Though Dennis Fritz didn't realize it, twelve months in the dungeon of the county jail had helped prepare him for the severe conditions of prison life.
He arrived at the Conner Correctional Center in June, in the rear of a van loaded with other new inmates, still dazed and in denial and terrified. It was important to look and act confident, and he worked hard at it. Conner had the reputation as the "dump site" of medium security prisons. It was a tough place, tougher than most, and Dennis asked himself over and over how and why he had been randomly assigned to the place. He was herded through the admissions procedures and given the standard lectures about rules and regulations, then assigned to a two-man cell with bunk beds and a window through which he could see the outdoors. Like Ron, he was thankful for the window.
He'd gone for weeks in Ada without seeing sunshine.
His roommate was a Mexican who spoke little English, and that was fine with Dennis. He spoke no Spanish and wasn't in the mood to learn. The first overwhelming challenge was how to find brief moments of privacy with another human always within arm's reach. Dennis vowed to spend every possible moment working to free himself from his sentence. It would have been easy to give up. The system was so heavily weighted against the inmates, but he was determined to prevail.
Conner was overcrowded and known for its violence. There were gangs, killings, beatings, rapes, drugs everywhere, and guards on the take. He quickly found the safer areas and avoided men he thought were trouble. He treated fear as an asset. After a few months most prisoners unwittingly fell into the routine of the prison and became institutionalized. They lowered their guard, took chances, took safety for granted. It was a good way to get hurt, and Dennis vowed that he would never forget to be afraid. The prisoners were awake by 7:00 a.m. and all cell doors were opened. They ate in a large cafeteria and could sit anywhere they wished. The whites took one side, the blacks the other, and the Indians and His-panics were caught in the middle but leaned toward the darker section. The food for breakfast was not bad-eggs, grits, bacon. Conversation was lively-the men were relieved to have contact with others.
Most wanted to work; anything to stay out of the unit where the cells were. Because Dennis had once taught, he was recruited to teach other inmates in the General Equivalency Diploma program. After breakfast he went to the classroom and taught until noon. His salary was $7.20 a month.
His mother and aunt began sending $50 a month, money they barely scraped together but made a priority. He spent it in the canteen on tobacco, canned tuna, crackers, and cookies. Virtually every inmate smoked and the great currency was cigarettes. A pack of Marlboros was like a pocketful of cash.
Dennis soon found the law library and was pleased to learn that he could study there every day from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., without interruption. He had never picked up a law book, but he was determined to master the research. A couple of the law clerks- other inmates who fancied themselves jailhouse lawyers and were quite knowledgeable- befriended him and taught him how to move through the thick treatises and digests. As always, they charged for their advice. The fees were paid in cigarettes.
He began his legal education by reading hundreds of Oklahoma cases, looking for similarities and potential mistakes made during his trial. His appeals would soon start, and he wanted to know as much as his lawyer. He discovered the federal digests and took notes on thousands of cases from throughout the country.
Lockdown was from 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.; heads were counted, reports made. Dinner was over at 7:30, and from then until the next lockdown at 10:15 the inmates were free to roam around the unit, exercise, play cards or dominoes or basketball. Many chose to just hang out, to sit in groups and talk and smoke and kill time.
Dennis went back to the law library.
His daughter, Elizabeth, was fifteen, and they maintained a lively correspondence. She was being raised by her maternal grandmother in a stable home with plenty of attention. She believed her father to be innocent, but Dennis always suspected she had some doubt. They swapped letters and talked on the phone at least once a week. Dennis would not allow her to visit him, though. He did not want his daughter near the prison. She would not see him dressed like a convict and living behind razor wire.
Wanda Fritz, his mother, traveled to Conner soon after Dennis arrived. Visitation was on Sunday, from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., in a room with rows of folding tables and chairs. It was a zoo. Twenty or so inmates were admitted at once, and their families were waiting-wives, children, mothers, and fathers. Emotions were high. The children were often rowdy and loud. The men were not handcuffed and contact was allowed. Contact was exactly what the men wanted, though excessive kissing and groping were prohibited. The trick was to get a fellow inmate to "jigger," or sidetrack, a guard for a few seconds while rabid sex was accomplished. It was not unusual to see a couple slide between two soft drink machines and somehow copulate. Wives sitting placidly at a table often disappeared quickly, ducking under the table for a quick round of oral sex. Fortunately, Dennis was able to hold his mother's attention in the midst of such frenzied activity, but the visit was the most stressful time of the week. He discouraged her from returning.
Ron soon began pacing and yelling in his cell. If you weren't crazy when you got to The Row, it didn't take long to lose your mind after you arrived. He stood at his door and screamed, "I am innocent! I am innocent!" for hours, until he became hoarse. With practice, though, his voice strengthened, and he could shout for longer periods of time. "I did not kill Debbie Carter! I did not kill Debbie Carter!"
He memorized the entire transcript of the Ricky Joe Simmons confession, every word, and delivered it at full volume for the benefit of his guards and neighbors. He could also go for hours reciting his trial transcript, pages and pages of the testimony that had sent him to death row. The other inmates wanted to choke him, but at the same time they marveled at his memory.
But they were not impressed at two in the morning.
Renee received a strange letter from another inmate. It read, in part:
Praise the Lord! This is Jay Neill, #141128. I am writing this on behalf, and at the request of your brother Ron. Ron lives caddycorner to my cell. At times Ron goes through very difficult stages on a daily basis. I am under the impression that he is on some form of medication to attempt to stabilize and modify his behavior. At best though, the limitation of the types of medication they will distribute here only works in a marginal capacity at best. Ron's biggest defeat is his low selfesteem. And I believe the people here at O.S.P. tell him he is below par in an I.Q. Scale. His worst times come between 12 am and 4 am.
At times, spaced periodically he screams different things at the top of his lungs. This has disturbed many convicts in the vicinity. At first they tried to reason with him, then to tolerate. But even that has worn thin with many around him. (Due to the sleepless nights for sure.)
I am a Christian and I pray daily for Ron. I talk to him and listen to him. He loves both you and Annette very much. I am his friend. I have acted in the capacity of a buffer between Ron and the people his yelling bothers by getting up and talking to him until he is calm.
God bless you and your family.
Neill's friendship with anyone on The Row was always doubtful, and his conversion to Christianity was often the topic of conversation. His "friends" were skeptical. Before prison, he and his boyfriend longed to move to San Francisco to enjoy a more open lifestyle. Since they had no money, they decided to rob a bank, an undertaking with which they had no experience. They picked one in the town of Geronimo, and after they entered it loudly and announced their intentions, things fell apart. In the chaos of the robbery, Neill and his partner fatally stabbed three bank tellers, shot one customer to death, and wounded three others. In the midst of the bloodbath, Neill ran out of bullets, something he realized as he put his revolver to the head of a small child and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened-the child was unharmed, at least physically. The two killers escaped with about $20,000 in cash and were soon in San Francisco, where they went on a shopping spree-full-length mink coats, lovely scarves, and such. They threw money around in gay bars and had a decadent time for slightly more than twenty-four hours. Then they were hauled back to Oklahoma, where Neill was eventually executed. On The Row, Neill liked to quote Scripture and deliver mini-sermons, but few listened.
On death row, medical attention was not a priority. Every inmate said that the first thing you lose is your health, then your sanity. Ron was seen by a prison doctor who had the benefit of his previous prison records and mental health history. It was noted that he had a long history of drug and alcohol abuse, certainly not a surprise on F Cellhouse. He suffered from depression and had been bipolar for at least ten years. There was some schizophrenia and personality disorder.
He was prescribed Mellaril again, and it settled him down.
Most of the other inmates thought Ron was simply "playing the nut role," pretending to be crazy in hopes of somehow walking away from The Row.
Two doors down from Greg Wilhoit lived an old inmate named Sonny Hays. No one was certain how long Sonny had been waiting, but he had arrived there before anyone else. He was pushing seventy, in terrible health, and refused to see or speak to anyone. He covered his cell door with newspapers and blankets, kept his lights off, ate only enough to stay alive, never showered, shaved, or cut his hair, never had visitors, and refused to meet with his lawyers. He neither sent nor received mail, made no phone calls, bought nothing from the canteen, ignored his laundry, and had no television or radio. He never left his dark, little dungeon, and days could pass with no sound from within. Sonny was completely insane, and since a mentally incompetent person cannot be executed, he was simply rotting away and dying on his own terms. Now there was a new crazy man on The Row, though Ron had a hard time convincing others. He was just playing the nut role.
One episode, though, got their attention. Ron managed to clog his toilet and flood his cell with two inches of water. He stripped naked and began doing belly flops into the pool from his top bunk, yelling incoherently as he did so. The guards finally managed to secure and sedate him.
Although there was no air-conditioning on F Cellhouse, there was a heating system, and winter brought the reasonable expectation of having warm air pumped through the ancient vents. It didn't happen. The cells were frigid. Ice often formed on the inside of the windows during the night, and the heavily bundled inmates stayed in bed as long as possible.
The only way to sleep was to layer on all available clothing-both sets of socks, boxers, T-shirts, khakis, work shirts, and anything else a prisoner might be able to afford from the canteen. Extra blankets were luxuries and were not furnished by the state. The food, which was cold in the summertime, was barely edible in winter. The convictions of Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot were reversed by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals because their confessions were used against each other at trial, and since neither testified, each was denied the right to confront the other. Had separate trials been given, the constitutional problems would have been avoided.
Had the confessions been suppressed, of course, there would have been no convictions. They were taken off The Row and sent back to Ada. Tommy was retried in the town of Shawnee, in Pottawatomie County. With Bill Peterson and Chris Ross prosecuting once again, and with the judge permitting the jury to see the taped confession, Tommy was again found guilty and rewarded with another death sentence. During his retrial, his mother was driven to the courthouse each day by Annette Hudson. Karl was retried in the town of Holdenville, in Hughes County. He, too, was found guilty and given a death sentence.
Ron was ecstatic at their reversals, then dismayed at their subsequent convictions. His own direct appeal was slowly inching through the system. His case had been reassigned within the Appellate Public Defender's Office. Due to the increasing number of capital cases, more lawyers were hired. Mark Barrett was overworked and needed to unload a case or two. He was also anxiously awaiting a ruling from the Court of Criminal Appeals in Greg Wilhoit's case. That court was notoriously tough on defendants, but Mark was convinced Greg would get a new trial.
Ron's new lawyer was Bill Luker, and his brief argued vigorously that Ron had not received a fair trial. He attacked the representation of Barney Ward and claimed Ron had received "ineffective assistance of counsel," usually the first argument in a capital case. Chief among Barney's sins was his failure to raise the issue of Ron's mental incompetence. None of his medical records were in evidence. Luker researched Barney's mistakes, and the list became long.
He assailed the methods and tactics of the police and the prosecutor, and his brief grew lengthy. He also challenged the rulings of Judge Jones: allowing Ron's dream confession to be heard by the jury, ignoring the numerous Brady violations by the prosecution, and in general failing to protect Ron's right to a fair trial.
The vast majority of Bill Luker's clients were clearly guilty. His job was to make sure they received a fair hearing on appeal. Ron's case was different, though. The more he researched and the more questions he asked, the more Luker became convinced that it was an appeal he could win.
Ron was a very cooperative client with strong views that he was ready to share with his lawyer. He called frequently and wrote rambling letters. His comments and observations were generally helpful. At times, his recall of the details of his medical history was astounding.
He dwelled on the confession of Ricky Joe Simmons, and considered its exclusion from his trial a major travesty. He wrote Luker:
You know I think Ricky Simmons killed Debbie. He must have or he wouldn't have confessed to it. Now, Bill, I've been going through physical hell. I think it's only fair for Simmons to pay for what he did and for me to go free. They don't want to release his confession to you because they know you'd put it in my brief and immediately win me a new trial. So for God sakes tell them son of a bitches you want his confession.
With plenty of free time, Ron developed an active correspondence, especially with his sisters. They knew how important the letters were, and they found time to write back. Money was usually an issue. He was unable to eat the prison food and preferred to buy whatever he could from the canteen. He wrote to Renee and said, in part:
I know Annette sends me a little money. But my misery is increasing. I've got Karl Fontenot here and he doesn't have anyone sending him anything. Could you please send me a little extra, even if it's $10.00.
Just before his first Christmas on The Row, he wrote Renee and said, in part:
Hey, thanks for sending the money. It'll go for specific needs. Mainly guitar strings and coffee. I got 5 Christmas cards this year, including yours. Christmas can give some good feelings.
Renee, the $20 really came at a good time. I had just borrowed some money to buy some guitar strings from a friend of mine and I was going to pay him back out of the $50 a month Annette sends. That would have cut me a little short. I know $50 may sound like a lot, but I've been giving, sharing with a guy here whose mother can't afford to send anything. She did send him $10 but that's the first money he's received since Sept when I moved near him. I give him coffee, cigarettes, etc. Poor fellow. Today's Friday, so you all will be opening gifts tomorrow. I hope everybody gets what they need. Kids sure grow up fast. I'm gonna start crying if I don't get myself together. Tell everybody
I love them, Ronnie
It was difficult to think of Ronnie having "good feelings" during the holidays. The tedium of death row was horrible enough, but to be cut off from his family brought a level of pain and desperation he could not handle. Early in the spring of 1989 he began slipping badly. The pressure, the drudgery, the sheer frustration of being sent to hell for a crime he did not commit, consumed him, and he fell apart. He began cutting his wrists and attempting suicide. He was very depressed and wanted to die. The wounds were superficial but left scars. There were several episodes of this, and he was watched closely by the guards. When the wrist cutting didn't work, he managed to start a fire with his mattress and let it drip over his extremities. The burns were treated and eventually healed.
More than once, he was put on a suicide watch. On July 12, 1989, he wrote to Renee:
I'm going through so much suffering. I've burned some tissue and got several second and third degree burns. The pressure here is immense. Never getting to go anywhere when the suffering is intolerable, Renee, I've had headaches, I've banged into the concrete, I've gotten down on the floor and banged my head against the concrete. I've hit myself in the face til I was so sore the next day from the punches. Everybody here is stuck here like sardines. I know for a fact this is the most suffering I've ever had to endure. The magic to the problem and its solution is money. I'm talking about never having anything to eat that's worth a shit. This food is like living on K-rations on some damn God-forbidden island. People here are poor but I've been so hungry that I've had to ask for a morsel to stop the craving. I've lost weight. There's so much suffering here.
Please help me. Ron
In one prolonged depressive bout, Ron stopped communication with everyone and withdrew completely until the guards found him curled into a fetal position on his bed. He would respond to nothing.
Then, on September 29, Ron cut his wrists again. He was taking his medications sporadically, was talking nonstop about suicide, and was finally deemed to be a threat to himself. He was moved out of F Cellhouse and transferred to Eastern State Hospital in Vinita. Upon his admission, his chief complaint was, "I have suffered unjustified abuse." At Eastern State he was first seen by a staff physician, a Dr. Lizarraga, who saw a thirtysix year-old with a history of drugs and alcohol, unkempt, unshaven, with long graying hair and a mustache, in shabby prison dress, with burn marks on his legs and scars on his arms, scars he made sure the doctor noticed. He freely admitted many of his misdeeds but adamantly denied killing Debbie Carter. The injustice from which he was suffering had caused him to lose hope and want to die.
For the next three months, Ron was a patient at Eastern State. His medication was stabilized. He was seen by various doctors-aneurologist, a psychologist, several psychiatrists. It was noted more than once that he was unstable emotionally, had a low tolerance for frustration, was self-centered with low self-esteem, was detached at times, and had a tendency to explode quickly. The mood swings were wild and remarkable. He was demanding, and over time became aggressive with the staff and other patients. This aggression could not be tolerated, and Ron was discharged and sent back to death row. Dr. Lizarraga prescribed lithium carbonate, Navane, and Cogentin, a drug used primarily to treat symptoms of Parkinson's disease but sometimes used to reduce shakiness and restlessness caused by tranquilizers.
Back at Big Mac, a prison guard by the name of Savage was brutally attacked by Mikell Patrick Smith, a death row inmate generally regarded as the most dangerous killer in the prison. Smith rigged a knife, or a "shank," to the end of a broom handle and thrust it through the bean hole as the guard was serving him lunch. The shank went into his chest and heart, but Officer Savage miraculously survived.
Two years earlier, Smith had stabbed a fellow inmate.
The attack occurred not on death row but on D Cellhouse, where Smith was being held for disciplinary reasons. Nonetheless, the prison officials decided that a new, state-of-the-art death row facility was required. The attack was well publicized and prompted funding for the new unit.
Plans were drawn up for H Unit, which from the outset was designed to "maximize security and control, while providing inmates and staff with a safe, modern environment in which to live and work." It would have two hundred cells on two floors, running along four quads.
From the beginning, the design of H Unit was driven by the prison staff. In the tense atmosphere following the attack on Officer Savage, the staff was given enormous input into the creation of a "noncontact" facility. Early in the design phase, thirty-five prison employees met with the Tulsa architects hired by the Department of Corrections. Though no death row inmate had ever escaped from McAlester, the designers of H Unit adopted the dramatic plan of putting the entire unit underground.
After two years on death row, Ron's mental health was seriously deteriorating. His noise-yelling, screaming, cursing at all hours of the day and night-grew worse. His behavior grew even more desperate. His temper would explode over nothing, and he would launch into a fit of cursing and throwing things. In another fit he would spit for hours into the hall; he once spat on a guard. But when he began throwing his feces through the bars, it was time to take him away.
"He's slingin' shit again," a guard yelled, and everybody ducked for cover. When things were clear, they rushed him and hauled him away, back to Vinita for another round of evaluation.
He spent a month at Eastern State in July and August 1990. He was again seen by Dr. Lizarraga, who diagnosed the same problems as before. After three weeks, Ron began demanding to be returned to death row. He was concerned about his appeal and felt that he could work on it better at McAlester, where at least they had a law library. His medications had been adjusted, he seemed to be stabilized, and so he was sent back.