As a Washington Post reporter covering crime and courts in Virginia, I witnessed two executions in its death chamber, both of them by electrocution in the state’s electric chair. I wrote about each for The Post, giving our readers a minute-by-minute account of what it is like to watch someone die as they face the most serious punishment our nation’s legal system metes out.
Both of the cases were very familiar to me, as I had covered each from the moment the crimes occurred through the criminal trials. Both were horrible and senseless killings, one involving the attempted rape and murder of a teenage Manassas girl and the rape and attempted murder of her younger sister, the other a double-slaying of a Woodbridge couple with young children. I got to know the families of the victims, interviewing them numerous times over several years. And I got to know each of the convicted killers: I interviewed Larry “Bill” Elliott in person in the Prince William County jail at great length, and I spoke with Paul Warner Powell by phone and interviewed the jury forewoman who began a relationship with him shortly after his conviction.
Watching someone die is not easy under any circumstances, and watching the state put someone to death is not for everyone. At one of the executions, a public witness backed out moments before the process began after learning from state officials what it would entail. As a reporter, I believed – and continue to believe – that it is important for the public to bear witness to executions, as they are part of the justice system that we all, as members of this society, support. That’s not to say that everyone “supports” the death penalty, because certainly not everyone believes that we as a nation should kill as punishment. But it is the law of the land in many states, and many people believe it is a just punishment in extreme cases. As a neutral observer, I do not have strong feelings for or against the death penalty, and there are strong arguments for each side.
Being the eyes and ears for the public in such situations is what we do as journalists, trying to explain the world around us to those who can’t be there for themselves, whether it be the death chamber, the battlefield, in a foreign land, or in a sports arena. As you’ll read in my pieces about each of those executions, watching it is jarring, and the memory will forever be fresh in my mind: