Volunteering for Death: The Fast Track to the Death House

Oct 9, 2009 - by Robert Phillips - 0 Comments

The lethal-injection chamber in California's San Quentin Prison.

The lethal-injection chamber in California's San Quentin Prison.

Death-row inmates are increasingly foregoing the appeal process to hasten the date of their execution. "Volunteers" now account for more than one of every eight executions.

by Robert Anthony Phillips

Timothy McVeigh was far from alone in his desire to speed up his execution date by dropping the appeal of his death sentence. There are dozens of death row inmates in the United States who have or who are doing the same thing: ''volunteering'' for death. In the last year, volunteers have been executed in Nevada, Florida, Indiana, Arkansas, Virginia, California and Oklahoma.

These volunteers get on the fast track to the death house by pleading guilty and asking for a death sentence at their trials or, most often, dropping their appeals after they are convicted.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that the death penalty was constitutional as long as its imposition was accompanied by certain safeguards, 90 of the 722 convicted murderers executed in the United States have been volunteers, according to a recent study conducted by Amnesty International, the human rights group. More pointedly, about two-thirds of the voluntary executions have occurred since 1994, AI reports.

Since 1995, 409 convicted killers have been executed in the United States, with at least 61 of those volunteering for death, the rights groups says. Overall, the study by AI reported that volunteers have accounted for one in eight executions in the United States.

Volunteering for a quick death is not a new phenomenon. It has quietly gone on since 1977 when Gary Gilmore dared Utah to put him before a firing squad and thousands volunteered to serve on the firing squad to pump bullets into him.

But there has been renewed interested in the volunteer phenomena due to McVeigh's execution and a recent spate of voluntary trips to the death house. During a seven-week period from March 1 to April 21 of 2001, five of the 10 men executed in the United States were volunteers, including two on the same day in California and Oklahoma.

In some states, it is difficult to be executed unless you are a volunteer. Of the three executions in Washington State since 1993, two have been volunteers. In Nevada, eight of the nine executed were volunteers. Of the six executions in Utah since 1977, four were volunteers.

Bizarre Cases

The rush to the death house has sometimes left criminal defense lawyers scrambling in last ditch legal attempts to save the lives of often uncooperative and hostile clients or grappling with the ethical dilemma of whether they should give up and allow their clients to die.

Some volunteer cases take bizarre turns. At Nevada's last voluntary execution on April 21, one lawyer found himself in the death chamber asking his client if he wanted to continue his appeals -- as the condemned man lay on an execution gurney minutes away from being put to death.

Sebastian Bridges, 37, had acted as his own lawyer at his trial, claiming he was innocent of murdering his estranged wife's lover. When the jury found him guilty, he told the jurors in disgust to give him the death penalty. They did. He later decided to protest his death sentence in an unusual way: by giving up his appeals so that he could be executed. His lawyers, thinking him quite mad, had advised him that this was not a good way to rage against the death-penalty machine.

His lawyers were right. For there was Bridges, lying strapped to an execution gurney in a prison in Carson City, Nev., still raging that he was innocent of murder, shouting out that he didn't want to die, and yelling that the state was trying to kill him ''like a dog.''

During the time Bridges lay strapped on the gurney taking in the last moments of his life, his lawyer assured him that if he wanted to continue his appeals, his execution would be stopped. Bridges refused. The chemicals flowed into his body.

''He died protesting his innocence and the unfairness of the process, yet he was unwilling to stop it,'' said federal public defender Michael Pescetta, who went into the execution chamber twice to ask Bridges if he wanted to continue his appeals.

''I've seen other executions and they are distressing enough,'' said Pescetta, ''but I think this was significantly stranger for everyone involved...You feel, as a lawyer, that they are doing this to you. You're trying to get the system to take the person off death row. You expect that everyone wants help not to be executed. It's disorienting.''

Some of the volunteers go to their executions with interesting beliefs. One man believed he was a vampire and could not die. Another spit at his lawyer and then threatened to slit his own mother's throat if she tried to block his execution. One said that he was not afraid of death because he had transported himself, just like Capt. James Kirk used to do on ''Star Trek,'' from death row and into God's hands and found out that when he died, he would find peace in God's palm. Another thought he had the ability to bring the dead back to life.

Why Volunteer to Die?

Why are so many admitted or convicted killers volunteering to be executed? Criminal defense lawyers, psychiatrists and death-row inmates themselves offer a variety of reasons. Some volunteers are crazy. Some find God and are convinced that heaven awaits them if they pay for their crimes with their lives. Some use murder as a means of committing suicide. Some just can't live with themselves for what they did. Others like the idea of controlling a system they really have no control over.

But, the most prevalent reason cited is that life on death row is not really life.

Twelve states have no death penalty, but of the 38 that do most isolate condemned prisoners in high-security cellblocks within maximum security prisons away from the general prison population, keeping them locked in their cells up to 23 hours a day. Studies have shown that prisoners who are isolated become severely depressed and delusional, possibly making them want to end their lives and give up their appeals. Even if the death row inmates are not insane, the isolation and restrictions imposed lead some to want to end their lives, rather than living in such conditions, defense lawyers and death row inmates say.

Throw in the poor quality of legal representation available to the vast majority of death-row inmates, and any realistic legal remedy is virtually moot. In July The New YorkTimes reported that ''dozens of inmates on death row lack lawyers for their appeals… . The situation has dire consequences, experts say, because two out of three appealed death sentences are set aside because of errors by defense lawyers at trial or prosecutorial misconduct.'' The Times report was based on the most comprehensive death penalty study completed to date, a study conducted by lawyers and criminologists at Columbia University. For inmates with ineffective counsel or no counsel at all -- even the innocent ones -- the reality of spending the remainder of their lives in isolation with no hope of parole can make the prospect of death inviting. Some inmates come to view their executions as their great escape.

Robert Johnson, an American University professor who has studied men on death row, says it is common for condemned prisoners to think about giving up.

''We do have a number of people on death row who are mentally ill, and that explains the extremity of their crimes,'' Johnson said. ''Mentally ill people are more vulnerable to stress, less intact psychologically and less able to cope with adversity. They are more likely to be harmed by being isolated because it leaves them alone with their problems.

''For a number of inmates, death row is living death. It becomes unbearable and execution is a less painful option.''

That brings up another factor some experts cite to explain the dramatic upshot in volunteers: Inmates don't fear execution by lethal injection as much as they did by other means, particularly by electric chair.

Of the 38 death-penalty states, only Alabama persists in deploying the electric chair; all the others have moved to lethal injection as the primary means of execution.

''The electric chair was feared,'' said William Laswell, an assistant public defender in Broward County, Fla., who predicts that still more prisoners languishing on death row will want to end their agony and take the easy way out -- by simply being injected and going to sleep. ''We now give them an option of having their head burned and nose broke in the electric chair or taking a nap with lethal injection. There are a lot of guys who simply don't want to spend the rest of their lives in prison and don't want to die in prison.''

Laswell was referring to a 1990 Florida execution in which flames shot from the head of Jesse Tafero during his electrocution and, later, another Florida case in which a murderer being put to death in the chair had blood run from his nose and down his chest. (To view photos of this execution, click here.) Florida now uses lethal injection as its primary means of execution.

But the argument that execution is no longer feared by some condemned prisoners didn't stop three Alabama killers from dropping their appeals and going to their deaths in the state's electric chair.

The Depravity of Death Row

Anthony Boyd, a death-row inmate in Alabama who is fighting his conviction, knew the three Alabama inmates who gave up their appeals and were executed. Boyd believes their decisions were based on the isolation on death row and the anguish caused by having a death sentence hanging over their heads.

''When you walk into this camp, you can feel the death,'' said Boyd. ''It's like walking into a graveyard...Fathers watch their kids grow up form here. Guys watch as family members abandon them and family members die off. You're treated like animals.''

Boyd said the three of the men --Pernell Ford, Steve Thompson and David Duren -- told him why they wanted to be executed. Duren was executed in January 2000; Thompson in 1998; and Ford in June 2000.

''Pernell Ford I knew personally and considered a real friend,'' Boyd said in a letter. ''He also attempted suicide by cutting his wrist. After that we had a chance to talk. I asked him why would he do this -- attempt suicide and drop his appeals. He just simply said, 'I'm tired, homeboy.' See, Pernell had been here for about 13 years and came when he was in his teens. Pernell also believe he was a god...Steven Thompson had given his life to The Lord, and decided he was just simply ready to go. David Duren said he had grown weary from everyone dying around him, so he too gave up.''

Massie: Death Better Than Prison

In California, two-time killer Robert Lee Massie, who had first tried to give up his appeals since 1979, was executed on March 27. Spending the rest of his life on death row was on the mind of Massie when he decided he'd rather die than spend life behind bars. He said death was a ''rational'' decision over life behind bars in a maximum security prison.

''Even if I were to win an appeal, I will never again see the outside of prison,'' Massie said in a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle on March 13. ''I have lived in prison most of my adult years, nearly 30 on death row. I am a rational man. I do not consider foregoing the raptures of another decade behind bars to be an irrational decision.''

Massie had been sentenced to death in the early 1970s, but had his sentence commuted and was later released on parole after the U.S. Supreme Court found the death penalty unconstitutional. After he was released, Massie murdered a man and found himself back on death row -- this time with the death penalty reinstated by the courts.

Suicide by Execution

Lawyers and psychiatrists also point to documented cases over the years where murder is used as a tool to ''commit suicide by execution.'' Such is the case with Daniel Colwell in Georgia, who wants to die in the state's electric chair and murdered two people to accomplish his goal.

Colwell told a jury that he never had the courage to kill himself, and believed that by shooting and killing two people at random in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Americus in 1996, the state would fulfill his death wish by executing him.

At his 1998 trial, Colwell, diagnosed with schizophrenia and other mental problems, was found competent to direct his own defense. He pleaded guilty to the murders. He boasted about the slayings to the jury. He threatened jurors and their families if they did not recommend a death sentence. The jury obliged.

Michael Mears, his lawyer, has appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court asking it to bar the execution of the mentally ill -- which he believes Colwell is. Colwell has fought back, making a failed attempt to hire a lawyer to replace Mears to expedite his execution.

''It's been a nightmare fighting the judge and fighting Daniel,'' said Mears, who believes Colwell should not have been allowed to represent himself. ''We are being forced to be instruments of Daniel's suicide.''

Even Daniel Bibler, an assistant district attorney in Sumter County, Ga., who helped prosecute Colwell, said the admitted killer had no other motive other than his desire for his own death. But, Bibler stressed that Colwell's act was more important that his motive.

''We took him as a calm, communicative person who intelligently planned out something, carried it out with full knowledge of what he as doing and understood the consequences of what he was doing,'' Bibler said. ''We never disputed that he had been diagnosed with a mental disorders. But clearly, he was not delusional and clearly he was in touch with reality.''

Is There a Place for the Volunteer?

Are some defense lawyers being elitist and arrogant in trying to legally frustrate a condemned killer's death wish? Is there a place in the criminal justice system for a condemned killer to volunteer for death, or must each case -- even the most hopeless ones -- be fought to the legal limits.

Some lawyers believe there is a place for a condemned man to have the ''dignity'' of deciding that he or she wants to be executed, providing the inmate is not insane.

Michael Mello, a Vermont Law School professor and expert on the death penalty, believes there is a place in the capital-punishment system to allow competent, condemned prisoners to give up their appeals and be executed rather than languish for years on death row or have no hope of freedom.

He argues that many defense lawyers are forcing their own political choice -- opposition to capital punishment -- and blinding themselves to the duties to their client.

''The conventional wisdom is that clients never freely and voluntary choose to be executed,'' Mello said. ''That they are driven by their circumstances and the lawyers have a paternal or maternal role to protect their client form himself if necessary...I think that's dead wrong. It's a simple lack of human empathy on behalf of the lawyer, arrogance and elitism. We represent clients, not issues.''

Melvin I. Urofsky, a professor of history and public policy at Virginia Commonwealth University who has studied the issue of volunteers, also believes that because most death-row inmates are guilty of murder and have no hope of freedom, execution is a valid option for them. He also compares these condemned murderers with terminally ill patients who choose to end their lives.

''Some people do not like the idea...of spending the rest of their lives in a six-by-eight- foot room,'' Urofsky said. ''For them, death is the preferable option.''

But most criminal defense lawyers believe that volunteers must be protected from ''committing suicide'' and not be allowed to control the criminal justice system by demanding execution. They say that anyone seeking his or her death cannot be competent.

While acknowledging a client's right to direct his own defense -- even if that means pleading guilty and asking for a death sentence -- most defense lawyers believe execution is never in the best interest of a client.

''If someone is standing on the edge of a cliff saying he wants to shoot himself and to please hand him a gun, do you do it?'' asks Susan Cary, a public defender in Florida who counsels death row inmates.

''Remember, the appeals are for society, not the prisoners,'' adds Abraham J. Bonowtiz, an anti-death penalty activist in Florida, where two of the last three persons executed have been volunteers. ''Appeals are for us to make sure we followed our own law. When appeals are waived, society is denied the full and fair review of a process filled with mistakes.''

Court Challenge to Death-Row Conditions

Julie Hall, an Arizona lawyer who has helped represent three volunteers (two of whom were executed), said that she has yet to see a case where the inmate seeking death has been competent to make that decision.

Hall blames death-row conditions as the primary reason why so many already mentally ill, condemned inmates are being ''tortured to death'' and volunteer for execution. Authorities have estimated that as many as 10 percent of all death row inmates suffer from mental illness.

''The conditions in prison are getting worst,'' Hall said. ''People need to understand that death-row inmates are not being housed in a country club. People are being put in long-term solitary confinement that the human mind is not wired to survive. Another factor is that you have people in jail who are severely depressed and not being treated. They are not making competent decisions.''

Hall and another lawyer have brought a unique case to federal court. A federal appeals court has ordered a district court in Arizona to hold a hearing to determine whether one of Hall's clients, death-row inmate Robert Comer, 44, was influenced into volunteering to end his appeals because of the isolated conditions he has been kept in for more than a dozen years.

In a case being watched closely by other criminal defense lawyers, Hall derailed the condemned killer's death wish by convincing the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit last June that Comer's isolation on death row may have played a part in his volunteering for execution.

While defense lawyers routinely challenge the competency of condemned inmates wanting to be executed, Hall said that to her knowledge, it is the first time a federal court has ordered a hearing on whether conditions on death row may have caused a condemned prisoner to volunteer.

Hall previously tried to head off the executions of two other death-row volunteers, Donald Miller and child killer Daren Bolton, but both were eventually executed. In the Miller case, Hall was appointed to represent the condemned man's lawyer as his ''next friend'' in an attempt to continue appeals.

Hall said that Miller suffered severe depression most of his life and the isolation on death row was ''tortuous'' and inflamed his desire to die.

''There is no way that combining his mental illness and the conditions in that prison that he could make a voluntary decision to be executed,'' Hall said.

A key to the Comer case will be psychiatric studies and testimony arguing that prisoners kept in long-term maximum security housing suffer anxiety, confusion, a sense of unreality, depression and are prone to violent behavior. Isolation has more dramatic affects on condemned prisoners already suffering from mental illness, the experts say.

Like most death penalty states, Arizona's condemned prisoners are isolated in a special management unit. Arizona death row is located in Florence, with condemned prisoners fed in their cells, locked down 23 hours a day and allowed no contact visits.

Camilla Strongin, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Corrections, said condemned prisoners are isolated from the general prison population because they have proven by their crimes that they are a danger to other prisoners and guards.

Comer was sentenced to death for shooting a man to death at a campground in 1987. Following that murder, Comer then went to another campsite, hog tied another man and raped his girlfriend in front of him, prosecutors say.

At his sentencing in 1988, he was brought in shackled to a wheel chair and naked, except for a cloth covering his genitals. Since deciding to end his appeals, Comer has blamed Zionists for trying to save him and asked the judge who sentenced him to sign his death warrant.

Before being sentenced to death in Arizona, Comer had spent years in isolation in a California prison for misconduct while serving a sentence for other crimes, Hall said. Since arriving on Arizona death row in 1988, Comer has been cited for 37 violations of prison rules including possession and manufacture of weapons and arson, prison officials said.

Pati Urias, a spokeswoman for the Arizona attorney general's office, said that prosecutors believe Comer is competent to make the decision to die and that death-row conditions are fair and humane.

Comer refused to be interviewed for this article, telling a prison official that ''I hate reporters more than lawyers.''

That's Why They Call It Death Row

Victim's rights groups, such as the Texas based Justice for All, argue that many of the condemned prisoners who volunteered for death admitted to their crimes and were simply acquiescing to the punishment. The group has no sympathy for claims that depression, isolation and mental illness are to blame.

''Death row is just that: death row,'' said Dianne Clements, president of Justice for All, a criminal justice reform group that favors the death penalty. ''We are constitutionally bound to provide them with adequate health care, adequate housing, and adequate protection against harm or injury. We do that and we should not be cajoled or bullied into creating a resort atmosphere.''

Clements also points out that in all the cases of volunteers, the courts have had competency hearings and the condemned prisoners had been found to be sane.

A Tough Decision for Defense Attorneys

Some criminal defense lawyers admit that they can see a client's point of view in asking to be executed, but it is still unsettling.

In Oklahoma, Barry Derryberry, an assistant public defender, who was one of three defense lawyers assigned to defend death-row volunteer Ronald Fluke, found himself torn between his hatred of the death penalty and respect for the 52-year-old Fluke's wish to be executed.

''By applying the brakes to the client's wishes to race to the death chamber, lawyers protect ...the client's rights to not be unlawfully executed and to decide what the defense's goal shall be,'' Derryberry said. ''This role prevents the system from degenerating into a suicide mill.''

''But I can understand the pragmatic choice one has under a death warrant,'' Derryberry added. ''What kind of life is that to lead?''

Fluke pleaded guilty to murdering his wife and two children, waived his appeals and was executed on March 27, saying it was just punishment for his crimes. Three days into jury selection in his trial, Fluke had informed his lawyers that he wanted to plead guilty and asked to be sentenced to death.

In Virginia, lawyer Thomas Blaylock said he respected the decision of his client, Thomas Akers, executed on March 2 for beating a man to death with a bat. Akers had pled guilty and asked for a death sentence, promising to kill again.

''I thought to myself, 'Who am I to tell him he can't do this,' '' Blaylock said. ''On one hand, I had a competent client who made the decision and the other side of me is saying nobody should want to do that...I have to fight for these people because it makes it easier for the system to execute other people. It was really bothering me not fighting for my client...''

Blaylock, like Florida's Laswell, believes more inmates will be volunteering for death on the nation's ever expanding death rows.

''We've got these supermax prisons where everything is restricted so you'll see more guys volunteering rather than staying inside them,'' Blaylock said. ''Taking a shot (lethal injection) is not as bad for them.''

But when a criminal defense lawyer decides to help an admitted killer die, he can become a pariah in the defense community.

Lawyer Helps Client Die

That's what happened in Oklahoma in 1993, when then Tulsa County chief public defender Johnie O'Neal decided not to try to block the execution of Thomas Grasso, a two-time killer who told him that he'd rather be executed than spend life in prison.

O'Neal said his decision resulted in death threats, hate mail and damaged his relationships with some criminal defense lawyers. Grasso, 33, was executed in 1995.

''My belief that people shouldn't be executed had to be put aside, ''O'Neal said. ''Actually, I am proud of the fact that I was willing to do it and could do it.''

Grasso murdered an elderly woman in New York and was sentenced to 20-years-to-life prison sentence. Grasso later confessed to the unsolved murder of an 87-year old woman in Tulsa in 1990, saying he wanted to return to Oklahoma, plead guilty and be sentenced to death.

O'Neal allowed Grasso to plead guilty to murder and offered no mitigating evidence that could have saved him from a death sentence. O'Neal drew the wrath of defense lawyers when he appealed to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals asking the court to allow Grasso to waive his mandatory appeals and be executed. The court denied the request, although the death sentence was upheld.

But other defense lawyers accused O'Neal of violating ethical rules and filed a legal challenge to try to block the execution.

''It bothers me and still does,'' said Robert Ravitz, the public defender for Oklahoma County. ''Why do you need a lawyer to advocate somebody for a death sentence? You don't have a constitutional right in the Untied States to get a death sentence -- yet.''

Some Current Volunteer Cases

Scan the death row rosters in most death penalty states and, nowadays, you'll find men and women seeking to quicken their trips to the death house.

One isKevin Scudder, an Ohio death-row inmate convicted of murdering a 14-year-old girl. He is fighting attempts by his lawyer to keep him alive. He scoffs at anti-death- penalty advocates who want to keep him from the execution chamber, wishing they could watch him die.

''They don't give a shit about me personally,'' Scudder said in a telephone interview. ''I wish they had a gas chamber in this state so they can see me flop around like that rabbit on the television show. Did you see that on television?''

He insists he is not crazy in wanting to die, saying that God is calling him home.

''I am far from crazy. I have decided to waive my appeals because God is calling me home. I know he is calling me home because he would neverhave let the State of Ohio put me on death row for something I never did if he didn't want me to come back home.''

Another high-profile murderer seeking a quick execution isAileen E. Wuornos, a former prostitute turned serial killer. She was sentenced to death for killing six men in Florida and now believes she has the ''right'' to be executed.

In April, she wrote a letter to the Florida Supreme Court asking the justices to end her appeals and allow her to be executed, saying keeping her alive violates her constitutional rights.

Wuornos said in the letter that she was guilty, and enough tax money has been squandered in keeping her alive.

On the federal level, McVeigh wasn't the only inmate seeking to die. David Paul Hammer, another federal prisoner awaiting execution in Terre Haute, Ind., believes that his execution would be better than spending the rest of his life in prison.

Hammer pleaded guilty to strangling a cellmate and knows he will never regain his freedom -- even if his death sentence is overturned. He was serving more than a 1,232-year sentence in Oklahoma after breaking out of prison and shooting a man following a carjacking. He had been sentenced to prison originally for an incident at an Oklahoma hospital in which, after becoming angry that he wasn't receiving treatment for a drug problem, grabbed a nurse and held her hostage.

Oklahoma authorities described Hammer as a troublesome prisoner who committed scams while behind prison walls. These included soliciting phony donations for a religious ministry, sending threatening letters to judges, two escapes, and phoning in a bomb threat to the state capital. Prison officials, in order to control Hammer, placed him in a specially constructed isolation cell. His lawyer said that Hammer caused trouble in prison to force Arizona corrections officials to transfer him to federal prison, which he viewed as a better place to serve his time.

Hammer got his wish. He was transferred from the Oklahoma prison system into the federal prison system in 1993, and then sent to various federal facilities, in California, Kansas and finally Pennsylvania, where he admitted to strangling his cellmate.

Hammer views his execution as his ''final escape.''

''I've spent half my life in prison for the most part,'' Hammer said in a telephone interview from the prison. ''I don't live here. I merely exist. There is a big difference in living and existing. In order to live, your life has to have a meaning, a purpose.''

Hammer, 41, had given up his appeals and was scheduled to be executed on Nov. 15, 2000. But he changed his mind and continued his appeals. In early April, the Supreme Court rejected his latest appeal.

Since the interview, Hammer, a diabetic, attempted to commit suicide by injecting insulin directly into a vein.

Rather Death than Life

But inmates with a death wish don't always get what they want.

In Florida, Edward Gryczan, sentenced to life in prison in 1998 for murdering his mother, asked for a death sentence at his trial. Although the jury recommended that he be executed, his lawyer fought him by demanding hearings on Gryczan's competency. A trial judge later overturned the death sentence, and instead sent him to prison for life.

Three years into his life prison sentence, Gryczan, 54, said he'd still rather be executed than spend life behind bars without the psychiatric treatment he believes he needs.

''I think of the crime all the time, Gryczan said. ''I think of my mother all the time. If I was sane at the time, then I deserve to die. I can't see spending the rest of my life like this, waiting to die of old age. Prison is not a place for the old.''

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