COLUMN ONE : A Grim Life on Military Death Row : As the armed forces prepare to resume executions, six men await their fate at Ft. Leavenworth. The fact that only one is white renews debate over the question of equal justice.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the far-flung Kansas prairie, in the basement of a prison built by prisoners, six members of the United States Armed Forces await death.

More than 30 years have passed since the last soldier was hanged here and the old wooden gallows was taken down, boxed up, removed from memory. Today, a new Death Row holds three soldiers, two Marines and an airman. Down the hall looms a lethal-injection chamber designed to dispatch these men with the push of a needle.

Amid rising fear of crime, state governments have been stepping up the pace of executions, and now the military also is preparing to resume capital punishment. By year's end, several of the new inmates will have exhausted their appeals before military tribunals. Their death warrants will be readied for the President's signature.

While the method will be new, in one important respect military executions will resume as if time had not passed. In the 1950s, black soldiers routinely were hanged while whites were spared. Five of the six condemned men at Leavenworth are minorities. Two black Marines are soon to arrive, while a white soldier in a separate case earlier had his sentence commuted to life and was taken off Death Row.

Each time an African American was sent to Death Row, white victims were involved. For whatever reason, blacks convicted of killing blacks received life terms.

The issue of race resonates in civilian death penalty cases as well. In 1990, the government General Accounting Office survey found a "pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities" in death sentences across the nation. Last year, a House Judiciary subcommittee determined that "racial prejudice was a determining factor" in the convictions of many condemned inmates. House and Senate conferees are hotly debating a provision of the pending crime bill that would permit appeals of death sentences based on apparent racial disparities in imposing the penalty.

The military, however, may bear a particular burden of proof on the question of equal justice. Among the first American public institutions to be integrated, it also has executed many more blacks than whites. Between the passage of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1950 and the suspension of military executions in 1961, eight of the nine soldiers put to death were black; one was white. (Before the uniform code, each service had its own court-martial policy that included capital punishment.)

Half of prisoners awaiting execution in the United States are white. In Leavenworth's small sample, it is only one of six. Of all active-duty military personnel, 19.6% are African American; 5.3% are Latino and 4.7% represent other minorities. The military began integration in the early 1950s.

"This is the way the death penalty in the military has historically been played out," complained Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center. "When the victim is white there seems to be more sympathy . . . and when the defendant is black, the punishment tends to be greater."

David M. Brahms, a white, retired brigadier general who was the highest military attorney in the Marine Corps when he retired in 1988, said that black defendants often feel they are treated unfairly. He said the base commander most often will be white and court-martial juries, composed of officers, are likely to be all white.

If you are a black defendant, "you don't come away with the sense that these people understand you," he said. "You don't feel that these people appreciate your background, where you came from."

Proponents of the death penalty, who noted that President Ronald Reagan reinstated it in the military in 1984 only for cases with special circumstances, said it is applied fairly and uniformly.

"The military system is one where the punishments are generally harsher than they are in civilian life, anyway," said Paul Kamenar, executive legal director of the Washington Legal Foundation, a nonprofit public interest law and policy center.

"The death penalty in the military is rarely used, but the fact that it is there does act as a deterrent. Those in the military know that it is an available punishment."

Col. Gregory A. Lowe, commandant at the Leavenworth prison, said it would be wrong to assume that military justice is racist. Each court-martial has its own individual components, he said, adding that no two crimes are exactly alike.

"I don't know all the details of their cases," he said. "But I don't have any racial quotas."

"I have only one color of inmate," he added. "They're all generic."

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None of the men on Ft. Leavenworth's Death Row is a Billy Budd, the sailor hanged at sea whom novelist Herman Melville endowed with the "gaiety of high health, youth and a free heart." These are multiple murderers and schemers. They drowned their children and bludgeoned their wives and stabbed their military superiors.

Sgt. Joseph Thomas, 34, the sole white man on Death Row, is an admitted egotist from El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. He was convicted five years ago of beating his wife with a tire iron, then faking her death in a traffic accident to collect insurance money.

"I have no fear of death," he boasted in an interview. "No, sir. Most people fear a painful death. OK? But not me. I don't fear death at all. Some people fear slow, agonizing cancer. That's the kind of death a man should fear. But not me."

Sgt. James Thomas Murphy, 30, an Army supply officer who killed his white wife and drowned their two children in Germany, seven years ago found God on Death Row. He pesters the other men with his incessant singing of "Bringing in the Sheaves."

"I start my day off with prayer," he said. "I pray constantly through the day. I constantly read my Bible. And I end it at night with a prayer, just thanking the Lord for another day because I don't know if I'm going to see the next."

Lance Cpl. Ronnie Curtis, 26, on Death Row the longest, is a quiet, very passive, very lonely Marine brought here in 1987 for stabbing his white lieutenant and the lieutenant's wife.

"Our row is in the basement, which is OK, because it makes the cells cooler in the summertime," he said. "There are windows where I can look out and see other prisoners going to work and it makes me wish I could join them. If the weather's clear enough, I can see the sun setting."

A world away in Washington, D.C., teams of military defense attorneys square off against military prosecutors as they argue life and death before the Court of Military Appeals. Army Capt. Teresa L. Norris represents Dwight Loving, a 25-year-old private from Upstate New York, sentenced to die for killing two white cabdrivers and trying to kill a third near Ft. Hood, Tex.

Outside Norris' office door is a placard identifying the Death Chamber. Inside are ghoulish drawings and pictures of executions. She is small and thin, but there is fire in her heart. She is staunchly opposed to capital punishment. This summer, the military high court will answer her 69-point legal brief pleading for Loving's life.

Loving's appeal is the furthest along in the system. The arguments Norris made--of racial bias and an ineffective defense counsel at court-martial--are being monitored closely by other defense attorneys. What ground she gains, or loses, may very well be followed by the others.

Norris is 29. Like the other military defense attorneys, she is on her first capital case. Most of the lawyers had only short tours handling courts-martial before they were assigned to death penalty appellate work in Washington.

Down the hall, Army Col. Dayton M. Cramer supervises the military appellate attorneys whose job it is to argue for the death sentences. A tall, thoughtful man, he needs no persuasion about capital punishment. "It is the only real guarantee that we have that these people will not return to society," he said.

Cramer and other death penalty proponents said Leavenworth's handful of condemned soldiers is too small to serve as a sampling for determining whether race is a factor.

Yet in some of the cases, race seems to have had an important role.

For instance Curtis, who stabbed the lieutenant and his wife after entering their home on a ruse, says the lieutenant repeatedly mocked him and used racial slurs. The lieutenant would call him "Bebop Curtis" and "Shoo-be-do" and "dark green Marine," said Curtis' defense attorney, Navy Cmdr. Mary T. Hall.

Even though a lower appeals court, the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Military Review, upheld the death sentence, the chief judge, Ed Byrne, strongly dissented.

"The racial stereotyping, by one of the two murder victims, precipitated (Curtis') violent acts," Byrne wrote in his dissenting opinion. "Consequently, before any system of criminal justice in this land executes the death penalty, its rationale for doing so must be capable of withstanding withering scrutiny.

"The crimes committed by the accused must cry out for death. The racial overtones in this case have silenced that cry."

Relatives of Curtis' victims, James and Joan Lotz, strongly deny that the lieutenant was a racist, and just as fervently pray that Curtis will be executed.

"I don't understand why they have the death penalty and don't use it," said Joan's sister, Grace Halpin, a police officer in Scranton, Pa. "I honestly don't see how he can contribute to society after doing something like that."

Another case fraught with racial overtones involves two Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C., sentenced to die but not yet transferred to Ft. Leavenworth.

During a night in the barracks with a case of beer and a quart of gin, Lance Cpls. Kenneth G. Parker and Wade L. Walker invoked the images of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and other African American leaders whom they believe were mistreated by whites. They then drove off the base, in Parker's words "to get us a white boy tonight."

Lance Cpl. Rodney L. Page, cornered in a driveway between two bars, begged for his life, but they shot him to death. Later, according to court-martial testimony, Parker returned to the barracks and hugged the others, and "was still bragging about killing the white guy."

Parker and Walker will be escorted into the Disciplinary Barracks at Ft. Leavenworth. There, a sign above the brick-and-mortar castle greets new inmates: "Our Mission--Your Future."

The prison houses about 1,370 soldiers doing time for a wide variety of offenses. Among them are 250 murderers serving life sentences. The inmate population is 49% white. They eat in the mess hall, hold prison jobs, participate in sports and other activities and a host of rehabilitation programs.

On Death Row, meals are brought to the cells. There are no jobs or hobbies. The inmates get outside for two hours a week, when they are taken--in hand irons, leg irons and belly chains--to a recreation yard. The small yard contains a basketball hoop, a metal folding chair and broken asphalt--all surrounded by sky-high barbed-wire and under an armed watchtower.

Their lives are spent in cells no bigger than 8 feet by 6 feet by 10 feet, with a bunk, a toilet and sink, a desk and a locker. They are allowed books and magazines, television and radio. They occasionally may lift weights.

Their shoes will not touch carpeting until they reach the execution chamber down the hall.

There the Special Processing Unit houses the machinery of death: A cross-shaped gurney, for the moment sitting idle next to one syringe, two spectator booths and three telephones.

Col. Lowe, a Vietnam War veteran and the prison commandant, witnessed executions in Texas in preparing to organize a military execution team here.

On his desk is the admonition, "I'm the colonel, that's why," and he readily admits that life on Death Row is harsh. "I don't sugarcoat things for anybody," he said.

"There's a good deal of frustration down there," said Lt. Col. Neal Trent, chief of psychological services at the prison. "These are guys who are not in control of their own destinies. They were soldiers once, and now these guys are going to be put to death. That is their only certainty down there.

"Imagine meeting that reality and not losing your mind."

Thomas, the Marine from El Toro who tried to hide his wife's murder by faking an accident, said simply: "I make the most of it."

"I watch TV. Then I call people and yak," he said. "And I've read every muscle-developing and body-building book you can get your hands on."

He fears that if his black cellmates win their appeals based on racial bias, it might hurt his own case as sympathy turns toward minorities.

"You know what I think is going to happen?" he said. "I think one day I'm going to wake up and be the only one sitting here. It means this one white guy will be sitting here all alone."

He smokes a pipe ("Smokin' Joe" they call him on the row) and has written a poem called "Death Row Is a Place." It is a place, he wrote, "where you hear your mother cry and don't know when you will really die."

His mother, Mary Thomas of Panama City, Fla., used to drive here with her husband for visits. "But it's a long drive and I don't know if we can make it any longer," she said. "I just hope and pray in my heart that my boy is going to live."

Murphy, the soldier who killed his wife and children in Germany, said it is the memory of his mother being assaulted by an abusive boyfriend that ignited his violent temper. "I went off for no apparent reason one night. I just got my hands on their throats and I couldn't. . . . "

Murphy trusts in God and believes in heaven and, unlike Thomas, he sees Death Row as a place where the smallest thing matters.

"It's not being able to order a pizza," he said. "Or not being able to order whatever I want. It may seem insignificant, but when you live in such a controlled environment, everything becomes so precious to you. Even a small thing like a pizza becomes the most important thing in your life."

Curtis was brought here for the Lotz murders, crimes that shocked Camp Lejeune and Curtis' own family and friends in Topeka, Kan. Oliver Pittman, his Sunday school teacher at the Strangers Rest Baptist Church, remembers him as a shy child who found it painful just to make friends.

Curtis, although still very timid, said he is trying to draw himself out more now, to find some hope in this basement tier of cells. "Even though we're all on Death Row, we're all still individuals," he said. "We're all just trying to get along with each other. Just like on the outside, if someone's having a bad day. . . . "

Todd Dock made it to the outside. He is a white soldier convicted of the stabbing death of a white cabdriver in Europe. But his family had means, and his mother said she spent more than half a million dollars to hire outside civilian attorneys who, in a second trial, won him a new sentence of life in prison.

Carolyn Dock went on to found MOMS (Members Opposed to Maltreatment of Servicemembers), a group that attempts to publicize abuses of military prisoners and to ease life for men doomed to die. While she does not excuse criminal acts, she noted that the military may have a special responsibility in these cases. After all, it is the military itself that "trained these people to be killers," she said. "That's what the military does."

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