The Execution of Catherine Willows
Season 3
Number 6
Writer Elizabeth Devine,
Carol Mendelsohn
Director Kenneth Fink
Original Airdate November 7, 2002
Previous Episode: Abra-Cadaver
Next Episode: Fight Night

The Execution of Catherine Willows is the sixth episode in Season Three of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.


Fifteen years ago, Catherine helped to put John Mathers on death row for the rape and murder of a young student at a local college. On the day of his execution, he's granted a stay based on new DNA evidence. Meanwhile, Grissom, Nick and Sara are looking for a missing student, who is found murdered and left in exactly the same fashion as the women in Catherine's case.


Victims: Charlene Roth , Janet Kent , Marcia Reese (all deceased)

On the case: Catherine Willows, Warrick Brown


Victim: Debbie Reston (missing)

On the case: Gil Grissom, Nick Stokes, Sara Sidle, Jim Brass, Ray O'Riley

A prison inmate, John Mathers, is on death row as the parents of one of his victims look on and await his execution. After the man is given the first part of his lethal injection, the phone rings; a stay of execution has been ordered. A crash cart is brought into the room to revive him.

Catherine tells Grissom that new evidence has come to light—hair analysis. Grissom isn't familiar with the case, so Catherine catches him up. When she was a rookie, she investigated the deaths of three coeds at Western Las Vegas University (WLVU). All three victims were sexually assaulted, but no semen was found in any of them; it's suspected that the perpetrator was using a condom. All victims were dumped in garbage bags. The case with the strongest evidence was victim #3, Charlene Roth. John, a campus security guard at the time, got convicted for her rape and murder. He's the first murderer Catherine has helped put away who received the death penalty.

Meanwhile, Grissom and Sara are called to the home of 17-year-old Debbie Reston. Her father sits on the curb in front of the house looking quite dazed; he's wearing a white t-shirt covered in blood. Brass informs Grissom and Sara that Mr. Reston was found passed out on his sofa with the blood-soaked t-shirt, while Debbie failed to show up for work. Mr. Reston claims he was in a bar fight; his blood alcohol content is .37. Inside, the house is a mess except for Debbie's room. Grissom notices that her door has a deadbolt lock on it, indicating she was trying to keep something (or someone) out. In her closet, Grissom finds a gi with a black belt; Debbie is trained in the art of self defense. Grissom also finds a towel with blood stains on it in the hamper.

Grissom and Nick make their way to an equally messy backyard, where there's evidence that someone was digging. In the shed, Nick finds a laser-sight Glock with its slide missing. Sara enters briefly and tells the guys that no weapon was found on Mr. Reston and that she's going back to the lab. Grissom takes a step and hears something underneath him. He and Nick remove a mat from the floor and find a hidden compartment filled with guns. One of the guns, an M-11, is missing 14 rounds. Later on, Nick uses ground-penetrating radar and finds evidence that there's something buried 2 1/2 feet under the ground in the backyard. However, when they dig it up, they discover that the body is a dog.

Back at the lab, Catherine is going over the old crime scene photos when Warrick walks in. She notes that now that the case has been reopened, she can reevaluate all three murders using fresh eyes and new technology. John Mathers might not be responsible for the most recent murder, but the new DNA evidence may be able to link him to the first two. Catherine has lab tech Jacqui Franco test the trash bag Charlene was found in for new prints.

Tom and Sally Roth, Charlene's parents, corner Catherine in a coffee shop and ask her about the case, but Catherine reveals that she can't divulge any information. She assures the grieving parents that they'll get an answer very soon. Shortly thereafter, Catherine gets a call from Det. O'Riley; a body has been found with the same M.O. as the previous murders (young female, bound, body in a trash bag). It's possible a copycat killer has come out of the woodwork. At the scene, Catherine finds a bug casing and some black fibers in the victim's hair.

In autopsy, Doc Robbins tells David Phillips that the most recent victim has been dead for at least 12 hours. He also notes that there's blue paint on one of the victim's hands.

Under interrogation, Mr. Reston says that he never sees Debbie despite the fact that she lives in his house. He tells Brass that Debbie can't wait to go to college and move out, adding that she has a job at a coffee shop and drives a blue VW convertible. Outside the interrogation room, Sara tells Grissom that the blood on Mr. Reston's shirt was his own, but the blood on the towel in the hamper likely belongs to Debbie. Due to the fact that there was minimal blood on the towel, the thought is that it came from an unrelated minor injury.

Det. O'Riley stops Grissom and Sara and informs them that the body recently found in the trash bag is a match to Debbie Reston. The cases are now connected. In autopsy, Catherine tells Grissom that Debbie was taking a night class at WLVU, making her a student just like John Mathers' other victims. Doc Robbins says that, if the murderer is a copycat, they must be intimately familiar with the previous cases. The cause of death is the same—strangulation. There are bruises on her wrists and plastic zip-ties were used to bound her. He notes the navy blue paint on her hand, but also says that Debbie had defensive wounds. There are shards of glass in the wound on Debbie's hands, meaning that the paint was present first. The paint on her hand is curiously still wet, so Grissom wonders aloud what kind of paint doesn't dry in 12 hours.

Catherine is approached by Ms. Campbell, John's defense attorney. Ms. Campbell asks where the CSIs stand with the case, and Catherine replies that she can't divulge that information. Catherine tells her that the evidence speaks for itself and insists that she has no personal bias in the case, but Ms. Campbell accuses the CSIs of favoring the prosecution in all cases. Ms. Campbell believes that the evidence is showing that the real killer is still out there.

The police find Debbie's car in the WLVU parking lot, with Warrick noting that it's one of the cleanest cars he's ever seen. From this, Sara guesses that what happened to Debbie happened to her after she left her car. Det. O'Riley tells Sara and Warrick that Debbie was taking Economics 101. Since Warrick is a graduate of WLVU, he knows where the building is and leads the way.

Along the way, Warrick trips and stops himself from falling by grabbing a handrail. Blue paint transfers to his palm. He looks around and finds a nearby water fountain, with Sara saying that the first thing someone would do in Debbie's situation would be to wash the paint off. Above the water fountain, Grissom sees the light bulb is broken and notes that there was glass in the wound on Debbie's hand. Warrick finds similar glass on the ground and offers to match it to the glass found in Debbie's wound. Sara surmises that the blue paint was there on purpose to lure the victim to the water fountain, like a spider attracting a fly. Grissom responds that they now know what the blue paint was about on the previous victims, but if they're just learning this fact, how did the copycat killer know?

Sara finds other prints in the paint on the railing, and Grissom tells her that the perpetrator was likely waiting for the "right girl" to come along. Meanwhile, Warrick finds Debbie's backpack in the bushes near the water fountain; it contains everything, including Debbie's wallet, credit cards, and keys. Catherine finds insects on a nearby tree and a bug casing similar to the one found in Debbie's hair, which Grissom says is a shell from a cicada. Warrick is able to find the spot where the perpetrator was hiding; it has a perfect view of the railing and the water fountain, giving the perpetrator an easy way to attack when the victim's back was turned. Catherine spots polarized glass on the ground near the base of the tree; however, the light bulb glass isn't polarized. Grissom guesses that the glass could belong to an eyeglass lens, noting that Debbie was a black belt and likely fought back. In the process, it's possible she broke her attacker's glasses.

Catherine visits Jacqui in the lab again, this time with the trash bag Debbie was found in. A partial print is found on the bag. Meanwhile, Sara finds out that the black fiber found in Debbie's hair is from vehicle upholstery, and that the color doesn't match the upholstery in Debbie's car. The upholstery is standard in a Chevy model, which doesn't really narrow things down. Warrick confirms that the glass found on the ground near the water fountain isn't polarized, but that the glass found in the wound on Debbie's hand is. The thought is that the killer broke the security light on purpose to give himself an advantage—the cover of darkness. He then transported Debbie's body using his own car.

Greg stops Catherine in the hallway with DNA results from the federal lab in Norfolk, Virginia. All six pubic hairs that were tested are matches to John Mathers, proving that he raped and murdered Charlene Roth. Elsewhere, Grissom tells Catherine that the paint on the railing was oil-based and mixed with motor oil to prevent it from drying. Catherine notes that that type of paint is used for canvases, not railings. Grissom goes over the railing with a magnifying glass and finds a hair that possibly came from a paint brush.

Catherine and Grissom head to the WLVU art department and talk to a painter. He's been there since 1995, which is after the first murder, but confirms that there are others who have been at the university longer. Grissom tells him they found badger hair and nylon hair in the paint sample from the railing, but the painter tells him that nobody would use nylon to paint unless they weren't using it for painting. The painter wears glasses and Grissom examines the lenses.

Back in the lab, Greg informs Catherine and Grissom that he ran the tests on the zip-ties from Debbie's wrists. There are no foreign epithelials, but he found an errant hair with the DNA tag still attached. The hair matches the hair of Janet Kent, the first victim. Grissom surmises that the killer killed Janet Kent and kept her hair for 15 years, only to plant it on Debbie the same night John Mathers was to be executed. Catherine concludes that John is the copycat and that the original killer is still out there.

Grissom runs one of the paint samples and finds that it matches three of the four murders, with Charlene's murder being the outlier. Meanwhile, Sara finds out from the dean of the WLVU art department that a Cody Lewis was a student there in the late '80s when the first three murders took place. He left just after the Charlene Roth case, but recently came back to be an assistant professor.

In the interrogation room, Brass interviews Cody, who also happens to wear eyeglasses. Brass has a picture of one of Cody's paintings of one of the victims. Cody admits to knowing the first two victims and admits to having been on a date with Janet 15 years ago. Meanwhile, Nick, Sara, and Warrick process Cody's car, which just so happens to be a Chevy with black upholstery. However, they find no evidence of a crime whatsoever in the car; it's spotless. Later, Jacqui tells Nick that Cody's prints don't match the partial print found on the trash bag Debbie was found in.

Brass goes over the case with Grissom and believes that the murdered girls were specific targets. Otherwise, why wait 15 years between murders and why not commit murders at other universities? They guess that the perpetrator has ties to WLVU and is comfortable there. He's also able to blend in without being noticed. The two share a drink in Brass' office with the feeling that the killer will eventually strike again. Brass mentions that sometimes with his job, he would rather be lucky than good. Grissom says that his only real purpose is to be smarter than the bad guys, and that he gets uncomfortable when the bad guy might be smarter than him.

Back in the prison, Catherine has been invited by the Roths to watch John Mathers' execution, part two. They all watch John get executed for real this time, as Sally Roth holds Catherine's hand.


Main Cast[]

Guest Cast[]

  • David Berman as David Phillips
  • Skip O'Brien as Detective Ray O'Riley
  • Romy Rosemont as Jacqui Franco
  • David Lee Smith as Cody Lewis
  • Victor Bevine as John Mathers
  • Beth Grant as Sally Roth
  • Wade Williams as Mr. Reston
  • Wayne Pére as Painter
  • Viola Davis as Attorney Campbell
  • Phe Caplan as Charlene Roth
  • Michael Chieffo as Tom Roth
  • John Goodwin as Psychiatrist
  • Nicole Hayden as Debbie Reston

Major Events[]

  • Romy Rosemont makes her first appearance as Jacqui Franco.
  • The crimes of the Blue Paint Killer are introduced for the first time in this episode. The story will ultimately be concluded two years later in Season 5 in What's Eating Gilbert Grissom?.


Brass: I keep racking my brain going over these unsolved murder cases and I keep coming back to the fact that they're fifteen years apart. That means he's either out of town or in the joint.
Grissom: Why wouldn't he take his business to some other college if it was only about young girls?
Brass: It's got to be personal. He wanted to kill those girls.


  • When Catherine is at the coffee shop and the parents of a murdered girl come to talk to her, she is holding her coffee in her right hand and her cell phone rings and she grabs it with her left. The shot switches angles while Catherine is talking and her cell phone has shifted to her right hand.


  • Grissom gets uncomfortable when a suspect could be smarter than him.


  • This is the first episode with a main character name in the title. The next episode in which this occurs is Grissom Versus the Volcano.
  • David Lee Smith, who played Cody Lewis, also played IAB Sergeant Rick Stetler in CSI: Miami.
  • Viola Davis played Ms. Campbell, John Mathers' attorney. She's an accomplished actress who has received various awards, including an Academy Award, a Primetime Emmy Award, and two Tony Awards.
  • Catherine's wrestling with the complexities of state-sanctioned execution was the brainchild of Marg Helgenberger.[1]


  1. Flaherty, M. & Marrinan, C. (2004). CSI: Crime scene investigation companion. New York, NY: Pocket Books.

See Also[]

CSI:Las Vegas Season 3
Revenge is Best Served ColdThe Accused is EntitledLet the Seller BewareA Little MurderAbra-CadaverThe Execution of Catherine WillowsFight NightSnuffBlood LustHigh and LowRecipe for MurderGot Murder?Random Acts of ViolenceOne Hit WonderLady Heather's BoxLucky StrikeCrash & BurnPrecious MetalA Night at the MoviesLast LaughForeverPlay with FireInside the Box