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February 09, 2012 08:20 PM

Letters From Death Row Inmates


Five men now sit on South Dakota's death row.

And while the living conditions are no secret, a pair of letters from 2002 gives us a glimpse of what life is really like for those waiting to be executed.

In 2002, Joel Schwader was working as a Rapid City newspaper columnist.

"I got the idea to write to the death row inmates because I was curious on what life was really like on death row. Is it as bad as people thought, or did they lead a nice, cozy life?" Schwader said.

He wrote to all five men waiting to be executed. Charles Rhines, who was sentenced for Murder in 1993, was the first to respond.

He said, all things considered, his life wasn't that bad. He even had a sense of humor.

"Personally speaking, I think I'd likely have gotten another murder conviction had I been forced to spend the last nine years in a cell with Donald Moeller or Ron Anderson. They're both okay individuals to speak with, but I don't think I could handle spending 23 1/4 hours per day in a cell with them without resorting to violence," Schwader read from Rhines' letter.

A few days later a letter arrived from Robert Leroy Anderson.

"I don't judge people. I just don't. But the sense of evil that engulfed that letter when I pulled it out of the mailbox was just overwhelming to say the least," Schwader said.

The serial killer spent much of the letter complaining about the justice system, politics and perceptions.

"Your story would not enlighten the public to "row" conditions as much as it would participate a debate on whether or not we're being too kindly treated. I hold no disillusions on the public sentiment towards me," Schwader read from Anderson's letter.

Rhines' wrote similar words.

"As for letting the people of South Dakota know what life on Death Row is really like, well, perhaps we'd be better off not telling anyone. It's not as if they chain us to a wall and feed us with sling shots," Schwader read from Rhines' letter.

Even though conditions are no secret, Schwader says that hearing the first-hand accounts of the men living there was an eye-opening experience.

"We all know that death is coming eventually. We don't know when, but these guys do. They know that it's going to come sooner than later," Schwader said.

And although he is not for or against the death penalty, Schwader says he feels compassion for those who are condemned.

"Some people say that there are some things worse than death. And I would think that waiting to die would be one of them," Schwader said.

"While I'm getting rather long-winded, supper is nearing. It might even be edible tonight. It's never fancy, but usually okay. Sincerely yours, Charles R. Rhines," Schwader read.

Rhines is still awaiting execution for the 1992 killing of Donnivan Schaeffer. Robert Leroy Anderson committed suicide in prison on March 30, 2003.
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