Michael Wayne Hunter
I spoke with Dave Mason the other day, who reiterated his support for the death penalty. This is not an unusual stance. Now that gas chambers, firing squads, gallows, electric chairs, and lethal drugs are all back in business, it is obvious that the death penalty has many supporters. However, for someone like Dave to be in favor of the death penalty is a bit unusual; he is a condemned prisoner on San Quentin's death row.
Dave and I arrived here around the same time, just months apart. We are from different counties, and were convicted of different crimes, but we were both sent here for the same reason: to die.
After we arrived our convictions and death verdicts were appealed to the California Supreme Court for review. This process isn't discretionary or optional; the review is mandatory for all death sentences. The California Supreme Court must add its stamp of approval before a condemned prisoner can be executed. It's the law
Dave's and my appeals were heard just months apart, and in both cases a majority of the seven-judge panel affirmed that we should die. This was not an unexpected outcome, since over the past six years the California Supreme Court has voted for death more than 90 percent of the time.
Even if the Court upholds a death sentence, a prisoner still has the option for one last review in the federal court. The reason is that the United States constitution and the California constitution differ, and a court ruling that may conform to California law may not be legal according to federal law. I decided to take this option.
Filing before federal court for judicial review saved my life, at least for now. Assuming that Dave would do the same thing (after all, who wants to die when you can just file a piece of paper?), I was surprised when a mutual friend told me that Dave had refused to file such a petition. He would probably be executed in a couple of months. I decided to sent Dave a message telling him that, although I respected his right to do what he thought was best, I wished he would reconsider his decision.
About a week later, returning from the visiting room, Dave and I were locked in adjacent holding cages. I took the opportunity to ask him if it were true that he was waiving his right for federal review.
Dave said, "I'm not going to beg them for my life."
"Dave," I told him, "you're entitled to federal judicial review. The federal courts want to make sure that the State of California is following the law when they kill you."
"Mike, I've always believed in the death penalty. There is no reason for me to change my view just because it's my life that's involved. The people of California think they will be better off with my death. Okay, they can take me out now."
"Okay, Dave, go ahead and pick which way you are going to die, the gas chamber or lethal injection. Write out your last statement for the warden to read; no one but me and a few other people will remember what you wrote. Order and eat your last meal, but when you get desert and the only thing to do is to walk down the corridor to your death, you will still have the option to file the petition. Don't let pride stop you from having your attorneys file the petition for federal judicial review and save your life. I for one won't think any less of you."
"You don't get it, Mike. I don't want a last meal. I don't want anything from them. It's over."
I thought about telling Dave that his death wouldn't be in a vacuum, and that there were people who would be affected by it. I then realized that this argument had probably been offered repeatedly by Dave's family members and loved ones, who are much closer to him than I. He had already rejected this as a reason to continue his appeals.
Although I don't understand Dave's endorsement of the death penalty, I do understand his embrace of death. The idea of accepting death can be very seductive to a condemned prisoner. The thought of attaining a sense of peace and tranquility after giving up the struggle is very tempting. Also very appealing is the prospect that, by accepting and inviting your greatest fear, death, into your life, you could virtually eliminate the control guards, wardens, judges, and governors have over your fate. At times, resigning myself to the fact that I will die by execution is even attractive to me. It would make everything else seem so trivial and disconnected to my existence, leaving no holds over my mind, my emotions, or my life.
There is also a reverse side to this alluring acceptance of death that I see in some condemned prisoners, however, and that is denial. The prisoner finds some reason, generally only apparent to himself, why other prisoners may be executed but not him. He makes plans for his future once he is released from the grim confines of San Quentin, while managing to ignore that the State of California is using its considerable resources to expedite his demise. I, too, at times, am drawn to such fantasies.
While in the state of denial, I also find myself thinking that others will be executed, but surely someone in authority will see that I'm different and save me. But such thoughts are short-lived. Reality comes crashing in, and I remember I'm only here for one reason, to die, and this will almost surely be my fate. However, "almost surely" is not "definitely," and it is the difference between the absolute of "definitely" and the qualification inherent in "almost surely" that is the source of my determination to resist being seduced by death. In Dave's mind now, the distinction between "almost surely" and "definitely" seems to have blurred and they have become the same.
I will, at least for now, continue the appeals process. While Dave has made his choice and chosen death, I must struggle with my decision from day to day. I still have to decide how many compromises I'm willing to make to try to save my life and if they will make a difference. I may plead for my life over and over in petitions to each level of the federal judiciary from district court to the United States Supreme Court and still die in precisely the same manner as Dave, who will have at least kept a bit of his dignity intact by refusing to beg for his life.
At the end of my discussion with Dave, I could only say to him, "I don't agree with what you're doing, but I understand and respect your decision."
Dave looked at me, not unkindly, and said, "Thanks a lot, Mike."
Dave was then handcuffed and taken back to his cell on the old Death Row, and after a few minutes I was returned to my cell in another building, where the Death Row overflow population is housed.
There are now more than 330 prisoners on San Quentin's Death Row, with more coming every month. I've lived inside these walls for a long time, and I'm not sure how many people on the outside feel about a guy like Dave. I imagine that most must fear, and therefore hate him, and will be glad when he's dead.
It seems quite certain that the media will be gathering here again, as they did in April, 1992, when they executed Bobby Harris. As with Bobby, I suspect that when they finish with Dave, the media's characterization of him will have little in common with the Dave I know. The Dave I know was never given anything by anyone. He lived his life on his own terms -- hard terms, frightening terms for most of society. But I do know that in the end, Dave applied those same hard terms to himself.
David Mason became the second person in California to be executed since the death penalty was reimposed. San Quentin's death row has now grown to house over 400 condemned prisoners.
Michael Hunter is a condemned prisoner, who was sentenced to death in May, 1984. This article first appeared in Fellowship.