Samuel Glasscock, a gentle soft-spoken lawyer from the small Virginia town of Suffolk, went to Richmond Tuesday to witness the execution of Frank J. Coppola not because he favors capital punishment, but because he has a deep and abiding loathing of it.
As a state delegate who had fought in vain to keep the death penalty off the books, Glasscock felt he somehow had an obligation to watch the state take a life. It was his hope that by his personal testimony and the scars of his experience, he could better persuade his fellow legislators that executions are futile, counterproductive -- and horrible.
"I felt so strongly that it was not effective . . . that I felt I had some responsibility to be present and experience the agony and try to relay that to my colleagues and the public at large, in hopes that all of us would have a better understanding of what we were doing," said Glasscock, a 50-year-old Democrat known for espousing causes that go against the grain in conservative Virginia.
What Glasscock saw that night in the basement of the Richmond State Penitentiary stunned him, more than even he had expected. He is still haunted by some of the scenes of the execution, but most of all he is awestruck by the immensity of the event.
"More than what took place, it was the taking of a life which society has done in a methodical fashion. That, even more than the details of the event, is the thing that keeps hitting me," he said late last week.
In a sparse account that leaves out "the most horrible" details, Glasscock has described how Coppola, his head shaved, and dressed in blue denim, was escorted to the death chamber as the witnesses -- prison officials and six others, including Glasscock, chosen from the public -- watched from behind a plexiglass enclosure.
Coppola showed no signs of reluctance or hesitation, said Glasscock; he stared intently at the witnesses. He was strapped into the polished oak chair; a cap studded with electrodes was placed on his head, a leather band on his ankle and a leather mask tied on to cover his face.
Then as two 55-second surges of 2,500 volts were sent through the condemned man, his body heaved slightly against the leather straps, said Glasscock. At 11:27 p.m., Coppola was pronounced dead and someone turned out the lights in the chamber.
By keeping back some of the details, Glasscock said he hopes to spare the family -- particularly the two teen-age sons -- of the dead man. He also is wary of being too ghoulish, disputing those who argue that the public should know everything that happened, no matter how gruesome, he said.
"One of the problems with that is then people simply say, 'That method is horrible, let's use lethal injection or some other thing,' when to me, the horror, the real horror is that we have just taken the life of another human being," said Glasscock.
Forty-five minutes after the execution, Glasscock, in an interview with a reporter, acknowledged he was still shaken. Later that night, he drove home to Suffolk, arriving at 4 a.m. "I slept for a couple hours and when I woke, the first thing on my mind was what happened," said Glasscock. "I felt more emotion then than I had the evening before."
He said the days since have been difficult. His family has been understanding, but his work has suffered, he said. He has spent hours on the telephone describing this "very horrible experience," speaking in measured tones, avoiding criticism of those who oppose his views.
Unlike some other opponents of the death penalty, he has no harsh words for state officials. He said he understands why Gov. Charles S. Robb chose not to commute Coppola's sentence. "I have absolutely no criticism of Robb," he said. "I really feel his task was to carry out the law . . . I really sympathize. He must have agonized through it just as I did."
There has been a mild public reaction to Glasscock's role at the execution and what he has had to say about it. He is the first to admit that "from a political standpoint, it was probably not very wise." A few letters have trickled into his office -- there have been others in the local newspaper -- but he has asked his secretary to screen out the "unpleasant" ones "for now. A lot of people feel I am very wrong, but I don't think they want to be ugly about it. Most people don't want to be unpleasant."
Glasscock said he worries that in opposing the death penalty -- a view he has held since his days at the University of Virginia law school in the early 1950s -- people think he is insensitive to the victims of crime, that he is party to a perverse glorification of the criminal.
"A lot of people say Sam Glasscock is soft on crime," he said. "I feel I'm tougher than some others. I just think we could do more about crime if we'd quit looking at the simple solutions that don't really work."
Glasscock said he is still surprised at all the attention he has attracted, admitting he had never really thought about what he would do after the execution. He said he has returned more than 30 phone calls from the news media.
But he soon found that for the press, the execution story was just that -- a story and not, as it was for him, a cause. Returning a call to a New York radio station on Thursday, a voice in the newsroom told him they weren't interested anymore: "That was yesterday's news," Glasscock was told.
"I wanted to say that the news is to try to do something so we have less violence, to find better ways to improve our criminal justice system," he recalled.
Glasscock has yet to hear from a single legislator, although he said he suspects they've heard what he has to say. "If this is to mean anything, if I can in some way convey to people my feelings, then there will be some purpose in it," he said. "The only way to do that is to tell folks and hope they tell others."