Va.'s execution of double murderer may be last for its electric chair

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 1994; 12:00 AM

JARRATT, VA., MARCH 3 -- The switch on the Virginia electric chair may have been thrown for the final time when a 32-year-old double murderer was put to death late tonight.

Without the fanfare of public appeals or noisy protests, Johnny Watkins Jr. likely became a footnote in the history books. After 86 years of electrocuting death-row inmates, Virginia plans to allow them to die by lethal injection beginning July 1, an option almost always chosen when offered in other states.

Watkins made no final statement after he was led into the death chamber, and he was pronounced dead at 11:11 p.m.

If his death was a landmark in Virginia, it was an anticlimactic one. Watkins looked somewhat confused as he was escorted into the death chamber, but he walked calmly to the chair without protest or struggle. As he was strapped in, witnesses heard someone say, "God bless you" twice and "go with the flow," but it was not clear who uttered the words.

When the power was turned on, Watkins's body tensed, his fists clenched, smoke began billowing from his right leg where a metal clamp was attached, and a sizzling sound could be heard.

Watkins, who became the 23rd man executed in Virginia since the Supreme Court restored the death penalty in 1976 and the sixth in the last 14 months, was convicted of murdering two convenience store clerks during separate robberies in 1983. Watkins, who was black, had appealed to Gov. George Allen by claiming that his sentences by all-white juries were racially motivated.

The state's new Republican governor issued a four-sentence statement saying that he had "concluded that the facts of the case do not warrant exercise of the extraordinary remedy of executive clemency."

Watkins's crime and his appeals were so typical that they generated little of the national notoriety accompanying such recent Virginia cases as that of Roger Coleman, who was put to death despite an international campaign to save him, and Earl Washington Jr., whose sentence was commuted to life in prison after new DNA tests cast doubt on his guilt.

The change to lethal injection comes too late for Watkins, but the method of execution was not the important issue for him. "Killing is wrong any way for the state," he said in a recent interview.

The state's oak electric chair was installed in 1908 at the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond, and for each scheduled execution competing crowds gathered outside, one to cheer on the death of a heinous criminal and the other to hold candles and mourn state-sanctioned killing.

After the prison closed, the chair was moved in 1991 to the new Greensville Correctional Center, 55 miles to the south in rural Jarratt.

Over the years, 258 men and one woman have been strapped into Virginia's electric chair, but it has not always gone smoothly. In 1990, witnesses said that Wilbert Lee Evans lunged forward after the voltage was turned on and that blood flowed profusely from under the leather face mask, drenching his shirt. An outraged prison chaplain spoke out publicly afterward. The next year, corrections officials had to shock Derick Lynn Peterson a second time when a physician detected a pulse after the first cycle.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 1994 The Washington Post Company