Page 18 of Ford County

His body reacted and fought for a minute or so, then the cyanide took control. The convulsions slowed. His head became still. His fingers loosened their death grip on the arms of the chair. The air continued to thicken as Raymond's breathing slowed, then stopped. Some final twitching, a jolt in his chest muscles, a vibration in his hands, and finally it was over.

He was pronounced dead at 12:31 a.m. The black curtains were closed, and the witnesses hustled from the room. Outside, Butch and Leon leaned on a corner of the redbrick building and smoked a cigarette.

Inside the death room, a vent above the chamber was opened, and the gas escaped into the sticky air over Parchman. Fifteen minutes later, guards with gloves unshackled Raymond and wrestled his body out of the chamber. His clothing was cut off, to be burned. His corpse was hosed off with cold water, then dried with kitchen towels, reclothed in prison whites, and laid inside a cheap pine coffin.

Leon and Butch sat with their mother and waited for the warden. Inez was still sedated, but she clearly understood what had taken place in the last few minutes. Her head was buried in her hands, and she cried softly, mumbling occasionally. A guard entered and asked for the keys to Mr. McBride's van. An hour dragged by.

The warden, fresh from his press announcement, finally entered the room. He offered some sappy condolences, managed to look sad and sympathetic, then asked Leon to sign some forms. He explained that Raymond left almost $1,000 in his prison account, and a check would be sent within a week. He said the van was loaded with the coffin and four boxes of Raymond's belongings - his guitar, clothing, books, correspondence, legal materials, and manuscripts. They were free to go.

The coffin was moved to one side so Inez could be rolled through the back of the van, and when she touched it, she broke down again. Leon and Butch rearranged boxes, secured the wheelchair, then moved the coffin again. When everything was in its place, they followed a car full of guards back to the front of the prison, through the entrance, and when they turned onto Highway 3, they drove past the last of the protesters. The television crews were gone. Leon and Butch lit cigarettes, but Inez was too emotional to smoke. No one spoke for miles as they hurried through the cotton and soybean fields. Near the town of Marks, Leon spotted an all-night convenience store. He bought a soda for Butch and tall coffees for his mother and himself.

When the Delta yielded to the hill country, they felt better.

"What did he say last?" Inez asked, her tongue thick.

"He apologized," Butch said. "Asked Charlene for forgiveness."

"So she watched it?"

"Oh yes. You didn't think she'd miss it."

"I should've seen it."

"No, Momma," Leon said. "You can be thankful for the rest of your days that you didn't witness the execution. Your last memory of Raymond was a long hug and a nice farewell. Please don't think you missed anything."

"It was horrible," Butch said.

"I should've seen it."

In the town of Batesville they passed a fast-food place that advertised chicken biscuits and twenty-four-hour service. Leon turned around. "I could use the ladies' room," Inez said. There were no other customers inside at 3:15 in the morning. Butch rolled his mother to a table near the front, and they ate in silence. The van with Raymond's coffin was less than thirty feet away.

Inez managed a few bites, then lost her appetite. Butch and Leon ate like refugees.

They entered Ford County just after 5:00 a.m., and it was still very dark, the roads empty. They drove to Pleasant Ridge in the north end of the county, to a small Pentecostal church where they parked in the gravel lot, and waited. At the first hint of sunlight, they heard an engine start somewhere in the distance.

"Wait here," Leon said to Butch, then left the van and disappeared. Behind the church there was a cemetery, and at the far end of it a backhoe had just begun digging the grave. The backhoe was owned by a cousin's boss. At 6:30, several men from the church arrived and went to the grave site. Leon drove the van down a dirt trail and stopped near the backhoe, which had finished its digging and was now just waiting. The men pulled the coffin from the van. Butch and Leon gently placed their mother's wheelchair on the ground and pushed her as they followed the coffin.

They lowered it with ropes, and when it settled onto the four-by-four studs at the bottom, they withdrew the ropes. The preacher read a short verse of Scripture, then said a prayer. Leon and Butch shoveled some dirt onto the coffin, then thanked the men for their assistance.

As they drove away, the backhoe was refilling the grave.

The house was empty - no concerned neighbors waiting, no relatives there to mourn. They unloaded Inez and rolled her into the house and into her bedroom. She was soon fast asleep. The four boxes were placed in a storage shed, where their contents would weather and fade along with the memories of Raymond.

It was decided that Butch would stay home that day to care for Inez, and to ward off the reporters. There had been many calls in the past week, and someone was bound to show up with a camera. He worked at a sawmill, and his boss would understand.

Leon drove to Clanton and stopped on the edge of town to fill up with gas. At 8:00 a.m. sharp he pulled in to the lot at McBride Upholstery and returned the van. An employee explained that Mr. McBride wasn't in yet, was probably still at the coffee shop, and usually got to work around 9:00. Leon handed over the keys, thanked the employee, and left.

He drove to the lamp factory east of town, and punched the clock at 8:30, as always.

Fish Files

After seventeen years of grinding out a living in a law practice that, for some forgotten reason, had gradually been reduced to little more than bankruptcy and divorce work, it was astonishing, even years later, that one phone call could change so much. As a busy lawyer who handled the desperate problems of others, Mack Stafford had made and received all sorts of life-altering phone calls: calls to initiate or settle divorces; calls to pass along grim court rulings on child custody; calls to inform honest men that they would not be repaid. Unpleasant calls, for the most part. He had never thought about the possibility that one call could so quickly and dramatically lead to his own divorce and bankruptcy.

It came during lunch on a bleak and dreary and otherwise slow Tuesday in early February, and because it was just after noon, Mack took it himself. Freda, the secretary, had stepped out for an errand and a sandwich, and since his little firm employed no one else, Mack was left to guard the phone. As things evolved, the fact that he was alone was crucial. If Freda had answered it, there would have been questions, and lots of them. In fact, most of what followed would not have happened had she been at her post in the reception area near the front door of a little shop known as: Law Offices of Jacob McKinley Stafford, LLC.

After the third ring, Mack grabbed the phone on his desk in the back and offered the usual, brusque "Law office." He received on average fifty calls a day, most from warring spouses and disgruntled creditors, and he had long since developed the habit of disguising his voice and withholding his name when forced to take calls unfiltered by Freda. He hated answering the phone cold, but he also needed the business. Like every other lawyer in Clan-ton, and there were plenty, he never knew when the next call might be the big one, the big catch, the big case that could lead to a handsome fee and maybe even a way out. Mack had been dreaming of such a phone call for more years than he cared to admit.

And on this cold winter day, with a slight chance of snow in the air, the call finally arrived.