In the early evening of May 17, Sam Jones drove to a prearranged location outside Louisiana’s maximum-security prison at Angola, where an official picked him up in an unmarked car. Inside the prison walls, Jones waited in a lounge until summoned. At about 10:30 he went to the death house, a one-story cinder-block building, 15 minutes by car from the front gates. There he waited in an adjacent control booth, a small room with a peephole into the death chamber, while prison officials checked wiring and straps on the electric chair. At eight minutes past midnight, Dalton Prejean, a 30-year-old semiretarded man condemned to die for the murder 13 years ago of a Louisiana state trooper, shuffled up to a microphone where he uttered his last words before being strapped into the chair. At 12:11 A.M. a prison official in the control booth received a nod from the warden in the death chamber. He said, “Now,” and Jones pushed a button that sent 2,400 volts of electricity into Prejean’s body. After 10 seconds Jones reduced the current to 500 volts for 20 seconds. Then the sequence was repeated. At 12:17 Prejean was pronounced dead. Moments later Sam Jones (the name is an alias the executioner uses to preserve his anonymity) left the control booth, received $400 in cash and drove the 60 miles to his Baton Rouge home, where he then painted a ghostly human face.
During the morning following the execution, Jones, 6’1″ and dressed in white boa-skin cowboy boots and blue jeans, sits in the backyard of his daughter’s house—the trickle of a pool filter is punctuated by the occasional bzzzt of an insect flying into an electric bug burner—and displays the acrylic painting he has just finished. Completing a picture is a ritual he has followed after each of the 19 executions he has performed since 1983, when he accepted the job. “I guess once I put it [the execution] on canvas, it don’t exist no more,” says Jones, 49, his red hair and blue eyes illuminated by the sun. Though there was broad support for the commutation of Prejean’s sentence—he was thought to have suffered brain damage during an abusive childhood and was 17 when he killed Trooper Donald Cleveland, who had stopped the car in which Prejean was riding for a traffic violation—Jones refuses to distinguish between one condemned man and another: “They all look the same. It’s just a procedure, and they happen to be a part of it.”
In fact, the $23-an-hour electrician believes his moonlighting job serves society. “Somebody’s got to speak for the victims,” he says. A policeman in Baton Rouge for three years in the ’70s, Jones maintains an eye-for-an-eye view of the world: “These executions are taking way too long,” he declares. “These stays are all the same. They ought to put a stop to ’em.”
Besides, the stays are costly for Jones. When an execution is stayed at the last minute, Jones is paid $150. Figuring his travel expenses to Angola, frequently from distant work sites, and the loss of his regular pay, Jones says he has probably lost money as an executioner.
At about noon Jones pours himself three fingers of vodka, staining it lightly with cranberry juice. Do the executions solve anything? “Yeah,” says Jones. “They eliminate problems one at a time. Dalton Prejean is never going to murder nobody again.”