By Robert Eckhart
Published: Sunday, September 6, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.
When Judge Deno Economou decides if convicted killer Michael King should be sentenced to life in prison or death by lethal injection, he will also be ruling on every detail, every day, and every meal of the rest of King's life.
Men serving life in prison have jobs. They can exercise in the yard, eat in communal dining rooms and sleep in dormitories.
They have dayrooms where they can watch TV.
Death row means about 23 hours a day alone in a 6-foot by 9-foot cell. The state keeps the death row inmates away from others for their own protection. And for the protection of others, because these are people with very little to lose.
Air conditioning is forbidden on death row, so inmates mostly keep still.
"It's awful," said the Rev. Larry Reimer, who has visited for 27 years to minister to a death row inmate. "It is hotter there than you permit animals to be kept."
Reimer, pastor at United Church of Gainesville, goes to Union Correctional Institution once a month to see Douglas Raymond Meeks, a 35-year veteran of death row, one of the inmates with the longest tenure there.
Reimer also has seen the recently arrived death row inmates. He may not know their names, but he knows the look.
"The young men who've just come there, they look like they don't know how they're going to cope with this."
If sentenced to death, Michael King will likely be sent to death row at Union, joining about 300 other inmates in the separate building where they are kept.
Still life with concrete
Inmates can buy their own TVs on death row: 13-inch portables with clear covers so they cannot hide contraband in them. They listen to them with headphones.
Their meals are delivered to them, along with the plastic sporks that are the only cutlery they can use.
When they want to talk, they shout down the hall to each other.
Reimer says it gets noisy sometimes, especially when the inmates are trying to converse long-distance.
To keep themselves busy, most inmates settle into a routine of reading and TV programs and make the most of their 90-minute excursions into an exercise yard twice a week.
The death row yard is separate, with 10 to 15 inmates allowed to exercise at a time, playing basketball and volleyball on the concrete.
Juan Melendez, who was exonerated and released in January 2002 after 17 years, 8 months and one day on death row, remembers the hopelessness and the roaches and rats. He also remembers the camaraderie with other inmates. He got to know them in the exercise yard, and by chatting cell-to-cell.
They taught Melendez how to speak English. They also taught him how to get a plastic trash bag from a trusty and hang yourself with it from the towel rack that is one of a handful of furnishings in a death row cell.
"I had to wet the floor and sleep on the floor. That's how hot it was," Melendez said.
At 5 a.m., Melendez said, the trusties put the breakfast trays into metal slots in each cell.
"If you wait five seconds to get the tray, you ran out of luck," he said. "The roaches beat you to it. They were waiting for breakfast, too."
Melendez, 58, spent about half his time on death row in Florida State Prison when the electric chair was the state's only form of execution. Lethal injection was added in 2000.
He said the surge of power to the chair made a buzzing sound that he could hear in his cell.
"When it happens, nobody says nothing," he said. "Everybody is quiet. Everybody's in silence."
A member of several anti-death penalty groups, Melendez now travels across the country as a lecturer.
Death row inmates can have visitors, and they can write letters.
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections says death row inmates do not necessarily have it worse than inmates in general population.
"Whether or not one is better than the other really depends on your vantage point," said spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger.
On death row, inmates do not have to work and they can get their own TV screens. Inmates in general population live up to 100 in the same dorm room.
A toll on sanity
The state-appointed lawyers who represent death row inmates visit them a minimum of four times a year.
"If you do this kind of work, you realize that the existence for these guys on death row is just a lot tougher than being in general population," said Neal Dupree, an attorney who heads up the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel of South Florida.
Death row takes its biggest toll on the inmates' sanity, Dupree said.
"You're cut off from everything. You're cut off from everybody. You really have to be strong," Dupree said. "People become depressed, withdrawn. Some of them get angry. Mostly, it's a depression."
After 14 years of legal arguments, attorneys in the south region succeeded in getting a prisoner off of death row last week.
David Lee Thomas, 43, convicted of murder and attempted robbery in Lee County in 1991, is mentally retarded -- a "mitigating" fact that his defense attorneys did not raise at his trial. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 ruled it unconstitutional to execute people who are mentally retarded.
The lead defense attorney in the Thomas case, Rachel Day, negotiated a settlement with prosecutors that will move Thomas off death row and into general population. He will serve life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years.
"He knows that serving a life sentence, the conditions will be considerably better for him than they were on death row," Day said. "He'll have a lot more freedom to work, to study, to walk, to exercise, than he would on death row, which is extremely confined."
As Thomas leaves, King appears to be on his way there. The 12 jurors voted unanimously to recommend the death sentence for him.
Circuit Judge Deno Economou will hand down King's sentence in the coming weeks. Judges rarely go against the jury recommendation.