British group finds 'pen friends' among 2,900 prisoners on U.S. death rows

November 10, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of The Sun

CAMBRIDGE, England -- The execution of John Thanos in Maryland continues to raise echoes of compassion among the 1,600 Britons who write men and women on death row in America.

They condemn his crimes but mourn his death. They are members of LifeLines, a 6-year-old organization devoted to writing to people sentenced to death in United States. They write to every one of the nearly 2,900 death row prisoners who wants a British "pen friend." They write to several condemned men in Maryland.

Cathy Liddle, a Yorkshire woman who is LifeLines' Maryland coordinator, was profoundly moved by the Thanos execution, and perhaps became even more deeply concerned for his victims.

"As a parent myself," Ms. Liddle says, "I'd be devastated for the parents of the victims of John Thanos."

Thanos, a 45-year-old Baltimorean, was executed by lethal injection May 17 for killing three teen-agers in August and September 1990.

"He had been actively seeking his death for years," says Ms. Liddle, in the LifeLines newsletter. "The state did the job for him with all the panoply of the law.

"Without minimizing his crimes and the pain he brought to others," she says, "the story of John Thanos says far more about the failure of society to protect and cherish its children than it does about the existence of individual evil."

Tori Burbridge, the national secretary of LifeLines, says Ms. Liddle summed up "a universal truth about anyone on death row."

Court psychiatrists said Thanos was self-destructive and delusional and had been a victim of child abuse.

"Society gets the criminals it deserves," Ms. Burbridge says.

She adamantly opposes the death penalty, but a few members do not. Some have been victims of crime.

Lesley Moreland, whose 23-year-old daughter, Ruth, was murdered in London, is eloquent about her correspondence with Michael Richard, a man awaiting death in a Texas prison.

"What I didn't expect was that the relationship between Michael and myself would be so mutually supportive," she says. "He wrote to me very touchingly about the fourth anniversary of Ruth's death."

LifeLines is determinedly non-political. It doesn't even campaign against the death penalty. Britain does not have capital punishment, nor does any Western European country.

Crime is increasingly a major political issue in Britain. But a bill to reintroduce capital punishment was resoundingly defeated in the House of Commons in February, 403 to 159. Another bill to allow an execution in the murder of a policeman lost 383 to 186.

The bills were opposed by Prime Minister John Major and Michael Howard, who as home secretary is in charge of police and prisons.

LifeLines doesn't formally screen its writers, or for that matter, the prisoners. Its credo is to befriend and support death row prisoners without condition or qualification. And it accepts members in pretty much the same way.

LifeLines does ask "pen friends" to examine their motives in writing a prisoner on death row. They do get requests from people who want to write celebrity slayers such as Jeffrey Dahmer or Charles Manson.

"That shows morbid interest," says Ms. Burbridge. "That's not what we're about."

Brenda Woodford, LifeLines' Illinois coordinator, observes dryly that John Wayne Gacy had a lively correspondence without LifeLines' help.

Death row romances are discouraged. About three-quarters of LifeLines members, or about 1,200, are women. Death row is almost exclusively male.

Women find it easier to be "compassionate," says Ms. Burbridge. "They find it easier to empathize, to feel that could be my son on death row, or my brother, or that could be my father."

Men, she suggests, may be more inclined to think the prisoner should accept his punishment "like a man. Don't gripe. Don't come crying to me."

LifeLines, nevertheless, was started by a man -- Jan Arriens, a Cambridge translator and Quaker chaplain at a British prison.

Mr. Arriens was moved by a 1987 BBC documentary "Fourteen Days in May," which dealt with the execution of a young black man named Edward Earl Johnson in Mississippi. He wrote to three prisoners shown in the documentary.

"All three wrote back," he says. "They were all intensely arresting letters. I showed them to other people, who were similarly affected. So a small group of people started writing in that way."

"It just seemed to me a whole reservoir of writing talent was dammed up waiting to burst," he says. "And that's exactly what proved to be the case."

With national publicity, death row correspondence expanded quickly beyond Cambridge. A 1992 TV program based on a compilation of LifeLines letters brought 6,500 inquiries. LifeLines had to start a waiting list.

Mr. Arriens has visited prisoners he has written to in Mississippi and Georgia.

LifeLiners vigorously deny being anti-American. Anti-death penalty, yes, anti-American no, says Ms. Burbridge.

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