Virginia executes man in 1999 murder of woman, rape of her sister

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010; A01

Kristie Reed was on the basement floor, her throat and wrists slashed. Her older sister, Stacie, was upstairs, dead from a stab wound to the heart. When police reached Kristie, who was then 14 years old, an officer leaned in and asked who had done this to her. Kristie mouthed two words: "Paul Powell."

On Thursday night, more than 11 years later, Paul Warner Powell, 31, was executed in Virginia's electric chair. He was declared dead at 9:09 p.m. The Jan. 29, 1999, murder of one sister and the rape and near-slaying of the other in Manassas were among the most notorious crimes in the region's recent history.

Besides the savage attacks, the case was known for Powell's boastful jailhouse letter to Prince William County's chief prosecutor, which provided the crucial evidence that resulted in Thursday's execution.

But it was Kristie Reed's eyewitness account that led to Powell's arrest and admission just hours after the slaying. She is left with decade-old memories of her sister and a neck laced with what she calls "battle scars." Formerly against the death penalty, Kristie eagerly awaited Powell's execution.

"I need to know that he's gone, that we don't have to deal with this anymore," said Kristie Reed, now 25 and an advocate for rape victims. "I was totally against the death penalty before this happened, and I didn't know why people would want to do it. But those people haven't been through what we've been through. Now I'm totally for it. He definitely deserves to die. He needs to die for what he did to Stacie."

In the end, Powell was silent. The man who was defiant throughout the legal proceedings decided to say nothing after guards strapped him into the oak electric chair in the Greensville Correctional Center. He stared ahead when asked whether he wanted to say anything.

Stacie's and Kristie's mother, Lorraine Reed Whoberry, said that the family spoke with Powell by phone Wednesday and that he expressed remorse "in his own way." Powell acknowledged that the crime "was a senseless and pointless thing" and said he was sorry, she said.

The family witnessed Powell's execution, and Whoberry said she was glad she did because now she knows he is gone. "Justice was served, and this chapter has closed," she said.

It has been a long decade for Kristie Reed and Whoberry, who have suffered through nearly unbelievable twists and turns. Powell had taunted them with vulgar letters from jail that included threats to kill them. And the legal case was emotional and difficult.

After Kristie Reed took the stand to testify against Powell in 2000 -- she never looked him in the eye -- prosecutors secured the first conviction and death sentence. At the hearing in which the judge imposed the jury's sentence, the forewoman testified on Powell's behalf, saying that she loved him and had made the wrong decision.

In 2001, the Virginia Supreme Court threw out Powell's death sentence, ruling that the murder of one girl and the rape of another could not be considered the same crime -- a factor necessary for the death penalty. After the ruling, Powell wrote an insulting letter to prosecutors. But in it, he admitted that he had tried to rape Stacie Reed, too. That admission tied Stacie's attempted rape to her slaying and led prosecutors to re-indict him. He was convicted and sentenced to death a second time after another full trial in 2003.

Through it all, Powell egged on Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert, who has now sent 10 people to Virginia's death chamber, nearly 10 percent of all people executed in the state since capital punishment was reinstated in 1982. Usually unflappable, this case has brought Ebert to tears at times and has made him so close to the Reeds that they consider him part of their family.

"From the get-go, if anyone deserved the death penalty, Paul Powell deserved it," Ebert said. "I've been in this business a long time, and I'm pretty callous. This case is more tragic than most I've witnessed because of the ages and the personalities of the victims. You can imagine the horror that went on in that basement as Kristie begged for her life. I got emotionally involved."

Ebert, who witnessed his second execution in five months and his first electrocution, said Powell's death "was a much more gentle death than Stacie's."

Powell has never denied what happened in the Reed house. He told police that Stacie Reed, 16, "got stuck" with a large survival knife during an argument, according to court records. She broke a fingernail on Powell's face and continued to fight after she was stabbed, falling lifeless into her sister's room.

Powell waited around the house for Kristie Reed to come home, showed the teenager her sister's body, then forced her into the basement, where he ordered her to strip naked, raped her, choked her, then cut and stabbed her.

Powell left her for dead.

Powell and Stacie Reed had begun socializing shortly before the slaying. Whoberry had never met him, and Kristie Reed had just recently learned his last name. Powell told authorities that on the day of the killing, he became angry with Stacie when she refused his sexual advances and instead took a phone call from her boyfriend.

"I knew from the moment I saw her that she was gone," Kristie said, slowly recounting her fright in seeing her sister's body. "Stacie put up a fight, but I'm not a fighter. If I know my life's in jeopardy, I'll do whatever you say. I did what he told me to do. He told me to go into the basement, and I did."

Kristie identified Powell immediately, and police found him just hours later at a friend's house. The sheath of his knife had Stacie's blood on it, and police found a drawstring from Powell's striped sweat shirt under Stacie's body. Powell wore that sweat shirt during his first interview with Richard Leonard, who was then a Prince William police detective.

Leonard, who knew Powell from some small-time trouble he had caused in high school, had a rapport with him and quickly got him to admit his crimes. He said Powell had the hardest time discussing his assault on Kristie because he thinks Powell was ashamed of it.

Jennifer Wasko, the forewoman on the jury that first convicted Powell and who later testified on his behalf, has also been through quite an ordeal. The trial scarred her, and her relationship with Powell tore apart her family and professional life. Now remarried, in a new career and living in West Virginia, she now wishes she had never contacted Powell after the trial. She said she felt pity for someone she considered "crazy and lost" and wanted to help him.

Wasko spent hours on the phone with Powell and exchanged letters with him that she said ranged from sweet to hateful. The conversations petered out over time, but Wasko said she received a birthday message from him every year. After Powell sent his tirade to Ebert, Wasko said she felt no more responsibility for him.

"Everything that happened, he did it, he did it to himself," said Wasko, who during the first trial went by Jennifer Day. "I can sleep at night now. He did what he did, and he's getting what he deserves."

Whoberry, who is deeply spiritual, has forgiven Powell, and she told him that in a letter in February 2008. She believes his sentence is just and supported his execution, but she believes Stacie Reed's legacy should be Stacie's, not Powell's.

"That hole in your heart will never be filled," Whoberry said. "I miss hearing her voice. I miss her smile. We lost so much that we'll never get back. I've forgiven him, but I haven't forgotten. Death is not the final and ultimate place. The final destination is heaven or hell."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company