June 1956. In a courtroom here, closed to spectators except the press, a jury convicted Frank J. Snider of rape. Snider was 29, a burly, 200-pound, itinerant steelworker. The victim was a 9-year-old girl. And the sentence was death.
"I'd like to kill you if I could get my hands on you," Snider shorted at the prosecutor, tears streaming down his face as he said goodbye to his parents. Tattoos rippling on beefy arms, Snider was led away in handcuffs and leg shackles. The same night he was in a tiny, dank basement cell in the Richmond penitentiary. Death row.
What happened then has become part of the folklore of Virginia prison history. It is a tale of the state's style of punishment, differing notions of what is just retribution for a heinous crime and, most of all, an attorney's 25-year battle on behalf of a client who could never pay him and who has served more time than many convicted murderers.
"If I'd had any other lawyer, I wouldn't be here," says Snider, who spend 13 years awaiting electrocution, a state record, and ate his "last meal" three times. "There's not another attorney in the would who would have done what he did."
Says the attorney, Harvey S. Lutins, simply: "It was my legacy. I was too scared not to save him."
Having cheated the executioner years ago, Snider petitioner Gov. John N. Dalton, who left office Saturday, to free him from prison. Dalton denied the request according to Lutins, who said he will renew his request for executive clemency with Gov. Charles S. Robb "as soon as he settles in."
Few convicted rapists in Virginia have served as long as Snider. According to the latest available figures, 47 such inmates were released from the state's prisons in fiscal 1979 after serving an average of 3.2 years on average sentences of 9.2 years. Many Virginia prosecutors and legislators say the state's recently toughened rape statute, which provides penalties from five years to life, is warranted.
"If ought to be more than five to life," says state Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax), an advocate of longer rape sentences."Quite frankly, a rapist shouldn't be getting out [of prison] until his total sentence is served, and maybe even more.You can't rehabilitate a rapist."
"Rape is by far one of the most emotional crimes, even more than some murders," says Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney John Kloch, who two years ago won a conviction in a rape-murder case involving a 5-year-old. "And it often has more lasting implications."
Harvey Lutins leans forward in his highback leather chair. He is now a prosperous, middle-aged lawyer with pinky ring and gold bracelet, ensconced in a private office of decorator floral print fabrics and framed diplomas. From a fat file on his desk, he reads snatches of prison correspondence from Frank Snider.
"This one ends, 'God bless you and keep you daily in His love.'" He pauses to light an ever-present pipe. "He's always God-blessing me," Lutins grins as smoke envelopes his blue double-breasted blazer. On a table opposite his desk stands a handsome model sailing ship. It was built entirely from matchsticks, glued and sanded and shellacked, over a period of several months, by Snider.
The two men see each other four or five times a year. In between there are occasional letters and telephone calls. Since Snider became eligible for parole in 1974, the news has been uniformly disappointing for him. Although Snider has been considered yearly by the state's five-member parole board, he has been rejected repeatedly "due to the seriousness of the offense."
"Vindictiveness," says Lutins.
"It's those kinds of people...," he says, referring to Virginia's prison and parole officials. "It's unforgiving. I always thought we kept people in [prison] for a purpose, then we let them out and kept our fingers crossed. Now as a lawyer I learn that that's a lot of ----."
For a quarter-century, while his private practice grew into its present location here in a handsomely renovated gray-brick mansion, Lutins unsuccessfully petitioned every Virginia governor since Thomas B. Stanley for clemency for Snider.
"It's a direct reflection on the penal and parole system that it's not working," Lutins maintains. Although the nature of Snider's crime is cited as reason for keeping him in, Lutins says Snider has never received psychiatric therapy or counseling in 25 1/2 years behind bars.
Lutins also says the girl Snider raped is now a 34-year-old Virginia housewife and mother, "apparently unimpaired," although he does not diminish the seriousness of Snider's crime.
Snider's victim does not share Lutins' view. In a recently published interview in the Roanoke Times & World-News, she described herself as still suspicious of men and hesitant to go out alone at night. "I think he's better off where he is. I know he wants his freedom and all. I have sympathy with him," she said. But, "I'm going to have to pay for the rest of my life for what he done to me, and I think he should pay, too.... I don't think he should receive a gold medal for what he done."
"Frank's been around a long time," says parole board chairman Pleasant Shields, who says the average life term in Virginia is about 20 years. "In his case, sex misbehavior concerns me. Some time before he dies, his age will be such he'll be released."
Shields says formal charges that Snider committed other sex offenses 25 years ago also are part of the reason he remains in prison at 55, although those charges never went to trial.
"Unfortunately," says Shields, "it's a factor I can't erase."
In June 1956, Kefauver lashed Stevenson in the California primary campaign. Al Alabama court banned the NAACP for encouraging attacks on segregation laws. And Frank Snider went on trial for his life in this southwest Virginia city. Nothing about his crime generated sympathy.
The prosecution said Snider abducted the girl as she played in an alley on Mother's Day, drove her to a secluded spot in the city in his red and cream 1955 Mercury, raped her and drove her back to her neighborhood.
In a silent courtroom, the girl took the stand and pointed to Snider as her attacker. Blood found on a napkin in Snider's Mercury also linked him to the rape.
"He hit me when I didn't do what he told me," the girl testified. She said he also warned her against telling her parents and asked her to call another little girl for him.
Snider testified in his own defense and denied the rape. He said he had eluded police later that day in an 80-mph chase because he had been drinking and feared a drunk-driving charge.
After sentencing, Snider was granted a few minutes to bid farewell to his parents. "Son," said his mother, "the only thing for you to do is turn your soul over to God."
Harvey Lutins, then fresh out of law school at the University of Richmond, remembers being pulled aside one day in early 1957 by his new employer, Roanoke attorney T. Warren Messick. "'Son, we just got involved in the Snider case. Go pull the file,'" Lutins recalls being told.
An endless stream of motions, petitions and pleadings followed, as the lawyers worked to keep Snider alive. Local courts and later the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court were approached for stays of execution. The lawyers argued unsuccessfully that Snider's incarceration on death row was cruel and unusual punishment and that Snider was legally insane.
Arguments that Snider's trial was marred by prejudicial publicity, including a headline that referred to him as a "sex fiend," also failed. When Messick died in the early 1960s, Lutins took over the fight.
In all, there were seven stays of execution. Once, in May 1963, Chief Justice Earl Warren denied a reprieve. With one day left before Snider was scheduled to die, Lutins turned to the then-Chief Judge of the 4th Circuit, Simon E. Sobeloff of Baltimore.
"I can still see Sobeloff in bedroom slippers with his sleeves rolled up while we argued about why he should grant me a stay," Lutins says. Finally Sobeloff, after conferring with other members of the court by telephone, agreed.
"His secretary was sick and I had to type the order, hunt-and-peck," Lutins recalls."The judge stood over me, saying, 'Son, can't you type faster?'" With the order signed, Lutins headed for the door.
"'Son,'" Lutins says Sobeloff told him, "'You drive carefully. If you get killed, it won't do your client any good.'"
When Lutins arrived in Richmond, Snider's head was shaved and his pant legs slit in preparation for the electrodes. "He was soaked in sweat."
In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to bar prospective jurors simply because they were opposed to capital punishment. Snider's death sentence was set aside, although he remained in his basement cell for nearly two more years. In 1973, he was resentenced to life imprisonment.
Then began the new phase of yearly parole reviews and long days of working in Virginia prison industries.
Frank Snider enters the room -- he is 6 feet 2 -- with a firm grip to his handshake. He has spend the past 13 months at Deep Meadow Correctional Center, 30 miles west of Richmond, working weekdays in a public works warehouse. Weekends are devoted to sports on television.
At 55, he has given up reading because his eyesight is failing. He suffers from a sinus condition and his intermittent kidney infections, health problems Lutins says are related to the years on death row.
This day, though, his spirits seem high. Snider agrees to see few outsiders except Lutins.He stopped writing to his family years ago. "It hurts," he says. "Relatives would tell me they were sick or something and all I could do is worry. It's too frustrating. When I get out I'll go visit them all."
He mentions a brother who lives in Michigan, but skips over his wife, who divorced him, and their two children, whom he has not heard from in years. His parents were killed in a 1957 car wreck as they returned from visiting him on death row.
It is Lutins who for decades has been "like a brother, like family." Snider recently completed a new matchstick creation for Lutins, a little country well ("country wale," in Snider's down-South accent) with a roof and rail fencing.
"Messick died on a Thursday," Snider recalls. "My appeal papers were on the seat of his car. I was scheduled for execution in eight days. When Mr. Lutins came to tell me Messick was dead, I didn't have nobody left."
So Snider asked young Lutins to take his case, and the next day Lutins agreed. "The time Mr. Lutins drove down from seeing Judge Sobeloff," he adds, "I saw him about 11:30 that night. His suit was wrinkled and his eyes were red. I told him he looked worse than I did."
Although Snider has been eligible for years for weekend furloughs and work-release programs outside the prison, he has never won approval from officials. "It's always 'the nature of your crime.'" he says. He grips the table. "You tell me what I can do to change it and I'll do it."
If he could, Snider would like to visit a family in Danville, Va., who became friendly after reading about his case in the newspapers. He first heard from them in a letter from the wife, who said she had been sexually abused as a child. Soon the couple asked if they and their 9-year-old daughter could visit Snider in prison.
"I hesitated," Snider says, but eventually he agreed.
When the day came, a guard called to tell Snider he had visitors at the gate. "I still wasn't sure," Snider says. "I hesitated again before I went around the corner of the building."
Finally, he walked into the visitors' room.The wife put her arms around him. The husband did the same. And then, the little girl reached up and hugged him, too.