Mississippi executes condemned inmate Bishop

Published 5:58 pm Thursday, July 24, 2008

The youngest inmate executed in Mississippi in two decades urged death penalty opponents to vote for presidential candidate Barack Obama in order to end executions and apologized to the family of the victim in his final moments.

Dale Leo Bishop, 34, was put to death by lethal injection Wednesday for his role in the 1998 claw hammer bludgeoning of a friend.

Bishop’s attorneys had argued his life should have been spared because he did not swing the hammer that killed Marcus James Gentry, 22. The courts were not persuaded.

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“To Mark’s family, I would like to express my sincerest apologies. It was a senseless act. It was a needless act. The world is worse off without him,” Bishop said while strapped to a gurney. “To my family, I love you. It’s going to be all good.”

He finished his statement by mentioning Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee.

“For those who oppose the death penalty and want to see it end, our best bet is to vote for Barack Obama because his supporters have been working behind the scenes to end this practice,” Bishop said. “God bless America, it’s been great living here. That’s all.”

Bishop had a goatee and was dressed in a red prison jumpsuit and flip flops when he was executed. He was pronounced dead at 6:14 p.m. Wednesday.

Bishop’s statements appeared to signal contradictions about the death penalty in his final hours.

Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps told reporters before the execution that Bishop said he believed in capital punishment, but did not want to die. Bishop also insisted that another man who participated in the crime should be on death row, rather than serving a life sentence.

The victim’s relatives said after the execution that opponents of the death penalty might feel differently if faced with the murder of a loved one.

“We lost Mark, not by chance, but by two ungodly men,” the family said in a statement.

“Whether or not people believe in the death penalty, until you stand in our shoes and feel our pain … do not judge. A small piece of justice has been served here today. It does not correct the injustice that happened to Mark, but it is the law and it was carried out as it should have been.”

Bishop’s ex-wife, Tonya Cunningham, and his nephew, David Wolf, wept in a witness room while watching the execution. Bishop appeared to wink and nod at the two. Cunningham pressed her hand to the glass window separating the witness room from the chamber. Bishop took a few deep breaths and appeared to fall asleep.

Gentry’s mother and uncle watched from a different room.

Bishop had acknowledged participating in the attack, but another man, Jessie Johnson, admitted striking the lethal blows. Johnson was tried separately and sentenced to life without parole.

The attack began in Gentry’s car after a night of drinking and drug use and continued on an isolated dirt road near Saltillo in north Mississippi, court records show. Prosecutors said Gentry was hit 23 times before the hammer lodged in his throat.

“The pain and loss that these men helped put on us will never be forgotten,” Gentry’s family said.

Bishop had hoped three pending appeals before the U.S. Supreme Court and a last-minute request to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour might spare him. Both denied his requests.

At the end of his 2000 trial, Bishop waived his right to a jury sentencing and asked the judge for the death penalty. Bishop said he later changed his mind about wanting to die after being prescribed medication for a bipolar disorder diagnosed in prison.

Bishop was the youngest person executed in the state since 27-year-old Connie Ray Evans was put to death in 1987 in the gas chamber. Bishop was the second man executed in Mississippi this year.

Epps said Bishop spent his last hours “doing a lot of political talk” and discussing other death row inmates. Bishop’s parents, ex-wife, oldest brother and nephew visited him Wednesday afternoon. He had a last meal of pineapple supreme pizza, ice cream and root beer.

Sixteen protesters rallied Wednesday outside the prison, urging the execution be halted.