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March execution date set in Va. for Paul Warner Powell

Paul Warner Powell, who was convicted of killing a 16-year-old girl in the Manassas area and of raping and trying to kill her younger sister in 1999, has been scheduled for execution in Virginia on Thursday, March 18 at 9 p.m., according to his lawyer and prosecutors.

A date was set for Powell on Wednesday, two days after the U.S. Supreme Court denied his appeal.

The nation's top court stayed Powell's execution shortly before it was to take place in July so it could review his petition; ultimately the court declined the case without comment.

Paul Warner Powell
Paul Warner Powell. (AP)

Initially convicted of capital murder in 2000 for the slaying of Stacie Reed and the rape of her younger sister, Kristie, Powell's sentence was reduced to life in prison when the Virginia courts decided the murder and rape had to be connected to the same victim for it to qualify as a capital murder and thus eligible for the death penalty. Kristie survived the attack and was able to identify Powell and testify against him.

Powell later wrote a boastful letter to Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert in which he provided additional details about the crime, including the fact that he had tried to rape Stacie before killing her. Ebert indicted Powell a second time, tried him on capital murder charges again, and obtained a guilty verdict and death sentence from a different jury in 2003.

Jonathan Sheldon, Powell's appeals lawyer, has argued that the Prince William County court erred in the second trial, allowing jurors to see an incorrect criminal history for Powell that included the earlier overturned capital murder conviction. Though some appellate judges believed the error to be extremely costly, it was not enough to overturn the conviction or death sentence.

A clemency petition has been presented to Gov. Bob McDonnell, the first time Virginia's new governor will weigh in on a death penalty case. McDonnell is a strong supporter of the death penalty, and as the state's Attorney General, he fought to expand its reach to additional crimes in Virginia.

Before his scheduled execution date in July 2009, Powell opted for death by electrocution in Virginia's electric chair. It was unclear Wednesday afternoon if he had changed that option.

Virginia allows condemned inmates to choose either lethal injection or the electric chair, though the electric chair is rarely used. If Powell opts for the electrict chair, he would be just the sixth inmate to do so since lethal injection was introduced in Virginia in 1995.

Larry "Bill" Elliott, also convicted of capital murder in Prince William County, was electrocuted in Virginia's death chamber at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Va., on Nov. 17. I wrote a detailed description of Elliott's electrocution.

If Powell is executed in March, he would be the third straight defendant from Prince William County, prosecuted by Ebert and his team of prosecutors, to be executed, including Elliott and Washington-area sniper John Allen Muhammad, who also was executed in November.

-- Josh White

By Josh White  |  January 27, 2010; 3:09 PM ET
Categories:  Death Penalty , Josh White , Updates , Virginia  
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