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Friday the 13th

Pen will mark anniversary of double hanging of state's youngest criminals put to death

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When a lethal cocktail of chemicals coursed through the veins of Paul Ezra Rhoades on Nov. 18, 2011, the State of Idaho entered a new era of executions. While Rhoades' state-mandated death was the first of its kind in a generation, shortly after his remains were cremated, officials at the Idaho Department of Correction began re-crafting the state's rules and regulations regarding executions, preparing them for consideration by the 2012 Idaho Legislature.

Indeed, a package of three execution-related bills was ultimately approved by lawmakers.

"The measures resulted from lessons learned from the last execution," said Jeff Ray, public information officer for IDOC.

Senate Bill 1265, passed unanimously by the House and Senate, sharpened Idaho rules requiring an executioner to return an official death warrant to the appropriate district court, showing the time, mode and manner in which it was executed.

Senate Bill 1266, passed by a large majority (only three Democratic senators and one Democratic House member voted "no"), clarifies the process of obtaining a death warrant.

Senate Bill 1292, again passed by a large majority (with only one Democratic senator and two Democratic House members voting "no"), updates Idaho rules to provide that persons participating in executions are not subject to civil or criminal liability for the death of a condemned person.

"Also, IDOC has revised its procedures in the wake of the last execution," said Ray.

Perhaps the greatest change is how a condemned man or woman shall die. Rhoades was killed through what was commonly known as a "three-drug" process, in which an anesthetic and paralytic were injected before a third drug was administered, which caused cardiac arrest. IDOC now has given itself new protocols that will offer executioners single-drug options, in which an anesthetic (either sodium pentothal or pentobarbital) is injected at a high enough- dose to cause death.

Fourteen persons, 13 men and one woman, sit on Idaho's death row. One of them is closer to death than the rest. Ray said it was "very likely" that Idaho would see another execution this year.

"But we won't speculate about which offender might be executed or when it might happen," said Ray. "It's just too hard on families of the victims and the offenders."

The average age on Idaho's death row is 49 years old. The oldest is 61-year-old Thomas Creech, awaiting execution since 1983 for the murder of another inmate. Azad Abdullah, convicted in 2004 for the murder of his wife, is the youngest death row inmate, at 34 years old.

But men much younger have walked the final mile. In fact, Idaho is quickly approaching the anniversary of its only double execution of two young men. On Friday, April 13, 1951, Idaho made the front pages of newspapers across the nation when it hung 21-year-old Troy Powell and 20-year-old Ernest Walrath, less than a year after a crime that left a Boise neighborhood grocer dead following a $12 robbery. The grisly act and ultimate death sentence sent Idaho into a state of shock, but more than 60 years later, some ponder why one of the young men had to die, let alone be sentenced for first-degree murder.

Who were Troy Powell and Ernest Walrath?

At first glance, Powell and Walrath couldn't be more different. When they were arrested and booked for murder, Powell was a tall, hunched-over young man, wearing a dirty T-shirt sporting a picture of a pheasant. In a striking contrast, Walrath was slight of build, about 4-inches shorter, and wore wire-rimmed glasses, suit and tie.

"I think more than anything, when I look at this case, I feel sorry for Troy Powell," said Amber Beierle, visitor services manager at the Old Idaho Penitentiary. "[Powell] was very gullible and didn't have a high IQ. Walrath was really the brains behind the crime. Powell just followed him around."

Depending on how you feel about the history of crime in Idaho, Beierle has either the coolest job in town or one of the most macabre. As an interpretive specialist, Beierle's second-floor office at the Old Pen sits where parole hearings used to occur. Beierle said she's not one to believe in ghosts, but it's hard not to imagine the hundreds of men in chains who shuffled through her doors a half-century ago.

Beierle is busy preparing for a special set of tours set for the evening of Friday, April 13, when guides will escort visitors through the Pen, adding extra emphasis to the anniversary of when the Idaho prison saw its only double execution.

In 2010's Hanged: A History of Idaho's Executions, historian Kathy Deinhardt Hill provides detailed histories of Powell and Walrath, two young men born into modest means.

Powell enlisted in the Army at the age of 16, made it through basic training and was given the rank of private, but was honorably discharged for being underage. Shortly thereafter, he was implicated in several minor crimes.

Walrath fell into trouble as early as 16 and was involved in several car burglaries and other crimes. When he was sent to the state Pen at the age of 17, he was influenced by older, more-vicious felons, according to Hill.

"Ernie [Walrath] began talking back to guards and causing trouble at every turn," wrote Hill. "Because of his attitude, the guards beat him and eventually put him in solitary confinement."

Within a year of his parole in 1949, Walrath met Powell through his sister. Powell married Delphine Walrath in March 1950. Together, the two young men committed a series of robberies in Boise and eventually hatched a plan that would seal their fates.

May 8, 1950

Powell and Walrath were convinced that Newt Wilson had a lot of money stashed in his home, according to Hill.

"[Powell and Walrath] were both broke, especially [Powell], and the two needed to find something to rob. The old man seemed the perfect target," wrote Hill.

Wilson owned and operated a neighborhood grocery store at 1407 E. State St., two doors down from Powell. Wilson even regularly gave Powell's family credit. But that clearly wasn't enough.

On their second attempt the same day--Walrath admitted that they had "fouled up" on their first try--the two young men asked Wilson if they could use his telephone. Wilson let them in to use the phone and sat in a chair to listen to a baseball game on the radio. Walrath hit Wilson in the head with a pistol. Powell followed with another slam to the head, using a sock full of rocks. Powell emptied Wilson's wallet. It contained $12. As Powell searched through Wilson's personal belongings, Walrath repeatedly stabbed Wilson with a knife, leaving the blade stuck in his back.

It didn't take Boise Police long to arrest Powell and Walrath (Walrath's girlfriend gave them a tip). During interrogation, Walrath told law enforcement that Powell was involved in the stabbing, but later at his sentencing hearing, Walrath recanted and admitted to stabbing Wilson on his own.

During their trial, psychiatrist Dr. M. Campbell of Seattle testified that Powell was "child-like" and "easily manipulated," and had a favorable chance of rehabilitation. On the other hand, Campbell described Walrath as "incapable of conducting himself with decency and propriety in the business of life."

"I don't know much about the law, but it appears as if the judge clearly threw some things out," said Beierle.

Judge Charles Winstead had little sympathy for either man, telling them that they had committed a cold-blooded, heinous, premeditated murder and should be put to death. Some appeals followed, but for naught, and their double execution was set for Friday, April 13, 1951. They were to hang by the neck.

Historic Remnants of Idaho's Double Execution

"Our guides have been paying more attention with what happened with Powell and Walrath since we're approaching the anniversary," said Beierle. "We'll also include some original artifacts on hand that very rarely come out of storage."

The artifacts include death hoods, the sacks placed over prisoners' heads before nooses would be looped around their necks.

"They were donated by Summers Funeral Home," she said. "That's where their bodies were taken. They still had the ropes around their necks when they were sent there, because they had just been cut down. It's a tough thing to look at, but it's an artifact that most people don't get to see."

On April 14, 1951, Powell and Walrath were buried side by side at Boise's Morris Hill Cemetery. For months, temporary markers on the graves were stolen. According to eyewitnesses, hangman's nooses were constantly being left on Walrath's headstone. Powell's headstone, which notes his service in the U.S. Army, was eventually left untouched. Due to vandalism, Walrath's grave remains unmarked.

Tucked away in the Idaho State Historical Society's secured facility are two black sheaths--death hoods place over the heads of Powell and Walrath before they were hung. As part of the April 13 tours of the Old Idaho Penitentiary, the public will get a rare glimpse of the unique part of Idaho's history.

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