In grim distinction, Va. killer is first to die based on DNA testing

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 28, 1994; 12:00 AM

JARRATT, VA., APRIL 27 -- Serial killer Timothy Wilson Spencer, the first person in the country convicted of a capital crime through DNA testing, died in the state electric chair late tonight.

The man known as the Southside Strangler was pronounced dead at 11:13 p.m., said Wayne Brown, operations officer at Greensville Correctional Center here in southern Virginia.

His electrocution came after a flurry of last-minute legal efforts that went as high as the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected a request for a stay at 10:45 p.m. Spencer's attorneys had frantically pleaded for retesting of the DNA genetic material that led to his convictions for raping and murdering four women during a 10-week rampage in 1987.

In his final moments, Spencer, 32, betrayed no hint of fear, walking into the death chamber with what witnesses described as almost a swagger. Asked if he had a final statement, Spencer initially answered "yeah, I think," but then said nothing, according to witnesses, whereupon officials covered his face with a leather mask.

A crowd of about 100 gathered outside the prison, about half of them death-penalty opponents conducting a candlelight prayer vigil. The rest were local high school students who boisterously cheered for Spencer's death.

As death-penalty opponents sang "Amazing Grace," some of the students yelled, "Kill the bitch."

Such a spectacle has been rare since the state moved the death chamber to this remote location, about 55 miles south of Richmond, in 1991.

"There is no way to explain what Timothy Spencer did," said Episcopal Bishop Frank H. Vest Jr., who led the death-penalty protesters. "I just think vengeance is God's."

But for friends and relatives of Spencer's victims, tonight's execution was simply long-delayed justice.

Josephine Dudley, 68, a Lynchburg woman who lost her only daughter, Debbie Dudley Davis, said she hoped Spencer's death would finally put an end to her nightmares. "I just have a continuous dream of Debbie in her apartment and what he did to her," she said. "It's terrible. I hope this will be some relief from that."

Erin Broadbent, whose friend, Susan M. Tucker, was raped and killed in her Arlington town house, said she was "semi-numb" today.

"I sort of had put it out of my mind and then it came up in the paper when the date was set and it was sort of a jolt back to reality," she said. "It's a chapter that I would like to have closed and over with."

The case was watched closely nationwide because Spencer was the first defendant ever sentenced to death on the basis of DNA genetic "fingerprinting." According to state specialists, the chances were less than 1 in 700 million that someone other than Spencer had left the semen at the murder scenes.

His conviction was such a legal milestone that it prompted Virginia to open the first state DNA laboratory in the country and inspired mystery writer Patricia D. Cornwell's popular 1990 novel "Postmortem."

"It was a landmark case because prior to that, none of us really knew much about DNA and we didn't know whether ... a jury would be able to understand that sufficiently to convict someone of something as serious as capital murder," said U.S. Attorney Helen F. Fahey, who won the first conviction of Spencer when she was Arlington's chief prosecutor.

The bodies of his four victims were discovered in quick, chilling succession, the first three not far from the halfway house on Richmond's south side where he'd been living after his release from prison on burglary charges.

Davis, 35, an account manager, was found Sept. 19; Susan Elizabeth Hellams, 32, a neurosurgeon, Oct. 3; and Diane Cho, 15, a high school freshman, Nov. 22. Tucker, 44, a federal employee, was found Dec. 1, shortly after Spencer visited his mother's nearby home for Thanksgiving.

All four were discovered nude or partly clothed in their bedrooms, their hands bound and rope, belts or socks tied around their necks. They apparently were awakened when Spencer entered their homes through windows, then raped, sodomized and choked them to death.

Spencer later was implicated in the 1984 slaying of lawyer Carolyn Jean Hamm, 32, in Arlington, and a dozen other crimes, including eight rapes. He was never tried in those cases because he already had been sentenced to death.

However, the conclusion that he killed Hamm led to the release of a Manassas man who had spent five years in prison for that slaying.

Since the day Spencer flipped his middle finger during a 1988 sentencing hearing, he had defiantly maintained his innocence. No witnesses placed him at the murder scenes. The cases against him were built almost entirely on the match of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, which determines a person's genetic makeup and is unique except in identical twins.

In a final effort this month to save Spencer's life, his attorneys asked that state genetics evidence be released to their independent specialists, who questioned whether there was a solid match. But an assistant attorney general said seven scientists who examined the DNA results considered it conclusive, including a Nobel Prize winner.

Spencer became the 24th man executed in Virginia since the Supreme Court restored the death penalty in 1976, the 12th since 1992. He also was one of the last to face the state's electric chair; the General Assembly has agreed to allow inmates to die by lethal injection beginning Jan. 1.

Tonight's electrocution was unusual because the prison system's head physician refused to be present to pronounce Spencer dead. Balvir L. Kapil, who has witnessed a dozen executions, became the first doctor in the country to back out of an execution since the American Medical Association ruled recently that such participation constitutes a breach of medical ethics.


© 1994 The Washington Post Company