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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)

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.

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