His stay lifted, the convicted killer became the fourth prisoner to die in Florida by lethal injection.
By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 22, 2000
STARKE -- Moments before the poison hit him, a flushed, terrified-looking Thomas Provenzano looked through the window of the execution chamber to find a familiar face in the crowd that came to watch him die.
His eyes fixed on his lawyer, Michael Reiter, who sat only feet away on the other side of the glass. Reiter failed in a flurry of last-minute appeals to save the life of his client, who thought he was Jesus.
"Thanks for everything, Mike," Provenzano said in a choked voice at 6:52 p.m. Wednesday, and Reiter acknowledged the remark with a gentle nod.
At 6:53, his eyes facing the ceiling, Provenzano gave a convulsive gasp as the first wave of the lethal chemicals coursed through the IV into his arm.
He stopped moving almost immediately, his eyes open only a bit, and by 6:57, his face was turning purple. At 7 p.m., with a prison doctor's pronouncement, Provenzano, 51, became the state's fourth murderer to die by lethal injection.
Afterward, witnesses said the same thing: His eyes were full of fear.
"The fear was well-placed, because he was about to meet his maker," said Orange County prosecutor Lawson Lamar, who was the county sheriff in 1984 when Provenzano gunned down three law officers at the courthouse. "I was sheriff, and those were my people."
Mark Parker, 36, who took a bullet in the spine during the shootout, sat watching the execution from his mechanized wheelchair and tipped his head to get a look at Provenzano's face as death came.
"You could tell that he knew it was over with," Parker said. "He wasn't going to get out of this one."
Provenzano's execution had been delayed six times -- on Tuesday, he won a stay with only 11 minutes to spare. The stay was granted Tuesday by a three-judge panel from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The three judges, all appointed by Republican presidents, were J.L. Edmondson, Emmett R. Cox and Ed Carnes. That stay was lifted on Wednesday.
Parker worried that Wednesday's execution might be put off again, especially when the curtains did not open at the scheduled 6:30 p.m.
The delay stemmed from Reiter's request to the Florida Supreme Court to order a medical exam for Provenzano to determine his competency, but it was not enough to save him.
When the curtains opened at 6:49, Provenzano was lying flat on the gurney and staring through the window, eyes wide and pleading. He wore a white, short-sleeve dress shirt under the white blanket that covered him from chest to toe.
"He's known me for over a year now," Reiter said. "I guess I was the only one there he recognized."
Reiter said that Provenzano, a paranoid schizophrenic, was too mentally ill to be executed.
During a telephone conversation with Provenzano Wednesday, Reiter told his client he would pray for him.
"So will I," Provenzano said, according to Reiter.
Gary Dalton, 40, who lost his father in Provenzano's shooting rampage, said the execution was long overdue and expressed frustration with the delays.
"It was a game," he said. "The game's over. There are no winners in this game."
Wednesday morning, Provenzano ate his last meal of a half grilled-cheese sandwich, a half peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, baked beans, hot canned apples, two slices of bread and tea. He refused to see a prison chaplain.
Department of Corrections spokesman C.J. Drake called it "a textbook, flawlessly administered execution."
Provenzano's supporters said killing him was a gratuitous punishment, because he already suffered in a living hell -- a world in which he imagined guards invaded his brain through his prison ID number, evil spirits threatened to swarm into his mouth unless he kept a hand clapped over it, and his own family tried to poison his food.
Set to stand trial in the Orange County Courthouse in 1984 on misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, Provenzano became convinced, his lawyers say, that law enforcement was engaged in a conspiracy against him because he was Jesus Christ.
When he entered the courthouse that January, he was dressed in a red bandana and armed with a 12-gauge shotgun, a .38-caliber revolver, an assault rifle and ammunition, all hidden beneath an Army jacket.
When bailiff Harry Dalton, 53, tried to search him, Provenzano shot him in the head, leaving Dalton with brain damage until he died seven years later. Provenzano also shot bailiff William Arnie Wilkerson, 60, a retired Navy lieutenant commander, who died immediately. A bullet from the crossfire hit Parker, then 19, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. Provenzano, who used to sign job applications as Jesus Christ, equated his execution with the crucifixion.
In a plea for clemency to Gov. Jeb Bush last week, one of Provenzano's lawyers argued the procedure -- with his body strapped to a cruciform gurney and needles piercing him -- would be "a hellish fulfillment of Thomas's pervasive delusions."
Claims of insanity and legal challenges to the electric chair, won Provenzano his previous stays.
By state law, condemned killers cannot be executed unless they grasp what is going to happen and why. A trial judge ruled in December that despite his messianic delusions, Provenzano was sane enough to be put to death.