Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

William Bonin: The Freeway Killer

Execution Day

William Bonin
William Bonin

On February 23, 1996, the people of the state of California finally followed through on their decision that the world would be a better place without William Bonin. After fighting for his life for 17 years, the notorious "Freeway Killer" became the first person to be executed by lethal injection in California. For the survivors of the 14 young men and boys whom Bonin was convicted of killing and of the nearly 30 others whom this classic sociopath is suspected of slaying, the Freeway Killer's execution probably lacked an element of justice.

Sure, Bonin, called "the poster boy for capital punishment" by Gov. Pete Wilson, paid for his crimes with his life, but his method of death was infinitely more pleasant than that of his victims. Anyone who has had surgery using a local anesthetic, or undergone a colonoscopy or an abortion can relate to how Bonin felt in the few moments before his execution.

If he had any knowledge of what was about to happen, he didn't show it. With the strong dose of tranquilizer in his system, he certainly didn't care.

The gurney at San Quentin
The gurney at San Quentin

Stoned on state-sanction Valium, Bonin was strapped to a hospital gurney in the refurbished California gas chamber and pumped full of three different chemicals. The first, sodium pentathol, a.k.a. "truth serum," rendered him unconscious in about a second. The next dose, pancuronium bromide, paralyzed his muscles and made it impossible for him to breathe, much like curare in a South American Indian blow-gun. The final dose potassium chloride came a few seconds later and instantly stopped his heart. Three minutes after the first injection, Bonin was declared dead.

His body was removed by prison officials and when none of his relatives claimed it (they didn't bother coming to the execution in San Quentin), cremated and spread in the Pacific Ocean. In the end, the remains of one of California's most notorious murderers was treated with a great deal more respect than he had for his victims. Most of them were dumped, naked and ravaged along the labyrinthine Southern California highway system, giving rise to Bonin's nom de morte.

Outside the walls of San Quentin, William Bonin had nearly as many supporters as he had enemies. Capital punishment has become such a divisive issue in America that executions become excuses for pro- and anti-capital punishment rallies. Activists and celebrities like Mike Farrell, formerly B.J. Hunnicutt on MASH, and friends and relatives of the victims and the just plain curious squared off in the cold rain outside the prison until the word was sent down that Bonin was dead.

Bonin's last words, delivered to the warden about an hour before his execution, expressed no remorse for his crimes and merely pointed out that he thought the death penalty was unfair. Bonin added some words of advice for potential serial killers:

"I would suggest that when a person has a thought of doing anything serious against the law, that before they did that they should go to a quiet place and think about it seriously."

Bonin, who spent more time on death row than a majority of his victims spent on Earth, was 49.



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