A Life in His Hands

  • Buddy Roemer was seated at his desk in the Louisiana Governor's mansion last Thursday afternoon, the same lonely desk he would return to late that night. "If you're a Governor, or ever dreamed to be, this will be your most difficult decision," he said in a soft yet intense voice. "It won't be balancing the budget, it won't be paying for judges, it won't be taxes, it won't be how to protect the environment. All those are important. But the most difficult will be the decision to take a single human being's life."

    There was nothing abstract about Roemer's words. The human life in his hands was that of Dalton Prejean, 30, a semiretarded killer scheduled to die in the electric chair shortly after midnight on Friday morning. Prejean was just 17 when he murdered a state trooper in 1977. His execution would be the first under a 1989 Supreme Court ruling permitting states to impose capital punishment for acts committed by 16- and 17-year-olds.

    When Prejean lost his final legal appeal as expected Thursday evening, only the Governor, with his power of clemency, could spare him. "If it were just a question of law, there wouldn't be the anguish involved," said Roemer, lapsing into near biblical cadences even as he glanced at his watch to see if was time to pick up his nine-year-old son Dakota and take him to baseball practice. "The law having been writ, a human stands under the tree. The courts having ruled, I stand with him. I have to make a decision."

    There are few powers or burdens akin to the clemency laws that force Governors to be the final arbiters for the condemned. Judges and juries can take refuge in their assigned roles in the legal system. The executioner can say with truth that he is only doing his job. But for a Governor, there is no refuge save his conscience and moral code.

    Acts of clemency have become a rarity in a political environment that rewards unflinching toughness. Only lame-duck Governors like Arkansas' Winthrop Rockefeller in 1971 and New Mexico's Toney Anaya in 1986 could afford the moral luxury of commuting the sentences of everyone on death row. Former California Governor Edmund (Pat) Brown wrote a 1989 book reliving his clemency deliberations, in which he saved 23 men from the gas chamber and spurned appeals from 36 others, including Caryl Chessman, whose 1960 execution sparked major protests. "The longer I live," declared Brown, now 85, "the larger loom those 59 decisions about justice and mercy."

    Roemer was already familiar with such decisions. On the day he took office in 1988, there was an execution scheduled for that evening -- a grotesque welcome-to-power gift orchestrated by the outgoing Edwin Edwards, whom Roemer had defeated. "He knew that would affect me," the Governor recalls. He allowed it to proceed. Prejean was the fourth man to die in the electric chair during Roemer's two years in office. Last August, however, Roemer at the last minute blocked the execution of Ronald Monroe because of lingering doubts about his guilt. A lawyer close to the Monroe case cracked last week, "There was only one shot for clemency with Roemer, and we took it."

    Prejean's guilt was never in dispute. Early on the morning of July 2, 1977, Louisiana state trooper Donald Cleveland stopped Prejean and his brother Joseph on a routine traffic violation. As Cleveland began to frisk the argumentative Joseph, Dalton crept behind the car, pulled out a pistol and fired two shots into the trooper's head. Prejean had also killed a taxi driver during an aborted robbery when he was 14. "I'm not bloodthirsty," insisted the officer's widow Candy Cleveland the morning before the execution. "But what kind of person am I supposed to be? I have pain. How am I supposed to feel?" Even so, she said, she would not favor killing Prejean except that she does not really believe in life without parole. "There is always a possibility of good time, good behavior," she said. "Who knows, in 20 or 30 years, Prejean could be back on the street."

    For Roemer, the decisive factor was Cleveland's badge. "The murder of a police officer in this state is a crime punishable by death," he said. "So on behalf of 780 state troopers, and thousands of police officers who put their lives on the line every day, the execution will proceed." That hard line brushed aside mitigating circumstances: Prejean was remorseful and semiretarded, with partial brain damage and a history of abuse as a child. He was also a black juvenile convicted by an all-white jury.

    Those and other legal arguments eventually failed as the Supreme Court steadily narrowed the grounds to block executions. But clemency is rooted in morality as well as the law, and these grounds prompted the Louisiana board of pardons to recommend commuting Prejean's sentence to life imprisonment without parole. And although there were two other executions last week, in Missouri and Texas, it was Prejean's case that inspired protests from Amnesty International and the European Parliament. As Prejean's attorney John Hall argued, "Dalton's lack of control over his behavior is so obvious that it is hardly ennobling to the people of Louisiana what will happen tonight. I'd feel differently if it were Charlie Manson or Ted Bundy. There are truly evil people out there. But Dalton is not that kind of person."

    To his credit, Roemer never fled from the responsibility for his decision. The Governor conducted a deathwatch of his own in the hours before the execution, waiting for phone calls from Prejean's lawyers at his desk in the executive mansion. "I'll be here," he said in advance. "Not liking it. But ready to do my duty." Shortly before 10 p.m., attorney Andrea Robinson called Roemer to make her final appeal: "I told the Governor I wasn't there to make legalistic arguments, but that we were killing a child."

    Robinson also relayed Prejean's request to speak to Roemer directly. The Governor resisted, saying it was useless, but he soon relented. There is no record of that conversation. Earlier in the week, though, Prejean had explained what he desperately wanted to tell Roemer. "I'd like to have a chance at life," he said in slow, simple sentences. "To live with my mistakes. We all make mistakes in life. Some bigger than others. I'd like to give something back to society. I've changed. There's a whole difference between being 17 and 30."

    Hall also spoke with the Governor by phone just after Roemer said goodbye to Prejean. "Roemer did say that he would not be able to sleep at all tonight," the attorney recounted. "But before I could react to what he said, the Governor quickly added, 'Of course, the person having a terrible time tonight was Dalton.' "

    That afternoon Roemer had read aloud a favorite passage from novelist John Fowles' book The Aristos: "In the whole, nothing is unjust. It may, to this or that individual, be unfortunate." So, in a sense, is capital punishment for both the condemned man and the Governor, who waited for word from Angola Prison that Dalton Prejean had died at 12:17 a.m.