LUCASVILLE — As the only person who survived his crime watched, the state of Ohio Tuesday put to death a former Cincinnati man who set the fire that claimed the lives of five children between the ages of 8 and 12.
William L. Garner, 37, was pronounced dead at 10:38 a.m. from an overdose of a single powerful barbiturate at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility after Gov. Ted Strickland and state federal and state courts rejected late pleas on Monday.
Reading from his own handwritten statement held before him by a prison officer, Garner apologized to the victims' families, six of whom were within feet of him.
"I thought I'd never be free, but I'm free now," he said after thanking numerous persons and expressing his love for his twin brother and the rest of his family. In one left hand he clasped the dread lock hair of a female friend with whom he'd spoken frequently on the telephone over the last couple of days.
For just the third time, because of the large number of victims, the prison used an ancillary room with a video feed to accommodate an overflow of witnesses. Among them were Rod Mack, who at the age of 13 was the only child to escape the fire; his mother, Addie; and another mother, father, siblings, and other relatives of the young victims.
While committing an apartment burglary early in the morning of Jan. 26, 1992, Garner had entered the two bedrooms containing six children, even stopping to give a drink of water to a little girl who had requested it before setting the fire that killed all but one of them.
He had admitted to setting one fire to a downstairs couch to consume the evidence of his crime, but he claimed that he thought the children would smell the smoke or hear a smoke detector and have time to escape.
Rod Mack escaped the fire by climbing out of an upstairs bedroom window. An 11-year-old friend in the room with him, Richard Gaines, did not follow.
Mr. Mack later described hearing the screams of the four girls, three of them his sisters, from another bedroom, and hearing his friend fall to the floor when he opened the door to a smoke- and flame-filled hallway.
Mr. Mack's sisters — Denitra Satterwhite, 12; Deondra Freeman, 10, and Mykkila Mason, 8 — died from smoke inhalation with cousin Markeca Mason, 11, and friend Richard Gaines.
Mr. Mack nor any of the other family members of the victims talked to reporters after the execution.
Following his statement, the first of five syringes of thiopental sodium began to flow, and Garner appeared to fall asleep. After minutes of no signs of life, the curtain was pulled closed, and it remained closed for an unusually long nine to 10 minutes.
Usually the curtain is closed for just a minute or two while an unidentified coroner officially declares the inmate dead.
Later, Ernie L. Moore, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said the coroner thought he had detected a slight heartbeat and that department protocol called for a waiting period of five minutes before the heartbeat was checked again.
When asked whether the media and other witnesses had indeed seen Garner die, Mr. Moore said, ""I can't speculate on that."
Garner had denied setting two additional upstairs fires and told the Ohio Parole Board in an interview that he felt the children would escape, particularly since he knew one of the girls was awake. But the parole board didn't buy his argument and went on to unanimously recommend that Mr. Strickland not grant him clemency for a crime of such "unusual magnitude."
"Setting the fires in three separate locations seems to ensure any avenue of escape would be removed and refutes Mr. Garner's claim that he believed the children would escape unharmed," the board wrote.
In a last-ditch effort to stop the execution, Garner's state lawyers had urged the Ohio Supreme Court and the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to stay his execution. They claimed that, although Garner was numerically 19 at the time of the crime, developmentally he functioned at the level of a 14-year-old.
The U.S. Supreme Court had previously ruled that it would be unconstitutional to execute someone who was a minor at the time of his crime. Both the state and federal courts rejected pleas for a stay Monday.
Lisa Ross, Garner's sister, said "Pee Wee" "was ready to go to God."
"He could never say he was sorry enough to the family," she said, characterizing the crime as an "accident."
Garner found the purse of Addie Mack, mother of Rod and his three sisters, near a hospital pay telephone while she was being treated for an injury. After taking keys and her address from the purse, he took a cab to the apartment and then, carrying the stolen merchandise, took the same cab to a convenience store and then to his home. The cab driver later led police to him.
Rod Mack later identified a boom box recovered from Garner's home that he said was taken from his bedroom.
Garner had a lengthy juvenile and adult criminal record as well as a long list of prison infractions, including setting fire to a blanket draped between the bars of his cell.