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A Long Wait to Die on S.C. Death Row

March 30, 2003|Jeffrey Collins | Associated Press Writer

RIDGEVILLE, S.C. — It's a lonely existence of steel bars and razor wire, of yearning for a change in the repetition, of watching the sunlight fade through a sliver of a window and wondering whether that means death at the end of a needle is a day closer.

This is life on South Carolina's death row.

It's a long wait to die -- more than a decade for most. The inmates spend about 23 hours a day in a cell so narrow they can easily touch both walls at the same time, one just long enough to accommodate a set of bunk beds, a toilet and a sink.

Seventy inmates at Lieber Correctional Institution sit alone in their cells or alone in their own fenced-in part of the exercise yard or alone in a room separated from loved ones and other visitors by a sheet of glass.

So far in South Carolina, the court is their only hope. The state has executed 28 men since reinstating capital punishment a quarter of a century ago. No governor has ever commuted a death sentence.

One inmate asks whether South Carolina might follow the lead of Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who in January emptied death row in his state and granted clemency to all 167 condemned inmates because he lost confidence in the legal system.

The prisoner frowns when he finds out that the chances are doubtful, at best. Many of the crimes committed by these inmates make front page news and lead nightly newscasts.

One man killed a 2-year-old girl and raped her mother. Another stormed into his ex-girlfriend's house with a shotgun, and took the lives of the woman, her daughter and her mother. A third killed four co-workers and injured three others after he was fired.

Thirty-eight of the men are white, 34 black. They range in age from 22 to 58, and have been on death row from a few weeks to more than 20 years.

"A lot of people figure these guys wouldn't have any hope," Warden Stan Burtt said. "But they have hope. As long as they have lawyers working on their appeal, they have hope."

The Corrections Department recently allowed a reporter and photographer to tour death row. They could chat with inmates, but no formal interviews could be conducted under a policy that prison officials put in place several years ago.

In a letter, one death row inmate said most of the others refuse to accept that chances are that their sentence will be carried out.

"Some don't know what denial is, others don't know that they are knee-deep in it and others are in denial of denial," wrote Jimmy Robertson, who killed his parents in York County more than five years ago.

"They are the same ones that are going to be genuinely surprised when they are informed that they have taken their last shower, made their last phone call, breathed their last breath."

The circumstances of their days and the prospect of their deaths bring the men closer. The prisoners rejoice when sentences are overturned and mourn when one of their own takes the 100-mile trip to Columbia, where executions are carried out.

In Ridgeville, about 30 miles northwest of Charleston, death row is two blocks of cells, each wing about the size of a fast-food restaurant. Fenced-in hallways surround the cells. Inmates can see through bars on the top half of the doors.

Inmates get time out of their cells to shower, use a small microwave oven to reheat food or coffee, or shuffle out to a concrete slab that doubles as an exercise yard. A small television silently flickers on one wall. Inmates can pick up the sound on their portable stereos.

Many of them read several newspapers a day, taking special interest in legal fights and trials that might send a new member into their exclusive club or take some of them away.

Condemned inmates tend to behave better than the general prison population. "Death row is not by any stretch of the imagination the toughest area to manage," said Capt. William Brightharp, the top guard at Lieber.

Burtt said that's because most death row inmates know that any bad behavior in prison is going to come back to haunt them if they ever win a court appeal and get to fight for life again.

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