It wasn’t the execution by lethal injection that unnerved me so much as the service club atmosphere, like the kind you might encounter at a monthly lunch meeting.
“Hey, John. I haven’t seen you since … the last one.”
There was glad-handing among prison officials and mutual questions asked about their wives and kids. Then corrections officers walked in Bobby Ray Swisher and strapped him to a gurney on July 23, 2003, at Greensville Correctional Center near Jarratt, Virginia — the commonwealth’s death house.
It had barely been five months since I began my first job as a newspaper editor, at The News Virginian in Waynesboro, after nearly 20 years as an investigative reporter. Now I was about to witness a man die. Six years before that day on death row, Swisher — then a 21-year-old high school dropout who was wasted on cocaine and alcohol — stepped into a Stuarts Draft florist shop in the Shenandoah Valley and abducted a woman not far from my newspaper building.
Current Attorney General William Barr’s recent order to reinstate the federal death penalty for the first time in nearly two decades and to execute the first of five inmates later this year got me to reminiscing for the first time in years about Swisher’s execution.
I’ve always been torn over the death penalty: It’s a fact that innocent inmates have been executed; the Death Penalty Information Center says since 1973, 160 inmates — or one in nine on death row — have been exonerated for capital crimes. But I also know that some people are irredeemable: Even if you locked them away for life, they would be a danger to other inmates. There truly is evil in this world.
In Swisher’s case there was no doubt as to his guilt, and it was a horrible crime. It was Feb. 5, 1997, when florist shop co-owner Dawn McNees Snyder was preparing for the upcoming Valentine’s Day rush. Swisher kidnapped Snyder, 22, and threatened her with an unseen gun but showed her a serrated butcher knife. He marched her to a field along the South River and then raped her and forced her to perform oral sex. Realizing she “had seen his face” (Swisher’s words), he slit her throat and pushed her into the frigid waters.
Snyder did not go easily. As the river swept her downstream, Swisher ran along the banks yelling, “Are you dead yet?” The florist fought to survive and eventually managed to crawl up the riverbank. Swisher panicked and ran when he saw her escape the river.
With a potential killer on the lose, the Stuarts Draft community was terror-stricken for 16 days, until searchers found Snyder’s body in a field about 2 miles from the florist shop where she was abducted. Meanwhile, a liquored-up Swisher had confided to a friend earlier that he was guilty. He ultimately confessed to authorities, and DNA evidence recovered from Snyder’s body connected him to her death. It took a jury less than an hour and a half to convict Swisher on Oct. 29, 1997.
In prison, Swisher said he found Jesus and was ready to die — if it came to that. Right before the plungers were pushed, sending a barbiturate, paralytic and potassium solution coursing through his veins, Swisher smiled at his spiritual adviser and told us witnesses, “I hope you all can find the same peace in Jesus Christ as I have.”
I used a primitive cellphone with spotty service to dictate the story to a colleague back in Waynesboro on an ultra-tight deadline. Then I drove 150 miles through the night to get home. And I slept like a baby.
The next morning I felt a little guilty about how well I had slumbered, remembering a colleague’s reaction in 1997 at another execution we covered in Salem, Oregon. Harry Charles Moore, “Crazy Harry” he was nicknamed, is the last Oregon inmate to be executed and that’s only because he dropped all of his appeals.
I interviewed Crazy Harry just days before his death, which I did not witness but wrote about from a nearby makeshift press room. A colleague’s name had been drawn as a media witness for The Oregonian, along with a reporter from The Associated Press. During my interview, only a glass partition separated me from Moore, who was convicted of killing his half-sister, who happened to be his mother-in-law because he had married his niece, and his father-in-law, who also was his half-brother-in-law.
To break the tension and the awkwardness, I literally turned to gallows humor and told Crazy Harry, “I’m not even sure killing your in-laws is a crime, is it?” Moore laughed. I remember Crazy Harry was defiant that he wanted to die and would sue anyone who intervened to stop his execution. When I asked what his last meal would be, he said grapefruit and coffee, odd choices to say the least.
Hours after his execution, at nearly 5 in the morning, my colleagues and I drove to a Waffle House for breakfast. The colleague who had witnessed the execution was visibly shaking and hardly touched his biscuits and gravy. Not knowing what to say, I offered a suggestion: “Take one of those biscuits and sop up the gravy.” He looked incredulous. “What the hell does sop mean?” he asked. Another colleague told him it was a Southern thing. “Pay Todd no mind. He’s from Tennessee, remember?” I quipped, “And damn proud of it.”
I felt guilty after sleeping soundly following Swisher’s execution because of that colleague’s reaction six years earlier.
Executions in Oregon, a “progressive” state, are rare. Crazy Harry was the last, and that was 22 years ago. Executions in Virginia are not rare: The commonwealth has executed more people throughout its history than any other state, including Texas. In Virginia, 113 inmates have been executed since 1976 when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume. That’s far fewer than Texas over that time period. But before 1976, says the Death Penalty Information Center, Virginia put to death 1,277 people, including federal and military executions.
I don’t know how I feel about the federal government resuming executions or the death penalty in general. But I often wonder what it would take to remove my cloak of ambivalence.