On This Day in 1958: Virgil Richardson, cop killer and Sing Sing’s 600th electrocution.

The chances are that former clerk Virgil Richardson isn’t a familiar name today. To NYPD officers in 1956 (and especially the family of Patrolman William Long) his name was all too familiar. Virgil Richardson was Patrolman Long’s murderer and later the 600th convict to sit in Sing Sing’s electric chair. Only fourteen more would follow him.

By the time Richardson murdered Patrolman Long New York’s death penalty was barely used, certainly compared to previous decades. In the 1920’s and 1930’s it had taken an average of twenty lives per years (its victims, to be fair, had taken considerably more between them) and by 1956 the annual average had dropped by over two-thirds. While increasingly-few condemned prisoners actually took their final walk, Richardson was one of the exceptions.

As a cop killer and fugitive this was hardly surprising. It has been said that the Empire State had an unwritten law among judges and Governors alike. Whenever possible those convicted of murdering law enforcement officers or prison officers were not to receive mercy. If that was true then Patrolman Long leaving a widow and three children certainly sped Richardson’s path to Sing Sing’s death house.

It was on the night of 9 February 1956 that Long caught Richardson tampering with cars in a parking lot in Queens. Instead of giving himself up, trying to talk his way out of it or just running Richardson pulled a gun. After exchanging shots with Long, Richardson fled. The fatally-wounded Long staggered away, giving a retired detective as much information as he had before being taken to hospital where he died early the next morning.

Patrolman William Long, husband and father, was dead. Virgil Richardson, clerk and cop killer, would soon be joining him.

Richardson had committed a cardinal error, dropping his cap as he fled the scene. Long’s description led his colleagues to find the cap and go looking for wherever its former owner had bought it. Checking stores in the area led detectives to the store Richardson had visited and paid by cheque.

The store’s policy of preventing cheque fraud by keeping photos of those who signed them was meant to help catch paper-hangers, passers of fake cheques. It proved equally effective in catching a cop killer. His name and picture were flashed all over the country and Richardson, now hiding in Atlanta, Georgia, soon found himself arrested and shipped back to New York.

The charge was first-degree murder. The penalty (especially for cop killers) was death unless a jury recommended mercy..

His trial began at the Queens County Courthouse on 26 February 1957. Judge Vincent Impelliteri was on the bench and District Attorney Frank O’Connor was a veteran prosecutor, not that Richardson’s was a hard case to win. Richardson provided no witnesses, nor did he testify in his own defence. O’Connor produced 27 witnesses and over 30 pieces of evidence. Small wonder that after a ten-day trial the jury delivered a guilty verdict. On 5 March 1958 Richardson was condemned to death. He was booked into the death house a inmate 120-833 the same day.

They didn’t deliver the all-important recommendation for mercy. Nor were the Court of Appeals and State Governor Averell Harriman any more generous. The Court of Appeals briskly denied his appeal in its ruling on 3 April 1958. Dismissing Richardson’s claim of innocence, that Imperlliteri had improperly instructed the jury and his bizarre claim to have shot a police officer in self-defence, they denied his other complain in more detail.

Richardson alleged that being denied the chance to address the jury personally had violated his constitutional rights. He was, Richardson claimed, entitled to address the jury personally instead of having his lawyer do it for him. The seven-judge panel took only a brief ruling to decide it hadn’t and Richardson wasn’t. Judge Stanley Fuld wrote the ruling while Chief Justice Conway and Judges Desmond, Dye, Froessel, Van Voorhuis and Burke all agreed.

Seven hadn’t been Richardson’s lucky number. His execution was set for 20 November 1958.

Having been in the death house for almost two years Richardson would have heard numerous inmates receive commutations while pondering the fact that he wasn’t among them. Once commuted they were given new inmate numbers and moved into Sing Sing’s general population or shipped elsewhere. Richardson would never see or hear from them again.

Having arrived only days after murderer Leonardo Salemi paid his debt (the first of 1957’s four executions) Richardson would also have seen six other inmates disappear. Macdonald Browne, Miguel Santiago, Daivd Taylor, notorious hitman Elmer ‘Trigger’ Burke and Angelo LaMarca all left the condemned cells, never to return. Burke was a legend in New York’s underworld for his ruthlessness and violent temper. LaMarca, kidnapper of baby Peter Weinburger, had left the bay to die after a bungled ransom drop. Decades later his case partly inspired Robert de Niro movie ‘City by the Sea.’

LaMarca had been number 599. Richardson would be next.

Dow Hover already had Richardson’s name and date in his diary. The Empire State’s fifth and last ‘State Electrician this was nothing new or novel two him. Having replaced Joseph Francel in 1953, Richardson would be Hover’s 32nd execution not including those he carried out in other states.

For New York in general and Sing Sing in particular it was a little more important. 600 might have been a dubious distinction at best, but whether he wanted it or not Richardson’s number was up. With the jury, Court of Appeals and Governor Averell Harriman so far not mercifully inclined, a change of Governor might have offered Richardson a sliver of hope. There had been 13 executions during Harriman’s tenure and Richardson might have hoped Governor Nelson Rockefeller, elected on 4 November 1958, might be more generous with the first clemency plea of his tenure.

Richardson was to be disappointed. Rockefeller didn’t officially take up office until 1 January 1959 and Harriman was still ignoring the case. Rockefeller would have been unlikely to act differently, being staunchly pro-death penalty. Richardson had to face reality, his race was run. Twelve hours before he was due to die he would be taken from his death house cell to the pre-execution area long known as the ‘Dance Hall.’ Six cells awaited anyone who reached their final day sat only around twenty steps from the chair itself. Richardson was no exception.

As judicial killings go his was unremarkable, running exactly as experience and law expected. At 11pm he walked his last mile, being seated, strapped and capped with all possible speed. At 11:05pm Warden Wilfred Denno gave Hover a silent signal and the current surged and Virgil Richardson was dead. Only 14 more would follow in his footsteps ending with Eddie Lee Mays on 15 August 1963, New York’s 695th and last execution.

Ironically it was the pro-death penalty Rockefeller who finally put Dow Hover out of business. In 1963 he signed into law a bill removing the mandatory death penalty in New York State. In 1965 he signed the measure removing capital punishment entirely, except for killers of police officers, prison staff or those who killed while already serving a life sentence.

In 1969 it was Rockefeller who signed the bill finally outlawing New York’s death penalty altogether. Old Sparky went to a new home at Green haven maximum-security prison. The few remaining condemned prisoners were given life in prison before going into Sing Sing’s general population or to other facilities.

The irony had actually begun decades earlier. Several of Sing Sing’s Wardens including Thomas Mott Osborne, Robert Kirby and most notably Lewis Lawes, had been firmly opposed to capital punishment. Lawes had been both its leading opponent and leading practitioner during his tenure. Today the once-dreaded death house is a vocational shop where inmates learn a trade before their return to society. Had he lived to see it Lawes would doubtless have appreciated the change.

So, probably, would 695 other people. Whether Patrolman Long’s widow and children would have been among them is another matter entirely.

The story of New York’s death penalty is covered in my forthcoming book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in New York’, released in bookstores on November 25. it can be pre-ordered now.

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