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.
I once sat a few feet in front of convicted serial killer, Timothy Spencer, better known as The Southside Strangler, and watched as the death squad secured the killer’s hands and feet.
Timothy W. Spencer
The Southside Strangler
I watched Spencer’s eyes as he scanned the room, 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.
Timothy Spencer began his rape and murder 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.
He was later tried, convicted, and sentenced to die for his unspeakable crimes.
The room where I sat facing Timothy Spencer was in the death house inside 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.
On the night Spencer was scheduled to die, he entered the chamber surrounded by members of the death squad. He’d 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. He seemed prepared for what was to come, and he’d made his peace with it.
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. He looked on, seemingly uninterested in what they were doing, as if he’d just settled in to watch TV, or a movie.
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.”
Yep, 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 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?
Spencer was asked if there any final words he’d like to say—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, he took with him to his grave.
He made eye contact with me. And believe me, it was a chilling experience to look into the eyes of a serial killer just mere seconds before he himself was killed. At the end, he kept his gaze on me while he turned both thumbs upwards, still displaying his arrogance. A death squad member then placed a leather mask over Spencer’s face. 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 his 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.
Finally, 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. One of the worse serial killers in history 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.