Monday, 12 November 2007

Texas Inmate Spared Hours Before Death

Kenneth Foster and his wife Tasha Narez-Foster touch each other through the glass at a Texas prison where Foster is being held. Foster's death sentence was commuted today by Texas Gov. Rick Perry. (Courtesy Tasha Narez-Foster)


Kenneth Foster, the only condemned Texas inmate to win a commutation from Gov. Rick Perry without the prodding of a court, believes other miracles may be headed his way.

"I don't feel I've come this far to stop here," Foster said from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice McConnell Unit, about 100 miles south of San Antonio. "I think something more is going to happen... I don't know where it's going to come from, but I do believe it's going to happen."

The 31-year-old Foster's new sentence, along with the time he's already been imprisoned, mean he won't be eligible for parole until 2036.

But at least he's alive.

He was in his cell on death row, expecting the parole board to answer his plea for mercy two days before his Aug. 30 scheduled execution for being present at a fatal shooting in San Antonio. Foster claimed he was in the car when a robbery turned deadly and had no idea his companions intended to kill anyone.

His death sentence brought protests _ and ultimately the state's decision to spare him _ because he was condemned under the state's law of parties, in which anyone involved in a crime is held equally responsible regardless of his or her role.

When his execution was to be held in 24 hours, prison officials and a squad of guards showed up outside his death row cell.

"They asked me to come out," he recalled. "I didn't know what was going on. As I was coming out, it was like a frenzy out there.

"I laid down on the ground. I told them I'm not going anywhere until you tell me where we're going. I was supposed to have my last visits the next day."

Concerned about protests, prison officials altered their usual schedule and planned to take him early to the death chamber in Huntsville, 45 miles away. He'd get his final visits with relatives there, they told him.

"I was pretty upset," Foster said. "I couldn't say I trusted their word. I was calling them terrorists. They were terrorizing me."

He was driven to the Huntsville Unit in a four-vehicle caravan.

"It's real dark," he said of the holding cell just outside the death chamber. "It's like a catacomb. It's like a dungeon, almost medieval-like."

The morning of his scheduled execution, he was permitted a visit with his Dutch wife and an attorney.

His father unexpectedly walked in just before noon.

"He goes: '6-1.' He was ecstatic, crying," Foster said. That was the parole board vote for commutation.

It "might be your lucky day," a prison official said.

Then the warden walked up, a cell phone in his ear, and told Foster his sentence was being commuted.

"I said: 'Right now?' He said: 'Right now.'

"I dropped and said a prayer," Foster said. "I was thinking about giving thanks."

He was whisked back to death row, where people offered congratulations.

"They got me out of there quick," he said. "And I was happy to go, too."

Foster and a companion, Mauriceo Brown, were tried for the Aug. 15, 1996, shooting of Michael LaHood on the driveway of LaHood's home in San Antonio. Foster insisted he was 80 feet away in a car, had no idea Brown was going to kill LaHood and didn't participate in the shooting.

A Bexar County jury convicted Foster and Brown of capital murder and sentenced both to death. Brown was executed last year.

Perry, a staunch capital punishment supporter, said the commutation was the "right and just decision" in this case. He said he was troubled that the men had been tried together.

More than 17,000 messages of support for Foster were sent to the governor and the parole board.

"How can 17,285 people be stupid?" Foster asked. "How could all those people be wrong?"

Twelve messages called for his execution, and LaHood's relatives accused Perry of bowing to political pressure.

He said he planned to write Perry and the parole board thank-you letters but his typewriter broke.

"I appreciate it," Foster said of Perry's decision. "He did a good thing."

Life is dramatically different. On death row, inmates are in near total isolation, even spending their daily hour of recreation by themselves. Meals are served in the cells.

Now he gets some meals in a prison day room.

"Even the food is better," he said, reveling over the butter on his breakfast tray. "I hadn't seen butter for years."

Despite the publicity over his case, he said only a few inmates and officers were aware of his past.

"I'm not so talkative," he said. "It's a positive thing because I like to stay out of the mix of things."

But when asked about his history, he'll volunteer: "I just got off death row."

"That's kind of a conversation starter," he laughed.

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