The years on death row had brought peace to Willie Ervin Fisher. In the hours before his execution last Friday night, Fisher spent his time comforting an older sister and a niece who had come to visit him at Raleigh's Central Prison.
During Fisher's only contact visit since he was sentenced to death for the 1992 murder of his girlfriend Angela Johnson, he tried to assure his sister Sally Fisher-Ervin and his niece Regina Fisher that he wasn't worried about dying.
"He's not ready to leave," Sally said her brother told her, "but if he has to, he's in God's hands, and he'll be fine."
Still the tears flowed--his sister's tears; Regina's tears; the tears of dozens of death-penalty opponents who stood in vigil for two bone-chilling nights outside the prison. The pained looks and sunken red eyes were also evident on the faces of Larry Moore and Cynthia Adcock, the two lawyers who worked feverishly to save Fisher's life. Social worker Stephanie Moore, who had visited Fisher for six years to help with appeals, kept ducking into the prison visiting center restroom to dry her eyes and compose herself.
Only Willie Fisher, who was represented at trial by a lawyer who has now been disbarred, was able to face death at age 39 with faith-filled confidence. "He didn't cry at all," Regina said.
Fisher is the 17th person to be executed in North Carolina since executions resumed in 1984. Friends and family members had hoped Gov. Mike Easley, a lawyer and former state attorney general, would spare Fisher's life. Mitigating factors that would have kept Fisher off death row were never presented to the jury, his lawyers said. Easley, who earlier this month gave his seal of approval to the execution of a retarded person, was Fisher's last hope.
When she visited Easley on March 13 to plead for her baby brother's life, Sally brought along hundreds of letters and petitions she had gathered in her Winston-Salem community urging the governor to grant clemency. The murder of Johnson happened after Fisher, the youngest of nine children, had abused alcohol and crack cocaine. All who knew Fisher claimed he had never been violent prior to the day of the murder. Sally said her brother was always "an easygoing, sweet person. He was a mama's boy."
Last-minute appeals led to a stay of execution late Thursday night. The stay was later lifted by the N.C. Supreme Court, but in the meantime Fisher's family members had to spend the night in the visiting center not knowing the fate of their loved one.
Regina curled up on a vinyl couch and tried to sleep.
"It's been a long day," she said around 3 a.m. "I'm just ready to let them just tell us what's going to happen because it's just the waiting that's killing me."
After initially trying to rush the execution Friday morning, Central Prison Warden Roby Lee postponed it until 9 p.m.
After witnessing her uncle's execution, Regina said: "He has no hatred towards nobody. He knows his soul is with God. So he wasn't in any pain in his last minutes, because as soon as he laid on that table, his soul left and all they had was his body."
WRAL reporter David Crabtree was among five media witnesses to Fisher's death. Watching Fisher die shook him up, said Crabtree, who also does some volunteer work on death row through his church. Crabtree said he always thought death by injection was akin to "putting down the family dog." After he watched Fisher die, Crabtree felt differently.
"I don't think family dogs convulse," he said. "To see a human being go through that was just a little more than what I anticipated. As a person of faith and as a member of this society, I, on a personal level, don't think the government should be in the business of killing people."
Her voice cracking, Regina read aloud her uncle's final statement:
"Just that, regardless of what might be seen or the thought of what might be seen, there is still love, mercy and justice. Because God said that all that he has made is good and once you realize that and believe in that, everything will be just fine."