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Death row inmates casting a wider Net

Convicts have pen-pal ads and Web pages. It's seen as free speech -- and a needless affront.

July 15, 2008|Tim Reiterman | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — From the forbidding, steely confines of San Quentin Prison's death row, scores of California's most notorious convicts have been reaching out to the free world via the Internet.

Scott Peterson's Web page features smiling photos of himself with his wife Laci, whom he was found guilty of murdering and dumping into San Francisco Bay while she was pregnant with their unborn son. It also links viewers to his family's support site, where Peterson has a recent blog posting on his "wrongful conviction."

Mustachioed Randy Kraft, condemned Orange County slayer of 16 young men, is looking for pen pals. So is convicted Northern California serial killer Charles Ng, who describes himself as shy and offers to sell his wildlife drawings.

Tattooed and muscled Richard Allen Davis, whose abduction and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas helped trigger California's "three strikes" law, is not selling his hobby crafts but wants correspondents.

"I dug my grave -- now I must lay in it," he says of his life.

Prisoners are barred from direct computer access that officials say could allow them to threaten witnesses or orchestrate crimes. Thanks to supporters and commercial services, however, many of the state's 673 condemned inmates now have pen-pal postings and personalized Web pages with their writings, artwork and photos of themselves -- often accompanied by declarations of innocence and pleas for friendship and funds.

Although some inmates utilize sites in the U.S., the nonprofit Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty has created Web pages or pen-pal ads for more than 100 California death row inmates. The site, unlike some others, is free.

Prisoners' mail privileges "make it virtually impossible to stop stuff from going out . . ." said Lt. Eric Messick, litigation coordinator at San Quentin. "That is how things get posted."

Since the mid-1990s, when a condemned inmate's column called "Deadman Talkin' " appeared online, use of the Internet by prisoners has proliferated in California and elsewhere.

While civil libertarians applaud the development as the exercise of free speech by isolated people, victims' rights activists decry it as an unnecessary affront to the loved ones of those whose suffering led society to lock up these prisoners.

"It's hurtful," said Christine Ward, director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance. "They are seeing a [convicted] person going on with their life, but the person they raised or married or knew does not get that opportunity. . . . That murdered person is not coming back."

Elizabeth Alexander, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said survivors simply should steer clear of websites that would be painful to see. "It does not seem that you can design a limit on the 1st Amendment based on an expectation that victims will seek out something that gives them more pain," she said.

After the widow of an Arizona murder victim became outraged by the killer's online personals ad, that state's legislators passed a law banning inmates from the Internet even through outside contacts. In 2003, a judge declared it unconstitutional.

A year earlier, a judge had barred California prison officials from enforcing a rule prohibiting inmates from receiving materials printed from the Internet -- a measure officials said was partly to prevent encoded messages.

Missouri adopted a rule last year, similar to one in Florida, prohibiting inmates from soliciting pen pals on the Internet, saying that several had been scamming their new friends. Prison spokesman Brian Hauswirth said many solicitations were misleading, and one female prisoner received $10,000 each from several men who thought she loved them.

Randall Berg, an attorney with the Florida Justice Institute who plans to challenge the Sunshine State's pen-pal solicitation ban, said such rules violate free speech and reduce the odds that prisoners will be able to stay out of prison.

"They can't use a pen pal [anymore] to help find employment or a place to live," he said.

Writing to outsiders is beneficial even for death row inmates with slim prospects for freedom, Berg said. "Idleness is the devil's workshop."

The Internet essays of condemned inmates provide glimpses of their interests, thoughts and lives. And prisoner art abounds.

Former professional gambler Herbert Coddington, convicted of sexually assaulting two adolescent models and strangling two chaperons in South Lake Tahoe in 1987, used his page to invite people to commission his art.

Ng, found guilty in 1999 of 11 murders at a secluded Calaveras County cabin, said on his Web page that he draws endangered animals that remind him of his own struggle to survive.

"To raise money for my day-to-day items and additional art materials, I would . . . sell a small number of prints," he wrote.

Officials say inmates are prohibited from conducting a business. But "that is not to say they don't," Messick said.

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