POTOSI, Mo.—One after another, the condemned men arrive.
Usually, this spartan room — deep inside the concrete-and-razor-wire fortress that is Potosi Correctional Center, Missouri's maximum-security prison — is used for parole hearings. But on this day, five CPs (capital punishment offenders) have agreed to be interviewed.
These are men who live in the shadow of death, even as shadows hang over the death penalty itself. While a majority of Americans still favor executions, polls show a dip in support — perhaps because death-row prisoners have been proven innocent by DNA tests, or because of doubts about whether methods of execution are humane.
The debate, not surprisingly, reverberates on death row, but in a very personal way. Every day, these men struggle with the knowledge of how — though not when — they are likely to die.
They tell their stories, they share their fears.
And as they do, a staff sergeant watches their every move.
Jeffrey Ferguson worries who will care for his aging parents. It won't be him.
He's next in line to be executed, for a 1989 murder he doesn't remember.
Back then, he'd drink until he was unconscious — a case of beer a day, some vodka. Add a little cocaine. He'd been drinking heavily since his days in the Army in Europe. But he ran a business, and didn't own a gun.
"The night of the crime I don't remember going out with these guys," he says. "I don't know how I got back from there. All I know is somewhere along the way we picked up a girl and killed her for whatever reason."
He's not guilty of first-degree murder, he insists — he was an alcoholic, and out of it. But those days are long gone; the man who described himself as "Happy-Go-Lucky Jeff" was sobered and shaken by the death sentence.
"I've gone through ALL the stages," he says. "Anxiety attacks. I couldn't sleep. I didn't think of anything else, but I gave it to God finally, completely. It takes years."
He says he came to terms with dying, and life after death. Now, he's just waiting for an execution date.
He is 52 years old. He tries to console his parents, his ex-wife, their two children and three grandchildren.
"I've hurt a lot of people by my actions. I've had to forgive myself ... or I'd keep reliving this, and that's a sin too. So, there's a lot of suffering going on."
Since arriving at Potosi in 1992, he's seen dozens of friends and acquaintances taken away to be executed. Some, he believes, were innocent.
He volunteers with the prison's hospice program, feeding, changing, showering and sitting with dying inmates.
"Nobody should die alone in prison. It's about the worst it gets."
Roderick Nunley is not looking forward to execution, but he doesn't dwell on it, either.
"I'm mentally prepared to deal with it," he says.
Nunley, 41, doesn't allow himself anxiety or fear. "I can't afford to feel such a feeling. This is not a place to be emotional in. That's a sign of weakness, I think. In prison it is."
When Nunley was a boy, his father left the family just before his beloved older brother, his "rock," died of spinal meningitis. Sometime after that, he says, something — he won't say what — happened that left him vulnerable to drugs.
In 1989, when he and Michael Taylor abducted 15-year-old Ann Harrison — when they raped and killed her — he'd been strung out on cocaine for days, he says.
Otherwise, there'd be "no way in the world I'd have been involved."
"I can't erase what happened," he says. "If I could, I would. If I could give my life for hers, I'd bring that little girl back."
But he can't. And he knows nothing he can say can bring solace to the girl's family, or restore his own wasted life. He thinks about it sometimes, just as he thinks about his children, forced to "deal with things that I feel in my heart they wouldn't be dealing with had I not messed my life up. I've failed them."
On this day, he is controlled and emotionally blank. He later apologizes, in a letter with neatly penned cursive, for "looking like a madman" in need of shave and haircut — luxuries he has been allowed only once a month, since he was placed in "the hole," in solitary confinement, for stabbing a prison employee without warning in January 2006.
He says he has no memory of it; prison officials wondered if the attack was triggered by his anxiety when the state set an execution date for Taylor.
At his own execution, he does not want his mother to be a witness.
"I caused her enough pain," he says, quietly.
"If I do get executed, it's like I tell my daughter and sons, don't cry and feel sorry for me. If anything, cry and be happy for me cause I'll be free of this. I'm not happy here."
Michael Tisius spends his days drawing pencil and charcoal portraits, and poring over European history and art books: "I can't even picture myself in any situation of harm or violence ... being the person who would inflict it."
If he wasn't in prison, in solitary confinement, Tisius says he'd be a tattoo artist. No fewer than 42 cover his skinny, pale body.
But this is where he is, and this is where he will remain, until his execution.
Tisius didn't know his father, fought with his mother, wasn't close to his three half-siblings. He dropped out of school, ran wild, and ended up in jail, where he shared a cell with Roy Vance. Spring me when you get out, Vance pleaded. The 19-year-old obliged — and killed two guards who got in the way.
Vance "was pretty much the only family I had," he says.
"I mean, he wasn't family but he treated me like family. He was like an older brother. I wasn't going to lose my own family."
He's 26 now. Over time, he's taken responsibility for his actions, but he knows he can't undo them. And he hasn't asked the guards' families to forgive him: "It would be like reopening the wound. I mean, I put myself in their situation."
"Everybody plays the what-if game, but there's not a whole lot of point to it," he says. "If you spend your time questioning what you did, then you're going to miss what you can do."
Execution? A "cop-out," he says. Easier than life in prison.
Execution means "I don't have to deal with what I did ... with the pain ... with the people I've hurt, and ... with anyone hurting me anymore."
Martin Link is innocent, he insists. He's no angel, but kill a child? "I didn't do it," he says. "A kid? Come on, I've got a kid of my own."
The child was 11-year-old Elissa Self — abducted, raped and murdered in 1991. Link denies it all — the prosecutors were overzealous, the DNA testing was faulty, the evidence circumstantial.
"Politician prosecutors just wanted somebody," he says. "They don't care who it is."
On this day, the 16th anniversary of the murder, Link is emotionally flat.
"Do I own it? No, uh, uh. Nope.
"I was no saint. I was on a crime spree, they said. I was cashing checks, robbing. I was on a self-destruct mission. I never denied it, but I'm not a killer."
Link, a small, wiry man, grew up fatherless. He was kicked out of school in 10th grade; he'd already started using drugs at age 14, and his drug use grew.
Link, 44, has two or three appeals left. "You got to keep hope. You got to learn to deal with it over time (but) I don't think there is no such thing as finding peace."
Link's daily routine of work, TV and lifting weights helps him cope. He tries to lay low.
"I'm just myself," he says. "Some like me. Some hate me. Ain't much I can do about it. That's the way of the world, the same way as on the streets."
He says it's ludicrous to think the death penalty deters crime.
"They do first and ask questions later," he says.
"They always say the family wants closure on a particular case. It's not closure they want, it's revenge. The death penalty is revenge."
Chuck Mathenia wants to be executed, but he can't.
And so he paces in Potosi's special needs unit.
Mathenia was 25 when he killed his former lover, Daisy Nash, and her mentally impaired sister, Louanna Bailey in 1984. Both were in their 70s.
He's technically still under a death sentence for the murders. But he is mentally retarded. And so, in 1994, a judge declared him not competent for execution.
That puts him in an odd kind of purgatory — a very high-security, rigid confinement with no relief of death in sight.
"I'm trying to get executed, but I ain't getting nowhere ... ," he says. "I want to be executed more than anything. Sure do."
As much as he'd like to leave it, prison is the only steady home Mathenia's had. His parents died when he was 6 years old — he was never told why — so Mathenia says he cast about the Ozark foothills, from abusive aunt to alcoholic uncle to his sister's place and beyond.
Then, when he was 18, he met Daisy Nash, who gave him a place to live. He mowed her lawn, helped around the place. But she wanted more, he says, and they lived together for seven years, until Nash's family urged her to force him out.
He stabbed Nash with a butcher knife, rode his 10-speed bicycle to Louanna's house, and killed her, too.
Nash "didn't deserve to die," he acknowledges now.
Guards and Mathenia's attorney say he is so disconnected from reality that he couldn't be pulled away from watching "Jailhouse Rock" the night he won a stay of execution in '93.
A huge Elvis Presley fan, he'd been watching nonstop movies in the death watch cell.
These days, he's not interested in television. He's "just tired of being locked up."
"It don't make no sense, you know? Being on death row and you can't get executed. And, you can't get off of death row. It's kind of messed up.
"I got to pay for my crimes anyway. Ain't nothin' to it really. Can't live forever anyway."