Image: Gary Welch
Oklahoma Dept. Of Corrections  /  AP
A tattoo artist and admitted methamphetamine user, Gary Welch maintained that he only killed in self-defense. However, the lead prosecutor in the case said "none of the physical evidence matched up to what he was saying."
msnbc.com news services
updated 1/6/2012 4:51:54 AM ET 2012-01-06T09:51:54

A convicted murderer who unsuccessfully tried to kill himself three weeks ago was put to death by lethal injection on Thursday, marking the nation's first execution of 2012.

Gary Roland Welch, sentenced to death for fatally stabbing 35-year-old Robert Hardcastle during a drug dispute in 1994, was declared dead at 6:10 p.m. local time at the state penitentiary in McAlester, Okla.

Minutes before the drugs were administered, other death row inmates could be heard banging on their cell walls, and Welch paid tribute to them during his final statement.

"I was just going to ask everybody if they could hear my brothers out there," he said. "I know it's kind of quiet now, but I want to acknowledge that my brothers are here with me to send me off on my journey. They are here on my behalf. They've already given me my little send off. So let's get it on because that's what we're here for."

Norse mythology
Before he died, Welch chanted apparent references to Norse mythology, which he had studied behind bars. On his fourth chant, Welch passed out as the drugs began to kick in.

Earlier in the day, he was given fish from Long John Silver's for his last meal, prison officials said.

At his request, nobody attended the execution on his behalf, and Hardcastle's family members declined comment afterward.

Welch's execution came nearly three weeks after he tried to kill himself by slitting his throat with a smuggled shaving razor. Prison officials and Welch's own court-appointed attorney insisted he was sane and understood his fate.

A tattoo artist and admitted methamphetamine user, Welch maintained that he only killed Hardcastle in self-defense.

'I did what I had to do'
He remained defiant at a hearing last month before the state Pardon and Parole Board, telling the board he wasn't "here today crying, begging or sniveling for my life."

"I did what I had to do," Welch told the panel. "I didn't intend to kill him, but I certainly didn't intend for him to kill me, either." The board voted 3-2 to deny clemency.

After Welch's suicide attempt on Dec. 16, prison guards rushed him to a hospital where he was treated before being returned to death row. He was evaluated by a psychiatric unit based at the prison and deemed competent to be executed because he was aware of what was going to happen to him and why — the standard required for death row inmates in Oklahoma.

Nothing in Welch's court record indicated that the issue of his sanity or mental capacity was ever raised, and prosecutors presented evidence at the pardon and parole hearing suggesting that Welch was a bully in prison who enjoyed watching violent movies, pushed around other inmates and was once caught with a homemade knife in his cell.

According to court records, several witnesses testified they saw Welch and a co-defendant, Claudie Conover, beating and stabbing Hardcastle outside the victim's Miami, Okla., home on Aug. 25, 1994. Conover also was sentenced to death, but his sentence was later reduced to life without parole. He died in prison from natural causes in 2001.

Ben Loring, the lead prosecutor in the case, recalled Welch's self-defense argument as flimsy.

"The problem was, nothing matched up," Loring told The Associated Press this week. "None of the physical evidence matched up to what he was saying."

Loring said Welch had "ample opportunity" to stop the assault but continued with the beating.

On Thursday, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt issued a statement detailing Welch's "15-year history of violent crimes that included multiple assaults on women and police officers, burglary, stabbings and carrying concealed weapons before his conviction of murder."

"The punishment of death as chosen by a jury of Welch's peers is reserved for the most heinous crimes," he said. "My thoughts are with Robert Hardcastle's family and what they have endured for the past 17 years."

Oklahoma executed two prisoners in 2011, both in the first two weeks of the year, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks death penalty data. The execution brings to 1,278 the number of people executed in the United States since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.

The number of U.S. executions fell for the second year in a row in 2011, with 43 inmates put to death compared to 46 in 2010 and 52 in 2009, DPIC figures show.

That is fewer than half of the number of executions a dozen years before, in 1999, when a record 98 prisoners were executed.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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