Former attorney general now death penalty foe
Saturday, February 12, 2000
BY CARRIE JOHNSON
As Virginia's attorney general, William G. Broaddus spent several long nights in his office, quietly counting down the moments until a prisoner was executed.
"I was very involved in what we called the 'death watch,' " he said.
After all, it was the law and he was the top prosecutor in the state.
"It just wasn't something I thought about," Broaddus said.
Now that's changed.
Broaddus was chief deputy attorney general from 1982 to 1985 and attorney general in 1985 and 1986. During that time, five convicted criminals were executed.
He is now an outspoken opponent of the death penalty and was in Washington yesterday to support a bill that would make it more difficult for an innocent person to be executed.
The bill is called the Innocence Protection Act and offers solutions aimed at rectifying wrongful convictions, including DNA testing and mandatory qualification standards for attorneys who defend people charged with capital crimes.
Broaddus was joined yesterday by high-profile personalities such as defense attorneys Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project and perhaps best known as a member of O.J. Simpson's "dream team," and Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person freed from death row as a result of DNA testing.
Wrongful convictions "are happening to ordinary people like us," Bloodsworth said yesterday during a news conference on Capitol Hill. "It happened to me and it could happen to you."
Though not as well-known, Broaddus has an equally compelling story to tell.
How did this man switch from supporter of the death penalty to critic? The answer lies in the story of a 32-year-old Paraguayan, Angel Francisco Breard.
Breard was convicted of killing and attempting to rape his 39-year-old Arlington neighbor, Ruth Dickie, in her apartment on Feb. 17, 1992. Dickie was stabbed five times in her neck.
Against the advice of his lawyer, Breard testified during his trial that he had been under a curse placed on him by his ex-wife's father. The curse ended, he told the jury, when he found Jesus Christ.
He was convicted.
Before Breard's appeal in 1996, U.S. District Judge Richard Williams appointed Alex Slaughter, Broaddus' colleague from McGuire, Woods, Battle and Booth, to handle the appeal. Slaughter asked Broaddus to serve as his co-counsel.
The case caused an international stir after the lawyers contended that Breard's rights under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations had been violated because no one notified the Paraguayan consulate after Breard was arrested. The Republic of Paraguay even sued the state of Virginia and then-Gov. George Allen in an attempt to halt the execution.
As Broaddus came to know Breard, he was impressed by the man's faith.
"A lot of prisoners claim to experience a religious conversion and often it's not true," Broaddus said. "But I am absolutely convinced that Angel had a religious experience. He was not afraid to die."
Broaddus and Slaughter fought until the very end to save Breard's life. After the U.S. Supreme Court refused to halt the execution, the lawyers filed a new petition in Richmond's U.S. District Court. They were refused and took the matter to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Broaddus was still in the clerk's office when the telephone rang with news of Breard's death on April 14, 1998.
While Broaddus wasn't able to be with Breard, he sent a note with a passage from the Bible, Luke 23, when Jesus turns to the criminal nailed to the cross next to him and says, "Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
To this, Breard grinned and said, "At last, I have a lawyer who will quote Scripture to me," Broaddus' colleagues told him later.
Broaddus' view was changed forever. "After going through that process, I felt the death penalty was contrary to the best efforts of our society."
This quiet, formerly reticent man became involved with judicial activist groups such as The Constitution Society and volunteered to be on the board of advisers for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
"He makes our voice that much more credible," said Henry Heller, head of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
"I was pretty overwhelmed when I heard he wanted to join our group," Heller continued. "But when I met him, I found him to be very straightforward, a real upfront guy."
Broaddus has never defended another death-row inmate. He continues to practice law -- primarily civil cases -- for McGuire Woods. He enjoys being with his family, sailing and reading.
But Broaddus still keeps a photograph of Breard in his office. In it, Breard is smiling. It is his wedding day.
"He was so inspirational to me," Broaddus said. "He had such strength of faith. He never became bitter."
Call Carrie Johnson at (804) 649-6452 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.