Witnessing Execution a Matter of Duty, Choice

Many Virginia residents  --  all volunteers  --  have visited the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt to witness executions.
Many Virginia residents -- all volunteers -- have visited the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt to witness executions. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 10, 2006

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.

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