"He died a much easier death than my wife..."
by Robert A. Waters
On May 27, 2010, Brendan Kirby, writing for AL.com, summarized the life and death of a serial killer. “Triple murderer Thomas Warren Whisenhant's long stay on Alabama's death row ended peacefully this afternoon,” he wrote, “in stark contrast to the horrific violence he inflicted on his victims.”
For the 32 years he spent on death row, Whisenhant breathed the good Alabama air, ate when he was hungry, slept when he was tired, and associated with friends. He watched television and listened to the radio. For sexual gratification, he maintained a stash of Playboy pin-ups in his cell. Supported by the citizens of the state, he never had to work.
Meanwhile, Cheryl Payton lay stone-cold dead in her grave. As the decades passed and Whisenhant continued to enjoy living, the family of the pretty convenience store clerk mourned a life cut short.
Court documents describe the horrific crime: “On October 16, 1976, the defendant, Thomas Whisenhant, abducted Cheryl Lynn Payton from a Compact Store in Mobile County where she worked as a Clerk. He drove her to a secluded wooded area in rural Mobile County, raped her on the front seat of his pickup truck, and then shot her in the head one time with the .32 pistol he used in the abduction. The murder took place in a field near the truck. He then dragged her body into the wooded area and left the scene.
“On October 17, 1976, he returned to her body, cut off a large section of her breast and slit her abdomen. He was observed near the crime scene and was captured shortly thereafter following a chase.
“Once captured, the defendant freely gave a detailed confession wherein he not only admitted killing and mutilating Mrs. Payton but also killing and mutilating two other women [Venora Hyatt and Patricia Hitt] in Mobile County during the previous 18 months. With evidence obtained from the defendant, law enforcement authorities verified the defendant's multiple-mutilation confession..."
Evidence found in Whisenhant’s possession tied him indisputably to the crimes. Investigators learned that he had previously served eight years of a twenty year sentence in a federal prison for raping and attempting to murder a young WAF enlistee when he was in the Air Force. He was also the prime suspect in the unsolved murder of a 70-year-old woman who lived in his neighborhood.
Since the evidence against Whisenhant was overwhelming in the murder of Payton, defense attorneys couldn’t argue innocence. They had no choice but to come up with Plan B. There’s always the “horrible childhood” defense to fall back on, so the attorneys pulled out that card. They also jumped on the “our client is mentally ill” bandwagon. Of course, to most jurors, the question wasn’t whether Whisenhant had a bad childhood (millions do and never hurt anyone) or had mental issues. Instead, the pertinent question was whether he murdered Cheryl Payton, a total stranger who had never harmed him in any way, and did he know right from wrong?
The answer to both questions was a resounding “yes.”
Whisenhant was convicted and sentenced to death. However, he was granted a second trial because of improper statements made by the prosecutor. Once again, he was sentenced to death.
Decades later, when Whisenhant was executed, the family of the victim finally got a measure of justice. They weren’t satisfied.
Douglas Payton, Cheryl’s widower, said: “He had no remorse--none. He died a much easier death than my wife.”
Family member Susanna Payton told reporters that “no adequate words exist to appropriately define justice, and there is not enough time left on earth to calculate the immense loss we have experienced.”
Cheryl’s brother, Edward Gazzier, said, “We watched [Whisenhant] die an easy death: a very, very, easy death.”
Cheryl Lynn Payton, wife and mother of two children, would have celebrated her 24th birthday in six days had she survived.
Her killer sat on death row longer than she lived.