“What did that guy do?” I’d asked, gesturing towards the photo board of the condemned men. The prisoner, in a black-and-white ID shot, radiated menace. I was a new correctional officer—prison guard—at San Quentin, awash in curiosity. Who were these men and why did they deliberately kill?
Officer Carl examined the mugshot I’d pointed to. “Made two little kids into canoes.” His lips lifted in a gargoyle snarl.
“Huh?” The words stuck in my throat. Somehow I knew better than to ask for an explanation.
It was only years later, after I’d been promoted to correctional counselor and was assigned to the original death row—North Seg—and had access to inmate files, that I understood. The killer had lured two ten-year-old boys to an isolated area of a park. “Hey, guys, want to see a mama duck and her babies? Come follow me.”
As the boys waded through a marshy area looking for the ducklings, the man followed, pulled a knife, and…
I didn’t want to think about what he’d done. I had a son of my own.
Sometimes my eyes would redden and water, my nose begin dripping as I reviewed crime summaries. Deaths of toddlers and children were the hardest to take. But when you work in a men’s max prison, you’d best be tough. No crybabies. So I’d fake a cough, blow my nose, claim allergies. Couldn’t let my coworkers know I was “weak.”
Not every murder elicited such an emotional reaction. I didn’t know why. But the calculated cruelty of kidnappers and torturers, or the taking of a life just barely begun, invariably sent me spinning into grief. Perhaps I identified with the victims. When I’d been a correctional officer, an inmate had escaped during a community medical transport. His accomplice, armed with a long gun, forced the medic and me into the back of the prison transport van, then put the vehicle into gear. Certain we were being abducted, I imagined my last moments—my uniform pants around my ankles, the prickly scrub of an isolated back road pressing into my naked flesh, the cold metal of the weapon against my temple. But our kidnappers were more interested in fleeing the state than rape or murder. We were unharmed, at least physically.
Yet condemned inmate David Mason, sentenced to death for the murder and robbery of four elderly people, didn’t inspire revulsion. In fact, he was an unknown, just one of the several hundred death row inmates awaiting the outcome of a seemingly endless appeals process. I only knew that he wasn’t a whiner like the men on the south side who’d line up at the bars to carp the moment I entered the unit. Or to chat me up. Would I be so popular if I were a guy? I doubted it. But I wasn’t complaining—this job was as sweet as it got. The men on the row gave me no grief.
So why had Mason asked to see me in my private office up in North Segregation, the original death row? He lived on the north side—these were “real men,” not like the snivelers on the south side.
David Mason stood before me, his metal cuffs clinking quietly as he flexed his wrists. His heavy black hair, which folded over his low forehead, gave Mason the look of a pale and menacing Neanderthal.
The burnt toast smell of prison coffee drifted in from the unit kitchen next door, competing with the sharp salt scent of San Francisco Bay water spilling through the office window.
“Have a seat.” I motioned to the wooden chair in front of my desk. Bergie, the cop, planted himself behind Mason, feet spread wide.
“Uh, Counselor Holmstrom, would you please shut the door.”
Nodding to Bergie, I wondered what was up. Up here in North Seg, there weren’t too many secrets. The prisoners on the north tier had just seen Mason enter the counselor’s office. They knew something was up. This had to be about more than lousy state food or the pigeon crap on the rooftop exercise yard.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Mason?” I reached for a steno pad, in case he might reveal something important.
Mason leaned forward. “I want to give up my federal level of appeals. I’m ready to be executed.”
I stared at Mason, processing what I’d just heard. Was this a joke? Inmates had been known to invent stories just to spice up their days or mess with staff. Like the prisoner, years ago, who’d claimed to have information about a plot to kill an officer. He got a confidential interview with an administrator, but failed to name any alleged conspirators. Turned out it was all a game.
But I knew Mason wasn’t kidding. This was too serious. So I grabbed a pen and started writing. In a bureaucracy, if it wasn’t written down, it didn’t exist. Later, I’d head up to Records, pull Mason’s central file—research his criminal history, find out about his childhood. He wasn’t notorious like Billy Ray Hamilton, who’d gunned down a bunch of teenage clerks in a market in Fresno. Here at Quentin, Hamilton had plotted to escape from death row—not to make it out of the country but to bust into staff housing to kill the warden and his family. The more people he could take out, the better. I’d only seen Billy Ray a couple of times, but that was more than enough. The memory of his snake eyes, narrowed in an Ahrimanic stare, stayed with me.
My counselor job was ideal for someone who wanted the details about infamous killers and gruesome murders. Even as a child I’d been curious. Fascinated by Herald Examiner headlines from the time I could read—tales of dismembered corpses scattered in canyon underbrush or strangled starlets found in trunks—I was in my element working with the condemned.
Buried neck deep in this mosh pit of evil, excavating my way through crime summaries and evidence photos, I could finally sate my intense interest in serial murderers, torturers, and sadistic baby killers—that gnawing curiosity that crouched in me since I was young. Was I some kind of pervert? Naw—look how popular true crime stories were, the continuing fascination with Charles Manson. Most people have some sicko compulsion to delve into the minds of murderers, to connect with them. Why else would women send love letters and nude photos to condemned killers, visit and even marry them? I’d hit the jackpot—a front row seat in California’s Theatre Macabre.
North Seg was a good assignment; even the cops were pretty mellow. Oh, there were a few who muttered about being only too happy to pull the plug on some of these killers, especially the baby rapers like inmate Franks, who ripped apart a toddler with household tools. But the cops mainly kept their mouths shut. I wouldn’t have minded seeing a few of the worst get gassed, but didn’t share my thoughts. Still, it pissed me off to read about murderers like Donald Griffin, who’d picked up his twelve-year-old stepdaughter from school, raped and eviscerated her, dumped her corpse in a ditch, and then went home to the dead girl’s mother like he knew nothing about his stepdaughter’s disappearance.
Mason’s request was a total shock. He wasn’t just asking to leave North Seg; he wanted to depart earthly existence. Why? Mason had years left before his appeals ran out. He was young—lived in the prison equivalent of a luxury hotel. With only sixty-eight cells—North Seg was quiet, clean, offered tier and yard exercise. The remaining hundreds of condemned were housed in less desirable units like East Block—the equivalent of a ratty, noisy motel in the bad part of town.
Laying my pen down, I watched for any change of expression on Mason’s face. “Have you talked to your family? You could be up here for decades.” Unless you give up your appeal rights. You’re only thirty-six, why now? More condemned men had died of disease, old age, or suicide than had been executed since the death penalty had been reinstated by the courts in California in 1978.
Mason shifted in his chair. “Yeah, my people know that I’m ready to die.” His face was blank. Like a death mask.
Over the next few months, Mason came to my office on a regular basis. My job was to determine if he would change his mind. Execution preparations had begun, and the prison administrators didn’t want to unnecessarily expend time and money if Mason might back out of his plan for an early death.
“I’m innocent, you know,” Mason told me one day, knitting his brows tighter than his cuff-bound wrists. Behind him, Bergie the tier cop rolled his eyes.
“I didn’t kill them four old people just to rob them of their penny jars of coins or wedding rings. No way did I rape and beat to death the old neighbor lady who paid me to do odd jobs. She even gave me cookies.”
A memory of Elizabeth, my Hungarian grandmother, flashed in my head. I remembered pouring lime Jell-O into a shallow ice cube tray. It was a warm southern California morning. Perhaps I was eight or ten. We were making rainbow cake, an extravagant dessert—a shimmering cylinder of red, orange, green, and purple bits of Jell-O encased in a frothy pineapple cream atop a buttery crushed graham cracker crust. Grandma’s cooking and baking were emblems of love, something to share and savor.
“Innocent? You didn’t do it?” Looking directly into Mason’s unlined face, I searched for any outward indication he was lying. But it was like watching a marble bust for a change of expression.
If Mason was innocent, why would he volunteer to give up his federal appeal—which could guarantee years of life if not potential exoneration?
I asked more than once, but his answer was always some variation of “I’m ready to die.”
Over time, childhood horror stories spilled out like pus from a lanced boil. As a boy Mason had been locked in his room, the window nailed shut; forced to wear his soiled underpants on his head. His mom held his hand over a hot stove until the flesh sizzled. He’d tried to overdose, even set himself on fire—wanted to die back then too.
“I was the whipping boy,” he repeated when asked about his early life. After Mason declared his intention to forgo further appeals, his family began to visit regularly. He never refused their visits, despite the abuse he’d suffered as a child.
The mysteries compounded. Smiling, Mason recounted how he’d killed a rapist back in county jail. “He’d attacked a woman I knew, so I had to erase the scumbag from the face of the earth.” Mason sat taller in his seat. “Me and another guy made it look like a suicide—we strung the body up from the shower railing.” A smile flickered across his face.
He’s proud. That was a manly act, almost heroic in his worldview. Not like killing a bunch of old folks. No wonder he’d denied those crimes.
Mason had also strangled or suffocated or shot—the records weren’t clear—a dog kennel owner near Chico for “making a pass.” Mason asserted that he had good reason to murder the man—“He’d given me the clap.” Was the kennel owner Mason’s lover? I didn’t ask. After all, his stories changed from time to time. Besides, my job was to monitor Mason’s mood, evaluate his determination to continue with his plan to forgo federal appeal rights.
The truth was slippery. Mason recorded an epitaph just before his capture, claimed he was “doing them old folks a favor, put them out of their misery” by killing them. But Mason repeatedly swore to me he’d never harmed those oldsters; it was someone else. There was evidence of his innocence, he’d insisted. And his lawyer was “working on it.”
Asking questions, striving for clarification just took me further down the rabbit hole. Still, the man didn’t seem like such a bad dude, but that’s probably because he was always in handcuffs with a burly cop two inches behind him. A hulking ceramic vase made by my preschool son—a lumpy thing with a two-and-a-half-inch base—heavy enough to crack the skull or smash the nose of any inmate foolish enough to come across my desk—squatted next to my steno pad. I wasn’t worried—Mason seemed convinced he needed to die. I wanted to hear more, whatever version of his life and crimes he might be doling out on a particular day.
I should’ve been satisfied to finally be getting the inside scoop on a killer. After all, none of the other condemned had ever talked about his crimes—except for Monster, who’d blandly recounted murdering the man who’d given him a ride after he’d been released from his first prison term, then the hooker whose menstrual flow he’d mistaken for an indication of VD, and finally strangling his half sister, who’d teased him, calling him a “greaser.” But Monster was the exception. Everyone else was mum—sticking to some version of “I was railroaded,” or “I’m innocent” in the hopes of the case being overturned. Even men like Trailside Killer David Carpenter—rapists who rubbed their crotches whenever they had a chance to flip through crime scene photos or evidence summaries—still maintained their innocence, hoping to win the appeals lottery. There were decades of legal delays ahead, the chance a judge might find fault with jury instructions or rule that a defense attorney failed to provide adequate representation. Then an overturned verdict, perhaps a retrial. Witnesses dead or disappeared, evidence lost or compromised—the possibility of a “get out of jail free” card or, at the least, a lesser sentence. Why would Mason give up that chance?
Mason didn’t start out as a star—not like the Nightstalker or Charlie Manson, but once the media got wind of his intention to be executed immediately, a press conference was scheduled. One of the cops who’d escorted reporters to the meeting room leaned into me. “All these newshounds, the TV coverage, you’d think it was the Second Coming of Christ…”
Mason’s wife, Charlene, a good decade older than him, played her role, wearing a black flared skirt cinched tight at the waist with a crimson belt, a white blouse, and a wide-brimmed black straw hat with a veil that dipped over her heavily mascaraed eyes, nearly grazing her thick bloodred lipstick. She had the grief-ravaged widow-to-be expression perfected. Did she truly love David? And if so, how did she fall in love with him in the first place? They were wedded when he was in jail. How could he be the man of her dreams—a multiple murderer with no job, no money, and no chance at coupling? What satisfaction could there be in a marriage to a condemned man who would never get a conjugal visit, only a few short hours in the visiting room, sharing stale vending machine sandwiches and powdered coffee dispensed with steaming Walpurgisnacht hisses?
Even to the last, Mason stuck to his story. “Didn’t kill them oldsters. It was someone else.”
I thought back to when a reckless driver had rear-ended my grandmother at a stop sign, then claimed it was Grandma’s fault. Furious, I wanted to find the woman and shake her into contrition. Make her pay for hurting my grandmother. Would any of Mason’s victims’ relatives show up to witness his execution?
In the end, Mason got his wish to die.
On August 24, 1993, David Edwin Mason was put to death in San Quentin’s gas chamber—body jerking and shuddering, eyes bulging, spittle dripping down his chin, chest straining for air. He was officially pronounced dead at 12:23 a.m. He’d been trying to kill himself since he was five years old.
About the Author: Christine Holmstrom’s work has been published in Bernie Siegel’s book, Faith, Hope, and Healing. Several of her essays and nonfiction stories have been published or are forthcoming in Gulf Stream, The Penmen Review, Jet Fuel Review,Switchback, Stonecoast Review, Summerset Review, Two Cities Review, and others. After surviving riots, an armed escape and a death threat while working at San Quentin prison, she finally had the good sense to retire and sit at her computer with her cat on her lap, demanding attention. Christine is now working on a memoir about her prison years.