Bear­ing wit­ness to a killer’s ex­e­cu­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY TOM JACK­MAN

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.”

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