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Convicted murderer Frank Coppola, a former policeman who preferred...

By JIM NORVELLE

RICHMOND, Va. -- Convicted murderer Frank Coppola, a former policeman who preferred death to Death Row, went calmly to his execution Tuesday night in Virginia's electric chair saying, 'take care of my family, my children.'

Coppola, who maintained his innocence but said he wanted to be executed to spare his family further embarrassment, died at 11:27 p.m. EDT, state corrections director Ray Procunier said.

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Coppola became the fifth convict executed in the United States since 1976 when the Supreme Court lifted the ban on capital punishment and the first to die in Virginia's electric chair in 20 years.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-2 ruling announced 30 minutes before Coppola's scheduled 11 p.m. EDT execution, cleared the way for Coppola, 38, to die as he requested in a letter he sent Tuesday to Chief Justice Warren Burger. The high court's ruling overturned a mid-afternoon stay by a federal appeals court judge.

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'I, Frank J. Coppola, do hereby ... seek relief through the U.S. Supreme Court so as to bring about my execution this date,' Coppola said in the letter.

Through the evening, about 40 curiousity seekers and some people who said they came to pray for Coppola's soul stood against a wall across from the state Penitentiary.

On a hot, muggy night, many of the onlookers simply stood and talked quietly among themselves.

'I just came out because it's something I feel strongly about,' said James Fralin, 34, a construction worker. 'This sign says all you can say about it,' he continued, pointing to a hand-lettered placard bearing the words 'Thou Shalt Not Kill. There are no exceptions.'

Procunier, who witnessed the execution, said, 'Pursuant to an order by the Circuit Court of Newport News, Frank J. Coppola was executed at 11:27 p.m. in the manner prescribed by law. Out of respect for the deceased's family, I will make no further comment on the procedure.'

Procunier was asked if Coppola had any final words and what he had for his last meal, but the corrections chief did not comment.

ABC's 'Nightline' reported that Joe Engle, of the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons, walked With Coppola to the death ward. The prison activist told ABC that Coppola was calm, saying to him, 'I love you. Please take care of my family, my children.'

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Coppola was convicted of beating a Newport News woman to death in 1978 during a robbery in an attempt to make her tell where money was hidden in her home.

Gov. Charles Robb said, 'The decision not to interfere with the order of the circuit court of Newport News was the most difficult and emotionally draining decision I have had to make as governor of Virginia.

'While I respect the beliefs and convictions of those who oppose capital punishment under any and all circumstances, the law of the Commonwealth provides for that penalty under certain, very limited circumstances, and I support the law.'

High-intensity lights from television cameras cast eerie shadows on the white-walled Penitentiary building about 2 miles from the State Capitol.

Warden James Mitchell read the execution order to Coppola, whose head was shaved a shaved head and who wore a Fu Manchu moustache, and then escorted him to the death chamber 30 paces from his cell.

Mitchell inserted a key in a slot in the death chamber, which opened the current and at the same time activated a signal to the executioner to push a button, sending two 55-second bursts of 2,400 volts through Coppola's body.

At about 11:50 p.m., a single-siren wail pierced the air at the Penitentiary. It was an ambulance taking Coppola's body to the state medical examiner's office, said corrections spokesman Gil Miller.

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The execution took place after a day of legal maneuvering.

Lawyers -- working without Coppola's permission -- won an 11th-hour stay from Judge John Butzner of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Butzner stopped the execution shortly before 3 p.m. EDT.

Butzner overruled a federal district judge who late Monday refused a stay and kept Coppola on course to the death chamber.

Lawyers from Virginia Attorney General Gerald Baliles' office flew to Washington and filed an appeal of the stay at 7:25 p.m. with Burger. The Supreme Court, only 30 minutes before the scheduled execution, vacated the stay on a 5-2 vote and allowed the state to kill Coppola.

'After consideration of the matters presented by the application of the petitioners, the application is granted and the stay ... is hereby vacated,' the Supreme Court said.

Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall dissented, and Justice John Paul Stevens did not vote because he said he wanted a response from the lawyer acting on Coppola's behalf. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was not consulted because she was out of the country. The justices discussed the case in a conference call.

Coppola had maintained he was innocent of the 1978 murder of Muriel Hatchell, but earlier this year he fired his lawyers, withdrew all appeals and requested a summer execution date to spare his two teenage sons torment from schoolmates.

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Coppola, who was known to display his toughness by swallowing spiders and razor blades, told a federal judge Monday night that he 'adamantly stand by my decision to seek execution... I don't fear death. It's not no macho image. It's my personal feeling.'

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