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Witnessing execution a matter of duty, choice

In Va. executions, there is always someone watching, turning what is for most people a distinctly private moment into a very public end.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

They couldn't take their eyes off the electric chair. They took it in piece by piece as they filed into the witness room: The leather restraints on the giant oak armrests. A long electrical cord coiling from the bottom across the slate gray death chamber floor.

The candle shop owner grabbed one of the white plastic lawn chairs in front of the plate glass window that would soon separate the living from the dead. Next to her, the social worker nervously smoothed her hair as she took a seat with a direct view of the chair. The investigator climbed the wood risers and took a seat behind them.

The clock's second hand swept over the 12. It was 9 p.m. -- time for the execution to begin.

Later, they would remember how the air in the room seemed to compress at that moment. How the electric chair seemed to dwarf everything else. How the condemned man, one of the rare few to choose electrocution, looked right through them before he died. But at that moment, all they could think was that they were about to watch a man die.

It's been 70 years since executions in the United States were open to the public. But in Virginia, there is always someone watching, turning what is for most people a distinctly private moment into a very public end. One of more than a dozen death penalty states that require ordinary citizens to witness executions, Virginia has enlisted hundreds of volunteers for the task.

They come from every corner and every quarter: A Richmond school bus driver, a South Hill bookkeeper, a Prince William County police officer, an Ashburn computer specialist, a Lynchburg brass works fabricator. All have visited the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt.

Candy Couch, the candle shop owner, had seen other men put to death, but they had been flat on their backs, feet facing her, arms splayed on a gurney, waiting for the needle. She rarely saw their eyes before the life drained out of them. But this man, her fourth, stared her down as he walked to the electric chair.

"He's staring at me," Couch said. "Oh my God, he's looking right at me."

For nearly 100 years, broad public support for capital punishment has helped the Virginia Department of Corrections maintain a rotating list of about 20 to 30 volunteers, although only six are required to witness each execution. Some come only once. Others repeatedly return. One man, a paint store salesman from Emporia, has seen 15 men executed.

Witnesses aren't paid. No special skills are needed. The death house doesn't require much from volunteers beyond state residency, a basic criminal background check and an ability to sum up in three lines or less on a written application why they want to watch convicted killers die. Some say it's their civic duty to watch; that it's no different than sitting on a jury or voting. Others say they're just curious to see whether death equals justice.

Couch, 36, doesn't remember what reason she gave on her application. When she first signed up, she told friends she wanted to see whether watching someone be executed is anything like in the movies. A retired sheriff's deputy, she never knew any of the men she saw executed. But when she volunteered for her first death-by-lethal-injection three years ago, she vowed she would keep going back until she saw an electrocution.

Couch snorts when she reads about defense lawyers who claim lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment. She is not religious, but she believes in God and Old Testament eye-for-an-eye justice.

"I think they need to feel some kind of pain. I know it's horrible to say, but they did horrible things to people," Couch said.

The decision to watch
Emily Rosson was jittery all day. A few hours before she arrived at the death chamber for Brandon Hedrick's electrocution, she had scoured her closet looking for the right outfit. She had dressed casually that day for her job as a social worker at a jail in Stafford County. At the last minute, she decided to go home and change. She thought she should wear something respectful, the kind of thing you'd wear to church or a big day at work.

"I was like, 'What the hell do you wear to someone's execution?' " said Rosson, 27.

She settled on a conservative button-down linen shirt, khaki capri pants and a pair of dressy sandals. After an hour-long road trip from her home in Glen Allen, her brief fashion crisis was long forgotten. As she pulled up to the meeting point for witnesses in Emporia, she remembered instead her father's warning about the intensity of what she was about to see. Years ago, he had visited the death house to witness an electrocution, at the time the sole method of execution in Virginia. It was, her father said, a matter of civic duty and a chance to witness history.

"I was like, 'Eeew, gross. Why would you ever want to do that?' " Rosson said. "He said, now is a good time to go because the electric chair was on the way out. Afterward, he always told me it was something I would never forget seeing."

Before she volunteered, Rosson talked it over with her husband. She had mixed feelings about the death penalty; maybe this would help her decide, she said. He said he wouldn't have the stomach for it, but he could understand why she wanted to go.

Rosson has never been a crime victim, but she's learned a lot about criminals as a jailhouse social worker. Most of the inmates are often short on intelligence and long on bad deeds -- a lot, she said, like Hedrick.

It made her "a little uneasy" when she heard that Hedrick had an IQ of 76, Rosson said. That meant that he was right on the line of being mentally retarded (and ineligible for execution). He might not know what was coming next, she said.

She felt even more unsettled when she first caught sight of the death chamber. The huge oak chair looked as big as a throne and seemed to swallow the whole room.

"It takes a lot of courage to watch people die," she said. "It's not for the weak of heart. It takes a lot of courage to actually go and keep your eyes open the whole time. I think there were some people in that room who closed their eyes."

Witness with a purpose
Steve Corbally peered impatiently out of the van window as it pulled toward the prison entrance. He tried to tune out the chatter of the other witnesses on the ride to the prison. In no mood to talk, he kept silent. He wasn't eager to tell anyone why he was there.

When Corbally had looked Hedrick's case up earlier that day, he thought there might be a chance the execution would be halted. Hedrick, 27, was convicted of the abduction, rape and killing of a young single mother, who begged for her life before Hedrick shot her with a 12-gauge shotgun.

Corbally, 47, had encountered worse cases during his two years as an investigator for the Regional Capital Defender Office in Manassas. After spending day after day chasing down alibis and witnesses that might keep his clients off death row, Corbally figured he knew a good case for clemency when he saw one.

Corbally volunteered to be a witness despite his boss's objection. A few days earlier, a Harrisonburg jury had sent a 27-year-old client of Corbally's to death row for his role in a murder-for-hire scheme. But Corbally, now a first-year law student in New Orleans, reasoned that seeing someone put to death would enable him to give future clients a first-hand account of what they might face if they're sentenced to death.

"Now I can sit them down and say: 'Let me tell you something. It is not pretty, what happens in there. If you get a chance to plead guilty and save your life, you should do it,' " Corbally said.

An execution expert
David Bass began looking for signs of fear the moment the witnesses arrived. He had seen it many times before. Bass, a regional manager with the Virginia Department of Corrections, had escorted scores of witnesses to more than 80 executions in his 15 years as the de facto death-house tour guide.

"I spend more time watching witnesses than I do the actual executions," Bass said.

The night Hedrick, the first death row inmate to be electrocuted in the United States in more than two years, was to be executed, Bass constantly sized up his witnesses for signs of distress. A former high school math teacher, he understood well the power of group psychology and the way one little thing could set off a chain reaction. His job was to make sure nothing disrupted the process.

The July breeze was cool and light as dusk fell over the sprawling prison grounds, but Bass could feel a sticky kind of tension in the air. Normally, witnesses keep to themselves, he said. But as they lined up for the ride, they seemed to be chattier than usual.

"There seems to be more nervousness, more questions," Bass said. "I can't say what they're thinking, but there is a difference, and there is definitely electricity in the air."

Bass greeted each witness with a warm handshake. He checked their names off on his clipboard, then handed each of them a square, orange I.D. badge.

"I try to make things as low-key as possible and as casual as possible," he said. "I try to keep them talking. If you let things get real quiet, then things tend to tense up."

Bass rattled off facts and figures with the ease of a game show host: More than 330 executions in Virginia since 1908. Virginia, second only to Texas in the number of executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, lets inmates choose between the chair and lethal injection. Only three, including Hedrick, have chosen electrocution in the past decade.

Bass warned the witnesses that they might hear some shouting from other inmates as they enter the death chamber. The condemned man might drool as about 2,000 volts of electricity arced across his body. There could be a little blood. They might notice an odor of burning flesh.

The inmate's body, he explained, forms a circuit. Small sponges dipped in briny water affixed to the inmate's shaved right leg and head help ensure that the electricity flows. After the condemned man's last words, the warden inserts a key to activate the system.

"It's like turning the ignition key in your car," Bass said.

'The worst part'
The witness room looked like a black box theater. Inside, a dozen white plastic chairs were neatly arranged on battleship-gray risers. Couch grabbed a front-row seat next to Rosson with a perfect view of the electric chair. Corbally settled into the row behind them.

A microphone in the witness room crackled to life as prison officials approached Hedrick with a hand-held tape recorder. He clenched his fists tighter until his knuckles turned white. He fixed his look hard on the people who had come to watch him die. Then his muffled voice sputtered and echoed in the tiny witness room.

"I pray for the people who believe in Jesus Christ in heaven, and I pray for the unsaved, for they know not what they do," Hedrick said. "I'm ready to go now and be free."

The brown leather hood came down over his eyes and nose. There was a dull thud as the first wave of electricity passed through his body, then another. Then came the interminable five-minute wait before a doctor verified that Hedrick was dead.

"That was the worst part," Rosson said. "We all have to sit here waiting five minutes so the man can finish dying. You think of dying as something personal, and it was just a really horrible, public and invasive way to die. I would not want to see that again."

No one in the witness room said a word as they stood to exit. The guard at the door thanked them for coming and bid them goodnight. One by one, the witnesses climbed back into the van.

Rosson heard someone in the van sobbing as it pulled away. Someone in the front asked Bass if inmates are given sedatives before the execution. Yes, he said, but it's not something corrections officials like to publicize. A man in the back, one of the death house regulars, piped up. That's not fair, he said. After all, he said, Hedrick hadn't given his victim a sedative before he shot her in the face.

Everyone fell silent.