ATMORE, Ala. -- Condemned killer Wallace Norrell Thomas was put to death in a Friday the 13th execution after the Supreme Court refused to stay his sentence over concerns about Alabama's problem-prone electric chair.
Thomas, sentenced to death for the 1976 slaying of Birmingham-Southern College student Quenette Shehane, was taken into the death chamber at Holman Prison shortly before midnight, strapped into the electric chair and pronouned dead at 12:19 a.m. CDT, prison officials said.
The Supreme Court refused late Thursday to stay the execution, with anti-death penalty Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall dissenting.
In seeking a stay, Thomas's lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, argued that Alabama's electric chair, built by an inmate 60 years ago at the prison, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment because it is obsolete and improperly operated.
A similar argument was used in Florida last month to indefinitely postpone the execution of condemned 'black widow' killer Judi Buenoano. Defense lawyers argued that Florida's electric chair was faulty and could amount to cruel and unusual punishment because it malfunctioned during a previous execution.
Thomas was the 133rd person executed in the United States and the eighth in Alabama since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.
His execution was the 13th in the nation in 1990.
In a hearing before a federal judge in Mobile earlier this week, Stevenson cited the botched execution last year of Horace Dunkins, who had to be given a second jolt of electricity because prison officials connected the chair improperly on the first attempt. In 1983 it took three jolts to execute John Louis Evans III when one of the chair's leather leg straps broke.
Prison officials have said Thomas's execution likely will be the last for the garish yellow chair, dubbed 'Yellow Mama' by the inmates. The state has ordered a new electric chair, and it is expected to be in place before the next execution.
Prison spokesman John Hale said Thomas appeared to be in good spirits in the hours leading up to the execution, visiting with relatives for much of the day. 'I was talking to the deputy warden earlier and he said Thomas was joking about different things and his attitude was good,' he said.
During his stay in Holman Prison near Atmore, Thomas helped found 'Project Hope,' an anti-death penalty group that helps reconcile condemned inmates with their families.
His victim's mother, Miriam Shehane, founded the victims' rights group Victims of Crime and Leniency after her daughter's death and now works in the Montgomery district attorney's office assisting crime victims.
Shehane said executing killers can 'ease the pain' of the victims' families. 'That's not revenge. That's justice.'
Quenette Shehane, who was 21, was abducted by three men when she drove to a convenience store near the campus to buy salad dressing. She was then driven to an isolated area and shot to death and her body left in a roadside ditch.
Thomas was arrested more than a month later while fleeing a convenience store robbery. Tests indicated the gun used in the robbery was the same weapon that killed Shehane. Thomas's palm print was also found on the victim's car, and he gave a friend a television stolen from the vehicle.
Two other men were convicted in Shehane's death and given life sentences.