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Inmate once condemned to die talks about death row

Chandler spent some of 10-year stint at Terre Haute before sentence commuted

David Ronald Chandler
David Ronald Chandler  

(CNN) -- David Ronald Chandler, a former marijuana dealer in the hills of Alabama, was the first man condemned to die under the 1988 drug kingpin law that reinstated the federal death penalty.

Chandler was sentenced to death after a confessed gunman said Chandler paid him $500 to kill another man. Chandler says he did not hire the man to kill anyone, that testimony that he helped bury the body was irrelevant and that he was not a marijuana dealer "to the point that they said I was."

Just a week before his execution in 1995, he won a court stay. Later, the gunman recanted his testimony and said he acted alone -- but Chandler's appeals were still turned down, and he was rapidly running out of them.

CNN's James Polk talks to a former condemned man about life on death row (June 19)

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But in January, two hours before George W. Bush became president, outgoing President Bill Clinton commuted his death sentence to life in prison without parole.

Chandler spoke with CNN's Jim Polk about his 10 years on death row.

POLK: What was life like on death row in Alabama?

CHANDLER: You're in a five-by-eight foot cell. It's rather small ... You sit there on that bunk and you sweat all day and you sweat all night.

It's best not to make a real close friend, if you understand what I'm saying. But over a period of time, after you go through like six or eight executions ... you don't get used to it, but then it doesn't bother you as it did, as it once did, when they executed the guy to your left in the next cell.

POLK: What are the nights before an execution like?

CHANDLER: The majority of the people stay up, and right at the point the execution begins to take place, they go to beating the bars, and it was one noisy place. They go to just hollering and screaming just as loud -- the whole, all of death row does it.

POLK: In that 23-hour-a-day lockdown, are you able to converse with those around you?

CHANDLER: It's very hard. You have to lay down. In some of (the cells) there's a crack under the door. You really have to scream out under the door for a guy to hear you.

POLK: How do you feel about the resumption of federal executions?

CHANDLER: I think they should all be halted, because innocent people are put on death row. I'm a living testament to that. They can be put on death row.

POLK: But surely not all the people around you were innocent?

CHANDLER: Everyone does not maintain their innocence on death row. I found that the great majority of people on death row admit their crime.

POLK: How do the condemned deal with their impending deaths?

CHANDLER: They just carry on as normal as they can, being locked up 23 hours a day. But there's no difference, their demeanor is no different, they just prepare themselves. They prepare themselves for that fate. I've seen it done.

There are others that are belligerent about it, but others that aren't.

POLK: If your sentence had not been converted to life in prison, what would have happened?

CHANDLER: I would have an execution day for probably about right now.


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