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In the days before DNA testing became available for use in criminal cases, cops, prosecutors, judges, and juries relied on other physical evidence to send bad guys to jail—fingerprints and footprints, soil, glass fragments, trace evidence, etc. Those things along with confessions and eyewitness testimony were the building blocks used to convict the guilty.

Then, when DNA arrived on the scene, well, it soon became apparent that somehow officials had made a few boo-boos along the way and had sent more than a handful of innocent men and women to jail for crimes they didn’t commit. DNA testing of old evidence, in fact, exonerated people like our friend Ray Krone who served ten years in prison, three of which were on death row, for a murder he didn’t and couldn’t have committed.

Ray as an inmate at Arizona State Prison in Yuma

Ray Krone could’ve easily been eliminated as a suspect had DNA testing been conducted at the time of the investigation. Instead, his conviction was based on bite mark evidence, a test/examination/comparison method that’s been found to be unreliable.

DNA test results were used in court cases as early as the mid 1980s. Ray was convicted in the early 90s, without the benefit of DNA testing, a simple test that would have prevented him from serving time in prison as an honest, clean-handed man.

Nowadays, to weed out the innocent, DNA testing is routinely performed in the early stages of criminal investigations. And it helps … some. The use of DNA tests in post-conviction cases and appeals sometimes leads to exonerations, such as, for example, Ray Krone’s release from prison.

Electropherogram – a chart produced by testing equipment after DNA sequencing is completed.

Unfortunately, and what most members of juries do not understand, is that during a typical criminal investigation, in only about 10-20 percent of all cases do cops find testable biological evidence. In spite of this low percentage, some juries still expect a case to hinge on DNA results. However, without something to test, of course, there’ll be no electropherograms pointing to a specific suspect.

Sometimes, even with the presence of DNA, those results are not always definitive.

Electropheragram showing tested DNA of two subjects, and a mixture of DNA collected from a victim. Results showing a mixture make it difficult to point to any one suspect.

But let’s go back to the 10-20 percent figure, the number of cases where testable biological evidence is located and collected by investigators and then subsequently tested by laboratory scientists and other experts.

At the upper end, the 20 percent range, that leaves 80 percent of all criminal cases that are solved by using other means of crime-solving, such as the aforementioned fingerprints and footprints, soil, glass fragments, trace evidence and, of course, detectives going about the business of good old-fashioned door-knocking and talking to people. The combination of the physical evidence and confessions and eyewitness testimony is what leads to the majority of criminal convictions.

Sadly and dismally disastrous, without mostly foolproof scientifically tested evidence, courts must rely on human testimony, humans whose memories often fluctuate. Police investigators who enter a crime scene with a serious and dreaded case of tunnel vision. Prosecutors who do the same once the already skewed/tunnel-vision-tainted, unreliable witness’ flawed statement evidence is presented to them,

Overworked and underpaid public defenders aren’t always up to date on current scientific practices and the laws governing them. Those same attorneys carry heavy caseloads which stretches their time to a breaking point so thin that they can’t possibly devote the amount of time needed to decently defend their appointed clients. Their budgets are minimal, meaning expensive testing and other necessities for their clients’ defenses are practically nonexistent.

Post-conviction procedures (motion for new trials, ineffective assistance of council, appeals to address the lack of scientific testing to prove innocence) are a huge uphill climb for people who’ve been incarcerated. This is especially so for the poor.

Those of meager means often have no alternative other than to wade through prison law libraries, hoping to make sense of the legal jargon that fits their situation. They sometimes employ a jailhouse lawyer to help, paying for his services by whatever means available—cleaning his cell, cooking meals, shining shoes, and even purchasing items for them from the commissary, or having family members on the outside send money to the amateur legal eagle.

The wealthy, of course, have outside resources to help with the filing of necessary paperwork. But there’s sometimes a bad egg in this bunch, such as the high-priced, fancy-smancy defense attorney I overheard telling his client who’d just received 37 months in federal prison for possessing crack cocaine worth little more than $100, that for an additional $25,000 he could arrange to have him serve less time on home confinement. That’s fair, right?

And, there’s the Innocence Project who helps the wrongly convicted.

Aside from the obvious, there’s a real problem with the aftermath that’s sure to arise after retroactively clearing prisoners of their crimes based on DNA evidence.

Yes, when all the dust settles after all the men and women who’ve been wrongfully convicted and then cleared by the use of DNA evidence are out of prison with their recoreds expunged and their names cleared, there will still be hundreds if not thousands of people still behind bars because their convictions were based on the bad memory of a witness, a cop or prosecutor with tunnel vision, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, a mistake made at the lab during evidence analysis (mislabel an item, etc., tainted evidence, such as the accidental transfer of a fingerprint or even DNA evidence).

Someday soon there will be a false sense that DNA has cleared ALL the innocent people, leaving  those behind who  surely must be guilty of their crimes because there was no scientific evidence to prove otherwise. But we know this can’t be so. Why not? Because of human error.

Yes, it is indeed possible to transfer a fingerprint, even accidentally.

Tertiary DNA Transfer

It’s possible that DNA can be accidentally transferred from one object to another. A good example could be the killer who shares an apartment with an unsuspecting friend. He returns home after murdering someone and then tosses his blood-spatter-covered shirt into the washer along with his roommate’s clothing. The machine churns and spins through its wash cycles, an action that spreads the victim’s DNA throughout the load. Police later serve a search warrant on the home, seize the clothing, and discover the victim’s DNA on the roommate’s jeans. The innocent roommate is arrested for murder.

The list of human error possibilities is extremely long and, unfortunately, there’s no magic DNA bullet to help clear the innocent folks convicted based on an accident. Their battles are practically hopeless. Laws and courts make it nearly impossible for people already serving time to have a judge revisit their cases.

Odds are, that hopelessness follows a few of the condemned all the way to the execution chamber, where it is indeed conceivable that an innocent man could be, and most likely has been, put to death.

And, well, I suppose it’s possible that given the right/wrong circumstances, anyone, even you, could find themselves behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hangings have been a staple in mysteries for as long as we can remember. The Wild West featured them at high noon. The United States government used them as a means of execution, the last being a fellow from the state of Delaware named Bill Bailey, which finally answers the never-ending question. He’s not coming home, so feel free to stop singing about him.

Dr. John Lofland, Professor of Sociology Emeritus Department of Sociology University of California, Davis, detailed state executions in his original commentary titled, The Dramaturgy of State Executions. He’s an expert on the subject.

Dr. John Lofland is an expert on the subject of executions. He’s also a renowned American sociologist and professor who’s best and widely known for his studies of the peace movement. He’s also a multi-published author (see below), and I have close ties to him because, well, he’s my cousin and, ironically, I sort of loosely stumbled onto his path having witnessed an execution by electrocution/electric chair.

I’ve used bits and pieces of information from Dr. Lofland’s commentary to assist you with understanding hangings and strangulations, the topic of this post.

The History

Hangings got their start in Persia (now Iran) approximately 2,500 years ago. So it’s use as a method of putting the condemned to death is not new. American settlers brought the practice with them from England and continued it’s use to deter bad people from doing bad things, such as murder and rape. Sodomy, practicing witchcraft (or even being suspected of it), and even canceling the birth of a child, such as one born out of wedlock, were also “hanging offenses.”

Hangings “back in the day” were sometimes festive occasions where hundreds and sometimes thousands of people gathered to join the celebration of putting a criminal to death. In 1860, for example, a hanging on New York’s Bedloe’s Island attracted massive crowds of people in the streets. So many that others opted to arrive by boat, including oyster boats, yachts, and large steamers carrying such a large number of people it was thought the ships might sink. Food venders set up tents in the streets. It was the hoedown of all hoedowns, and the tradition continued on for a number of years.

It wasn’t uncommon to hears loud and happy cheers while the condemned person dangled from the rope while kicking their feet and convulsing. The cheers grew even louder when the executioner cut the rope to allow the newly dead to drop to the ground.

At one point in time, it was customary for the executioner to cut off the heads of traitors (post hanging) and then hold them up for the crowd to see.

Sometimes sheriffs cut the hanging rope into small pieces and sold them as souvenirs. If the dying man wasn’t dying fast enough, someone would pull down on his legs to help make for a speedier death.

Condemned men have displayed various reactions when finally arriving at the point of their hangings, such as attempting to dance around the trap door, quickly straddle the opening as the door opened, kicking the executioner, etc. Others, having come to terms with their demise, embraced the moment by gently kissing the rope, delivered a flowery speech, or released a black handkerchief, allowing it float gently to the gallows floor, the symbol to drop the hatch.

Writing a Hanging or Strangulation Scene

Most writers who’ve penned death by rope or other “twisted” cord have never seen a victim of strangulation, or hanging (sometimes they’re the same). And that, of course, makes the task a little more difficult, having to rely on books, TV, film, and the word of experts. So before we look at an actual photo straight from the morgue (I snapped the image), let’s take a moment to discuss why and how something as small as a shoelace has the ability to end a human life.

While looking firm and sturdy perched on a set of nicely toned shoulders, the neck is actually quite vulnerable to life-threatening injury.

After all, there’s a lot of important stuff packed into a fairly small space—spinal cord, airway, and major blood vessels. And there’s not a lot of protection surrounding those vital body parts. There’s no bony encasement, such as our ribs, that circle around the interior of the neck. Nope, it’s basically just a little muscle and skin that separates the spinal cord, airway, and major blood vessels from harm.

Did you know that hanging is actually a form of strangulation? Well, sometimes hangings may include some spinal cord or bone injury, but basically the death is by strangulation.

Hangings are either complete (the entire weight of the body is suspended by the neck), or incomplete, where a portion of the body is touching the ground/floor.

A judicial hanging (execution) is normally a death by internal decapitation, where the weight of the body combined with the fall causes the neck to break, disconnecting the head (internally) from the body.

A separation at C2 is the classic hangman fracture.

Rarely, as I’ve often read in novels, does a complete, external decapitation occur. However, it is possible to see an external decapitation (the head completely separates from the body—two individual pieces) in cases where the drop is much further than the length of the victim’s body. For example, the victim is 6-feet tall and is dropped from a height of 30 feet or more before the rope tightens.

The muscles of the neck, such as the sternocleidomastoid muscle, remain intact during an incomplete decapitation.

Strangulation by ligature, tool, or mechanism is a little different, however. Death in these instances is normally caused by obstruction of blood flow to the brain, which causes loss of consciousness followed by a loss of muscle tone and finally arterial and airway obstruction. Naturally, other things occur during the time of strangulation, but those listed are probably of the most concern for writers.

However, pressure applied to the neck for mere moments doesn’t always cause death. Martial arts strangle/choke holds often involve a compression of the major neck arteries, causing a temporary unconsciousness. The trachea (windpipe) is not compromised during the application of these techniques.

This post-autopsy photo below (note the stitching of the “Y” incision) shows a deep ligature mark on the neck (upper left).

The murder weapon was an extension cord, the typical cord found in many homes.

Thanging autopsyo help orient – the head is to the left, just outside the upper edge of the photo. The Y-stitching begins at the bottom left  (upper right shoulder area) and continues to the mid chest area where it’s met by a like incision that began at the upper left shoulder area (upper area of the image) and continued to the chest center. The incision continued down to the area below the navel (bypassing the bellybutton).

This post-autopsy photo (note the stitching of the “Y” incision) shows a deep ligature mark on the neck (upper left).

The above image is not of the mysterious Bill Bailey. No, he’s still missing. Perhaps “Frankie and Johnny” know of his whereabouts. Ah, how many of you know what the heck I’m referring to in this half-baked riddle?

*This particular autopsy was conducted in the state of Ohio, where procedure may vary from the area where your story is set.

Suicidal Hangings

As a police detective, I’ve seen a few suicides and suicide attempts. They’re not a pretty sight, and there’s a different and noticeable “feel” at those scenes than what’s experienced when stepping into a location where someone was murdered. They’re both emotional, nearly palpable experiences. But suicides … there’s the intense sensation of the misery, sorrow, sadness, and extreme loneliness—what the victim was going through at the time they ended their time on this planet. For a moment, a brief flutter deep in the gut, you sometimes feel as if you’re standing there in their shoes.

It’s especially bad when the suicide is that of a child. Here’s post where I describe one of those scenes. It was a tough one.

Unlike state executions where death is practically instant due to the breaking of the neck as a result of the sudden fall, suicide hangings typically take approximately 8-10 minutes before the deed is all said and done, and the death is typically caused by asphyxiation due  to compression of the airway and major blood vessels of neck (see image above).

Should the victim change their mind and halt the process mid-act, or if they’re rescued by someone, here’s what they could expect to happen to their bodies immediately thereafter.

  • Respiratory distress
  • Pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs)
  • Convulsions
  • Elevated intra cranial pressure
  • Unconsciousness

Post hanging attempts require adequate oxygenation and restoration of an adequate blood flow to the brain (hyperventilation sometimes helps the process).

Tracheal intubation and/or mechanical ventilation are often needed to maintain oxygen supply. Patients may require aggressive oxygen therapy and must be monitored closely because pulmonary edema could occur even after few hours following the suicide attempt. Merely because they’ve started breathing on their own and appear to be “coming around” does not mean that all is well. Nor does it mean the victim(s) in your stories are completely out of the woods at that point.

Hey, when you need that touch of added tension to “breathe life” into an otherwise somewhat dull scene, well, here you go …


Dr. John Lofland is the author and coauthor of various works detailing social movements, social psychology, and research methods. Some of his writings include, Symbolic Sit-ins, Doing Social Life Deviance and Identity, Analyzing Social Settings, and Protest: Studies of Collective Behaviour and Social Movements.

According to Wikipedia and a bit of our family history, John’s book, Doomsday Cult, “is considered to be one of the most important and widely cited studies of the process of religious conversion, and one of the first modern sociological studies of a new religious movement.”

Dr. John Lofland and I both are related to another Dr. John Lofland.

The early Dr. Lofland was the first official poet for the State of Delaware and authored The Poetical and Prose Writings of Dr. John Lofland, the Milford Bard. I have a copy.

In 1830 John Lofland accepted a challenge from Edgar Allan Poe at the Stars and Stripes Tavern on Water St. in Baltimore Md. The challenge was to see which of the two could write the greater number of verses. Poe lost to Lofland in the marathon contest and was obligated to pay for dinner and drinks for his good friend. This is proof a Lofland received the first ever Edgar Award, dinner and drinks from Poe himself!


Thoughts

by Dr. John Lofland, The Milford Bard

 

Oh! Liberty, how lovely are thy charms,

Thus to call forth embattling bands to arms!

T’ avenge his country’s wrongs, her rights to save,

To win a glorious garland, or a grave;

To rend the chains of cheerless slavery,

To give unborn millions liberty;

To dash the sceptre from the despot’s hand,

Heroes have nobly bled, and patriots plann’d…

Oh! War, what horrors follow in thy train,

What scenes of grief, of dark despair and pain?

Methinks I see the dying and the dead,

Adown this hill, upon their grassy bed;

I hear the cry of wounded men, in vain,

Calling on wives and children, o’er the main;

Calling on wives and children, they no more

Shall see on life’s now fast receding shore;

I see forms of those who died, that we

Might live and long enjoy liberty.

 

I looked into the eyes of a serial killer

Have you ever sat in a room designed especially for killing people, looking into the eyes of a serial murderer, watching and waiting 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 searing flesh of a condemned killer as 1,800 volts of electricity ripped through his body, nonstop, for thirty seconds?

Have you ever witnessed a legal homicide carried out by a “man behind the curtain” who, during his career, caused the death of 62 humans who were convicted of their crimes and then received the ultimate punishment, execution. No? Well, I have and here are the gruesome details.

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.

spencer.jpg

Timothy W. Spencer, the Southside Strangler

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, a corrections official met me at a state police area headquarters where I’d parked my unmarked Chevrolet Caprice. I climbed into his van, one typically used for transporting inmates. My driver du jour was an always-smiling, short and portly man whose skin was the color of caramel. His round head was slick with the exception of a few small tufts of white hair that brought to mind the fluffy clouds of a summertime sky. He was a friend and sometimes colleague who headed up the prison’s “death squad.” I’d known him for several years and enjoyed his company. His sense of humor was a great match for my own … quirky.

I’d worked with the lieutenant in the past when he approved my request for the loan of several prison K-9s, the nasty, snarling ones that enjoy biting, and their handlers, to assist with a large drug and weapon eradication operation in the city.

During the ride to the prison, we occupied our time with small talk and banter about the usual—cop and corrections stuff, and our lives dealing with the worst of the worst. I put them away and he babysat them for the next one to 100 years, or, until the end, which was soon to be for Timothy Spencer.

When we reached 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. It was like a tiny theater and we all knew who would play the part of the leading man, a solo performer who would appear in the starring role only a single time.

The place was packed, a sellout crowd consisting of a couple of members of the press, a two or three attorneys, a few others who’ll remain nameless to respect their privacy, and me, the only cop in the place.

The room where I and the 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.

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, revealing the handful of prison officials who entered first, and then Spencer who walked calmly into the chamber surrounded by members of the prison’s death squad (specially trained, uniformed 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, though, seemed prepared for what was to come, and he’d made his peace with it. His face was absent emotion. No frown. No tears. No smile. Nothing. He was a man who seemed more like a robot than a human with a beating heart, a thinking brain, and a conscience.

The man who’d brutally and killed so many women, was shorter and a bit more wiry than most people picture when thinking of a 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 the color of milk chocolate. Dots of perspiration were scattered across his forehead and bare scalp like raindrops on a freshly-waxed car.

Spencer looked around the room and the area where we sat. His eyes moved slowly from side to side and up and down, taking in the surroundings and 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.

Spencer blinked a bit when looking at the bright overhead lights. Other than that tiny movement his actions were totally and absolutely unremarkable. Had I not know what was about to take place, I’d have assumed he was settling into an easy chair to watch a bit of television before retiring for the evening after a long day at work.

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. As they secured his arms and legs tightly to the oak chair, he looked on, seemingly uninterested in what they were doing.

I sat 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.  Not even a remote sign of sadness, regret, or fear. Either he was brave, heavily sedated, or stark-raving mad.

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. He kept his gaze on me, all the way to the end.

Some of the people in the room focused 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 remained silent.

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.


Jerry Givens, a former executioner for the Commonwealth of Virginia—the man who executed Timothy Spencer—described his opinion of the death penalty when he said, “If I execute an innocent person, I’m no better than the people on death row.”

Givens, after executing 62 people, now strongly opposes the death penalty.

And then there are the cases of the men and women on death row who’ve been exonerated based on evidence that proved that didn’t or couldn’t have committed the crime of which they were accused and convicted. Such as Ray Krone, a friend of this site who spent nearly a decade on death row before DNA evidence proved his innocence.

Ray detailed the experience in an article for this blog. To read his story please click here.

Prisoners are constantly scheming and devising ways to beat the system, and death row inmates in South Carolina found a way to essentially put the brakes on executions. How’s that for ingenuity?

Officials in South Carolina, bless their hearts, believed condemned killers should have the option as to how they’d die—lethal injection or electric chair. Well, it goes without saying that given the choice of being fried like a chicken for a Sunday dinner or to lie down on a padded gurney where a medical person injects enough drugs to initiate a very long nap in the great beyond, the folks residing on death row picked the injection over the suped-up jumper-cable-powered chair. A no-brainer.

No Access to Drugs

Unfortunately for the state but a stroke of good fortune for the prisoners, in 2011, South Carolina was permanently denied access to the drugs to perform lethal injections. Therefore, by opting for lethal injection, a process inmates knew could not be carried out, those prisoners prolonged their lives for eternity. They were condemned to die but the state had no means to make it happen. Until …

State officials recently held a vote to eliminate lethal injection as an option for execution, making the use of the electric chair mandatory. The results of the vote … Yes=26. No=12. The proposal now goes to the House where it expected to pass easily, meaning it will soon be time to fire up Old Sparky. The prisoners will no longer have a choice. They will be electrocuted until dead.

South Carolina is one of only nine states that allow electrocutions. A couple of states have ruled the use of the electric chair is unconstitutionally cruel. I’ve witnessed an execution by electrocution. It’s not pretty, but it works.

Execution: It was April 27, 1994 at 11:13 pm. when I looked into the eyes of a serial killer and then watched him die.

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.

spencer.jpg

Timothy W. Spencer, The Southside Strangler

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 man 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.

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

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

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 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 sat directly in front of the cold-blooded killer, mere feet away, separated only 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 where he 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.”

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.

In those remaining seconds everyone’s thoughts 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 and 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 where he placed a stethoscope against Spencer’s chest, listening 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.

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

 

Unusual 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.