Virginia's electric chair probably wouldn't have been ready to be used for the first time in 16 years on June 30 when Michael Marnell Smith, a 31-year-old Williamsburg farmworker, was scheduled to be executed for murder.
For one thing, the 70-year-old chair, unused since March 2, 1962, has been boarded up in the basement of the state penitentiary in Richmond, and corrections officials will probably call in electricians to inspect it.
For another, the state isn't sure who will pull the switch or whether the 12 witnesses to the execution, required by law, will sit or stand. Offcials are unsure of past procedures because "there are not a whole lot of people who were around here 16 years ago," Wayne Ferrar, a Department of Corrections spokesman, said.
It turns out that the chair won't be needed this month. On Wednesday, Smith, a Vietnam veteran and father of three children who was convicted last November of raping and fatally knifing Audrey Jean Weiler, 35, on a James River beach, was granted an indefinite stay of execution pending appeal by the Virginia Supreme Court.
Smith is the first Virginian to be sentenced to death since the state revised its death penalty statute last winter in an effort to meet the latest U.S. Supreme Court guidelines. The death sentence is provided for murder committed in the course of rape, robbery, kidnapping or extortion demand, murder by hired killers and murder by prison inmates.
Smith's death senctence was set by a Williamsburg-james City Country jury and imposed by Circuit Court Judge Russell B. Carneal.
The last person put to death in the state's electric chair was convicted murderer' Carroll L. Garland, who was electrocuted in 1962.
Since Virginia's chair was first used in 1908, it has been used to electrocute 236 men, Ferrar said. Begin that, local jurisdictions handled executions, usually by hanging, he said.
During this year's session of the Virginia General Assembly the corrections department pushed for permission to use lethal injections instead of the electric chair, but the legislature turned that ideal down.
The injection would be more humane, Farrar said, and of secondary importance, less expensive. Ferrar said each execution costs "several thousands of dollars" and "a dose of the drug costs less than $1."