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Witnessing executions: Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Frank Green reflects on more than 30 years of covering the death penalty
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Witnessing executions: Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Frank Green reflects on more than 30 years of covering the death penalty

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In the office early one morning in 1999 and groggy from working late the night before, I was checking my voicemail when I was jarred by a familiar voice.

The message was from Andre L. Graham, a man I had watched die a few hours earlier. I had reached him on the telephone in recent days at the death house in the Greensville Correctional Center. He had not returned from the dead; the message was a day old. Still, suddenly, I was wide awake.

Reporting on executions has its interesting moments. I imagine lawyers defending or prosecuting capital cases or litigating death penalty appeals have similar experiences, no matter how professionally matters are handled.

Like most other media witnesses, I found executions, even electrocutions, to be less dramatic events than might be expected. Noting and recording what happens keeps you busy. It is only afterward that you give it some thought.

Lethal injection went a long way toward making executions as clinical as possible for the sake of public sensibilities and the officers who carry them out, if not for the condemned. The electric chair was the only means of execution in Virginia since 1908 until the General Assembly made injection an option starting Jan. 1, 1995. Each method was touted as more humane than prior ones, and once available, the state quickly put each to use.

As Virginia geared up for the new procedure in late 1994, I interviewed Ron Angelone, then the director of the Virginia Department of Corrections. Prior to taking over Virginia’s prisons, Angelone worked in Texas where lethal injection was already in use. Never one to mince words, he said an inmate there “told us on his last day: ‘This is the way they kill dogs.’”

As it turned out, a mail carrier-biting Labrador retriever facing court-ordered death in Danville was grabbing lethal injection headlines around the world at the time. In the end, “Smokey” won a reprieve. But another Danville resident, Dana Ray Edmonds, who smashed a grocer’s head with a brick and cut his throat during a $50 robbery, did not, and on Jan. 24, 1995, he became the first person executed by lethal injection in Virginia.

***

I have covered the death penalty for the Richmond Times-Dispatch for more than 30 years — from the basement of the former Virginia State Penitentiary, to the Supreme Court of the United States — and have had a part in writing about all but a handful of the 113 executions here since 1982.

Most reporters — most people — never witness an execution. But then there are others who have witnessed more than I have. Michael Graczyk, an Associated Press reporter in Texas, has witnessed more than 300. I write about most executions from outside the prison based on statements from media pool witnesses, lawyers and prison officials.

Though I have lost track of the number over the years, I witnessed between one dozen and two dozen executions.

Most recently, I watched the January 2013 electrocution of Robert Charles Gleason Jr. Seven inmates opted for the electric chair since 1995, and 79 were executed by lethal injection — the default method if inmates refuse to choose.

The executions I witnessed, both injections and electrocutions, appeared to have few, if any, snags. But, like many states, Virginia hides key parts of the lethal injection procedure behind a curtain pulled across the witness seating area.

At least three executions by injection in Virginia had complications. In one, the IV line had to be inserted in a man’s foot, and in the other, an inmate about to die questioned whether officers had inserted the IVs properly after taking an inordinately long period of time behind the curtain to complete the procedure.

In Virginia, there are up to four media witnesses who act as pool witnesses for any reporters outside. Often, there is little public or media interest in an execution; some of the seats go unfilled and there may be no media waiting outside the prison for a briefing. Other times, such as the execution of “Beltway Sniper” John Allen Muhammad, the prison parking lot is packed with dozens of satellite trucks and hundreds of reporters from around the world.

I volunteer to witness executions when a media seat will otherwise go empty, if it is a high-profile case, or if the execution stems from a Richmond-area murder.

Inside the death house there is little time for reflection. Many things happen at once; your focus frequently shifts from the inmate to the officials, and then to the officers carrying out the execution.

Salient times are noted by a clock over the door that leads from the holding cells into the death chamber. The door usually opens shortly before 9 p.m., after the warden has read the death warrant.

Then things start moving quickly. The inmate is in the tight grip of execution team members who stand behind and on either side of him or her. The inmate is then briskly ushered through the doorway from the holding cells straight to the gurney or electric chair. Suddenly, the small room is crowded and very busy as team members bring the inmate to the gurney where he or she is strapped down.

If requested, inmates receive a sedative beforehand. I have not seen anyone resist — though it would be difficult if not impossible to do so — and few show signs of great distress.

Jerry B. Givens headed Virginia’s execution team for the Department of Corrections for more than 60 executions. Givens stated in a 2007 interview that “we practiced and practiced and practiced.”

“You try to prepare a guy because you didn’t want him to decide to go out fighting,” he said. Instead, Givens said he wanted them to “go out with some dignity and that’s what we did.”

Givens, who now opposes the death penalty, mentioned that preparing for an execution was stressful, stating he had to become another person: “How can I be myself? I’m not a natural killer,” he said. “These people haven’t done anything to me. I’m not doing it out of revenge.”

As the inmates enter the execution room, some appear frightened, some stoic, and a surprising number appear calm. Many look around and direct their attention to the gurney and the glassed-in witness area.

In lethal injections, the gurney, which has arms for securing the inmate’s arms, stands a few feet from the witness area. The inmate’s feet are pointed toward the witnesses, and his or her head is positioned near a blue curtain that conceals the IV drips.

After the inmate’s arms, legs and torso are strapped down, a second curtain is drawn between the gurney and the witnesses while the IV lines are placed in each arm by the execution team, out of the sight of witnesses. The small viewing area holds roughly a dozen plastic chairs for citizen and media witnesses; many times filled by law enforcement, spiritual advisers and the condemned inmate’s lawyer.

Immediate family members of the victim or victims of the condemned killer may watch from another, even smaller, witness area with one-way glass. Their identities are never made public unless they choose to speak with the media. Members of the inmate’s family are not allowed to attend.

Protesters may hold candlelight vigils on a grassy field well away from the prison itself, but are not allowed past a gate several hundred yards from the entrance.

Meanwhile, it is quiet inside the larger witness area while the curtain is closed and the IVs are inserted. The curtain moves at times, brushed by someone on the other side. Occasionally, you can hear a cough or voice outside. Execution team members administering the drugs remain behind the curtain, the IV lines run through holes cut in the plastic fabric.

Once the IV lines are in place, the curtain in front of the witnesses is pulled back. A prison official stands holding the receiver of a red telephone on the wall that connects to the governor’s office. The condemned are given the chance to make a last statement that is often impossible to hear and must be repeated later by a prison official. Some apologize for what they have done; others proclaim innocence or express defiance, or even show a sense of humor.

For some, the years on death row have been the most wholesome of their lives, and they are not the same people they were when first arrested. Others remain very dangerous.

John Schmitt, executed in 2006 for the 1999 murder of a bank guard in Chesterfield County, told his executioners: “Come on with it.” Lem Tuggle, the last of the six 1984 Mecklenburg death row escapees to be executed, wished everyone a “Merry Christmas.” In 2000, Bobby Ramdass incorrectly predicted, “[The] Redskins are going to the Super Bowl.”

After the last statement, the signal is given for the procedure to start and usually not a sound can be heard in the room until a physician monitoring vital signs from behind the curtain pronounces death. The curtain blocking the view of the gurney is then closed again, and the witnesses are led out.

I witnessed the second execution by injection in Virginia on May 25, 1995. It was that of Willie Lloyd Turner, put to death for the 1978 slaying of a Franklin man. Turner’s execution ended the longest term on death row in modern Virginia history.

Given the chance to make a last statement, he declined. But moments later, he asked, “When is it going to start?” and “Will I feel it?” said Angelone, who stood nearby. Turner then appeared to drift off to sleep as the first of three chemicals was administered intravenously into one of his arms as he lay on the gurney, arms outstretched. “His passing contrasted sharply with that of his victim. ... Turner shot jeweler W. Jack Smith Jr., in the head during a robbery. He then leaned over a counter and fired twice into the chest of the prone and bleeding father of three.”

While the execution appeared to go as planned, what happened soon afterward did not. Prison officials delivered Turner’s belongings to his lawyer, who discovered a loaded handgun inside the inmate’s typewriter. The discovery triggered a long Virginia State Police investigation that never resolved how or if the weapon got inside the prison.

I witnessed the highly publicized July 23, 1997, execution of Joseph Roger O’Dell III, who managed to persuade a large number of people, particularly in Italy, that he was innocent. O’Dell raped and murdered a woman in Virginia Beach. After the death warrant was read, he entered the death chamber. He appeared shaken, almost surprised, and he protested his innocence to the end.

Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking,” was his spiritual adviser and stood near the gurney with him shortly before the curtain was drawn. When the three-drug procedure started, O’Dell appeared to drift into sleep. His breaths became shallow and then stopped. He was pronounced dead at 9:16 p.m.

Darick Demorris Walker, 46, a tall man, was escorted into the death chamber at 8:55 p.m., the night of May 20, 2010. He was cooperative and appeared calm. He was strapped to the gurney, the curtain was pulled shut and then reopened at 9:15 p.m.

Asked if he had a last statement, Walker, who murdered two men in Richmond, said, “I don’t think y’all done this right, took y’all took too long to hook it up. You can print that. That’s it.”

A prison spokesman, who would not elaborate, later said there was an unspecified delay in placing one of the IV lines.

When the chemicals started flowing — you can see them through the transparent lines — Walker took several deep breaths, his breathing grew shallow, and then stopped. He was pronounced dead at 9:24 p.m.

Teresa Lewis died by injection on Sept. 23, 2010, the first woman executed in Virginia since 1912. She and O’Dell were the two inmates who appeared the most shaken by what was about to happen. But Lewis, unlike O’Dell, used her last chance to speak to apologize for the murder-for-hire scheme that took the life of her husband and stepson.

At 9:09 p.m., the curtain opened and Lewis asked if “Kathy” was present, presumably referring to Kathy Clifton, the daughter and sister of the two murdered men. She was not given an answer. She then said, “I just want Kathy to know I love you and I’m very sorry.”

The first of the chemicals began flowing. Lewis’ left foot had been moving as if she was tapping it, but the movement quickly stopped. She was pronounced dead at 9:13 p.m. and the curtains were redrawn, again blocking the view.

I watched the August 2011 execution of Jerry Terrell Jackson alongside a French journalist, Guillaume Decamme of Agence France-Presse. France has not conducted an execution since 1977 (a guillotine was used) and barred capital punishment in 1981.

Authorities used pentobarbital, usually employed to euthanize animals, instead of sodium thiopental, to execute Jackson, sentenced to die for the 2001 rape and murder of an elderly Williamsburg woman. Afterward, in the parking lot in front of the prison, Decamme said, “I thought it was very professional and, surprisingly, I thought it was very quick. It kind of surprised me. ... When he is laying down you don’t see his face — you only see his feet. It looked like he was asleep. It’s not violent.”

***

Electrocutions are far less clinical than death by injection. The first one I witnessed was on July 20, 2006, when Brandon Wayne Hedrick was executed for the 1997 slaying of a Lynchburg woman. The current was first applied at 9:02 p.m. Hedrick’s body jumped up straight, straining against the straps, his fists clenched. A small amount of smoke briefly rose from his leg. His body relaxed between the two 90-second cycles of electricity. Each cycle starts with about 1,800 volts at 7.5 amps for 30 seconds and then 60 seconds of about 240 volts at 1.5 amps.

His body jumped and his leg smoked again at the start of the second cycle. After five minutes, a physician entered, put a stethoscope to Hedrick’s chest, and pronounced him dead. The last execution I witnessed was on Jan. 16, 2013. It was also an electrocution, and the most recent execution conducted in Virginia.

Gleason, sentenced to life for the drug-related killing of an Amherst man, wanted to be executed. Toward that end, he strangled two fellow inmates. He tied up one, taunted and beat him, and then stuffed a sock in his mouth. He repeatedly strangled another before he finally killed him. Gleason made it clear he would continue killing prisoners unless executed.

Execution team members led Gleason into the death chamber at 8:55 p.m., holding his heavily tattooed arms — the ink standing out on his prison-pale skin. He was strapped into the electric chair at his chest, arms and ankles. He smiled, winked and nodded at times toward his spiritual adviser sitting in the witness area. The adviser said he believed Gleason was indicating all was well and that he was ready.

The smile was more a leer and the bravado came across as bizarre. Gleason was unapologetic to the end. Given a chance to make a last statement, he said in part, “Put me on the highway going to Jackson and call my Irish buddies ... God bless.”

A wide leather strap that covered his eyes and mouth but had a hole for his nose was then placed over his face and secured to the back of the chair. A brine-soaked sea sponge was attached to his right calf and a metal cap holding another brine-soaked sponge was strapped to the top of his head. Power cables were then connected to the head and leg. A key on the wall was turned to activate the system. An execution team member, watching the chair from a one-way window, pressed the execution button.

His body tensed and his skin turned pink when the first cycle of electricity began. After a brief pause, a second 90-second cycle was conducted. After five minutes, a physician put a stethoscope to Gleason’s chest, just below a tattooed skull, and failed to detect a heartbeat. Gleason’s smirk is my most indelible memory from the death house.

I think the brother of one of the more than a dozen people slain by Muhammad, the leader of a deadly sniping team that terrorized Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., may have best expressed the feelings many are left with after witnessing an execution. Robert Meyers of Pennsylvania watched the Nov. 10, 2009, execution of Muhammad, who died by injection for the 2002 slaying of Dean Meyers, shot to death as he pumped gasoline at a service station in Manassas.

Before the execution, Meyers told me he did not disagree with the death sentence: “I don’t set myself up as judge and jury. I was just going to trust God and the system [to] ... mete out the judgment.” From the viewing room, he watched the stone-faced, arrogant Muhammad refuse to acknowledge those putting him to death, let alone the 20 attending surviving family members of people he had a hand in murdering.

Outside the prison, Meyers told CNN’s Larry King and a live national audience that, “Honestly, it was surreal. Watching the life be sapped out of someone intentionally.” He added he was “pretty much overcome just by the sadness the whole situation generates in my heart.”

Frank Green has been a reporter with the Richmond Times-Dispatch since 1980. He has reported on or helped report on most of the 113 executions — witnessing roughly 20 — carried out by Virginia starting in 1982, after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume. This is an edited version of a paper he wrote for the University of Richmond Law Review in 2015 — 49 U. Rich. L. Rev. 763 (2015). The article was also on the syllabus for two years in the Capital Punishment in America course at the Harvard Law School.

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