For murder victims' families, witnessing execution offers hollow satisfaction

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Billy Smith stepped into the little room with the big window, seeking some mix of solace, satisfaction, justice, closure. He wasn't exactly sure. But he knew he had to be there. On the other side of the glass, strapped to a gurney with IV tubes in his arms, was the man who had murdered his father.

Smith had been just 18, fresh out of high school, when Willie Lloyd Turner gunned down Jack Smith during a robbery of the family jewelry store in 1978. After the trial and the appeals and the relentless legal maneuvering, the son was nearing middle age when, finally, in the spring of 1995, it was the killer's turn to die.

"Initially, I would have probably pulled the trigger and slept like a baby," Smith said recently. But the years had mellowed his feelings a bit. "I just wanted to see it over. It had been such a struggle for such a long time."

Too tense to sit, he stood near the glass, riveted, staring. Turner said only, "When will it start? Will I feel it?" The chemicals began to flow. Smith quickly realized he was unprepared for the experience of seeing a killer put to death. Unprepared to be so . . . underwhelmed.

"Within two minutes it's over," he says. "He doesn't flinch, he doesn't move, he goes to sleep. Then they say, 'Okay, it's time to go.' . . . The whole thing is very anticlimactic."

That's the first thing Smith would tell relatives of the victims of John Allen Muhammad who are journeying from as far as California and Idaho to witness the Washington sniper's execution by lethal injection scheduled for Tuesday night: The execution of a killer can be just a little disappointing.

'It helped to a degree'

The same note of ambivalence is what you tend to hear from other victims' relatives who've been there -- watching with tragic eyes from behind the glass in the lonely little witness room, where all is not resolved. They feel better. A little. Not much. It's not the better they thought they would feel. They can hardly explain why. They exit the room with most of the ache they carried in.

"It's not like, 'Whoopee!' " says Dale Alexander. "It's not like a ballgame, we won, home run."

Her daughter, Lisa Alexander Crider, 23, the mother of a 5-year-old boy, was raped and shot in the face with a shotgun on the banks of the James River on Mother's Day 1997. The killer, Brandon W. Hedrick, reportedly an acquaintance, was executed in the electric chair in 2006.

"It helped to see the completion," Alexander says. "It helped to a degree."

Smith and one of his sisters were the first in modern Virginia history to make that trip -- the very first to accept the commonwealth's invitation to victims' relatives to be in the audience for the last act.

What did he expect? He's still not certain. Something . . . more, after all the grief and loss and lawyers. A bang, not a whimper.

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