CALGARY - It wasn't much of a stretch for death row lawyer Don Vernay to put himself into the mind of a killer.
Vernay, 69, has spent more than two decades of his life defending those headed to the gallows — one of the most notable being Canadian Ronald Smith, who has spent the last 30 years fighting a death sentence in Montana for the murder of Thomas Running Rabbit and Harvey Madman Jr. in 1982.
In his novel "Today and Tomorrow," Vernay gives a glimpse into the mind of a young man about to be executed for the Christmas Eve murder of his parents and chronicles the chain of events that brings him to the last day of his life.
The story takes place totally inside the head of the unidentified and remorseless protagonist and takes the reader on a journey that is both dark and humorous from his birth to his death.
"Because I've been doing this work so long I wanted to convey what trauma can do to somebody — how someone can just shut down, which is what happens with this kid. He causes an accident that kills his brother, his parents just heap the blame on him and he just shuts down," said Vernay, who now practises law out of Albuquerque, N.M., but deals primarily with death penalty cases in nearby Texas.
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Robert Dale Conklin was executed July 12, 2005 in Georgia for the murder of his ex-boyfriend. For his last meal he requested: Filet mingnon wrapped in bacon, de-veined shrimp sauteed in garlic butter with lemon, a baked potato with butter, sour cream, chives, and real bacon bits, corn on the cob, aspara- gus with hollandaise sauce, French bread with butter, goat cheese, cantaloupe, apple pie with vanilla bean ice cream and an iced tea.
Hastings Arthur Wise was executed November 4, 2005 in South Carolina via lethal injection for the murder of four of his ex-coworkers. For his last meal he requested: a lobster tail, French fries, coleslaw, banana pudding and milk.
Serial killer Ted Bundy had confessed to being responsible for 30 murders and was executed by the State of Florida on January 24, 1989 by way of the electric chair. He made no special requests and was offered the traditional meal of steak and eggs, that he didn't eat.
John Wayne Gacy received a lethal injection from the State of Illinois on May 10, 1994 for the rape and murders of 33 young men and boys from 1972 to 1978. Dubbed the "Killer Clown" by the media, his last meal included: a dozen deep-fried shrimp, a bucket of original recipe chicken from KFC, French fries, and a pound of strawberries.
Convicted of murdering his half sister and her 4-year-old daughter, and two more women, Dennis Wayne Bagwell was executed in Texas on February 17, 2005 by lethal injection. He asked for a larger last meal than most, requesting: A beef steak, medium rare with A1 Sauce, three fried chicken breast, three fried chicken thighs, BBQ ribs, a large order of french fries, a large order of onion rings, a pound of fried bacon, a dozen scrambled eggs with onions, fried tatters with onions, sliced tomatoes, a salad with ranch dressing, two hamburgers with everything, peach pie or cobbler, ketchup, salt and pepper, milk and coffee, ice tea with real sugar.
Timothy McVeigh was responsible for the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1996 that killed 168 people and injured hundreds more. McVeigh was executed via lethal injection in Indiana on June 11, 2001 and had another unusual request: two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream.
Philip Workman was convicted of the murder of a police office that occurred during a failed robbery of a Wendy's in Tennessee. He was executed on May 9, 2007 via lethal injection. Workman actually declined a special last meal for himself, but rather asked that a large vegetarian pizza be given to a homeless person in Nashville, Tenn. Prison officials denied his request, but homeless shelters across the state received pizzas from all over the country honoring his last request.
Ronnie Lee Gardner was already on trial for the murder of one man, when he fatally shot an attorney in an failed attempt to escape. He was executed June 18 2010 by firing squad in Utah. Not only did Gardner request steak, lobster tail, apple pie, vanilla ice cream and 7-up for his last meal, he also spent his last hours watching the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
Convicted of five murders, Velma Barfield was the first women in the US to be executed after the 1977 return of capital punishment and the first woman to receive her sentence by lethal injection in 1984. Like Eddie Duval Powell, she made no special last meal, but rather a can of Coca-cola and a bag of Cheez Doodles.
With perhaps the strangest request, James Edwards Smith, was convicted and executed on June 26,1990 for a robbery and murder in Texas. Smith requested not a meal, but a lump of dirt that was apparently for a Voodoo ritual. As dirt was not an approved list of prison foods his request was denied and he settled for a small cup of yogurt instead.
The gallows humour in the story revolves around the inmate's lifelong obsession with automobiles and his desire to possess one after causing a car accident that resulted in the death of his older brother as a child.
Despite his involvement in 20 death penalty cases, Vernay hasn't based the character in the book on any of them. The novel actually started out as a play dating back to a time after Vernay left law school and was based on a 1974 murder in Long Island, N.Y., in which a young man killed his parents.
"After I graduated law school I didn't practise law for about 12 years. I was writing plays for New York theatre and I wrote this play about a judge who had to sentence a young man to death," he said.
"The judge in this play just wanted to know why did this kid kill his parents? But every time I started writing it the humour would come out and since I was this heavy-duty serious playwright at the time I put it away for a number of years."
A couple of years ago he finally sat down and finished it
Vernay eventually joined the bar in Montana in 1986 and became involved in the Ronald Smith case. He decided to focus on death row cases after that and moved to a place where executions are commonplace.
"I thought death penalty work would be this fabulous challenge and then I started putting feelers out to Texas. I came down here. There are a hell of a lot of people who don't deserve to live, but it's not society's job to make that judgment," he said.
"A lot of these lawyers don't care about the people they represent and that's what tears my heart out. The lawyers don't care, the judges don't care and let's face it — who cares about someone who kills his wife or kids?" he added.
"I have a distaste for people strapping someone to the table and standing around and watching him die. We're supposedly civilized people and this is no way for civilized people to behave."