Warm Greetings from Death Row

“Conner became enraged and started beating White. (The DA) says Conner left a tennis-shoe print on White’s forehead.”

Jackson Diagnostic Prison
Interviewing Georgia Department of Corrections Commissioner Homer Bryson
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Convicted murderer John Conner

When the invitation came to drive down to Jackson Diagnostic Center to cover a meeting between a federal bureaucrat and a state bureaucrat, I almost said no thanks. Even though the meeting involved efforts to crack down on the growing problem of smuggled cell phones in Georgia prisons – an issue I’ve been investigating for years – I was frustrated because the Department of Corrections said we would not be allowed to bring cameras inside the prison to cover the meeting.
No cameras? Are you kidding me? What a waste of time.

Glad I had some time to waste.

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A bag of cell phones and other contraband tossed over the prison wall in Augusta
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Prisoner families say smuggled cell phones help them avoid steep collect call charges that go into state coffers. Authorities say the phones help inmates plan attacks.

The meeting itself was marginally newsworthy: Federal Communications Commissioner Ajit Pai agreed to lobby fellow commissioners and cell phone providers to come up with a way to make those cell phones useless, thus eliminating the opportunity for gang members to plot attacks on each other, prisoners to harass their victims on the outside and stopping staff from profiting from the sale of such contraband.
But after the meeting, it was time for a tour of Jackson. And that included G-House. Death Row.

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The schematics of Georgia’s now-retired electric chair

I’ve been to Death Row once before. In 2001, we aired a series of stories about Georgia’s electric chair. The investigation focused on some remarkable audio tapes recorded by prison staffers as they witnessed each person being electrocuted, a la Larry Munson. “The prisoner is being asked by the warden if he has any last words. The prisoner spits on the warden.” The audio tapes also revealed how the chair twice failed to kill the condemned man with the first jolt of electricity. Six months after our series aired, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the electric chair unconstitutional. Now, convicted killers are put to death by lethal injection. There are no audio tapes for that.

But when I was preparing that story, the warden agreed to give us a tour of Death Row, with my photographer Tony D’Astoli allowed to shoot from just outside the cell block main door. You want to talk about creepiness? Walk along the cold, grey cells as each inmate stands at attention, just like Anthony Hopkins did in Silence of the Lambs. Only this time, instead of “hello Clarise” several of the Georgia inmates said “hello Randy.”

John Conner was there during my 2001 tour. He was there again in 2015.

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John Conner beat to death his friend during a night of heavy drinking

“I was down there at him right there in the ditch where he was at and he was swinging trying to get up or swinging at me to try to hit me one, and there was a stick right there at me, and I grabbed it and went to beating him with it.”

Conner stood at attention as the FCC commissioner and the rest of the tour walked by. I asked him his name.

“John Conner, like the guy in the Terminator Movie.”

I asked him how long he’d been on Death Row.

“Thirty-three years,” he smiled, almost as if I’d inquired how long he’d been married. Believe it or not, there are five other members of Death Row who’ve been here longer.

I asked him whether he’d seen any cell phones, since the warden had earlier admitted to us they’d found some a while back on Death Row, the most secure spot in the entire state prison system.

“Oh, no sir,” he smiled again, many of his teeth missing.

Old televisions are set up in a row outside the cells, allowing inmates to watch TV. Their favorite show? The local news.

“What news do you like to watch?” I wondered.

“Channel 5,” said the convicted murderer. Not exactly the demographic you’ll hear us promoting anytime soon.

Mark Winne from WSB-TV was listening to the conversation. “If you’d been watching WSB, you might not be in here.” Score one for the Raymond Chandler of local reporters.

Conner showed us his watercolor paintings he keeps stashed under the mattress of his cot. They were colorful but dark. We chatted about the classes he’s taking. The warden allows as many as 10 of them at a time to go outside, play basketball, socialize. Other than that, it’s sitting in their tiny cells, watching FOX 5, waiting for someone to walk past their space and engage in awkward conversation.

“Where does your case stand?”

“My appeals will run out in December. Then I go before the Parole Board.”

He was convicted in July, 1982 in Telfair County, of beating his friend to death with a whiskey bottle, a stick and his fist. That same year, my UGA journalism class had just finished up a documentary about the Georgia Death Penalty and how no one had been put to death since the state had made its law constitutional nine years earlier.

Since then, 58 convicted killers have been executed in Georgia. I shot video of the first one when I worked at WMAZ-TV in Macon, John Eldon Smith, as he was led into a courthouse in Jackson in 1983 to make one last appeal.

And I may have just made small talk with the next one.

“Conner presented no evidence, either at the guilt-innocence phase, or (against the advice of his attorney) at the sentencing phase of his trial. He was found guilty on all three counts and sentenced to death for the murder.”

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2 thoughts on “Warm Greetings from Death Row

  1. Also – you sidestep the biggest question this post raises: Why does the DOC have a blanket rule to keep cameras out of cellblocks now? “Security”? It’s baloney. The DOC spends more state tax money than any department, and their prisons are — best we can tell — pretty horrible. The taxpayers ought to be jumping up and down demanding the reappearance of camera-toting folk in state prisons.

    Like

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