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.

"Good God, I'm sure they've spent $10 million on him," says Michael Radelet, the University of Florida professor. "That $10 million spent on Elledge is $10 million not spent on other people convicted of murder. It's $10 million not spent helping the families of homicide victims."

There is no study looking at exactly how much all these various expenses add up to in the state of Florida. Perhaps the most comprehensive assessment was done in North Carolina by researchers at Duke University. They found that prosecuting a death penalty case in that state costs on average $2.16 million more than seeking life imprisonment.

"Nobody disputes the fact that the death penalty costs extra," says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. "The question is, is it worth it?"

For all the money spent on the death penalty -- not to mention all the political fire-breathing that goes with it -- remarkably few people actually die. Since John Spenkelink (a man who Elledge says "was like a brother to me") became Florida's post-Furman death row guinea pig in 1979, only 42 others have followed him into the electric chair. The annual number of executions reached a peak in 1984 with eight state-ordered killings but has never again risen above four. This despite the fact that nearly 800 people were sentenced to death in Florida between 1973 and 1997, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Of those scheduled to die, 326 eventually had their death sentences overturned by the courts.

The infrequent firing up of Old Sparky is not for lack of trying. Numerous laws have been passed and commissions appointed in hopes of speeding up executions. In 1996, for example, Congress passed the haughtily named "Federal Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act," which limited federal appeals for death row inmates in hopes of disposing of the appeals more quickly. Last year the State of Florida set up the Commission on the Administration of Justice in Capital Cases to find ways to break the logjam.

"Every couple of years, there's been some type of commission that's come up," says Todd Scher, a lawyer with the state-funded Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, which represents death row inmates after their guilt and sentencing phases are completed. "The more successful we've been over the years in terms of winning cases, the more frustrated the other side has become."

The average number of years between the time a person is sentenced to death and the time the execution is carried out (if at all) is 11 years in Florida. Elledge is not even the longest-surviving death row inmate. Gary Alvord, who killed three Tampa women in 1973, has him beat by almost a year. And two-time murderer Douglas Meeks has called death row home since about two weeks before Elledge arrived.

One of the primary reasons that executions have continued to proceed at this languid pace is that the courts, particularly the Florida Supreme Court, are overburdened with death penalty reviews. The provision requiring that the state's highest court review every death sentence imposed has resulted in justices spending an inordinate amount of time on capital cases. Justice Gerald Kogan, who retired at the end of December after 12 years on the Florida Supreme Court, estimates that he spent 35 percent of his time reviewing the often-voluminous death cases. For newer justices, who are not familiar with the endlessly recycled cases, that figure is closer to 50 percent, Kogan says. This despite the fact that only about 3 percent of the cases that come before the Florida Supreme Court concern the death penalty.

"The people on death row are not appealing their cases for 20 years. Most of that 20 years is spent waiting in the queue," says Radelet. "The system is so overburdened it's collapsing from its own weight."

Like most who end up in the legal abyss of the death penalty, Billy Elledge's life wasn't much to speak of before he joined the ranks of the condemned. His world was one of chaos and abuse -- or as he puts it, "a piss-poor life."

Elledge grew up primarily in Southern California. His parents, for a time, were migrant farm workers. His father also worked as a radio and television repairman. Elledge's parents had aspirations of being country music stars, though, of jumping on the Bakersfield bandwagon that lifted Merle Haggard and Buck Owens to stardom in the late '50s. To this end they spent a lot of time in bars, drinking. And when they were finished drinking, they often fought. Dad would beat up mom, and mom in turn would take her frustrations out on her six kids. She beat Billy with "switches, plastic belts, skillet handles, brooms," according to one psychiatrist's report. Another mental evaluation recounts an incident in which Elledge's mother attempted to throw him out the window of a moving car. Elledge was also purportedly abused sexually as a child, by both men and women, by both strangers and family members.

By age 14 Elledge was drinking habitually himself. He ran away from home constantly, did drugs, committed robberies, and spent much of his time in and out of a juvenile correctional facility. He joined the army at age 19 but didn't see much service -- he was usually AWOL. By the time his 24-year life in the outside world came to a bloody end in Florida, Elledge had been arrested for grand theft, assault with a deadly weapon, battery, and possession of drugs, among other charges.

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