Ch 2: face of a killer

The sedan pulled away from the New Iberia courthouse. Willie tried to concentrate on all Father Hannigan had told him about being brave. His tongue felt stuck to the roof of his mouth, and his ears were ringing. He couldn’t have spoken if he had wanted to. Sheriff Gilbert Ozenne,Willie-Smile Willie, and the deputy sat in stony silence as the sedan turned down Main Street, away from New Iberia and toward St. Martinville. A large sign, suspended by wire between two telephone poles, hung over Main Street at its end and offered a friendly farewell: “Come Again.”

Willie looked down at his feet, noticing his shoes were “nice and shiny.” He figured he’d only get to make about “fifty more steps in my nice clean shoes and then I would be dead.”

“Don’t worry, Willie,” a deputy said, “it won’t hurt you very much. You won’t even feel it.”




But Willie wasn’t worried about the pain. He was “more worried about the fact that it was going to kill me.”

The car glided down the flat, two-lane gravel road that cut through the endless sugarcane fields Willie knew so well. The fields terrified black children, because they’d heard the stories of whites who forced blacks to strip before “running” them naked through the razor-sharp stalks. They would emerge with hundreds of bloody, searing cuts on their bodies. After the sedan crossed the Bayou Teche, Willie’s knees began shaking uncontrollably. Outside the car window lay the banks of the bayou where Willie once swam with his friends, fished, and climbed trees. “More than anything else we liked to eat figs,” Willie remembered. “We would snitch them and go sit on the bank and see who could throw them the farthest out into the water.” Willie noticed, too, the baseball field he and his friends would claim whenever they could find a ball and a broomstick.

For the drive, Sheriff Ozenne had arranged one final favor for the boy he had come to like so well. He had the driver make a left turn down Randolph Street instead of going straight to the St. Martinville jail. Willie had lived at 800 Washington Street his whole life, and as the sedan slowly drove its length, Willie craned his neck in the hope of catching one final glance of his mother inside the small, wooden, one-story, dull gray house in the black section of town. She was there, but Willie did not know that she was sick in her bed, and he could not see her. He kept his eyes on the house until it faded from view, while pebbles from the road kept popping up against the fenders like hard rain on a tin roof.

The sedan turned left on Main Street, where the large, white-pillared courthouse commanded the view. It was there, eight months earlier, that Willie had been tried and convicted of the murder of Andrew Thomas, the popular Cajun owner of the town pharmacy. On that last visit to the courthouse, the judge had sentenced him to death. This morning, Willie’s name had made the front page of the St. Martinville Weekly Messenger under the headline:

Negro Murderer To Die Here Today                                                       next>>





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