In Virginia's death chamber, a rare death by electrocution
Larry "Bill" Elliott, 60, was executed in Virginia on Tuesday night for the murders of a young Woodbridge couple in January 2001.
Elliott, who had become obsessed with an adult escort he met on the Internet, was convicted of killing the escort's ex-boyfriend, Robert Finch, 30, as part of an effort to help the woman solve a messy custody battle over their two children.
Elliott also was convicted of killing Dana Thrall, 25, who was living with Finch and stumbled upon the scene after hearing the first shots ring out in the early morning darkness.
Elliott maintained his innocence throughout two capital murder trials -- the first conviction was thrown out due to juror misconduct -- but was convicted and sentenced to death by a second jury in 2003. He did not testify at either trial.
Elliott did speak to Washington Post reporter Josh White in a lengthy jailhouse interview in 2003, a wide ranging on-the-record conversation that explored his relationship with escort Rebecca Gragg, his claims of innocence, and his admission that he was surveilling Finch the night of the murders in an attempt to gain evidence of his inability to take care of his children.
Six years after that interview, White witnessed Elliott’s execution in Virginia’s 101-year-old electric chair. Here is his account.
Let me say upfront that I do not have strong views on the death penalty in general, and nothing about the stories I have written or this blog entry should be read as either supporting or opposing the death penalty. I have covered four Virginia capital murder cases from the crime scenes through the trials, including the cases of sniper John Allen Muhammad and Larry Bill Elliott, both of whom were executed in the past 10 days.
Elliott’s execution was the first I have witnessed.
We were instructed to arrive at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Va., at 7 p.m., two hours before the execution was scheduled. The prison, located at the end of a desolate rural road south of Richmond, houses Virginia’s death house, in its “L Unit” deep inside a sprawling compound.
Though the state’s death row is not at Greensville – it is at Sussex I prison in Waverly – condemned inmates are moved to Jarratt at least four days prior to their execution date. They stay in a series of cells that immediately adjoin the death chamber, though they do not see the actual chamber until a few minutes before their death.
The four media witnesses and six official citizen witnesses chosen for the execution hopped in white vans and moved inside to a briefing room, where David Bass, the eastern regional manager for the Department of Corrections, gave a detailed explanation of what we were going to see. Bass, who has been with the department since the 1960s, patiently took questions and was able to answer most of them from memory.
Bass, it turns out, has witnessed 90 of the past 93 executions in Virginia. He knew that number off the top of his head because he missed two due to shoulder surgeries and another due to a hurricane evacuation.
Because this was to be an electrocution -- a choice Elliott made, and a rarity since the introduction of lethal injection in Virginia in 1995 -- Bass explained the possible physical ramifications of having 1800 volts at 7.5 amps flow through the human body for 30 seconds followed by 60 seconds of 240 volts at 1.5 amps. That cycle is repeated once.
Mike Sarahan, of Richmond, a citizen witness who asked numerous questions about the procedure and seemed alarmed by much of it, opted out of witnessing the execution at the last moment.
“It seems grotesque and barbaric,” Sarahan said, visibly shaken. He was dropped off at an administrative building on our way over to the death chamber. Department of Corrections officials said it was extremely rare for someone to opt out at that point.
We arrived at the L Unit building shortly after 8:30, and after a search with a metal detector and a walk down a short hallway, we were in the death chamber. The viewing room, where we sat, was a room within a room, a small cinderblock square surrounded with reinforced two-way glass with four rows of sturdy plastic chairs in slightly tiered levels.
From my seat in the second row, the electric chair was directly infront of me, about 20 feet away in the larger death chamber, which was brightly lit and contained more than half a dozen Department of Corrections and Attorney General’s office officials wearing dark suits.
At 8:41 p.m., officials tested the chair by placing a large resistor across the arms and hooking it to the two wires that would eventually be connected to Elliott. When the system was turned on, a light atop the resistor emitted a bright glow, then a duller glow, confirming that the system was active and working.
Elliott was escorted into the room at 8:55 p.m., through a white door on the right side marked with a small "5" above it. According to Bass, this would be the first time Elliott had seen the chamber. He was wearing a light blue denim top and dark blue denim pants with the right pants leg cut off just above the knee. His leg was shaved, as was his head. Handcuffed, he shuffled across the room and was seated in the chair.
Though I will never know for sure, it felt like we locked eyes for more than a fleeting moment. Elliott looked older than I remembered him, and he had a resigned look in his eyes. Perhaps most striking about it was that I clearly remembered our interview, speaking with him, hearing him out and seeing him in court during two trials. There was nothing abstract about what was happening or what was about to happen.
Six correctional officers, all volunteers, secured Elliott in the chair with large, dark leather straps. An electrical contact, a metal brace lined with sea sponge that had been soaked in brine, was attached to his right leg. A metal skull cap, also lined with sea sponge, was affixed to Elliott’s head.
The warden asked Elliott if he had any final words, and Elliott blurted out quickly that he wasn’t sure how much time he’d be allowed so he had prepared a statement that he had given to his attorneys, who in turn would read it later.
A correctional officer placed a leather mask across Elliott’s face, covering everything from just above his chin to above his eyebrows, a triangular opening in the mask revealing only his nose. The officer then wiped Elliott’s brow with a white towel.
The warden, standing toward the back of the room to Elliott’s left side, then asked a corrections official: “Shall we proceed?” The official, on a telephone with an open line to the governor’s office, nodded. The warden turned to another correctional officer who turned a key in the wall, activating the electrical system for use. A digital wall clock read 8:59 p.m.
Another officer, concealed in a room adjacent to the death chamber, hit a button marked “execute” on a machine that was described as being about the size of a domestic clothes dryer.
It was clear when the electricity hit Elliott, as his body jerked bolt upright in the chair and his hands appeared to tightly grip the oak arms. A large blister formed on the inside of his right knee, just above the electrical contact. Smoke rose from both his leg and his head. Spit bubbles formed below the left side of his face mask, near where the corner of his mouth would have been.
At 9:03 p.m., it was over. A correctional officer turned the key in the wall to deactivate the system. Then all there was to do was wait. Five minutes that seemed like far longer passed, Elliott’s body sitting unmoving in the chair as officials looked on. At 9:08 p.m., an officer pulled open the top of Elliott’s shirt and a doctor entered from the left of the room. He placed a stethoscope over Elliott’s heart, tried another location, then pulled the stethoscope off.
“9:08,” he said, and walked out. A blue vinyl curtain was pulled. Elliott was dead.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert, who prosecuted Elliott in Prince William County and has sent 14 people to Virginia’s death row, for the first time witnessed an execution last week, when John Allen Muhammad received a lethal injection. He did not attend Elliott’s execution, but said he believes Muhammad's lethal injection was “anticlimatic.”
“Muhammad peacefully went to sleep,” Ebert said. “It was much more humane than he treated any of his victims. … It was pretty much like putting an animal to sleep. Had he chosen the electric chair, I think it would have given them more solace and more closure.”
Rick Conway, who prosecuted Muhammad, felt similarly. Conway, who also has witnessed an electrocution, said the lethal injection lacks the finality that the chair provides, because it’s clear from watching an electrocution that the person has died. Part of the lethal injection procedure includes shielding witnesses with the blue curtain while they actually inject the intravenous lines.
It is unclear why Elliott chose electrocution, as only four other condemned Virginia inmates have done since lethal injection was introduced in 1995. Virginia defaults to lethal injection if the inmate does not choose, so it must be an affirmative decision. His defense attorneys declined to answer questions after his death.
In a lengthy written statement, Elliott railed against prosecutors and the U.S. justice system, alleging that “abuses” and a “massive amount of false information” led to his conviction and sentence. He called his death a “state-sponsored killing” and said he did not understand “why I must die for crimes I was not involved in,” adding that he believes it must be part of God’s plan for him and that he hopes people will use his case to examine the use of the death penalty.
My colleague Maria Glod spoke with Jay Connell, a Fairfax county attorney who has represented several men on death row and who was in Virginia's death chamber in February when his client, Edward Bell, was executed by injection. A jury sentenced Bell to death for fatally shooting Winchester police Sgt. Ricky L. Timbrook in 1999.
Connell, who had become close with Bell during years of conversations about everything from his criminal case to cricket, said he was struck by how sterile and quiet Bell's death by lethal injection was.
"There's no drama to it," Connell said. "People think an execution should be like a hanging where someone drops. Other than that the state had just killed someone, nothing dramatic happened."
Clayton Finch, the father of victim Robert Finch, had petitioned Gov. Timothy Kaine to spare Elliott’s life because he believes Elliott did not deserve to die for his crimes. Finch and his wife were the only family witnesses to see Elliott die from a secure family viewing room, Finch said. Elliott had met with his immediate family members earlier in the day.
“It wasn’t as bad as I had thought it might be,” Finch said. “But it’s just a sad thing. It’s a sad, sad tale.”
In more than 11 years at the Post, I have covered murders, drug rings, natural disasters, terrorism, detainee abuse, and war. I twice embedded with U.S. troops fighting in Iraq as a military correspondent. For me, Elliott's execution was among the most intense scenes I have experienced as a reporter and something I will never forget.
-- Josh White
Washington Post Editors
November 18, 2009; 1:20 PM ET
Categories: Josh White , Pr. William
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