Dead Man Waiting

Billy Elledge brutally raped and murdered a woman in Hollywood 25 years ago. He has sat in prison since then, evidence that Florida's death penalty isn't working.

Carolyn McCann, of the state attorney's office, argues that, regardless of the delay, the justices never threw out any of the key pieces of evidence. "They have never ruled that the evidence was insufficient," she says. "They have never ruled that the confession was inadmissible. They have never gutted the state's case." (Michael Satz refused to be interviewed for this article.)

Elledge's lingering death march through the legal system is not yet over. The courts have so far upheld his fourth sentence, all the way up to the United States Supreme Court, but Elledge still has another round of petitions at both the state and federal level. The next step for Elledge will probably be to argue that Laswell provided incompetent representation, a standard defense in almost all capital cases. Another perennial argument at this stage is to claim that Old Sparky itself -- with its penchant for not just frying the inmates, but literally setting them on fire -- is a cruel and unusual punishment. The courts have rejected this assertion so far.

McCann, who has worked on the Elledge case for ten years now and estimates that the prosecution's case file is 20 boxes high, says that they continue to seek Elledge's death for the sake of the victim's families. "That's why we don't stop," she says. "I feel, and I think any prosecutor feels, we are doing the right thing."

Paul Nelson might have been the lucky one that August night almost a quarter of a century ago. He died. Katherine Nelson, his now-78-year-old widow, has had to keep living with the memory of his murder. Elledge was sentenced to life in prison for killing Nelson, and the trial was immediately disposed of. But the Strack murder, because Broward prosecutors chose to seek the death penalty, has continued to intrude on her life.

In each of the four sentencing hearings, Nelson has traveled down to Fort Lauderdale from Jacksonville Beach to recount what happened that night. The most recent time, in 1994, she was 74 years old. Priscilla Nelson says that her great-grandmother has not been able to live alone since the night of the murder. Katherine Nelson can't discuss the case without breaking down in tears. "Any time she talks about it, she gets upset and has to go to the doctor and get sedatives," Priscilla Nelson says. "Nobody in my family has ever come to terms with it."

David McBride, the grandson who was present that night, is not interested in discussing Elledge at all. The disgust is palpable in his voice, even over a phone line. "It sucks," he says. "We've done been to court [four] times, and it keeps repeating itself and repeating itself. As far as that bastard is concerned, I'm not even interested in talking about it. We've lost too much with it." He then hangs up.

Allen Strack, the father of Elledge's first victim, lives in Schenectady, New York. He retired recently after working as a sales manager at General Electric for 40 years. A couple years ago, his only other child, a son, died of a heart attack.

Mr. Strack says that the legal quagmire into which Elledge's case has disappeared, makes it impossible for his family to get on with their lives. "We deal with it every day," he says. "We deal with it constantly. Because this thing has just gone on and on and on."

Strack believes in the death penalty and doesn't want to hear any more explanations for why Elledge is still breathing. "There's nothing they can do to bring my daughter back," he says. "It's high time that the damn thing gets carried out."

The emotional costs of Elledge's brutal crimes to the victim's families are obviously incalculable. But putting Elledge or anyone else to death also has costs that go beyond the emotional or psychological. Killing felons costs money. It is much more expensive than simply keeping them behind bars until they die of other causes.

The actual physical act of electrocuting a man is fairly cheap. A condemned man gets $20 to $25 for a new pair of shoes, $90 to $100 for clothes, and $20 for a last meal. The anonymous executioner is paid $150. The corrections system also pays for an autopsy, to insure that everything is on the up and up. Overtime pay for the guards accounts for much of the cost at execution time. Guards must be in eye contact with the condemned the entire week before he is scheduled to die. Corrections officials say the total cost for an execution is more than $6000.

The exorbitant expenses of the death penalty, however, come from the endless legal proceedings that are necessary supposedly to ensure that the state doesn't make a mistake in applying the ultimate penalty. In the trials for the murders of Gaffney and Nelson, the state did not seek the death penalty, and, because Elledge pleaded guilty, the cases were disposed of almost immediately. The amount of time and money spent was negligible.

The Strack proceedings, like all death penalty cases, have been a different matter. Expenses add up in every direction, from the costs incurred by witnesses in traveling to South Florida over and over again, to the lawyers hired by the governor's office to review appeals for clemency. A barrage of psychiatrists have been paid to examine Elledge over the years, probing his childhood, his relationship with his mother, and countless other aspects of his sorry life. Investigators have been hired by the defense to track down family members, friends, and neighbors -- anyone other than Elledge's fellow death row inmates who might say something decent about him on the witness stand.

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