Public Eyewitness: Americans Volunteering to Watch Executions

Teresa Clark has watched three strangers die. She held her husband's hand the first time, but after that the experience began to feel normal.

The couple, who run a chimney sweeping business in Waynesboro, Virginia, volunteer to watch executions. Teresa's husband, Larry, 63, went to the first one alone.

"He was very curious. I dropped him off and I asked him all kinds of questions," she says. "Afterwards he said, 'You gotta see this'."
Execution Chamber in US

Eventually she did. In 1998 they made the "nervous journey" to watch the execution of Douglas Buchanan, Jr, who had been convicted of murdering his father, stepmother, and two stepbrothers.

Witnesses like Teresa and Larry Clark are a legal necessity. In Virginia, as well as some other death penalty states, the law requires people with no connection to the crime attend each execution.

Volunteers "are considered public eyewitnesses, and go to executions standing in the place of the general public," says Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

"It's a recognition that these proceedings need to take place in public view."

On the night of the execution, Teresa, Larry and the other volunteers were picked up by the prison bus and taken to Greensville Correctional Facility in Jarratt, Virginia. After spending some time mingling with reporters in the cafeteria, they were led into a small room.

The room was brightly lit, and featured a large viewing window. When the curtains opened they saw the gurney. Then Buchanan entered.

When asked if he had any final words, he replied: "Get the ride started. I'm ready to go." During executions, Teresa says the prisoners look right into the observation gallery, and the room stays silent.

"It's quite weird, watching somebody look at you as they're getting ready to die," she says. After the execution, the doctor pronounces the inmate dead and the curtains close. The witnesses are thanked for their service and sent home.

The volunteer process made headlines recently when Wendy Kelley, director of the Arkansas corrections department, appealed for volunteers at a community meeting. The state plans to execute a record seven inmates in 11 days, but can't find enough people who are willing to watch.

Arkansas state law says that at least six "respectable citizens" must be at every execution to "verify that the execution was conducted in the manner required by law."

The publicity worked. Arkansas now has a flurry of volunteers. Beth Viele, 39, from Jacksonville, Arkansas, wrote a letter to Kelley expressing her interest. "Please accept this correspondence as a formal request to be a volunteer witness for the eight upcoming executions," she wrote.

"I would love to be part in helping the families of the victim(s) see long overdue JUSTICE be carried out." - BBC

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