There’s a place in our society that holds a different breed of men. They are prisoners, true; but they are not the normal breed of arsonist, rapist, thief, junkie, or killer. These are men (statistically almost exclusively men) who have not only been determined to have killed with premeditation and received the charge of “Murder One,” but they also failed the HAC test, which allows the judge to sentence them to death. In other words, their crimes are considered to be somehow worse than “ordinary” murder: these transgressions are Heinous, Atrocious or Cruel (HAC).
This place is Death Row, and among such places, the Union Correctional Institution in Florida holds a particularly dastardly reputation—as do the men who inhabit the steel-and-concrete cages.
These are also the men with whom I have been corresponding—my “pen-pals,” if you will—for the last three years.
I wrote to my first Death Row inmate because I was looking for an interesting story. I chose to contact John Couey because of the infamy of his crime and how he was publicly reviled as a “devil.” His image—a small, shrunken looking fellow who looked older than his forty-or-so years—was splashed across the local and national newspapers after his arrest. In those photographs, Couey seemed to be far from the brutal looking Death Row type I had always imagined inhabited those 6-by-9 cells. He was, however, a fascinating subject for a book: deep, twisted, complex, and conflicted. So, I sent off a short letter.
Ironically, Couey responded by telling me how rude I was for writing to him and not introducing myself properly. How did he know who I was? How did he know if I was connected with some police department?
I snickered as I thought of getting a lesson in etiquette from this man. After all, he was the one who walked into the trailer of nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford, put his hand over her mouth, took her back to his trailer, and kept her in his closet for three days. She stayed in that darkened vestibule for the better part of 72 hours, peeing in a bottle and eating half of Couey’s fast-food meals. At night he would take her out and molest her, finally “consummating” the ordeal just before he put her into two plastic garbage bags and buried her alive beside his trailer. When the police finally discovered her body, Jessica was clutching her favorite stuffed blue dolphin; two fingers had clawed through the plastic of the garbage bags in an attempt to find a hole for air.
But this guy was lecturing me on manners.
Couey died of supposedly natural causes (which is another story for another time) before I could get his whole story. But I did end up with new pen-pals, thanks to the connection I made with a guy I call the Mayor of Death Row, Richard Shere.
Shere led me to meet Robert “Saint” Bailey, a guy who was down on his luck and who had no support from the outside. Shere assured me Bailey had a story to tell. After a life of felony robberies, drug dealing, and “gang-banging” for the Simon City Royals gang, Bailey ended up in Panama City Beach, Florida, on Easter Sunday. He claimed he had “given up on life itself” and did not care about “doing good.” So when the police officer who had pulled him over approached his car, Bailey told his passenger he was going to “pop this cop.” And he did, killing the officer. So, “Saint” was sent to Death Row.
Loran Cole was the next guy I met. Cole’s life read like a true horror show, with a manuscript written by the Devil himself. In the past detailed by his letters, there were beatings, rapes, sodomy, drunkenness, debauchery, and crime—not to mention the familial instability that seems to be the trademark of the burgeoning killer. After this childhood and adolescence of unthinkable torment, Cole wandered the country doing what he claims were “property crimes” and some random violence—as well as a ton of drugs. Eventually, Fate led Cole and his accomplice to the Ocala National Forest in northern Florida where the two partied with the Rainbow Family, a throwback Hippie group that holds mini-Woodstock festivals once a year. During the intoxicated reveries, Cole and his accomplice ran into the niece and nephew of Senator John Edwards and—to be brief—killed the nephew and raped the niece. That got him a ticket to the Union Correctional Institution.
John Marquard claimed to be a life-long Hedge-witch, which is a tradition that goes back to the ancient Celtic traditions of Ireland and Scotland. Marquard’s letters would be filled with rants against the Catholic Church due to all the years of persecution and slaughter of his Pagan people, and they were packed with intricate numerological calculations and ruminations on the movements of the stars. He showed me magical spells and suggested herbs and tinctures made from roots for what ailed me. He discussed his childhood home adorned with pentagrams, altars, cauldrons, and wands. Of course, his magic failed him the night he ended up with his hands around the throat of a mentally challenged girl on the banks of the Saint John’s River. As the life withered in her body, Marquard stabbed her, which made the crime “heinous” and so he was sent to Death Row.
I still send letters to Death Row; I still get letters back. Cole and Marquard are “death eligible,” meaning that the governor can sign off on their death warrant any day. Marquard talks about how the list gets shorter every time someone goes to the lethal injection chamber: his name climbs up one notch. Cole keeps a cooler demeanor, saying that he’s just “doing a day.” Bailey’s fight has just begun. He explodes in rage once in a while and gets thrown into isolation—or “jail” as the prisoners put it. The Mayor still writes to me, letting me know how everyone is doing. People see me reading these letters from Death Row and they ask how I got in touch with them and I just say, “I wrote a letter.” They ask me why I keep in touch and I say, “It’s fascinating.” That’s all. It’s just fascinating.
Chris Dahl has this weird habit of writing to people on Death Row and finding out about their lives. He also has a morose interest in crime. These interests have resulted in a series of books entitled Death Row Stories. Check out the product of his macabre pursuits at www.death-row-stories.com and get some free chapters . . . if you dare.