Frank J. Coppola, the 38-year-old ex-policeman convicted of murdering a Newport News woman, went to the death he had asked for tonight after a day of legal turnarounds in which his case was appealed to the highest court in the land.
His death at the penitentiary here came at 11:27 p.m. after 2,400 volts were applied to his body, which was strapped to the state's oak electric chair made by inmates 75 years ago. Six unidentified witnesses watched from a glass-paneled cubicle.
Coppola was dead 27 minutes past the time originally set for his execution and almost exactly an hour after the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington cleared the way by approving a last-minute appeal by Virginia officials.
Five minutes later, Raymond K. Procunier, state director of corrections, told newsmen gathered in front of the floodlit prison: "Pursuant to an order of the Circuit Court of the City of Newport News, Frank J. Coppola has been executed in the manner prescribed by law. Out of respect to the family of the deceased I will make no further comment on the proceedings."
At midnight, Gov. Charles S. Robb, issued a statement calling the decision not to interfere in Coppolla's execution "the most difficult and emotionally draining decision I have had to make as governor . . . . " In the statement, read by Robb's press secretary, he said he had conducted an exhaustive review of every aspect of the case, Coppola's appeals and previous record. "I am satisfied beyond any reasonable doubt that the sentence carried out in this case has upheld the law."
Earlier today Robb had participated with State Attorney General Gerald Baliles in the decision to go to the Supreme Court to seek permission for the execution. Tonight while waiting for the court's ruling, the governor met privately with Baliles, an assistant, and members of the attorney general's office. The atmosphere was "businesslike," according to Robb spokesman George Stoddart. A phone line stayed open between the governor's office and the penitentiary before, during and immediately after the execution, Stoddart said.
The Rev. Joseph Ingle, director of the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons, left the penitentiary and told reporters he had hugged Coppola and believed himself the last nonofficial person to see the convict alive.
"I hope to God the people of Virginia will think long and hard about this execution," he said, calling it "legalized murder."
A whirlwind of last-minute legal activity began this afternoon when Judge John D. Butzner of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here granted a stay of execution. Two state legal officials then flew to Washington to contest the stay. Among the legal papers they carried was a petition, handwritten by Coppola, asking for his execution to go ahead.
At 10:30 p.m., the Supreme Court announced that the stay was "vacated."
The state officials had asked Chief Justice Warren E. Burger to make that ruling, but the announcement said that the court's other justices were polled in a "conference call." The result was that five members of the court -- Burger and Associate Justices Byron R. White, Harry A. Blackmun, Lewis F. Powell Jr. and William H. Rehnquist -- made the majority ruling.
Justices William J. Brennan and Thurgood Marshall said they "would deny the application" to eliminate the stay of execution, while Justice John Paul Stevens indicated he wanted to hear comment from a lawyer seeking to prevent the execution. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who is out of the country, "took no part in the consideration or decision," the court's announcement said.
Coppola became the first prisoner executed in Virginia since March 2, 1962. It was the fifth execution in the United States since 1967.
The request that Judge Butzner approved early this afternoon came from attorneys acting on behalf of Coppola, but against the condemned man's wishes.
In a two-page order, Butzner noted that there is a case pending before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals challenging Virginia's death penalty on constitutional grounds. He also ruled that there was merit to the argument that Coppola was not mentally competent to decide he wanted to die.
The "next friend" suit, brought by one of Coppola's former attorneys, argued that Coppola's mental condition had deteriorated as a result of the "brutal and dehumanizing" experience of living on Virginia's death row at the Mecklenburg Corrections Center.
Today Coppola awaited death in a basement cell some 30 paces from the electric chair. Aside from the legal petition he wrote, he had no public reaction to the latest legal developments, although there were reports he was angry.
For the execution to proceed, the stay had to be lifted by midnight when the legal order to execute Coppola was to expire. Efforts to reverse the stay proceeded on two fronts, both in the urgent appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and in an attempt here to persuade Butzner to reverse his ruling.
Robb, on his way home today from a governors' conference in Afton, Okla., staunchly maintained that he believes the state's death penalty statute, revised in 1977 to satisfy new U.S. Supreme Court standards, to be constitutional.
News of the state's decision to appeal came as a surprise to civil liberties lawyers who were battling the Coppola execution. Some had predicted privately that the state would not want to appear too aggressive in pursuing Coppola's execution.
Coppola, a high school and college basketball star who once attended a Catholic seminary and served as a policeman in Portsmouth, was convicted in the 1978 murder of Murial Hatchell of Newport News. The woman, wife of a used car dealer known to keep large sums of cash on hand, was beaten to death during the burglary of their home. Coppola insisted on his innocence.
Coppola's second wife, Karen, who is serving a 20-year sentence for her part in the slaying, is planning to remarry, according to a prison chaplain. Coppola's first wife, Alice Bridges, the mother of their two sons, reportedly made frequent trips to visit him. She was present at the penitentiary today.
The condemned man's head was shaved today except for his long, reddish moustache tipped with gray. His state of mind, according to reports from recent visitors, had not changed since March when he ordered his attorneys to drop all legal appeals.
In the midst of rejoicing at the news that Butzner had granted a stay, one civil liberties lawyer said, "This will make Frank wild."
But for the assembled civil liberties lawyers -- some veterans of death row appeals -- the stay gave hope that Coppola's life could be spared. "We are very satisfied and very happy and we expect to prevail in appellate court," said Russell Canan, a Washington lawyer who does work for the Death Penalty Defense Fund, in response to the stay.
The basis for the "next friend" suit, initiated by J. Gray Lawrence, a former attorney of Coppola's, was the allegation that conditions on death row -- particularly in the segregated cells at Mecklenburg prison where Coppola spent much of his prison time -- are so repressive that they distort inmate perceptions. There are now 17 men remaining on Virginia's death row, all of whom are party to a class action suit against conditions there brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. The suit is scheduled for a hearing next January.
One of the persons summoned to testify as an expert witness in the petition to spare Coppola was Gordon Kamka, former secretary of corrections in Maryland, who told the court Monday night that living conditions at Mecklenburg are "especially repressive."
According to Jan Elvin, of the ACLU Prison Project, the six or seven inmates in the segregated section of death row are allowed out of their cells only three hours a week. Their meals are brought to their cells, which have only beds and toilet facilities.
Death row inmates are allowed four 90-minute visits a month -- all conducted via telephone through a glass barrier, said Elvin. Yet in spite of the barrier, the inmates are brought into the visiting room in either handcuffs or leg irons. Until recently, the prisoners were routinely strip-searched after each visit, she said.
Monday night, Coppola told U.S. District Court Judge D. Dortch Warriner that it was "ludicrous" to say that these restrictive conditions were the reason he had discontinued his appeals. He named other factors, including pain to his children, as reasons he wished to be executed.