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Virginia prison chaplain pens powerful accounts of his time on death row

Authors Russ Ford (R), Todd Peppers and researcher Charles Peppers
Authors Russ Ford (R), Todd Peppers and researcher Charles Peppers (L)

Virginia killed more than 1,300 people who were convicted of serious crimes before deciding, in 2021, that it would join 22 other states that abolished the death penalty. Before that time, prisoners on death row met with spiritual counselors like minister Russ Ford.

“These people did some horrible things," he says, "but there was such a pattern of poverty and abuse, mental illness, organic brain damage – like alcohol fetal syndrome. Drug addiction certainly played a part in many of their lives.”

Ford grew up in a family that did not believe in capital punishment.

“Dad saw it as a racial issue. Black people were getting it pretty hard and poor people, so that had influenced me. After I witnessed the first execution I was adamantly opposed.”

He knew electrocution was not an exact science.

“We saw a man who was hit with it, and then 15 minutes later he was still alive! You know they say they don’t feel any pain, but that’s just not true!”

And mistakes happened. Once, an execution was delayed, so Ford went to comfort Ricky Jones. He placed his hand on the man and spoke softly – urging him to go with the flow.

“All at once I hear somebody yell my name," he recalls. "Then another person said, ‘Ray, no!’ Ray was the warden. I took my hand off of Ricky, and before I could turn around I saw that Ray Muncie was at the switch and he had turned it to green to go.”

Ford survived, but then (and after every execution) he was an emotional wreck.

“The night of an execution I’d come home, and my wife could smell the fatty tissue that floated in the chamber in my hair, and I would shower – try to get it all off and just walk the floors and go outside sometimes for hours – just walking and thinking. After every execution it would take me several weeks to just get to a feeling of normalcy.”

Still he kept going back – to give condemned men a sense of peace and hope. Nearly twenty years ago he began work on a book about the prisoners on death row, but a traumatic brain injury made it impossible to finish. Then, Roanoke College Professor Todd Peppers – an activist who had worked to end the death penalty in Virginia – offered to help.

“There are stories in here of very broken men who shouldn’t have been executed," Peppers says. "Russ’s first execution was Morris Mason who was so intellectually disabled that he literally did not understand the concept of his own death. Russ worked with Earl Washington, Jr. who came within eight days of being executed for a crime he did not commit.”

By putting these stories on paper, Peppers hoped to persuade Virginians that we should never return to capital punishment.

“When you see states like South Carolina which has reinstated the firing squad, and then you have 21 legislators down in South Carolina who want to impose the death penalty on women who have abortions, it’s hard to predict the future for capital punishment in Virginia.”

This book completed, Peppers is starting on a biography of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Berger, and Russ Ford will take a well-deserved break.

“I’m planning on going fishing.”

The book is Crossing the River Styx – The Memoir of a Death Row Chaplain.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief