Let it be recorded that as Frank J. Coppola left this earth his fellow inmates at the Virginia State Penitentiary jeered and whistled through open barred windows at the outside world.
From four tiered cell blocks above the maple-lined block of Spring Street, they shouted and cursed, a caged human backdrop for praying priests and TV standup scenes.
From three car-top television monitors in the press parking area across the street, a chatty woman on the screens broadcast the weather back at them in living color. And from among 100 spectators cordoned off 20 yards to the west, two dozen candle-bearing protesters sang softly:
"Someone's praying Lord, Kumbaya,
"Someone's suffering Lord, Kumbaya."
Whether Coppola heard any of this before he died, no one could say.
Prison officials said only that he refused any special meal and sent his own note to the Supreme Court asking them not to slow his path to the electric chair.
The last unofficial person to see him alone, the Rev. Joseph Ingle, director of the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons, said only that Coppola's resolution to die never wavered. "I hugged him and he hugged me," Ingle said. "He said, 'You're my friend. Take care of my family.' . . .I hope to God," Ingle added, "the people of Virginia take a good look at this execution."
Ingle emerged from the white-fronted concrete prison even as the current was passing through Coppola's body. A Vepco lineman had checked the penitentiary's special 4,000 volt transmitter twice during the day just to make sure it was operational. But the penitentiary that covers nearly two blocks of downtown Richmond was eerie enough without special effects.
Its dirty brick walls and peaked gun towers overlook a sparkling city skyline. The James River winds placidly and U.S. Rte. 1 traffic hurries past its wall.
Across from its sidestreet entrance tonight, newsmen and spectators mingled during the long uncertain evening, squinting at TV lights and swatting the gnats and mosquitoes of the sultry night. The crowd started small and appeared mostly composed of curiosity seekers from Oregon Hill, a fiercely blue-collar section of frame homes just across the highway from the prison. But by 10 o'clock it had been augmented by the rag-tag remnants of a long-planned candlelight vigil, which had been thrown awry by the legal maneuverings earlier in the day.
Bishop Walter Sullivan of the Catholic diocese of Richmond and Father William Stickle, pastor of St. Peter's Catholic Church, said their effort was a symbolic protest. "We just want someone to know that there are people here concerned about life," Stickle said. He said he never expected the vigil, no matter how big it was, to change any official minds.
Scattered among the protesters were placards: "Thou Shalt Not Kill" and "Let Him Without Sin Throw The Switch." The last was carried by a white-robed woman who identified herself as evangelist Sally M. Winston, 54, of the Holiness Church. She said she had been at the penitentiary to protest other executions. "We go just by the word of God in the Bible," she said. "We don't change a thing."