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Thursday, June 22, 2000

Convicted murderer executed

Sun staff writers

STARKE -- As a lethal cocktail of chemicals began to flow into his veins, execution witnesses said they saw fear in convicted killer Thomas Provenzano's eyes.

Provenzano, 51, his face flushed, alternately gulped for air and puffed short breaths minutes before he was pronounced dead at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Florida State Prison execution chamber.

"He was pretty damned scared," said execution witness Mark Parker, who was left paralyzed by Provenzano's 1984 Orlando courthouse shooting spree. "I'm sure Provenzano is in a lot warmer place now."

Provenzano, who believed he was Jesus Christ, became the fourth man to be put to death by lethal injection in Florida this year.

Executioners carried out Provenzano's death sentence just more than 24 hours after the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta had issued the inmate a last-minute reprieve Tuesday. Intravenous needles had already been placed in his arms when prison officials learned of the stay.

The three-judge panel lifted the stay the next day, offering no explanation for why they had granted one.

The execution was delayed again Wednesday while the Florida Supreme Court reviewed a stay request received at 6 p.m. -- 30 minutes before Provenzano was scheduled to die.

Michael Reiter, Provenzano's attorney, said his client's mental condition had deteriorated and had asked for time to have him examined by psychiatrists. At 6:44 p.m., the court told Gov. Jeb Bush the request was denied. Eight minutes later, the procedure began.

Provenzano's last words were for his attorney: "Thanks for everything Mike."

Provenzano was sentenced to death for the 1984 slaying of a bailiff at the Orlando courthouse. Provenzano walked into the courthouse heavily armed and muttered threats against two police officers who had charged him with disorderly conduct months earlier. When court officers tried to search him, Provenzano opened fire.

William "Arnie" Wilkerson, 60, who had retired from the Navy 14 years earlier as a lieutenant commander, was fatally shot. Harry Dalton, 53, a father of six, was shot in the head and was paralyzed. He died seven years later.

Parker, 36, was a 19-year-old bailiff at the time of the shooting. Provenzano's attack left him paralyzed from the shoulders down.

"He got off a lot easier than his two victims," Parker said Wednesday as he explained that he has undergone nine surgeries since he was paralyzed and that he made the trip to Starke from his Central Florida home on his back to witness Provenzano's death. "It's a shame it took almost 16 years to the day to get this all done."

Dalton's son Gary Dalton, 40, and daughter Teresa Olrich, 37, said they were glad the "roller-coaster ride" of Provenzano's appeals is over, but it doesn't erase the memories of their father's fate.

"It brings back everything that happened. For him, it ended today. For us, it will never end," Gary Dalton said.

A tearful Cathy Parlin, Wilkerson's niece, stood outside the prison during the execution. She said the delays in Provenzano's execution were detrimental to all families involved and that the appeals process is too slow.

"Why do they keep us both suffering, dragging it on like this?" she said. "This is ridiculous. And you know what I really feel? Like I should shoot that cop over there so I can get a free college education, food, clothes, all of it for free like he (Provenzano) has."

Across the field from Parlin, amid a drizzle, a small vigil took place during the execution.

The Rev. Fred R. Ruse of St. Matthew Catholic Church in Winter Haven returned to Starke with a handful of friends after learning of the lifted stay at midday. Ruse said it is another example of why Florida should place a moratorium on all capital punishment.

"It is time for the governor to sit down and come up with a better solution for this, and it's an insult to the finest minds in terms of correctional expertise that this ever happens," Ruse said.

The group of 13 death penalty protesters stood silent as 6:30 approached. Minutes later, word of the execution came, and their heads dropped. Five candles were lit as the drizzle dissipated.

Provenzano's sister, Catherine Forbes, who met with her brother for his last visit Tuesday, issued a statement before the execution.

"Let me say from the outset that my heart goes out to the people who were killed or injured by my brother . . . . If it was in my power to restore your lives, I would do so in an instant . . . . But I have to wonder, where is the justice in killing a sick human being?" Forbes wrote.

A trial judge decided in December that Provenzano believed the reason he faced execution was because he was Jesus Christ. But the judge ruled that wasn't a strong enough reason under Florida law to spare Provenzano because he also knew he had killed one man and injured two others.

Under state law, condemned killers can be executed even if they are mentally ill -- unless they don't understand they are about to be executed and why.

Lise Fisher can be reached at 374-5092 or

George Hutchens can be reached at 374-5095 or

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