Bearing witness to a killer’s execution
jarratt, va. — It is undeniably disturbing to drive to the scheduled killing of another. A hurricane brewing in the distance, slicing steady rain through the gray day. The first song on the car radio: “Enter Sandman,” by Metallica. Passing the old Lorton prison on the way out of Fairfax County.
But the state of Virginia handles the execution of convicted murderers in a precise and professional way. Similarly, serial killer Alfredo R. Prieto lived the final moments of his life with his own version of professionalism, maintaining the same passive look he held through his three long trials in Fairfax, and defiantly refusing to show any remorse or regret as he issued a rehearsed final statement similar to a pro athlete being interviewed after a game. He thanked his “supporters” and then snapped, “Get this over with.”
They did. He entered the death chamber at 8:52 p.m. Thursday, and was dead by 9:17 p.m. A diverse crowd of witnesses watched every moment intently, some in the chamber with him, some victims’ family members and friends in a room peering through one-way glass, and then about 18 more people — lawyers, corrections officials, and four reporters including me — facing him straight on from another room. We watched what appeared to be an utterly painless death for a man who brutally killed nine people and devastated nine families, and here is how it unfolded:
3 p.m.: Six hours before Prieto’s scheduled execution, there is a court order in place postponing it, and no one knows whether the execution will happen. In Richmond, lawyers are arguing about whether the first drug used in Virginia’s lethal injection process will cause undue pain to Prieto. When they are done, U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson doesn’t immediately issue a ruling. The execution remains in limbo.
At Greensville Correctional Center in southern Virginia, visitor logs show that Prieto is visited by his mother, Teodora Alvarado, his sister Yolanda Loucel and his brother Guillermo Prieto, all from Pomona, Calif.; and a Catholic prison chaplain, the Rev. Richard Mooney from Petersburg. It’s not clear whether Prieto’s family stayed for the execution. Mooney would come in and take a seat in the main witness room minutes before the execution started, but would not say whether Prieto asked to be absolved of his sins.
6 p.m.: Judge Hudson lifts the stay on the execution, ruling that Prieto’s attorneys had not shown that the drug pentobarbital would cause him pain. One of the attorneys who argued his case in Richmond, Kimberly Peiffer, joins us in the witness room, sitting next to Mooney.
7 p.m.: Various groups arrive at the prison in Jarratt, Va., just
off Interstate 95 and 20 miles north of the North Carolina line. Deidre and Matt Raver, the sister and brother of 22-year-old victim Rachael Raver, are present, as is Velda Jefferson, the mother of 24-year-old victim Tina Jefferson. Several relatives and family friends join them. No relatives of the five people slain by Prieto in California are present, though they are following the news online.
Also arriving is Ray Morrogh, the Fairfax County prosecutor who co-chaired the first Prieto trial with then-Fairfax prosecutor Robert Horan, along with his chief deputy Casey Lingan, who assisted in the second and third Prieto trials. They are joined by retired detective Bob Murphy, who was a Fairfax cold-case detective in 2005 when the word came in that a DNA hit on two unsolved homicides from 1988 had linked a prisoner in California — Prieto — to the deaths of Raver, her boyfriend Warren Fulton, and Jefferson. Morrogh and Lingan take seats in the front row along with the jury foreman from the second Prieto trial, who wanted to express his support for the victims but did not want to be identified. They will sit about six feet from Prieto, as they did at the trials, when Prieto wore high collared shirts to hide his gang tattoos, and hid his shackled ankles under a tablecloth spread over the defense table.
8 p.m.: Of the four media witnesses, Frank Green of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Brent Epperson of WBRG radio in Lynchburg are veterans of the process, having seen multiple executions. They are joined by Alana Durkin of the Associated Press, seeing her first, and me, having witnessed one previous lethal injection in Missouri. We are given a briefing of how things are expected to go. We are told that Prieto had a final meal but asked that its contents not be revealed. It is noted that he can request only food available from the prison kitchen, no steaks or extravagances from the outside.
As we ride in vans from one building to another, the rain keeps pounding, and the night gets progressively gloomier. As is usual on an execution night in most prisons, the general population, which is more than 3,000 here, is on lockdown, so the ambient racket is minimal. Guards in rain gear are everywhere, and everyone’s movements are closely tracked by radio. There is chatter about the arrival of the secretary of public safety, former assistant Arling--
ton prosecutor Brian Moran. He will join us soon in the witness room.
8:45 p.m.: We are led to the witness room, about 15 feet wide with four tiered levels of plastic chairs facing a large pane of glass. Beyond that, the death chamber, and an empty white gurney with supports jutting out on either side for the patient’s arms. We have been told that Prieto is in a cell adjacent to the death chamber. Morrogh, Lingan and the jury foreman are in the front row. A big sign above the glass window declares, “Media Must Be Seated in Rear of the Room.” So we are.
8:50 p.m.: A thick, anxious silence fills the room. We are all staring at the empty gurney. The electric chair is apparently nearby, and ready, but Prieto chose lethal injection.
8:53 p.m.: Prieto emerges from his cell, handcuffed and shackled, surrounded by six guards. He is somewhat heavier than when we last saw him in Fairfax in 2010, and his hair is thinner. He is wearing glasses, a blue work shirt, blue work pants and sandals with no socks. The guards lift him onto the gurney, remove the cuffs, and then place two leather straps across his chest, two
more straps across his legs, one around each ankle, and then strap down each hand.
8:55 p.m.: A curtain in front of our window is closed so that medical personnel cannot be seen placing intravenous tubes into each arm and a heart monitor on his chest.
9:03 p.m.: The curtain is still closed. Moran receives word that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit has rejected an appeal of Judge Hudson’s ruling from 6 p.m.
9:07 p.m.: The curtain is still closed. It’s been 12 minutes, is something wrong? Can they not find a vein? I look at Frank Green. He shakes his head knowingly. This is standard. Mooney is reading his Bible. The silence is suffocating.
9:08 p.m.: The curtain opens. Prieto’s arms are extended onto the supports, IV tubes in both forearms. A prison official asks if he has any last words and holds a microphone down to him. He is fully strapped down, but raises his head slightly to say quickly: “I would like to say thanks to allmy lawyers, allmy supporters and all my family members. Get this over with.” We can’t hear the last part because the audio in our room is unclear, but prison officials taped it and listened to it
times to get it exactly right.
9:09 p.m.: Prieto lies back, and there is no more sound. His face is emotionless, not sad or fearful or angry. The only movement is his chest heaving. He is presumably receiving the dose of compounded pentobarbital, blamed in the extended pain episodes experienced by inmates elsewhere. Now it is really quiet.
9:12 p.m.: A guard stands by Prieto’s head, watching his chest still moving. There are two more guards to Prieto’s right, and three correctional officials standing by a wall to his left, including Harold W. Clarke, the state director of the Department of Corrections. Clarke is holding a red phone connected to the governor’s office, but he is not talking. No one is talking. We are watching for any sign of life. Or death.
9:13 p.m.: A guard moves to Prieto’s feet, takes off his sandals and pinches Prieto’s feet. We learned in the Richmond hearing that this is done to see whether the first drug has effectively sedated the prisoner. Prieto doesn’t move. The pentobarbital has made him unconscious without incident.
9:15 p.m.: Prieto does not appear to be breathing. He should have received a second drug to stop his lungs, and then a third drug to stop his heart.
9:17 p.m.: Warden Eddie L. Pearson emerges from a curtain behind Prieto and announces, “The Fairfax County court order has been carried out at 9:17 p.m.” Prieto is dead.
9:18 p.m.: The curtain closes. We are soon ushered out.
9:50 p.m.: Prieto’s body is taken by ambulance to the medical examiner’s office in Richmond. He is gone.
I first met Dede Raver in 2000, 12 years after her sister had been killed in Reston. A DNA match had been made with Tina Jefferson’s slaying in Arlington, but there was still no suspect. Raver would become active in pushing for more funding for DNA use in crime fighting, and now it is everywhere. And now, her sister’s killer had been caught, convicted and put to death.
“To me, the whole thing is so surreal,” she said late Thursday night. “It’s lasted so long, it’s hard to believe it’s come to an end.”
She said of Prieto: “I did not see any emotion in him. It kind of haunts me because I kind of know that’s the expression my sister saw. I found it absolutely disturbing.” She did not expect him to apologize or offer condo several lences. “But I’m glad that I went,” she said, “because my mother really wanted to. [ Veronica Raver, who attended all three Prieto trials in Fairfax despite suffering from stomach cancer, died in 2013.] So I did it on her behalf.”
It was Fairfax prosecutor Morrogh’s third time witnessing an execution, which he felt was only right as a prosecutor who sometimes seeks the death penalty. “I thought Prieto died a much easier death than any of his victims,” he said. “He passed very quietly. The way he was administered the lethal injection and went to sleep, I’ve seen family and friends struggle to the last heartbeat. His death was a lot easier than those women who begged for their lives.”
From the back row, Prieto’s death was the culmination of a sad 15-year journey, starting with speaking to the Ravers and the Jeffersons when their daughters’ cases were first linked in 2000. Then in 2005, I learned from excited cold-case detectives Murphy and Steve Milefsky that they had a break in the unsolved 17-year-old double killing. Prieto would soon enter Virginia as he would leave it, in cuffs.
In 2006 I waited outside Fairfax police headquarters for Prieto to arrive from California late one night, and asked him, “How will you plead?” He looked at me and said without missing a beat, “Not guilty.” I sat with the Ravers, Fultons and Jeffersons through three long, painful capital murder trials from 2007 to 2010. Not once did Prieto rise to proclaim his own innocence or deny the charges, although he had two of Virginia’s best defense attorneys, Peter Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro, raising mental deficiency and every other argument in hopes of saving his life. I once filed my own motion to get a camera in the courtroom, horrifying lawyers for The Washington Post, which Judge Randy I. Bellows graciously allowed me to argue. (Denied.) I took one last shot and wrote to Prieto last month asking for an interview. (No reply.)
But Morrogh and countless others are right that the muted process of lethal injection seems disproportionate to the violent horror which brought us here. The clinical professionalism of the execution is the government’s compromise between those who would stage public hangings and those who would abolish the death penalty. In the end, as with most compromises, neither side feels truly satisfied.
Alfredo R. Prieto
Before he was executed Thursday, convicted serial killer Alfredo R. Prieto thanked his “supporters” and then said, “Get this over with.”