Just last week, the General Assembly passed a bill to end the death penalty in Virginia. It’s a historic proposal.
Capital punishment has been a fixture in the commonwealth for its entire history. Yet despite that length of time, few Virginians have actually been involved in an execution. It’s something that happens ostensibly on our behalf, but out of sight and out of mind. Except for me. On a February day in 2009, as a member of the governor’s staff, I played a small role in Virginia’s oldest tradition. And it has helped convince me that the time has come to end the practice here.
Capital punishment was practiced in Virginia more than a century and a half before another Virginian drafted the Declaration of Independence. In 1608, Captain George Kendall became the first recorded execution in the New World, killed by a firing squad in the fledgling Jamestown colony. In the succeeding four centuries, Virginia would go on to execute nearly 1,400 people — more people than any state in the Union.
To be upfront, my role was the smallest of all possible roles. I had no legal expertise. I wasn’t an executioner, or a correctional officer, or a chaplain. I literally just worked the phones in the constituent services office of then-Gov. Tim Kaine. My days were mostly spent helping direct Virginians to the right phone line for a state agency, sorting mail, or taking the first draft of congratulatory letters to conferences and graduations on the governor’s behalf.
A few days before the execution, the governor’s counsel reached out to my boss. He needed two staffers to wait by the office phone line the night of the execution. In the exceedingly rare case that the direct line to the governor’s office failed, he needed staff to be ready to reestablish communication between the execution chamber and the one person legally empowered to halt the process. It was one of the astounding array of contingency plans that our lawyers had to prepare. And, for this one, all I had to do was wait by the phone.
The governor himself was not only a devout Catholic, but he had spent his legal career defending people on death row and advocating for an end to the death penalty. When he ran for governor in 2005, he promised he’d uphold his responsibility under the laws as they stood, and there was no energy whatsoever in the legislature to ending the practice.
On Feb. 19, 2009, the day that 43-year-old Edward Bell was scheduled to be executed, the mood in the governor’s office was heavy and morose. It was always quieter than normal on the day of an execution. The governor usually dialed back events, both to do exhaustive reviews of the evidence and the case, and to hear calls for clemency. But it was also quiet, because the weight of the day somehow crept through the entire office like a fog.
I took advantage of the quiet to research the case, and learn more about the man who was likely going to die within hours. On an October night in 1999, Edward Bell fled from Police Sgt. Ricky Timbrook through the streets of Winchester. In what may have been a case of mistaken identity while Sgt. Timbrook was on the search for another parole violator, he chased Bell into a dark alley. A single gunshot rang out and Timbrook, 32, was found dead from a point-blank shot to the head. Bell was found the next morning in a nearby basement, his fingerprints on the weapon, and ammunition in his house matching the bullet that killed Sergeant Timbrook.
It would take two years to convict Bell of the crime that left Timbrook’s wife widowed, his newborn son without a father, and their house in Winchester unfinished. It took less than an hour for the jury to sentence Bell to death.
A decade after that night, as I was reading about the case, the official announcement came through our office: the governor could find no legal basis to grant clemency to Edward Bell.
Everyone else in our office eventually headed home for the evening. My coworker and I stayed, grabbed some McDonalds from across the street, and turned on Wheel of Fortune — the sound of cheering crowds and winning contestants vanishing into the stillness of empty cubicles and quiet phone lines.
In the weeks leading up to Bell’s execution, I had, in one of many small acts of professional rebellion, read through a book sent to the governor in the days leading up to the execution. It was called “A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green.” I was riveted by Green’s story. In his 12 years on death row, where he’d be sentenced in the killing of a man in a robbery outside a Houston convenience store, he became a mentor to his fellow prisoners. The family of the victim began advocating for his release. Green even met with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It was a riveting story of redemption and forgiveness. In a country focused on rehabilitation and second chances, Green, who admitted participating in the robbery but denied pulling the trigger, would have been released or given a life sentence. Instead he was executed in 2004 when he was just 30.
Green’s story wasn’t the same as Bell’s. Bell’s story was less complicated, at least legally speaking. But it still seemed wrong. My faith calls on me to seek forgiveness — to set aside revenge for even the slightest possibility of redemption. My understanding of history tells me that capital punishment has been used disproportionately against people of color. My basic grasp of the economics knows that it’s cheaper for the state to imprison someone for life than to execute them.
The bureaucracy of capital punishment doesn’t care about faith, history or economics. Edward Bell’s death — and his life — became just another inevitable process. Years later, I would find it hard to even remember his name. And that’s one of the final indignities that we all suffer because of the death penalty. It strips us of our humanity, dulls our sense of possibility and makes us surrender to the idea that somehow we have to take a life. Because, it assures us, it’s no longer taking a life, it’s just the inevitable conclusion; one more box we have to check.
But it’s ultimately not about the guilty party. The death penalty is about us. Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, summarizes it like this: “The question of the death penalty is not, ‘Do people deserve to die for the crimes they commit?’ I think the threshold question is, ‘Do we deserve to kill?’” And a question that follows shortly thereafter is: When we kill, what does it do to us?
Eventually, our conversation dwindled and we drifted back to our cubicles. Sometime around 9 o’clock, Bell professed his innocence to Sgt. Timbrook’s family. The state then injected three drugs into his veins — one that dropped him into a deep sleep, one that stopped his breathing and one that stopped his heart.
Around 9:30, the phone rang at my coworker’s desk. “Okay,” he said. He hung up. “It’s done. We can go now.”
I shut down the computer and grabbed my backpack to go home. Walking to my car in the cold February night, I took a last look at the office. Surrounded by the pitch black of empty windows, a single, weak desk lamp glowed in the governor’s personal office.
Virginia has a chance to stand up for history, for economics and for morality. This year, it has the chance to end the death penalty. It should take that chance. Not because most people on death row are good. Not because the crimes they committed didn’t destroy lives and families that can never be repaired. But because the death penalty takes something from all of us — whether we have the chance to see it or not.