Sitting alone in the basement of the closed State Penitentiary, a week away from his scheduled execution, condemned murderer Joseph Giarratano admitted what scares him the most is the "ritual of dying."
"They don't kill you when they strap you in the chair," said the 33-year-old jailhouse lawyer who has gained worldwide attention for his attempt to win a new trial. "They kill you hours earlier when they begin the execution procedure such as shaving your head and putting you in a totally empty cell."His appeals exhausted, the fate of the stocky former waterman lies in the hands of Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a one-time death penalty opponent who has refused to intervene in two previous executions.
Supporters, including Amnesty International, conservative columnist James J. Kilpatrick, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, singer Joan Baez and actor Mike Farrell, have mounted a campaign to persuade Wilder that Giarratano deserves a new trial.
Giarratano has been living on death row for 12 years, haunted by the memory of waking up and finding the bloodied bodies of his former roommates, Barbara Kline, 44, and her 15-year-old daughter, Michelle.
It is that image, combined with what his lawyers call a self-loathing and a near-fatal addiction to alcohol and drugs, that led him to walk up to a police officer in a Jacksonville, Fla., bus station after he fled and confess.
He offered four more confessions and tried to commit suicide, refused a jury trial and a plea bargain, and said he welcomed the death sentence imposed by a Norfolk circuit judge for the rape and strangulation of Michelle Kline and the life term for the fatal stabbing of Barbara Kline.
He came close to execution in 1983 after voluntarily giving up his appeals, but his budding friendship with Marie Deans, founder of the Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons, persuaded him that his case was not as clear-cut as he once believed. He also discovered an affinity for the law.
Now, he says he cannot remember committing the acts and believes physical evidence discovered since his original trial, including hairs and semen that did not belong to him, could prove he didn't commit the murders.
Giarratano, who is lefthanded, has a neurological defect in his right hand, but a medical examiner's report revealed that Barbara Kline was stabbed repeatedly by a right-handed person.
Frustrating his supporters is the fact that under Virginia law, new evidence cannot be raised in appeals, said Gerald Zerkin, one of Giarratano's lawyers.
"This is a case which demands innovativeness and precedent setting," Zerkin said.
"This case is not about the death penalty," said Giarratano. "It's about a justice issue . . . a fundamental fairness issue."