PostHeaderIcon I Looked Into The Eyes Of A Serial Killer, And Then Watched Him Die

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Have you ever sat looking into the eyes of a serial killer, watching for some sign of remorse for his crimes, wondering if he would take back what he’d done, if he could? Have you ever smelled the burning flesh of a condemned killer as 1,800 volts of electricity ripped through his body, nonstop, for thirty seconds? No? Well, I have.

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Timothy W. Spencer

The Southside Strangler

Timothy Wilson Spencer began his deadly crime spree in 1984, when he raped and killed a woman named Carol Hamm in Arlington, Virginia. Spencer also killed Dr. Susan Hellams, Debby Davis, and Diane Cho, all of Richmond, Virginia. A month later, Spencer returned to Arlington to rape and murder Susan Tucker.

Other women in the area were killed by someone who committed those murders in a very similar manner. Was there a copycat killer who was never caught? Or, did Spencer kill those women too? We’ll probably never learn the truth.

Spencer was, however, later tried, convicted, and sentenced to die for the aforementioned murders. I requested to serve as a witness to his execution. I figured if I had the power to arrest and charge someone with capital murder, then I needed to see a death penalty case through to the end.

On the evening of Spencer’s execution, corrections officials met me at a state police area headquarters. I left my unmarked Chevrolet Caprice there and they drove me to the prison. We passed through the sally port and then through a couple of interior gates, stopping outside the building where death row inmates await their turn to die.

Once inside, I was led to a room where other witnesses waited for a briefing about what to expect. Then we, in single file, were led to where we’d soon watch a condemned person be put to death.

The room where I and other witnesses sat waiting was inside the death house at Virginia’s Greensville Correctional Center. At the time, the execution chamber was pretty much a bare room, with the exception of Old Sparky, the state’s electric chair, an instrument of death that, ironically, was built by prison inmates.

Death chamber at Greensville Correctional Center

Old Sparky, Virginia’s electric chair, was built by inmates.

State executions in Virginia are carried out at Greensville Correctional Center.

Timothy Spencer was put to death on April 27, 1994 at 11:13 pm.

The atmosphere that night was nothing short of surreal. No one spoke. No one coughed. Nothing. Not a sound as we waited for the door at the rear of “the chamber” to open. After an eternity passed, it did. A couple of prison officials entered first, and then Spencer walked into the chamber surrounded by members of the prison’s death squad (specially trained corrections officers).

I later learned that Spencer had walked the eight short steps to the chamber from a death watch cell, and he’d done so on his own, without assistance from members of the squad. Sometimes the squad is forced to physically deliver the condemned prisoner to the execution chamber. I cannot fathom what sort mindset it takes to make that short and very final walk. Spencer seemed prepared for what was to come, and he’d made his peace with it.

Spencer was shorter and a bit more wiry than most people picture when thinking of a brutal serial killer. His head was shaved and one pant leg of his prison blues was cut short for easy access for attaching one of the connections (the negative post, I surmised). His skin was smooth and was the color of milk chocolate. Dots of perspiration were scattered across his forehead and bare scalp.

Spencer scanned the brightly lit room, looking from side to side, taking in the faces of the witnesses. I wondered if the blonde woman beside me reminded him of either of his victims. Perhaps, the lady in the back row who sat glaring at the condemned killer was the mother of one of the women Spencer had so brutally raped and murdered.

After glancing around the brightly lit surroundings, Spencer took a seat in the oak chair and calmly allowed the death squad to carry out their business of fastening straps, belts, and electrodes. His arms and legs were securely fixed to the oak chair. He looked on, seemingly uninterested in what they were doing, as if he’d just settled in to watch TV, or a movie.

I was seated directly in front of the cold-blooded killer, mere feet away, separated by a partial wall of glass. His gaze met mine and that’s where his focus remained for the next minute or so. His face was expressionless. No sign of sadness, regret, or fear.

The squad’s final task was to place a metal, colander-like hat on Spencer’s head. The cap was lined with a brine-soaked sponge that serves as an excellent conductor of electricity.

I wondered if Spencer felt the presence of the former killers who’d died in the chair before him—Morris Mason, Michael Smith, Ricky Boggs, Alton Wayne, Albert Clozza, Derrick Peterson, Willie Jones, Wilbert Evans, Charles Stamper, and Roger Coleman, to name a few.

Morris Mason had raped his 71-year-old neighbor. Then he’d hit her in the head with an ax, nailed her to a chair, set her house on fire, and then left her to die.

Alton Wayne stabbed an elderly woman with a butcher knife, bit her repeatedly, and then dragged her nude body to a bathtub and doused it with bleach.

A prison chaplain once described Wilbert Evans’ execution as brutal. “Blood was pouring down onto his shirt and his body was making the sound of a pressure cooker ready to blow.” The preacher had also said, “I detest what goes on here.”

Yes, I wondered if Spencer felt any of those vibes coming from the chair. And I wondered if he’d heard that his muscles would contract, causing his body to lunge forward. That the heat would literally make his blood boil. That the electrode contact points were going to burn his skin. Did he know that his joints were going to fuse, leaving him in a sitting position? Had anyone told him that later someone would have to use sandbags to straighten out his body? Had he wondered why they’d replaced the metal buttons buttons on his clothes with Velcro? Did they tell him that the buttons would have melted?

For the previous twenty-four hours, Spencer had seen the flurry of activity inside the death house. He’d heard the death squad practicing and testing the chair. He’d seen them rehearsing their take-down techniques in case he decided to resist while they escorted him to the chamber. He watched them swing their batons at a make-believe prisoner. He saw their glances and he heard their mutterings.

Was he thinking about what he’d done?

I wanted to ask him if he was sorry for what he’d done. I wanted to know why he’d killed those women. What drove him to take human lives so callously?

The warden asked Spencer if he cared to say any final words—a time when many condemned murderers ask for forgiveness and offer an apology to family members of the people they’d murdered. Spencer opened his mouth to say something, but stopped, offering no apology and showing no remorse. Whatever he’d been about to say, well, he took it with him to his grave.

He made eye contact with me again. And believe me, this time it was a chilling experience to look into the eyes of a serial killer just mere seconds before he himself was killed. All the way to the end, he kept his gaze on me.

Suddenly all eyes were on the red telephone hanging on the wall at the rear of the chamber—the direct line to the governor. Spencer’s last hope to live beyond the next few seconds. It did not ring.

The warden nodded to the executioner, who, by the way, remained behind a wall inside the chamber, out of our view. Spencer must have sensed what was coming and, while looking directly into my eyes, turned both thumbs upward. A last second display of his arrogance. A death squad member placed a leather mask over Spencer’s face, then he and the rest of the team left the room. The remaining officials stepped back, away from the chair.

Seconds later, the lethal dose of electricity was introduced, causing the murderer’s body to swell and lurch forward against the restraints that held him tightly to the chair.

Suddenly, his body slumped into the chair. The burst of electricity was over. However, after a brief pause, the executioner sent a second burst to the killer’s body. Again, his body swelled, but this time smoke began to rise from Spencer’s head and leg. A sound similar to bacon frying could be heard over the hum of the electricity. Fluids rushed from behind the leather mask. The unmistakable pungent odor of burning flesh filled the room.

The electricity was again switched off and Spencer’s body relaxed.

It was over and an eerie calm filled the chamber. The woman beside me cried softly. I realized that I’d been holding my breath and exhaled, slowly. No one moved for five long minutes (I later learned that this wait-time was to allow the body to cool down. The hot flesh would have burned anyone who touched it).

The prison doctor slowly walked to the chair, placed a stethoscope against Spencer’s chest, and listened for a heartbeat. A few seconds passed before the doctor looked up and said, “Warden, this man has expired.”

That was it. Timothy Spencer, one of the worse serial killers in America was dead, finally.

Strange, but true facts about Spencer’s case:

- Spencer raped and killed all five of his victims while living at a Richmond, Virginia halfway house after his release from a three-year prison sentence for burglary. He committed the murders on the weekends during times when he had signed out of the facility.

- Spencer was the first person in the U.S. executed for a conviction based on DNA evidence.

- David Vasquez, a mentally handicapped man, falsely confessed to murdering one of the victims in the Spencer case after intense interrogation by police detectives. He was later convicted of the crime and served five years in prison before DNA testing proved his innocence. It was learned that Vasquez didn’t understand the questions he’d been asked and merely told the officers what he thought they wanted to hear.

- Spencer used neck ligatures to strangle each of the victims to death, fashioning them in such a way that the more the victims struggled, the more they choked.

- Patricia Cornwell’s first book, Post Mortem, was based on the Spencer murders.

22 Responses to “I Looked Into The Eyes Of A Serial Killer, And Then Watched Him Die”

  • Joyce Tremel says:

    Very compelling post! He got exactly what he deserved.

    Do you know how many states still use the chair, or have most switched to lethal injection? In my opinion, lethal injection makes it too easy on these murderers.

  • pabrown says:

    While I have no problem with capital punishment, and sometimes wish we had it up here in Canada, I couldn’t do what you did in a hundred years. You’re a lot stronger than I am.

  • D. Swords says:

    Lee. What did you feel afterwqrd, or did you speak with any of the victim’s families to ask them the same question?

    Did you or they feel a sense of “closure” people always speak of?

  • pourshot says:

    I saw Michael Lenz die in the Virginia death chamber from Lethal Injection (LI). I do not see how anyone can call that cruel and unusual. All you do is go to sleep. However, I am sure the walk from the door to the table is the both the longest and the shortest anyone has ever taken.

    Virginia allows either the chair or LI. It is rider’s choice. If they do not choose it defaults to LI.

    I think I want to get back on the witness list, but only one more time and only for the chair. I want to watch because it is hard, in my mind, to be for something you know nothing about.

  • Lee Lofland says:

    Joyce- I’ll have to look at the updated information about which states still have the electric chair as an option. When my book was released last fall, the count was ten.

    Dave- No, I didn’t speak to anyone. In fact, not one single person spoke after it was all over.

  • Lee Lofland says:

    pourshot – How was it for you afterward? Was there any conversation among the witnesses? I’m sure you took the same ride that I did back to the undisclosed meeting place for witnesses. Did anyone have anything to say during the ride?

  • Carla F says:

    I wish more people could read what you’ve just described. (Is it in the book?) I’ve heard it said the death penalty is meant to be a deterrent but as we can all see, criminals are rarely deterred by the thought of punishment such as this. Or if they are, can you imagine how much worse our society would be?

    I’m not sure I’m pro-death penalty but I have a real problem with people saying LI is “inhumane”. What the murderers did was inhumane in and of itself. Paybacks are a b*tch. Deal with it.

  • Lee Lofland says:

    Carla – Yes, the story is in my book, in much more detail.

    I really don’t think the death penalty is a deterrent at all. People who kill simply don’t stop what they’re doing to consider what may or may not happen to them ten years down the road. In fact, even the murderers who are already incarcerated see life in prison as a much harsher penalty than dying.

  • Lee Lofland says:

    DonnelB is apparantly temporarily locked out, but wanted to share this post:

    DonnelB says: Compelling post as your readers have said, but the Death Penalty is hardly black and white. I wonder if you would agree, Lee? Did this execution change your opinion of the death penalty, if you had one? In your previous blog you said that the 22 year old you killed in a bank robbery shoot out haunted you for a long time.

    I wonder what effect this death row inmate had on you? These killers not only wreak havoc on their victims and their families, but society becomes their victim. The controversy they create on both sides will be debated forever. The convict who finds Jesus, can we really know that’s the case?

    The convict who appears so hardened because he won’t say a word and looks so angry? It’s easy to hate these people because they make it so easy. My point is we can never know, truly, what is in anyone’s mind. Courageous post and very informative. ~ Donnell

  • Lee Lofland says:

    Witnessing this execution had no effect on me. I never lost a moments sleep over a man who couldn’t, during his last seconds on earth, say I’m sorry to the families of those poor women. But I have to tell you that a death in the electric chair is very gruesome. It’s not humane. No, no, no, not at all.

  • Bravo, Lee. Quite a memorable post. I feel like I was right there with you.

    BTW, is it true that executions actually cost the government more money than life in prison?

    Kelli

  • Lee Lofland says:

    Hi Kelli. The costs from the beginning of a death peanlty case through execution can exceed two-million dollars. The cost of incarcerating the same inmate for life is between two- and three-hundred thousand dollars.

  • Bobby M says:

    Lee,

    I remember reading this story in your book. It still disturbs me a bit. I don’t know how I would look into the eyes of a killer.

    ~Bobby

  • Lee Lofland says:

    Bobby – I can assure you that it was easier for us to look into Spencer’s eyes than it was for his victims. It was pretty chilling to think that’s the last thing they saw before they died.

  • Laine says:

    Lee,
    I can only imagine what that day was like for you and the other witnesses. I’ve always wondered how I would handle that situation myself and pray I never find out–especially after reading your post here about it. While I believe that the death penalty may not deter murderers from committing a crime like this one, it certainly will keep Spencer from committing another one. Some crimes deserve a death penalty and I am not so sure a humane death is real justice. This guy should have died the same way his victims died. In his last moments, struggling for air and unable to get it. Not THAT would be justice!
    Like my gramma always said, “Hell won’t be hot enough for some people!” Guess Spencer is finding out all about that about now–at least I hope so!
    Thanks for your blog! I can’t wait for more!

  • va_justice says:

    An coincidental irony of the Timmy Spencer case, one victim (Debbie Dudley Davis) worked in a bookstore in the Cloverleaf Mall and had sold a book to another victim (Susan Hellams) a few weeks before they were killed seperately.

    Davis lived on the same block where the tragic Harvey family slayings occurred. Both Spencer and the main perpetrator of that crime, Ricky Gray, were/are unrepentant monsters. Execution is the only appropriate penalty for society’s sake.

  • Rodney says:

    Alot of people say what the beforementioned person said about a life in prison is punishment enough. I have worked in both a major va jail and prison. Going to jail would scare people like me and you who lead a normal lifestyle. However, I can assure you there some who jail or prison is just a way of life. To those people prison is no different than going on a vacation. In the jail I worked at for ten years. You could watch the tiers of men . To many of these persons it was not much more than a social gathering of fellow aquantences playing cards and watching T.V. You could see through their actions that sitting on a tier doing those things were no different than sitting in their own living room. The people like you and me would be the ones cowering in a corner near the front keeping constant contact with staff in the hopes of protection. I guess my point is that don’t base your idea of prison being such a harsh punishment compared to capitol punishment on what your perceptions would be if jailed . To many out there. Going to jail or prison is just something you do.

  • Lee Lofland says:

    Rodney. Thanks for the input. It’s always great to hear from experts.

    I still have to say – it may be a way of life, and I agree that are many inmates who enjoy the lifestyle, but the majority of prisoners long for family and freedom and would rather be out than in.

    By the way, which Va. prison and jail?

  • JJ says:

    Killing is wrong no matter who does it… Point blank. NO ONE should have the right to take another life, whether it be a murderer or our justice system… especially a justice system that has MANY cracks and cannot be trusted.

  • P.C. says:

    I am a friend of David Vasquez. His mother lived next to my husband and I was a teenager when David was arrested for the murder of Carol Hamm. I am sad and angered that no one discusses how badly the investigation of her murder was. David not only lived in Manassas, VA and DID NOT DRIVE. Had no mode of transportation to Arlington, VA. was very slight. The victim, an athletic woman and the TORTURE of David in prison. you will NEVER SEE A RICH MAN ON DEATH ROW. The crimes committed to David while in and out of prison are a reason why our justice system is so broken.

  • Jim H. says:

    I’ve heard the argument that the death penalty is supposed to deter criminals and always believed it was never realistic. The main reason I have for capital punishment is to completely insure that the criminal is never again able to harm any other person as we’ve all seen prison escapes and murders that occur from them are very much a reality, even from death row inmates. Personally I am all for the death penalty in “some cases”. A life sentence to a lifelong criminal is also, in many cases, not a deterrent or even a punishment as I’ve witnessed countless inmates that go through the “revolving door” process only to welcome the chance to get back to the only way of life they have ever known and once they hit the streets they are totally lost and unable to cope with having to make their own day to day decisions. The decision to use lethal injection, to me, is a joke. Like one person said, “you just go to sleep”. Hell, I hope my eventual end is that easy. While I don’t normally support torture, there are some cases that I truly feel that even the chair is too easy an end as in the case of Ricky Gray. I’ve always believed the fairest form of execution is to impose the same method of death as the convicted used on his victims. The only problem with this is what this would do both mentally and emotionally to whomever was tasked with carrying out the punishment. I don’t pretend to have the answers but I do know that the present system is ridiculous and certainly needs to be addressed. As for those who spout that garbage about “any killing is wrong and the death penalty is murder itself” obviously has never had any of their family brutally tortured and murdered. It sickens me to hear people so compassionate towards the killers and so completely oblivious of the pain and loss that these animals have given to the victims next of kin not to mention the victims themselves who they seem to forget are dead at the hands of the convicted.

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