last words

What Do the Last Words of Death Row Inmates Tell Us?


December 12, 2017

Any last words?

It’s a question prisoners on death row hear before their execution begins. Along with last meals and long cell block walks, the opportunity to give a final statement has become deeply ingrained in the highly ritualized process of executing prisoners.

Most prisoners take the opportunity to pause on the lip of annihilation and utter a final statement, and the content of these messages range from expressions of guilt and sorrow to expletive-laced outbursts. Examining the final thoughts of people who have not only had time to think about their ultimate end, but who must also wrestle with overwhelming feelings of guilt and sorrow (though not in every case), provides a unique opportunity for sociologists and psychologists alike.

It’s Time

There is a growing body of scientific literature centered around the study and analysis of prisoners’ last words, although the subject is far from closed. At the moment, most studies work to identify recurring themes, though work in the future could go beyond this to search for correlations between last words and type of crime, prisoner demographics, personal history and mental health. At the moment, we can break down the final statements of death row inmates into a few broad categories: expressions of guilt and remorse, proclamations of innocence, spiritual statements and communications to their families. Journalist Dan Malone undertook such a content analysis in 2006, and found a few broad categories into which most final statements fall.

For many prisoners, the act seems to be an attempt to reach some sort of peace with their situation. Statements like “I’m ready” and those that express hope for some sort of afterlife are common. Some choose to address their victim’s families directly, and nearly every one that does so expresses remorse for their actions. Many acknowledge that they can never make up for what they did. Most inmates stop short of admitting guilt — instead of focusing on the past, they look to the future.

More rarely, the soon-to-be executed will directly own up to their crimes, most usually along with an expression of sorrow or an apology. In rare cases, the prisoner will choose to go down swinging, lashing out with angry and defiant words in their final minutes.

Still, these cases are rare, and it seems that the finality of death impresses a measure of humility and grace on most people. Most common overall are words of regret and personal statements, usually concerning their family, such as “I love you,” or references to being in a better place. It’s an oddly one-sided view of men who have been convicted of horrible crimes.

What Does It Mean?

Of course, it can be difficult to trust the words of someone who won’t be around to face the consequences of their actions any more. On the other hand, a dying man has very little left to lose, and few among us want to die with regrets. Further work is needed to truly parse out exactly why prisoners choose to say the things they do. As of right now, we have a few hints, though.

Many final statements seemed aimed at lessening psychological pain, something that a 2017 study identified as one of three main themes among prisoners’ last words. Identification with lost or forgotten ideals and rejection and aggression were the other dominant subjects that emerged in their analysis, which aligns roughly with what Malone found in his work.

This makes sense, since both studies used very similar datasets. Because of the nature of the death penalty in the United States, the statements come largely from Texas, which has been responsible for about a third of all executions since the death penalty was re-instated in 1976. While no recording devices are permitted in the execution chamber, a secretary is on hand to transcribe the prisoner’s final words, and, at least up till 2005, when Malone’s study ended, the Associated Press had a reporter on hand to chronicle the event as well.

This means that the final words of Texas death row inmates carry outsized influence in these kinds of studies. Most death row inmates are also men, another limitation. To truly understand the impact that final statements have, and what they say about our relationship with death, a more diverse sample size is necessary. These studies are a start, of course, but looking at how final statements differ across countries, by type of crime, and by demographic could prove illuminating. In addition, the prevalence of mental illness among death row inmates could impact the way they frame their crime, and their lives, just before execution.The last words we say before death are not usually uttered casually. This doesn’t mean they necessarily offer a glimpse of who we truly are, but instead a premonition of who we wish we were, or hope to be someday. It’s a rarified moment in a human being’s life; one that could help us all come to terms with our impending doom.

Missouri – Richard Strong Execution – June 9, 2015


June 10,2015

Missouri murderer Richard Strong was executed by lethal injection Tuesday night after authorities turned aside a last-minute plea from his daughter, who was only months old when Strong killed her mother and 2-year-old half-sister.

Strong, 47, was pronounced dead at 6:58 p.m. at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Missouri, according to the state Department of Corrections.

He ate a last meal of fried chicken, a cheeseburger and donuts, and asked forgiveness, according to the department.

His last words were: “Jehovah-jireh, you’re my provider. Your grace is sufficient for me. Forgive me for my sin. Abba-Abba, take my soul in your hands.”

Gov. Jay Nixon focused on Strong’s victims in a statement, acknowledging “there have been many lives deeply affected by these crimes.”

Petrina Thomas, whose niece was the toddler Strong killed, witnessed the execution and said in a statement she read to reporters that her family “was so glad that it is finally over.” (Read her full statement below.)

The execution was carried out after an unsuccessful plea for clemency from his daughter, who was a baby in 2000 when Strong murdered her mother and her half-sister. Last-minute appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court and to Nixon also failed.

Strong was sentenced to death in 2003 for fatally stabbing his 23-year-old girlfriend, Eva Washington, and her daughter from a previous relationship, Zandrea Thomas, in their suburban St. Louis apartment. He left Alyshia Strong, his baby with Washington, unharmed.

Alyshia Strong, now 14, said she has forgiven her father and pleaded for clemency in the days before his execution.

“I understand that my father needs to face consequences and to pay for what he did, but I do not think it is right for me to lose my father as part of the punishment,” Alyshia Strong wrote in her clemency petition.

She wrote that she frequently visits her dad in prison, and said his advice led her to behave better in school.

“My father told me that I should stay clear of the drama at school, and stay focused on the books, not the people. I listened to my father’s advice, and I can honestly say that I had less drama in my school year than I would have if I had not listened to my father,” she wrote.

The U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 against issuing a stay that would have postponed Tuesday’s execution. Strong’s attorney, Jennifer Herndon, argued that Strong was mentally ill. She said both Strong and Washington suffered from mental illness and argued frequently, according to The Associated Press.

“He just snapped,” Herndon said. “It was just sort of a powder keg waiting to explode. It wasn’t a healthy relationship.”

Nixon declined to halt the lethal injection, saying in a statement that the fatal stabbing of the mother and daughter was “very brutal.”

Strong is the fourth person to be executed in Missouri this year, and the 16th in the U.S.

Petrina Thomas, Zandrea Thomas’ aunt, read this statement during a press briefing following the execution, according to the Department of Corrections:

On behalf of the Thomas family, we would like to thank the state of Missouri for finally providing our family with closure of the horrific death of my niece and her mom. For 14 years, we have impatiently waited for this day to come. It has been said that time heals all wounds. I do not agree; the wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens, but it is never gone. The reality is we will grieve forever. We will not get over the loss of our loved ones, and we will learn to live with it. We will heal, and we will rebuild around the loss that we have suffered. We will never be the same again. He had a chance to watch his daughter grow up and laugh and smile with her. We never got a chance to see her first day of school, graduations, or watch her go on prom. My brother will never get a chance to walk his daughter down the aisle for her wedding day. Human life has dignity at any age. Nothing can justify the shedding of innocent blood or the taking of lives. You must take 100 percent responsibility for your choices and your actions, and pay with your own life. Revelation 21:4 reads: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

We are at peace now and so glad that it is finally over. Thank you

Missouri executes William Rousan


Last meal: Bacon cheeseburger, onion rings, soft drink, and pecan pie

William Rousan’s last words were,

“My trials and transgressions have been many. But thanks be to my Lord and savior, Jesus Christ, I have a new home in his heavenly kingdom.”

April 23, 2014

— Missouri executed an inmate early Wednesday who was convicted of killing a farming couple in 1993 as part of a plot to steal their cows.

William Rousan’s last words were, “My trials and transgressions have been many. But thanks be to my Lord and savior, Jesus Christ, I have a new home in his heavenly kingdom.”

Before he was killed, Rousan, 57, mouthed words to his brother-in-law and a minister he had invited to his execution. As the drug was administered, he breathed deeply twice and then was still. He was declared dead at 12:10 a.m., nine minutes after the procedure started.

Prosecutors say Rousan, his teenage son, Brent Rousan, and his brother, Robert Rousan, murdered Charlie and Grace Lewis on Sept. 21, 1993 as part of a plot to steal their cows. Brent Rousan is serving life in prison without parole, and Robert Rousan served seven years in prison before being released in 2001.

The slain couple’s son and two daughters were among those who witnessed the execution, which took place only a few miles from where their parents were killed. Their son, Michael Lewis, spoke afterward.

“I draw no real satisfaction from Mr. Rousan’s incarceration or execution, for neither can replace or restore the moments lost with my parents or give my sons back the grandparents they never got to know,” he said.

Gov. Jay Nixon declined William Rousan’s clemency request Tuesday evening, clearing the way for the execution to proceed. In a statement explaining his decision, Nixon said he thought Rousan’s sentence was appropriate for his alleged role as the mastermind behind the “cold-blooded plot” that led to the couple’s slayings.

Earlier Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down Rousan’s request to delay his execution.

Efforts to spare Rousan’s life hinged an argument that has held little sway over the courts — concerns about the secrecy used to obtain the execution drug, and the possibility that a substandard drug could cause pain and suffering in the execution process.

Several states, including Missouri, now use compounded execution drugs purchased from unnamed pharmacies. Courts so far have allowed most executions to move forward. However, on Monday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court stayed the executions of two death row inmates who challenged the secrecy surrounding the process of procuring execution drugs.

Missouri has executed one death row inmate each month since November. Another Missouri inmate, Russell Bucklew, is scheduled for execution on May 21. Only Texas, with seven executions, has executed more inmates than Missouri’s four so far in 2014. Florida has also executed four inmates this year.

According to prosecutors, William Rousan masterminded the plot to kill Grace Lewis, 62, and Charles Lewis, 67, at their farm near Bonne Terre. At the time, Rousan also lived in the same area of St. Francois County, about 70 miles southwest of St. Louis.

Authorities say the three men drove by the farm, and William Rousan pointed out the cattle to steal. They parked about two miles away and hiked through the woods to the farm. They watched as the couple returned home. Charles Lewis began cutting the lawn with a riding mower while his wife spoke to the couple’s daughter on the phone.

Brent Rousan, then 16, ambushed Charles Lewis, shooting him six times. Grace Lewis told her daughter on the phone she heard gunfire and stepped outside to check on the commotion. Brent Rousan shot her several times. She managed to go back into the home, but William Rousan followed her, placed a garment bag over her head and carried her outside.

He turned to his son and said, “Finish her off.” Brent Rousan fired a single shot into the side of her head.

The men placed the bodies in a tarp and put them near a shed. Later that night, they returned, along with another Rousan brother, loaded the bodies in the Lewis’ pickup truck, and took two cows, a VCR, jewelry, a saddle and other items.

For almost exactly a year, they got away with the crime. The couple seemingly had vanished without a trace.

In September 1994 investigators received two tips that helped them solve the case: Rousan’s brother-in-law, Bruce Williams, called police to implicate Rousan in the couple’s killings and a sister of William and Robert Rousan sold a VCR to a pawn shop that had been stolen from the Lewises.

The bodies were found buried in a shallow grave covered with concrete and a pile of horse manure on the farm where William Rousan was living at the time. After a four-day manhunt, Rousan was arrested while hiding in a barn on Sept. 20, 1994. He was caught with a .22-caliber semi-automatic rifle and a knife.

Brent Rousan pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Robert Rousan cooperated with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.

FLORIDA – EXECUTION PAUL HOWELL FEBRUARY 26 6:00 PM EXECTUTED 6:32 PM


february 26, 2014

Authorities say 48-year-old Paul Augustus Howell was pronounced dead at 6:32 p.m. Wednesday after a lethal injection at Florida State Prison

Howell’s last words “I want to thank the Fulford family,” Howell said. “They were pretty compassionate, and I’ll remember that.”

UPDATE  4:30pm

Howell’s last meal was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, according to a Department of Corrections spokeswoman.

The DOC also says Howell had one friend visit and met with his Catholic spiritual adviser.

He is set to be executed by lethal injection.

The man who built a bomb that killed a Florida Highway Patrol trooper is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection.

Drug trafficker Paul Howell is set to die for the February 1992 murder of Trooper Jimmy Fulford at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Florida State Prison.

Howell rented a car and paid another man to deliver a gift-wrapped box to a woman in Marianna. Along the way, Fulford pulled the man over for speeding on Interstate 10 just east of Tallahassee.

The man gave Fulford a false name and birthdate and was arrested. Howell was called about the rental car and asked if Fulford had permission to be driving it and never warned the dispatcher the bomb was in the trunk.