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Remorse Before Execution

A serial killer in California who claimed to have found his way to redemption by discovering his Cherokee faith was executed by lethal injection early Wednesday, with a ceremonial eagle feather resting across his chest.

Darrell Rich, 45, who killed three women and an 11-year-old girl, was denied his request to take part in a sweat lodge ceremony he said was necessary to purify his spirit.

 
   Bizarre Incident
   Marks Texas Execution
In Huntsville, Texas, a convicted killer who twice escaped from his death row cell fought with guards to the end and stunned authorities during his execution by spitting out a small handcuff key.

"The secret, as of Wilkerson," Ponchai Wilkerson mumbled as he spit out the key while lethal chemicals flowed into his body, said James Brazzil, a chaplain who stood next to the inmate in the death chamber Tuesday evening.

Seven minutes later, Wilkerson was pronounced dead.

Wilkerson had struggled with prison guards all day. Hours before the execution, guards had to use a Mace-like spray on Wilkerson when he refused to leave his cell at a prison near Livingston for the 40-mile trip to the Walls Unit in Huntsville. Then, he refused to leave his holding cell near the death chamber and guards had to use additional restraints to bind him to the gurney for his execution.

The inch-and-a-half key that he spit out was a universal handcuff and leg restraint key, said Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Larry Fitzgerald. Authorities didn't know how Wilkerson got it, but Fitzgerald said he didn't think it was intended to be used in an escape attempt.

Wilkerson, 28, was executed for the 1990 murder of Chung Myong Yi, 43, in a Houston jewelry store where she worked. The slaying capped a crime spree that included robberies and drive-by shootings that left at least one other person dead and three others wounded. He had a history of escape attempts.


Looking on in silence were five relatives of his victims and one woman who survived his attack.

"I can finally live in peace. He won't be there to haunt me any more," the woman, known as Robin H., said in a statement released after Rich was declared dead at 12:13 a.m.

Rich was convicted of a series of crimes in and near the small city of Redding, about 200 miles northeast of San Francisco, during two months in the summer of 1978.

Among his victims was Annette Selix, 11, who was thrown alive from a 105-foot bridge. Rich also killed two teen-agers by crushing their heads with rocks and shot Linda Slavik, 28, a mother of one, and later mimicked her pleas for mercy to friends.

Rich also was convicted of assaulting five other women.

Relatives of his victims said it was past time for Rich to die.

Defense lawyer James Thomson, who also witnessed the execution, said in an emailed statement that Rich's "last thoughts were remorse and forgiveness."

State and federal courts upheld Rich's death sentence. On Friday Gov. Gray Davis denied a request for clemency and said Rich acted in a "callous and almost unbelievably brutal manner."

Rich spent the hours leading up to his execution waging a court battle for permission to take part in a sweat lodge ceremony as a religious last rite. The Supreme Court declined to consider the matter late Tuesday. Gov. Davis and President Clinton also declined requests to intervene.

Sweat lodges are used in some American Indian religious ceremonies to purify the spirit. Participants sit within an enclosed structure and pray while water is poured over fire-heated rocks.

Prison officials said the ceremony was too high a security risk.

Rich's lawyers conceded sweat lodges are not part of the Cherokee tradition but said Rich studied Native American beliefs in general before finding out his specific ancestry so it was part of his religious tradition.

Outside the prison protestors held a candlelight vigil praying, singing and carrying signs against capital punishment.

"It's a senseless, meaningless act of revenge that might feel good to a few people, but it really lowers us as a people," said Lance Lindsey, director of Death Penalty Focus, a San Francisco-based anti-death penalty group.

Tuesday morning, the body of Rich's adoptive mother, Lillie, was exhumed from a cemetery in Cottonwood. Rich had planned to be buried next to her, but agreed to be buried with his mother elsewhere out of respect for the family of one of his victims.

To their horror, the family of Annette Selix learned that the Rich family plot was just 100 feet from the girl's grave.

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