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Witness for the Condemned

ISSUE:  Autumn 1993

It was a most brutal murder. The victim bled to death, at night in a remote woods, after being raped and tortured with a machete and knife. What I was to witness tonight, however, would agonize even more my sense of morality surrounding the death penalty.

Tonight, July 23rd, another execution by the State of Virginia is planned for 11: 00 pm. Edward B. Fitzgerald, Sr., found guilty of the torture-killing of a Chesterfield woman during a drug dispute, will be strapped in an oak electric chair, and killed, to pay for a crime against the people of Virginia.

I was asked by the Virginia Correctional Department to be a witness for the condemned, after filling out a single-page application in the fall of 1991. Witnesses are chosen from that list of interested Virginians who send the form back to the warden at the Greensville Correctional Facility. Completing the form is simple. Name, address, profession, and a paragraph stating a reason for desiring to be a witness for an execution are its contents.

As an American government educator, my paragraph stated that I wanted the experience to broaden my understanding and ability to speak with authority on a national issue that continues to embroil our society’s conscience.

Once selected, a Greensville operation’s officer calls two weeks before the execution to verify my interest. If still interested, a certified letter follows, stating all details. The morning of the execution the same officer calls again to verify for the last time.

The Code of Virginia requires that at least six witnesses be present to view the execution. None of the official witnesses can be from the Corrections Department. After witnessing the execution, the State requires nothing more of them, not even a signature on an official witness document.

Tonight, ten witnesses are present. Two are female. One is a secretary for a judge, the other a reporter for the Associated Press.

Of the men, one is a TV anchorman, another a newspaper reporter, and a third Fitzgerald’s prosecuting attorney at the original trial. The current Chesterfield County prosecuting attorney is present, the remaining witnesses are private citizens.

I haven’t eaten since last evening, fearing that I may become nauseated during the actual execution later tonight. My summer studies in the Shenandoah Valley have been interrupted today in order to make the trip to Emporia, a town near the North Carolina border. Leaving my research on the European influence on Virginia’s western frontier—German, Ulster and English culture, foods and lifestyles in the Valley—has taken some adjustment, rationally and emotionally, today.

I came to Emporia because I had a personal commitment to probe deeper into a national issue of great complexity and controversy—capital punishment—and possibly to reach some type of conclusion, or compromise for myself and for my students, maybe even for society.

Witnesses were instructed to meet at the Virginia State Police area headquarters at 9 o’clock, for verification of credentials and transportation, by van, to the prison at nearby Jarratt. As I drive to the rendezvous north of Emporia, on Route 301, midsummer insect sounds grow louder around me, reaching a crescendo as the night prevails. Long cirrus clouds are trying but cannot hide the final burst of orange and red of the sun as it nears the horizon. Many stores on both sides of the older divided highway have long since closed, victims of the Interstate Highway System.

When I arrive at the State Police building, the parking lot is empty. It’s 8: 30. Maybe I read the instructions incorrectly. No. Here comes a car. This is the right rendezvous.

More arrive. Inside David A. Bass introduces himself as the Corrections Department liason for us tonight. Each of us has to provide identification to match the information on his list. My driver’s license suffices. Bass, we quickly see, will become the catalyst who smooths out the harsh realities to come. He is a former teacher.

By the time we leave the small headquarters in a prison van the sun has disappeared. Little is said during the ten minute drive to the prison. Approaching the outer prison gate, Bass points out that the grassy fields to our left and right have been set aside for demonstrators, with the road serving as neutral ground.

This execution has generated no national or international interest. Fitzgerald has remained in seclusion all summer, not fighting the sentence of execution. The last execution here, in the spring, was totally different. Both sides of this field were packed with demonstrators. Tonight, as we pass, I see no one in the grassy fields.

The van continues on, through the outlying perimeters. In the employee parking lot to my left, I can see a row of TV station trasmitting vans, ready to broadcast to Virginians the official declaration of our State’s edict to execute. Bass is telling us about the last execution in the spring. This lot was crowded with broadcasting units from across America and the world.

The van stops in front of a small building. For the next hour, Bass tells us, we will remain in this building for briefing and questions. Inside, he methodically and thoroughly reviews every detail of every step for tonight. Our duties this night are simply to watch. Simply?

Bass also gives us a summary of Virginia’s methods of capital punishment. The first person electrocuted in the Commonwealth sat in the same chair we will see tonight on Oct. 13, 1908. Before that first state-sponsored execution, local sheriffs carried out the death sentence by hanging the guilty. My thoughts wander back to one of our country’s presidents. Before Grover Cleveland was elected president, was one of his duties as a local sheriff to hang those condemned?

Henry Smith, a 22-year-old from then Norfolk County, was the first man sentenced to die in the oak chair I was about to see and remember for a long time. His crime was rape.

In May 1991, the original oak chair was moved from the Spring Street State Penitentiary in Richmond, to here at Greensville after the Richmond facility finally closed down (parts of it dated back to the late 18th century). Spring Street was the scene of 247 executions after that first one in 1908. Three have been held here since May 1991. Tonight will be the fourth one, 251st since 1908. Virginia is one of the country’s top five “killing” states, according to statistics.

The only woman ever executed in the Old Dominion’s electric chair was Virginia Christian, in 1912 for murder. The youngest was a 16-year-old boy, in 1916. That same year, the oldest was executed, age 68. In 1951, five men were electrocuted the same night, one after the other. Old-timers have stories to tell of that night on Spring Street. The next execution will take place on August 20th.

“Why does Virginia execute late at night?” I ask, during the briefing. “Are we trying to hide the action from the public?”

“Not at all,” Bass answers. He goes on to explain that the late hour, 11 o’clock, is actually for the condemned’s benefit. The execution orders from the court state that the condemned is to be put to death on a specific date. The late hour gives the condemned the benefit of having the entire day designated for his death to take care of last-minute affairs and for visits.

It is now 10: 25 pm. The briefing has ended. A few corrections officers have joined us. Everyone has an opportunity to use the bathrooms. Nervous as I am, the opportunity is taken.

Before we go back outside to the van to drive to “Hellville” (the nickname given to the building on the opposite side of the prison grounds and within the inner perimeters, where Virginia’s executions are held), everyone, including all the officers with us, is searched thoroughly. Women in one room, men in another. No cameras, recorders, transmitting devices, or medications will be allowed past this briefing building.

The van driver drives through the employee lot, past the TV vans, on the last leg of our execution junket, into the viscera of the prison. We stop for the first gate to open, then move into a small holding arena. The first gate must close behind us before the second security gate in front of us opens. Security is always tightened on execution night. There is a general lock-down with all cells this night. An unspoken bond exists between the hundreds of prisoners here and the condemned. Each one knows the ritual.

As we head for “Hellville,” moving closer and closer, my mind has difficulty in facing reality. I cannot holler out for the driver to stop, take me back. It dawns on me at this very moment: I have never seen anyone die, much less in such a way.

As we move into the bowels of the prison, I notice that the entire area is bathed in vapor lighting, the kind farmers use on a pole at the edge of their yards, for protection.

As we approach “Hellville,” we were warned in the briefing earlier about what may happen as we exit the van. And it does. The time is 10: 41 pm.

At first it’s barely audible. Sounds close to the insect noises I heard earlier. The volume increases. The sounds become a cacophony in my ears, unlike the insect noises. Muffled, faceless, almost ghostly. Now I can distinguish between insect and this new sound, as they grow more audible. Yells, screams and expletives spew and hurl from the rows of inmate cells in close proximity with “Hellville.” They eerily take command of the normal night sounds and the vapor lighting surrounding this building before us.

“Walk single file, quickly, and don’t look toward them,” Bass tells us.

The heckling disappears once we enter “Hellville.” As we are escorted down a short hall, I can see the room-within-a-room, the official witness viewing booth, to my left. Two large window partitions face the varnished chair. Our booth is tiered, for better viewing.

“The windows should have gone down to the floor,” Bass explains. “You can’t see his feet unless you stand at the window. This building was not originally planned as an execution chamber, by the way.”

Some of the witnesses move to the window. My seat is at the back of the witness booth.

“During the execution, you may sit, move about, or stand at the window,” Bass adds.

The first impression, upon entering the execution chamber—smell. Antiseptically clean, like a hospital ward. My eyes slowly begin to focus on the main attraction, 15 feet in front of us, past the windows. The plain cinder bock walls, forming a backdrop behind the chair, are painted gray. Lighting is bright. My eyes lock in on what appears to be a suitcase resting on the chair seat. “It’s a device to test the current,” Bass explains.

The chair is oak, with leather restraint straps for both arms and legs. When it was moved from the former execution site in Richmond, the Code of Virginia had to be changed because the legal wording stated that all executions in Virginia had to take place in the capital city.

Directly above the chair, on the back wall, hangs a clock. The time is important tonight. The Code implies that the execution must take place before midnight. To the right of the clock, is the current box. A yellow light glows. On the wall to my right, is the infamous red telephone, shoulder high, with a direct line to the governor’s office.

The actual executioner is inside a smaller, hidden booth to my left, behind a one-way mirror-window. With a thumb, 1, 825 volts will surge through Fitzgerald’s body, in the chair. The initial surge will last for 30-seconds, then cut back to 60-seconds. And automatically shut off for five seconds, then a second 90-second surge will go through his body. Two controls are used. Then we’ll wait.

We’ll wait for 31/2 minutes, to allow the system to recharge for another surge if needed. 10: 49 pm. They’re late bringing in the condemned.

The execution chamber has a few corrections officers standing about. More will come in with Fitzgerald. All are volunteers and receive no extra pay or incentive for the duty. This is just another workday for each one of them.

We are told Fitzgerald had no last statement and that he asked for pizza as his last meal. It’s a myth, in Virginia, that the condemned may choose any last meal so desired. At one time, wardens did send out for a reasonable last meal. Now, only items on the regular daily prison menu are available.

Fitzgerald, with no last statement and remaining quiet throughout the weeks leading up to this night, did ask The Richmond Times-Dispatch to publish an open letter to his son, Eddie, Jr.: “. . . Although it might not seem like it at [the] time. But I’ve always loved you and Susan [daughter] without fail. Now its time to use my love and believe that all has not ended. Love is everlasting. . . . Dad.”

The door to my right, outside the witness booth, opens. A group of men moves quickly into the death chamber. It takes me a moment to locate Fitzgerald, surrounded by the “death squad.” The entourage includes prison officers, the prison chaplain, and a Catholic priest. Earlier, in a solitary cell, his final companions included two lawyers and a death penalty opponent. As we walked the jeering gaunlet line, coming into “Hellville,” I noticed the last three visitors leaving “L” Building (real label for “Hellville”), one carrying a box, possibly Fitzgerald’s personal effects.

Before Fitzgerald was transported to Greensville, he spent all of the ’80s on Death Row, at the Mecklenburg Correctional Facility. I’ve noticed today that the word “prison” is rarely used anymore. Mecklenburg is a 45-minute drive from Greensville, at Jarratt.

The condemned on Death Row are housed in single cells. The facility was planned simply to house the convicted until execution, not to rehabilitate. The men are locked in their individual cells for 19 hours of each day. They are allowed one hour in the morning, one at noon and three hours in the evening to exercise and associate with the eleven other men in their respective cell blocks only. All wear blue prison jumpsuits. When one leaves for the final trip, his comrades will honor the execution day and night with silence. Tonight, there is silence here at Greensville and Mecklenburg, except for the brief time we, the witnesses, walked from the van to “Hellville.”

While on Death Row, at Mecklenburg, a small Lynchburg church group writes and distributes a newsletter for the men: Voices from the Inside, The men like it.

Fitzgerald is smaller than I thought, once I deduce which one in the cluster he is. Maybe I figured a murderer has to be a hulk.

He seems composed. His head is shaven. A mustache remains. Tattoos are clearly visible on his arms, one leg I can see exposed and his scalp. There’s a spider web tattoo across his knee and the outline of a woman stretching down his leg from the knee, to his flip-flops.

The officers move quickly to position him in the chair, slipping the leather straps over his arms and legs securely. Wearing jeans, his right pant leg has been cut off above the knee to attach one of two electrical connectors. This has to be a Charles Bronson movie.

Not once has he glanced our way, toward the witness booth. His eyes and ears are intent upon listening to every word and gesture from the chaplain and priest. Since the intercom is on, we can hear most of what is being shared. Instructions from the officers and encouragements of life-over-death from the clergy seem a little contradictory to me.

The priest gives the last rites. And leans in to share a private thought. Fitzgerald smiles at that nervously. As the two life-over-death companions move to the side, the “death squad” moves closer to place a brown leather mask over the condemned’s face, strapping it snuggly to the back of the chair. With this mask, and the other straps, Fitzgerald cannot move, save for his index and middle fingers. A metal skullcap, reminiscent of a World War I helmet, is now being lowered over the shaven tattooed head and connected to the instrument of death, electricity.

When the chaplain says goodbye, the condemned wiggles those four fingers in response. Waiting for that first surge, I can see him forming a “V” sign with his fingers.

On Death Row for more than 11 years, Fitzgerald was convicted of the gruesome torture-killing of Patricia D. Cubbage, 22, in the Chesterfield County Circuit Court in 1981. He had stabbed her with a knife and hacked her body with a machete more than 180 times, from head to toe. She bled to death in the woods, after he “played” tic tac toe on her back, with the weapons.

In court, he admitted to having consumed more than 12 beers, having smoked marijuana, and having taken LSD and a tranquilizer. The victim was described, in court, as a drug dealer, police informer, and a prostitute.

Fitzgerald has never claimed to be innocent, asking his lawyers all along not to pursue court appeals to delay. He declined interviews, unlike Roger K. Coleman. Coleman made the cover of Time back in the spring, before time ran out.

The term “vileness” plays an important part in Virginia as to whether the convicted receives the capital punishment sentence. Fitzgerald’s mutilation of his victim’s body was described as vile. On September 15th, Willie L. Jones is scheduled to die in this same chair. The 1983 murders of an elderly Charles City County couple were considered by the court as vile: the 78-year-old-woman was set afire with kerosene while still alive, bound and gagged in a closet. Her 70-year-old husband was shot point-blank in the head. After robbing them of more than $30, 000, Jones set fire to the house to hide the crime. Vile. . . .

“Hellville” is scheduled for four more executions within the next three months. Since 1980, an average of one a year has taken place. Now, one a month. The last one, Roger Coleman, was on May 20th, with much fanfare, for raping and murdering his sister-in-law, in Grundy.

The next execution is August 20th. Mickey W. Davidson has admitted to murdering his wife and two stepdaughters in Smyth County, using a crowbar. Vile. . . .

Later, in October, two condemned will visit this death chamber.

As of tonight, 49 condemned men are on Death Row. The Corrections Facility at Mecklenburg, to the west of here, will send them here 15 days before the court dictates the execution time.

It’s time. Past 11 o’clock. The condemned does, I remember, have until the end of this hour to. . .die.

Both chaplain and priest step far to the right. Officers move to the far left. Fitzgerald’s fingers continue to wiggle the “V” sign. I see him at this moment take a last gulp. His hands now clench and ball into a fist, anticipating the first surge.

It hits.

His body jolts upward, straining against the straps, and remains in that tightened position for 90-seconds. We were told in the earlier briefing that the first surge was enough to render him brain dead. With the brief pause in power, the body relaxes, fists still tightly clenched. Somewhere in that first surge of electricity, I heard a moan over the intercom. Sparks fly off from the leg clamps, and puffs of smoke are now beginning to waft up from the knee and skullcap, to the ceiling.

The second surge of power is now moving into the body, forcing it to jolt upward, constrained by the straps. I’m sure he died with that first surge. When this second surge is over, we’ll wait.

No one speaks. No one moves. The wait is long. . .31/2 minutes.

The wait, and silence, are broken when a doctor walks into the death chamber from my left, pulls back a portion of the body’s shirt and places his stethoscope on the body’s chest. All eyes and ears are on that stethoscope. At any moment I half-expect to hear a director yell “CUT!” or that this man is “FRIED!” “This man has expired.” 11: 12 pm. Thursday, July 23rd.

Our Virginia Code states, “Electrocute until dead.” Dead means no heartbeat. A curtain in front of us is drawn.

My job, as witness tonight, is complete. Single file, we leave the witness booth. My smelling senses explode with the first whiff of an electrical fire odor, then, the stench of burnt human flesh. It takes no more than ten seconds to reach the door at the end of the hall, but I refuse to inhale during that time.

As the outside door is opened, bringing in the relief of fresh, humid night air, my mind is swiftly brought back to reality with the muffled shouts and obscenities once again hurled at us from the distant cells. This time my mind doesn’t single out specific phrases or expletives. I realize they’re not directed at me, but to the witness for the condemned I represent, from a comrade in waiting.

Back inside, the body is removed from the chair. We aren’t privy to that part. The body is placed on a table in another room. Sandbags are stacked across the body to cool it down.

In the van, I suddenly realize that I had not gotten sick, as expected.

Outside the last gate of the place no longer called a prison, I can see, through our van’s windows, two small groups who have assembled in the official protest fields since we passed earlier. One group has lighted candles, flickering in the humid, late-night air, and they appear to be singing. The other group is waving placards of approval for what we, the witnesses for the condemned, have officially viewed this night. The two groups should have been separated by the road. However, the lack of controversy surrounding Fitzgerald’s execution appears to have brought the two small, diametrically opposed groups together for a least one summer night.

After being dropped off at the State Police building, I drive back to the motel. The drive is short. I’m exhausted. It’s nearly midnight when I open the motel door. I need very much to sleep. Those immigration studies for the summer need my attention, too.

In bed, eyes closed, lights off, my mind starts to embroil its intricate network of conscience with pangs of empathy for the victims, then for the condemned. My thoughts even have trouble distinguishing whether tonight was another Bronson movie or reality. The confusing debate seems to be out of control in my mind. My thoughts are also out of control as to whether I should have volunteered to be an official witness for the condemned in the first place.

It’s quite clear that the vast majority of Americans support the laws prescribing capital punishment. And it’s quite clear tonight that the majority of witnesses for the condemned wanted Fitzgerald electrocuted. It’s also a fact that the strong, vocal minority has lobbied for years to overthrow capital punishment through the courts with every conceivable due process argument possible, knowing that the task would be futile via the legislative process. But the Supreme Court has held its ground, through majority opinions, and has not used its ultimate power to prevail over a state’s law.

The only clear argument left, to me, centers around one of morality—a difference between an individual and his or her state.

Executing a life, by the state, is no better than an individual taking a life. I also agonize over what is moral for the victims and their families and friends left with life, memories, and feelings. Surely, as an individual, retribution seems only fitting when the victim is a son, wife, daughter, or parent, but the government we have created must be morally above any one person’s actions, especially retribution. The cries for vindication are as morally alarming as the despicable crimes comitted by the condemned.

Enough. My mind has had enough for one day. . . and night. Come sweet elixir of sleep.


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Al's picture
Al · 10 years ago

You captured the atmosphere of a Virginia execution very well.   I remember being a witness to some years ago and had very much the same impressions.  


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