Death penalty critics raise questions about inmate’s pending execution

Casey McWhorter, scheduled to die on Thursday for 1993 murder, was 18 at time of the crime

By: - November 16, 2023 7:01 am
A three story prison dorm with aluminum siding and outside stairs rises behind a barbed wire fence. A guard tower can be seen in the background.

A prison dorm at Holman Correctional Facility on Oct. 23, 2019. (File)

Before his scheduled execution on Thursday, Casey McWhorter is left to grapple with how his life has played out.

On Feb. 19, 1993, McWhorter, then 18, and two other teenagers, aged 15 and 16, decided to rob the Albertville home of Edward Lee Williams. One of the teenagers, Lee Williams, was Edward’s son.

McWhorter said in two separate interviews with the Reflector last week that he had been “drinking quite a bit that morning and taking some pills.”

Casey McWhorter (Alabama Department of Corrections)

According to court records, McWhorter, Edward Lee Williams Jr., the son of the victim, and Daniel Miner went to the victim’s home and let themselves into the house that was unlocked. Upon entering the home, the three spent the next few hours gathering various items.

“The only thing that was supposed to happen that day was we were supposed to go in, get a bunch of stuff, some guns, some weed, some drugs, and leave,” McWhorter said. “That was all that was supposed to happen.”

But Edward Lee Williams arrived home earlier than expected. As McWhorter remembers, he was in a backroom when he heard a struggle and saw Williams and Miner wrestling over a gun.

Williams was shot 11 times. The two then took his wallet and several other items and left in his pickup truck, meeting up with Williams Jr. and the other unidentified co-conspirator.

Miner and Williams Jr. were later sentenced to life in prison. McWhorter was found guilty and sentenced to death in 1994 by a jury vote of 10-2.

Opponents of the death penalty have questioned whether Alabama should carry out McWhorter’s execution, citing McWhorter’s age at the time of Williams’ murder and the problems that the state has had in carrying out executions using lethal injection. Two executions were called off last year after staff spent hours trying to find veins; an autopsy on Joe Nathan James Jr., executed in July 2022, found multiple puncture marks on his arms.

“Alabama’s record of botched lethal injection executions, and the state’s failure to report and correct the problems that caused them, are reasons for serious concern,” the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that collects data on capital punishment, said in a statement.

The Reflector attempted to reach relatives of Williams and law enforcement who worked on the case through VOCAL, an Alabama victims’ advocacy group, and the district attorney of the 27th Judicial Circuit, which prosecuted the case.  The district attorney’s office, which has remained in touch with Williams’ surviving family over the years, said the family was not interested in speaking with the media.

Age has become a point in McWhorter’s appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005’s Roper v. Simmons that executing people for crimes committed under the age of 18 was unconstitutional. McWhorter was about three months past his 18th birthday when he committed the crime. The Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington D.C.-based organization that collects information on capital punishment, said in a statement that the time difference meant little.

“There is no magic threshold that is crossed on a teenager’s 18th birthday, so it is likely Mr. McWhorter at age 18 years and three months was not among ‘the worst of the worst’ for the same reasons that someone who under 18 is not eligible for the death penalty,” DPIC said in a  statement.

In an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, McWhorter’s attorneys argued that in Alabama, legal adulthood begins at age 19. The attorneys argued that the jury pool excluded people who were McWhorter’s age, meaning his jury was not selected from a cross section of the community. The U.S. Supreme Court had not ruled on the motion as of Wednesday afternoon.

McWhorter, who has been incarcerated at Holman Correctional Facility since his conviction, said at first he did not truly understand the consequences of what he faced.

“I knew there was a death penalty, but I didn’t think it pertained to me,” McWhorter said. “I thought it was for Timothy McVeigh. I didn’t think someone like me would fall under those parameters. It was like a baseball bat to the face.”

With time he would understand the gravity of what he had done and the incident that transpired.

“I know that all of the stuff I was dealing with back then was all in my head,” McWhorter said. “You can figure everything out in hindsight.”

Unless a court intervenes, McWhorter will be executed by the state after midnight on Thursday. He will be the second person executed by Alabama this year, following James Edward Barber’s execution in July.

Jeff Hood, a pastor who serves as McWhorter’s spiritual adviser, said McWhorter was “somebody who has spent all his adult life on death row.”

“There is also an element in which Casey is still that 18-year-old kid who was sentenced to death,” he said.

McWhorter’s father, who died of cancer in the 1990s, had drinking problems and abandoned his family, according to Elsie Garrison, McWhorter’s paternal aunt. His substance abuse issues led him to abandon his family, she said, and the money his father earned went to alcohol, not family needs.

“His dad just kind of forgot about him,” Garrison said. “They didn’t really have a relationship when Casey was small.”

McWhorter shuffled between family for most of his childhood, living with his mother and stepfather.

“I was loved as a child,” he said. “I had more things than I deserved, but because of the issues I had with my real father, I let that bleed into every other aspect of my life. I let it cause problems that should have never been.”

When he was about 13 years old, he went to live with Garrison.

“As long as he stayed with me, he was good,” Garrison said. “He was in school. He was doing different things. He played basketball.”

He acted out at times, which included stealing his stepfather’s car at one point. Then there was another incident.

“He snuck out of the house one night, went to Mississippi and stole another car,” Garrison said of McWhorter.

During the three decades McWhorter spent behind bars, he has obtained his general education degree and taken some college classes.  He thought of the career he would never have, he said, and the family that he will never get the opportunity to build.

“I was blessed with many, many talents and abilities by God that I just pissed away,” McWhorter said. “I used them for everything other than what I had them for.”

McWhorter said he began to change when his grandmother, who died about two decades ago, was sick with cancer. He began expressing remorse, Garrison said, and heeded the advice that his grandmother gave him to “turn to God.”

“I tried to give people the benefit of the doubt,” McWhorter said. “I try to give to those who don’t have the benefit of any means. I just try to be what God wants us to be in that regard as well.”

He has expressed remorse and regret for the role he played in the victim’s murder.

“He is horrified by it,” Hood said speaking for McWhorter. “Worst mistake of his life and he has deep regret. He was a lost and lonely kid who did a stupid thing.”

Hood said McWhorter is “nothing more, and nothing less, than a human being.”

“Just like the rest of us, capable of amazing things, capable of horrible things. We are incredibly ignorant, and we sell ourselves short, if we refuse to see him as anything other than one of us.”

For Hood, the death penalty presents a moral dilemma — with the same society who preaches the sanctity of life engaging in a ritual that sanitizes the killing of another.

“Casey is one of us,” Hood said. “If people are comfortable with their whole life being judged by their worst moment, then we can continue with all this foolishness. But if we aren’t willing, for their entire lives, to be judged by their worst moment, then the death penalty has to stop.”

Gov. Kay Ivey on Oct. 18 set a window for McWhorter’s execution beginning Thursday at midnight until Friday at 6am. His attorneys have filed appeals with both the Alabama Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.

The state’s high court issued an order Saturday denying McWhorter’s request to vacate the execution, leaving the appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.

“My hope for these interviews is to reach out to people who may be in the same situation I was in, confused and don’t know how to reach out, and don’t know what choices to make,” McWhorter said. “Hopefully, some of my life can be an example of things not to do for them.”

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Ralph Chapoco
Ralph Chapoco

Ralph Chapoco covers state politics as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. His main responsibility is the criminal justice system in Alabama.