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Sunday, March 9, 2009 The state may wish them dead, but San Diego-area death-row inmates want a life. And they’re using the internet to get it.
Susan Eubanks, who shot her four young boys to death in San Marcos in 1997, describes herself in an online ad as a middle-aged “cougar” who’s optimistic and enjoys meeting new people.
Cleophus Prince Jr., San Diego’s most notorious serial killer, writes on a prisoner “pen-pal” website that he is “open minded, compassionate, and caring.”
And Eric Anderson, who murdered the owner of East County’s Cajon Speedway during a 2003 robbery, writes in an online ad that he’s a “caring person that’s down to earth.”
In total, at least 11 death-row inmates who were convicted in San Diego County currently have messages posted online. As a rule, the convicted murderers are seeking to make connections and change how the world perceives them.
The inmates rarely mention their crimes and portray themselves as kind, approachable and even sexy, despite the fact that romance from behind bars is difficult, if not impossible. Those who contact prisoners are sometimes motivated by greed or titillation, although others simply act out of compassion or hope to spur spiritual conversion.
The inmates are “a lot more than the sum total of whatever act led them to death row,” said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. “They certainly have their softer human side that most people don’t realize. After 10 or 15 years of having time to rethink, to not be in abusive situations, people change.”
But victims’ rights advocates say the online posts are an outrage because they allow murderers like six-time killer Prince, who terrorized the University City and Clairemont neighborhoods in 1990, to disguise their true selves.
“The thought of him trying to communicate with well-meaning innocent people who may think they feel compassion for him turns my stomach,” said Chris Saunders, a former television reporter who covered the Prince trial and is now a board member of the locally based Crime Victims Fund.
While the bulk of the personal and pen-pal ads were posted in the last several years, California death-row inmates have actually been utilizing the internet for more than a decade. Prisoners aren’t allowed to go directly online directly because of the risk that they’ll engage in criminal activity or target families of victims, but they can legally ask people on the outside to post messages for them.
The first online posts by prisoners appeared in the early days of the internet’s popularity. Dean Carter, a death-row inmate convicted of killing four women in San Diego, Los Angeles and Oakland, began posting on a site called Deadman Talking in 1995.
Carter, who says he is innocent, has posted 46 messages to the site through an intermediary outside the prison. The most recent message, posted in October 2008, tells the story of an inmate’s eight-month odyssey to get special shoes for his large feet.
Other prisoners post messages on sites like prisonvoice.com, prisonpenpals.com or friendsbeyondthewall.com. Interested people outside prison walls must respond by mail at first, although prisoners can later call them or meet them during prison visiting hours.
Some death row-inmates use their online posts to seek pen pals, including two of California’s most notorious killers: Charles Ng, who murdered at least 11 people, and Richard Allen Davis, who is still appealing his conviction in the 1993 murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas. The high-profile case helped inspire California’s “three-strikes” law.
Prince, the San Diego serial murderer known as the “Clairemont Killer,” is looking for friends and advocates in his ad, posted on a Canadian anti-death penalty site.
Prince writes: “I’m an intelligent open minded, compassionate, and caring soul who is looking for someone to brighten a fella’s day with a letter or whatever. … What am I looking for? Someone I can share my thoughts, feelings, and experience with, in other words a friend.”
Death-row inmates like Prince have limited opportunities to make friends inside prison. They live in single-person, 4-foot-by-9-foot cells and don’t leave for meals, although they can go outside for five hours a day, said spokesman Lt. Sam Robinson at San Quentin State Prison near San Francisco, where almost all male death-row inmates are housed.
Inmates seeking connections with the outside world often have motives other than friendship. Some are seeking advocates, while others want romance.
Susan Eubanks’ ad on a site called cowtowninfo.com, for example, provides her measurements and includes two photographs that apparently were taken before she was jailed for killing her boys, all under the age of 15.
“I enjoy writing, am fun loving, I love to laugh,” her ad says. “For the most part, I am optimistic in life and try not to take myself too seriously.”
Like many other online posts by prisoners, the Eubanks ad includes information about her crimes. According to a Union-Tribune article, “she said she killed her boys as a final act of love in what was an attempted murder-suicide.”
Cowtowninfo.com only includes ads by female prisoners and regularly names a “jailbabe of the month.” Eubanks, whose ad was posted in 2007, has not received that honor.
Even if death-row inmates like Eubanks develop romantic connections with outsiders, their options are limited. While the inmates can meet people during visiting hours and touch them, they cannot have conjugal visits, meaning sexual intimacy with people they meet online is impossible.
However, death-row inmates in California can get married, and at least 10 do so each year, Robinson said. One groom was Richard Ramirez, the “Night Stalker.”
Letters may be the next best thing to physical intimacy, said University of San Diego law professor Shaun Martin, because for some prisoners, “the only erotic experience they get is probably some titillating letters back and forth.” Martin added that it’s said that “the best heterosexual sex you can get in prison is through the mails.”
Posting an ad from prison often isn’t free. Writeaprisoner.com, one of the most high-profile pen-pal sites, charges $40 to post an ad for a year. The site typically allows any prisoner to post, although it makes exceptions if someone is particularly notorious, said Adam Lovell, the site’s president and founder. “We don’t want to put all the attention on the most infamous ones,” he said.
The site currently features ads from 16 California death-row inmates. One is Anderson, the killer of the Cajon Speedway owner. His ad, posted last April, includes a photo of Anderson before his imprisonment and describes him as a 35-year-old philosophy fan who enjoys making people laugh.
According to Lovell, three states — Florida, Indiana and Missouri — don’t allow prisoners to post ads online. Prisoner-rights advocates hope courts will throw out the regulations on free-speech grounds.
Martin, the law professor, said death-row prisoners have rights despite their crimes. “I’m sure there are plenty who would say ‘No, no, throw them all into solitary,’” he said. “I believe allowing people to communicate is just an essential part of being human, and there’s no real downside to letting people talk. Humans are social animals, and to not allow pen pals just seems horribly cruel even for the worst of offenders.”
Those who contact prisoners from beyond prison walls have a variety of motives of their own.
Some are titillated by the prospect of communicating with people behind bars, said Jody Lewen, executive director of the Prison University Project, which provides education to inmates at San Quentin State Prison.
“I have certainly encountered plenty of people who seek out contact with prisoners because it sounds ‘exciting’ to them,” Lewen said via e-mail. “Some people evidently get a thrill from the idea of having contact with ‘scary people.’ For some, the whole scene seems to have an almost erotic dimension.”
But on the whole, she said, “most people who seek out a pen pal in prison do so out of compassion, and this is surely true whether the prisoner is condemned to death or simply incarcerated. … They see writing as a way to break down that person’s isolation.”
Many pen pals have another motivation: spiritual conversion. “Over 50 percent of mail that goes to death-row inmates is religious,” said Lovell of writeaprisoner.com. “They’re trying to get them to embrace whatever god they pray to.”
Other motives aren’t so pure. Some who contact prisoners are out to make a buck by developing relationships with famous murderers and then selling their letters or artwork.
Online stores routinely sell drawings and paintings created by serial killers, and even routine paperwork may have value if it’s written by a famous murderer. A site called supernaught.com, for example, is selling a handwritten letter said to be written by San Diego serial killer Prince for $8.99.
And on murderauction.com, a Belgian dealer is trying to find a buyer for a handwritten letter by Prince that includes a drawing of a rose impaling a heart.