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Lamentations: On Virgil Presnell
Lamentations is a series of short reflections derived from a reoccurring conversation that takes place before every scheduled execution in the United States between prominent abolitionists Death Penalty Action Executive Director, Abraham Bonowitz and the Convener of Clergy United Against the Death Penalty, the Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood.
Nearly 46 years after his crime, intellectually disabled murderer Virgil Presnell is scheduled to be executed at 7pm on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. What does society gain by executing a nearly 70-year-old man more than four decades after his crime? We contend… nothing. In fact, it seems to us that we have much more to lose than Presnell (he is aging and living in a large box)… the moral health of our society.
While the description (below) of the Virgil Presnell’s crimes is graphic, it illustrates why he was re-sentenced to death after his first death sentence was thrown out on appeal. For those who support the death penalty, this man’s crimes are certainly such that he stands out as one who is particularly deserving. The question is…. What is the consequence of having a death penalty in the first place? You see, even though these executions might be less awful or prolonged then the way the victims have suffered, at the end of the day, government employees are still conducting the killing of a defenseless person. In the case of Virgil Presnell, add to the mix his demonstrable intellectual disability and the fact of the abuse he suffered as a child and even before his birth – his mother drank heavily while pregnant with him.
So, it’s not so cut and dry. We ask again… Do you want to be included in the same category as Presnell? Are we willing to take on the burdens of premeditative murder? These ongoing executions make sure that we all are guilty of moral corruption. How can we claim to be making our communities safer by making killers of us all? You can’t heal and kill at the same time.
We don’t normally publish the details of the crime, because such is readily available in the media and various lurid pro-death penalty web pages. But it is precisely because we oppose the fact of executions in all cases that we feel it is important for those of us saying that executions are wrong to know exactly what offense is being punished. Should Virgil Presnell be severely punished and society held safe from him? Of course. Is it enough that he should suffer death by incarceration rather than by execution? Yes.
TRIGGER WARNING – The following detailed description discusses crimes of physical and sexual violence against children.
Virgil Presnell sat in his blue Plymouth Duster for most of the day outside of a Cobb County, Georgia elementary school. The date was May 3, 1976. In the distance, he saw a 10-year-old girl walking alone on a wooded trail. He knew he’d found his chance…but he needed a plan. At home, Presnell got his gun, found the perfect rug and packed a jar of lubricant. The next day Presnell positioned himself along the trail and waited. When the 10-year-old girl came down the trail she was followed by 8-year-old, Lori Ann Smith. Presnell grabbed both girls, taped their mouths shut and abducted them. He also claimed to have a gun. While driving, he repeatedly forced the 10-year-old to orally sodomize him. When they arrived at a secluded area, Presnell got out his rug and jar of lubricant and walked the girls into the woods. After he brutally raped the 10-year-old, he told her to stay where she was…and that he was going to take the younger girl, Lori Ann Smith back to the car. On the way back to the car, Lori Ann tried to run away. Furious, Presnell slammed her face into a creek and held her there for several minutes…until she was dead. Returning to the 10-year-old, Presnell again forced her to sodomize him. Then, he took her back to the car and locked her in the trunk. Driving away, he got a flat tire on his Duster and was forced to drop the 10-year-old in another secluded area. After forcing her to sodomize him again, Presnell left to change his tire. After hearing sounds from a nearby gas station, she ran for help. When police arrived, she was able to give them a description of Presnell and his car. Police located him in a parking lot changing his tire. Eventually, Presnell led them to Lori Ann Smith’s young body. In his apartment, police found child pornography depicting the young girls.