched permanently’. But as has been pointed out, this is a physical manifestation of an electric current coursing through any animate object.
A compelling and authorative description of the execution has been provided by our witness to the execution, which corroborates Canan’s own words above: ‘Evan’s fists clenched, his chin and chest surged against the leather restraints. Once his fists clenched they remained so.’
However, this is where the two reports part. Canan went on to say that following a second jolt of electricity, ‘more smoke emanated from [Evans's] leg and head. Again, the doctors examined Mr Evans. The doctors reported that his heart was still beating, and that he was still alive’.
However, according to our witness, it transpired that ‘there were NO signs of life after the first of three cycles. Any movement after the first cycle was caused by electricity. The physician in the execution chamber had difficulty detecting a heartbeack after the first cycle’.
Indeed the witness movingly goes on to say ‘there’s a lot I don’t remember, but just as much that I remember like it was just yesterday’.
Tellingly, the witness adds that ‘after Evans was hit with the first cycle, a curtain fell between Evans and the camera’. This fact immediately prompts uncertainties relating to other reports, which emotively suggest that there were signs of life after the second bout of electricity.
But on one thing all sources agree – 14 minutes after the execution had started, Evans was pronounced dead, aged 33.
With sincere thanks to the witness who came forward with first-hand facts about this execution.
Evans’ last words were addressed to the chaplain, but he wished for these to remain private. As far as we know, they remain outside the public domain.
Russell F Canan went on help establish the Southern Center for
Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, according to the District of Columbia Courts. And from there has since gone on to become an emminent judge. To this day he remains staunchly against the death penalty. Of that night’s event’s he said ‘John Evans was burned alive tonight. John Evans was tortured tonight in the name of vengeance and in the guise of justice’.