Waiting on the Row
by Michael Hunter
The hundreds of men who live on San Quentin's death row have one big thing in common: execution dates.
Several times each month, the warden receives orders from superior court judges containing execution dates for condemned prisoners. Most of the time, an inmate's lawyers are successful in obtaining an order from a higher court which prevents the execution, but until the order from the higher court is issued, San Quentin officials prepare to kill the prisoner.
Walking into the East Block from my exercise yard one afternoon, the guards yanked my body out of the yard recall line and planted it in a chair inside an office. A woman from the warden's office placed on order with my name and execution date on the desk in front of me. Pulling out a sheet of paper, she asked me to update my next-of-kin notification form.
Starting that night, a guard dropped by my cell every hour, peered at me, and wrote something down in a log book. It was really kind of strange.
In California, it is illegal to execute anyone who's either pregnant or insane. Apparently the warden took it for granted that I wasn't pregnant, but he sent three alienists to determine if I was sane enough to be killed.
Three men in suits appeared at my cell's bars, and one asked, "Mr. Hunter, you're going to die soon, and we were wondering how you feel about that."
I simply grabbed by Walkman radio, pulled on my headphones, and tuned in "alternative rock" and bailed out of reality for a while. When I looked up again, the suits had disappeared.
I received the court order stopping the execution date about 30 days before the date I was scheduled to die, but I have spoken to men who didn't receive their court orders until just a couple days before their execution dates.
Starting five days before the execution date, a guard stands watch 24 hours a day outside the condemned prisoner's cell. The man's property is removed from the cell, and he's only allowed to wear underclothing and sandals. The prisoner can ask the guard to give him books, writing material, a telephone, or headphones connected to a television set or radio kept outside the cell and controlled by the guard. When he isn't actually using these items, he must return them to the guard.
A representative of the warden's office drops by to settle the final details: the menu for the last meal, the last statement by the prisoner for release to the media after the execution, the names of the five witnesses he is allowed to designate to view his death.
All prisoners in San Quentin are locked in their cells the day before, the day of, and the day after an execution, and we're fed better than usual. Personally, I would have preferred the usual fare when my friends, Bobby Harris and David Mason, were killed. Munching on blueberry muffins while they were inhaling cyanide gas seemed in poor taste.
An execution brings out the media in force, and lots of kooks on both sides of the death penalty issue materialise outside the gates of the prison. One inmate told me that he was going to say in his last statement, "That weird woman outside the gate with the offensive sign, she doesn't represent me."
Just before an execution, bags of mail flow into the Death House. In the isolation of death row, mail is almost a sacred item. Condemned men have gone out of their way to send me my mail when it was mistakenly delivered to their cells by a careless guard.
Most of the mail is from friends and family members, but some is from people who appear to be mesmerised by death row prisoners. Serial murderers seem to get the most of this kind of mail, and a few of them have turned this interest into some sort of bizarre fan club and sell their groupies macabre memorabilia.
Most men on death row think it's OK for prisoners in the San Quentin art program to sell their paintings, sketches, or handicrafts to the public.
However, some of the serial murderers go way of their line and sell the pain of their victims. One of these ghouls has even advertised for sale autographed autopsy reports of his victims. The handful of cretins who hawk these kind of evil wares are reviled by every other condemned prisoner.
People journey from literally all over the world to visit men on death row.
If the condemned man isn't housed in the Adjustment Center (a section reserved for troublemakers), he can spend a couple hours with his visitors in the court-ordered visiting room.
The death row visiting room holds about 80 people and has murals on the walls painted by a condemned man. This is the one place in San Quentin where prisoners and guards mingle without bars between them or chains on the inmates.
Children run around playing tag and a cheerful atmosphere reigns, more reminiscent of a group of vacationers in a departure lounge waiting to board a charter flight to Hawaii than an annex of the Death House.
Weddings are performed in the visiting room. One my visitor asked me while watching a ceremony, "If the couple isn't allowed to consummate their union, why get married?"
"Guess it's because they love each other, " was my thought. But I didn't ask the happy couple.
My favourite visitor is the son of a friend of mine. He's in kindergarten. After so many years in prison, I'm not terribly in tune with five-year-olds, but he patiently explains the important things, like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, to me.
A couple of weeks ago, he was busy cheating me at cards when he invited me to his sixth birthday party.
"I can't leave here, you know that." I protested to my little buddy.
Gesturing confidently at the guards, he leaned forward and whispered earnestly in my ear, "If you'll just be good, Michael, they'll let you come to my party."
Hugging him, I just shook my head.
The day-to-day barred existence of Death Row cannot be appreciated or understood until one is introduced to the sort of men sitting in the cells.
Essentially there's three types of prisoners lurching about Death Row: career criminals, non-career criminals, and the serial murders.
The largest category by far is the career criminal. No matter which housing unit, North Segregation, East Block, or the Adjustment Center, the career criminal dominates the scene. From the moment one of these gangsters hits Death Row, he already knows all the rules, including the unwritten rules, the real rules, the ones that keep you alive in the barred world.
Immediately recognizing each other, these tattooed, muscular, cigarette smoking, aggressively in-your-face men band together and compete with the guards for control of the prison. The only reason the guards have any chance at all is the rifles, the bullets, and the fact that the badges don't hesitate to use them.
Career criminals are the same guys who scared the hell out of everybody in high school. Majoring in shop (excellent raining for making high-quality shanks inside prison), they sat in the back of their other classes and the teacher never called on them for anything. Half-dozing, legs sprawled way out in the aisle, they would occasionally open their eyes and peer around the world with a vaguely puzzled look on their faces which plainly shows that they suspected someone was laughing at them. If they spotted a guy with a smirk on his face, you better believe the smirk got pounded plat.
Much to everyone's relief, these gangsters in the making usually simply disappear amidst rumors regarding some sort of criminal activity.
Hard-core unemployable, once introduced to the judicial system, career criminals generally spend only a couple days here and there out in the world in between increasingly longer stretches behind bars.. It's called doing life on the instalment plan, and they inevitably die before they make their final payment.
I always take it for granted that at least a couple of men on Death Row are here for crimes they didn't commit. Let's say the State of California gets it right 98 percent of the time (seems like an impossibly high success rate for government bureaucrats), two percent failure rate would imply about nine prisoners are on Death Row for bodies they didn't make dead, and career criminals are probably eight of the nine.
If the cops don't catch someone dad-bang at the scene of the crime, they don't investigate like Lieutenant Columbo on television. Generally investigation means they look around for someone who looks good to hang the murder charge on. The detectives pull out all the files of career criminals loose in the area, slap handcuffs on their bodies, and defy them to prove themselves innocent. If the career criminal doesn't have a rock-solid alibi, it's fairly easy for prosecutors to convince twelve solid-citizens sitting in a jury box, if a crime has been committed and this gangster's in the zip code, he's probably involved somehow.
Once I read a California Supreme Court decision affirming the death sentence for a friend of mine. Catching up with him on the exercise yard, I said, "Can't believe they found you guilty. The copes arrested you for the girl's murder because you knew her mother. But there wasn't any eyewitnesses or credible physical evidence."
"Didn't kill her," my friend answered with a shrug and took another puff on his ever-present cancer-stick, "but I've done so much the po-leece don't know nothing about, it don't matter much to me, If you live n the edge, robbing and stealing for a living, you shouldn't go round whining when the cops invent some fairy tale and push you off the edge into prison."
Kind of liked his attitude about the whole thing, but it doesn't matter much anymore whom he did or did not kill. The cigarettes finally caught up with him and he died of a heart attack about three years ago.
With a few exceptions, career criminals don't have much of a clue about the most fundamental aspects of the unbarred world. Once I listened to two career criminals argue, almost come close to blows, over what time a football game was starting on television. They'd both seen a commercial advertising the fame for 1 p.m. Eastern Time and were trying to figure out what time that would be at San Quentin.
Attempting to head-off violence, I said, "10 a.m."
"How's zat?" they both wanted to know.
"We'll, uh," I started to answer while beginning to suspect that opening my mouth had been a big mistake, "the East Coast is about 3,000 miles away . .."
"What does 3,000 miles have to do with it?" one of the gangsters demanded.
"Me and my buds rode our Harleys to Seattle, that's t least a thousand miles, and it was the same time there as here."
"Seattle's north of us," I tried to explain, "time zones go from east to west."
Absolutely certain I should've kept my mouth shut, I tried again. "You see, the sun rises in the east, and. . . .
"Never b'lieved all dat shit bout duh sun bein' millions of miles away," one of them snarled at me while the other nodded his head in agreement.
"Well, you can jus' look up and see it in duh sky. No one can see a million miles, can't be more than a hundred, maybe two hundred miles away at duh most."
Shaking my head, I said, "Trust me, 10 a.m.," and walked away.
It always amuses me when I see a reporter stating on television that some career criminal condemned prisoner has filed a petition with the courts asserting his rights have been denied under the United States Constitution.
The prisoner didn't write the petition and probably didn't read it. The only thing he might've asserted was directed at his attorney, and he probably said, "Sounds cool, hope we git action on dat there petition. Now that's all done, can yah send me some money?"
Frequently, I hear career criminals say, "I've got a read good attorney, he (or she) sends me money to buy smokes."
The first time I heard those words, I wondered, what does cigarette money have to do with whether they've a good attorney? Then I realized that career criminals never expected to have any sort of future, so they don't dwell to much about dying in the gas chamber. "Let's light up some cancer-sticks," is the attitude, "and deal with the future when it hangs into our bodies."
The reason the attorneys send the money is easy to understand. IF a lawyer knows the prisoner's death sentence appeal is going nowhere, he or she can't do anything for their client in the courts, so they simply buy him things that will keep the condemned man happy until it's time for him to take those last steps into the gas chamber.
It's rumored that an aspect of the death penalty is that it is suppose to provide a bit of deterrence to men who might engage in murder. Whatever laws are on the books, career criminals prey on society -- what else are they equipped to do? These are men who don't look down a personal time-line even one nanosecond past obtaining their next pack of smokes - deterrence is an abstract concept, a civilized concept, which these wild men understand and embrace just as strongly as they do the concept of time zones.
Although smaller in number than the career criminals, there is a sizable collection of prisoners on Death Row who have never been in trouble with the law until their arrest for murder. Since I'm one of them, it's difficult for me to write objectively about these non-career criminals, men who have paid their taxes, played by the rules, for some reason real or imagined, their lives didn't go the way they planned or expected. Maybe the man lost his job or had been denied a promotion. Maybe his wife life or the woman he wanted as a wife said no. Maybe a member of his family died.
Perhaps it's something that is not tangible, it could simply be their lives haven't measured up to the American way of life much as depicted on television in beer commercials sponsoring football games. Now they're getting older, the wonderful house, large automobile, beautiful wife, and perfect life isn't on the horizon.
Whatever the reason, these men become deeply clinically depressed and look around their largely middle-class worlds and try to find someone to pin their personal misery upon. Ultimately, if they fix the blame on themselves -- suicide; but if they find someone else to blame -- homicide.
Often found at murder scenes simply waiting for the police, non-career criminals almost from the moment the handcuffs are clamped onto their wrists are simultaneously trying to justify their actions and intently letting everyone with earshot know they had productive lives before jail/prison, and shouldn't be treated like common criminals.
Career criminals despite non-career criminals and their attempts to explain away homicide. "Never explain, never complain" is an integral part of the career criminal code, and they bully, rob, and occasionally sell the law-and-order virgins to jail-house rapists for a couple packs of smokes -- an occasion being directly equal to an opportunity.
Living in a strange new jail-house world that's largely incomprehensible to them, many non-career criminals complete their break with reality and end up in the jail-ward of the hospital pumped full of psychiatric medication.
One of the biggest problems non-career criminals confront when they are locked up is dealing with the dungeon dialect. What would you do if some tattooed man-mountain gangster stomped up and growled, "Shot a kite to my road-dog, he'll git at me the next draw. Hook me zu zu's and wham wham's, and I'll kickdown two for one."
Panic was my option, you find your own.
Career criminals often call each other "homeboys" or "homes" for short. A non-career criminal told me that when he was first arrested, he kept hearing men calling from their cells, "homes, homes." But that didn't make sense to him, so he thought they must be saying, "Holmes, Holmes." "Who is this Holmes family?" he wondered. Mrs. Homes must have raised some real tough boys, he reasoned, and they sure come to jail a whole lot. If you can't understand the dialect, it's hard to cope with the barred world.
On San Quentin's death row, many of the non-career criminals are so fearful of the other condemned men, they stay in their cells and watch their television sets. (Condemned prisoners are allowed to purchase a radio and television.) The only time these men are ever seen is in the visiting room, easy to spot, their skin has turned gray from lack of exposure to the sun.
Although I rarely hear career criminals express a whole lot of remorse for their dead victims, they don't appear to dwell on them. In contrast, most non-career criminals are still furious years after their victims are dead and buried.
"I'd dig him up and kill him a thousand times," was a comment I heard from a non-career criminal who had killed more than a decade ago.
Another non-career criminal, a bright, articulate man, employed as an engineer, went to his place of employment armed to the teeth, and shot and killed several people when a female co-worker repeated turned him down for a date. Strangely enough, he wounded but did not kill the woman who had refused to date him.
"Didn't want her to die," he told me. "Wanted her to live with what she'd done."
"What did she do?" I wondered out loud, curious to discover what could set off such a tidal wave of murderous violence in an otherwise easy-going man.
"You'd have to know her, she's. . . " he paused and his face turned into a mask of fury, the first time I'd ever glimpsed this emotion in him. "She's a bad person, that's all," he finished.
"If she's such a bad person, why'd you keep asking her out for a date?"
"You just don't understand," he answered. Turning, he walked away.
YOU JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND! Words, I hear quite often from non-career criminals. these are men who are generally quite amiable, but have an irrational murderous rage lurking around inside them when it comes to the subject of their victims. Although they can never articulate a rational, reasonable explanation regarding why the person they killed needed killed, they have an inexplicable, but absolute confidence in the correctness of their actions. These men honestly feel that if they were given an opportunity to explain their motivations to a national television audience on a special network broadcast, everyone in the country would immediately clamor for their release from prison, and they'd receive a ticker-tape parade down New York's Fifth Avenue.
Although they have a lot of trouble accepting that they're convicted felons, if pressed, most non-career criminals will admit they should do some time behind bars for killing a living, breathing human being. When questioned about how much time, not surprisingly, most peg the appropriate time at about one-year less than the amount of time they've already spent in jail/prisons.
Generally, non-career criminals don't demand cigarette money or anything material from their attorneys. What they want is for the attorney to buy into the theory that their murder was an aberration which only occurred due to a unique set of circumstances which could never, ever be repeated. They want the attorney to validate their view of themselves as non-pariahs who if released from prison could successfully restart suburban lives.
I'm really not certain how benign most of these men would be if released from prison. Anyone so angry after ten-years behind bars, he'd kill a thousand times again and again and again -- he might still be a wee bit dangerous.
In the same vein, I wonder about the deterrent value of the death penalty when a man from the middle-class, who has been on Death Row for more than a decade and seen men marched off and executed, would still commit the same murder again -- a thousand times again.
There are a few non-career criminals who trudge around with a haunted air about them. "Really thought I was right to take his life," one of them quietly told me. "Figured he had it coming because of what he'd done."
"What'd he do?"
"Doesn't matter," the condemned man waved me off. "Yeah, he was a poor excuse for a human being, and getting mad at a really lousy person's okay.
You can yell at them, stomp around, but you can't give in the killing rage.
The killing rage doesn't come from the outside, it comes from the ugliness deep inside your soul. Murder has to do with what's inside you, not the sad sack you're killing."
"Why don't these other guys see that?" I gestured at the condemned men surrounding us.
"It's hard," he said, slowly, painfully, "real hard to admit to yourself that you stole away a life and ruined your own for no good reason. Makes you a monster or a fool."
"You're?" my mocking smile took the edge off my query.
"A moron," he answered with a dark, self-loathing grin. "When I still blamed that guy for everything, I was so full of hate there wasn't room for anything else inside me."
"It's better now?"
"Yeah," he solemnly nodded. But then he helplessly shrugged his shoulders, and added, "The man's dead - how I feel about it now really doesn't matter, it's just too damn late." Head down, eyes pointed towards the ground, he hurried away.
The third and by far the smallest group of men on Death Row, although they receive almost all the media and public attention, is the serial murderers, predators who kill for the sheer pleasure of ripping someone's life out of their body. Difficult for the police to catch because they don't have any direction connection to their victims, serial murders lurk around in the shadows, pick out victims, stalk, snatch, and kill in order to satisfy some macabre inner-need. Many serial murders deliberately leave corpses in places designed to engender the most public attention and horror. After a couple of dead bodies are found, the media descends like vultures picking over carrion and lend the unknown killed a nickname: "the Freeway Killer," "the Nightstalker," "the Hillside Strangler."
The serial murderers I have met on Death Row are emotionally self-contained, they peer at you with the same lack of humanity and strangely the same lack of anger as a crocodile. Given an opportunity, they're going to live out their fantasies and leave you dead. But it's not personal, hunting humans is just what they do to fulfill themselves.
Ego-maniacs, serial murderers imagine themselves enlightened renaissance men who are misunderstood by a world still stuck in the dark ages. No one has ever been born or will ever be born who is as intelligent as these men believe themselves to be. They often feel great frustration at the ignorant masses who fail to perceive their greatness. After engaging in many, too many conversations with serial murderers housed on California's Death Row, it's difficult for me to comprehend how they ever came to have such a high opinion of themselves. But then it's hard to conceive of any other mind-set from someone who thinks it s okay to snatch, torture, and kill someone whenever they happen to feel the urge simply because that's what gives them pleasure.
For some unfathomable reason, a segment of the population is fascinated by serial murderers. These death-groupies write to serial killers and their intense interest heightens the serial murderers' sense of self-importance. Several serial murderers at San Quentin have turned this interest into a commercial enterprise and sell memorabilia through a Louisiana funeral director, who circulates a catalog advertising wares sent to him by serial murders throughout the United States. Serial murderers hawk their artwork and writings, which seems fairly legitimate to me, but some also sell autographed trial transcripts containing testimony describing the gruesome details of their various murders. One even autographed and advertised for sale the autopsy reports of his victims. Many openly proclaim riveting joy at their ability to trade the pain of their victims for filthy lucre, and these soul-less cretins are despised by the rest of the condemned men.
Most serial murderers don't get along very well with the attorneys (or anyone else) handling their death sentence appeals, and they spend a great deal of time at the law library attempting to write their own legal appeals. This is much like a passenger in an airline on an angling path into the ground attempting to wrest the controls from the pilot. Of course, an airline pilot would attempt to fight off the passenger and keep control of the plane because his body's also on the line. But attorneys can afford to simply shrug, sit back, and let serial murderers crash land inside the gas chamber.
The death penalty doesn't appear to communicate ever the barest trace of deterrence to the consciousness of serial murders. Government sanctioned executions actually seem to make them feel their impulse to kill is perfectly normal and acceptable. In their twisted brand of logic, they fervently believe their only problem is with the masses who have stupidly failed to recognize that they, the serial murderers, are the being set on earth to pick out who needs killing.
There is a great deal of tension, dislike, even hatred between the three groups of condemned men. Each group feels that they are far superior to the other two groups. Of course, most of society views all of us with emotions ranging from distaste to active loathing, but still we continue to draw pejorative distinctions -- how human of us.
From the lips of individuals in all three groups of condemned prisoners, I hear a lot of talk about injustice in the System. Seems to me if justice in the System is about the police, prosecutors, judges, and guards following all the near little rules derived from the constitution and written down in law books lined up in book shelves; well, year, for sure the System isn't even close to the lessons taught in my high school civics class. But if justice in the System is about putting dangerous people behind bars, looking around my Death Row world, it appears that the System gets it right most of the time.
No matter which category of condemned prisoner, execution dates are something every man on Death Row potentially has in common. After I'd been on Death Row for about five-years, I was walking into East Block from the exercise yard, and a sergeant pulled me out of the yard recall line.
Escorting me down to the East Block lieutenant's office, I was planted in a chair. On the other side of the desk, a woman from the Warden's office had a Death Warrant with my name on it. I was scheduled to die in about eight-weeks. After we updated my next-of-kin notification form, she wrote down the title of my personal mythology, so the correct brand of chaplain would be summoned to ease my transition into the nether world. Finally, I had the choice of either signing for my copy of the Death Warrant or staff members would be summoned to witness that I had received a copy. Shrugging, I decided not to be a jerk. Locked into a cage, unhandcuffed, a pen was thrust into my hands, and I signed. Re-chained, I was taken to my cell, ordered to pack my belongings, and the guards moved me down to a really filthy Death Watch cell on the first tier. My eyes travelled the dirty walls tightly surrounded me. I almost said the hell with it and didn't clean the cell. After all, I thought with a certain amount of resignation, one way or the other I won't be inside this cell very long. But after a few heartbeats, I piled my boxes on the steel bunk, pulled out a rag, and started scrubbing. Oddly enough, once the cell was clean, I felt a lot better about everything.
Every hour while in the Death Watch cell, a guard would fall by, carefully note whatever I happened to be doing, and then he's steal away. It was really quite strange and I quickly learned to schedule my toilet needs around the hourly visits.
"Have you had a chance to phone your attorney?" a guard asked me from my cell bars.
I shook my head no.
Unlocking my tray-slot, he pushed a phone mounted on a cart in front of my cell. Reaching out, I dialed my attorney's number, then pulled the receiver into the cell, sat on my bunk, and listened to it ring. When my attorney answered and accepted my collect call, she told me she'd received a copy of the Death Warrant and was coming to see me.
"Don't come here," I protested. "You can't get the order stopping my execution at San Quentin. Go see a judge and get an order."
"You don't want to see me?"
"Sure, come see me after you get the order."
Three men-in-suits materialized at my cell bars. " Lasering hostile eyes towards them, I knew what this was all about. The State of California is not allowed to execute anyone who is pregnant or insane. Apparently, the Warden took it for granted that I wasn't pregnant and sent these men to determine if I was insane. Grimly thinking about how they judged Ron's sanity before he hanged himself, I pulled on my headphones, tuned in an alternative rock station, pumped up the volume and closed my eyes. When I opened my eyelids, the suits were gone.
I received the order stopping my execution about thirty-days before I was scheduled to die, but a few of my friends have come within a couple of days of the hour they were scheduled to breathe cyanide before they received their orders, and they've told me what happened.
Five days before the execution date, all of the condemned man's property is removed from the Death Watch cell and piled outside the bars. A guard is stationed 24-hours-a-day outside the cell. The prisoner can request the guard to hand him a book, writing materials, a toothbrush, but when the prisoner's not actually using his property, it must be returned to the guard. If requested, the guard will plug in the prisoner's television set and turn it towards the bars, or tune in a station on the radio, but they remain outside the cell bars and only the headphones are handed the prisoner.
The condemned man has access to a telephone. He can call collect his attorneys, friends, or family.
The guards aren't there to simply hand the prisoner items of property, they're posted to make certain the condemned prisoner doesn't commit suicide. Suicide as opposed to execution is illegal in the Golden State of California and the Warden wants to make certain condemned prisoners do not break the law in their last few days and hours.
A representative from the Warden's office comes by the Death Watch cell to make the final arrangements. The prisoner is allowed to designate five of the witnesses to the execution, the menu for the last meal is finalized, the last statement for reading to the media after death is handed over, and a chaplain is scheduled to standby in the final hours before the last 13-steps into the gas chamber.
The death penalty in California isn't yet the assembly-line death machine it's become in Texas. The legal process of appealing a California prisoner's death verdict has been much more like a lazy baseball season.
Lots of games are played, many of them go into extra innings, and even if you lose a game, no one panics, no one dies, you move on and play another game in a new park before new umpires/judges and the season loafs on and on and on.
In such a casual legal environment, the everyday fear of execution subsides in most men, and they become more concerned about what's for dinner than their sentence of death. However, in a few condemned prisoners, their death sentence never relaxes its clawing grip on their minds, and since n one can cope with living for years in a constant state of fear, they're the ones who commit suicide.
Late at night, I sometimes awaken and think about my own execution. I try to tell myself that everyone dies sometimes, no one finishes their lifetime alive. But I really wonder how well that impeccable logic will carry me through those last 13-steps.
Even though it's years away for most men in California, I've heard condemned prisoners discuss plans based in utter fantasy regarding escaping the gas chamber. The most popular is contacting some shadowy government entity and volunteering for dirty-dozen type missions to assassinate Saddam Hussein, Muammar Quaddafi, or some other boogie man in exchange for a pardon. Inflating plastic bags and floating away, helicopter rescues, mercenaries storming the walls, earthquakes gently toppling over the walls and providing a path to freedom are all scenarios I've heard seriously mouthed from men who otherwise seem fairly sane.
A few men have written to members of the California Legislature and asked them to introduce bills which would give exceptions to the death penalty for crimes that always seem to fit their own circumstance of incarceration.
After reading a condemned man's letters, I advised him to simply ask the legislators to pass a law that lets him get away with a couple of murders for free. "Probably won't pass it for you," my voice filled with irony, " but they might give you a little credit for honesty."
Many men on Death Row immerse themselves in religion. There's a Prison Ministry, christians (disparagingly referred to as the "God Squad") come to San Quentin and study the Bible with condemned men in the visiting room.
One condemned man, who allegedly has reformed himself through the Bible, follows serial murderers around the exercise yard, reads scripture at them, and proclaims with great gravity, "How about the victim's? THE VICTIMS? You killed dozens, I killed only once. The System should kill you. But since I've found God, the System should set me free."
Although the dark-side of my nature takes a certain sadistic pleasure in watching this putative man-of-God torment serial murderers with his relentless religious jihad, it seems to me that his arithmetic is flawed.
Human beings aren't apples, oranges, oranges, or dollar bills. One person is just as valuable as a thousand, and piling more dead bodies onto a scale of justice or morality or humanity simply can't increase the gravity of the act of murder. Murder is an absolute term, one either is a murderer or one is not -- body count may increase the horror faster, but it doesn't change a murderer's responsibility or culpability for his actions.
When I watch and listen to the self-proclaimed man-of-God mouthing , "THE VICTIMS!," my minds eye fills with the vision of him standing atop of a grave next to a headstone chiselled with the name of his victim. But he keeps his eyes firmly away from the headstone, refusing to read the name of the person who he murdered or acknowledge the remains buried six-feet beneath him. This man simply stands, Bible in hand, screaming scripture at a craven dead-eyes serial murderer wandering all alone in a field filled with dozens of graves.
Circling, surrounding both condemned men are people with bowed heads, praying, grieving for their lost ones. These are the other victims, the living victims, family and loved ones who have photos of the dead and buried tucked away inside shoe boxes stacked on back shelves of bedroom closets. Tear-stained photos pulled out on birthdays which are no longer celebrated or Thanksgiving dinners with an empty place t the table. Living victims carry them memory of the deceased in their heads and the pain of their violent passing in their hearts.
Death row is all about the things I've described, but most of all it's about isolation. We're walled away from the world, removed from the pain and anger of a public who increasingly feel less and less safe in their communities.
One day I turned on my television, and the anguished face of one of the living victims appeared. Sitting on the couch in her living room, a woman spoke of her strong emotions regarding my friend, Bobby Harris, the man who had killed her brother. In a few days, this woman would be at San Quentin to view Bobby's execution.
As she spoke about her anger, her frustration with the System that had slowly toiled for fifteen-years in its quest to kill Bobby Harris, I shook my head, and, perhaps, for the very first time really understood that intellectual arguments about 54 condemned prisoners released from Death Rows across the country because the appeals process had unearthed their innocence would not move this woman. She did not know and did not care about those cases, she simply knew that her brother was dead and Bobby was responsible. She had spent fifteen -years of her life on the long, long road to a seat at the execution chamber's window, she was weary, and wanted the trip to end with justice for her brother, which to her meant the death of Bobby.
While her understandable emotion continued to humble me, my eyes were drown to her adolescent son sitting near her, his eyes fixed on his mother, taking in her words. I wondered what this boy, who could not have been alive when his uncle was murdered, thought about his mother embarking on a trip, not for vacation but to view a killing. How were these events going to be absorbed by this boy, and passed down the generations through him?
It's crystal clear to me after more than a decade of living among condemned men, the notion that the death penalty provides deterrence to murder is a myth. Therefore, the only useful purpose I can imagine for executions is to provide a sense of justice and emotional closure for the living victims.
Watching this woman, I wondered if the execution would provide the solace she'd be seeking at the viewing windows of San Quentin's gas chamber.
It's my experience after watching the men on Death Row who frequently try to solve their problems with violence, killing our emotional enemies never seems to accomplish the desired result within ourselves. At least that's true in the non-career criminals, the walking, breathing embodiments of hate, who remain wrapped up in their rage years after they've killed the human beings that they believed needed killing. But, perhaps state-sanctioned killing is different and does allow the living victims to venture past the emotional devastation of the murderous loss of their loved ones.
Waiving his federal appeals, a condemned man, Dave Mason, asked to be executed. One his execution date was set, he wrote to the daughter of a woman he'd killed.
When interviewed on television, the daughter said that she wanted Dave put in a place where he could never hurt anyone ever again but did not want him killed.
"Why not?" the reporter wanted to know. "Does it have anything to do with the letter?"
She said, "He wrote: Sorry, I killed your mother.'" Tears slowly spilled from her eyes as she looked down and began to shake. Raising her head, she added, "Is that supposed to make me feel better? My mother's still gone."
"Then why don't you want him executed?"
"My mother's dead," she said very quietly, "and what they do to him won't bring her back, so it really doesn't matter."
About the author: Michael Hunter, inmate of San Quentin's death row, won numerous awards for his writing. This article first appeared in the Alameda Newspaper Group and was used there by permission of the author.