ST. LOUIS — John Clayton Smith was a killer, and he didn't claim otherwise. The Missouri man broke into the home of a former girlfriend in 1995, stabbed her 11 times, then took the knife to her stepfather and killed him, too.
But in eight years on death row, Smith found God and felt remorse. He used his last words to reach out to the victims' relatives.
"I only ask that somewhere down life's road, you can find it in your hearts to forgive me," Smith said. "I know my death can never bring back your loved ones, but I pray my death may give you some sort of peace."
For as long as people have been executed, they've been offered a chance at one final statement, and many don't take the opportunity lightly. Their statements often express love for family or God. They vary from the defiant to the contrite, from the sweet to the silly.
"They are using this opportunity to demonstrate that they are human beings, that they have moral values, that they have families they love, that they're good people in a sense," said Janelle Ward, assistant professor of media and communications at Erasmus University in The Netherlands who in 2008 published a study of the final words of Texas inmates.
"I think this is their last chance to speak their minds," Ward said. "I do think it's cathartic for them."
The process of actually making those final statements varies from state to state. In many states such as Texas — the nation's most active death penalty state with 464 executions since it resumed capital punishment in 1982 — inmates make their final statements from the gurney in the moments before lethal injection.
In Missouri, where the state is preparing to execute Richard Clay on Wednesday, the "last words" aren't really last words. Inmates are offered the opportunity to make a final statement the day before the scheduled execution. They can either write it themselves or dictate to a staff member, Corrections Department spokesman Chris Cline said. A public information officer reads the statement to the media after the execution is complete.
Some prisoners have tried to use the final statements to delay the inevitable. For that reason, states such as Texas and Ohio now have time limits.
In 1994, Texas inmate Raymond Kinnamon spoke for more than a half-hour to the approach of dawn — when the death warrant was set to expire. The warden finally ordered the drugs to start and Kinnamon was executed. Now, Texas inmates have about 2 minutes to speak.
What comes out in those last words is often telling about where the inmate's life has gone since his arrival on death row. Often, they seek to provide some closure to a troubled life.
Remorse is a common theme. Gary Lee Roll was an atypical death row inmate — a college graduate from a respected family in Cape Girardeau, Mo. Yet he killed three people during a 1992 robbery. He used his final words to apologize — not only to the family of the victims, but to his own relatives.
"I failed my family," Roll said.
Many, like Michael Owsley, turn to religion in prison and use their final words to express their faith. "I hope for salvation," Owsley said. "I hope that the mercy and forgiveness that I have asked for will suffice. Praise Allah."
The Rev. Larry Rice of St. Louis ministers to prison inmates, including those on death row, and has watched 16 Missouri men die by injection.
"There is remorse, you see that, and I think they're preparing to face God," Rice said. "I think they're really concerned about their families."
Some are philosophical.
"You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everybody dances with the Grim Reaper," Robert Alton Harris, executed in California in 1992, said.
Some inmates go down fighting, using their final words as one last chance to proclaim their innocence.
"You're killing an innocent man, and you can all kiss my ass," Roy "Hog" Williams said in 1999 before he was executed for killing a Missouri prison guard 16 years earlier.
Then there are some that are just bizarre.
"Please tell the media, I did not get my Spaghetti-Os; I got spaghetti. I want the press to know," Thomas Grasso said before he was executed in Oklahoma in 1995.
"How about this for a headline for tomorrow's paper? French fries," James French said as he was about to be electrocuted in Oklahoma in 1966.
Inmates have used their final words to tell jokes, pray, cry, recite poetry, recite from the Bible, spout obscenities. Or sing.
Jonathan Nobles sang "Silent Night" as his injection began in Texas in 1998. He made it to "round yon virgin, mother and child" before the first of the drugs knocked him unconscious.