Ponchai Wilkerson, 28, was executed by lethal injection on 14 March 2000 in Huntsville, Texas, for robbery and murder of a jewelry store clerk.
In November 1990, Wilkerson, then 19, and Wilton Bethony, entered a jewelry store in Houston. While Bethony was looking at rings, Wilkerson purchased a $35 pendant from store owner Chung Myong Yi. At that time, Bethony's friend, Chris Jones, entered the store. Jones and Bethony spoke while Bethony continued looking at rings and Wilkerson stood nearby. After Bethony bought two rings, Wilkerson exited the store for the first time and told Bethony he was going to a nearby leather store. Wilkerson returned to the store almost immediately, picked up the cars keys he had left on the counter, and exited again. Wilkerson then returned to the store a second time, one or two minutes later, stood behind Bethony, and pulled a Glock pistol from under his jacket. Without saying a word, Wilkerson placed the muzzle of the pistol less than a foot from Yi's temple and fired. Wilkerson and Bethony then proceeded to smash the jewelry cases and seize the rings and necklaces within. Jones ran to the business next door and asked them to hide him because he had just witnessed the store owner next door being shot. While Jones hid in the bathroom, Alan Krizan stepped outside and witnessed two men running from the jewelry store carrying black boxes with chains hanging out of them. Krizan identified Wilkerson as one of the men he saw running from the store. Wilkerson and Bethony loaded the stolen jewelry into a car and drove away.
Beazley and Bethony's arrest for the murder of Chung Myong Yi capped a violent crime spree that began about three weeks earlier. Many of these crimes were committed with two other friends, Kenneth Joseph and Eddie Bolden. Two weeks before the jewelry store robbery, they robbed a convenience store owner at gunpoint. The store owner survived a shotgun blast to the chest, fired by Bethony. A week later, Wilkerson shot two young boys and a girl in a parking lot. Three days after that, they fired guns randomly at apartments and cars from an apartment parking lot, killing Bobby Holley and wounding another man. The next day, they fired at least 35 shots randomly at another apartment complex. In addition to these crimes, Wilkerson, Bethony, and their friends robbed one man of his vehicle at gunpoint in a car wash, stole two vehicles, burglarized a clothing store, and burglarized two gun stores.
A jury convicted Wilkerson of capital murder in July 1991 and sentenced him to death. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the conviction and sentence in March 1994. All of his subsequent appeals in state and federal court were denied.
The status of Wilton Bethony and Wilkerson's other accomplices was not known at the of this report.
Wilkerson was one of Texas death row's most violent and notorious inmates. In November 1998, seven death row prisoners, including Wilkerson, attempted to escape from the Ellis Unit in Huntsville. One inmate, Martin Gurule, managed to escape, but was fatally shot and died soon afterward. Wilkerson and the other six surrendered. In February 2000, Wilkerson and another death row inmate, Howard Guidry, held a guard at knifepoint for 13 hours.
Wilkerson struggled against prison guards the day of his execution. He resisted their efforts to remove him from his cell on death row and had to be gassed. When the time of his execution came, he refused to leave the holding cell and guards had to use additional restraints to bind him to the gurney. He declined to make a last statement. Then, as the lethal injection began taking effect, he spit a handcuff key out of his mouth, to the shock of prison staff. "The secret of Wilkerson," he mumbled, before lapsing into final unconsciousness.
A week after Wilkerson's execution, and in the wake of several other prison incidents involving weapons, the Executive Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice ordered a systemwide lockdown and search for inmate contraband. Also a new weapon-detecting device was installed at the Polunsky Unit, the new home of death row. Prisoners are stripped and made to sit in the device, which is shaped like a chair and scans them inside and out.
By David Carson. Posted on 5 June 2002.
Sources: Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Texas Attorney General's office, Associated Press.