Wednesday, June 9, 2004

In 6 minutes, life drains out for convicted killer of jailer

By Sharon Coolidge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LUCASVILLE - William G. Zuern died at 10:04 a.m. Tuesday alone - just as he spent the last 20 years.

No clergy, no attorneys and none of Zuern's family watched as a prison executioner pumped a lethal mix of drugs into his arms, killing him in six minutes.

Zuern, 45, said nothing and lived up to the promise he made at his murder trial: He would not beg for his life.

Zuern was executed after exhausting all his appeals in the June 9, 1984, fatal stabbing of Hamilton County jailer Phillip Pence.

Pence's sister and two men who worked with Pence at the county's now-closed jail in Camp Washington watched Zuern die.

Zuern appeared peaceful when he walked into the death chamber just before 10 a.m. He kept his eyes closed and did as he was asked. He climbed on the gurney and was strapped down.

Asked if he had he anything to say, he responded: "Nope."

He put his arms out and two members of the execution team injected the Price Hill man with drugs that put him to sleep, stopped his breathing and shut down his heart.

He took several breaths and then appeared to slip into a nap, with only a slight darkening of his cheeks and fingertips indicating that life had drained from his 6-foot-1-inch, 270-pound body.

The execution comes one day shy of the 20th anniversary of Pence's murder.

A long wait

For nearly 20 years, Gary Rouse, who worked with Pence at the jail, has carried a copy of Zuern's death warrant and has waited for this day.

"William Zuern went too easy,'' Rouse said after witnessing the death.

Zuern should have died as Pence did, he said. With a panicked, pained look on his face.

"This was like putting a mad dog to sleep,'' Rouse said.

Sherry Behler, Pence's sister, said Zuern should have been put to death years ago.

"The appeals process took too long,'' she said.

Zuern was jailed awaiting trial for shooting to death Gregory Earls, 23.

Jailers got a tip that Zuern had a weapon and when Pence went to search the cell, Zuern lunged at Pence, stabbing him in the heart with a homemade knife fashioned from a metal bucket handle.

A Hamilton County judge sentenced Zuern to die for Pence's death and imposed a life sentence for Earls' death.

The case weaved its way through state and federal courts until last month, when the Ohio Supreme Court set the execution date.

Monday, attorneys for Zuern and the state filed a flurry of motions that briefly stayed the execution. But just before 7 p.m., a federal appeals court ordered the execution to go forward. Zuern's lawyers declined to appeal that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Restless night, then relief

Zuern made the trip to the Death House at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville at 1:08 p.m. Monday. He asked that the Bible be removed from his cell and refused to listen to the execution team as they worked to prepare him. Zuern stuffed toilet paper in his ears, said Andrea Dean, spokeswoman for the state's prison system.

He ate all of his last dinner, which included lasagna, macaroni and cheese, cherry cheesecake and chocolate milk. He awoke at 4 a.m. Tuesday after a restless night of sleep, Dean said.

He ate a breakfast of four pancakes, cereal and milk. He spent the rest of the morning pacing his cell. He did not talk to the execution team - a group of volunteers who work in various jobs and are specially trained for the execution.

Zuern sent his two sisters away after they drove to the prison from the Dayton area. He has never had a visitor during his 20-year prison stay, but the sisters had hoped he would see them so they could spend one last time as a family.

He declined to shower before changing into the prison's execution uniform, which included a white T-shirt, blue cotton pants and brown work boots at 9:30 a.m.

Zuern is the 12th inmate - the third from Hamilton County - to be executed since 1999, when the state resumed executions. The execution began two minutes earlier than the scheduled 10 a.m. time.

He is the only one who has declined to have a spiritual adviser at his side.

Because his family is unable to afford a funeral, the state will bury Zuern's body in a Chillicothe cemetery Thursday. A prison minister will preside.

Zuern asked that his belongings - a radio, typewriter and a handful of books - be destroyed.

Seven members of Zuern's first victim, Earls, spent the morning at the prison, although they didn't witness the execution.

"Even though he didn't get death for my son, he still got it, and for that I'm grateful,'' said Juanita Earls. Rouse and another deputy, Joe Burton, who worked with Pence, spoke passionately about how much Pence's mother meant to him. "When (Pence) died, basically she died, too,'' said Burton, who remained close to Pence's mother, who died in 1999. "One of her main wishes was to live to see this.''

"I might see her on the other side,'' Burton added. "If I do, I'll tell her that justice was served at 10:04 a.m. June 8, 2004."


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