European women looking for love on Texas' death row
Romina Deeken is a classic beauty — cascading blond hair, green eyes set in alabaster — not the type of woman who needs to solicit...
The Dallas Morning News
LIVINGSTON, Texas — Romina Deeken is a classic beauty — cascading blond hair, green eyes set in alabaster — not the type of woman who needs to solicit attention from men.
But last year, the 24-year-old German reached out to a convicted killer on Texas' death row. Her motives were altruistic, she said, not romantic. In time, after more than 50 letters back and forth across the Atlantic, Deeken said, mutual feelings grew.
"I have a connection with him," she said recently. "Everyone in life has a vision, has dreams, has fears, is searching for something. He is the person I can talk deeply with about these things."
Deeken's story is coffee-shop talk in the southeast Texas town of Livingston, home of the maximum-security Polunsky Unit and death row.
Each month, dozens of travel-weary, love-struck European women arrive in Livingston for visits with condemned inmates, a pair of four-hour chats through Plexiglas. There is no touching.
Why they come depends on who is asked. Experts said many of the women have been scarred by violence or sexual abuse, though that's not the case for those interviewed for this story. Others said the women are motivated by compassion and a desire to nurture — or an attraction to the baddest of the bad boys.
Their relationships with the inmates typically begin when women join anti-death-penalty groups such as Amnesty International or during Internet research. Pen-pal groups such as LostVault.com post free personal ads based on pictures and letters from death-row inmates, such as this one from José Noey Martinez:
"The worst thing in life is loneliness and that's all I've had in my life so I'm hoping by me putting up this ad I can make some great friends out there in the free world. So if you like what you see, please write to me."
In 1995, Martinez was convicted of stabbing to death a 68-year-old woman and her 4-year-old granddaughter. He sexually assaulted the older woman, defiled the corpse of the child and reportedly threatened the victims' family as he was led from the courtroom, saying, "It's not over yet."
Many people who live in Livingston said the European visitors are naive. Death-penalty opponents countered that even the pathologically violent and vile deserve a dignified life.
Terri Ray works the desk at The Lake Livingston Inn, which is recommended by an anti-death-penalty group in Switzerland. She books about 10 international reservations a month.
"They're so gullible, you just want to shake them and say, 'Are you women that stupid?' " she said. "Those guys over there are running a game. They've got 10 to 20 women at a time they're romancing."
Deeken, who works for a media company in Germany, said she knows the deal — some death-row inmates manipulate European women for sport, sexual stimulation and money — just like men on the outside.
The death penalty, Deeken said, is a barbaric punishment in a flawed U.S. justice system.
"Everybody has a right to fair trial, but he never had that," she said, referring to her pen pal. "The fact that he is black — well, there is a lot of discrimination. I know blacks are treated unfairly."
People change, and there is goodness inside those who have committed evil, she said.
Life on Texas' death row is austere and isolating.
Condemned men spend 23 hours a day in a cell the size of a walk-in closet. Each day, they get one hour alone for recreation, and a shower.
Inmates may own a small radio but not a television, and there is no Internet access. Men communicate with the outside world by letter. Snack food — including coveted cups of Blue Bell ice cream — may be purchased from the prison commissary.
Often, that's where European women come in.
Marlin Nelson, who has been on death row 19 years, said money motivates many inmates.
"I think most of them have more than one woman," he said. "They do it to get whatever they can get, the money. It gets pretty lonely in here, and once you're with someone awhile, it gets boring."
He said the men also frequently persuade women to send seminude pictures. Pornography and au naturel photographs were banned several years ago, but current rules allow snapshots in bathing suits and revealing underwear. Inmates on death row hang the pictures in their cells and trade them like baseball cards.
Nelson beat a man with a metal bar and stabbed him to death in 1987. He is married to an Englishwoman who left her husband for Nelson about six years ago. Like all death-row marriages, the ceremony was conducted by proxy.
He said their relationship isn't physically consummated but they enjoy "letter sex" and intellectual intimacy.
Christa Haber met her future husband, Troy Kunkle, while he was on death row. He was executed in 1995.
She now makes about $1,100 a month running a guest house near death row that caters to European visitors. The Blue Shelter is booked solid the last two weeks of most months.
Haber, a German who has lived in the United States since 1993, said many of her guests romanticize the men on death row. "I think violence is very interesting," she said. "Most normal men are boring, but if you are in a relationship with a violent man, you have something to tell others and ... you are interesting, too."
Rick Halperin, a board member of Amnesty International USA, said it's important to remember that most European women initially are motivated by compassion, not lust.
Europeans, the Southern Methodist University history professor said, are steeped and educated in human rights. "It's easy to scoff at these women when you live in this country," he said. "But this is a real difficult thing they're doing, and it's very human."
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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