BECKY BOHRER Associated Press Writer
BILLINGS For two years, David Dawson has been waiting to live his last day. On Friday, after 19 years on death row for killing three members of a family, Dawson is scheduled to die by lethal injection at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge. Some of the few who speak with him say he is at peace. “He’s not concerned about what’s going to happen to him as far as being nervous or anything,” said Dan Chladek, who manages the prison’s maximum security unit and said he felt “compelled” to try to talk Dawson out of his decision to end his appeals and move forward with his execution. “He’s given me the impression that he’s tired ... he’s tired of this type of life, and he’s ready to go home,” Chladek said. Dawson, 48, is what death penalty expert David Baldus refers to as a “volunteer,” one of a small number of condemned inmates who willingly end court battles aimed at keeping them alive. Just 12 percent of those who’ve been executed in the United States since 1976 have abandoned their appeals, according to a report by the Criminal Justice Project of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. The figure is as of April 1. Baldus, a law professor at the University of Iowa, cites three reasons inmates on death row might “volunteer” to die: despair, loss of interest in living, remorse. In a court hearing last December, Dawson didn’t suggest any of those influenced his decision. He denied claims, raised by two attorneys he had been trying to fire, that years on death row and inmate suicides had taken a toll on him. And Dawson, convicted in the 1986 deaths of three members of a family in Billings, did not profess guilt or innocence when the judge gave him the chance, allowing only that “I never claimed I wasn’t part of something.” Dawson told state District Judge Gregory Todd, via a video link from the prison, that he had considered his situation carefully and was “ready to die.” “It’s like the old saying: Walk a mile in my shoes,” Dawson said at the hearing, which was meant to determine if he knew the consequences of his decision. “Do 20 years in my shoes, and then talk to me about a reason.”
Five months later, Todd signed Dawson’s death warrant. Dawson did not take the stand during his trial, but Amy Rodstein did. She is the surviving member of the family he kidnappedAt a Billings motel. Dawson strangled Rodstein’s parents, David and Monica, and her younger brother, Andrew. He did not mount much of a defense and nothing in his past or his demeanor, at trial or since, suggested Dawson is a violent man, said Dennis Paxinos, a young prosecutor when Dawson was tried. Now Paxinos is the Yellowstone County attorney. “What I’ve seen of Dawson, he’s not a screaming lunatic or an (expletive), the scars and the tattoos,” Paxinos said. “But on this day, he just went screwy. “It was a slow, deliberate process,” he said of the murders, “and there’s no excuse for that.” People have been “cruel” toward Dawson, Ann Sheridan said, they don’t know the man she has known for about 20 years. She did not elaborate. “I would love for people to know how he really is,” said Sheridan, who lives in Arizona and said she speaks with Dawson weekly. “It’s too much to ask; it’s too emotional.” Prison officials said there should be little difference between Dawson’s last day on Cell Block D and all the ones before it. Head count is set for 6 a. m.; breakfast served through a slot in the cell door within the hour; a shower or time alone in the prison “day room,” which is a place to punch bags or play games. He will be allowed to talk with other inmates as usual. Such communication often occurs through vents, Chladek said.
Dawson speaks frequently with Ron Smith, also on death row, the prison official said. Dawson also watches television, works out and listens to music in a cell that Chladek describes as meticulously kept up. Dawson, who has denied repeated interview requests, described prison conditions as “tolerable” in his testimony last year. He is described as cordial to prison staff and not a problem inmate. Visiting hours will be extended for Dawson on Thursday and rules for his telephone calls relaxed, said Chladek and prison spokeswoman Linda Moodry. Dawson will get a meal of his choosing prison officials haven’t disclosed his selection and then will await escort to a transition cell. Later he will go to the trailer where he will receive a lethal injection after midnight, the officials said. Dawson will be moved in shackles and chains. He had not requested clergy, Chladek said. It was not clear whether Dawson would make a statement. The witness list still was being put in final form, Moodry said. Neither Sheridan nor Dawson’s mother, Edith Dawson, planned to attend the execution. Both say Dawson does not want them there. “Truly, would you want to be (there)?” Edith Dawson said during a brief telephone conversation with The Associated Press. “It’s a heartbreaking situation.” She acknowledged having a difficult time understanding her son’s decision. “I’m glad for him,” Sheridan said. “He’ll be out of there. But I’ll miss the hell out of him. That’s just the way it is.” Paxinos plans to be present. He said that Amy Rodstein, now married and living in California, has promised to send a statement for him to read on her behalf. But he is not sure she will do so. “When this (execution) happens, if it does happen, I promise to say three prayers: a prayer for David Dawson, a prayer for David and Monica and Andrew, and I’ll say a prayer for Amy and her family,” Paxinos said.