Sunday, 14 January 2007

A life spent facing death

A life spent facing death

He was sent to Death Row on Jan. 8, 1976. His execution is scheduled for Jan. 25, 2007. If the order is carried out, he will have spent 11,340 days on Death Row.


Nearly every moment of Ronald Chambers' life is spent inside his cell on Death Row. He is permitted one five-minute telephone call every three months.

Nearly every moment of Ronald Chambers' life is spent inside his cell on Death Row. He is permitted one five-minute telephone call every three months.

LIVINGSTON -- He sat alone in a cage behind a sheet of tempered glass. Inmate No. 000539 is a big, heavyset man with broad shoulders. Wearing a T-shirt and a white jumpsuit, his large hands unshackled, the longest-serving killer on Texas' Death Row fixed a watchful gaze on his visitor and lifted the black telephone from its cradle. What do you say to a person facing impending execution? Other than motive -- "Why did you do it?" -- what does one ask a man, now a grandfather, who after three murder trials and three convictions and a recent appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection in 11 days? Ronald Chambers went to Death Row at age 20. He is now 52. During the years that he staved off his fate, Texas has executed 381 others, including three women.

If the court's order is carried out, the prisoner known as "Old School" by younger inmates will have served 11,340 days -- more than 31 years -- three times the average stay on Death Row in Texas, which executes more people than any other state.

The question, unrelated to his crime, appeared to catch him by surprise.

Where would you go -- what would you do -- if given one day of freedom?

Chambers knows he won't leave this place until the day he is taken on the 40-mile journey to Huntsville, to the death chamber. But for one indulgent moment, he leaned back, head cocked in thought, and played the wishful game. A smile lit his face.

"I'd like to go to Fair Park and see all the different people."

During the State Fair, you mean?

"Yeah," he said. He gestured with his right hand. "I'd like to see those rides that go across the sky."

In his mind's eye, the man who grew up in the west Dallas housing projects pictured the colorful gondolas that glided along cables high above the neon midway. The Swiss Skyride at Fair Park shut down after a 1979 accident killed one person and injured 17.

But Chambers didn't know that. How could he?

He went to Death Row on Jan. 8, 1976 -- when Gerald Ford was president.

One slaying, three trials

On an April night in 1975, as Mike McMahan and Deia Sutton left a Dallas nightclub, Chambers and a companion, Clarence Williams, confronted them at gunpoint in the parking lot and forced their way into McMahan's car.

Williams, who had a criminal history, drove to the Trinity River bottoms south of downtown Dallas.

According to testimony during Chambers' trial, the students were shot from behind as they walked hand in hand down an embankment. When McMahan, after being shot, called out to his friend in the dark, Chambers crushed his skull by striking the 22-year-old Texas Tech student 10 to 20 times with the butt of a shotgun. Williams choked Sutton and attempted to drown her in the muddy water. The attackers sped away in McMahan's car.

Left for dead, Sutton managed to walk to a nearby hotel and call police.

Chambers was arrested several days later as he hid in an apartment broom closet. After Williams burned McMahan's car in Calvert -- where he first tried to sell it -- he was arrested at a Dallas bus station.

Williams pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery and murder and received two life sentences.

Jurors at Chambers' trial took only 15 minutes to convict.

"Here is a man who is evil personified," said Doug Mulder, Dallas County assistant district attorney, during closing arguments. "No one will be diminished if he is put in the electric chair where he belongs."

Texas adopted lethal injection as a means of execution in 1977.

Chambers went to prison three days before his 21st birthday.

The victims assumed justice would be served, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Chambers' sentence eight years later because one state-hired psychologist didn't inform the defendant that his responses in an interview could be used to obtain a death sentence.

Chambers was retried in 1985. Again, a swift guilty verdict.

The Supreme Court later threw out that conviction after ruling that Dallas prosecutors improperly excluded three blacks from the jury.

A jury convicted Chambers a third time in 1992.

Sutton testified at each trial.

The case has worked its way through the appeals process. Finally, the end appears near.

"Maybe," said Bennie McMahan. The murdered man's 82-year-old mother, who lives in Kennewick, Wash., is wary. "We won't know until it's done." After a pause, she said, "We've had 32 years of this."

She favors the execution. "It means he can't do it to anyone else." Will she feel relieved?

"Not really," the mother said. "It won't bring our Mike back."

Life on Death Row

When Ronald Curtis Chambers went to prison in 1976, Death Row was housed at the Ellis Unit north of Huntsville. Men awaiting execution participated in work programs and were permitted to attend religious services and exercise in groups. Chambers worked in the garment factory.

On Thanksgiving night in 1998, seven Death Row inmates attempted a breakout. Six were captured, but murderer Martin Gurule managed to scale two 10-foot fences topped with razor wire. His escape from Death Row was the first in Texas in more than 60 years. His body was found a week later about a mile from the prison after he apparently drowned in a creek.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice moved Death Row to its present location in Livingston in 1999.

Situated east of Huntsville, the Polunsky Unit is a somber complex of putty-gray concrete buildings trimmed in blue on 470 fenced acres. Visitors are first stopped at a checkpoint outside the maximum-security facility. An armed guard inspects each incoming car, searching the trunk, under the hood, in the glove compartment.

Visitors may not bring tobacco products, cellphones, pagers or paper money inside the prison.

The Polunsky Unit is named after Allan Polunsky, a former chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice. (It was called the Terrell Unit, but it was renamed at the request of Charles T. Terrell, also a former TCJ board chairman, who expressed growing concerns about the reliability of capital murder convictions.)

At Polunsky, the 380 men on Death Row have less freedom and fewer privileges than they did at the Ellis Unit.

Each inmate is isolated and not permitted to work.

Chambers spends 23 hours a day in a cell equipped with a thin plastic-covered mattress, stainless steel sink/toilet and a small table built into one wall. His world has one small rectangular window.

He is allowed outside his cell only to shower and exercise in a yard or dayroom, or for visitation. Every time he leaves his cell his hands are cuffed behind his back and he is escorted by two correctional officers armed with batons and pepper spray. One officer holds the inmate's arm at all times. Death Row prisoners are locked down 24 hours a day on weekends.

They aren't allowed to watch television. Chambers has a radio.

He is permitted one five-minute telephone call every three months.

Meals are served through a slot in each cell. Breakfast arrives at 3 a.m. Lunch at about 9:30 a.m. Dinner at 3:30 p.m.

Chambers reads a lot, everything, he said, "except science fiction." He writes letters and plays chess. Chambers shouts out a move. In turn, another inmate housed nearby announces his countermove. Chambers positions the pieces on his chessboard.

He said he wins most of the time. "Not much competition."

He credits the virtue of patience for his ability to maintain his sanity while solitarily confined.

'Every day is a blessing'

The nation's longest-serving Death Row prisoner is Gary Alvord, a convicted murderer in Florida who was sentenced on April 9, 1974, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. His execution date has not been set.

From visitation cubicle No. 31, Chambers spoke in passing about his upbringing, recalling how he went to church as a kid. He said he never had been in serious trouble before that tragic night when he fell into company with Williams. "I didn't think something like that was going to happen," he said. He was young, yes. "But by the time you're 6 years old, you know right from wrong."

He takes responsibility for his crime. "Every day you know why you're here."

Attorney Wes Volberding of Tyler recently filed an appeal on Chambers' behalf with the U.S. Supreme Court. The appeal claims that Chambers' jurors were barred from hearing favorable evidence that might have persuaded them to vote for a life sentence. It also argues that executing the prisoner after he has spent so long on Death Row -- the result of litigation errors at his trials -- constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment," which is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.

Chambers stated his case simply.

"Nobody," he said, "should be locked up [on Death Row] for 31 years."

The clock, meanwhile, is ticking ...

Jim Willett, former warden of the Huntsville Unit, presided over 89 executions from 1999 to 2001. He stood at the head of the gurney when Robert Excell White, convicted of the execution-style slaying of three men, was put to death after 24 years on Death Row.

"When I think of people who were relaxed, the most at ease, I think of him," Willett said. "Those guys who have been [on Death Row] the longest seem to have come to grips with life and death. White was ready to get it over with."

Chambers, unlike others, doesn't view his execution as a form of freedom from incarceration. "Every day is a blessing," he said.

If he goes to the death chamber, he will do so, he said, believing he already has paid his debt during three decades in prison.

Texas spends $61.58 a day to house Chambers. It will cost $86.08 for the drugs to kill him.

Is he a religious man? Inmate No. 000539 considered the question and then reframed it in a way that went directly to the bottom line.

"You mean am I goin' to heaven or hell?"

Searching for the answer, he shook his head and then shook his head again.

"That's a tough one."

David Casstevens, 817- 390-7436

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