A Fairfax County jury yesterday convicted Richard Lee Whitley of murder and recommended he die in Virginia's electric chair for what police have called the "unbelievably brutal murder" and robbery last July of a 63-year-old Pimmit Hills woman.
Whitley, 34, an unemployed Chicago native, ran a hand through his shoulder-length hair and grinned when a clerk read the decision, reached after 32 minutes by the six-man, six-woman jury.
Circuit Court Judge F. Bruce Bach, who said he agreed with the jury's finding, delayed formal sentencing until June 12.
If Bach imposes the death penalty, Whitley's case automatically will be reviewed by the Virginia Supreme Court. Unless the sentence is overturned, Whitley will become the 14th felon awaiting execution at the state penitentiary in Richmond.
Yesterday was the second time in the last month a Virginia jury has asked for the death penalty. An Alexandria jury recommended execution for William Lee Evans following his April 17 conviction in the shooting of Deputy William Truesdale on the steps of the city jail last January.
The most recent execution in Virginia was in 1962.
Whitley's court-appointed lawyer, Warren McLain, said yesterday he was dissatisfied with the verdict. "We had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the motive in the murder was not robbery," McLain said. "We had hoped for a finding of first degree murder."
First degree murder carries a maximum penalty in Virginia of 20 years to life imprisonment. Murder committed during a felony such as armed robbery, called capital murder, can result in execution.
McLain contended during the trial that while credit cards and an automobile were missing from the home of the victim, Phoebe Parsons, after her murder, Whitley had not gone there intending to rob the elderly woman and that the robbery was incidental to the slaying.
McLain also introduced a check for $112.45 that Whitley had cashed that day and said, "Any man with a hundred dollars in his pocket would not have the intent to commit robbery."
According to a confession submitted by the prosecution during the two-day trial, Whitley went next door to Parsons' home twice on the evening of July 25 to use the phone. Parsons, a religious woman who was active in civic causes, knew Whitley well, often paying him to do repair work around her three-bedroom house, according to testimony.
On the second visit, Whitley told police, he and Parsons were standing in the living room by the front door. "I had been drinking . . . We were talking about my wife [who had left him two weeks earlier] and going to church and everything, and the next thing I know she was dead."
As the questioning continued, Whitley, who did not testify during the trial, admitted choking Parsons down to the floor and putting a rope around her neck. Then, he told police, he "wound up cuttin' her throat . . . in the jugular vein."
Detective Jerry Feltman of the Tampa, Fla., police department -- who arrested Whitley on April 9 after he had fled Pimmit Hills in Parson's car -- testified that Whitley said he had "cut her" in the jugular with his red-handled Boy Scout pocket knife because "they die quicker when you cut them there."
Feltman also testified that detectives in Tampa asked Whitley what Parsons was doing when he killed her. "Praying," Feltman testified Whitley had said.
"Was she praying for you not to kill her?" the Tampa detectives asked.
"Yeah, I guess," he said Whitley answered.
After the slaying, according to the confession, Whitley said he "picked her up under her arms and dragged her [to the bedroom]. I was trying to put her on the bed." Then, after stripping Parsons naked and further abusing her body, he placed clothes and boxes over her and "ransacked" the house.
"I was looking for a gun . . . I couldn't find a gun or anything," he told police. "I found her car keys and went home and took a shower and changed clothes and took [Parsons'] car and went."
Though Whitley told authorities he didn't know why he killed Parsons, he said he "felt terrible after I realized what happened."