Horror at capital punishment in the United States led Nigel Benson to befriend a death row inmate

I first got to know Charlie Flores about a year ago. We have been writing regularly ever since. "Delayed conversations," he calls our letters. I've never met him and am unlikely to.

For Charlie is death row inmate #999299 in the Polunsky Unit in South Livingston, Texas.

I first learned about Charlie after he wrote a book, Warrior Within, about his life on death row.

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For the past 11 years, he has lived in a 3m by 3m cell. There is a bed, a narrow window and a stainless steel toilet. He tells me he can see birds through the window.

Charlie, now 40, was convicted in 1999 of capital murder after an elderly woman was shot dead by two men during a burglary. It is a charge he vehemently denies.

"I look back at my experience that put me on Texas death row and one would think that such a saga would be confined to Made-for-Sunday-Night-Television-Movies. Unfortunately, it is not," he says.

"There are things in my my past that I regret and am ashamed of. I have been in jail before and I have used and sold drugs. And, when I learned that I was wanted for capital murder, I did the worst thing I could do - I ran. I knew that I would be sent to prison, or worse, forever and this scared me. So, I acted impulsively and I ran.

"This does not make me guilty of capital murder. This does not make me the shooter of the deceased. In the end, I'm a man who was accused of a crime and never had a fair chance at proving my innocence. I was convicted and sentenced to die because of my criminal background, because I'm a brown man [Mexican American] and because I do not come from an affluent family who could pay for an attorney to ensure my rights were protected at trial."

The facts show that coloured, indigent, unskilled people are the most likely victims of capital punishment. If you cannot afford good legal representation you're in big trouble.

"Ninety nine per cent of all death row prisoners are forced to accept government-appointed trial and appeal attorneys who are, all too often, incompetent and ineffective," he says.

"Capital punishment means [those] without the capital get the punishment.

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"Effective legal representation is of crucial importance. If the defendant on trial does not have competent enough [counsel] to challenge the Government's evidence, the adversarial system of arriving at the truth crumbles and guilty verdicts are inevitable. When this happens, innocent or not, you will find yourself on a runaway train to the death house."

The death machine is also arbitrary. The longest time spent on death row was the 24 years Excell White endured before he was killed on March 30, 1999. The shortest time was the mere 252 days before Joe Gonzales was "put to death" on September 18, 1986. Madness reigns on death row.

Charlie rises at 5am most days and does an hour of meditation.

"That is my favourite time of the day, when all the lights are out in this building and there is no sound, everyone is asleep and the guards are lounging around somewhere, not slamming doors and carrying on."

The rest of his day is spent reading, dozing, listening to the radio and writing letters.

Most days there is an hour of recreation in an outside yard, followed by a shower. The inmates are recreated separately and never have physical contact with one another.

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For the other 23 hours a day, every day, they are locked in their cells.

Death row is a world of constant noise. The clashing of metal on metal, amplified by the surrounding concrete. Inmates shouting in defiance at their concrete tomb.

The execution protocol is carefully designed to make the killing of a human being as clinical and detached as possible.

About two weeks before an execution, the prisoner is taken from the death row population and placed in a condemned cell in the death house at the Walls Unit in Huntsville.

It is here that they will watch the last days, hours and minutes of their lives tick by.

Executions are scheduled for 6pm local time. On the fateful day, no visitors are permitted after 12.30pm.

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The prisoner is allowed a last meal of their choosing, up to a cost of US$35 ($52). About one prisoner in five declines the last meal. Others ask to have it donated to a homeless person. The meal is served between 3.30pm and 4pm. The inmate is then allowed to have a shower and put on fresh clothes, if desired.

Shortly before 6pm, witnesses to the execution are ushered into rooms beside the death chamber.

There are two separate rooms, allowing the victim's and condemned's families to be isolated from each other.

The condemned is escorted by guards into the death chamber to a gurney, on which they are secured by thick, leather straps with their arms outstretched in the shape of a cross.

Some panic-stricken prisoners have to be forcibly carried to the gurney.

Two intravenous catheters are inserted in veins in the prisoner's arms, legs or hands by a "medical technician".

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When the lines have been attached, a saline solution flows. Lines containing the three chemicals which will end the prisoner's life lead from the gurney through a hole in the wall.

A technician waits behind a one-way window for the warden's command to activate the deadly apparatus.

Green curtains are then pulled back allowing the witnesses to view the final procedure.

A ceiling-mounted microphone is lowered down to the prostrate prisoner and they are invited to share their last words.

The procedure takes 15 to 20 minutes, while the poison takes about seven minutes to kill after it is administered.

The chemicals are introduced one at a time. Sodium thiopental to sedate the victim, pancuronium bromide to collapse the lungs and diaphragm, and potassium chloride which stops the heart.

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The cost of the chemicals is US$86.08.

After the condemned is pronounced dead, the witnesses leave the two rooms and the body is immediately taken to a waiting vehicle and delivered to a funeral home for collection by relatives or the state.

The average stay on death row is 10 years. Charlie is living on borrowed time after 11 years on the row.

"This place will teach you how critical it is to have hope in your life when all is lost. If you have hope, if you have hope for a better tomorrow, for better things to come, then, when there is nothing else to live for, you have that. Unfortunately, I learned this lesson on Texas death row," he says.

"But, here's the thing about long suffering: it is our most persuasive teacher. The lessons we learn while suffering we never forget. So, in that regard, I give thanks for everything in my life. Even my suffering.

"I am convinced that I've been sent here to learn lessons that I would never have learned while free. All things happen for a reason; especially me being sent to this place. I think this was a way of life getting my attention and teaching me lessons I'd never have learned in the free world.

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"I could not do this alone. I could not survive if I had no friends or family that cared about me."

For family and friends it is a living nightmare.

Charlie's elderly parents, Carter, 72, and Lily, 70, visit him as often as possible.

"My worst regret is being so selfish that I got caught up in this bullshit that sent me here for something I didn't do and left my parents out there alone," he says.

"They're getting old on me and it is tough to deal with that."

The US is the only Western democracy in the world which kills its own.

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With China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the US accounts for nearly 90 per cent of all known annual executions.

The practice was temporarily abandoned in 1972, after the US Supreme Court ruled the death penalty was "cruel and unusual" punishment.

However, the ruling had been circumvented within two years.

Today, Texas is the most enthusiastic death row state, killing 420 of the 1130 convicts who have been executed in the US since capital punishment resumed in 1977.

Charlie continues his fight against death, desperately working with lawyers to have to have his case re-heard.

Meanwhile, Dallas County prosecutor and death row advocate Rick Perry is up for re-election in November.

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Opponents of the death penalty are hoping the election will usher in new change.

LETHAL LAWS

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Thirty-eight American states have the death penalty.

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Condemned prisoners can be hanged, put before a firing squad, injected with lethal chemicals, locked in a gas chamber or strapped to an electric chair.

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Lethal injection is also used by the United States Government and military.

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The states which have repealed capital punishment are Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia.

MY PEN PAL IS ON DEATH ROW

Journalist Nigel Benson first wrote to death row inmate Charles Flores last year. Since then there's been about two dozen letters, each one from Dunedin drawing an instant reply from Flores' prison cell in southeast Texas.

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"He's almost trembling at the bit. He sort of lives vicariously through the correspondence."

Benson has told Flores about Dunedin, his work and his friends.

"I just tell him everything. In some ways it's been quite carthartic. I haven't written letters for years and in some ways it's what he needs."

Flores writes about his prison life and his appeals: "The reality for them all is they are trying to slow down the clock with appeals and stuff. The average time they stay is about 10 years."

Benson's understanding of Flores' guilt is tied up in the complexities of the Texas legal system. He says that Flores was with another man when a woman was shot dead.

"I made it clear I didn't care whether he was guilty. All I know is he was with a co-offender, they broke into an elderly woman's house, she and her dog got killed and Charles was convicted of capital murder after that."

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Benson found Flores after becoming obsessed about the death penalty. He read all he could about the subject and found Flores' book, Warrior Within.

"I'm just revolted by the death penalty. There's something about the whole clinical way the process unfolds that disturbs me. No one knows who is pushing the button. Everyone involved just steps back and says 'I'm only doing my little bit'. And that's just part of the repugnance."

Veteran Auckland lawyer Colin Amery and wife Yvonne also write to Flores, as well other death row inmates.

Last month they had the unnerving experience of talking to Samuel Bustamante just two hours before he was executed. Bustamante, 40, the seventh prisoner put to death this year in Texas, was convicted of the 1998 murder of a hitchhiker.

Yvonne Amery said Bustamante thanked them for their support. The inmate, who died from lethal injection, said in his final call to imagine that when the Amerys walked beside the Manukau Harbour near their home the wind they felt "would be him and that he loved us".

For more information on Charles Flores, visit

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or

or he has a Facebook page at Charles Don Flores.

- Otago Daily Times