Thursday, March 18, 2010

Virginia's New Republican Governor To Oversee His First Execution

In what may be the first of an alarming trend, Virginia's newly elected, arch-conservative Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) will in all likelihood be overseeing the first of what those of us opposed to capital punishment expect to be many executions during his tenure.

The crime in question is a particularly brutal one, and the guilt of the condemned in this given case is not an issue. But, as attorney John W. Whitehead said in an editorial that ran on Feb. 16 in "The Huffington Post," 139 people from 26 states, including Virginia, have been proven innocent of their crimes while on death row in recent years.

According to Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (, the clemency statement for Paul Powell, whose execution time is around 9 p.m. tonight, the defendant has admitted to the murder of Stacie Reed, 16, on Jan. 29, 1999, near Manassas, Va. In addition, Powell admits to his bizarre, obnoxious behavior which lead Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert, one of the leading proponents of capital punishment in Virginia, to seek the death penalty for his crimes.

The clemency statement adds that Ebert's office presented false evidence that Powell was convicted of two, perhaps three capital murders and that the prosecution also certified false evidence in court.

The VADP cited a similar case involving the 2005 death sentence of Robin Lovitt, which then Gov. Mark Warner (D), now a member of the U.S. Senate, commutted to a life sentence. The VADP's web site states that McDonnell now faces a similar breach of public trust with regards to the Powell case.

Last week, according to, McDonnell steadfastly refused to grant Powell clemency due to the brutality of the crime and the defendant's actions in writing a profanity-laced letter to Ebert which revealed that he had in fact murdered Reed.

The VADP's site also states that then state attorney general McDonnell prevented a review of false evidence for the Virginia state supreme court in Richmond. McDonnell's predecessor Tim Kaine (D) was actually opposed to capital punishment which McDonnell criticized upon Kaine's election.

McDonnell also told various media outlets at the time that Kaine's reasoning for his personal opposition, which did not actually prevent him from approving of executions while governor though he stopped some of the more controversial cases from going through, should not be attributed to Kaine's religious convictions. McDonnell said this because like Kaine, he is also of the Catholic faith and he came to different opinions regarding the death penalty.

Ironically, one of the vigils against Powell's execution in the gas station town of Jarratt, Va., about 60 miles south of Richmond, will be held at the Star of the Sea Parish, a Catholic church, in McDonnell's native Virginia Beach. The current governor is also an alumnus of Pat Robertson's Regent University.

According to the pro-death penalty web site appropriately called, Powell stabbed Reed after attempting to rape her before attacking Reed's sister Kristie whom he also tried to murder.

While one can not dispute the savage nature of Powell's actions, the site offers no background of who is sponsoring their site, where they obtain their information or contact information. Much of the material is also dated.

Other pro-death penalty web sites and blogs, including one called People You'll See in Hell, are using the Powell case to promote more executions in spite of expensive court costs, no significant data that shows capital punishment is a deterent and documented inconsistencies in the capital punishment trials around the country.

Whitehead cited many of these reasons in his column as he pointed out that the average cost of a capital punishment trial is $1.9 million, which has ironically made some conservatives start to oppose the death penalty and murder rates in states without death penalty statutes like Vermont have 40 percent lower homicide rates that pro-death penalty states. The prominent attorney also said death penalty trials were open to prosecutorial misuse and various state and court trends.

Whitehead opened his piece by stating: "Capital punishment studies have shown, whethr or not you are sentenced to death often has little to do with the crime committed and everything to do with your race, where you live and who prosecutes your case."

Race is actually not a factor in the Powell case, as the 31-year-old is a white male though many famous exonerated death row inmates in Virginia and North Carolina have tended to be African-American.

Frank Green, a "Richmond Times-Dispatch" reporter who has arguably overseen more executions than anyone in Virginia (he was covering death penalty cases when I was a reporter for a weekly newspaper in Woodstock, Va., from 1999-2001) reported on March 17 that Powell first encountered problems with the law when he was charged with destruction of property at the age of 12.

Green's article stated that Lorraine Reed Whoberry, Stacie Reed's mother who will be attending tonight's execution, had recieved a message from Powell indicated his remorse for the murder. Whoberry wanted to see Powell on death row to see if his sentiment was genuine, but authorities prevented her from meeting with him.

The Richmond newspaper also stated that Reed was stabbed to death in the heart with a survival knife.

Though the crime is quite heinous in nature, there were plenty of signs that Powell was mentally unstable according to Green's article. The condemned man showed signs of serious depression, isolation and self-hatred according to mental health records of him as a youth.

Powell has asked to be executed by the electric chair. Ebert said he would attend the execution. Protesters will gather outside the execution site in Jarratt starting at 8:30 p.m. Other vigils be held in Arlington, Charlottesville, Fairfax, Harrisonburg, Lynchburg, Norfolk, Richmond, Roanoke and Winchester.

Our condolences certainly go to Reed's family, but the fact remains that capital punishment, especially given the inconsistences in this case, is inappropriate. And, this execution will likely open the proverbial flood gates for more controversial cases to go through. Given McDonnell's far right politics, I am also concerned that he will not take the appropriate precautions that other governors, whether Democrat or Republican or for the death penalty or not, have done in the past in future death penalty cases.

To give McDonnell credit, he ran a brilliant campaign for governor in which he somehow convinced people in evangelical, rural hamlets like Stuart, Edinburg and Boones Mill that his Democratic opponent Creigh Deeds from Hot Springs, who is still a state senator, was a liberal extremist in spite of the fact that Deeds had maintaned an "A" from the National Rifle Association for his voting record in the General Assembly.

Those wishing to stop Powell's execution call Gov. McDonnell's office in Richmond at 804.786.2211 and ask that the condemned man's sentence be changed to life without parole.

I have volunteered for the VADP in the past. The organization is based in Charlottesville, and is headed by Beth Panilatis.

When I was a reporter, I had to cover death penalty cases. In fact, I met Ebert on one such occasion. I took my objectivity very seriously, but now as a blogger, even given the controversial nature of this issue, I feel it is pertinent to express my own views against capital punishment. It was one of the few issues which my late Republican grandmother Waynie Sturgis of Rock Hill, SC, and I actually agreed on.

1 comment:

Nocturalguy38 said...

According to the VADP web site, Powell was pronounced dead at 9:09 p.m. last night. Interestingly enough, I came across an article in the Salt Lake City newspaper about the fate of Utah death row inmate Ronnie Lee Gardner, who said he may opt to die by firing squad beacuse of 'his Mormon heritage. According to the article, Utah- among the reddest states in the country has not carried out an execution since
1999. We hope it stays that way.