When Prisoners Have a Death Wish


Bill Bradford all but begged the jury to give him the death penalty at his 1987 murder trial in Los Angeles. He growled obscenities at prosecutors who labeled him a sadistic serial killer, fired his defense lawyers and dropped chilling hints that he had left countless other bodies behind.

“Think of how many you don’t even know about,” was all he gave jurors to ponder at the death penalty phase of the trial, a time when many killers try to show remorse or plead for their lives.

For six weeks this summer, Bradford pursued his death wish with a vengeance, taking it almost to the limit. He came within five days of execution before changing his mind and obtaining a last-minute stay.


For a short time he joined the small but growing number of killers who are known in the dark parlance of capital punishment as the “volunteers”--those who drop their appeals and ask, or even demand, to be executed.

Volunteers have played a major role in the modern death penalty era--ever since Gary Gilmore ended a decade-long national moratorium against capital punishment by dropping his appeals in 1977, telling a Utah firing squad, “Let’s do it!”

Of the 477 people executed in the 20 years since then, 60, or more than 12%, have been volunteers.

Now, as the nation’s death rows fill up and the population of the condemned ages, the number of volunteers is growing. More than a dozen volunteers have surfaced in the last year alone. Of the 45 inmates executed in 1998, seven were volunteers, one more than in all of 1997.

Clusters of volunteers are showing up most frequently in states, such as California, where the pace of executions lags far behind the pace at which juries mete out death sentences. Here, five people have been executed since 1978, but 509 more await their fate on the world’s most populous death row.

They can be moved by defiant bravado, religious fervor or abject despair, according to experts on both sides of the capital punishment debate.


Some are mentally ill, some seek attention or expanded privileges. Others may want the state to finish a task they couldn’t--their suicides.

An Urge to Gain Control

Atlanta death penalty lawyer Stephen Bright believes many suffer from depression--both before and after they commit their crimes. Some volunteers had hoped police would kill them--a phenomenon known as “suicide by cop.”

Many volunteers are simply fighting for some control over their destinies.

In interviews with experts, and with Bradford, the most powerful motivation to volunteer involves regaining a sense of self-determination.

“What gets to me is the not knowing. The waiting,” Bradford said in a recent interview with The Times. “I am tired of it.”

Ultimately, Bradford changed his mind. But as he waited, Bradford took to writing poetry:

Caged and confined, thinking and pondering,

I wonder what human is this


That he should be subject to imprisonment

That neither improves nor corrects his soul?

Dictating the time and manner of demise became his only expression of control, according to some experts.

“The legal system is very frightening machinery and very often it toys with you and crushes you. Volunteering is a way of controlling the machinery,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

That compulsion for control drove many inmates to commit the crimes that brought them to death row, Dieter added. “It’s why they committed murder in the first place. Murder is a rather vicious form of control.”

“Plenty of people have volunteered for rational reasons, at least they’re rational to them,” said Charles Ewing, a law and psychology professor at the State University of New York in Buffalo. “And who are we to quarrel with their reasoning? If they say, ‘I’ve had enough of the stress and pain of living on death row waiting for my execution,’ that is a valid, rational reason.”


Some inmates take a more direct way out.

During the last 20 years, according to the California Department of Corrections, 13 death row inmates have committed suicide--2 1/2 times the number who have been executed in the state.

Two of Bradford’s death row neighbors hanged themselves in their cells.

When the states are slow to carry out death sentences, the volunteers leapfrog to the head of the line. Indeed, the lore of the nation’s death rows is replete with stories of volunteers.

Four of the first five people executed after the death penalty was reinstated were volunteers--Gilmore; Jesse Bishop in Nevada in 1979; Steven Judy in Indiana in 1981 and Frank Coppola in Virginia in 1982.

“I’ve got a whole box of bad memories. Anything good never made an impression on me,” Judy told reporters before his 1981 execution in “Old Betsy,” Indiana’s electric chair.

Like Bradford, Judy had sought to terrorize his jurors into giving him the death sentence. But Judy took matters a step further: “You better vote for the death penalty,” he said, “because if you don’t, I’ll get out and it may be one of you next, or your family.”

‘I Will Kill and Rape Again’

Westley Allan Dodd, who was 31 when he was hanged in Washington in 1993, wrote in a court brief halting his appeals:


“I must be executed before I have an opportunity to escape or kill someone else. If I do escape, I promise you I will kill and rape again, and I will enjoy every minute of it.”

Child killer John Albert Taylor, 36, maintained his innocence two years ago while volunteering to die and insisting on Utah’s firing squad. He said he opted for the frontier-style means of death to shame the state. “I’m not going to submit to lethal injection,” he said. “I don’t want to go flipping around like a fish on that table.”

With a white target pinned over his chest, the last words he uttered were quoted from a poem: “Remember me, but let me go.”

Later in 1996, triple murderer Larry Grant Lonchar received national attention as a volunteer with a penchant for backing out. He ultimately was executed in Georgia’s electric chair--after twice backing out minutes before the switch was thrown.

“I belong in hell if there is one,” he said, describing himself as a coldblooded killer. But his last attempt at delay was unique. Before his execution, he had sought to donate a kidney to a retired policeman. Prison officials viewed the offer as yet another attempt to manipulate the legal system.

A vast majority of would-be volunteers either lose their nerve or gain new hope and call off their executions at the last minute. Bradford changed his mind several times before his daughter talked him out of dying.


Bradford’s death odyssey shined attention on a man who had been isolated for nine years after being convicted of luring two young women to the desert near Lancaster and strangling them. In both instances, he had promised to photograph his victims and help them build modeling portfolios.

In the end, the attention brought him a renewed sense of hope. He fired the lawyer he had retained to pave the way to the death chamber, and instead hired San Francisco attorney Robert R. Bryan, who on Aug. 13 obtained a last-minute stay of execution.

Bryan recalled that when he saw Bradford last October, the inmate seemed near rock bottom.

“He was very downhearted. He felt that nobody in the world cared if he lived or died. I thought I was probably talking to the most unwanted, unloved piece of humanity on this green Earth, and he had the same feeling about himself.”

Years spent in prison can drive a man crazy, experts say. Or make him crazier. So, many believe that the next big issue on death row will be whether volunteers should undergo psychiatric examinations.

California’s death penalty laws have evolved to the point that a person’s mental competency now is the only issue standing between a volunteer and the death chamber, said UCLA law professor Peter Arenella. “The state cannot force a death row convict to take any appeals. That’s a matter of individual right,” he said.

Volunteers should undergo extensive psychiatric work-ups before they are executed, said Dorothy Lewis, a professor of psychiatry at New York University Medical School who has interviewed hundreds of death row inmates, including volunteers.


Many volunteers, she believes, suffer from treatable but undiagnosed mental disorders such as depression or manic depression.

“It’s vital that individuals who seek to be executed be evaluated carefully to determine whether this is a thoughtful, reasoned decision,” Lewis said.

“And it may on the surface look like that. In one case in Tennessee, it looked like [a rational choice] because the individual said the conditions are terrible and he didn’t want to live on death row anymore. Once he was diagnosed and treated, he no longer wanted to be executed.”

Cleveland killer Wilford Lee Berry Jr., who has spat on his lawyers and written profanity-laced letters to the judge, volunteered this year.

Even as his execution is held up by uninvited appeals over his mental competency, three fellow inmates on Ohio’s death row have asked to follow his lead.

“Please help me. I am very tired,” said one in a letter to Ohio’s attorney general. “I would like to be out of this life,” wrote another.


Berry also inspired a backlash on Ohio’s death row. Angry and fearful that Berry’s execution, the first in the state in 35 years, might launch a string of executions, other death row inmates this year beat Berry senseless, left him for dead and rioted.

(In California, Bradford’s fellow inmates sought a more pragmatic solution. When Bradford seemed determined to die with just days remaining before his execution, several inmates wrote a joint letter to Bryan, asking the attorney to obtain a stay.)

Passing From Life ‘With Clean Hands’

In Illinois, two-time killer Guinevere Garcia was ready to die for the murder of a husband she met while in prison, where she had been serving time for killing her baby.

But her death sentence was commuted in 1996--just 14 hours before she was to die--because of hardships she had endured, including sexual abuse as a child, alcoholism by age 11 and teenage years spent as a prostitute.

Death Penalty Focus, a group that opposes capital punishment, lobbied Gov. Jim Edgar to stop her execution, sending a letter signed by dozens of Hollywood stars, according to actor Mike Farrell, who is president of the board.

Despite the group’s efforts, Garcia later tried to take her own life in prison. She slashed her wrist with a broken lightbulb last year.


California’s earlier volunteer, David Edwin Mason, had attempted suicide as a child, then turned to killing others--six people by his own admission.

He held a news conference a month before his scheduled execution four years ago, telling reporters he was ready to die with dignity to pay for his crimes.

“I accept responsibility for my actions,” he said. “I believe in the death penalty. I believe in the most serious penalty for the most serious crime. . . . This is not about changing my mind. This is nine years of growing up. This is nine years of becoming who I am right now. . . . It’s important to my family that I pass from life with clean hands, straight eyes, pure heart--that I don’t go out full of hate and anger.”

Even as the door to the gas chamber closed, Mason declined his final opportunity to appeal.

Jeffrey Sheldon, another would-be volunteer in California, changed his mind two years ago after receiving a new lawyer, a television set and a new pair of sneakers.

Attorney Jack Leavitt represented Sheldon, and it was through news reports about the case that Bradford learned of the lawyer.


Leavitt’s efforts on Sheldon’s behalf may not have endeared him to his legal peers, but they made him something of a hero among the inmates.

“You have an elite fan club here on death row, and I am among their number,” wrote inmate Robert Lee Massie, who has attempted suicide several times during two stints on death row over the last 26 years. Massie, who was convicted of one murder but was released after the death penalty law changed, was found guilty again after a second killing. He twice has asked to be executed but has been overruled by the courts.

In 1982, Massie and fellow inmate Jerry Bigelow, in a bizarre suicide pact, tried to kill themselves by taking pills they had hoarded. Each man tried to slash himself after he awoke in the prison infirmary.

They also tried, in tandem, to drop their appeals and hasten their executions.

Despite having given 10 separate confessions to police, reporters and even on television, Bigelow received a new trial and, represented by Bryan, was acquitted. Mental health experts persuaded jurors that Bigelow’s early abuse at the hands of his father made him a compulsive confessor. Also, jurors said they believed that Bigelow had passed out from drinking, and that a crime partner who testified for the prosecution actually committed the killing.

Massie remains on death row, where he is considered the unofficial dean of the row.

Arenella, the UCLA law professor, said the conditions on death row, and the desire to escape an incessantly grim and brutal environment may be the most compelling reason to volunteer.

“Some say the cruelest punishment is not death, but imprisonment without the possibility of parole in the barbarous conditions that qualify as ordinary prison life,” he said.


Bradford, the latest volunteer to emerge from and then retreat back to the shadows of death row, described his reasons for wanting to die in a poem he wrote earlier this year:

I can’t stay cooped up in a world

That steals my space

Robs my peace

Humiliates my manhood.

I want to be free


Like the birds that soar the heavens.

Can anybody hear me?

Freedom is all I desire.


Death Wish

The following death row inmates waived all appeals and volunteered for their own executions this year.

June 21: Lloyd Wayne Hampton, 44, was executed near Joliet, Ill.

Jan. 29: Robert Smith, 47, was executed by lethal injection in Michigan City, Ind.

Jan. 30: Ricky Lee Sanderson, 38, was executed by inhaling cyanide gas fumes in Raleigh, N.C.

Feb. 10: Steven Ceon Renfro, 40, died by lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas.

Feb. 20: Michael Long, 35, was executed by injection in McAlester, Okla.

May 8: Steven Allen Thompson, 34, was executed by electric chair in Atmore, Ala.

Aug. 5: Stephen Edward Wood, 38, was executed by injection in McAlester, Okla.

Compiled by Cary Schneider from Times wire reports.