Sunday, November 11, 2001

RICHMOND A prosecutor, a bartender, a data analyst, a social services employee, several police officers and some students.
It’s a group with little in common except for one thing: All have volunteered to be “citizen witnesses” for executions in Virginia.
“It’s not something you can anticipate,” said Rush Wickes, a Virginia Tech graduate student who attended the state’s two executions this year. “Some people go time and time again, and it becomes a nonevent in their lives. Others are horrified and traumatized.”
Virginia is one of 16 states that requires that a certain number of civilians be invited to attend executions to ensure they are carried out in a dignified and humane manner, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Under Virginia law, the six citizen witnesses must have no connection to the case, fill out a simple application form and undergo a background check. Convicted felons, for instance, are not eligible.
Corrections spokesman Larry Traylor said there usually are about 25 to 30 first-timers from around the state from whom to choose. Only when time or place constraints are a problem do corrections officials call on former witnesses to serve again.
Danny Allen is an extreme example. The vice president of a paint and decorating company in Emporia has volunteered to witness more than a dozen executions. He declined to comment for this story.
Mr. Traylor said the state never wants for volunteers.
Reasons vary.
“Quite honestly, I think some are just curious, and some do it for civic responsibility, and some might be at odds on whether there should be executions,” Mr. Traylor said.
Department officials do not consider or even track volunteers’ opinions about the death penalty. “It doesn’t matter,” Mr. Traylor said. “The code just says six citizens, that’s all.”
Gregory B. Turpin, 37, a prosecutor in Virginia Beach, was a witness at the March execution of Thomas Wayne Akers, who beat a Roanoke man to death with a baseball bat in 1998.
For Mr. Turpin, the decision to attend an execution was related to his job, even though his office didn’t ask him to do it and he went on his own time. He has yet to prosecute a capital case but knows he is likely to do so in the future.
“If I’m going to argue for this punishment, I think I owe it to myself to see what it is I might be arguing for,” he said.
Mr. Turpin, who supports the death penalty, said he was taken aback by how smoothly it all went.
“It was so matter-of-fact, so rehearsed, so sterile that I was kind of surprised by it,” he said. “It just went clip, clip, clip through the thing.”
J. Brian Cassell, 36, a clinical data analyst at the Medical College of Virginia’s Massey Cancer Center in Richmond, is staunchly opposed to the death penalty and regularly protests at executions. His beliefs led him to witness one.
“They execute people in the name of the citizens, and I wanted to see what is being done in my name,” said Mr. Cassell, who also went to Akers’ execution.
Mr. Cassell, who is a social psychologist by training, also is thinking of doing a study on the families of victims who attend executions in the hopes of achieving a sense of closure.
When Christopher Beck was executed in October for murdering his cousin and two other persons in their Arlington home in 1995, Mr. Cassell attended a vigil outside the walls of Virginia’s death chamber in Jarratt. He said he won’t witness another execution.
Mr. Wickes, 24, is a vocal supporter of the death penalty who works for Virginians United Against Crime, a support group for crime victims and their relatives. He also attended Akers’ execution and was a witness again at Beck’s execution.
“I’ve written editorials [about the death penalty] and have debated in favor of it,” he said. “And I felt it would have bolstered my position to say, ‘OK, I have gone through it.’”
He argued that executions are therapeutic for the victims’ families.
“There’s a feeling of relief that things have been brought to a close a painful chapter in people’s lives has come to a close,” he said.

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide