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Inside the death chamber: A reporter's view

By Maria Glod

Veteran Washington Post crime and justice reporter Maria Glod was a media witness to the execution of Teresa Lewis on Thursday night. Lewis was the first woman executed by Virginia in nearly 100 years. Here is Glod's account of the event:

Three weeks ago, I met convicted murderer Teresa Lewis in prison. Her husband and stepson died because of her, and she wept. She told me was scared that her daughter hated her, and that she longed to see her baby grandson grow up. We were separated by glass and her wrists were cuffed, but she tucked her fingers through the narrow slot in the window and reached out to grasp my hand.

On Thursday night, I watched her die.

I volunteered to be a media witness to Lewis's execution because I believe that if our society chooses to execute murderers, we must face that choice and the details of how we carry out those killings. It is not for me to say whether the punishment was just, but it's my job to describe what I saw.

Still, in the days before, I dreaded going.

I don't pretend I knew Teresa Lewis. We only talked once for an hour or so. But it was enough time to know she understood she had done terrible things, but there were people she loved who loved her. It is unsettling and upsetting to plan a day around a death that will occur at a predetermined time, in a predetermined place before an audience.

Virginia carries out its executions at 9 p.m. to give the condemned most of their last day to see family. I entered the prison at 7 p.m. with three other media witnesses. We met up with eight citizen witnesses, volunteers who carry out a task the law requires. Guards searched us and officials gave a description of the history of executions in Virginia. Teresa's would be the 344th since October 1908, they told us.

We each signed a brown, leather-bound witness book. I noticed that Teresa's lawyer, Jim Rocap, a man who fought to save her and I knew would be devastated by her death, had come in before us. Her spiritual adviser, a prison chaplain, was inside too.

About 8:40, we took a prison van to the death chamber, a sterile, drab, cinder-block area. We sat on plastic chairs in a tiered viewing room. Below us, separated by windows, was the gurney with white sheets and brown leather straps where Teresa Lewis would die.

To our right was a second viewing room. I could not see inside, but I knew that Kathy Clifton, a gracious and soft-spoken woman whose father and brother were murdered in a plot Teresa Lewis was a key part of, had planned to be there with her husband, mother-in-law and a close friend.

An execution brings all the pain and humanity of a tragic crime to one place and I felt that weight as I sat looking into the death chamber.

Clifton, who had lost her mother to illness and another brother in a car crash, had most of the rest of her tight-knit family wiped out the night Teresa Lewis let gunman in the house. I've never lost someone close to me at the hands of another and was very aware I couldn't comprehend the pain Clifton has endured. She told me she hoped the death sentence would bring her some peace and a way to move forward, and I hoped it would.

But Teresa Lewis's death also would also hurt people. She had a daughter, a son and a grandson. Rocap, Teresa's lifeline to the outside world for years, had come to know her as a gentle and simple person who was pulled into the crime by a conspirator. Prison chaplains and inmates told me that Teresa was a dear friend who mattered to them.

There were about a dozen officials or guards in the death chamber, all waiting to carry out a quick and efficient death. The entire time, someone held a red phone that went straight to Gov. Robert McDonell's office in case there was a last-minute reprieve. Another official had an off-white phone that went to the warden's office in case the U.S. Supreme Court intervened. I knew neither would happen.

We all sat in eerie silence, waiting.

At 8:50, Rocap and Chaplain Julie Perry walked in. They looked crushed and exhausted. Perry, who would stand the entire time, held what I supposed was a Bible. She clasped Rocap's hand.

The next five minutes were the hardest. We all watched minutes tick by on a clock over the door Teresa would enter. I looked back. Rocap's eyes were shut and he looked pained. I wondered what Kathy Clifton felt.

Teresa Lewis, wearing a light blue shirt, dark blue pants and flip flops, came through the door at 8:55, ushered by guards in blue uniforms who held her elbows. She looked toward us with a gaze that seemed dazed and anxious.

Within moments she was flat on the gurney. Several guards strapped her down. I never saw her face again.

At 8:58, officials drew a dark blue curtain across the window. Behind it, they attached the intravenous lines. We could not see or hear anything. Perry wept.

At 9:09 the curtain opened. Teresa's arms were now extended from her body with strips of white tape holding the tubes in. The warden asked Teresa if she had any final words. Her speech sounded garbled at first, but officials later told us she asked if Kathy Clifton was there.

Then she said clearly: "I just want Kathy to know that I love you and I'm very sorry."

The chemicals began flowing. In Virginia, the first is thiopental sodium, which renders the person unconscious. The second, pancuronium bromide stops breathing. The final chemical, potassium chloride, stops the heart.

Teresa Lewis's feet and toes twitched, then they stopped. I couldn't tell when she died.

By Maria Glod  | September 24, 2010; 12:37 PM ET
Categories:  How I got that story, More on the story, The inside story  
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This is so sad and so painful. I don't doubt she deserves to be punished -- life in prison without parole seems appropriate, like the men who did the killing. But I can't believe that we do this to anyone.

Posted by: saturdayschild | September 25, 2010 3:43 PM | Report abuse

This is beyond's down right sick. By the lack of comments, it appears that we do not want to look in the mirror and see the reality of these acts. There are only four countries in the world who use this means of "justice." By no means am I saying that some people deserve swift punishment, but I don't know how those who perpetrate capital punishment can sleep at night, pray in the morning, or continue to be re-elected. This is just down right disgusting. Just like going to war, we downplay acts against humanity.... I'm frightened by how base we can be.

Posted by: lk11 | September 26, 2010 9:09 PM | Report abuse

The death penalty is our national shame. We cannot ever claim to be a civilized nation until we no longer believe that state sanctified murder is a form of justice.

Posted by: nlynnc | September 27, 2010 6:20 AM | Report abuse

Well, the other three countries for sure don't have the protections and appeals built into the US justice system so there is no equating them with us. And people sleep just fine because they're OK with a an execution in our system. Wonder how you volunteer to be a witness?

Posted by: ronjaboy | September 27, 2010 7:05 AM | Report abuse

So the idea of caging someone in a cell for the rest of their lives, maybe 40 years or more, is considered by some to be humane?

Some people really have strange ideas of humane.

The simple fact of the matter is, if people commit one of the few crimes that trigger capital punishment, of such a heinous nature that it triggers capital punishment, those are people who really have no idea of the concept of "humane" themselves.

Their victims certainly weren't treated humanely.

Why are death penalty opponents never there for the victims?

Why do they fight for the lives of the killers but never for the lives of those killed?

Why do they find the lives of murderers more valuable than those who are murdered?

Why do they care about the cruelty of execution of a murderer and ignore the cruelty of the murder?

Who are they to ascribe a higher value on the lives of those who commit such heinous crimes over the lives of those they kill?

Take a life, lose a life.

That being said, there's a disparity about the sentences between this woman and the two triggermen that's wrong.

They should have been either side of her on their own gurneys.

Posted by: Moonwolf | September 27, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

Good riddance. Hope she was trembling in fear her final few moments.

Posted by: civilrightist | September 27, 2010 10:42 PM | Report abuse

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