News & Politics

My First Time . . . Witnessing a Client’s Execution

Jonathan Sheldon shares his tale of a career first.

Photograph by Sean McCormick

As told to Marisa M. Kashino.

Eddie’s execution was on Thursday, February 19, 2009. I had never had a client who was executed. I had no more idea about what an execution would be like than the average person would. The only thing I knew was that we were headed to the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia.

On the drive down, there was still hope that the governor could intervene. But then his chief counsel called to give us a long explanation about why that wasn’t going to happen. I didn’t want to hear it. I thought he was wrong, and you can’t argue at that point. Eddie had been convicted of killing a police officer, but there was some very, very suspicious evidence.

I had seen my cat being put to sleep, and I wouldn’t call that brutal. But I would call this brutal. There were about 20 people waiting to watch the execution through the plexiglass. When the officers brought Eddie in, he collapsed. Instead of helping him up, five guys grabbed him and wrestled him to the ground and then slammed him onto the gurney. They tightened these old, thick leather straps over him. A curtain was closed, so we couldn’t see while they placed the needles into him.

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When the curtain opened back up, the Department of Corrections communications officer shoved a tape recorder in Eddie’s face and asked if he had any last words. Eddie said: “You definitely have the wrong person. The truth will come out one day.” Someone behind another curtain began administering the drugs.

I didn’t want to be there. It took about 11 minutes for him to die. The emotional part of the day had been bumping into Eddie’s three kids just after they had said goodbye to their dad. I have three kids of my own. Over the years, Eddie’s children had asked me to save him. That’s what stuck with me. I still feel emotional when I think about Eddie’s kids.W

Jonathan Sheldon, a partner at the Virginia law firm Sheldon & Flood, focuses on post-conviction cases, including attempts to get death sentences reversed.

This article appears in the November 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.