The pain of Wilbert Lee Evans's final night continues to linger, four days after he was put to death in an electric chair for the 1981 slaying of an Alexandria deputy.
Death penalty opponents have called on Virginia officials to investigate whether the execution was conducted inhumanely, citing eyewitness accounts that Evans bled profusely as he was electrocuted Wednesday night in the State Penitentiary in Richmond.
The Rev. Russell Ford, a prison chaplain, who spent the last hours of Evans's life with him, said that when Evans was hit with the first surge of electricity, his body lunged forward, blood flowed from under the leather death mask, and within seconds Evans's shirt was drenched in blood.
Then there was a sizzling sound as air spilled from Evans's lips, Ford said.
"That was a unique experience in the death chamber," said Ford, who said he has witnessed six executions. "Not in any way was this consistent with what had occurred in other executions. He was covered with blood. When I looked at him, you could see that was air being forced out of his body through his lips. It was somewhat like the sound a pressure cooker makes."
Ford said that as the sound occurred, officials in the chamber cringed and looked horrified. "Everyone looked back at what was causing the sound," he said.
The Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons, the Virginia Association to Abolish the Death Penalty and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia delivered a letter Friday to the Department of Corrections calling for an investigation to disclose "exactly why blood streamed form beneath the mask covering Mr. Evans's face, why Mr. Evans groaned after the first jolt of electricity and if he suffered."
They asked the state to determine whether the chair malfunctioned, causing Evans to suffer unnecessarily.
State Corrections Director Edward W. Murray said nothing went wrong. In a series of statements, according to the Associated Press, Murray first said, "The man just simply had a nosebleed. It's as plain as that." Then he said the bleeding was caused by Evans's high blood pressure.
On Friday, Murray said some of the witnesses were too emotional to have the facts straight.
Evans, 44, was electrocuted for shooting an Alexandria sheriff's deputy with his own revolver during a 1981 escape attempt. Evans, who contended the killing was an accident, asked that his sentence be commuted because he helped rescue guards during a 1984 death-row uprising.
He was supported in a widely publicized campaign that included letters from numerous prison employees. The Supreme Court turned down Evans's appeal at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, leaving Gov. L. Douglas Wilder as Evans's last hope.
Ford said that by 10 p.m. it was obvious no call to save Evans would come from the governor's office. Ford said that left Evans with about an hour to come to terms with death.
Ford said Evans took the death warrant from the warden and read the brief passage aloud. Then he went through a "dark moment."
"I said something, and he said, 'If you keep talking I'm going to cry.' He closed his eyes and there were tears. He asked God to forgive him and be with him. We held him through the bars."
Within moments there was a calm, Ford said. Evans walked to the death chamber. A guard tightened the leather fastenings, strapping Evans into the oak chair. "He said something like, 'ouch,' " Ford said, and the guard apologized and loosened the straps.
Evans told the warden, "The next man that passes this way, give him some poetry to read," Ford said.
They put a leather mask on his head. "I said, 'God bless you.' He said, 'God bless you, Chaplain Ford. I love you Rev. Ford.' Then he went into prayer asking God to forgive him and take him."
A guard in the control room turned on the equipment. Evans's body lunged forward at 11:04 p.m. at the first surge of 2,400 volts of electricity. The blood poured. A second volt was applied. Evans's body went limp after the final 55 second surge. He was pronounced dead at 11:09 p.m.
"There is an oddity to death in the death chamber," Ford said. "Because everyone there is a mere mortal, the witnesses, the reporters writing everything down, the officials. It's a very barbaric act, and somehow it's all quite civilized and everyone knows their part."