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Post reporter recounts Paul Powell's execution

Josh White

I was on the scene in Manassas on Jan. 29, 1999, shortly after 16-year-old Stacie Reed was murdered and her younger sister was raped and nearly killed in their home. It was the first major crime I covered for The Post.

The crime itself was shocking: Two young girls brutally attacked in their own home by a man not much younger than I was. It began an 11-year journey that included nearly unbelievable twists at almost every stage of the case against Paul Warner Powell, who was executed in Virginia on Thursday night.

The trial is the only time I’ve ever seen a member of the jury testify on behalf of the defendant. It is the only case I’ve covered during which the defendant sent vulgar and intimidating letters to the family of his victims.

And it is the only case I’ve ever heard of that involved a defendant beating his death sentence -- only to turn around and admit additional elements of the crime to a prosecutor, which then led to another death sentence.

It was also one of those rare cases in which there was no question who the assailant was -- Kristie Reed survived the attack and identified Powell -- and that he did, in fact, commit the crime. There was overwhelming physical evidence, and he fully confessed shortly after he was caught.

The case came to a conclusion with Powell’s execution in Virginia’s death chamber at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt. He was 31 years old.

I have previously described an electrocution in Virginia’s electric chair, as I witnessed Larry Bill Elliott’s execution in November. This one was quite similar.

Powell was moved from death row at nearby Sussex I prison in southern Virginia a few days before the execution and put in one of three cells that directly adjoin the death chamber in Greensville’s “L Unit.” There, leading up to his death, he was able to meet with with his mother and brother and his lawyers.

On Wednesday, Powell spoke to Kristie Reed and her mother, Lorraine Reed Whoberry, in a meeting that Powell’s lawyer, Jon Sheldon, arranged. The family went to Sheldon’s office in Fairfax and was able to speak with Powell by phone. Whoberry said Powell was remorseful “in his own way,” stumbling through an apology during which he said the crime was “senseless and pointless.”

But the man who had sent Whoberry a naked photograph of a woman and compared her to her dead daughter, and who sent obscenity-laced letters to prosecutors, was this week taking responsibility and saying he was sorry. Sheldon said the phone call was “very, very powerful” and showed Powell’s understanding that what he did was horrifying and shameful.

But the phone call produced no answer to why the attack happened.

“There is no why,” Sheldon said. “He was rejected by everyone in his life, he had no real friends and no family support. There isn’t a satisfying answer and it’s extremely frustrating. Stacie rejected Paul, and for very good reason. He just couldn’t take another rejection.”

Powell spent Thursday preparing to die. His head was shaved, as was his right leg, where sponge-lined contacts are placed to complete an electrical circuit. Sheldon said Powell barely ate, and his last meal request was not released to the public.

Media witnesses entered the death chamber at 8:40 p.m. We were led into a small room inside the chamber. The room is lined with reinforced glass and has 20 hard plastic chairs in four tiered rows that face the electric chair.

At 8:53 p.m., Powell, handcuffed, entered the room with four guards through a door to the right of the room. He wore the same light blue shirt and dark blue pants that all condemned inmates in Virginia wear. The right pants leg was cut off above the knee. He wore flip-flops.

Powell looked gaunt and pale. He had a stern look and held his chin high. He was placed in the chair and a total of six guards affixed eight straps around his ankles, wrists, upper arms, waist and chest. A clamp was attached to his right leg below the knee, and a metal skullcap was placed on his head with a chin strap.

Powell swallowed hard and his eyes darted around the room.

At 8:58 p.m., an official switched on a microphone in the room and Powell was asked if he had anything to say. He just stared straight ahead and said nothing. A minute later, a face mask was put in place, covering him from forehead to chin with just his nose exposed. A guard wiped his face and leg with a white towel.

After a key was turned in the far right rear of the room, activating the system, a man concealed in an adjoining room hit the “execute” button on a machine that was described as being about the size of a top-loading clothes washer. It was precisely 9 p.m.

There was a thump as Powell’s body jerked back into the chair. His hands clenched into tight fists and veins swelled as his arms turned red. Smoke rose from his leg.

Officials said 1800 volts at 7.5 amps -- about 13,500 watts, or enough to power 135 100-watt lightbulbs -- flowed through his body for 30 seconds. That was followed by 240 volts at 1 amp for 60 seconds.

The cycle repeated. With the second major jolt, smoke and sparks emitted from Powell’s right leg. His knee appeared to swell and turn purple. His knuckles went white.

At 9:03, the electricity stopped. Everyone waited in silence for five minutes. At 9:08, a guard walked up to Powell and opened his shirt. A doctor emerged from a door on the left side of the room and placed a stethoscope on Powell’s chest in search of a heartbeat. There was none. He was pronounced dead at 9:09 p.m., and a curtain was drawn.

Whoberry and Reed watched the execution from behind one-way glass. They were joined by Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert, who has sent 10 criminals to death in Virginia, nearly 10 percent of all the people executed since Virginia restarted executions in 1982.

Ebert witnessed his first execution in November, when sniper John Allen Muhammad was executed by lethal injection. Three more people Ebert has prosecuted are on Virginia’s death row, and another committed suicide before he was executed.

Ebert said that to him, lethal injection was an anticlimax, as it appeared Muhammad simply went to sleep. Electrocution, Ebert said, appeared to have more finality to it.
“It was a little more vivid,” Ebert said afterward. “It felt more meaningful and impressive. But it was still a much more gentle death than Stacie’s.”

Richard Leonard, who as a Prince William County police detective interrogated Powell and elicited his confession in 1999, also witnessed the execution and said that it put to rest an 11-year saga and one of the worst cases he’s seen in a career that spans more than three decades.

“It involved kids. It was horrible,” Leonard said. “It was such a senseless, terrible thing that happened to a nice family. It changed all of their lives. … All of these cases are bad, but everyone has one case that haunts them for a long period of time. This is that case.”

-- Josh White

By Josh White  |  March 19, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Death Penalty , Homicide , Josh White , Pr. William , Virginia  
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I took it a little further. Check me on the math. Assuming they ran the cycle twice, total power used was 233 watt-hours or 0.233 kWh. At 5 cents a kWh, it cost us less than 2 cents to roast this piece of excrement. A bargain if there ever was one!!

God, I love electricity!

Posted by: flintston | March 19, 2010 9:13 AM | Report abuse

God loves and desires the salvation of all persons. I hope he asked and received divine forgiveness for his terrible sins.

Posted by: chuckv | March 19, 2010 9:55 AM | Report abuse

It's just sad that people choose this kind of life for themselves and then hurt others in the process.

Posted by: TG10 | March 19, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

After reading this, it made me feel like I was in that room watching myself. Man to know exactly that you're about to die would kill me alone. Now what Paul Powell did to those two girls was horrible, but I swear Paul B. Ebert is just as much of a killer as Paul Powell. I mean who makes the comments that “It was a little more vivid,” and can go to sleep at nights?

Posted by: PublicEnemy1 | March 19, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

@ flintston -

"piece of excrement" ? that is an insult to pieces of excrement all over the world.

I say let the grieving parent push the execute button.

Posted by: thebunker66 | March 19, 2010 10:23 AM | Report abuse

@ PublicEnemy1 -

You wrote : "... I mean who makes the comments that “It was a little more vivid,” and can go to sleep at nights?"

I used to think like you until my daughter was born a few years ago. I was very anti-death penalty for most of my adult life. Who are we as a society to assume the role of God ? Etc, Etc...

Today, when I kiss my daughter goodnight each evening - I can completely understand how lethal injection could be anti-climatic.

PublicEnemy ? Wait till you have your own children and you will agree with Mr. Ebert.

Posted by: thebunker66 | March 19, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

A friend of mine served as a citizen witness to this last night. They said it was an anti-climatic but amazingly swift and resolute thing to see. Anyone who is a strong supporter of the death penalty ought to put their belief to the test and see it first hand. Under state law, six citizens are required. Just contact the VaDoC web site public information section via email for more information.

Posted by: vuac | March 19, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

I'm glad the civilised world did away with this form of punishment a long time ago.

Maybe a few others might come out of the dark ages soon.

Posted by: grobbler | March 19, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

American society is barbaric (I am an American too). I also have children. I am religious. I know that no one has the right to take another person's life, whether you are Paul Powell or any of those people involved in the execution. It is obsence to witness an execution and then talk about like you had just visited an artistic exhibition. You really want your kids growing up in that kind of a vindictive and vicious society? I am not talking about the criminal but instead about the government whose task it is to uphold civilization.

Posted by: WhoMe1 | March 19, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

I cried. I cried for Stacie, her sister and her mother. To lose a daughter in such a way has to be unbearable.
But I also cried for Paul, his mother and his brothers. I know his Mother and she is a good woman. It is not her fault. His brothers are outstanding citizens.

I feel so bad for all involved and I pray for all.

Posted by: vleeic | March 19, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

Hmm. I'm hungry for barbecue. Who's in?

Posted by: popopo | March 19, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

I agree with you Public Enemy 1 "Paul B. Ebert is just as much of a killer as Paul Powell." I understand the horrific crime, but personally, GOD is the one and ONLY one that should end life!!

Posted by: stoneyuptwn | March 19, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

And our planet is rid of one more virus...

Posted by: signof4 | March 19, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

popopo that is such a sad comment to make

Posted by: vleeic | March 19, 2010 12:14 PM | Report abuse

Excellent reporting, Josh.

Your thorough explanation of the background of this case and the detailed, and clearly written description of the procedure, gave people (whose witness you ultimately are) valuable information.

Your unbiased, in-depth reporting is valuable for anybody who wants to better understand the difficult issue of death penalty and make an informed decision on way or the other.

Posted by: jussikk | March 19, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

"GOD is the one and ONLY one that should end life!!"

Well, I don't believe in god but I do believe that unfortunately, there are individuals who commit such barbaric, heinous acts against innocents that they don't deserve to live. I don't think capital punishment should be used willy-nilly, but this is a case where it was appropriate. So, until god decides to take matters into his own hand and strikes down those who commit crimes of this nature, I don't have a problem with our government doing it.

Posted by: juliagraffam | March 19, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

"GOD is the ONLY one to end a life."
I guess Paul Powell disagreed with that statement.
Thank you Mr. Ebert, from a grateful citizen in VA.

Posted by: peabody2 | March 19, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

Powell chose electrocution over lethal injection. He also chose the death penalty by committing such a heinous crime. Thank you Mr. Ebert.

Posted by: VaBroker | March 19, 2010 2:34 PM | Report abuse

What a well-written piece. I felt that I was there.

I'd always been one of those strange lefty death penalty proponents (yes, they exist) until I saw the movie Dancer in the Dark, which was probably the only time a piece of entertainment made me seriously question one of my political convictions.

Then I had kids. If anyone had done this to them, I would have been first in line to push that button.

And as for chuckv's forgiveness request, what kind of god forgives someone that does such a heinous thing to such an innocent victim? That type of argument is one of the main reasons I could never be religious.

Posted by: Elnok | March 19, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse

"I used to think like you until my daughter was born a few years ago. I was very anti-death penalty for most of my adult life. Who are we as a society to assume the role of God ? Etc, Etc..."

I thought as you do now until my children grew up and an acquaintance had a son who was put to death by Virginia. My sympathies are with Stacie's family, but also with Paul Powell's family. How awful must it be to know exactly when your son will die? I, too, think Ebert's comment was outrageous!

Posted by: Wait-a-Minute | March 19, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

The Talmudic scholars will tell you that the commandment "Thou Shalt Not Kill" is misinterpreted. It is supposed to be "Thou Shalt Not Murder" which puts a different spin on the whole thing. An argument can be made that an execution is a lawful killing rather than a murder and therefore not inconsistent with the commandments. Anyway, these people have to be put down for at least two reasons: first, to let others know what their fate will be; second, sheer revenge for the unconscionable act they committed. All these bleeding hearts ought to bleed about the right of the victims to live.

Posted by: Calabrese99 | March 19, 2010 6:43 PM | Report abuse

Good article Josh.

Posted by: tcal02 | March 19, 2010 6:44 PM | Report abuse

I thought the artice was a good job of reporting the facts. I am glad that the execution took place, but it should have been done years ago. I commend the State of Virginia for DOING THE RIGHT THING, after a thorough investigation and fair trial. I was in California when Polly Klass was kidnapped, and later found murdered. The State of California did a great job of invesigation and the trial was handled well. After listening to the youg lady's father, I feel for him (it could have been my daughter), COMMEND the FOUNDATION he has established, and wish him closure. That can only come when Polly's murderer is EXECUTED. I left California 10 years ago, Polly's murderer is STILL on Death Row, wasting the taxpayers money, and keeping a father from receiving CLOSURE. California needs to take a lesson from Virginia, and both need to copy TEXAS; when execution is ordered by the Judge and Jury; PLEASE CARRY IT OUT PROMPTLY...BUT AFTER you ASSURE yourself 100% that the Prosecutor did not miss anything, or rush to judgement from outside pressure, or just "get lazy" and take the easy path. Until the Jury's Verdict, both Victim and Accused DESERVE YOUR "A" GAME!

Posted by: JungleJohn | March 19, 2010 7:41 PM | Report abuse

Barbarians killing barbarians.

Posted by: youba | March 19, 2010 9:00 PM | Report abuse

I am so sad I did not get to push the button to end this useless murderer's life. Good riddance. Liberals are weeping for the killer. Conservatives are weeping for the victim and her family.

Posted by: johnhopkinson2004 | March 19, 2010 9:30 PM | Report abuse

I feel no pleasure in Paul Powell's end. Sad relief perhaps.
While he removed all doubt as to his culpability, who knows if he had any true remorse?
His execution was not a matter of State "vengeance", but a matter of retribution and protection of public safety. A Fitting End.
Paul Powell's soul is now in God's Infinite Mercy.
Electrocution should've been the LEAST of Mr. Powell's worries-even though that method was his choice (even as his crimes were his choice).
I don't think God's Mercy will be gentle.

Posted by: ihuman | March 19, 2010 10:06 PM | Report abuse

"GOD is the one and ONLY one that should end life!!"

Apparently this was "God's will"... let's call out for that barbecue... I hear God loves a good smoky barbecue...

Posted by: srb2 | March 19, 2010 10:31 PM | Report abuse

Anytime a dumb, murdurous white trash POS dies, it's a good day.

Posted by: bendan2000 | March 19, 2010 10:32 PM | Report abuse

Grotesquely barbaric, and utterly pointless. Since the reinstatement of capital punishment, there hasn't been a single credible study produced anywhere that proves -- or even supports the notion -- that capital punishment reduces murder or other violent crime. Not one. It is a bogus fantasy.

The twisted immoral logic of capital punishment is that it is an act of killing a killer to prove that killing is wrong. Yes, the death penalty may indeed provide closure for the family of the victim. However tragic, the private grieving and psychological needs of family members do not justify the imposition of state-sanctioned murder -- a punishment so ineffective and fraught with the potential error that it use has been repealed or called into question in many states.

This story is one of the finest, most compelling essays on the death penalty I have ever read. It ranks with Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song in its understanding of the complex human problems at the heart of the story.

Posted by: john_kay | March 20, 2010 1:22 AM | Report abuse

where does one send for the free crying towels? justice is that the scum suffered more than his victims

Posted by: pofinpa | March 20, 2010 5:23 AM | Report abuse

Paul Powell was a brutal killer without an ounce of compassion in his soul. Tormenting the victims and their family after he was incarcerated wasn't enough for him. By choosing the electric chair he was able to brutalize the public and his own family with the spectacle of an electrocution instead of a lethal injection. The speaks loudly to his total lack of remorse and contrition.

It is hard to imagine anyone else who deserved the ultimate punishment more than he did. May God have mercy on his soul, but I really doubt that will be the case. Yes, only God can judge us. In the case of Paul Powell, the Commonwealth of Virginia just expedited the matter.

Posted by: hisroc | March 20, 2010 9:05 AM | Report abuse

Well, maybe " there hasn't been a single credible study produced anywhere that proves -- or even supports the notion -- that capital punishment reduces murder or other violent crime" because you can't prove a negative. I mean, criminals aren't going to say "I didn't kill him because of the death penalty!"

The death penalty isn't a deterrent, it's punishment. It's a cure for recidivism.

Posted by: ronjaboy | March 20, 2010 9:14 AM | Report abuse

If someone commits an offense, SOMEONE has to judge that offense. The judgment does not lower the judge to the level of the offender.

Paul Ebert was just doing his job. The people of the Commonwealth elected governors and legislators who passed laws -- which are supposed to embody the moral standards of the community as a whole -- that allowed for capital punishment for murder. If you don't like capital punishment, petition the legislature (and in Virginia, good luck). If that description of Powell's execution upset you, you should read the transcript of exactly what Powell did.

"You really want your kids growing up in that kind of a vindictive and vicious society? I am not talking about the criminal but instead about the government whose task it is to uphold civilization.

Posted by: WhoMe1 | March 19, 2010 11:14 AM "

It already is. Tony Kornheiser urges people to run over bicyclists who get in their way. Posters want their political opponents jailed or killed. Everywhere you look, you see selfishness, greed, callousness and cruelty. And sanctimony.

Posted by: gbooksdc | March 20, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

Totally barbaric. We're not talking about a cold calculated killer here. We're talking about a kid who for whatever reason snapped one day. A kid who if he needed anything was help, not being put through this 11 year ordeal. Now Ebert, is a different story. This is a cold calculated killer. The fact that he does it 'legally' doesn't make it any better. If I were to make an exception to my stand against the death penalty, it would be for people like Ebert. People who kill repeatedly, spend much effort in doing so, and get their jollies out of it, as Ebert described doing. Now that is someone I would possibly enjoy seeing getting the chair. But that's the problem with this whole barbaric practice which civilized countries around the globe have stopped practices. It's all about giving in to one lowest, animalistic tendencies. And that is why killing is always wrong, and not to be perpetuated.

Posted by: JohnSmith7 | March 20, 2010 9:43 AM | Report abuse

To add to the two reasons mentioned by Calabrese99 :
From what I read in this article Paul Werner Powell was the kind of man I would expect to again commit a heinous crime, were he still alive. In other words, society protecting itself.
My sympathies go to the victims, their families, and also to the family of Paul Werner Powell.

Posted by: observer31 | March 20, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse


You've got to be nuts, completely nuts. Aren't you ashamed to write something like this? Kid!? That "kid" not only brutally murdered a beautiful young girl, but he raped her sister. Then he bragged about it and sent menacing letters to both the prosecutors and grieving parents. And you think *he* went through an ordeal!!?? I would respectfully submit that the ones who went through the 11 year ordeal were the victim's family members. Do you have children, JohnSmith7? Let's see if you have the same compassion for someone who murders one of *your* children. You should apologize to the victim's family for your insulting post. As for Mr. Ebert, God bless him, and a thank you from the community.

Posted by: Claudia1 | March 20, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse


You are a total and complete hypocrite, not to mention a bleeding heart moron. You are opposed to the death penalty but would like to see the Commonwealth's Attorney electrocuted for doing his job? What kind of logic is that?

As for Powell being "a kid who snapped one day," he was 20 years old, went to the residence armed with a survival knife, and demanded sex from a 16 year old girl. And for what reason? Because she was dating a black teenager. After he murdered this little girl, he helped himself to a glass of iced tea and smoked a cigarette while waiting for her 14 year old sister to come home. After raping her in the basement, he slashed her throat and wrists, leaving her to bleed to death. That is some "snap."

You are one disgusting excuse for a human being. I second Claudia1's challenge: I would love to see how much compassion you would have for "a kid who snapped one day" and did this to your daughters or sisters.

Posted by: hisroc | March 20, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

It amazes me how when the occurance of someone being put to death makes the news how sensationlized it becomes. The witnessing jounalist insist on that. Now comes the comparison of electrocution and lethal injection... whats up with that?? What difference does it make what method is utilized in ones death sentence?? Why do jounalist inisist that there should be a difference??
I'm sure there are some priests out there that this method of correction would be well suited.

Posted by: BobbyYarush | March 20, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

What are all you babys crying about?

if it was up to me i would have slowly lowered him onto a sharp 6 foot stake.

Now that you can cry about.

Posted by: scon101 | March 20, 2010 2:13 PM | Report abuse

It won't be long before people will be saying, Paul Powell who?


Posted by: Nessus | March 20, 2010 3:43 PM | Report abuse

Revenge, retribution, and example aside, disposing of this human garbage is necessary to prevent him from hurting/killing anyone else. The only way to be sure that is accomplished is to terminate his life. As long as he lives, he is a threat to society.

Do a little research and you'll find the many, many victims that became victims because a felon was on parole.

Some criminals are not able to be rehabilitated. Child molesters and this piece of crap are among those. His comments when he thought he had bested the system clearly show he felt no empathy or remorse.

I was very surprised to read that the mother and sister of the victim spoke to this pig. In view of what he did to them, even after the crime, that was way more than he deserved.

The joke turned out to be on Paul Powell. Nobody has to worry about him in this lifetime. Amen to THAT!

Posted by: Accountability2 | March 23, 2010 8:00 PM | Report abuse

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