Dead Man Waiting
William Duane Elledge had a moment of flawed prophecy on March 27, 1975.
The 24-year-old drifter and carnival worker known as Willie the Kid had just been sentenced to die in the electric chair for the grisly murder of Margaret Anne Strack in Hollywood.
Elledge granted an interview to a reporter for the now-defunct Fort Lauderdale News. "Killer Wants Execution To Be Fast With Bullet," the headline announced, beneath a picture of Elledge in leg irons.
"If they are going to use any type of execution, they ought to make it something short and sweet like a bullet... a firing squad," Elledge told the reporter. "That would stop all the hassle of these people who do get the death sentence having to sit years at a time waiting to die."
Twenty-four years later Billy Elledge sits, very much alive, in a cramped, tan-walled room at Union Correctional Institute. A faux-wood table, about six feet long and a little more than two feet wide, takes up the bulk of the space. Elledge's once-brown hair is receding quickly at the temples. With the exception of a streak of dark hair down the middle of his skull, it is now completely gray. The lines in Elledge's forehead have deepened into wrinkles, and his ice blue eyes are deep-set, seeming to retreat into his skull. His misshapen nose still offers evidence of a two-by-four beating he took from his mother while growing up in Southern California.
A guard enters from the hallway outside and offers to remove the inch-thick shackles that drape Elledge's waist and the handcuffs holding his once-lethal hands at bay. But the three-time murderer demurs.
Elledge is not bothered by shackles or handcuffs. He does not even notice the claustrophobic confines. Or seem cognizant of the electric orange prison scrubs that he wears over a gray sweatshirt. Elledge has become institutionalized, having spent half of his 48-year life in a six-by-nine cell about 50 miles southwest of Jacksonville doing exactly what he told the Fort Lauderdale News reporter he feared -- sitting for years waiting to die.
"It's not something that you really want to ponder too much," Elledge says in a quiet voice, flashing a yellow, gap-toothed grin. "It's like living in your bathroom."
When Elledge committed his crimes, Richard Nixon had just resigned from office. Muhammad Ali was two months from knocking out the upstart George Foreman in Zaire. Bill Clinton was a 29-year-old law professor at the University of Arkansas. Nobody owned a VCR or a home computer. No one had heard of Michael Jordan.
From his cell Elledge has watched 43 men leave death row for a date with the electric chair. More than 300 others have departed the ranks of the condemned -- either for freedom or life in prison -- after their death sentences were overturned.
Elledge should not be living at all. A judge and jury have on four different occasions weighed the arguments for and against killing him and each time reached the same decision: the penalty of death. In a span of 36 hours in 1974, Elledge brutally raped and murdered Margaret Anne Strack, shot and killed a Hollywood janitor, and then took a bus north to Jacksonville Beach, where he murdered a third person.
"William Elledge is a poster boy for the death penalty," says Carolyn McCann, who oversees appellate capital cases for the Broward County State Attorney's office. "It was made for this guy." Elledge has never contested his guilt. He gave an explicitly detailed confession to the cops after being picked up in 1974. He pointed them to the gun used to kill two of his victims. Elledge pleaded guilty to all three murders.
He will not die anytime soon -- at least not at the hands of the state. Even if the courts work at their most expeditious pace -- even if every motion, petition, or appeal that Elledge files from here on out is rejected -- he will almost certainly be alive a year and a half from now. Alive to celebrate his 50th birthday on death row.
"The decision the jury made in 1974 was supposed to be life or death," says Michael Radelet, a professor of sociology at the University of Florida who has written numerous books on the death penalty. "Not life and death."
Elledge lives because the prosecution and the courts, in their zeal to send him to Old Sparky, have continually overstepped their bounds and denied him a fair sentencing hearing. He lives because the death penalty -- moral issues aside -- does not function in any reasonable way in Florida. He lives as an extreme example of a capital punishment system gone awry.
The case has dragged on for so long that last year Elledge's lawyers made the somewhat ironic argument before the United States Supreme Court that the long wait under sentence of death was itself cruel and unusual punishment. In other words Billy Elledge -- serial burglar, rapist, and three-time murderer -- has himself become an improbable victim of the justice system. Elledge is far from the only victim -- and certainly the least sympathetic. The families of those he murdered, already devastated by Elledge's heinous crimes, continue to suffer as the case staggers through the courts under the weight of boxes of depositions, psychiatric evaluations, motions, and other court filings.
And the taxpayers, of course, continue to pay for it all. For starters, it costs about $66 a day just to feed, shelter, and otherwise take care of Elledge at Union Correctional Institute. Extrapolated over 24 years, that works out to a cost of well over half a million dollars. On top of that are the much greater costs incurred by the prosecutors, defense attorneys, investigators, judges, bailiffs, jurors, psychiatrists, and sundry others whose lives have at one time or another intersected with this drawn-out affair.
"I shudder to think what it's cost the taxpayers on this case alone," Elledge says deviously. "There's no way that I'm gonna ever get out of prison, so where's the sense in continually pursuing this case with such a vengeance when it's all a waste of money?"
When a death row inmate makes the move from Union to Bradford County, he's generally not long for this world. Union Correctional Institute is where most of the 368 men on death row spend the bulk of their days as their appeals snake their way through the courts; Florida State Prison, in Bradford County, is where Old Sparky sits. (The four women currently on death row reside at the Broward Correctional Institution in Pembroke Pines.)
Three fences of varying heights surround Union Correctional Institute. They are wrapped in enough barbed wire to fence in a small city. The death row unit, which accounts for more than 300 of the facility's 1700 inmates, is situated on the east side, down a caged walkway that separates the condemned from the general population.
A six-by-nine cell on one of the tiers is Billy Elledge's physical world. His bed is a steel slab with a mattress lying on top. Beneath the bed are two footlockers containing all his worldly possessions: one for personal items and another for legal materials. A stainless steel unit contains both a toilet and a sink. Across from the bed is a ten-inch, black-and-white television.
Twice a week Elledge is let out of his cell for two hours. In the exercise yard, he can play basketball or just sit around and chew the fat with the other condemned killers. Every other day Elledge gets to bathe. He is shackled, handcuffed, and walked to the showers -- about ten feet from his cell. On the weekends he is allowed visitors, but few people make the effort. "I've never had a family visit," he says. "Never got a package from 'em. Never got a stamp. Never got a money order. Nothing."
The rest of the time, from his predawn wake-up call to when he goes to bed well after midnight, is spent in his cell. He reads (Ken Follet, Anne Rice). He does legal work. He makes instant coffee using tap water. He writes poetry. He watches television (PBS and movies). He sleeps. He writes letters.
Within this stark setting, Elledge has led a relatively thriving existence. The high-school dropout earned his GED in prison and has taught himself a decent amount of law. He says things like, "I was associated with the A.R.E., out of Virginia Beach, for a long time," a group that advances the teachings of the late psychic Edgar Cayce. He quit using drugs and alcohol, though he says they are available on death row.
Through letters, which he often punctuates with elaborate smiley faces, Elledge communicates with people all over the world. He married in 1993 and divorced in 1996 a Flint, Michigan, woman whom he met through an advertisement in a supermarket tabloid. "When we first got married, she thought she could do without the sexual aspect of the relationship," Elledge says. "But she just couldn't hold out." Elledge says that right now he is "fairly serious" about a widow in Louisiana to whom he writes.
On a Website called "Penn-Pals," Elledge has a personal ad of sorts that he pays to have posted. "It really helped me a lot when the Internet started opening up that way, because you get a chance to meet people that are a little more liberal-minded than the United States citizens," Elledge says. The site features a picture of a bemused-looking Elledge in prison garb. His home state is listed as California, his occupation as cook, and one of his hobbies as "nature." "Sometimes I feel like a one-legged dog in a million-dollar race!" his note reads. "I'm looking for someone who knows LONELINESS the way I do. Someone who can overlook the stupidity of my youth."
Billy Elledge wasn't always such a sweetheart. In August 1974, when the Wichita, Kansas-born roughneck arrived in South Florida, he was a habitual drug user and alcoholic with a rap sheet that belied his 24 years of age. He was separated from his first wife, whom he physically abused, and had come to South Florida with a girlfriend to crash at her brother's house in Davie.
It didn't take long for things to go rotten. On Friday, August 23, Elledge got into a fight with his girlfriend. He then committed a string of robberies, breaking into a butcher shop, a dry cleaner's, a hardware store, even the next-door neighbor's house. He rented a room at the Normandie Motel and Apartments on Ocean Drive in Hollywood.
The next afternoon, dressed in flared jeans and a gray tank top, he went to a nearby bar to drown his sorrows. There he met Margaret Anne Strack, a 20-year-old waitress with brown eyes and shoulder-length brown hair. Elledge drank Seagram's and 7 Up -- no ice; she drank cans of Budweiser.
The two fast friends eventually reposed to Elledge's room to smoke some dope. What started as consensual hanky-panky, according to Elledge's statements to the police at the time, quickly turned into violence. When Strack refused to have sex with him, Elledge began choking her. She relented momentarily but then screamed and threatened to call the police as he mounted her. He began choking her again with both hands while raping her. Elledge strangled Strack for perhaps 15 minutes. Until "her face was the color of a plum."
Elledge hauled the corpse into the bathroom and waited for nightfall. Pulling Strack's body by the feet, Elledge dragged her down the back stairs of the building, the corpse banging against each step. He tossed the body into the back of Strack's blue '68 convertible Camaro and drove north on Ocean Drive. In the parking lot of the Resurrection Church in Dania, he dumped her body. Strack's torn shirt was pulled up above her chest. Her panties were around her right ankle. A white extension cord bound her ankles together. Semen was found in her vagina. On her right hand was a silver-colored ring with a Girl Scout emblem.
Elledge kept the Camaro. He returned to the motel room for his gun, a blue Colt .38 special with a wooden grip. Sometime around 11:30 that night, coming around a corner, Elledge clipped another vehicle and plowed into a fence surrounding a trailer park. He fled on foot.
Elledge ended up around Hollywood Boulevard and 60th Avenue, where he scaled the roof of a Pantry Pride grocery store and climbed inside through an air vent. He wandered around, looking for money, thinking he was alone. At the end of an aisle, someone swung at him with a mop. Elledge kicked the man in the ribs. Then Elledge pulled his gun from his waistband and ordered the man, 47-year-old janitor Edward Lawrence Gaffney, to a back room where he was instructed to lie on the floor. When Gaffney appeared to rise, Elledge killed for the second time in about six hours. He shot the man twice, once in the left side of the chest and once in the back.
Elledge recovered 35 or 40 cents and a package of Viceroy cigarettes from Gaffney's pants pockets. He found a muscular dystrophy donation box and smashed it on the counter. The take: about $1.40. For his looting and murder, Elledge ended up with a grand total of less than $2.00. He ate a candy bar and departed.
It was just starting to get light out. Margaret Anne Strack's body would soon be discovered by parishioners arriving at Resurrection Church. Elledge walked back to Ocean Drive and crashed at the Normandie. When he woke up, it was early afternoon. He went to the House of Foam and had a beer. Elledge knew he had to get out of town. He had vague ideas about escaping to Canada, so he hopped a bus north to Jacksonville Beach.
It didn't take Elledge long to kill again. About 2 a.m., on a clear, still Monday morning, Elledge knocked on the door of the Beacon Motel and asked for a room. Katherine Nelson, who ran the motel with her husband, let him in. Once inside, Elledge brandished the revolver and demanded money. He tied 53-year-old Paul Nelson to a chair and gagged him. He had Katherine Nelson lie face down on the bed and tied her up as well.
Elledge wandered the motel looking for loot. In one of the rooms was the Nelson's grandson, 17-year-old David McBride. The teenager brandished a rifle, but Elledge somehow took it away from him and put McBride into the room with his grandparents. While Elledge continued looking for money, the Nelsons got free from their bonds. Mr. Nelson grabbed his pistol and had his wife close the door. When she reopened it, he confronted Elledge with the unloaded gun. Elledge shot him twice, once in the chest and once in the right shoulder. For the third time in 36 hours, he had committed murder.
Elledge fled on foot. He got rid of the gun, took a cab to the bus station, and was about to head north when the cops arrived. He confessed almost immediately, after a telephone conversation with his dad.
Kenneth Roach, now an Episcopal priest in Jacksonville, was one of the homicide detectives who interrogated Elledge. "It really went down, from a detective point of view, very clean," he recalls. "He was a very frightened and scared boy. As soon as he made the confession, you could just see the burden lifted from him."
The scope and brutality of Elledge's crimes made him an obvious choice in 1975 for the recently reinstated death penalty. Florida has always been enthusiastic about capital punishment. Before Texas and Virginia became so proficient at killing felons in the last decade, Florida was often seen as the standard bearer for capital punishment.
When the United States Supreme Court, in a 1972 case called Furman v. Georgia, tossed out all death penalty laws as unconstitutional, Florida was the first state to draw up a new statute and delve back into the business of death. Former Miami Herald reporter David Von Drehle recounts what took place in his 1995 book about the modern death penalty in Florida, Among the Lowest of the Dead. "The lawmakers were so eager they held a special session for just that purpose; the session was a three-day whirlwind resulting in a complicated legal contraption for weighing shades of evil. Florida's new law provided for several layers of review in each capital case and promised certainty in place of the old caprice."
One of the hallmarks of the statute drawn up in 1972 is automatic review of every death sentence by the Florida Supreme Court. Another is that a judge and jury are to weigh a list of "aggravating" and "mitigating" factors when deciding on a sentence. For example, if the defendant has a prior history of committing violent felonies, that is considered an aggravating circumstance. If, on the other hand, he has no significant criminal history, that is counted as a mitigating factor. Based in large part on how these factors stack up, the jury submits an "advisory" sentence to the judge recommending either life in prison or death. The judge then makes the ultimate decision. The new Florida death penalty statute was upheld by the United States Supreme Court in 1976. In Elledge's case, however, as with many other death penalty trials, the statute has proven to be burdensome, inefficient, and difficult to enforce consistently.
On March 7, 1977, just two months after the execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah by firing squad initiated the post-Furman death penalty, the Florida Supreme Court vacated Elledge's first death sentence. The court ruled that testimony relating to the murder of Gaffney, the second person Elledge killed, should not have been admitted during the sentencing trial. The reason: Elledge had not yet been convicted of that crime at the time he was sentenced to death.
A second jury then advised Judge M. Daniel Futch, Jr., to send Elledge back to the electric chair. He concurred. This time the sentence cleared the state supreme court and Elledge came perilously close to a rendezvous with the electric chair. On February 15, 1983, a death warrant was signed for Elledge by then-Gov. Bob Graham, and an execution date was set for one month later. Elledge was granted a stay by a federal judge five days before the scheduled execution. The judge believed that the courts needed additional time to look at issues that Elledge had raised on appeal.
Four years after that, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit again threw out Elledge's death sentence and ordered a new hearing. The court ruled that because Elledge was held in leg irons during the second sentencing hearing, the jury had been unfairly prejudiced against him. Elledge had been held in restraints at the prosecution's bequest after a report surfaced that, while living in a six-by-nine cell, he had somehow mastered martial arts and planned to attack the bailiff.
Third sentencing, same result. Elledge is again given the electric chair. The Florida Supreme Court once more vacates the sentence, this time for numerous judicial fouls committed by Judge Futch and the prosecution, led by Michael Satz, the Broward County State Attorney who has worked on this case since its inception. Among the somewhat arcane mistakes made: Pictures of Gaffney's corpse were improperly allowed into evidence, and the prosecution withheld evidence from the defense regarding Elledge's 19 disciplinary reports while incarcerated. The court also erred, according to the Florida Supreme Court, in allowing the rape of Strack to be counted against Elledge as a prior violent felony despite the fact that it occurred at the same time as the murder.
Judge Futch has by now retired. Margaret Anne Strack has been dead for almost 20 years. But the facts of the case apparently remain the same to the judge and jury during the fourth hearing: Elledge is again sentenced to die in the electric chair in 1994.
William Laswell, Elledge's attorney during the fourth sentencing hearing, now argues, somewhat paradoxically, that the very delay in Elledge's execution has now made it impossible for him to get a fair hearing. Laswell notes that many of the witnesses whom he might have used for mitigating purposes to show why Elledge should live, were now either dead or had not been in touch with the prisoner for decades.
"Satz had three whacks at him, and with various judges sitting on the bench, either Satz or the judge overreached," says Laswell, a veteran of the capital crimes division of the public defender's office. "Well, during the time that they're giving the court and the state a chance to try again, and try again, and try again, what's happening to the defendant? Twenty-three hours a day in a cell by himself. No contact with any one.... His chances are going down, down, down, and they get to go to bat over, and over, and over."
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.
"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.
In the bathroom of Jeffrey Needle's law office on W. Oakland Park Boulevard is a pencil drawing by Elledge. Needle, now a collections lawyer with a computer screen saver that reads, "Leave cash on the desk or get out of my office," was a certified legal intern at the Broward County Public Defender's office when Elledge came up for resentencing in 1994. Needle did much of the grunt work on the case, interviewing Elledge about his life story and explaining to him the legal technicalities of the upcoming trial. The pencil sketch is a bucolic scene, with trees and homes. But closer inspection reveals one odd characteristic: Everything in the picture is enclosed. The windows of the homes have bars in them, as do the doors. There are numerous fences surrounding the homes. There appears to be no way out. This is the world as seen through Elledge's eyes.
"I think that Bill Elledge, because of his parents, because of the environment he grew up in, had no other way to go," says Needle. "The man was safe only in his mind."
Elledge's mind now appears to be a somewhat cloudy place. He at once offers remorse for what he has done and then doles out blame to everyone but himself. He says of Strack, the 20-year-old whom he raped and strangled to death: "God rest her soul, and I'm sorry for what I've done. But, it doesn't change the facts of the case." Elledge then goes on to recount how Strack is somehow to blame for his actions because she sexually teased him but then refused to have sex. "When this woman come on to me and tried to turn me off like a water tap after I was turned on, I snapped. I don't try to justify my actions. I admitted my guilt. At the same time, I wonder why she did what she did."
I wonder why she did what she did. The dead woman. It's her fault.
Billy Elledge now says he doesn't want to die. He doesn't want a date with Old Sparky. He realizes that, even if his death sentence is somehow lifted, he will spend the rest of his life in orange prison garb.
Elledge believes that he belongs in prison. He claims that all he wants is the ever-present threat of electrocution lifted from his head. "Do I deserve to be let out?" he asks. "No. I'll be the first one to tell you that. Because of what I've done and because no form of rehabilitation has been provided to me. I do not belong on the streets until the problems that put me here are resolved."
Contact Paul Demko at his e-mail address:
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