1st to die in Del. gallows in 50 years could be last Couple's murderer picks death by hanging

January 24, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

When convicted murderer Billy Bailey steps onto the wooden gallows built just for him outside the Delaware Correctional Center tonight after midnight, it will be a grim end to a grim story.

Bailey, 49, is one of 14 inmates awaiting death on Delaware -- a surprisingly large number for a tiny state with only three counties. He will be the first person in 50 years in Delaware to die by hanging, and he may be the last. This method of execution is considered so brutal that only four states use it and all four offer lethal injection as an alternative.

Tomorrow's hanging will end a life and a story marked by senseless violence. Bailey, the 19th of 24 children, had a childhood blighted by abuse. Jailed for the first time at 18, he had been paroled after serving time for forging stolen checks when he held up a liquor store, then went to the Kent County farm of Gilbert and Clara Lambertson on May 21, 1979. There, he shot Mrs. Lambertson, 73, and her 80-year-old husband point-blank with a pistol and their own shotgun, and escaped in the couple's truck.

Supporters of his execution, including the Lambertson family, point to the violence of the crime as ample justification for the hanging.

"Our family feels that it's fair," said Delbert Lambertson, 70, one of the murdered couple's sons. "We feel he should pay with his life for what he's done. They say it's barbaric -- let me tell you about barbaric. He shot my Mom in the chest. We couldn't even have a viewing."

Mr. Lambertson said that his sister-in-law, who was picking strawberries on the farm that day, witnessed some of the violence. The scene was so gruesome, he said, that police would not let him see it. And 17 years later, his voice still quavers with emotion when he remembers the murders.

But others question whether the state should hang anyone, no matter what crime was committed.

"When you really stare the details in the face, you realize how ugly this whole thing becomes," says Bailey's lawyer, Dan Lyons. Mr. Lyons, a former federal prosecutor, was appointed Bailey's advocate in 1987. He began the job as a supporter of the death penalty; he now opposes it, in part because of the research on hanging he did for Bailey's case.

Bailey has said he doesn't remember the day of the shootings and doesn't know why he went to the home of the Lambertsons, whom he did not know. But he accepts responsibility for the killings.

"The short of it is, Billy had the world's worst life," Mr. Lyons said.

Bailey initially said he wanted to die by hanging, telling the Associated Press in 1986 that "I just hope they buy a strong enough rope." He subsequently changed his mind and directed his lawyer to pursue all avenues of appeal.

'Nothing left'

"He would like to live," Mr. Lyons said yesterday. "But he knows that there's nothing left. I've made every argument I can make and we've spent nine years doing it, and there's nothing left."

Mr. Lyons said he did not plan to file any last-minute appeal because all legal avenues have been exhausted and that Mr. Bailey needs to prepare himself for death.

"You rob the client of the ability to prepare himself for the execution," Mr. Lyons said. "You give him false hope, and you demean the process."

"Nothing is pending," said Delaware Deputy Attorney General Paul Wallace, who has prosecuted the case for the past six years. He expects the execution to go forward as scheduled early tomorrow morning "unless there's something totally unforeseen."

The law in Delaware requires 10 official witnesses to the execution. Two members from a victim's family may also be witnesses, and Mr. Lambertson said he and a brother would attend.

Seven members of the press also will watch the execution.

Both lawyers in the case will be witnesses. Mr. Lyons will be there at the request of Bailey; Mr. Wallace will be an official witness for the state.

Both men expressed some discomfort with the method chosen by Bailey.

"My major concern is that the Department of Corrections does it correctly," Mr. Wallace said. "There is no such thing as a hangman any more . I think everyone will be relieved when this is over."

The hanging will be carried out by Delaware corrections personnel. It will be the first one since 1946, when convicted murderer Forest Sturdivant was executed.

More expertise required

Hanging is generally conceded to require more expertise than other kinds of execution; the condemned man's height and weight must be considered when preparing the rope and the gallows, as well as the drop that occurs when the gallows trapdoor is opened. It can be messy and not very effective: The swift, neck-breaking death that hanging is intended to produce sometimes does not happen.

But it is part of Delaware's history. The first hanging in the First State is believed to have occurred in September 1662; like the rest of the country, Delaware used hanging until about 1900, when electric chairs and gas chambers began to gain widespread use.

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