The Mercy Seat | Books | Type Weekly

In 2015, Dale M. Brumfield, a veteran journalist and writer, was ending a masters diploma in wonderful artwork in writing at Virginia Commonwealth University.

He realized of a jail inmate who escaped from Virginia to Florida, lived in a tent and was caught after years of being on the lam.

“I got interested in talking to him for a story,” says Brumfield in his small workplace at his house in rural Hanover County. [Full disclosure: Brumfield has freelanced for this publication in the past.]

The interview didn’t work out, however Brumfield mentioned he bought hooked on prison justice and the dying penalty. Not solely did he write a guide in regards to the now-demolished Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond, he grew to become subject listing for Virginians Against the Death Penalty (VADP), an advocacy group that joined forces with different events in abolishing capital punishment.

Their effort was profitable behind their wildest desires. In March of 2021, Virginia’s General Assembly voted to ban executions. It is the one state within the South to take action. “People had thought that this was far down the road. It caught everyone flat-footed,” he says.

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  • Courtesy of Dale Brumfield

Now, Brumfield has written an essential new guide, “Closing the Slaughterhouse: The Inside Story of Death Penalty Abolition in Virginia” that lays out the state’s darkish and huge historical past with executions.

From 1608 to 2017, the state executed 1,300 folks – greater than any state. It leads the listing in killing ladies (94) and enslaved folks (736 or 87% of all executed within the nation). The youngest sufferer, an enslaved woman named Rebecca, was hung in 1825 at age 10 or 11 for murdering a younger woman.

Over the years, Black folks have been disproportionately hung or killed by deadly injection or within the electrical chair. In colonial instances, a Black could possibly be hung for stealing a hog.

If a Black killed one other Black, execution was unlikely, says Brumfield. But if a Black was accused of a capital crime in opposition to a white, particularly a girl, it was a completely completely different story.

Court trials generally lasted all of two hours with inexperienced protection attorneys earlier than the last word sentence was handed. “Historically, the death penalty was used as a method to subjugate Blacks,” says Brumfield.

The 416-page guide is deeply researched and a fast learn. Brumfield says he drew on his analysis at VADP and spent days on the University of Albany, which has an enormous database with particulars on executions across the nation. “They have a wonderful digital database. (It has) every single execution complied by researcher M. Watt Espy. It’s incredible. It’s all online,” Brumfield says

The guide’s introduction was written by Sister Helen Prejean, a Louisiana nun who wrote “Dead Man Walking.” The fashionable guide was made right into a extremely regarded 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

Brumfield researched his guide and wrote it in a outstanding 14 months. He interviewed 50 folks.

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Sister Helen Prejean ("Dead Man Walking") wrote the foreword for Brumfield's new book. - COURTESY OF DALE BRUMFIELD

  • Courtesy of Dale Brumfield
  • Sister Helen Prejean (“Dead Man Walking”) wrote the foreword for Brumfield’s new guide.

A key one was Joe Giarratano, a former scallop fisherman and junkie, who was a accused of killing two ladies and raping considered one of them in a Norfolk condo in 1979.

An intoxicated Giarrantano turned himself in and admitted the crimes. He was sentenced to dying however later the proof didn’t appear clear. One of his obstacles was a peculiar Virginia regulation that provides a dying row inmate solely 21 days from sentencing to provide exculpatory proof.

Giarrantano was scheduled to be electrocuted a number of instances however lastly, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder commuted the dying sentence to 25 years. Giarrantano studied regulation in jail, helped fellow prisoners and wrote extensively, together with an article for the Yale Law Review.

He was thought-about such a pest by corrections officers that he was despatched to a jail in Utah after which says he obtained inferior well being care when he arrived again within the Virginia corrections system. Poor medical care value him a leg, Brumfield notes. He’s been launched from jail and works in Charlottesville.

Giarrantano was a key witness in a jailbreak that concerned Richmond’s infamous Briley brothers. Linwood Earl, James Dyral and Anthony Ray Briley went on an infamously brutal 1979 homicide, rape and theft spree in Richmond, killing 11 folks, that concerned firearms, knives and a cinder block.

In 1984, Linwood and James Briley have been on dying row on the comparatively new Mecklenburg Correction Center that dealt with executions. They helped scheme a jail break involving 4 different inmates. The breakout brought about an area information sensation. The two Brileys have been lastly captured in Philadelphia by closely armed FBI brokers and later executed.

At the time, Giarratano was additionally imprisoned at Mecklenburg. He was conscious of the escape plans however opted to remain in jail. Several inmates protected captured jail corrections officers and nurses from hurt.

Brumfield delves into what executions do to human our bodies. It generally takes a number of jolts of energy to kill a doomed prisoner. Their our bodies have been identified to smoke and catch hearth.

He quotes Frank Green, a retired Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter who witnessed many executions. Green wrote of the electrocution of Robert C. Gleason Jr. in 2013: “He smiled, winked, and nodded at instances in direction of his non secular advisor sitting within the witness space. The smile was extra of a leer, and the bravado got here throughout as weird.

“His body tensed and his skin turned pink when the first cycle of electricity began. After a pause, a second ninety-second cycle was conducted.”

Lethal injections have had issues when the three-drug steps don’t work as supposed.

There have been conditions when dying row inmates have been exonerated, which is one cause why dying sentences could be suspect.

On July 18, 1943 in Petersburg, two law enforcement officials, Robert Hatchell and W.M. Jolly, pulled over a automotive with out-of-state plates they thought suspicious. The automotive sped away and crashed. A Black man jumped out and Jolly arrested two passengers within the automotive who claimed they’d been picked up in Raleigh whereas hitchhiking.

Afterwards, Hatchell was present in a subject wounded with a gunshot and shortly died. It occurred that Silas Rogers was hitchhiking close by and the 2 automotive passengers claimed he was the killer. Rogers claimed he was on a northbound practice on the time and was thrown off when he didn’t have a ticket. Later, Rogers confessed to the capturing though not one of the fingerprints on the scene matched his. He was convicted and sentenced to dying.

The questions surrounding his case attracted worldwide consideration. He even bought assist from James J. Kilpatrick, the arduous proper editor of the Richmond News Leader. Rogers was later launched.

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Undated image of a man in Virginia with hanging ropes. - COURTESY OF DALE BRUMFIELD

  • Courtesy of Dale Brumfield
  • Undated picture of a person in Virginia with hanging ropes.

The undeniable fact that dying sentences could be based mostly on defective proof is one cause activists work to abolish executions. Another difficulty is that many convicts could be severely or mildly retarded and will not be dependable when interviewed by police or prosecutors.

That was the case of Earl Washington, Jr., who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to dying for raping and murdering a girl in Culpeper girl in 1982. He spent 17 years in jail earlier than being exonerated.

According to Brumfield, a key particular person within the abolition motion and in Washington’s launch was Marie Deans, who was concerned in overturning the dying penalty convictions of about 250 inmates, primarily in South Carolina and Virginia.

Deans died of lung most cancers in 2011 however her work drew different advocates. One was Catholic Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond, who lobbied politicians and protested publicly in opposition to the dying penalty. He and others continuously demonstrated exterior prisons, notably Mecklenburg, the place executions have been to happen.

Brumfield joined the advocates as VADP subject director and began lobbying, apparently not realizing that momentum was rising and an amazing change was shut at hand.

By 2021, a sequence of occasions set the stage for abolition. “It was a perfect storm,” Brumfield says.

Pro-execution stalwarts within the General Assembly began having doubts about executions. Twelve Commonwealth Attorneys in Northern Virginia despatched out letters to their colleagues statewide asking that the dying sentence be reconsidered, forcing an essential prosecutors’ affiliation to remain impartial, Brumfield explains.

Former Gov. Ralph Northam, reeling from his humiliation over allegedly carrying blackface in a medical college yearbook picture within the Nineteen Eighties, began doing penance by assembly with Black group leaders. The suggestions he bought made him reassess the dying penalty.

Another convert was State Sen. Richard Saslaw, a Democrat from Fairfax County. He had promoted the dying penalty because the Nineteen Seventies, however quickly modified his thoughts after listening to from his constituents.

Then the George Floyd controversy and the Black Lives Matter drew appreciable native, nationwide and worldwide consideration. And state Democrats bought management of the governor’s workplace and the General Assembly.

By March 2021, it had all fallen into place and the dying penalty was abolished in an historic transfer. That’s when Brumfield determined to put in writing his guide.

He has resigned from being VADP subject director after a three-and-a-half 12 months run. “I guess I worked my way out of a job,” he says.

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