Danny Robbie Hembree Jr.
RALEIGH, N.C. A death row inmate accused of killing three North Carolina women has written a taunting letter to his hometown newspaper, predicting he'll spend many years as a gentleman of leisure, watching color TV and enjoying frequent naps.
"Kill me if you can, suckers," Danny Robbie Hembree Jr. wrote in a letter to The Gaston Gazette (http://bit.ly/xBegPz). A story about the letter and its contents was published on the front page of Tuesday's edition.
No one has been executed in North Carolina since 2006 due to a series of legal challenges about the use of lethal injection and whether executions must be overseen by a physician.
"Is the public aware that the chances of my lawful murder taking place in the next 20 years if ever are very slim?" asked Hembree, 50. "Is the public aware that I am a gentleman of leisure, watching color TV in the A.C., reading, taking naps at will, eating three well-balanced meals a day?"
The inmate also pointed out he gets free government health care.
Hembree is on death row at Central Prison in Raleigh for suffocating Heather Catterton, 17, in 2009. He's also accused of the 2009 killing of 30-year-old Randi Dean Saldana, whose burned remains were found near Blacksburg, S.C.
Hembree admitted to taking drugs and having sex with Catterton and Saldana the day they died, but he told jurors he did not kill them or dump their bodies. He is scheduled to go on trial in March for Saldana's killing.
He is also charged with killing 30-year-old Deborah Ratchford, whose body was found in a Gastonia cemetery in 1992.
Several commenters on the newspaper's website called Tuesday for Hembree to be put to death immediately. But some also questioned the decision to give Hembree any further attention.
City Editor Leo Hohmann said Hembree's two-page diatribe is different from the inmate letters typically addressed to the newsroom.
"It was legible, clearly written and made a definite point," Hohmann said. "We thought it was interesting his arrogance came through, and he's not exactly denying anything, either. He's got two more murder trials out there and we felt the public should be aware of his attitude toward the death sentence he's already got."
Reader Jason T. Ledford, a relative of two people who were shot to death in 1991, said he was so outraged that he called the newsroom to complain.
"To put a killer's letter out there like that isn't right," said Ledford, who lives in Gastonia. "He's trash and it was in bad taste for them to print it. Can you imagine what those girls' families are feeling?"
A phone message left for Catterton's father wasn't immediately returned. The victim's mother could not be reached.
James French, deputy secretary for the N.C. Division of Adult Correction, said the U.S. Constitution requires humane treatment of prisoners. The state provides meals, heating and cooling, medical care, bed space and a toilet.
French said the state also allows limited privileges to help control the inmate population, including access to books and common-area televisions. Death row inmates are kept under constant surveillance and confined within their cell block 23 hours a day, with one hour of recreation in a confined area, he said.
Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell complained about the tangle of legal issues that have effectively halted executions in the state for the past five years.
"He's sitting down there looking at the law and laughing," said Bell, who prosecuted Hembree. "He's been sentenced to death. He shouldn't be watching color TV."
Bell said Hembree's letter should be sent to any legislators who support the Racial Justice Act. The 2009 law says a judge must reduce a death sentence to life in prison without parole if he determines race was a significant factor in the sentencing.
While Hembree hasn't filed an appeal under the act, Bell said the law is part of a flawed system that allows murderers to avoid death by potentially drawing out their appeals for decades.
Sen. Don East, a Surry County Republican and retired police officer who has been an outspoken supporter of the death penalty, suggested that if Hembree is concerned it will take too long for him to die then the state should "abide by his wishes."
Hembree's defense lawyer, Rick Beam, said he could not comment on his client's letter.
Stephen Dear, executive director of the Raleigh-based group People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, questioned why Hembree's opinion should play any role in a legitimate debate over capital punishment.
"Why would anyone be interested in the moral vision of an unrepentant murderer?" Dear asked. "It is no surprise that someone who would murder others in cold blood would also say the things he has said. He is getting the attention he wants, fomenting the response and anger he seeks. He wants to bring us all down to his level. That's what the death penalty does to us. It brutalizes society."
Though he disagreed with the decision to run the letter, Ledford conceded that Hembree is likely right about his prospects for living into old age.
Death row inmate David C. Lynch, convicted in 1993 for the double murder of Bobby Anderson and his 12-year-old daughter India Anderson, has not yet been put to death. The Andersons were Ledford's cousins and he is frustrated their killer is still living at taxpayer expense.
"If you take somebody's life, you should have your life taken, too," Ledford said. "There's no justice in a judicial system where killers have more rights than their victims."