Virginia execution is smooth, clinical, impersonal
27 February 1997
JARRATT, Va., Feb 27 (Reuter) - "That was a clean execution. It went very smoothly," one prison official said after the state of Virginia put to death convicted murderer Coleman Wayne Gray by lethal injection on Wednesday night.
The execution procedure was clinical, impersonal and efficient. But for this witness, there was a bizarre, almost surreal theatrical quality to the event. The witnesses sat in tiers, just as in a theatre -- six volunteer citizen witnesses in the front two rows, four reporters at the back. Several of the witnesses said they volunteered out of curiosity.
"I just wanted to experience it," said Scott Bailey.
The prisoner died lying on a gurney facing the audience. A blue curtain divided participants from spectators and was drawn and opened twice during the drama, just as in a theatre.
Gray, 39, was convicted by an all-white jury of the May 1985 murder of grocery store manager Richard McClelland. But after 11 years of court proceedings he found out he would die for sure just 10 minutes before he was led into the death chamber, after the Supreme Court turned down his final appeal.
Gray, a thin, black man about 5 feet 8 inches (173 cm) tall, was led into the execution chamber at 8:50 p.m. EST (0150 GMT), flanked by eight uniformed guards. He was shaking violently and kept looking around as he was led to the gurney.
This was the 15th lethal injection to be performed in this room in Greensville Correctional Centre over the past two years, so the drill was well established. The well-trained team quickly sat the condemned man down, one guard flipped his legs into the air while another bore down on his shoulders and Gray was lying on the table.
The guards, working very fast, then strapped him across the ankles, thighs and chest and attached cross straps from his shoulders to his waist. Gray's head kept bobbing up during the procedure, his lips fluttering.
Then the blue curtain was closed. Working behind it, technicians stretched out each arm and inserted intravenous drips. When the curtain opened two minutes later, Gray's arms were extended in a crucifix position, bandaged to the wings of the table. The drip line led through a hole in another blue curtain at the back of the room. Technicians behind the curtain actually injected the deadly chemicals.
Gray was asked if he had any last words. "I have no last statement," he said in a voice that was barely audible.
At 9:01 p.m., the execution staff began to inject the chemicals that would kill him. For two minutes, Gray's chest heaved violently, before his breathing subsided, then stopped. At 9:05 p.m., his chest twitched twice. At six minutes past the hour, warden David Garraghty pronounced Gray dead.
The curtain closed again and the witnesses filed out. The whole procedure had lasted 16 minutes from the time Gray was led into the room until his body was wheeled out, to be taken for an autopsy before his family could claim it.
Gray and accomplice Melvin Tucker robbed McClelland, a father of four, abducted him and shot him six times in the head, despite his pleas for mercy. Tucker said Gray pulled the trigger, Gray said Tucker did it. But the prosecution made a deal with Tucker: In exchange for his testimony, he received life imprisonment and will soon qualify to apply for parole.
Meanwhile, the wheels of justice in Virginia grind on. "We have executions set pretty much every Tuesday and Thursday in March," said David Bass of the Corrections Department. The next man scheduled to die is Carl Chichester on March 6.