The letters have been sent in spurts, some of them polite and conversational, others brooding and obscene. Sometimes they speak of love, other times they snarl with hate. Some of the writings are comic, and a few reveal the haunting rantings of a murderer.
In the three years since he was arrested in the death of a 16-year-old Manassas girl and in the rape and attempted murder of her younger sister, Paul Warner Powell has reached out in lengthy handwritten letters to prosecutors, the victims' family and the forewoman of the jury that convicted him. In most cases, the letters have simply reopened wounds that still have not healed.
Now, Powell's original words have a national audience, as Harper's Magazine -- a respected New York-based literary journal -- has published the entire unedited text of Powell's Oct. 21 letter to Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert (D). Titled "In Cold Blood," the letter, with boastful accounts of his January 1999 attack on the Manassas family that landed him in jail for three life sentences, appears in the magazine's May issue and runs complete with Powell's profanity-laced tirades, his detailed description of Stacie Reed's death and his salutation to Ebert of "See ya punk."
In that letter, Powell admits to elements of the crime that have landed him back in court on new charges. His own words could ultimately kill him.
That letter reveals that Powell had tried to coerce Stacie into having sex with him before he stabbed her to death -- a fact that has put Powell again in the position of facing the death penalty even after the Virginia Supreme Court overturned his previous conviction.
Editors at Harper's were drawn to the letter after it appeared in news accounts, and they had difficult discussions about whether to include the text in their "Readings" section as a primary news document, said Roger D. Hodge, one of the magazine's senior editors. Hodge said the letter doesn't have as much literary significance as it does cultural significance.
"It's just appalling to look into the mind of a murderer," said Hodge, adding that there was some early concern the letter might have been too disturbing to publish. "We finally decided that it was chilling and a horrible thing to read but that on some level, it's better to let someone read it than to just describe it. It stops you and makes you think about it in a way you don't normally do. When it's coming from the actual mouth and mind of a killer, it has an effect that is hard to describe."
In Harper's, Powell's letter is preceded by the text of a promotional Web site for a video game in which the goal is to "kill, maim and destroy" gangs of hooligans. The letter is followed by a fictional story by William H. Gass that begins: "The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure."
"In the middle of these fictional stories and games about violence and murder, we put down a record of real, horrible, vicious violence," Hodge said. "It does something interesting to the reader. It makes you think about our culture and what's going on in it."
In his latest letters to his victims' family -- which state forensic scientists verified as being his handwriting -- Powell taunts them with a pornographic photo of a woman whose face slightly resembles their slain daughter.
"I was wondering if you might be able to help me think of something," Powell, 24, writes from prison in the undated letter, his tight penmanship surrounding the photo. "I found this picture in a magazine and it kinda looks like someone I know or used to know, but I can't think of the person's name. I think you know the person too, so I was wondering if you could tell me the name of the person this picture resembles so I can quit wracking my brain trying to think of it?"
For the recipients of the letters, it's often hard to tell what's going in Powell's head because he shifts from polite banter to cruel jokes to obscene nastiness. Prosecutors say he's proud of his crimes and likes to antagonize his victims' family, because that's all he knows how to do.
Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney James A. Willett, who prosecuted Powell in 2000 and is preparing to prosecute him on capital murder charges in October, said Powell is simply "an individual who must inflict pain on people."
"It's just his continuing desire to inflict pain on everyone he can," Willett said last week. "These letters are the only way that he can do it from where he is right now."
But surrounding the painful letters are those in which he speaks of love, of hope and even hints of remorse.
Powell has written of his love for the jury forewoman, Jennifer M. Day, who put a sudden end to their bizarre friendship last year after his musings began to irritate and concern her. In their letters, which spanned almost a year, they speak of being soul mates, and Powell confides in her about a number of things. But he never speaks of the attacks.
In a letter to Day in August, Powell for the first time shows concern for what he had done, writing that he never thought he could do something like kill or rape someone.
"I hate myself for it and wish there was something I could do to change it," Powell writes.
But in the same letter, Powell vows to fight against the death penalty, writing that "they're going to have to work for my death." Two months later, Powell handed prosecutors the evidence they'd need to pursue his death a second time.
"I haven't decided what to make of it," Day said last week, adding that she just received a birthday card this month from Powell with a yellow flower on the cover and a biblical verse inside. Day hasn't written back and said she doesn't plan to.
"At first I thought he was sorry, but it's like he has a split personality," Day said. "I don't know who is the real person, the murderer or the God worshiper. I thought that he was a poor kid who was just all messed up, but I don't think that anymore. What he has done to that family is just awful."
In Powell's last letter to Stacie's family, he is smug and confident, poking and jabbing at the family as he imagines their reaction to a topless photo attached to the letter with file-folder labels.
"If you talk to the person I'm talking about, please give her my address and tell her to write me," Powell writes, implying that he's writing about Stacie. "Thank you!"
Prosecutors said they are considering presenting the letter to the court in Powell's upcoming trial because his own words probably say more about him than anything else ever could.