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Life on death row: Michael Whisenhunt gives an interview during the Rex Krebs trial

Once the guard unlocks the chains around his wrists, Michael Whisenhunt walks into the cage with the spryness of a boxer entering the ring. His solidly built body is a canvas for dozens of tattoos, but it is also a symbol of his struggles on California's death row at San Quentin State Prison.

His right arm is in a brace, as are both thighs. He has a noticeable lump on his head, and he occasionally shifts the jaw that had been wired shut two years ago; his condition is the result of a prison fight he took part in.

"This is how it is here," he says, nodding toward his wounded arm, which was shot by a prison guard during the fight. Later the former Paso Robles resident will pat the braces on his thighs and proclaim: "These are the consequences of my actions."

Whisenhunt, 36, was given the maximum sentence in 1996 for murdering his girlfriend's baby. Since then he has lived among the state's most notorious killers.

Rex Krebs could join Whisenhunt and 571 other inmates awaiting execution at San Quentin. The prison holds a total of about 6,000 prisoners.

Krebs, 35, has been convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering Rachel Newhouse and Aundria Crawford, two San Luis Obispo college students. Krebs now awaits a Monterey County jury's decision on whether he will be sentenced to die for those crimes.

Since 1992, when executions resumed after the first prisoner exhausted his appeals, nine inmates have been put to death in California. Those prisoners served an average of 13 years on death row before they were given their last meals and executed.

If Krebs is sent to California's death row, Whisenhunt says, he'll live in a place that reeks of stale sweat, echoes with constant yelling and swarms with anger.

"This is a madhouse," he says, gesturing to the visitation room around him. "This is insane. There's no warmth, and there's no emotion -- except hatred."

Among killers

Outside the prison, it's a warm and sunny March morning. As boats gently glide across San Francisco Bay, waves reflect early sunlight like thousands of tiny mirrors.

At the edge of the bay, just off the west end of the San Rafael Bridge, San Quentin sits like a stoic, 150-year-old castle.

Inside that mass of concrete, steel and barbed wire, friends, lovers and wives are waiting to see inmates in the visitation room for the condemned. Near the entrance, vending machines offer Chips Ahoy cookies, Mars candy bars and soft drinks.

Beyond the snacks there are 15 cages, each containing two plastic chairs and a small plastic table. The protective cages were installed for visitors a year ago after a violent gang fight broke out between two inmates.

At the end of the first of two rows, Whisenhunt sits at ease, drinking back-to-back sodas purchased by a reporter and talking about life on death row. Beside Whisenhunt's cage, another inmate is eating a beef and bean burrito and drinking a Sunkist soda while a woman from a local church's prison outreach ministry asks him how he's been since her last visit. Two cages down from them a CBS News crew is interviewing Stanley "Tookie" Williams, the founder of the Los Angeles Crips gang who is currently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-gang efforts.

When he speaks, Whisenhunt is articulate, friendly and polite. Sometimes, he says, he looks at some of his peers -- which include infamous serial killers Richard Ramirez and Charles Ng -- and can't believe he's linked to them.

"Sometimes you say, 'Wait a minute,' " he says, "and you look around and ask: 'How did this happen?' "

In September 1996, Whisenhunt was sentenced to death for torturing and killing 20-month-old Kesha Gurke in Paso Robles.

Bill Hanley, a detective with the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney's Office, remembers seeing Kesha's bruised and burned body at the autopsy.

"I've never seen a child that was as abused as Kesha was," Hanley said.

Her intestines, he said, had actually been cut by her spine, the result of forceful blows.

"As we continued to investigate, it became obvious that it was a death-penalty case."

Instead of showing remorse, Hanley said, Whisenhunt adamantly denied being involved in the child's death. Only later, when confronted with solid evidence, he said, did Whisenhunt finally take some responsibility for his actions.

"When we're talking about nice guys," Hanley said, "it ain't him."

In an attempt to spare Whisenhunt's life, his attorney, Frank Pentangelo, argued that the defendant had been physically and emotionally abused by his parents.

"I never really thought the jury would give him the death penalty," Pentangelo recalled.

But when he asked family members to testify on Whisenhunt's behalf, none did.

"I sat next to that guy," Pentangelo said, "and I could almost feel the loneliness."

Whisenhunt doesn't talk much about the case because his appeals have just begun, but he says he's not a killer. And even though evidence led a jury to convict Whisenhunt of murder, he disputes negative opinions others might have of him.

"Regardless of what anybody says, I'm not a monster."

Of the three men on death row from San Luis Obispo County, Whisenhunt was the only one who agreed to be interviewed, saying he would talk because it might prevent someone else from ending up on death row. He also wanted people in San Luis Obispo County to know what Krebs faces if he is sentenced to death.

Though Whisenhunt was angry the first couple of years after his sentence, he says, he's learned to control such feelings. While in prison, he said, he's avoided gangs and racial strife, even though they are commonplace on death row, and he tries to keep an upbeat attitude, even though he faces execution.

"I can turn around and become this place," he says, "or I can stay myself."

Gunshots fired

The story of Whisenhunt's injuries took place in a recreation yard in late 1998.

Prison officials would only say that there was an altercation, and that staff had to use "less-than-lethal force" -- which includes guns loaded with either wooden or rubber pellets or bean bags -- to break up the melee.

Whisenhunt had received a death threat from a group of inmates, he says, after refusing to take part in a racially motivated fight. Taking the threat seriously, he said, he decided to act first.

In the yard, Whisenhunt waited for an opportunity, and when one of his antagonists appeared, he attacked.

Shots exploded from a guard tower, and Whisenhunt was hit in the head, face, arm and legs. The other inmate was shielded by Whisenhunt's body.

As a result of that incident, Whisenhunt now is one of nearly 50 "Grade A" inmates -- a classification that includes violent and nonconforming prisoners -- and he is segregated from the rest of the death-row population.

While some inmates dread such solitude, Whisenhunt prefers it. If he's alone and locked up, he says, other prisoners can't launch a surprise attack on him.

"Nothing is done face-to-face," he says, "Everything comes from behind."

Inmates might harm each other for a variety of reasons, he says: because someone has bumped into them, has looked at them the wrong way or has even worn the wrong colors.

"It can be one little thing that sets somebody off," he says.

He does spend six hours a day in the recreation yard, though, where he has interaction with about 45 other segregated inmates.

And while many of the prisoners lack normal human emotions, he says, Whisenhunt does have about three or four friends who watch out for each other on the yard. Because of his injuries, friends call Whisenhunt "Crash" -- as in a crash test dummy -- and "Bam Bam." On the basketball court, where much of the recreation time is spent, Whisenhunt sometimes jokes around with them, yanking their shorts as he tries to steal the ball from them.

"That keeps me level-headed and sane," he says.

When not on the yard, Whisenhunt spends 18 hours a day alone in his cell, which contains a bed, a shelf, a sink and a toilet. The front of his cell, he says, is made of bars and wire mesh, and it's so small his outstretched arms will touch the walls if he stands in the middle. He even eats his meals here.

Inmates can have televisions if someone buys them one, but Whisenhunt does not have one right now. Instead, he reads at least 100 pages a day -- preferably books by Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum -- writes letters to relatives and takes college correspondence courses in science and criminal justice.

Occasionally, he gets visits from his wife -- an old friend he married after his sentence -- his teen-age stepdaughters and a pen pal from London. Otherwise, he spends most of the time in his cell, thinking about his appeals.

"I have more good days than bad days," Whisenhunt reflects quietly. "It's just the frame of mind I'm in. I haven't lost hope."

Marking time

Near the entrance of the prison, a flier is posted announcing a vigil for Robert Massie. Massie, who killed two people in his lifetime, is scheduled to die in just over a week. After fighting his execution for two decades, Massie gave up his appeals, saying he did not want to live on death row any longer.

Whisenhunt has already experienced four executions during his stay on death row. And now he's dreading Massie's.

"We're about a week and a half away, and I think about it," he says. He shakes his head and looks up toward the ceiling. "Man, it's scary."

After each execution, he says, the row becomes oddly silent.

"I get a cold, empty feeling because it's so quiet."

Normally, he thinks about the prospect of death once or twice a day, he says, but that increases when an execution is pending. It's then, he says, that his own execution becomes a reality.

Whisenhunt says he will appeal his case for now, but like Massie, he says he'll stop fighting if initial efforts fail.

"I'd rather be dead than deal with this madness 24 hours a day," he says.

Death at midnight

They walk mostly in pairs or small groups, some of them holding signs or thin wooden crosses. As the protesters trek toward the gates of San Quentin, the road is lit only by the faint glow of the moon and stars above.

The first execution in California was conducted at San Quentin in 1893. Since the gas chamber replaced hangings in 1937, San Quentin has been the sole location for all state executions.

A total of 215 people were hanged and another 194 were executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin until court decisions halted death sentences in 1967. California reinstated the death penalty in 1978, and lethal injection eventually replaced gas. Since 1992, eight people have been executed.

At midnight, Robert Massie is set to be the ninth.

Less than two hours before his execution March 27, a crowd of more than 1,000 protesters has gathered outside the prison. Amid the bundled bodies, an unseen protester is reading Massie's writings through a public-address system. A sign proclaiming "Violence Ends Where Love Begins" is draped over a street sign.

Near the beginning of the growing crowd, however, five death-penalty supporters are holding contradicting signs, including one that states: "Death row is too slow."

David Olachea, a 25-year-old San Leandro man wearing a Krispy Kreme hat and a goatee, says the protesters don't understand why the death penalty is needed.

Some people, like Massie, are simply too dangerous, he says.

"I'd love to just be able to walk the street and have everyone be nice," he says. Then he nods to the crowd: "They want a fantasy world, and it ain't gonna happen."

Although neither he nor his family have been victimized by serious crime, Olachea, who has been to two vigils, is an adamant supporter of the death penalty.

At midnight, a man introduced as "Rabbi Lou" speaks to a nearly silent crowd as television lights and flickering candle flames illuminate the evening.

"Please feel what a truly awful moment this is," he says, then he reads the names of those executed since capital punishment was reinstated, along with their victims.

There are nine inmates. Thirty-six victims.

At 12:33 a.m., Massie is officially declared dead.

A bad dream

Two weeks after the execution, Whisenhunt says, some of the death-row inmates are upset.

"A lot of them were angry at him because he went ahead and did it," Whisenhunt says.

Before his death, Massie had protested the death penalty. Other inmates, Whisenhunt says, didn't think asking for the death penalty was a proper way to oppose it.

Opponents of the death penalty have cited other arguments.

Overwhelmingly, those executed are indigent and poorly represented, said Helen Prejean, author of "Dead Man Walking."

"Only 1.5 to 2 percent of people who ever commit murder are going to be selected for this," said Prejean, a nun who has served as a spiritual adviser to five executed inmates. "So when you say, as part of the rhetoric, 'We're doing this for the victims' families,' it's a token thing."

Whisenhunt agreed, saying some of the state's death-row inmates -- like Nobel nominee Williams -- are better than others.

"Out of about 600, you find about 150 that, yeah, they should do some time," he says. "But not here."

Others, he says, deserve the death sentence they are under.

"With some of them, I'm thinking: If they get their appeal, watch out world -- here comes madness."

Whisenhunt is hopeful that his own appeals will be successful. But as he sits in his bed, he can only remember seeing the ocean at Morro Bay, smelling a freshly mowed lawn or working on his souped-up Volkswagen Beetle.

Today, reality on death row comes in the form of hard concrete, foul body odor and the echoing roars of the condemned.

At times, he thinks, it's all like a bad dream.

"That's how I deal with it sometimes," he says. "I think, sooner or later, I'm going to wake up from this."

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