real life

Why US couple Larry and Teresa Clark volunteer to watch prison executions.

One thousand, four hundred and forty eight prisoners have been executed in the United States over the past 30 years.

At many of these executions members of the public, who have no link to the crime, the perpetrator or the victims, attend as witnesses – and they volunteer to do it.

Teresa Clark has watched three strangers die. She and her husband Larry, 63, have been attending executions together since 1998.

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Larry attended his first execution by himself and Teresa told the BBC that he was “very curious”.

“I dropped him off and I asked him all kinds of questions,” she says. “Afterwards he said, ‘You gotta see this’.”

So in 1998, the couple, who own a chimney sweeping business together, made the “nervous journey” to watch the execution of Douglas Buchanan Jr, who had been convicted of murdering his father, stepmother and two step brothers.

In Virginia where the Clark’s live, as well as some other death penalty states, witnesses like Teresa and Larry are a legal necessity – the law requires people with no connection to the crime to attend each execution.

Teresa and Larry attended their first execution in 1998. Image via Facebook.

Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told the BBC that volunteers are considered "public eyewitnesses" and they go to the executions standing in the place of the general public.

On the night of the execution, Teresa, Larry and the other volunteers were led into a small room that was brightly lit and featured a large viewing window. When the curtains were opened they saw a gurney and then Buchanan entered the room.


When asked if he had any final words, he replied: "Get the ride started. I'm ready to go."

Teresa said that during the executions the prisoners look right into the observation gallery and the room stays silent.

"It's quite weird, watching somebody look at you as they're getting ready to die," she says.

After the execution, the doctor pronounces the inmate dead and the curtains close. The witnesses are thanked for their service and then they go home.

Of course watching executions does have an impact on volunteers.

Teresa Clark tells a story about the night following the first execution she attended.

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"I was sitting in my car at a red light and I looked in the rear view window, and I swear I saw the man I just saw die," she says.

"The picture kind of sticks with you."

Nevertheless, Teresa says she would do it again if needed: "If they called now and needed somebody, I would go", she said.

"It came across my mind, and it still does, that these people know when they're going to die, and the people they killed didn't. They get to say their goodbyes, so I really can't say I felt sorry for them," she added.