In the final moments of his life, Daryl Keith Holton had little to say about the crimes he committed, which the State of Tennessee executed him for this morning – the murder of his three young sons and a small step-daughter with a high-powered military rifle.
His final words could have been interpreted as an echo of the wedding vows he may have taken to begin a family that he would later in life slaughter.
“Do you want to make a statement?” Holton was asked by a prison official as he sat strapped into the state’s electric chair in the death chamber of the Riverbend Maximum Security Institute in Nashville.
“Um, yeah,” Holton answered in badly slurred speech. “Two words: I do.”
Holton, 44, became the first person to be executed by electrocution in Tennessee since 1960 and only the fourth person to be executed in the state since that same year.
Holton was put to death for slaying his own children by lining them up two at a time and shooting them with an SKS rifle in the same Bedford County garage where he worked. He killed Stephen Edward Holton, 12, Brent Holton, 10, Eric Holton, 6 and Kayla Marie Holton, 4 on November 30, 1997 after an outing that included a trip to McDonald’s and a stop at an arcade.
Holton was involved in a bitter custody dispute with his ex-wife, Crystal Holton, and the Tennessee Department of Human Services. Holton complained he was not allowed to visit his children and that their living conditions with their mother were not adequate.
Despite public concerns voiced by the builder of Tennessee’s electric chair, Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. of Boston, that the execution apparatus would not kill Holton quickly or humanely, the device appeared to kill Holton with ruthless efficiency.
After his statement, Holton was fitted with a leather head piece resembling an old-fashion football helmet and ankle cuffs all loaded with saline soaked natural sea sponges to conduct two 1,750 volt killing bolts of current. Holton at one point appeared to gently admonish prison guards trying to dry him with towels from the saline solution running down his face and soaking his thin, white prison issue T-shirt.
“Don’t worry about it,” Holton told members of the execution team drying him. “Ain’t gonna matter anyway.”
No warning came as the first current of electricity was administered at 1:16 a.m., lasting for the state mandated 20 seconds.
Holton’s body tensed severely and arched from the chair, his pelvis pointing almost skyward, straining against the restraints. Holton’s hands turned pink as he grasped the arms of the chair, made of wood from both Tennessee’s previous electric chair and the state’s original gallows. His face and head were covered according to state execution protocol with a black shroud.
Holton made no audible noise during the execution, though witnesses could not determine if a wheezing sound during the initial electric conduction was either Holton being forced to exhale by the current or the whine of the electricity itself.
After a pause, the second electric current – this one shorter at 15 seconds - brought a nearly identical physical reaction from Holton. The condemned man did not move or make a sound in between the two killing blows of electricity, the second of which was over by 1:17 a.m.
No blood or bodily fluids could be seen leaving Holton’s body, a hallmark of more gruesome electric chair executions performed across the country. No smell from the electrocution process could be discerned in the witness room. Three corrections officials remained in the death chamber with Holton during the execution, and they looked away as the electricity hit his body.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this concludes the legal execution of Daryl Holton. Time of death was 1:25 a.m. Please exit,” a prison official told witnesses over a loud speaker. The witnesses – only members of the media, Holton defense attorney David Raybin and a representative of the state Attorney General’s office – were separated from the death chamber by thick glass windows and a steel door. No family members witnessed Holton’s death.
As witnesses first saw Holton sitting strapped in the chair, he appeared to breathe heavily several times. Then, Holton’s eyes became lidded, his head lolled forward and his speech was slurred. He also yawned prior to the execution at least twice, appearing almost sleepy. Media witnesses to the execution seemed to agree Holton looked sedated, something not called for in the state’s execution protocol.
Tennessee Department of Corrections spokesperson Dorinda Carter said after the execution Holton’s severely subdued state observed by media witnesses was due to hyperventilation after being placed in the electric chair and not medication.
“He was not given any medication,” Carter said. “He was hyperventilating once he was placed in the chair. So he was given a few minutes to catch his breath before the blinds came up.”
Lisa Helton of the Tennessee Attorney Generals Office read a simple statement from Crystal Holton outside the prison to the state’s media.
“Today, all the anger, hatred and along time of nightmares can finally leave me,” Crystal Holton’s statement said.
Raybin, who had private meeting with Holton just moments before he was taken to the death chamber, also made a statement about the execution, noting Holton had decided not to pursue further appeals of his sentence.
“This morning, Daryl Holton is free from the demons that haunted him," Raybin said. “He chose give up on his appeals, but he did not give up on the legal system.”