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COLUMN ONE : A Grim Life on Military Death Row : As the armed forces prepare to resume executions, six men await their fate at Ft. Leavenworth. The fact that only one is white renews debate over the question of equal justice.


Sgt. Joseph Thomas, 34, the sole white man on Death Row, is an admitted egotist from El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. He was convicted five years ago of beating his wife with a tire iron, then faking her death in a traffic accident to collect insurance money.

"I have no fear of death," he boasted in an interview. "No, sir. Most people fear a painful death. OK? But not me. I don't fear death at all. Some people fear slow, agonizing cancer. That's the kind of death a man should fear. But not me."

Sgt. James Thomas Murphy, 30, an Army supply officer who killed his white wife and drowned their two children in Germany, seven years ago found God on Death Row. He pesters the other men with his incessant singing of "Bringing in the Sheaves."

"I start my day off with prayer," he said. "I pray constantly through the day. I constantly read my Bible. And I end it at night with a prayer, just thanking the Lord for another day because I don't know if I'm going to see the next."

Lance Cpl. Ronnie Curtis, 26, on Death Row the longest, is a quiet, very passive, very lonely Marine brought here in 1987 for stabbing his white lieutenant and the lieutenant's wife.

"Our row is in the basement, which is OK, because it makes the cells cooler in the summertime," he said. "There are windows where I can look out and see other prisoners going to work and it makes me wish I could join them. If the weather's clear enough, I can see the sun setting."

A world away in Washington, D.C., teams of military defense attorneys square off against military prosecutors as they argue life and death before the Court of Military Appeals. Army Capt. Teresa L. Norris represents Dwight Loving, a 25-year-old private from Upstate New York, sentenced to die for killing two white cabdrivers and trying to kill a third near Ft. Hood, Tex.

Outside Norris' office door is a placard identifying the Death Chamber. Inside are ghoulish drawings and pictures of executions. She is small and thin, but there is fire in her heart. She is staunchly opposed to capital punishment. This summer, the military high court will answer her 69-point legal brief pleading for Loving's life.

Loving's appeal is the furthest along in the system. The arguments Norris made--of racial bias and an ineffective defense counsel at court-martial--are being monitored closely by other defense attorneys. What ground she gains, or loses, may very well be followed by the others.

Norris is 29. Like the other military defense attorneys, she is on her first capital case. Most of the lawyers had only short tours handling courts-martial before they were assigned to death penalty appellate work in Washington.

Down the hall, Army Col. Dayton M. Cramer supervises the military appellate attorneys whose job it is to argue for the death sentences. A tall, thoughtful man, he needs no persuasion about capital punishment. "It is the only real guarantee that we have that these people will not return to society," he said.

Cramer and other death penalty proponents said Leavenworth's handful of condemned soldiers is too small to serve as a sampling for determining whether race is a factor.

Yet in some of the cases, race seems to have had an important role.

For instance Curtis, who stabbed the lieutenant and his wife after entering their home on a ruse, says the lieutenant repeatedly mocked him and used racial slurs. The lieutenant would call him "Bebop Curtis" and "Shoo-be-do" and "dark green Marine," said Curtis' defense attorney, Navy Cmdr. Mary T. Hall.

Even though a lower appeals court, the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Military Review, upheld the death sentence, the chief judge, Ed Byrne, strongly dissented.

"The racial stereotyping, by one of the two murder victims, precipitated (Curtis') violent acts," Byrne wrote in his dissenting opinion. "Consequently, before any system of criminal justice in this land executes the death penalty, its rationale for doing so must be capable of withstanding withering scrutiny.

"The crimes committed by the accused must cry out for death. The racial overtones in this case have silenced that cry."

Relatives of Curtis' victims, James and Joan Lotz, strongly deny that the lieutenant was a racist, and just as fervently pray that Curtis will be executed.

"I don't understand why they have the death penalty and don't use it," said Joan's sister, Grace Halpin, a police officer in Scranton, Pa. "I honestly don't see how he can contribute to society after doing something like that."

Another case fraught with racial overtones involves two Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C., sentenced to die but not yet transferred to Ft. Leavenworth.

During a night in the barracks with a case of beer and a quart of gin, Lance Cpls. Kenneth G. Parker and Wade L. Walker invoked the images of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and other African American leaders whom they believe were mistreated by whites. They then drove off the base, in Parker's words "to get us a white boy tonight."

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