SMYRNA, Del. – Delaware carried out its first execution since 2005 early Friday, putting to death a man who was convicted of killing a woman with an ax during a burglary nearly two decades ago.
Robert Jackson III was pronounced dead at 12:12 a.m. after being given a lethal injection at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna.
Jackson, 38, lifted his head when asked for his last words shortly after midnight. Searching the window between the execution chamber and witnesses, he asked if the two children of the victim, Elizabeth Girardi, were watching.
"Are the Girardis in there? Christopher and Claudia, if you are in there, I've never faulted you for your anger. I would have been mad myself," he said, going on to deny he killed their mother.
He suggested that his accomplice in the burglary, Anthony Lachette, was the killer.
"Tony's laughing his ass off right now because you're about to watch an innocent man die. This isn't justice," he said before putting his head back down and closing his eyes.
When the execution began, Jackson started making a snoring sound, his lips sputtered and his breath began to quicken. Prison officials closed the curtain between the execution chamber and witnesses after about four minutes to check whether he was conscious, calling out twice, "Inmate Jackson, can you hear me?" There was no response.
When the curtain reopened a minute later, Jackson made no more movements or sounds. From start to finish, the execution took about 10 minutes.
A small group gathered outside the prison to protest, though one woman came to express her support for the execution.
One of the protesters, 68-year-old Sally Milbury-Steen, said she did not believe the death penalty is a deterrent.
"As a citizen, I'm so chagrined that my tax dollars are being used," Milbury-Steen said.
The lone supporter, Rose Wilson, said Jackson was getting what he deserved and that his death would be painless, unlike his victim's.
"When he hacked that woman he didn't say, `I'm going to put you to sleep before I kill you,"' Wilson, 52, of Townsend, Del., said.
Jackson's execution was the first time Delaware included pentobarbital as one of three drugs used to carry out an execution. Delaware switched to the drug after a nationwide shortage of sodium thiopental, the previous drug the state used to sedate an inmate before administering two other lethal drugs.
Eight other states have already used pentobarbital to carry out executions, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center.
Jackson's execution followed a series of legal challenges that stretched into the hours before he was executed. His lawyers had argued that Jackson should be allowed to challenge the state's switch to pentobarbital as an execution drug, saying it posed a risk of pain and suffering. But the U.S. Supreme Court and Delaware Gov. Jack Markell ultimately denied requests to stay the execution.
Jackson was sentenced to death for the 1992 killing of the 47-year-old Girardi, a resident of Hockessin.
"In a perfect world, none of this would have happened," said Girardi's daughter, Claudia Desaulniers, who was 15 at the time of the killing.
Desaulniers said she thinks about her mother every day, calling her a "loving person." She said even now she is startled at unexpected noises in her home, like a floor creaking, worried she might be the victim of a crime.
According to testimony presented at trial, Girardi was killed after she returned home on April 3, 1992, and found Jackson, then 18, and an accomplice leaving her home with stolen jewelry and other items. While Jackson's accomplice ran, Jackson used an ax he found in a woodshed to strike Girardi repeatedly in the head.
Lachette, Jackson's accomplice, testified against him at trial, where it was revealed that the pair planned the burglary to get money to buy marijuana. Lachette pleaded guilty to burglary and conspiracy and was released from prison in 1996.
Two different juries recommended the death penalty for Jackson, the first after deliberating less than two hours. Jackson told a second jury in 1995 that he was a changed person and apologized to Girardi's family.
"I can't explain what happened," he said, according to one news account at the time. "I don't know what happened -- a mistake."
The jury voted for the death penalty 11-1.
Jackson is the 15th person Delaware has put to death since 1992 when the state again began executions after a decades-long hiatus. The last inmate to be executed by the state was Brian Steckel, who was executed in 2005 for raping and strangling a neighbor, Sandra Lee Long, who burned to death in a fire Steckel set. While awaiting trial in Long's 1994 murder, Steckel sent taunting and threatening letters to people involved in the case, including Long's mother.
A total of 19 other inmates, all men, are currently on death row in the state.