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Old 07-14-2003, 07:04 AM
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Default Lifelines to death row

Inmates find outlet in letters, visits from anti-death-penalty activists
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

Steve Ueckert / Chronicle
Doug Roberts says he has written thousands of letters to European anti-death penalty activists in an attempt to save his sanity since arriving on death row in 1997.

LIVINGSTON -- It is not really so hard to envision Hank Skinner where he is: locked inside a narrow interview booth, proclaiming his innocence through a thick sheet of plastic and a telephone line.

But Evelyne Giordani's presence at the prison outside of Livingston is more of a puzzle. What has drawn this Swiss banker to the edge of the Big Thicket, where the state of Texas ships a seemingly endless supply of people to live out their lives on death row?

"I think sometimes a cause chooses you, rather than you choosing a cause," Giordani says.

Giordani is an activist fighting against the death penalty. Skinner was sentenced to die for the murders of his girlfriend and her two mentally disabled sons.

How these two people came together, along with hundreds of other unlikely pairings, is a story of loneliness and friendship, of finding humanity where others see depravity.

Giordani, 46, is the CEO of Lifespark, a Swiss organization founded a decade ago to fight the death penalty. Officially banned last year by a coalition of 43 European nations, executions have not taken place in Western Europe since 1984.

Amnesty International says 112 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice, while 83 countries continue to use it.

Lifespark links its 250 members, most of them from Switzerland, with death row prisoners in Texas and across the nation, encouraging letters and visits; it also works with U.S. organizations such as the Texas Moratorium Network to abolish the death penalty here.

It is just one of a number of similar organizations, and letters are constantly in transit across the ocean.

"Just about everyone on death row writes somebody overseas," said Warden James Jones, who oversees about 450 death row prisoners in Texas.

European visitors are a common sight, making their way through the metal detectors and clanging lockdown gates that separate the free world from death row. "I guess they're opposed to the death penalty," Jones said. "We don't get into it with them."

Jones is cordial, noncommittal. Other people are less tactful, seeing these mail-order relationships as a meeting of prisoners out for anything they can get -- attention, money for their prison commissary accounts -- and gullible Europeans who romanticize those they are writing.

That happens, but Giordani said it's rare.

"When somebody calls me (about joining Lifespark), I tell them, `You're going to write to someone who has committed murder and something else, maybe rape.' There are no angels out there. We don't deny that."

As it turns out, Giordani believes Skinner is probably innocent.

He already had served two short stints in prison for stealing a car and for a parole violation when he was convicted in 1995 of bludgeoning Twila Busby, 40, to death and fatally stabbing Elwin Caler, 22, and Randy Busby, 20, in their home in the Panhandle town of Pampa.

Reviews of the case by a Northwestern University journalism class, as well as former Associated Press reporter Bryson Hull, who is now with the Reuters news service, found that physical evidence from the murder scene never underwent DNA testing, as well as other irregularities.

The case is being appealed, and no execution date has been set.

Whether Skinner, who is 41, is innocent or guilty has little to do with Giordani's commitment.

Like many who join this cause, she first was active in Amnesty International. She joined Lifespark eight years ago and was matched with Eddie Johnson, convicted in the 1987 abduction and murder of three people, including a 10-year-old, in Port Aransas.

"As a first correspondence, it was perfect," she said. "It was very human."

She visited twice before Johnson was executed in June 1997, including a final visit 10 days before his death.

Two European pen pals attended the execution, while Giordani marked it with friends in a national park in Australia.

"We all sat in silence, just listening to the very much alive nature surrounding us," she recalled.

She later helped to scatter his ashes on a Swiss mountaintop, a bittersweet memory for those who had come to know him. "I don't miss him, but I certainly owe him quite a number of interesting discussions and moments that two human beings can share," she said. "I think my life is a bit richer from the fact of having known Eddie."

Skinner knew Johnson on death row and, after Johnson's execution, began writing Giordani himself. (Giordani also writes to Robin Lee Row, a woman on Idaho's death row.)

Skinner writes two people from other anti-death-penalty organizations, but said he concentrates on writing to activist groups about prison conditions.

"We don't have anything to offer anybody," he said. "We're just waiting to die."

Giordani said about 15 percent of Lifespark members visit the inmates with whom they correspond; a few have witnessed the executions that ended their fledgling friendships.

"We tell people right from the beginning, you may be writing someone for 10 years, and to achieve what? The death of a person," she said.

Giordani is a sophisticated, well-traveled woman who spent much of her 20s working in the United States. But for most Lifespark members, being in a foreign country, face to face with the death penalty, can be daunting.

• • • • •
"Just a while ago George called me to the ventilation. ... the Supreme Court has now denied his appeal. The State will now proceed with his execution. I feel sick ... he's over there packing his property now. I can hear him. I really don't feel right. What can I tell him, not much I'm sure."

Rogelio Cannady
writing to his pen pal about the inmate in the next cell on death row.

• More letter excerpts
• • • • •
Acknowledging that, Giordani organized a group trip to Livingston in May; they arrived to find a number of other Europeans already in town.

People traveling more than 300 miles are allowed a four-hour visit with death row inmates; prisoners with the best disciplinary records are allowed a four-hour visit on two consecutive days. By overlapping the end of May and beginning of June, some received four visits.

Skinner's disciplinary record has not been the best, and Giordani discovered that she could not see him; a French pen pal was also in town, and Skinner wasn't allowed a visit from a second person.

So Giordani became coordinator and chauffeur, driving first-time visitors in a rented Chevrolet van past Livingston's fast-food restaurants and empty storefronts on their way to the prison.

Texas' death row is at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Polunsky Unit, less than five miles from Livingston, which is home to 2,887 inmates, including about 450 sentenced to death.

The compound of squat, two-story buildings is surrounded by chain-link fence and row upon row of coiled razor wire. Inside, death row inmates are confined to 6-by-10-foot cells, although most are allowed one hour of recreation a day, alone, inside a larger enclosure.

Visitors are escorted to an open room divided by cubicles, with the inmates locked into a space scarcely larger than 4 square feet, communicating through a telephone handset.

"In four hours, you go through all the human emotions," Giordani said. "You cry. You laugh. Every time I recall that first visit (with Eddie Johnson), my legs start shaking with emotion."

The inevitable humanity
Letters are written and received, visits made, lives changed.

"I cannot know that had I met Doug in a normal situation, at a party, I would have developed a friendship with him," said Ralph Schlosser, a lawyer from Lausanne, Switzerland, who began writing Douglas Roberts several years ago. "But this is a very precious human being."

Schlosser, 37, never intended to feel that way.

"I didn't want to get too much involved in a friendship," he said.

Roberts, 41, was sentenced to death for the 1996 stabbing death of Jerry Velez during a carjacking in Kendall County. He later turned himself in to police.

Since arriving on death row, he has written thousands of letters. "You can sit inside these walls and go insane, or you can get outside" through the mail, he said.

Roberts, who grew up in Houston, outlined his crime in an early letter to Schlosser. "Killing a man is nothing to be proud of," he said. "I always admitted I was guilty. Maybe not, in my mind, guilty of capital murder, but ... "

His case is on appeal.

In Switzerland, Schlosser said, Roberts likely would have been sentenced to 10 years in prison, to be served in far more comfortable conditions.

"In Swiss prisons, your cell is a cell," he said. "But you have television. You have a bed. You have work. You can study."

But then, there is no death row in Switzerland. Most Texas prisoners also have jobs, as well as other privileges. Even death row prisoners had more privileges when they were housed at the Ellis Unit near Huntsville. (They were moved to the more restrictive Polunsky Unit in 1999, shortly after seven death row inmates tried to escape from the Ellis Unit. None made it off prison grounds.)

Gradually, Schlosser realized his self-protective instincts had failed. He cared about Roberts, whether they ever met or not.

He came to Texas in May.

"The biggest difference between people like us (in Lifespark) and people who are in favor of the death penalty, they consider these people as monsters," Schlosser said later. "We consider them as human beings."

Texans' views
The death penalty is allowed by 38 states and the federal government, but nowhere is it used more frequently than in Texas.

More than 300 people have been executed here since 1982, and more prisoners arrive on death row almost every month.

Most Texans -- 76 percent, according to a Scripps Howard Texas Poll earlier this year -- support the death penalty. The same poll found that 69 percent believe the system has executed an innocent person.

Lifespark members realize they may appear arrogant in protesting the U.S. justice system.

"We are not better than America," Schlosser said. "We feel close to America. And because we feel close to America, we are shocked that this can happen."

Lifespark recently donated $500 to a Florida group for a mailing suggesting a moratorium on the death penalty as a money-saving measure. It also has given money to Jeanette Popp, chair of the Texas Moratorium Network.

Popp joined the anti-death-penalty movement after two men arrested for the 1988 rape and murder of her daughter, Nancy DePriest, were found to have been wrongly convicted.

"I believe the majority of people in (prison) belong here," she said. "Just like the man that killed my daughter, he deserves punishment. But he doesn't deserve death. It's inhumane. It's cruel. And you can't take it back."

Popp had written to Giordani, but they didn't meet until May, when Popp drove from her home near Fort Worth to meet Lifespark members in Livingston.

Outsiders or not, she welcomes their help.

"This is a great big state, and there aren't enough of us," she said.

Confronting justice
After leaving the prison, Giordani and her companions headed west to Lake Livingston State Park, emotion washing over them as they relaxed in the shade of loblolly pine and water oak.

Several had met Giordani before the trip, but they were strangers to one another, connected only by their belief in this cause.

They were both saddened and energized by their prison visits, stunned to find death row a world so apart that human touch is restricted to the fastening and unfastening of handcuffs, or the occasional visit to the prison medical clinic.

"I'm surprised by their strength," Schlosser said. "I don't know where they get it."

In Livingston, eating at Taco Bell, dashing to Wal-Mart to pick up toiletries, they made no effort to convert local residents.

"The reality is, most people look at the Lifesparkers and other people in the movement as a bunch of lonely hearts, looking for adventure. Extremely naive and gullible," said Dennis Longmire, a professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville.

But a few are intrigued, even sympathetic.

"They're very nice people," said Cheryl Flannery, a desk clerk at the Park Inn International, a motel on U.S. 59 where many of the visitors stay.

Flannery knows people who work at several area prisons -- the Polunsky Unit alone employs 796 people -- but she also is familiar with the flip side: her brother-in-law served a stint in prison, although she has never known anyone on death row.

Still, she can imagine the experience. "I just thank God there is someone who can help them.

"They have open minds, a big heart, for sure."

Elsewhere in town, people may note their foreign accents but seldom ask questions.

"Either they don't want to talk about it, or they think we're crazy," Giordani said. "Ladies looking for a man."

A few women are, she admitted, and some inmates seek young women as pen pals and send explicitly sexual letters. She tells the women to participate only if they are comfortable and offers to write the inmates an admonishing letter if they are not.

Longmire, a longtime opponent of the death penalty, suggested another reason local residents avoid the European visitors.

People who work in the prison system "resent the visits that Lifespark and these other groups make," he said. "They need extended visits. They aren't aware of all the recent rule changes. But the core resentment is, they have to see these people that they're in charge of controlling as humans. They aren't chattel. They aren't cows and hogs. They are men (and women)."

Longmire, who holds a candlelight vigil during every execution, was invited three years ago by Lifespark and other organizations on a speaking tour of Switzerland.

Americans aren't out for vengeance, he told audiences who asked how the United States can act as an arbiter of human rights while imposing the death penalty. "We genuinely are about trying to seek a sense of justice. I told people I have a hopeful imagination that something is going to happen, and it's going to happen quickly," he said.

Few other people are so optimistic. Even members of Lifespark predict that change, if it comes, will happen one person at a time.

Instead, they concentrate on improving lives they cannot save.

"I was overwhelmed with joy, just happy to see her," Rogelio Cannady said of his most recent visit with Isabelle Deléze, the Swiss woman he has written for five years.

Cannady, 31, was already serving a life sentence when he was accused of killing his cellmate in 1993. He was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 1997.

He began writing Deléze soon after arriving on death row.

"I had more or less lost a sense of who I really was," he said during an interview last month. "I was becoming institutionalized."

Deléze wrote to Cannady's siblings, nudging them into more regular contact with him. But ultimately he remains alone, in prison, facing death.

"It does get to you," he said. "When my mom was alive, my family would visit. And they would be so close."

So close but separated by plastic, unable to touch, unable even to hear one another's voices without the telephone handset.

"To be kept apart from touch, it's unnatural," Cannady said.

No human touch, no joy.

"Now, nobody's glad to see Hank," Skinner said of his circumstances.

That's not strictly true, however. Giordani is glad to see him, when she can, and to get his letters.

"I can't imagine it's not very stressful for her to write to me, but a person needs a pen pal in here," Skinner said.

"Evelyne is like a piece of the world."

The full article with pictures and statistics can be viewed online at this link:
When Jesus said "Love Your Enemies" I think He meant not to kill them
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