A Nervous Pall Is Cast Over Pa 'S Death Row With Tom Ridge As Governor, The State's First Execution Since 1962 Is Becoming More Likely. And The "Reality Is Sinking In."

Posted: January 29, 1995

They came for Florencio Rolan at 6:30 a.m.

As a Graterford state prison guard videotaped the proceeding, Rolan was handcuffed and led from his cell by two lieutenants, a captain, and the prison's warden.

Rolan was about to make a trip no inmate in Pennsylvania had made in 33 years. He was to be transferred to Rockview State Prison in Centre County, where he was scheduled to die that evening by lethal injection for the robbery-murder of a man in the Spring Garden section of Philadelphia.

There are 182 men and four women on Pennsylvania's death row. Twenty-three have come close enough to execution to have a death warrant issued and execution date set. Until Jan. 10, however, none had come so close as to be transferred to Rockview.

That was not lost on the other death-row inmates who shared Rolan's prison wing, witnesses said. As they watched through the bars of their cells as he was led away, no one said a word.

"I think we all realized the day was coming when we might be taking that walk ourselves," one inmate said later.

*

If death has taken a holiday in Pennsylvania, it soon will be back at work.

Florencio Rolan was returned to Graterford three days later, a stay blocking his execution while he pursues further appeals. But Pennsylvanians most deeply concerned with capital punishment - those on death row and their

families, the staff at state prisons, and the most staunch advocates and opponents of the death penalty - have become acutely aware that it is only a matter of time, probably a short time, before the state conducts its first execution since 1962.

"Make no mistake. I intend to see that Pennsylvania's death penalty exists in more than name only," Gov. Ridge declared to enthusiastic applause when he addressed the state legislature Monday. "It is the law. It is constitutional. It is justice."

Death-penalty advocates have applauded Ridge's determination.

Death-penalty opponents held a vigil the night before Ridge's inauguration to demonstrate their opposition, but they seemed resigned to what now seems inevitable.

"I think we will have an execution this year," said Pamela Tucker, secretary of the Pennsylvania Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

To those most personally involved - death-row inmates or prison staff who work with them - "the reality is sinking in now," said Lt. Charles Croll, who heads Graterford's J unit, where about a quarter of the state's death-row inmates live. If it was quiet when Rolan was transferred, death row has become ''quieter than quiet, stone quiet" since Ridge's address on Monday, he said. "Everyone is nervous, whether they'll admit it or not."

The mood on death row is perhaps best illustrated by the response of three inmates, facing executions, when asked to be interviewed for this article.

Each agreed, but only if they were not identified. They feared that if their names appeared in the newspaper, they might stand out among the many inmates eligible for death warrants.

All three are housed on the same corridor as Rolan and were among those who watched his transfer Jan. 10. And despite their isolation within Graterford's thick walls, they are well aware of Ridge's vow to make the death penalty a reality in Pennsylvania.

"The ones that can afford it have TVs and radios," one said. "I watch the news every day. Plus we get a newspaper. We pass it around. The governor,

from everything I seen, he's all for killing. That's how he won his election. I guess that's what the public wants."

Although the inmates said that Rolan's trip to Rockview and Ridge's election have been vivid reminders that they could be making the trip themselves, each has kept alive the hope that he will succeed in appeals of his own case and escape being strapped to a gurney and injected with lethal chemicals.

"A lot of guys still look forward to relief in the courts," said one. ''That's all you got to look forward to. You try not to give too much negative thought to the situation. That's me personally. I try to stay strong."

One inmate with 13 years on the row has had two warrants signed for his death. Each time, he got a reprieve before the week for his execution had been set.

Since he had not exhausted his appeals, he did not expect to be executed, he said. His case is in the courts now, and he said he was putting his "faith in God" for the outcome.

Croll likened death-row psychology to that of combat soldiers: "It's never gonna be me that takes the bullet. You got to look at it that way. I would. And some do dodge the bullet."

Another of the inmates said he was "hoping and praying" that Ridge's vow to sign numerous death warrants was "campaign rhetoric" and that "when it comes down to it, he won't have the taste for it."

Judging from the interviews, death-row inmates develop individual ways to escape thoughts of death. Unlike other prisoners, inmates with death sentences can't pass time by mingling with others, holding prison jobs, or attending programs. They are kept locked in their cells except for showers, a short exercise period, and occasional visits.

They talk to those in neighboring cells, but not about their situations. Conversations center on topical events such as the Super Bowl or O.J. Simpson's trial. Some play chess, yelling out their moves to an opponent in a nearby cell. One has learned to make greeting cards. Those with some reading proficiency - the majority of prison inmates read at the elementary school level, studies have shown - read books or go to the small law library in the building to work on their cases. More of them than usual have been going to the law library in the past few weeks, prison officials say.

And there's always television.

"TV is an escape. You try to forget," one explained.

The long hiatus in executions stems, in part, from the U.S. Supreme Court's 1972 ruling that existing death penalties were unconstitutional.

Pennsylvania has had a new death-penalty statute since 1978, two years after the top court once again allowed death sentences. The statute was upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1982.

Since then, Pennsylvania's death row has become the fourth-largest in the nation. Twenty-three inmates have been facing execution for at least 10 years, and their appeals eventually will be exhausted - especially after recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that make repeated appeals more difficult.

In his address Monday, Ridge asked the legislature to pass a law requiring him and future governors to sign death warrants - which set a specific week for the execution of a specific inmate - 90 days after the state Supreme Court turns down the first, automatic appeal of the death sentence, if no other appeals are pending.

Death-row inmates have at least two additional appeals, one in state court and the other in federal court. Prosecutors and other critics, who complained that former Gov. Robert P. Casey moved too slowly in signing warrants, have said that with no death warrants signed to force them to file further appeals, death-row inmates were biding their time before making their next legal move.

Ridge said that even if the legislature failed to pass such a 90-day rule, he intended to follow this time frame anyway.

At the current rate at which inmates are becoming eligible for death warrants, Ridge would sign as many in one year as Casey did in eight.

Ridge also said he would decide soon how he would handle the backlog of cases in which 90 days have passed without death warrants having been signed.

Robert Dunham, director of the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Capital Case Resource Center that began recruiting appeals attorneys for these cases last summer, estimated that there are 60 to 75 death-row inmates who lost their initial appeal more than 90 days ago and have either lost or not yet filed further appeals.

Tim Reeves, Ridge's spokesman, said Ridge was a "deliberate man" who would review each case. "There will be no mass signing of warrants," he said.

Dunham and Tucker, of the Pennsylvania Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, expressed relief that Ridge "is not just going to suddenly sign 50 warrants, which was our worst fear," in Tucker's words.

But even a moderately accelerated pace of warrants "could lead to the imposition of constitutionally unjust executions," Dunham said. "There is an extreme shortage of qualified lawyers to handle capital cases in Pennsylvania

because there is no system in place to ensure they will be properly compensated and provided with the necessary investigative and expert assistance to do a minimally competent job."

Dunham and Tucker contend that a number of death-row inmates have legitimate claims of poor representation at their trials.

"If the pace is speeded up, we're concerned they'll have poor representation in their appeals, too," Tucker said.

Prosecutors contend that most appeals are meaningless delaying exercises.

The impending reality of an execution is dawning on prison staff, too. Alan LeFebvre, Graterford's spokesman who was present when Rolan was taken away, said that the officers, as well as the inmates, were quiet, solemn and a little anxious.

"The sun was coming up, and I looked around and realized none of us had done this before," he said. "Some weren't alive or were in grade school or teenagers when the last execution took place. It came to me that this is a new generation. The procedures have passed to us."

The Rev. Edward Neiderheiser, the Graterford chaplain who is Rolan's spiritual adviser, said that some staff members had spoken with him recently about capital punishment. "They told me they hadn't thought much about capital punishment before. But being directly involved, they were forced to give it more thought."

Mr. Neiderheiser said many employees played a role in Rolan's move: Besides guards, there were the people who processed the paperwork, or called Rolan's mother to ask what she wanted done with his remains, or checked Rolan's veins to see if they were adequate to receive an injection.

"Execution procedures are designed to protect everybody from responsibility, but it's still difficult whether you're in favor of capital punishment or not," he said.

Croll and other officers who work on death row said that their training emphasized concentrating on their duties and not getting emotionally involved. Even so, once executions actually resume, their job may take an emotional toll.

"The ones like (Rolan) that are friendly and no trouble, you develop a kind of kinship with," one officer said. "But you blank that out. The court did sentence them, and you do your job."

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