A man who murdered a fellow inmate during a pagan religious ceremony was executed Thursday after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his appeals and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine denied his request for clemency.
Michael Lenz, 42, received a lethal injection at the Greensville Correctional Center and was pronounced dead at 9:07 p.m.
When asked if he had any final words, Lenz gave a slight shake of his head, indicating no.
Lenz and another inmate, Jeffrey Remington, were sentenced to death in 2000 for stabbing 41-year-old Brent Parker a combined 68 times with makeshift knives at the Augusta Correctional Center. Lenz had been serving a 29-year sentence after being convicted in Prince William County of burglary and weapon possession.
The three inmates were followers of the Nordic pagan religion Asatru, and belonged to a group known as the Ironwood Kindred. The kindred was gathered for a ceremony when Lenz and Remington attacked Parker at the foot of a makeshift altar.
Asatru has been gaining popularity among inmates, say religious leaders and prison experts who believe its roots in Viking mythology attract prisoners seeking power, protection and unity.
The gang culture in prison also contributes, said theologian Britt Minshall, a former police officer and Baltimore pastor who ministers to inmates.
Some white inmates who felt threatened by black prison gangs formed their own gangs and sought out a belief system they felt would provide additional security, he said.
"It's a way of grouping together for safety," he said. "And you have to have a god in the middle of that to really keep you safe."
Asatru is often referred to as Odinism, although some followers believe the two are separate religions. It is a polytheistic, pre-Christian faith native to Scandinavia whose adherents worship gods including Thor and Odin.
It emphasizes a connection with one's ancestors and values honor, loyalty, generosity and truth.
An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people in the United States consider themselves Asatruars or Odinists, said Stephen McNallen, director of the Asatru Folk Assembly, a leading Asatru group.
No national statistics are kept on how many inmates follow Asatru. But experts say its popularity enjoyed a boost from the Supreme Court, which last year sided with an Asatru inmate by upholding a federal law requiring state prisons to accommodate prisoners' religious affiliations.
Asatru is often associated with white supremacy, although most Asatru leaders bristle at suggestions of such a relationship.
A 1999 FBI report on domestic terrorism described Odinism as a "white supremacist ideology that lends itself to violence."
"What makes Odinists dangerous is the fact that many believe in the necessity of becoming martyrs for their cause," the report said.
Lenz testified that Parker had not been taking the religion seriously, and to protect the honor of the gods, Parker had to be punished. Lenz also testified he felt threatened by Parker, who was serving a 50-year sentence for murder.
Remington committed suicide on death row in 2004.
Lenz's attorneys said Parker had threatened to kill Lenz and Remington, and Lenz testified that Parker twice told him he would sharpen the point of a cane he carried and stab Lenz with it.
In their petition to the Supreme Court, Lenz's attorneys argued jurors in the case admitted they had consulted a Bible during their sentencing deliberations, and that one jury member said some jurors pointed to passages in the Bible supporting the death penalty for killers.
Those actions denied Lenz the right to a fair and impartial trial, attorney Matthew Engle said.
Lenz's attorneys also argued the verdict forms supplied to the jury failed to include all sentencing options.
But Augusta County Commonwealth's Attorney A. Lee Ervin, who prosecuted the Lenz case, said Lenz deserved to die due to the brutality of his attack on Parker.
Lenz, dressed in a light blue shirt and dark blue pants, was brought into the execution chamber at 8:56 p.m., flanked by several guards. He did not look at witnesses seated in the viewing booth and his expression remained blank as the execution team tightened a series of leather straps around him, securing him to the gurney.
The lethal drugs began to flow into his veins at 9:03 p.m., causing him to gasp sharply. He took several deep breaths before his body went still.
Lenz met with his mother and two uncles for two hours Thursday afternoon. He made no last meal request.
Parker's mother, Bonnie Parker, said she is ambivalent about the execution, although her granddaughter Heather — Brent Parker's daughter — believed Lenz's crime warranted the ultimate punishment. None of the family planned to witness the execution.
Parker, 71, of Paw Paw, W. Va., said she misses her son, whom she described as a good person led astray by alcohol.
"It's been so long since he's been gone — it really hurts me even to talk about him," Parker said. "He was very good to me."