Death Row’s Other Victims: Families of the Condemned

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Photo by Ken Piorkowski via Flickr

On July 8, Danielle Allen watched as her fiancée, Billy Joe Wardlow, was put to death in Texas. Stan Allridge witnessed the execution of two of his brothers: Ronnie, in 1995; and Vernon, in 2004.

In death penalty cases, the media usually focuses on the victim’s family and the condemned prisoner’s crime. Yet, the agony of the families of the condemned is real, and it never disappears.

The impulse to be there for their loved ones at the end was powerful. Stan watched both executions, with two of his other brothers, holding hands on the other side of the witness box at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Tx.

They didn’t want Ronnie and Vernon to die alone, as people filled with hatred stared at them. Their father’s heart was too weak to watch his sons put to death. Their mother stayed with him, to comfort him.

When the U.S. Supreme Court denied Billy Joe Wardlow’s final appeal on that Wednesday evening, Dani, accompanied by Billy Joe’s attorney and a friend, were escorted through the prison to the execution chamber in Huntsville.

The friend held on to her all the way to keep her from stumbling. Dani says she was in shock, concentrating on what Billy Joe was thinking, knowing he was about to die after 25 years on death row.

“Why Are They Doing This?”

When his brother Ronnie was executed, Stan was 18. He had just graduated high school, where he was captain of the football team, and a member of the honor society. He was on his way to the University of North Texas in Denton.

He remembers standing as close as he could to the big window in the witness box, his two brothers beside him, looking at Ronnie, strapped down on a gurney with a needle in one arm.

A wall separated him from the victim’s family on the other side of the witness box. He says he could see their partial reflections.

“Why,” he remembers thinking, “Why are they doing this? What will it fix? What sense does it make?

james allridge

James Vernon Allridge. Courtesy of Fund for Life

Ronnie Allridge was sent to Death Row in 1986 after shooting and killing a customer during the robbery of a fast food restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas. James Vernon Allridge III, known to his family as Vernon, was sent to death row in 1987 after he shot and killed a convenience store clerk during another robbery in Fort Worth.

Thirty-three years after Vernon was put to death, his last statement still brings tears to Stan’s eyes. Strapped down on the gurney with IV needles in both his arms, Vernon apologized for his crime, thanked his family for sticking by him and his victim’s sister for forgiving him.

He ended his short goodbye with nine words Stan will never forget:

“To the moon and back – I love you all.”

During his 17 years on death row, The Austin Chronicle reported in 2004, Vernon had become an acclaimed artist and poet, and his paintings were “featured in art shows across the country and in Europe.”

Former death row guards said he was “a calming force on the row” who “taught other inmates to read and write” and “made it a safer place.”

The newspaper reported Vernon’s rehabilitation was supported by “four of his original jurors, his family, attorneys, two former death row prison guards, a retired prison administrator, a Fort Worth city councilman…and a handful of others.”

Sister Helen Prejean, the noted opponent of capital punishment, was his spiritual adviser. Actor Susan Sarandon corresponded with him for eight years and visited him before he was put to death.

At Vernon’s murder trial in the mid-1980s, jurors only had to answer two questions in a murder trial to impose the death penalty – was the crime deliberate? And did the defendant post a “future threat?”

An affirmative answer to both mandated a death sentence. The possibility of rehabilitation didn’t matter.

In 1989, the “future dangerousness” theory was debunked by extensive research that spanned 47 years. It showed that death row inmates who received clemency rarely committed crimes when they were released.

The research, published in the Loyola University of Los Angeles Law Review, tracked 85 Texas death row inmates, from 1924 to 1964, whose sentences were commuted to life. They posed no threat to fellow inmates or the public.

Out of 84 inmates who were paroled, only seven committed new, non-violent offenses.

Five Allridge Children

The Allridges had five boys. Ronnie Allridge was the oldest; Vernon was next in line; Stan was the youngest. Their father was a strict by-the-book military man. Their mother was a devout Christian who believed in forgiveness.

When Stan was seven, his parents told him his 17-year old brother Ronnie shot a schoolyard bully. Ronnie was convicted and sent to Texas’ Ellis Unit, a prison that housed death row and the state’s most dangerous criminals. He spent seven years there.

Stan says the experience “shaped Ronnie’s mind,” schooling him at a vulnerable age to become a hardened criminal.

Vernon Allridge was working at convenience stores and fast food restaurants when his older brother Ronnie got out of prison. Ronnie convinced Vernon there was an easier way to make money.

Stan believes Ronnie might not have become a criminal if he had been sent to a juvenile institution with rehabilitation programs when he was 17.

Today, Stan has a successful career in financial services. He has a four-year old son and a devoted wife. When he learned Vernon was about to be executed in 2004, he began having nightmares in which he envisioned being sentenced to death, strapped down on a gurney with needles in both arms waiting to die, after ordering his last meal and walking to the execution chamber shackled and in handcuffs.

Stan says his brothers looked like they had fallen asleep when they were executed. But he believes they were in searing pain, unable to move or call out, as the three drug protocol paralyzed them too soon before it killed them, leaving them in agony.

“You watch somebody die and it stays with you forever,” he says.

A Love Story on Death Row

In 2003, when Dani Wardlow and her then-husband moved to the Houston area, she says the death penalty in Texas began “slapping her in the face.”

A new friend told her about a high school classmate on death row in Texas and how different he was compared to the boy she knew in school. Dani also noticed how often inmates in Texas were put to death.

She also knows how much their victims suffered. Her cousin was murdered in the 1990s.

To satisfy her curiosity, no doubt due to her journalism degree, she began corresponding with death row inmates and paying them visits. She first met Billy Joe Wardlow in 2007, but didn’t start visiting him until 2015.

She says he was “unlike anyone she had ever met.”

dani allen

Dani Allen and Billy Joe Wardlow. Photo courtesy author.

Dani describes him today as a kind, gentle man with a big smile who got along with everyone on the row, from fellow inmates to corrections officers. He was fascinated by Quantum Physics and String Theory.

He learned to repair the typewriters that death row inmates were allowed to have, and he comforted inmates in emotional distress.

But his chance to “win mercy” was cut off, according to The Houston Chronicle in December 2019, by “false testimony at his trial, mistaken assumptions” and “a kind of miscarriage of justice that happens far too often…”

Predictions of his future dangerousness were “called categorically false” by a former administrator with the Texas Department of Public Safety, which oversees the state’s correctional institutions. But Texas officials ignored Billy Joe’s rehabilitation and relied on the debunked “future dangerousness” theory, just as they had in Vernon Allridge’s case in 2004.

The Austin Chronicle reported in June 2020, “in the years following Wardlow’s sentence, scientists began using a new invention, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study the brain. Today, after 20 years of MRI research, there is universal agreement that 18-years old are not full-fledged adults.”

Billy Joe Wardlow had no criminal record.

He was 18 when he shot and killed an 82-year old East Texas man in 1993 during a struggle as he tried to steal the man’s car. He and his girlfriend were running away from their abusive homes in East Texas, hoping to change their names and start new lives in Montana.

If Billy Joe had been 17 when he shot his victim, he would still be alive. Under Texas law, defendants 17 and younger can’t be sentenced to death.

He was on Texas’ death row for 25 years before he was executed in 2020. It was a day he and Dani thought would never come. During visits, she says, they would put their palms on the glass that separated them, one palm against the other, and dream of the day they would be together.

During their last visit, just hours before he was executed, he told her that he “loved her so” and asked her “to hold his hand.”

After his execution, she patted his \face and stared at her dead fiancée for long minutes at the church where his body had been taken. It was the first time she’d ever been allowed to touch him. But her final moments with his body were destroyed when a church worker sent to console her yelled at her not to reach for his hand.

Nine days before Billy Joe was executed, The Austin Chronicle published a lengthy article outlining the defects in his trial and the state’s inexplicable response to his appeal in 1998.

After two years on death row, Billy Joe had decided not to appeal his case. He sent a letter to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stating his intention. But the then-20-year-old quickly changed his mind and told his lawyer to proceed with an appeal. A signed affidavit stating he wanted to make an appeal was stapled to the document.

It arrived before the filing deadline in 1998.

Six years later, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled it had accepted his waiver, so it threw the appeal away when it arrived. Wardlow’s lawyer told The Austin Chronicle that the ruling was not based on “any actual Texas law and no similar ruling had ever been made” in a death penalty case.

Other appeals were filed in federal court for the next 15 years, but none was granted.

The month before Billy Joe’s execution, 58 state legislators informed the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole they planned to take up the issue of age and the death penalty in the 2021 legislative session, urging a stay.

On the day of Billy Joe’s execution, The Texas Tribune reported that two jurors at his trial wanted his death sentence commuted to life, based on the new scientific evidence.

The Tribune reported that just hours before his execution, a Republican state representative from Plano, Texas, urged Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to issue a stay.

“When there are questions left to be answered – as a result of new science or new evidence – we should always err on the side of life,” State Rep. Jeff Leach, chair of the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee, tweeted.

But the governor and the courts ignored the legislators.

Dani remembers that when she walked into the witness box in the execution chamber, Billy Joe looked at her with “that big smile” she loved. She says he looked away and then looked back, smiling at her again, seemingly more worried about her, than his own impending death.

She sat there staring at him as he died.

“They murdered someone they did not know,” she says. “They murdered a peacemaker.”

Billy Joe Wardlow was pronounced dead at 6:28 p.m., 24 minutes after he was injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital. In July 2019, Time Magazine reported “a bad batch of the drug” or its improper use, could “lead to botched executions that cause pain before death.”

Jodie Sinclair

Jodie Sinclair

Texas has been using the compounded drug from unregulated pharmacies since October 2013. It keeps the source of the drug a secret.

For Stan and Dani, doubts about the legitimacy of the executions will never die.

They are as much victims of the death penalty as the men they loved.

Jodie Sinclair is a former TV news reporter with a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. She is the co-author of two nationally published books about the criminal justice system, written with her husband, a former Louisiana inmate, and the author of a recently released memoir.