Death ordered for disabled prisoner Wilder denies plea of spinal cord injury

January 10, 1993|By New York Times News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder ordere yesterday the execution of a disabled prisoner who has said he will need to use a wheelchair to get to the electric chair.

dTC Lawyers for Charles S. Stamper of Richmond, who was convicted of shooting three co-workers to death in 1978, have said that he is "extremely disabled" by a spinal cord injury received in prison and that his sentence should be reduced to life in prison because he is no threat to society.

Almost three months ago, Mr. Wilder stayed the execution six days before its scheduled date of Oct. 28 so that Stamper's medical condition could be investigated by independent doctors. Yesterday, Mr. Wilder ordered that Stamper, 39, be put to death Jan. 19. Mr. Wilder gave no reason for his decision but said he had "examined all relevant medical information."

The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, a nonprofit group in Washington, said Stamper would be the most physically disabled person to be executed in the United States since the Supreme Court allowed the resumption of the death penalty in 1976. When his case came to light, the group had criticized "the notion of making the death house wheelchair-accessible."

"This man can barely take a step," the group's program director, Pamela J. Rutter, said yesterday. "The image of him going from a wheelchair to an electric chair is devastating. Death penalty opponents had all been lying kind of low, hoping the governor would do the right thing."

Stamper's lawyer, Dennis W. Dohnal of Richmond, said he would meet with his client before deciding whether to pursue court appeals.

"The governor had to know he would be highly criticized, whichever decision he made," Mr. Dohnal said. "Executive clemency is based on mercy and is not, ultimately, only for the innocent. But I am satisfied that the governor fully reviewed and considered the matter. That is perhaps all we could have asked for."

Stamper, who was a cook at a suburban restaurant, was convicted of shooting three co-workers to death in a robbery. He said he was disabled in 1988 after fellow inmates beat him and hit him over the head with an ashtray and now could walk 10 to 15 feet using a walker, an assessment that the independent doctors essentially agreed with.

T. L. Twitty, the Virginia deputy secretary of public safety, who conducted the governor's 12-week investigation of Stamper's condition, said that the prisoner was examined by a neurologist and a physical therapist and that 20 prison doctors and nurses had testified about his abilities.

"He is neither paraplegic nor quadriplegic," the deputy secretary said.

In an extraordinary meeting, 11 relatives of one of Stamper's victims came to an open house held by the governor to plead that the electrocution be carried out.

"It doesn't take but one finger to pull a trigger," said Larry Stargell of North Richmond, a son of a slain waitress.

Stamper's father, Willie Stamper, said he had talked to his son by telephone for a half-hour yesterday morning.

"He just said, 'Hold on. Hang on. Don't worry,' " said Mr. Stamper, a parts worker for Greyhound Lines. "He wasn't crying. He was like his normal self."

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