Friday, February 20, 2009

Edward Nathaniel Bell Becomes Virginia's 103 Execution


This seems to be a week of sad posts. My brother Bill is a former Winchester, Virginia policeman. This is why the murder of Sgt. Richard Timbrook hit too close to home for our family. They say Winchester is a city, but even back in 1999 it still seemed to be more of a very large town than a city. People knew one another through school or through relatives so the death of one person touched so many in the city. This was particularly sad because his wife was pregnant with their only child. His son Ricky Lee Timbrook II born on December 22, 1999.

Below is a newspaper account of the death of Sgt. Timbrook:

At approximately 11:53 p.m. on October 29th, 1999, City of Winchester Police Sergeant Ricky L. Timbrook was fatally wounded while in foot pursuit with a subject who violated probation. While Sgt. Timbrook was pursuing the suspect, the suspect stopped, turned around, and fired one shot from a .38 caliber handgun striking Sgt. Timbrook on the forehead killing him instantly. Sgt. Ricky L. Timbrook was pronounced dead at 12:25 a.m. October 30th at the Winchester Medical Center.

The story was all over the local news every day. This was an officer who received numerous commendations, awards, and recognition's for his law enforcement service. He served as a DARE Officer for the city school system, a Field Training Officer, a Defensive Tactics Instructor, and was a member of the Special Operations Team (SWAT). It could have just as easily have been my brother.

After the trial and conviction of Edward Nathaniel Bell, the story began to fade from view. The media found new stories to chase. Winchester actually resembles the city I was told that it always was. There is suburban sprawl from DC commuters who built their homes in the area to escape the crime and violence of the big city. The small school, where I spent my senior year with 98 other upper classmen is no longer used as a high school. The high school is now a huge sprawling brick building built in what used to be an apple orchard when my family first moved there. The very things people fled the city for, congestion and crime, are a part of the fabric of this once bucolic area.

Then today I saw an article that brought this case back to me. The headlines screamed “Virginia Inmate Forcibly Carried to Death Chamber.” Wow. Can you imagine that? Six stocky corrections officers pulled him through the doorway and lifted him onto the gurney.

Since the execution happened in Virginia I wondered if I was familiar with the case. The name of the man who was executed didn’t ring a bell at first. The victim’s name seemed familiar but not in an instant recognition. It was one of those recognitions where you ask yourself, “Where have I heard that name before?” You have to realize that I only lived in that area for a couple of years. My family still lives there but I don’t have friends that I catch up with there.

Then the article mentioned that his victim had been a police officer in Winchester. It all came back to me. The article said that Bell said, "To the Timbrook family, you definitely have the wrong person," Bell said in the death chamber, addressing the victim's family. "The truth will come out one day. This here, killing me, there's no justice about it."

We seem to be so black and white on matters like abortion and the death penalty. The shades of gray are interpreted as if you are with us or against us. I have wrestled with this topic for years. As a Catholic, I believe in the sanctity of life. Does being against the death penalty mean that I don’t honor the sanctity of Sgt. Timbrook? Does being for the death penalty mean that I don’t honor church doctrine? The often asked question arises; once again, does one person’s execution bring back the loved ones who were murdered?

I’ve honestly wondered if my belief would become more concrete if I was present at one of these executions. Would I see it as being morally right and correct or would I question my own moral fiber by having been present at the planned death of another? As the victim of a brutal crime myself I can understand the desire for vengeance. My husband often says they should execute more. Having taught students who were charged with murder it’s hard to say sure, kill them, they’re animals. Often they have relatives and friends that love them. Having taught students who were murdered, I understand the grief, anger, and desire for retribution of those left behind.

I remember years ago, another inmate at Jarret, argued his innocence to any and all who would listen to him. He had loud vocal critics of the death penalty like Phil Donahue arguing his case. In that case of Roger Keith Coleman had been convicted of murdering and raping his sister-in-law. If you heard the story told on TV you almost questioned it yourself. Was this an innocent man you would ask? At the time DNA was still new.

Coleman was asking for a lie detector test to prove his innocence. He was transported the 70 miles by van from death row to a state police post in Hanover County, where the test was administered about 9:30 a.m. He failed but you didn’t find that out until the next day. Perhaps as damaging to his case as the polygraph were DNA tests on semen samples collected from McCoy's body. By one interpretation, those tests showed Coleman among just 0.2 percent of the population that could have committed the rape. Once again we didn’t know the outcome of this until the next day. We were told that state law forbids admitting new evidence a certain number of days after trial. Donhue, kept saying over and over again, “Why won’t the governor allow DNA evidence.” It seemed as if he was saying that the evidence would bear out his claims of innocence.

I questioned whether the state was executing an innocent man in my name. I questioned whether I was a bad person because I felt he should be executed. I questioned why we seemed to care so much about the person who would be executed and ignored the life snuffed out by Coleman. Why didn’t the victim get a reprieve?

He spoke words similar to Bell, "An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight. When my innocence is proven, I hope Americans will realize the injustice of the death penalty as all other civilized countries have. My last words are to the woman I love. Love is eternal. My love for you will last forever. I love you Sharon.” (his girlfriend) That night, I prayed that we did the right thing. The whole day had been spent with talking heads saying why Coleman shouldn’t be executed.

In the end a man died. A man who was a husband, a son, a friend, a co-worker, and a father is gone. A young child is growing up without his father. The world has lost a man who wanted to do so much for his community. Police Sergeant Ricky L. Timbrook did not deserve to die. His wife didn’t send him off to work expecting to lose the person she loved. The question is, what do we do now? Do we warehouse murders? Do we put them to death? I wish I had the answer.

Bell was the 103rd Virginia inmate executed since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. Virginia ranks second only to Texas in the number of executions since then.

No comments: