AUG. 19, 1 a.m.
There are few ends worse than being fried in an electric chair, but perhaps living without parole in prison is an even more ignoble and hellish path to oblivion.
It doesn't strike me as strange that a white ex-cop might be less fearful of two 55-second cycles of high voltage than of being dogged for years in captivity by a vindictive administration and an inimical population, especially since he would still probably have to suffer in solitary confinement, with death-row doubt, for an extensive period.
He won't even feel the second surge of juice, and very little of the first. So why would he care, anyway? Who's really afraid of the electric chair?
AUG. 9, 11 p.m.
There seems to be little noticeable reaction to the planned execution of Coppola tomorrow here in the penitentiary. Many prisoners seem to feel that the state will not go through with it. (I picked up two even-money bets today.) However, it is dawning upon many that Virginia is about to call the bluff that Coppola made by no longer seeking a reprieve.
AUG. 10, 10 a.m.
Coppola's execution was the choice topic this morning. There were questions about the nature of the crime he was supposed to have committed, who had been involved, and why this man is to get the chair while so many others don't.
An older con mentioned that Coppola probably didn't want to go through the hell of prison, stating that growth was a necessity for a human being and it is impossible under present prison conditions. One man contended that because Coppola was an ex-cop, he would be fearful of his life inside. This was doubted by another, who felt that other former policemen lived here without harassment, some with crimes viewed by the prisoner population as much more reprehensible. One inmate said that he "couldn't care less what happens to the white boy."
The racial element plays a large part in the minds of the majority black population here. A friend of mine became enraged at an expressed sentiment of apathy by a black man he had previously held in high esteem. "I don't care if the man is a white cop," he declared. "He's a convict like us now, and the dudes here ought to realize that if they'll kill one convict they'll kill us all."
Another black prisoner expressed the widely held view that the execution of this white man who wishes to die will lead the way for the killing of the black men on death row whom the state really wants to do away with. "Look at it this way," he said, "the death penalty is just an extension of the days of lynchings."
AUG. 10, 2 p.m.
A counselor here remained rather noncommittal when I asked about what she thought of the death penalty. She said she had been opposed while in college and in preparation for work in corrections, but that she was no longer quite sure how she stood now that she was older and (presumably) more mature.
However, when questioned as to how she felt about the planned execution of Coppola, she confessed to being "uneasy" about the whole thing, and believed that most of the counseling staff had reservations. She admitted that she often had to blot certain realities concerning the criminal justice system she worked for out of her mind, particularly those that conflicted with the goals of the "treatment center," as the counseling department here is called.
Coppola's declining to appeal his sentence further is viewed by some as showing a quality of resoluteness bordering on courage.
"The man doesn't want to put his family through more suffering" was a view heard more than once. Others questioned his sanity.
One prisoner said, "If he wants to die, let him kill his damn self. The problem is with the state standing in judgment, where it should not." While watching a newscast which mentioned the planned execution by lethal injection of a prisoner in Texas, this man noted that it would be best to give Coppola his own syringe and let him "take himself out if he wants to die."
Another man volunteered that he felt the electric chair to be a barbaric means of delivering death in any case. "A man should at least be able to choose the way he goes," he said, "like Gary Gilmore -- the more dignified death by firing squad."
AUG. 10, 4 p.m.
It was flashed on the news earlier that Coppola has been given a stay of execution by order of a federal judge, a surprise and a relief. (Never thought I'd be glad to lose a bet.) I hadn't thought that a legal maneuver would garner such action from any judge in Virginia. It seemed that the powers that be had indeed decided to push through on this one.
It did strike me that the capital murder law that applies to crimes that are specially "vile" is a bit vague. What is the determining factor of a "vile" murder? Being reminded by this week's protests of the "vile" atomic bombardment of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and seeing telecasts of the continuing "vile" bombardment of a civilian population in Beirut, I wonder what's really "vile."
After learning that Coppola had quit the Portsmouth police force in 1967 and had served time prior to the robbery for which he was convicted, the killing of a woman while trying to obtain information as to the whereabouts of money during a robbery seems to me to be morally reprehensible, but no more (or less) vile than other acts occuring daily in pursuit of money, many sanctioned by agencies of this government.
The truth is, far from being a deterrent, the threat and use of the electric chair may well increaseethe incidence of capital murder everywhere except perhaps inside prison.
No one wants to be burned alive. The horrible end of electrocution is viewed with fear by many, but quite often this fear is superseded by rage at the sanctioning of such violence by the state. This combination of rage and fear percolates into the determination not to be captured alive by any means. I have heard many men say that Coppola was a fool for leaving a witness alive in a robbery, and this sentiment is not an isolated one.
Contrary to popular opinion, most robbers do not intend to kill, and few enjoy killing. But whatever the motivation that induces one to commit armed crime, it will in all likelihood persist as long as economic disparity does. It would be a bad deal if the incidence of murder in robbery were to increase due to a few executions. One black prisoner here told of how after an all-white jury returned a verdict of life against him for a robbery in which no one was hurt (and of which he maintains his innocent), he realized that they would have given him the chair had they been able to.
Aug. 15, 10 P.M.
They're killing him now. Everyone thought that nothing was going to happen. A reporter interrupted "Hart to Hart" a few minutes ago and said that the court said to fry him. Spoiled my chess game. I went out on the tier, saw a few men crowded around the TV, others playing cards as usual. I am back in my cell now, thinking about it. I picture Coppola as seen last week exercising, a tall man, Kojak bald head and Fu Manchu moustache. I imagine what is happening in the building I'm in, less than 100 feet away.
Three guards go to his cell and escort him to the chair a short distance away. He is strapped into the chair, and guards secure the head and leg pieces that have been immersed in a saline solution. They then place a leather mask over the upper part of his face. I wonder what he is thinking.
The generator is activated, giving off an eerie, whining noise. When the first 55-second cycle of 2,500 volts of raw electric power hits his brain, all thought and feeling must cease. But this does not stop his body from surging violently in a vertical jerk.
He doesn't feel the drop in voltage after the first cycle, doesn't know that his body is going limp. At the next "thump" announcing the second 55-second cycle, his muscles vibrate and twitch involuntarily.
I wonder what he would think of the indignity of this death if he could see through the death mask. But he can't see at all now, with or without a mask. I wonder if he has bitten his tongue, if the blood of this deed is flowing from below the mask onto his shirt.
I picture the guards picking the stiff form from the chair, the body cruelly contorted. The guards place sandbags on the arms and legs to keep them flat before the body is taken out to a waiting hearse.
I wonder how the crowd outside feels at catching sight of the body. I wonder if the men now locked in their cells on the street side of the building can see what's happening out there. I wonder if others wonder how we feel in here. I wonder if they care. I wonder who's afraid of Virginia's chair.