Tonight I stood watch outside another Virginia execution; my fifth maybe. This one was vastly different from the previous. As, of course, it should be. Each person executed is a real person, an individual and their deaths are going to be distinct. But this one was especially special.
Usually, the happenings are limited to who shows up in opposition and who shows up from the press. Tonight, we had the condemned man's family to share the field with. It was me, Tim, and Anne (a newcomer). On the 1 1/2 hour drive we briefed Anne on Lance Chandler's case. It was all but unmentioned in the press, whereas before we'd been a part of discussions, lights and cameras, and sometimes people who showed up just because the newspaper made it seem interesting. The media didn't think this man was interesting though; a black man in his 20s who shot a convenience store clerk who refused to open the register. We knew we wouldn't get any press by showing up tonight. No gains can be made if no one knows you were there. Oh well. Anne would have a dull first time and would be more concerned with swatting mosquitoes than anything else. These were my assumptions.
We pulled onto the prison road and drove for a mile or so until we could see the field to the right. Then we noticed cars in the shadows of the trees. Then lights. Candles, lots of them. We parked a hundred yards from them and got out. It had to be the family of the Chandler's victim. I'd heard that they come out sometimes to cheer and hope to see the lights dim (only VA uses lethal injection now, so no chance of that). As we closed in on the group of candle holders one of them came to meet us half way. He stood in our path, smirked and asked who we were. We told him that we oppose the death penalty and that we try to come out to all of VAs executions. He nodded and welcomed us saying that they were the Chandler family. His reason for stopping us: they don't want the press. They'd turned several reporters away already. Pity. If they'd just ignored the reporters Lance Chandler would have made the news. Instead it would just be us tonight. Us being three white anti-death penalty people, a student legal assistants from DC working on the case, and at least 40 Chandlers (all black and probably below the middle class income level). Many of them were wearing T-shirts with a big heart that read "We love you, Turkey." Turkey was Lance Chandler's nickname. Chandler, by the way, was convicted in Nov. 1993 and was already facing execution. If that isn't a record then it is typical of the situation poor blacks face on death row; no competent legal council that will buy time and opportunities for a reduced sentence.
I don't know what to say about the next hour. It was like being transported into some other world. We were introduced and then stood in a circle and took part in a prayer that Marlon, Chandler's aunt's husband (our greeter), had mentioned was about to start. I don't think he knew or cared that when we said we were Unitarian Universalists (I'm not claiming membership to this group yet) that we don't pray to Jesus too often; at least not most of us. But... when in Rome. So we stood in a great big circle and Marlon announced in many different ways that we were all touched by Jesus here tonight, that we would all changed for the better here tonight, and that we will not let the devil into our lives again, that Lance Chandler was giving himself to God for us. This is when the crying started. It's hard to hold hands, or even link arms while holding a candle. It must have been even harder for the Chandlers to sob on their neighbor's shoulder as well.
Tim went over to Marlon and asked if we could read the list of men executed (and their victims) since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, which we have always done. While he fetched the list and a guitar the law student read a statement from Chandler (the same one, I assume, that he would read before being put to death). It was very impressive. He told everyone that he loved them, told the Dix family (his victim was William Dix) he was sorry, and gave very articulate reasons for abolishing the death penalty. He wanted to know what Virginians thought they were proving by taking his life. I passed a bottle of OFF Skintastic around the circle. Tim got back and noodled lightly on the guitar while Anne and I read the list of names and dates. Anne handed it to me for the last time a few names before Chandler and I cringed. Right before saying his name I looked up, everyone was looking at me with wide glassy eyes, I took a deep breath and said, "August 20, 1998. Lance Chandler, William Dix." Immediately Tim started singing Amazing Grace. Just as quickly as people joined in they dropped off, sobbing and turning away, some wandering with closed eyes. I tried to sing along but only knew the fist verse. Tim went on and the crying got more intense and widespread. People dispersed into the field to collect themselves as Tim trailed off, not sure if his song did more harm than good.
Slowly we all moved over to the side of the road to watch for the van full of witnesses and the truck that would carry out the body. People were still crying. This is when I noticed the five state police cruisers parked on the other side of the road. They weren't there when we arrived. Never have reinforcements been called in when we had a large number of white people. They were there because there was a crowd of uninvited black people near the gate to the prison. Amazing.
A couple cars pulled up and ministers got out. Everyone gravitated to the black minister who seemed to be their Sunday preacher, hoping he would have words of wisdom. He had wisdom but I can't vouch for his words. As if he knew exactly when to do it, he began preaching very loudly and moving away from the road just as the all black ambulance sped out of the prison. As he worked the crowd they shouted their agreement with the preacher that the lord would not leave them and they tried to ignore the spectacle of the meat truck and it's contents of their dead loved one. The truck was soon out of sight and the man relaxed his voice until all you could here was the wailing and moaning of the people. Amazing. It's amazing that our state can put these people through this with a clear conscience. Several women had to be held up or picked up off the ground from having fainted or just breaking down. As I looked around, not sure what to do, the most pleasant sight was the wet, confused faces of women without people to hug. That's not very pleasant and makes for internal conflict when you aren't used to hugging strangers. All the while Lance's sister (an enormous, robust woman who seemed to be everyone's spiritual advisor) was singing, really belting out, a beautiful and unfamiliar song.
Eventually people calmed down and we said our good-byes. By now the law student was a wreck, barely able to tell Tim who she was or give us an anecdote of the her efforts on behalf of the Chandlers. Maybe she felt guilty because she couldn't do more. Maybe she was making up her mind to help the poor get a fair shake in court. Who knows. Maybe the Chandlers will find strength in this experience. There was surprisingly little outrage directed at the state for taking their Lance (Turkey) from them. This family looked like it was used to being kicked while they're down. Hope was a thing solely derived from their minister. One exception seemed to be Lance's giantess of a sister. She had enough love and anger to heard almost everyone toward positivity as the climate required. She was my lone hug before leaving and a damned good hugger she was.
That's my story. Goodnight.
– Jason Guard
P.S. Between tonight and October 14 VA will have executed four people, breaking their record of nine in one year and there will be three more months to keep up the pace. Wow. You go Jim Gilmore (Virginia's governor).