Monday, 19 February 2007

Still an eye for an eye in Texas

Still an eye for an eye in Texas

Mary Vallis in Livingston, Tex., National Post
Published: Monday, February 19, 2007

DEAD MAN WAITING: Ronald Chambers, who killed a man in 1975, is the longest-serving inmate in Texas facing death. "Where there's life, there's hope," he says.

Jessica Rinaldi, Reuters

Americans have a complex relationship with the death penalty, which is rooted in their national identity and yet which is becoming increasingly difficult to support. In the second of a three-part series, Mary Vallis examines what the changing attitude toward capital punishment means for those whose lives hang in the balance.

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Ronald Curtis Chambers has been on death row longer than I have been alive. For the past 31 years, he has lived in a small cell on death row. Most days, he spends 22 hours inside it. He is the longest-serving inmate in Texas facing death. When he was convicted of murder in 1975, Gerald Ford was president. The Vietnam War was ending. Tiger Woods had just been born. The year's top single was Love Will Keep Us Together by The Captain and Tennille. Chambers was just 20 years old when he was convicted. He is now 52. He has spent more time on death row than he did in the outside world. He has become a grandfather behind bars and watched his 18- year-old grandson grow up.

He was supposed to die by lethal injection on Jan. 25. Death came so close that he had ordered his last meal -- sirloin steak, fried shrimp and German chocolate cake. But four days before his execution date, Chambers was granted a stay of execution on a legal technicality.

On death row, they call Chambers "Old School." He says he's just trying to get older. But he is certain he will be executed, someday.

"Ma'am, we're talking Texas. We're talking Texas," Chambers said in an interview, speaking by telephone from behind a soundproof glass barrier. "I think the whole world can have a moratorium, and Texas would be the only one that's fighting against it."

Texas is the state most actively killing its prisoners. More than 380 people have been executed in the state since 1976 (Virginia, in second place, has killed fewer than 100 prisoners in the same time period). And while the number of executions in the United States declined between 2005 and 2006 (60 and 53 deaths respectively), the number of executions in Texas jumped 26%.

Nearly half of all executions in the United States last year took place in Texas. Lieutenant-Governor David Dewhurst, a Republican, now wants to extend the death penalty to repeat sex offenders who prey on children.

"There is a strong belief among Texas residents in favour of the death penalty that punishment should be harsh and swift," said James Volberding, Chambers' lawyer.

"It's just an attitude, I suppose, which has developed over 150 years. Texas is quite conservative, quite independent and expects justice quickly."

In Texas, Chambers' case is an aberration. Most prisoners on Texas Death Row are there for 10 years before they are executed. Chambers has been on death row so long that he was originally sentenced to die by the electric chair, a method the state no longer uses (it now uses lethal injection).

He does not claim innocence. Chambers has been convicted three times in the 1975murder of a young man abducted outside a Dallas nightclub, and each time, sentenced to death. His lawyers have simply filed appeals and defended his right to live whenever possible.

No new date has been set for his execution.

There are nearly 400 men on death row in the state. Since 1999, they have all lived in the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, a series of low, concrete buildings surrounded by fences and razor wire about 70 kilometres east of the execution chamber in Huntsville. The state's "least-loved citizens," as the local prison museum refers to them, live in individual cells measuring 60 square feet, roughly the same size as four bathroom stalls.

Every Wednesday is media day. One by one, prisoners are led to the visitors' centre in handcuffs. Chambers is the last to emerge. He is locked into a small cage-like booth for the interview, then pushes his hands through a narrow slot in the door so a guard can remove his cuffs.

He rubs his wrists, smiles broadly and pushes his silver glasses up on his nose. For him, sitting for an interview is a treat. It is extra time out of his cell.

This was a good day for another reason -- Chambers was supposed to die the next day. His most recent reprieve was granted by the United States' highest court. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia ordered that Chambers should live while the court deliberates on three death penalty appeals in Texas, in which there are questions about whether jurors were properly instructed about what factors to consider when sentencing inmates to death. Mr. Volberding argued in court documents that the same issues are at play in his case.

He also argued that executing Chambers after three decades on death row might qualify as cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Chambers passes the days by playing chess with other death row inmates he cannot see. He makes up songs. He reads, when he has books. (Because he expected to die, he has no new reading material at the moment.)

He escapes into pictures. Pen pals mail him pictures that he stores in a photo album. His favourite is of a little blond girl wearing a blue coat, staring at a peacock with her back to the camera. The peacock, Chambers says, is bigger than the little girl. He likes to imagine what she's thinking. Every time he looks at it, he imagines something different.

So much time has passed since Chambers was first sentenced to death that he questions whether he would know how to deposit money in a bank machine, or put gas in a car. (In his day, the gas tank was under the licence plate. He fears he would not be able to find it now.)

He boggles over people's use of computers. He saw his first laptop a few weeks ago, during a visit from his lawyer. He does not have a television -- he last watched one during a hospital visit years ago, but the nurses kept making him change from football to soap operas. He listens to the radio.

All of the friends Chambers originally knew on death row are now gone. When the rules were not so strict, each inmate was allowed to have a last visit with the other men on death row before his execution. Chambers eventually stopped going. It was simply too much.

He tries to remain an optimist, saying there is someone somewhere who is worse off than him. One thing Chambers does not do, he says into the telephone, is contemplate suicide. He calls himself a survivor.

"We're all survivors," he says, gesturing to the other inmates using telephones to talk to reporters.

But Janna McMahan does not want Chambers to survive. She wants him to die. And for her, nothing else will suffice.

Ms. McMahan's brother, Mike, was the 22-year-old man Chambers killed the night of April 10, 1975. At the time, Chambers was a young man himself, and the father of a new baby girl. Mr. Mc- Mahan was a Texas Tech student leaving a Dallas nightclub with a friend, Deia Sutton.

Chambers and Clarence Ray Williams abducted the pair at gunpoint, forced them into Mr. McMahan's car and ordered them to drive to a nearby levee along Trinity River.

They robbed the couple, shot them both and took off up a hill.

According to evidence presented at Chambers' third trial in 1992, Mr. McMahan then called out to Ms. Sutton to ask if she was all right, the men overheard him and returned.

Ms. Sutton, who survived the attack, heard Chambers say, 'They gotta be dead. I shot 'em in the head."

Williams dragged Ms. Sutton to the river and tried to choke and drown her. (She survived the attack and still has a bullet lodged in her head.)

Chambers beat Mr. McMahan repeatedly with the shotgun. He died.

At the time of her brother's death, Ms. McMahan was 17 years old and a high school senior. Williams pleaded guilty and is serving two life sentences.

"Do I feel sorry for him for being on death row? Absolutely not," Ms. McMahan said from Washington state, where she works as a security trainer at a nuclear plant.

"If I think about his family, I'm sure if he's put to death, they're going to hurt just as much as we did. But he's the one that made that choice to commit that crime."

What is cruel and unusual, Ms. McMahan says, is to keep her family waiting for justice this long. The death penalty, she says, is not a deterrent -- it is a just punishment for the crime. An eye for an eye.

"Do you think he thought about the pain and the hell he's put us through when he was beating Mike? He went off and played dominoes afterwards," Ms. McMahan said.

Back in Texas, Chambers does not want to get off the telephone in the interview booth -- it means going back to his cell.

Chambers refuses to say anything about his victim's family, fearing it would be taken the wrong way. Instead, he waxes philosophically about the death penalty.

"The death penalty is supposed to be an impact experience, but don't it lose the impact after 30-something years?" he asks.

He says he does as much good as he can for the world from inside his small cell.

He is burdened with the problems of his pen pals, who write down secrets they cannot tell their boyfriends or husbands. ("I am loaded with patience," Chambers explains on a German Web site in an appeal for letters.)

And he writes to schoolchildren, usually from England, who write for advice on "what not to do."

"A person that actually went through those bad experiences, they'll listen to more," he says.

He tells the students to slow down, smell the coffee and listen to their parents.

"They say we're hopeless," Chambers says.

"Where there's life, there's hope."

- Tomorrow: The final instalment of the series returns to New Jersey, the state on the brink of abolishing the death penalty, where a Maryland man who spent nine years in prison before he was cleared by DNA evidence embodies a key argument in the case against capital punishment.


For links to the New Jersey death penalty commission and an audio file of reporter Mary Vallis recounting the details of interviewing a convict on death row, visit

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