Delaware killer gets last wish -- death

March 15, 1992|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

SMYRNA, Del. -- When the end drew near, Steven Brian Pennell had it better in some ways than the survivors of the women he was convicted of torturing and killing.

Pennell, whose death by lethal injection at 9:49 a.m. yesterday marked Delaware's return to capital punishment after a 46-year hiatus, got about everything he asked for.

When he wanted his steak cooked medium rare, he got it. When he wanted to read, he got books. When he wanted to write letters, he got stationery. When he wanted to smoke, he got cigarettes.

And when he wanted to die, he died.

Pennell was sentenced to death after pleading no contest in October to killing Michelle Gordon, 22, and Kathleen Meyer, 26, in upper Delaware. At the time of his 1991 trial in Superior Court, he already was serving two life sentences for convictions in the mutilation deaths of Shirley Ellis, 23, and Catherine DiMauro, 31.

Pennell insisted he was innocent of the killings, but said he wanted to be executed to spare his wife and two children the prolonged pain of his spending the rest of his life in prison. He rejected his wife's attempts to appeal his convictions and told her during a Friday visit that he did not approve of her going to the American Civil Liberties Union for help.

With a Catholic priest to his left and a prison chaplain to his right, Pennell kept his eyes closed as the initial drops of a pharmaceutical mixture flowed through tubes stuck into his arms by needles and into his blood. More than two dozen people -- official witnesses, prison staff and reporters -- had gathered in a small trailer-turned-death chamber at the Delaware Correctional Center near Smyrna to watch what happened next.

Meanwhile, outside the prison fence, the cold wind sent some long-distance spectators inside their cars.

But not Marlene Simm, who had traveled from Wilmington to be as close as possible when the man who murdered her daughter, Michelle Gordon, was executed.

She had forgotten to bring a coat and shivered in the wind. One of her sons took off his jacket and put it around her. But her shivers continued.

She wanted to be inside the trailer, not to get warm but to get even. She wasn't allowed.

"I wanted to see Pennell's face," she said, angry with Delaware officials who had denied her request to be among the witnesses with Pennell on the other side of the prison complex.

Robert H. Barlow stood out in the cold, too. He said his daughter, Margaret Lynn Finner, had been killed by Pennell, although her body was so badly decomposed when police found it that her death never officially was traced to the 34-year-old man strapped to the gurney in the trailer.

Mr. Barlow's request to watch Pennell die was rejected as well. Prison officials, who had reviewed other states' execution guidelines, decided it was best not to have any witnesses who might cause an emotional scene.

Mr. Barlow said he wasn't so upset by the denial. What had him upset, he said, was that it was delivered in what appeared to be an impersonal form letter. "As far as I'm concerned, it's an insult," he said. "I don't argue with the decision. I argue with the treatment."

Ms. Simm managed to stop shivering for a moment when she talked about the impending execution.

"It makes me feel good my daughter's going to get some justice," she said. "I hope she's looking down on this." Ms. Simm looked up and raised her right fist. "We're going to get him, Shelly."

Witnesses said it was hard to say exactly when Pennell died, because he looked as if he were sleeping. Sleeping when the first sign of the deadly fluid rolled through the tubes. Sleeping when the priest read the last rites.

Pennell opened his eyes only once, when the prison warden asked him if he wanted to make a final statement. Pennell shook his head and closed his eyes again, said reporters who watched.

"If you weren't paying attention, you didn't know what was going on," said Carla Kenney, a WMDT television reporter. "You wouldn't know you were watching an execution."

Pennell, who professed to have found religion in prison and had crosses and rosary beads with him on the gurney, was described as appearing calm and assured.

"He seemed to know a little something we didn't," said another reporter.

Pennell's injection consisted of three standard hospital drugs, but they were administered in uncommon doses. The sodium thiopental, a general anesthesia much like "truth serum," likely rendered him unconscious and unaware that his respiratory system was about to be arrested. Pancuronium bromide was used as a total relaxant, paralyzing his muscles, including his diaphragm. If he wasn't dead already, the potassium chloride stopped his heart.

Although not all the witnesses noticed it, Associated Press reporter Theresa Humphrey said she saw a slight movement after the drugs were administered.

"His chest heaved briefly, but he did not appear to suffer," she said. The execution took about 10 minutes.

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