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Slim Smith: Death: The second harshest penalty

 

Slim Smith

 

Tuesday, I made the drive to Parchman to report on the execution of Willie Jerome Manning, who was convicted in 1994 of the 1992 murder of a pair of Mississippi State students in Starkville. 

 

About a half-hour after I arrived, the word came that the state's Supreme Court had issued a stay of execution, and six hours of my day was devoted to a story I would not write. 

 

I am not complaining. First, it would be a pretty sad commentary on my humanity to express disappointment over not having the opportunity to watch someone die. 

 

Second, I was able to leave when I wanted. As you might recall, the last time I went to a prison they kept me. 

 

It has been almost six years since I walked out of Florence West State Prison in Florence, Ariz. While Tuesday's visit was a different place, a different time, it did evoke memories of my own prison experience and my reflections on death row and an execution that took place at Florence while I was an inmate. 

 

The Arizona State Prison Complex at Florence is made up of six facilities and nine housing units. 

 

I was placed at Florence West, a 500-man unit reserved for low-risk offenders, mainly people who were serving time for alcohol and drug-related offenses. 

 

Because of our minimum-security status, most of the prisoners at Florence West were allowed to have jobs. I was particularly fortunate in my job assignment in that I was a landscaper, a 12-cents-per-hour job that consisted primarily of raking sand and pea gravel around the endless expanse of Arizona desert where the prison is located.  

 

The real benefit of my job was that I wasn't just a landscaper, I was assigned to an "outside job," the most coveted of all jobs. Each morning at 7, I was herded onto a bus with the other outside workers and dropped off at the prison's administrative offices, where I spent the next eight hours dragging a rake around the perimeter of the office complex. 

 

It was dull, hot work. It was also the best part of my day because, for eight hours, I had the same kind of view of the world that a free man has -- no razor wire to obstruct my view. 

 

It was far different than the miserable month I had spent in the county jail awaiting sentencing. There, we were never allowed out of our dreary cell block, so we took turns staring out a tiny window. It recalled to mind a stanza from Oscar Wilde's' "Ballad of Reading Gaol:" 

 

'I never saw sad men who looked, 

 

With such a wistful eye, 

 

Upon that little tent of blue 

 

We prisoners call the sky, 

 

And every careless cloud that passed 

 

In happy freedom by.' 

 

So, yes, I was pretty happy to be out there with the whole Arizona sky to look at, none of it obscured by razor wire. 

 

After my first day on the job, I ran into a guy in my pod who also had just returned from his first day at his "outside" job. The bus didn't drop him off with a rake, though: It deposited him at the SMU (Special Management Unit), which was also the home of Arizona's Death Row. 

 

His job was to sweep and mop the corridor that held 127 death row prisoners. He also helped detention officers distribute meals to the condemned men. 

 

He was provided with something akin to a hazmat suit and a helmet with a plastic "spit shield." I could understand the necessity for those items as he told me about his first day on the job. Inmates threw feces or cups of urine at him as he passed through the corridor. Some screamed profanities or just screamed unintelligibly -- like animals. Several men exposed themselves, one began to sexually gratify himself as my pod mate mopped his way past his cell. 

 

"Animals," he said. "That's all they are now -- wild, crazy animals." 

 

A few weeks later, when an announcement came over the loudspeaker one Monday evening that there would be no outside work the next day, I was disappointed but my pod mate was delighted. 

 

The entire prison complex was on lockdown that Tuesday, May 22, the day the state of Arizona executed its sentence on Robert Charles Comer. Comer had spent 19 years on Death Row. Asked if he had any final words, Comer did not say anything about being sorry for his crimes (He had killed one man and kidnapped and repeatedly raped a woman on the same night.) or how he felt about what was happening to him. He said just two words: "Go Raiders." 

 

I didn't learn of Comer's last words until much later, but I wasn't surprised, really. Any life that, when consummated, could be reduced to a vacuous "Go Raiders," is one that is truly pointless, useless, wasted. Death Row had left Robert Comer empty, unable to feel or think or connect with the world in any meaningful way. He was dead long before they put him on that gurney and the chemicals began coursing through his veins. 

 

The worst death I can imagine is a long life on Death Row. 

 

 

 

 

Slim Smith is managing editor of The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

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