Death row breakout artist executed


JARRATT, Va. -- Derick Peterson, who took part in the largest death row breakout in U.S. history, was executed Thursday night in Virginia's electric chair for killing a grocery store manager during a $4,000 robbery in 1982.

Peterson was pronounced dead after two jolts of electricity at 11:13 p.m.


In a lengthy final statement, he blamed racism for his death penalty. Peterson is black and his victim was white.

'The blacks of the land need to speak up,' Peterson said.

In 1984, Peterson was one of six condemned killers who used a bomb hoax and stolen guard uniforms to escape from death row. He was recaptured the next day when agents found Peterson and another escapee having wine and cheese in a North Carolina coin laundry. Four of the six escapees have now been executed.

Thursday afternoon, as Peterson met with family members at Greensville Correctional Center, his lawyers waged a last-minute battle for clemency. They won an early stay from a federal judge, but the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond vacated the stay within hours.


The U.S. Supreme Court would not intervene, and Gov. L. Douglas Wilder found no reason to offer clemency.

Among the small contingent of death penalty protesters was Nancy Gowen of Richmond, whose mother was murdered by the ringleader of the 1984 escape attempt.

'I didn't know where I was until then. Being Catholic, you learn your lessons well, but then your mom gets clobbered. It was tough ... separating out the issues,' Gowen said.

Gowen said she remains convinced the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. When asked how she felt, she replied: 'Really bumsville.'

In 1984, the death row inmates staged a fight and then overpowered the guards who responded to get their riot gear. The convicted killers then put a television set on a gurney next to a fire extinguisher and covered both with a sheet.

The inmates, their faces covered by protective shields, and using the guard radios, yelled for the doors to be open so the smoking 'bomb' could be taken outside. They carried the 'bomb' into a van that was whisked through the front gates, and the men drove off to freedom. All were recaptured within a month.


Peterson, 30, was condemned for the 1982 robbery and murder of Hampton, Va., grocery store manager Howard Kauffman. Peterson had received a temporary reprieve when U.S. District Judge John MacKenzie granted a stay just 12 hours before the scheduled execution.

But the appeals court agreed with Assistant Virginia Attorney General Richard Smith, who said MacKenzie's ruling sent an 'unmistakable' and 'ruinous message' to death row lawyers: always wait until the 11th hour.

The final legal moves to block the execution focused on Peterson's original lawyer. His appeal attorneys, Gerald Zerkin and Mark Olive, contend there was a conflict of interests because that lawyer also represented Peterson's mother, Eloise Peterson, on drug charges.

Information about the mother-son relationship -- it included assertions that Eloise Peterson beat her son and forced him into the illegal drug business -- never had been presented at trial, Zerkin said.

Ineffectiveness of counsel is a standard death row basis of appeal, but the lawyer in question, Christopher Huffman, defended his work.

Huffman said introducing evidence from Peterson's home life would have made a death penalty more likely because it would have 'portrayed Mr. Peterson as an irredeemable criminal.'

On Monday, Eloise Peterson took partial blame for her son's life of crime at a tearful State Capitol news conference. She said she was only 16 when he was born and implored Wilder to 'put himself in my place as a parent' and spare her son.


'I saw him going astray but didn't know what to do because I was going astray myself,' she said while clutching a photograph of her son.

Twelve convicted killers have been executed in Virginia since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

Jean Clark, operations officer at the Greensville prison, the home of Virginia's electric chair since the ancient State Penitentiary in Richmond was closed last year, said Peterson turned down any special last meal. Peterson had said the standard Thursday night prison fare -- turkey and mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables and cake -- would be fine.

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