SUPER BOWL XXIX : Inside Looking Out : San Diego Receiver Shawn Jefferson’s Brother Waits on Death Row in a Florida Prison
He’s alone, he said, the only one on death row who will be cheering Sunday for the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX.
Seven heavy barred doors, armed guards on alert and a sentence of death will keep Kenneth Hartley, whose legal surname is Jefferson, from being in Joe Robbie Stadium with his younger brother, Shawn Jefferson, starting wide receiver for the Chargers.
Jefferson’s family and friends are enjoying first-class hotel treatment, attending parties in Miami and have tickets for the game, but locked into Interview Room 5 on death row at the Union Correctional Institution, a handcuffed Hartley was prohibited from accepting a Charger media guide detailing his brother’s accomplishments.
Hartley, who turned 28 Friday, is two years older than his brother. He will watch the Super Bowl on a 12-inch black-and-white television in his cell, dressed in Charger colors--the required death-row garb of yellow T-shirt and blue trousers.
“Shawn is my strength, and that is why I am able to cope with all the things that are going on around me,” Hartley said in a face-to-face meeting this week. “On death row, nine out of 10 times you are already dead mentally, but not physically, and every day is a fight and struggle.
“You must just deal with one day at a time; tomorrow doesn’t play a role in anyone’s life on death row. But Shawn loves me, and that carries me a long way. You can look to a lot of people for strength, but you have to know somebody, sleep with them, share the same food. . . . Now to see him come up out of it all--he’s made it.
“Through him, my dream has come true as well.”
Kenneth (Kip) Hartley received a 10-year sentence for manslaughter after killing his 15-year-old girlfriend in 1987. Three months after being released early from prison in 1991--and on the same day his brother was drafted by the Houston Oilers--he kidnaped, robbed and shot a 17-year-old high school student five times in the back of the head.
He was sentenced to death Dec. 11, 1993, and is confined to UCI, a maximum-security facility located 50 miles outside Jacksonville.
“I’m innocent,” Hartley said. “No doubt about it, and one day Shawn and I will be able to be together on the outside and look back on his career.”
George Bateh, the Jacksonville assistant state attorney who prosecuted Hartley, laughed loudly upon hearing Hartley’s plans for freedom.
“Kenneth Hartley struck terror in the lives of everyone living in the community around him,” Bateh said. “After being released for manslaughter, for shotgunning to death a girl who wanted nothing to do with him, he robbed three different cabdrivers with a sawed-off shotgun.
“He then kidnaped, robbed and essentially executed a high school student, and in addition to receiving a death sentence he has been sentenced to four consecutive life sentences for his habitual life of crime. He will have massive volts of electricity run through his body, or, if for some reason his death sentence is commuted, you can be assured that Kenneth Hartley will die in prison.”
In the last 15 years, a correctional spokesman said, the state of Florida has put to death 40 prisoners. There are more than 300 being held on death row with Hartley at UCI, and officials said there is no telling how long his wait will be.
“He’s writing me and telling me to stay strong,” said Jefferson, who has not visited his brother on death row. “I do sometimes wonder what I could have done to keep him from getting in that situation. I keep telling him, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you,’ and I did that when he was out, you know, here in this world. Maybe I didn’t do it enough.”
Bateh said he learned of the relationship between Hartley and Jefferson after being surprised by the hiring of a prominent Jacksonville attorney to defend Hartley.
“Shawn was paying for all the legal fees from the outset,” Bateh said. “The two brothers were very close. Kenneth even tried to use Shawn as an alibi for one of his crimes.
“I just don’t know what went wrong with Kenneth Hartley. He was very personable, showed a reasonable amount of intelligence, was raised by the same parents, and yet one turns out good and the other is a terrible, ruthless cold-blooded killer.”
And what will Bateh be thinking when he watches Jefferson in the Super Bowl?
“There’s a fellow Jacksonvillian,” Bateh said, “who made the best of his God-given talents.”
Hartley, who sat quietly in handcuffs for almost a two-hour interview as guards watched nearby, has never had the opportunity in person to watch his brother play professional football.
Jefferson, who has refused in the past to discuss his brother, talked freely this week of his affection for him, but acknowledged some might think poorly of him because of his brother’s transgressions.
“I deal with it; this is just stuff you have to deal with,” Jefferson said. “That’s my brother; I don’t love him any less. I want him here watching me in the Super Bowl. I know he’s going to be burning up inside because he can’t, and I think about that all the time. I’ve been thinking, if he were here, what we would be doing at this point. I miss him, and I don’t understand.
“I mean I don’t know how to explain it. Raised by the same parents, very tough and loving parents, and yet it was just something that happened.”
Hartley, who receives four hours of yard time a week while spending the remainder of time in his one-man cell, will stay at UCI until he wins an appeal or the governor of Florida signs a death warrant affixing a specific date for his execution.
“I’m not looking to die in the electric chair,” Hartley said. “If it comes that way, it will come that way. But I will keep the fight going.
“Being on death row, it’s always there. There are only a few moments where your mind can leave the bars and reflect on something good. But this is one of those moments; my brother is playing in the Super Bowl. I’ll feel the butterflies; it will be like I’m on the field with him.”
The mannerisms are unmistakably similar: the raised eyebrows, the hand gestures, the quick smile. But Jefferson’s police escort will lead him and his teammates into Joe Robbie Stadium, while Hartley’s will allow him to go nowhere.
“We’ve always been close and people thought we were twins,” Hartley said. “I used to think if anything happened to him I couldn’t deal with that. You know I could deal with myself, and that’s why I used to tell him to go home and get away from me. We were so close. He used to get mad, real mad at me, but I was trapped and there was no reason for him to go down.
“I always thought I was strong, stronger than my brother, but he was the strong one.”
Jefferson, the 11th of 12 children and raised mostly by his mother, grew up in the Northside projects of Jacksonville. The brothers played basketball and football together, and as Hartley recalled, “I always thought I was better than him.
“He was more scrawny, and then one day I remember chasing Shawn and just like that I couldn’t catch him anymore.”
Sitting in a chemistry class his senior year of high school, Jefferson listened as another student bragged to the girls about what a good football player he was. Jefferson, who weighed 122 pounds at the time, announced he was trying out for the team too, although he had never played organized football.
Jefferson not only made the team, but started, earned a scholarship to Central Florida and eventually an invitation to the NFL.
“My dad’s 70, but he probably feels like 16 now with Shawn playing in the Super Bowl,” Hartley said. “I’m glad Shawn could do that for him.”
Hartley, meanwhile, remained behind in Jacksonville, embittered by a neighborhood beating that he had taken early on. “After I got jumped, from that time on, I just said it’s time to stand up. Never again. And it started from there.
“I got in so deep, and that’s when my brother and I stopped hanging around together so much. It wasn’t the place for him; in order to get a chance, he couldn’t be around us.
“Look at him now; it’s incredible.”
Jefferson, prized by General Manager Bobby Beathard, came to San Diego in a 1991 training camp trade with Houston for defensive end Lee Williams. He started slowly with the team, making the adjustment from the Oilers’ run-and-shoot attack to the Chargers’ offensive scheme, but showed promise.
Initially, he established himself as a brash show-off, who found trouble after inciting the Oilers to a 27-0 victory over the Chargers with a pregame guarantee that San Diego would win. He had speed, but did not always catch the ball, and played backup to Anthony Miller and Nate Lewis.
Then he got his chance. Miller signed with Denver to start this season and Lewis went to the Rams in a trade, leaving Jefferson behind to seize the starting opportunity.
“On the news I listen for no other name than Jefferson,” said Hartley, who has the different last name, he said, because of technical court proceedings. “I have clippings and I keep them in a book. I see him make a catch, and I have tears of joy.
“I will be able to see the Super Bowl, and it’s just amazing, to be on death row and have a brother playing in the Super Bowl. . . .”
Sgt. George Tillotson, a guard who works with prisoners on death row, was unaware of Hartley’s family ties, and also unimpressed.
“There are probably more notorious killers on death row,” Tillotson said. “He’s probably telling everyone that his brother is in the Super Bowl, and they’re probably telling him, ‘Yeah, right. Sure.’ They won’t believe him.”
Hartley drew a picture and wrote a letter of encouragement to Jefferson this week. A few weeks ago when Jefferson had his own brush with the law in the San Diego area after being arrested for drunk driving and weapon violations, Hartley wrote him a letter and cautioned him to remain focused.
“I didn’t judge him,” Hartley said.
The small television in his cell has allowed him to follow his brother’s exploits this season. “Forty-three catches,” Hartley said without hesitation.
A happy Jefferson rushed to telephone his father from the locker room after the Chargers’ AFC championship victory over Pittsburgh two weeks ago, but UCI regulations won’t permit Jefferson to call Hartley.
“I’m telling you, no one man can stop my brother because there were plenty of things out there that could have stopped him before,” Hartley said. “Deion Sanders don’t compare to all those forces. All the guys on death row are saying the 49ers are going to win easily and Deion is going to do this and Deion is going to do that. It’s hard, but it isn’t any tougher than growing up in the ghetto and having your older brother in a situation I am. If Shawn gets an opportunity, he will score on Deion.
“I remember when we were growing up and it would be Super Bowl time and we had a lot of fun together. I’d make like I was Tony Dorsett or Jack Tatum, and Shawn would be Lynn Swann and Drew Pearson. Now that he’s all grown up, he’s where he wants to be, and I’m proud of him. I’d love to be there for him, but my hands are tied.”