Just before 2 a.m. on March 11, Central Prison guards strapped William “Bugs” Powell to a gurney and rolled him into the execution chamber. As the deadly mixture of poison was being injected into Powell’s body, the Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck was calling people to prayer on the sidewalk in front of the prison. Many of those gathered on this chilly, damp night had been standing vigil for hours as the time of Powell’s execution drew near. Using the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, she opened with “A Prayer for a Person Near Death.”
“Almighty God, look on this your servant, Bugs, lying in great weakness, and comfort him with the promise of life everlasting, given in the resurrection of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Fischbeck, vicar of Chapel Hill’s Episcopal Church of the Advocate, had recently begun visiting Powell as his spiritual advisor. In her capacity as a priest, Fischbeck said she is familiar with dying and death. But this was different. Her friend, who always went by the name Bugs, was a perfectly healthy 58-year-old who was in no need of medical care.
A trial judge had ruled that Powell’s 1991 murder of Shelby convenience store clerk Mary Gladden was without “premeditation or intentionality.” Powell’s death, at the hands of the state, was very much premeditated and intentional, Fischbeck said.
Powell was high on alcohol and addicted to crack cocaine the day he beat Gladden to death in the course of a robbery. An expert had also told Gov. Mike Easley that the circumstances of Powell’s crime were not egregious enough to warrant a death sentence. Nothing the expert or defense attorneys said to Easley moved the former attorney general to spare Powell’s life.
Edward L. Wolf, a lawyer with Powell’s legal team, said attorneys had a good feeling about Powell’s chances for clemency after attending the March 9 clemency hearing with Easley. “I wouldn’t want to play poker with that guy,” Wolf said as he stood vigil in front of the prison just hours after Easley denied clemency. Powell became the state’s 35th person to be executed since 1984; the 19th under Easley.
“God the Father,” Fischbeck said.
“Have mercy on your servant,” those present replied.
“God the Son.”
“Have mercy on your servant.”
“God the Holy Spirit.”
“Have mercy on your servant.”
“At about 95, his lips stopped moving and he nodded off,” Holmes said. As Powell was dying, Chapel Hill lawyer Marilyn Ozer embraced Powell’s niece, LaVonda Camp, as both wept in the small witness room, Holmes said.
Execution witness Amelia Townsend, a reporter with The Star in Shelby, said watching Powell die “was very solemn, very surreal…. It was a little more surreal in that it was a planned death rather than a murder scene or a car accident.”
Fischbeck said she went into the relationship with Powell not knowing what to expect. She was pleasantly surprised when Powell engaged her in serious theological discussion. After failing to bring her Bible along for her initial visit, Fischbeck said she brought it with her in subsequent visits.
“Bugs’ main characteristic was his liveliness and his humor,” she said. “He had a great sense of humor, and he had a great laugh. He and I really hit it off. We talked a lot about theology, arguing fine points of scripture.”
Central Prison warden Marvin Polk pronounced Powell dead at 2:09 a.m.
In her final prayer, spoken almost exactly as Powell died, Fischbeck said: “Deliver your servant, Bugs, O Sovereign Lord Christ, from all evil, and set him free from every bond; that he may rest with all your saints in the eternal habitations; where with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
When she received her only “contact visit” with Powell last Thursday morning, Fischbeck said she realized the finality of the visit–that she might never get to see her new friend again.
“I told him on Thursday morning that I really kept hoping that there would be a stay and that I could come back next week and we could start talking about how God was going to use him in this next stage of his life.”
Following the execution, prison spokeswoman Pamela Walker entered the media area of the prison visiting center and said, “William Powell was executed by lethal injection this morning in accordance with North Carolina law.”
Walker read a brief statement released by Gladden’s family thanking “everyone involved in the case and those in the community who have stood by us.”