The sun has risen and set more than 4,000 times over Raleigh's Central Prison since Frank Chandler was brought there in shackles and handcuffs on July 20, 1993, to spend the rest of his life on death row. Unless Gov. Mike Easley offers clemency this week, the 32-year-old Michigan native will likely be dead by the time many of you read this story. Chandler is scheduled to be executed by injection early Friday morning for the Dec. 12, 1992, murder of Doris Poore, an elderly woman who Chandler says he killed by accident when she startled him in the darkness during a burglary of her Surry County home.
On Monday morning, with perhaps less than 90 hours left to live, Chandler came to the prison visiting room to talk about his plight. Chandler, who stands 5-foot-9 and weighs around 300 pounds, is a large man, but his round, boyish face makes him look more like Beaver Cleaver than a menacing death row inmate. He wears his blondish-red hair in a crew cut. His hairline is slightly receding and his huge arms have several visible tattoos including a well-drawn barbed wire bracelet on his left wrist, which Chandler said he did himself.
"I've been here 11 years, and I've grown used to the idea, if that makes any sense," he said, his words spoken slowly and thoughtfully through steel bars and a wire-mesh glass partition. "I've pretty much, you know, grown used to the idea that I'll die here."
Ken Rose, executive director of the N.C. Center for Death Penalty Litigation, and Chandler's lawyers remain hopeful that Easley will spare Chandler's life.
"This is a very strong clemency case," Rose said. "We do have hope."
Although he's received no relief from appeals courts, a clemency petition sent to Easley last month by Chandler's appellate lawyers paints a picture of a case fraught with error. In addition to Chandler's claim that he killed Poore by accident, an element that means he did not have premeditation or deliberation before his crime, Chandler's defense lawyer at trial, Terry Collins, now disbarred, was a troubled man who had previously used illegal drugs with the state's key witness, jailhouse informant Jeffrey Kyle Wilson, who shared a cell with Chandler.
Wilson provided the key aggravating testimony that led to Chandler receiving a death sentence. In exchange for his testimony, Wilson was given relief in his own case and paid a $2,500 reward, information that was not shared with the jury.
"Within weeks of the conclusion of Mr. Chandler's trial, the prosecutors entered into a plea bargain with Mr. Wilson, under which he received substantial sentencing concessions and recommended that a reward be paid to Mr. Wilson," the clemency petition reports. "The SBI delivered a check to Mr. Wilson in the amount of $2,500."
Collins' secretary, Debbie Collins, also recently told Chandler's appellate lawyers that "Mr. Collins regularly neglected his capital murder clients."
In 1995, the district attorney who prosecuted Chandler, James Dellinger, was removed from office by the Superior Court due to improprieties in office, a fact defense lawyers say "strengthens the claim that Mr. Chandler's conviction resulted from prosecutorial misconduct."
Easley, a former attorney general and prosecutor, is not inclined to use his power of clemency often. While governor, Easley has allowed 17 men to be executed, just twice granting clemency. Easley has signed off on three executions this year and a dozen since he last granted clemency in a January 2002 case.
"Everybody tries to wish for the best," Chandler said. "I'm like this, I expect the worst and hope for the best."
Chandler says he believes in God, but he says God has "given man free will. He doesn't intervene as much as people would like to think that He does. He leaves that in our hands to handle amongst ourselves. So [my life] rests with the governor."
Chandler, who grew up in Mt. Airy, says he mistakenly broke into Poore's house hoping to steal some marijuana.
"I honestly didn't believe there was anyone home in the house; I honestly didn't," Chandler said. He testified that he knocked on doors and windows "to make sure there wasn't nobody home. Nobody ever answered the doors. Nobody ever turned the light on."
When Poore awoke and startled him in the darkness, Chandler said he inadvertently swung his arm, hitting her in the head and causing her death. He was prosecuted as a capital defendant because Poore's death occurred during the commission of another felony, in this case a burglary.
"I'm regretful that it happened," Chandler said. "I'm very sorry. I'm sorry for the loss for the family members. I've caused them a lot of pain. It's something I wish I had never done, but it's not something that you take back... .
"I'm not really in a position to do anything to try to make it up to the family," he said. "What can I do?"
As he gets closer to his date, Chandler, the youngest of Franklin and Lorene Chandler's 12 children, says he is being treated well by his fellow inmates on "the row" and by prison staff.
"All the fellas on the row, we're a pretty tight family," he said. "We try to look out for one another best we can. The staff have been all right. They're going the little extra mile for me making sure I get my visits and stuff. Everything's all right. I ain't got no complaints."
Whenever executions draw near, Chandler said things around the row get more quiet. "It's a quiet time," he said. "You say good bye to 'em in your own way. Time to reflect, try and remember them and wish 'em a good journey."
Last month, Chandler remembers his goodbye to Charles Wesley Roache, who was executed Oct. 22. "I remember exactly what I said to Charles," Chandler said. "I just told him I loved him as my brother; told him I'd see him."
Chandler says he doesn't believe in the death penalty, that it "serves no purpose" and "it's strictly for vengeance." He said substance abuse is often a factor in capital cases. Chandler said he was drunk at the time of his crime.
Spending more than 11 years on death row may be terrible, but Chandler said he decided to make the best of it when he got there. To pass the time he does "a whole lot of reading." In the last few days he has received visits from his parents and siblings.
"There's not a choice," he said. "You have to cope. You have to deal with it. If you deal with it in a positive manner then you can make the best of what you have."
Even if he's granted clemency, Chandler will never be released from prison. Roache, who was executed last month, opted to drop his appeals and face execution.
"I prefer to live," Chandler said. "Even if you're in prison there's still things that you can accomplish. It's what you make of it."