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.

Incidents such as those helped motivate Del. Phillip A. Hamilton (R-Newport News) to introduce his bill allowing lethal injection, which was passed by both houses and is scheduled to be signed by Allen.

Hamilton, a capital punishment supporter, witnessed an execution as part of his four-year effort to win approval of lethal injection. While it was carried out with precision, he argues that the skull is the most resilient part of the body and worries that the brain remains alive while the rest of the body burns.

"Reading some of the autopsy reports left some doubt in my mind whether the jolt of electricity really did cause death or brain death right away," he said last week.

Specialists have said that an inmate dies in the electric chair almost immediately. Virginia corrections officials said they have had few problems despite the Evans and Peterson incidents.

Under present policy, a condemned killer is strapped into the chair and his face is covered with a leather mask. Once the button is pushed, the chair delivers an 1,825-volt shock for 30 seconds, followed by a 240-volt surge for 60 seconds. It then resets itself over a span of three to five seconds and repeats the cycle.

That procedure has been altered several times over the years to find the most effective formula. David Bass, manager of corrections operations for the state's eastern region, said the Evans and Peterson incidents both had simple explanations.

An investigation determined that Evans suffered a nosebleed because a notch in the mask's strap was not big enough to accommodate his large face, Bass said. In Peterson's case, Bass said, corrections officials decided to have the physician check after one cycle of electricity instead of two.

"It was always the procedure to run as many cycles as necessary," he said. "The machine is designed to render the condemned brain dead within moments."

Watkins may have been the last inmate to die in the chair, but his case drew little attention compared with some of the death-row inmates who have died or been spared in Virginia in recent years.

Watkins was convicted of fatally shooting Betty Jean Barker during a robbery on Nov. 14, 1983, and then killing Carl Douglas Buchanan on Nov. 22, 1983.

He spent his final day in a holding cell and was visited by a girlfriend for two hours and met with his attorneys, but no family members came to the prison.

In their clemency petition to Allen, Watkins's lawyers noted that no white man has ever been sentenced to death in Danville, a small town near the North Carolina border where the Confederate flag still is flown.

Double-murderer Johnny Watkins Jr., above, was executed last night in what may have been the last time Virginia uses it's 86-year-old electric chair.

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