The names fall from Trevor McDonald’s lips as if he were reciting a list of past American presidents. “Ronald Sanford, Frederick Baer, Benjamin Ritchie…” Their faces and their stories are seared into the memory of the veteran newscaster. “I can’t get these people out of my head,” he confesses. “I see most of them every day. You can’t wash them away. I can’t wash those images away.”
Given the backgrounds of the men in question, it’s no surprise. Each is a convicted killer incarcerated in America’s Indiana State Prison. Two of them are on Death Row, awaiting execution by lethal injection.
McDonald spent two weeks in the prison last summer, talking to inmates and their jailers. Journalists can, on occasions, reach for hyperbole a little too casually when promoting their own programmes, but the impact this experience has had on him is unquestionably profound. “It was, in every way, one of the more remarkable things I have ever done. I can’t think of anything else which could compare.”
Part of his reaction can be attributed to the fact that despite more than 50 years as a journalist, he had never set foot inside a jail until he crossed the threshold of the high-security Indiana prison 50 miles east of Chicago. The average sentence served by each of its 1,900 inmates is 52 years. Many of those he met will die inside, most of old age, but some still in their prime at the hands of the state.
“So many bits of these films are stamped indelibly in my mind. I would go back to my hotel room and lock the door. I had books to read and there were endless acres of awful American TV to watch, and I would find myself stopping and thinking back. I would call up the producer and say, ‘Do you remember what that guy said?’”
One conversation chills him. Frederick Baer slit the throats of a 24-year-old woman and her four-year-old daughter after breaking into their house intent on committing rape. He couldn’t go through with the assault, so killed both of them instead. His Death Row cage – for that is what it is – is covered with pictures of Princess Diana. McDonald was appalled. “I said to him, ‘How on earth can you surround yourself with these pictures of somebody who represented such goodness when you think of your dark crime?’ He said he had always admired and loved her…”
For nearly an hour McDonald sat on the bed of the handcuffed Baer, hearing him describe his crimes, express his remorse and accept his fate at the hands of the executioner. “To sit there, late at night, in that cell, and to talk to someone about the brutal murder of a woman and her daughter, and the way in which he killed them… you’re almost physically ill really. It’s probably the most horrendous thing anybody has ever told me.”
Did McDonald concur with Baer’s view that he deserved to die for what he did? “Well, you couldn’t disagree with him.” If that encounter sickened McDonald, another troubled him deeply. Ronald L Sanford (right) was just 13 years old when he murdered two elderly women after a robbery attempt went horrifically wrong. At the age of 15 he was sentenced to 170 years in prison. Today, 23 years into the sentence that will keep him behind bars for the rest of his life, Sanford is articulate and, apparently, well adjusted. The shelves in his cell groan under the weight of books on everything from eugenics to metaphysics. Four thousand miles away in the cellar of a swanky west London hotel, surrounded by racks of fine wine and vintage port, McDonald ponders the hopelessness of Sanford’s life. Does it make him despair?
“Despair is too mild a word. I am haunted by the idea of a young man at 15 years of age facing up to a sentence of 170 years. As he said himself, he’d never been to a prom, on an aeroplane or been out of the country. He never owned a passport. I can see him in my mind’s eye now. I know exactly what he is doing. So you look back on all those wasted years and then you know they go on and on. They will continue, and for him there is no end to it.” And did his remorse seem genuine? “I have no way of knowing and no way of doubting. I mean, if you are looking at 170 years, then you would be sorry, wouldn’t you?”
Other encounters remain with him, too. “There was a father and his son in there both for murder. We took the father to meet the son, and I can still picture the son walking down to meet his father, and saying rather oddly, ‘We see much more of each other now than we ever have.’ I thought that was, profoundly, one of the saddest things I have ever heard. Father and son in prison, both for murder, and the son saying he saw more of his father now than he ever did. You wince at that.”
There are currently 11 people on Death Row at Indiana State Prison, though 2009 was the last time a man was executed there. The picture across America shows fewer states exercising their power to take life. Last year, 43 men were put to death – the same as in 2011 – with Texas topping the list with 15 executions. A CNN poll conducted in 2011 showed that a small majority of Americans favoured life sentences instead of the death penalty for murder.
Having sat on Death Row and seen the prison’s execution suite, McDonald remains opposed to the death penalty. But after listening to stories of child murder, contract killing and police slaying, he understands why capital punishment remains on the statute books of 33 American states.
“When you hear what people did, you understand why Americans feel as they do. It didn’t change my mind, but I understood and almost had sympathy with the way they felt. One has to respect the fact that this is a system that would not exist if the American voters didn’t want it. I don’t know what the vote would be in this country if you asked people what should happen to whoever killed those two police officers in Manchester. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were a majority in favour of the death penalty.”
How would he vote? “I’m against it. I don’t like the idea of the state killing people. But if you try to put yourself in the shoes of somebody who has lost a family member, then emotion crowds out any kind of rational views you may have of it, and I understand that. I hope it wouldn’t happen in my case, but I don’t know because I have been fortunate not to lose anybody that way. I don’t know what I would do.”