Post reporter recounts Paul Powell's execution
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
March 19, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories: Death Penalty , Homicide , Josh White , Pr. William , Virginia
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