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Tuesday, February 10, 1998

Steven Renfro executed for 1996 shooting rampage

By MICHAEL GRACZYK / Associated Press Writer

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) -- Condemned killer Steven Renfro was executed Monday, less a year after he was condemned for a 1996 East Texas shooting rampage that left three people dead and a police officer wounded.

Renfro, 40, was pronounced dead at 6:18 p.m. CST, seven minutes after a lethal dose of drugs was released into his arms.

In a brief final statement, he turned to three members of his victims' families and asked for forgiveness.

"I'd like to tell the victims' family how terribly sorry I am," Renfro said. "I am so sorry. Forgive me, if you can. I know it's impossible, but try."

He then began praying.

"Take my hand, Lord Jesus, I'm coming home. Glory be to God," he said.

As the drugs took effect, Renfro blinked his eyes and gasped three times before he stopped breathing.

"I think it should have been rougher," said James Carpenter, whose stepbrother, George Counts, was among the people killed by Renfro and who watched the inmate die. "I can't forgive him. He turned to us and apologized. He had a smile and then gasped. All I could think of was: He's lying."

Renfro, who had asked that no appeals be pursued in his case, went to his death with little of the fanfare that marked the execution of Karla Faye Tucker six days earlier.

About two dozen death-penalty opponents showed up, arriving less than 45 minutes before Renfro was to die.

Renfro, who was convicted and condemned less than 10 months ago, had asked that his lethal injection be carried out as soon as possible.

"I think there are some religious overtones, that he believes this is a way to get to heaven," said Rick Berry, a high school classmate and the Harrison County District Attorney who prosecuted Renfro. "By voluntarily going ahead and being punished, it's like an atonement. He's pretty adamant about this."

Last week, an estimated 1,200 singing, praying or cheering spectators and some 200 reporters and photographers from around the world, accompanied by a fleet of television satellite trucks, converged on the grounds of the prison in downtown Huntsville as Ms. Tucker became the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War.

Convicted of a pickax attack in Houston in 1983 that left two people dead, her attractive looks and born-again Christian beliefs made her a fixture on worldwide television as she lobbied for a life sentence while her attorneys waged a frantic but ultimately unsuccessful legal battle to keep her alive.

The scene Monday outside the Huntsville Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was much more tranquil, with little indication an execution even was scheduled.

Dennis Longmire, a routine execution protestor, called the scene surrounding Tucker's lethal injection "a circus, absolutely baffling."

"I was dumbfounded," Longmire said outside the death house Monday. "The celebration on both sides seemed to be inappropriate."

Longmire, who on several occasions has been the only demonstrator at the prison for executions, said the Tucker chaos was more of a media event than an expression for or against the death penalty.

Renfro had avoided the media, rejecting requests for interviews. No legal steps were taken to try to spare him.

On Aug. 25, 1996, after taking what he told authorities were 70 doses of the tranquilizer Valium along with liquor, Renfro put on camouflage clothing, blackened his face and armed himself with four guns, including a military assault rifle, and some 500 rounds of ammunition.

He shot and killed his live-in girlfriend, Rhena Fultner, 36, then an aunt who lived with them, Rose Rutledge, 63. Then he went to the nearby trailer home of Counts, 40, an acquaintance against whom he had a grudge, and fatally shot him, firing more than 150 rounds into Counts' mobile home.

When police responding to reports of gunfire arrived, he opened fire again, wounding Marshall Officer Dominic Pondant in the shoulder and turning his patrol car "into Swiss cheese," as authorities described it. Police exchanging fire were outgunned by Renfro's .45- and .50-caliber handguns and an AR-15 rifle, but one of his weapons malfunctioned and Pondant was able to hit the gunman.

"I killed them all," the wounded Renfro told officers who arrested him.

Renfro was known to authorities in Marshall, with frequent arrests for drunken driving and assault. Berry said even in high school Renfro was known for a quick temper made even worse by alcohol.

"When he's drinking, he'd hit you with a pool cue, shoot you, try to stab you or just beat you to a pulp," Berry said. "If drinking, he's the kind of guy who would fight a grizzly bear."

In April, after a jury convicted him of capital murder, he ended his trial by telling jurors he should be put to death. They agreed.

Last November, after a judge in Marshall set his execution date for Monday, the former high school classmates -- the prosecutor and the killer -- sat down together in Berry's office, munching hamburgers from a fast food restaurant.

"We talked about what it was like to be kids here ... about life, the death penalty," Berry said. "We had kind of a handshake deal, that we're going to see this thing through.

"He needs to be subject to the sentence that the jury put forward for the crime he did. He slaughtered these people. He would have killed several Marshall police officers if given the opportunity, except for a little bit of bad luck on his part with a gun jamming and the good luck of police officers, it would have been a much worse situation.

"But whether three or six people died, one is too many."


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