Mercy for the Merciless?

William Rousan

Update: March 27, 2014.
The Missouri Supreme Court has set an April 24, 2014 execution date for William Rousan.

Update: Jan. 30, 2014.
It appears that William Rousan's arguments that the new execution protocol is a violation of the 8th Amendment fell on deaf ears at the Supreme Court. On 1/29/14, the high court refused to stop the execution of Herbert Smulls using propofol. Rousan's story is still interesting, though.

The suffering of others doesn’t seem to bother Missouri death row inmate William Rousan as the facts of his crime attest, and if his history is a predictor, he probably took a little pleasure in the difficulty Ohio had when it executed Dennis McGuire recently.
Until recently states used a tried-and-true three-drug mixture that sedated the condemned, caused respiratory failure, and finally stopped the heart (there are those who say they were administered in the wrong order…). However, the manufacturers of the drugs have stopped providing them to states for the purposes of execution. As a result states with the death penalty have had to come up with a different lethal cocktail.
Ohio chose midozolam, a barbituate, to replace sodium pentathol, while Missouri selected propofol. Fortunately (or perhaps not, as we’ll see later) for Rousan, hours before a scheduled execution of one of Rousan’s death row comrades, the European Union, where the drug manufacturer AstraZeneca is based, threatened to bar the export of propofol to the United States if the Show Me State used it to kill.
Regardless of one’s opinion on capital punishment or national sovereignty, that Missouri opted not to call the EU’s bluff is a good thing: there are very few invasive surgeries where propofol is not used as an anesthetic.
So why would Rousan be happy that McGuire (who killed a pregnant woman) allegedly suffered during his execution? Perhaps because now that propofol is off the gurney, Missouri will not try an execution with midozolam, buying William more time to avoid his punishment. Pro-death penalty readers should not fret, however. The state does have another alternative that Rousan probably will like even less.
But as regular readers of the Register know, this site tries to avoid public policy controversies — so this is not a column about the fairness or efficacy of the death penalty.
Instead, this is an article about the heinous, atrocious, and cruel crimes of William Rousan, his son, Brent, and William’s kid brother, Robert, who started out one night in 1993 as cattle rustlers and ended up as murderers.
Hopefully once the facts of their crime are laid out, readers will be able to decide for themselves what kind of punishments these killers deserve.
On September 21, 1993, William Rousan and his co-conspirators set out from the farm where Rousan, a convicted rapist who was 37 years old at the time and his 16-year-old son, Brent, lived with William’s girlfriend. Earlier in the day the three men (by his own admission, despite his tender years Brent said he was “man enough to do whatever had to be done”) decided to rustle some cattle from the Washington County farm of 62-year-old Charles Lewis and his wife Grace, 62.
William had known the Lewises since 1975 and once sought refuge at their farm after escaping from prison in Washington state. Not only did Charles give William food, clothing, and shelter at that time, when the fugitive was leaving the farm the Lewises gave him $20.
Charles and Grace were not home when the three men parked William’s truck a mile or so away from the farm and walked through some woods to the farm. William pointed out some of the cattle they planned to steal.
William brought a .22-caliber rifle with him. The trio had already discussed killing the Lewises, agreeing — according to testimony at the trial — that “if it had to be done (then) it had to be done.”
William and Brent argued about who should carry the rifle, with William claiming that his son was not man enough. It was then that Brent countered that he was man enough to do what had to be done.
While cattle rustling was no longer a capital crime in Missouri, murder was, and William warned Brent that if they were caught they would “fry.” He was correct if speaking figuratively, but incorrect if he thought the state would sentence him to the electric chair — at the time Missouri was one of several states that used the gas chamber.
It is clear from the get-go that the Rousans came to the Lewis farm intent on murder. Charles and Grace were not home when the men arrived, and instead of rustling a few head of cattle and leaving, the trio lay in wait for their return.
The couple arrived home sometime between 3 and 4 p.m. and while Grace, who was in ill health, spoke with her daughter on the telephone, Charles went outside and started mowing the lawn.
According to testimony, Brent became impatient and urged his father and uncle to “do it.” William told his son to wait until he and Robert secured the home.
Robert took the back door while William prepared to enter the front. Before they could reach the house Charles saw Brent and called out. Brent showed he was a crack shot and fired a half-dozen rounds, hitting Charles each time.
Grace told her daughter she heard gunfire and was going outside to check. She hung up the phone and that was the last time anyone spoke with her.
Brent proved his “manhood” by shooting Grace several times, breaking both of her arms. Seriously, but not fatally, wounded, Grace ran back into the house where she was met by William. He covered her head and torso with a garment bag, picked her up, and carried her outside.
“Finish her,” he reportedly said to Brent, throwing the wounded grandmother to the ground.
Brent complied, firing a single bullet into the left side of her head.
They wrapped the bodies in a tarp, picked up the shell casings, and wiped down the blood inside the house. Then they put the bodies near a shed and left, planning to return later to dispose of them and pick up a few head of cattle.
The three men, along with Jerry Rousan, another brother, returned to the Lewis farm that night. There, they loaded the bodies into Charles’s truck. They took two cows, a VCR, jewelry, soda, two gas cans, and a saddle. The four men then returned to the farm where William lived. On the return trip, Brent bragged about the murders, testimony at the trial revealed.
At that farm, owned by William’s girlfried, the men buried their victims in a shallow grave by the barn. The grave may have been shallow, but it was well-concealed. After digging the grave and placing the bodies in it, they poured concrete over the bodies. Then the grave was covered with a pile of manure.
The men disposed of the Lewises’ property in various ways:


  • On the night of the murders, the men consumed the soda.

  • The cows were sold at auction.

  • Robert gave the VCR to his sister and brother-in-law, Barbara and Bruce Williams, on the day following the murders. They pawned the VCR approximately eight months later.

  • William buried the couple’s personal items and on special occasions throughout the year, gave the jewelry to his girlfriend.

  • The conspirators burned the stolen truck.


When the Lewis’s daughter could not reach her parents by phone she contacted the sheriff’s office, which began an investigation into the disappearance.
But there was little the authorities could do and the case went cold for almost a year until Bruce Williams, for reasons that were not brought out at the trial, dropped a dime on his brother-in-law. Robert was quickly arrested and began cooperating once the offer was made to not only take the death penalty off the table, but to serve a pretty short sentence considering the brutality of the crime.
On September 20, 1994, William contacted Bruce Williams to ask for a ride to a barn in Washington County. Williams took him to the barn, then notified the police. William, armed with a .22 caliber rifle, was arrested at the barn without incident.
The badly decomposed bodies of Charles and Grace, still wrapped in the tarp, were unearthed soon after.
He was taken to Washington County Sheriff’s Department. There, the officers advised him of his Miranda rights and questioned him.
William, probably thinking he was smarter than the cops, decided to talk. He spun a story that only an idiot would believe.
Recounting how me met the met the Lewises in 1975 and the misguided kindness of Charles shortly after, William told investigators that he returned to the farm in June 1993 only to find Grace in poor health. Charles asked that William “put Grace out of her misery” and kill him as well because he could not bear to live without his wife.
When the detectives refused to believe him, William said that one of the Lewises’ sons promised him $50,000 if he killed his parents.
The self-admitted ringleader, William was convicted of two counts of first degree murder.
Brent, 16 at the time of the murders, pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder and is serving consecutive life sentences without the possibility for parole.
Robert, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. The plea agreement for the lesser charge and sentence was in return for Robert Rousan’s testimony at his brother’s trial.
William is one of six inmates on Missouri’s death row who are claiming that the new method of execution is cruel and unconstitutional. The state has announced its intention to return to the gas chamber if the condemned prisoners’ suit is successful. If that’s the case, Rousan may find that at his own expense he won the battle but lost the war.

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