A minute after 11 last night, a chorus of long, anguished wails erupted from the hundreds of prisoners inside the walls of the Virginia State Penitentiary. Outside the aging prison, a jeering mob set off fireworks in celebration. Across the street, a somber group of death penalty opponents began a silent candlelight vigil.
They needed no announcement. All knew it was over: Linwood E. Briley, who had killed seven people, had been electrocuted.
Deborah Wyatt, Briley's 35-year-old Charlottesville attorney, left the prison glassy-eyed and trembling after witnessing the execution of the man she spent more than a year trying to save. She strode into the taunting crowd, past the Confederate flag, past the yells of "Burn, baby, burn" and slipped into her car.
For her, it was the bitter end to a prolonged legal battle capped by panicked, desperate appeals to Gov. Charles S. Robb in the 24 hours leading up to the execution. For others, the final hours passed less frantically, but in the last moments there were outbursts of emotions.
There were the vengeful voices of the men screaming "Fry 'im. Fry Briley." There was pain reflected in the eyes of those like Marie Deans, who has dedicated her life to a crusade against capital punishment.
And there was relief on the face of prison officials such as spokesman Wayne Farrar when the television crews packed up their vans and the circus-like atmosphere outside the prison on Spring Street had dissipated.
Some had spent months preparing for the moment, others spent years. But few of them said they anticipated its enormity.
It was Marie Deans, the 43-year-old founder of Virginians Against the Death Penalty, who broke the news to Linwood Briley's mother barely 24 hours before he was scheduled to die:
The Supreme Court had rejected Briley's fourth plea for a stay.
His legal remedies had run out.
Briley's mother, who has another son on Virginia's death row and a third son serving a life sentence for murder, took the news "very badly," said Deans.
About 12 hours before the execution, Briley was allowed a 90-minute "contact" visit with his mother, the first time in the four months he had been incarcerated at Spring Street that he had been allowed to have a visitor who did not remain separated from him by a glass wall.
His mother, who separated from Briley's father while the children were teen-agers, has attempted to avoid the notoriety that has surrounded three of her sons, who police have linked, along with an accomplice, to a crime spree that terrorized Richmond in 1979 and left 11 people dead.
"It has been really hurtful to the family," said Deans. "The parents and Edward an older brother have been made to live with this as if they were the murderers."
Briley was held in "Space E -- we don't call it death row," a prison official said, and there a string of relatives visited Briley throughout yesterday morning and afternoon. In addition to his mother, Briley's 11-year-old son, the son's mother, two aunts and his grandfather visited.
At 6 p.m., he talked by telephone with his younger brother James at Powhatan Correctional Center, a prison west of Richmond.
James had been held there since he was returned to Virginia, 19 days after his May 31 escape with Linwood and four others from Mecklenburg Correctional Center in southern Virginia, the biggest death-row breakout in U.S. history.
Deans said James Briley, who has not yet received an execution date, told her in a recent telephone conversation:
"I'd rather be going through it myself than watching Linwood. I'll be able to handle my own execution better than watching his."
They called them the "Electric Company." Warren B. Von Schuch, 36, and Robert Rice, 34, were the two prosecutors who spent more than a year pursuing the Briley brothers after the gang was linked in 1979 to a spree of brutal murders.
"I don't think anyone takes any particular joy or satisfaction in this," said Von Schuch, who has been a prosecutor for nine years. "But it's nice to see the system work."
Von Schuch, who spent the evening in the state attorney general's office in case of last-minute appeals, said the Brileys were a major factor in his life during the past five years. Rice agreed, even though he left the Richmond commonwealth attorney's office in 1980.
"It's been difficult for us. There have been telephone threats. Someone tried to get into our house one night," said Von Schuch.
When Linwood and James Briley escaped from Mecklenburg, Von Schuch and Rice feared they might be Briley targets.
Police protection put their families at ease but made them unpopular with some neighbors, who got more traffic tickets because of extra police.
"It seems a little unreal after five years," said Von Schuch. "Especially around the escape, it felt like we were caught up in a novel."
They did not ask to witness the electrocution, but neither did they have second thoughts about it. "We feel that we're morally right . . . so it doesn't bother me," said Von Schuch.
"Killing was part of his Briley's life style. He would have done it again. He showed us that. If his killing prevents further murders, then it's the morally sound position," Von Schuch said.
Inside the Virginia Corrections Department's accounting offices across the street from the prison, about two dozen reporters and photographers gathered in the early evening to await Briley's death.
Prison spokesman Farrar patiently repeated the menu of the meal for each newly arriving reporter and answered questions from journalists: What type of steak did he get ("tenderloin"); did he finish his meal ("don't know"); when will his head be shaved ("soon"); will there be an autopsy ("well, we'll already know the cause of death"); how many feet from the cell to the chair ("40").
For several hours, gallows humor pervaded the press room, as reporters and officials wondered if the lights would flicker at 11 p.m., and they rolled their eyes when told the name of the physician who would check to make certain Briley was dead -- Dr. Robert Fry.
"How do you spell that," asked an incredulous reporter. "F-R-Y," said Farrar.
Linwood Briley entered the death chamber shortly before 11 p.m., a guard on either arm, followed by two members of the clergy, witnesses said. He wore rubber flip-flops. His eyes were closed, his head close-shaven, and he shook. The room was silent, except for one of the clergymen, who prayed softly.
The guards seated him in the chair, strapped his legs, arms and chest, and put a metal cap on his head, to which an electrode was attached, witnesses said. A mask was placed over his head, covering all of his face but his nose.
The witnesses, including Wyatt, who wore a black suit and stockings, sat in three rows behind a glass partition, about 15 feet from the heavy oak chair. Wyatt sat on the first row.
Briley was given two jolts of electricity, 2,500 volts each, witnesses said. They described his death as swift.
"His fingers . . . kind of tightened up almost in a fist, but in a deranged manner," said B. Randolph "Ranny" Wellford, a 41-year-old Richmond attorney.
"I thought I'd probably get a queasy feeling in my stomach," he said, "but I didn't. It didn't bother me at all. I don't think it bothered anybody at all. I didn't hear any groans, moans or gasps. I've gotten funnier feelings in my stomach when I've represented guilty defendants who've gotten off."
The only surprise, he said, was the odor of burned flesh, which Wellford could smell, despite a stuffy nose. "And, there was a little smoke coming from his right leg."
As he watched the execution, Wellford said, he thought about Briley's May 31 escape with five others from Mecklenberg. He said he also thought about "those people in North Carolina having to be scared for 19 days, fearing for themselves, their families, their wives" before Briley and his brother, James, also a death-row inmate, were captured in Philadelphia. "And, I thought about the victims . . . and the ugly scene he had caused."
But, he said he also thought about Briley. "I thought about how some people said what a nice fellow he was, and what a hard worker, and I wondered what had changed him. What made a Jekyll and Hyde out of him? What went wrong?"
Another witness was Frank A. Williams Jr. of Richmond, a 42-year-old state police officer. He volunteered because he had spent 20 years in criminal justice and had seen almost everything, except an execution. "I felt like this was a void in my professional career," he said.
"Of course, I thought about it some, but I just went home and went to sleep," said Williams. "It wasn't something that kept me awake. I felt like justice had been carried out, and that the system worked."
About 500 persons crowded together in the warm autumn air, at an intersection up the street from the old penitentiary, in the faded tenement neighborhood of Richmond's Oregon Hill.
On one side of Belvidere Street, in the harsh glare of pink police flares and television cameras, a mostly white crowd shoved clenched fists into the air, shouting "Burn, Briley, burn" and "Fry the son of a bitch."
Ron Doggett, 23, a landscaper, waved a Confederate flag over his head. "We want to return to the days in Richmond when this flag flew proudly," he said.
"I'm glad it's happening, honey," said one woman. "As a taxpayer, I'm tired of paying for his room and board."
"He killed all those people, and he should have fried a long time ago," said Kenneth Owen, 26, a record company employe.
Across the street, in the glow of candlelight and the smell of burning wax, another group sang "We Shall Overcome" and "Swing Lo, Sweet Chariot," swaying slowly, holding pictures of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., speaking softly, tearfully, of love and forgiveness.
"I believe God deals life, and God should be the one to take life," said the Rev. Lee Johnson of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Goochland County.
At 11 p.m., one side of Belvidere Street erupted with cheers and cries that Briley had been executed. People threw firecrackers into the street. "He's gone, brother," one man shouted. "He's gone to hell and got burned."
The crowd on the other side sang "Amazing Grace." People hugged each other. Several cried softly, and walked off alone, into the night.