SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. (CN) - As I entered the visitation room at San Quentin's death row, I gazed at the condemned inmates there and thought about all the awful things these men had done.
California's death row prisoners include serial killers, child abductors, white supremacists and gang members. Some of them had tortured their victims, others had dismembered corpses. Several had burned people alive.
As if to prove how truly bad it was there, when the inmate I had arranged to visit appeared, he looked like he had been hit by a car: His right arm was in a brace, as were both thighs. He had a noticeable lump on his head, and he moved his jaw awkwardly, the legacy of having it previously wired shut.
"What happened to you?" was my first obvious interview question.
Michael Whisenhunt nodded toward the wounded arm.
"This is how it is here," he said, matter-of-factly. "These are the consequences of my actions."
In 2001, more than two decades before Governor Gavin Newsom decided to shut down death row and transform San Quentin State Prison into a rehabilitation facility, I covered the capital murder trial of Rex Krebs, a convicted rapist who was charged with abducting, raping and murdering two female college students in San Luis Obispo County. Sensing that Krebs would be condemned to death, I wanted to offer a look into his future, so I arranged to visit Whisenhunt - the most recent man sentenced to death from the same county - on two occasions when the Krebs trial was not in session.
Whisenhunt, who was polite and well spoken, said death row reeked of stale sweat, echoed with constant yelling and swarmed with anger.
"This is a madhouse," Whisenhunt told me, gesturing to the visitation room, where several other condemned inmates met with visitors in separate metal cages. "This is insane. There is no warmth, and there's no emotion - except hatred."
The state's oldest prison, San Quentin opened in 1852. While inmates were executed at Folsom State Prison in the early days, San Quentin has been the only place male inmates have been executed since 1937, when the gas chamber replaced hanging. In total, over 400 executions have been carried out at San Quentin.
However, the state has not executed an inmate in 17 years. And in 2019, Newsom signed an executive order declaring a moratorium on the death sentence, which he said was morally wrong and unfairly administered.
In January, 2020, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation began relocating the state's nearly 700 condemned inmates, public information officer Tessa Outhyse wrote in an email to Courthouse News. That two-year pilot program eventually became permanent.
"As of April 28, 101 death-sentenced males housed at San Quentin have been transferred to other institutions," Outhyse wrote.
In March, Newsom announced new plans for San Quentin.
"California is transforming San Quentin - the state's most notorious prison with a dark past - into the nation's most innovative rehabilitation facility focused on building a brighter and safer future," he said in a statement. "Today, we take the next step in our pursuit of true rehabilitation, justice, and safer communities through this evidenced-backed investment, creating a new model for safety and justice - the California Model - that will lead the nation."
The move has been predictably controversial.
"I think the whole thing is a sick joke," said Mike Rushford, president and CEO of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for tough-on-crime laws.
Death row inmates, he said, represent special security risks and should not be housed with other inmates.
"These are the worst murderers in the country," Rushford said. "These are the worst of the worst."
While a 2016 voter initiative approved expediting executions in the state, Rushford said, Newsom has rejected those voter desires, culminating with the decision to transform San Quentin.
"He wants to turn it into a spa," Rushford said.
While he thinks San Quentin needs to be torn down - "it's medieval, it's a horrible place" - Rushford said death row inmates should have been moved to one single, more modern prison with extra security.
When I first arrived at San Quentin in 2001, boats gently glided across the San Francisco Bay as ripples reflected golden hour sunlight. While death row might be horrific, the prison is surrounded by Bay Area beauty.
"I'd level the place and sell it to real estate developers," Rushford said.
In 2001, there were three condemned inmates from San Luis Obispo County, who had killed seven people. Months before the Krebs trial began, I reached out to all three condemned inmates, but Whisenhunt was the only one who agreed to talk about life on death row - though he declined to talk about the details of his case, which was on mandatory appeal.
Whisenhunt was the only one of the three with a single victim. Yet the details of his crime were horrific: In 1995, he tortured and killed Kesha Gurke, the 19-month-old daughter of his live-in girlfriend. An autopsy concluded the toddler had suffered 44 burns and 24 bruises throughout her body. There were signs that she had been kicked and stomped, resulting in severe internal injuries.
Because Whisenhunt had been abused as a child, abandoned at 13 and shuffled to several foster homes until the system finally surrendered and gave him a bus ticket at age 17, defense attorneys argued he viewed children who were loved as a threat.
The jury recommended death.
To this day, journalists aren't allowed to request interviews with inmates in California, so the only way to get an interview is to write the inmate and ask that they allow you on their visitation list. Once inside, visitors are only allowed one sheet of paper and a short pencil. Knowing I'd need much more than that, I grabbed several industrial paper towels I could write on.
A few years earlier, a violent gang fight had broken out among inmates in the condemned inmate visitation room, prompting a change. Now visitors enter 15 separate cages that each contain a plastic table and two plastic chairs.
In the cage next to us, an older woman from a local church's prison outreach greeted a younger inmate with a hug that seemed more than platonic - as confirmed when the inmate quickly smoothed his hands over her buttocks. Two cages from them, a CBS News crew interviewed Stanley "Tookie" Williams, the founder of the Los Angeles Crips gang, convicted of four murders, who had been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
But it was other inmates Whisenhunt mentioned when he talked about the madhouse. Notorious criminals, like serial murderers Charles Ng and Richard Ramirez and Richard Allen Davis, who abducted Polly Klaas from a slumber party and strangled her.
"Sometimes you say, 'Wait a minute,'" Whisenhunt said. "And you look around, and you ask, 'How did this happen?'"
At San Quentin, he said, he had avoided gangs and racial strife and tried to remain positive.
"I can turn around and become this place, or I can stay myself," he said.
But San Quentin is a tough place. Shortly before I met him, Whisenhunt got into a fight in the prison yard, prompting a correctional officer to fire "non-lethal ammunition," the CDCR told me, hitting Whisenhunt in the head, face, arm and legs. Afterward, Whisenhunt was segregated from the rest of the population, spending 18 hours alone in his tiny cell.
As I interviewed Whisenhunt that first time, a fellow inmate named Robert Massie was scheduled to be executed in a week and a half, so I asked Whisenhunt if that made him think of his own death. He shook his head and stared toward the ceiling.
"Man, it's scary," he said.
After each execution, he added, the normally raucous death row became oddly silent.
"I get a cold, empty feeling because it's so quiet," he said.
On March 27, after reporting on a long day of testimony in the Krebs trial, a photographer and I drove from Monterey, where the trial had been relocated, to San Quentin to be there before midnight. During a vigil outside the prison, 1,000 protesters and a few counter-protestors gathered, some holding crosses, signs and candles. One protester, going by "Rabbi Lou," read the names of those executed since capital punishment had been reinstated in 1978. There were nine inmates, with 36 victims.
Massie was executed at 12:33 a.m.
Two weeks later, I visited Whisenhunt again.
Some inmates, like Williams, deserved to do time, he said - but not at San Quentin. Others, he said, were in the right place. "With some of them I'm thinking, if they get their appeal, watch out world - here comes madness."
Whisenhunt was certain he would win his appeal, insisting in a subsequent letter, "I'll be back there soon!"
The letter had numerous typos - which he attributed to his injuries. Mostly written with a typewriter, it included a handwritten note at the end:
"Remember to stop each day to just see the beauty before you," he wrote. "It's there if you take the time to look with truly open eyes."
It was prescient advice from someone familiar with darkness. And while Whisenhunt longed for the smell of recently mowed grass, he, like Kesha - who would have turned 29 last February - won't ever experience a normal life again.
His appeal was rejected by the state Supreme Court in 2008.
He is currently still incarcerated at San Quentin.
Five days after my interview with Whisenhunt was published, a jury recommended death for Rex Krebs, who also remains at San Quentin.
"He has a pretty interesting life ahead of him!" Whisenhunt wrote in his follow-up letter. "Because reality will start to kick in really fast!"
Source: Courthouse News Service