IN THE BASEMENT below me on this 25th of June, Morris Odell Mason's head and calf are being carefully shaved by men who will, with the same strange care, soon attach to the bare patches of skin the electrodes that will kill him. They give him a shirt and pants that have Velcro fasteners that will not conduct electricity or retain heat and burn the hands of the doctor who will check the silenced heart.
Dressed, he is moved to a "holding pen" and watches as guards pack the personal effects in his death row cell and take them away with a ritual air of finality.
Members of the same guard force are now winding the barred doors shut on the 300- odd men in this ancient cellhouse, the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond. We are locked in an hour early to make sure we can't interfere with the justice below. We have been on "modified lockdown" since authorities claimed to have heard rumors of a repeat of the bloody uprising that saw nine guards hospitalized on the day of the last electrocution.
With Mason now is Marie Deans of the Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons. She is his paralegal adviser, and about the closest thing to family that he has. She has told me that Mason has asked her to walk to the door of the death chamber with him. I know it is going to be rough on her, for she has told me just how childlike the man is: "It will be just like killing an 8-year-old."
I have learned a great deal about Mason from having done a profile of Marie and her work for a local paper last spring. He is mentally retarded (I.Q. of 66) and suffering from schizophrenia. He has been in and out of mental institutions, and is said by neighbors to have been a firestarter as a child.
Discharged from the service for mental incapacity, he was paroled by the Department of Corrections shortly before raping and killing two old women and sexually assaulting and maiming two young girls. He had called his parole officer days before the incidents and asked to be taken off the street and put into a halfway house. But Virginia had no halfway houses.
Mason pleaded guilty to all charges and proudly proclaimed himself to be "the killer of the Eastern Shore" upon conviction of the crimes. Although his crimes are thought to be reprehensible by the men here, his case has elicited rare sympathy "cause it's evident the man ain't responsible," as one prisoner put it. "He acts just like a big baby," a man who had done time with him at Bland Farm told me. "He couldn't stand to be by hisself. He would pay dudes with his VA (Veterans Administration) money just to keep him company, write letters for him and stuff."
It seems like Mason is still freehearted. He ordered four Big Macs, two large order of fries, two ice cream sundaes and a couple of large grape sodas as his last meal, and shared it all with two guards, perhaps the same ones who are by now strapping him into the old oaken chair, for it is 11 p.m., the appointed hour.
I turn on the news, and cynically wonder if the execution time was chosen to coincide with the late-night newscast. It is uncanny to watch the cameras and reporters outside the prison through the barred windows of the cell building and then to look at the reverse angle of the prison through their lenses. I listen to the hush of expectation in the cellhouse as the men await word via the press.
I know what is happening below, having once seen an old procedure manual for the death squad guards before they resumed using the chair three years ago. I glance at the bare light bulb in my cell to see if there is any discernible dimming as 2,300 volts of electricity are diverted from the dwellings of Richmonders and sent slamming into Mason's body for 55 seconds. There is a pause, and the buttons are simultaneously pressed again. There are two buttons, with only one hooked up to the juice, so that neither of the guards manning the switchbox will need to feel responsibility for the prisoner's death.
I turn back to my small black and white portable to exorcise this gruesome imagery with a montage of scenes from the three local stations.
There is an interview with Mason taped just after his conviction in 1978. He is shown grinning like an imbecile. "It don't worry me," he says of his impending doom. "Why should it worry me? I did wrong, right? So I get electrocuted."
Allyn Sielaff, the new head of the state's troubled Corrections Department, is shown telling a reporter how "carrying out the executions in the place that is also the home of people is difficult."
No kidding. This is the first indication that authorities are considering moving the chair to the remote Mecklenburg Correctional Center, where most of the death row population is held. I remember talking with Jerry Gorman of the Virginians Against the Death Penalty (VADP) about this.
"They ought to move it to the Capital steps," he had said bitterly, "or to Gov. Robb's living room, if they like it so much."
Scenes are shown from the prayer service help by the VADP at a nearby church, and of the hundred or so members gathered up the street from the prison in a candlelight vigil. On the other side of the street are redneck supporters of the death penalty, guzzling beer, hollering "It's Miller time!" and carrying "Fry the Coon" signs. There is a shot of an old woman dancing a jig in joy of the occasion.
Mason's lawyer, J. Lloyd Snook III, is shown, with Marie Deans beside him. He says that what was to happen to him never dawned on Mason, who had asked what he should wear to his funeral.
The prison's young operations officer and spokeswoman, Kathi King, at last comes out of the prison entrance and announces with perfect composure that the order of the court has been dutifully carried out "in the manner prescribed by law." He made no last statement, we are told, except to tell one of the witnesses, Mecklenburg's new warden, Toni Bair, that he would "go out strong just like I promised you." A minister likens this to a child's being anxious to please a parent by acting grown up. It is a sickening bit of irony. The poor fool actually looked upon his killers as his friends.
When the men on the other side of the cellhouse see the body borne up the basement steps by the six-man death squad, curses are hurled at the keepers in sporadic bursts thoughout the building. "Y'all the killers now, you freak m'f------s!" Reporters walk in front of the building after rushing to get pictures of the departing ambulance, and someone screams out at them, "Y'all just ought to drink his goddam blood!"
I now engage in something of a ritual of my own, one that began with Frank Coppola's execution in 1982. I stay up all night writing and in thought, perhaps as a way of paying homage to the dead, or as a way of relishing life, or maybe I am identifying with the 205 black men of the 240 who have died in the chair below.
If the rituals of death -- the funeral, the burial, the memorial -- are actually the means the living use to mark, measure and give meaning to life, then maybe I use these death sentences to impart some sort of meaning to my life sentence.
By and large, I am able to identify with many of the men who are executed. I know what it's like to get an overwhelming and unjust sentence -- life imprisonment for a $400 robbery in which no one was injured. I know what it feels like, as a black man, to be judged harshly by an all-white jury, what it's like to be convicted on the testimony of a codefendant who gets off with a suspended sentence and how it is running into roadblock after roadblock in trying to appeal without legal counsel. All of these things happen to most of the men on death row, but such is not the case with Mason.
Mason's case seems much simpler, but in many ways it is more complicated due to the political climate now existing in the state and the nation. The heartlessness of criminal justice in Virginia is now much entwined with the political repercussions from the mass escape last year of six death row prisoners from Mecklenburg.
Whereas someone of Mason's mental capacity might once have been spared the chair by the governor -- the law posits that an insane man should not be executed, for he cannot comprehend the finality of his judgment -- Mason didn't stand a chance with Robb still suffering from the Mecklenburg black eye. And while Mason might have won a reprieve from the Supreme Court under a recent decision that says that a defendant with psychological disorders has the right to the assistance of an independent psychiatrist in preparing his defense, unfortunately he pleaded guilty, thereby foregoing his right to appeal.
But, according to Marie, this case still points toward the poor quality of justice in Virginia. "Other states try you even if you plead guilty, just in case you are crazy," she says.
I have learned a great deal about death cases and the shortcomings of the Virginia criminal justice system from this South Carolina native, a former board member of Amnesty International who has counseled more than 200 death row prisoners across the country.
She claims that the lack of due process rights accorded indigent defendants in Virginia is worse than any other state in the nation, and she has a recent study by the Southern Poverty Law Center to back her up. "Virgina does not even recognize the right to appeal." She has told me, "and is the only state other than Mississippi that will not even appoint counsel for indigent men condemned to die to pursue their appeals."
I am writing of Marie now, I suppose, out of some sense of sympathy, for she is valiantly fighting a losing battle to save the lives of the remaining 28 men on Virginia's death row, and I know this latest loss has surely wounded her deeply. She will hold the only memorial service for Mason after his family "just sticks him in the ground." She has lost funding for her coalition, and may soon have to leave Virginia, unable to support her 11-year-old son here.
Marie became involved with prisoners' rights after her mother-in-law was murdered by an escaped convict, and she founded the nationwide Victims' Families for Reconciliation. Knowing her and of her work has helped me to foster a new attitude of forgivingness, where once there was but a subdued anger. Unfortunately, however, I know just how badly the legal cards are stacked against us, and the future does not look bright at all.
Marie feels that the use of the death penalty, and the judicial system in general, is heavily prejudiced against black and indigent defendents. She and attorney Snook have attacked the issue of racial bias head-on in the case of Willie Turner, who came within five hours of electrocution here on May 2. In a petition now before the Supreme Court, they give evidence of racism in Virginia, and assert that jurors should be questioned about racial prejudice whenever the victim is white and the defendant is black. The decision may be one of the most important to come out of the court's next session.
The perception of the entire criminal justice system as being racially unjust has a great deal to do with how the majority black population here feels about the death penalty, as well as our own incarceration. Fifty- nine percent of us are black in a state where black people constitute but 20 percent of the population. And, since most of the state's long-term offenders are imprisoned here, most of us have life sentences or more than 40 years. The hopelessness engendered by such sentencing makes the process of resocialization very difficult, and the anger and resentment sown by such a system is even more difficult to deal with.
I am affected by a deep sorrow when I think of just how little is being said about the issue of racial injustice in America's judicial system, how no one seems to question just why half of the record half-million prison and jail population is black and how no one seems to care about the deplorable conditions that exist in these institutions. I am further sadened when I see black leaders like Jesse Jackson flying around trying to free hostages and prisoners in the Middle East and Cuba when we have so many brothers locked up right here hundreds who will dead -- zapped, gassed or lethally injected -- before the nation realizes that this vortex of evil is poisoning our collective soul, dehumanizing keeper and kept, the executed and executioner alike.
It is nearly dawn now, and I wonder if there are any other men still up, unable to sleep. One man, a Vietnam combat veteran, told me that he can smell the death after each electrocution, and that he believes the spirits of slain men inhabit the dwellings wherein they meet their deaths. I suppose he may be up, looking out of his fourth-tier cell at the rolls of concertina razor wiring hanging from the ceiling, thinking of the 240 souls locked forever in this 80-year-old building.
As the sun begins to rise, a solitary bird begins chirping outside, its lonely, slow one- note complaint coming in clear through the open windows with the cool morning air. I cut out the light in my cell and watch the natural light grow, an orange glow seeping through the bars and grimy plexiglas, playing upon the riveted boiler-plate steel walls of my abode, mixing with and then overcoming and extinguishing the harsh glare of the street lamp Virginia Power erected for Linwood Briley's execution last fall.
Life imprisonment, it seems to me, is a sort of death sentence where one is simply buried alive in places like these, hope n resurrection through the distant dream of parole. But living above the electric chair has a way of giving new meaning to cliches about the joy of beholding the natural beauty of a sun rising.
If I am able to draw any meaning from the seemingly inconsequential death of that child-man last night, it would have to be that until we stop determining that some human beings are not worthy of life itself, we will continue to warehouse those we think unworthy of really living.