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.

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Paul Demko
Contact: Paul Demko