This is California’s other Death Row, just a steel cage with only nine cells and a narrow cement walkway in front known as “The Freeway.” This is the Death Row for women, and the only inmate here is Maureen McDermott.
The execution of Robert Alton Harris would be as disturbing to McDermott as to the 329 condemned male inmates at San Quentin. But while the men on Death Row can talk among themselves, McDermott must ponder her fate in isolation.
Although McDermott said she does not fear death, she fears the spectacle at an execution. Dying while surrounded by dozens of gaping witnesses, she said, “is barbaric.”
“The whole circus atmosphere surrounding an execution is disgusting and does bother me,” she said. “I can’t think of anything sicker than people wanting to see life leave another human being.”
McDermott, 44, was convicted two years ago of hiring a co-worker to murder her roommate to collect on a $100,000 mortgage insurance policy.
“There’s a great sadness in your heart knowing you’re going to die and going to leave the people you love,” said McDermott. “But I’m not afraid to die. If they want to murder me, let them murder me. My life is ruined anyway.”
There are worse fates than the gas chamber, said McDermott, a former registered nurse at County-USC Medical Center. She takes a slow drag from her cigarette and surveys the prison visiting room.
“What kind of life is this? Waking up every morning to a cement wall is an unbearable future. I sometimes think the gas chamber is better than staring at these walls for the rest of my life.”
After her conviction in Van Nuys Superior Court, she became the first woman on Death Row in California in 15 years. Because of her unique status, McDermott attained a certain notoriety, even among the other inmates, who occasionally taunted her.
“Some would yell at me: ‘You’re going to fry!’ Or they’d confuse me with other prisoners and call me a serial killer. Or they’d accuse me of killing babies or going around with some guy chopping the heads off prostitutes.”
She lights another cigarette and rolls her eyes. “It didn’t bother me that much because,” she said wryly, “you have to consider the source.”
The McDermott case is a classic death penalty case, Los Angeles County prosecutor Katherine Mader said, because “if there ever was a heinous, calculated, coldblooded killing, this was it.”
McDermott was convicted of hiring a hospital orderly to kill her male roommate so she could collect $100,000 in insurance on the Van Nuys home they co-owned. The orderly testified at the trial that McDermott wanted him to mutilate the roommate, who was gay, in the hopes that police would wrongly conclude it was a crime of passion.
The roommate escaped after one attack, but a month later in 1985 the orderly and his accomplices stabbed the roommate 44 times and cut off his penis.
While McDermott is on Death Row, the orderly received life without possibility of parole and his accomplices served no time in prison. The orderly was promised that prosecutors would not seek the death penalty against him if he testified. The accomplices were promised immunity in exchange for testifying against McDermott.
Mader said this was necessary to convict McDermott. And without McDermott, she said, there would not have been a crime. But McDermott--who is appealing her conviction--said the sentencing was “hypocritical.”
“The death penalty is a joke,” she said. “Two people involved in the murder . . . are walking the streets right now. People talk about the death penalty as being just, but how is this just? Shouldn’t everyone pay the same price? People in California want to kill people who murder, yet they set murderers free.”
McDermott, dressed in a loose-fitting blue frock and wearing a scapular around her neck with pictures of saints, had no previous criminal record and was a skilled and highly regarded nurse, co-workers testified. She is articulate, outspoken and interjected sly asides and acerbic retorts.
McDermott is housed in the prison’s gray, two-story 270 building, a maximum-security facility for recalcitrant inmates. Nine of the 6-by-11-foot cells on the ground floor are caged off and designated as Death Row. She spends her days wandering The Freeway, using exercise equipment and organizing a small library for inmates.
If McDermott is executed, she will be transported to San Quentin by bus and placed in a holding cell before her walk to the gas chamber.
“If the time does come for me,” said McDermott, “I just hope I’ll be able to hold my head up.”