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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)

"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.


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