After 33 years on Georgia's death row, inmate says, 'I'm still kicking'

They were all standing erect in their cells, looking out through the bars that held them inside.

The inmates of Georgia's death row had risen when a tour group, led by the prison warden, strolled down the hallway. Some of the condemned inmates nodded, some waved, some made no eye contact at all.

One was eager to talk.

With a broad grin that displayed several missing teeth, John Wayne Conner introduced himself by saying his name was the same as the "little Terminator." That would be John Connor, the character in the “Terminator” movies who will lead a human revolt against the machines that have taken over the world.

Conner, 59, announced he has been on death row for 33 years. As for his appeals, they've almost run out, he said.

"I'm hanging in there," he said, still smiling. "I'm still kicking. In here, that's a good thing."

When asked how he bides his time, Conner, with a child-like enthusiasm, reached down, lifted the corner of his mattress and pulled out about a half-dozen watercolor paintings. He proudly laid them across his bed for all to see.

Most were vibrant landscapes, including one with a majestic waterfall. Conner said it takes about an hour to finish a painting.

The crime that sent Conner to death row

Conner was 25 years old on Jan. 9, 1982, when he, his girlfriend and some other friends went to a party at a house in the South Georgia town of Eastman.

After spending the evening drinking and smoking marijuana, Conner, his girlfriend and J.T. White returned to Conner's home in nearby Milan around midnight.

Later that night, White told Conner that he wanted to sleep with his girlfriend.

In a confession, Conner said, "I got mad and we got into a fight and fought all the way over to the oak tree and I hit him with a quart bottle." He also beat him repeatedly with a branch he found by the oak tree, Conner said.

White's body was found the next day in a drainage ditch.

Awaiting trial, Conner tried to commit suicide in the county jail, pounding a bullet into his chest until it exploded. (The records don’t explain how he was able to do this.) He was sent to Central State Hospital, where doctors ultimately found him competent to stand trial.

During the trial, which lasted only three days in July 1982, a Telfair jury convicted Conner of the murder and sentenced him to death.

In later appeals, Conner’s trial lawyer would testify that Conner instructed him not to put up any evidence on his behalf. "Let them do what they will," Conner said, his attorney testified.

Proportional imposition of death penalty?

Conner’s killing of White during the drunken brawl, while heinous, raises questions about whether the murder was proportionate when compared to others that landed men on death row. Some killed multiple victims. Some killed children. Some committed murder during an armed robbery or a sexual assault.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, during a two-year-long investigation of Georgia’s death penalty, found that prosecutors rarely sought the ultimate punishment for murders similar to White’s.

Conner’s appellate lawyers later learned that Conner’s trial counsel could have presented a great deal of mitigation evidence to the jury during the sentencing phase of the trial.

Court filings contend Conner is intellectually disabled, which would make him ineligible to be put to death. They also say that when Conner was young he was exposed to chronic domestic violence and routinely beaten, stabbed and shot at by his alcoholic father. On one occasion, he received a severe blow to his head with an axe.

He later became addicted to drugs and alcohol and suffered severe depression and mental illness, court filings contend. His case has lingered so long because courts have ordered new hearings on his intellectual disability claims.

In April, the federal appeals court in Atlanta rejected those claims. Conner’s lawyers have yet to appeal that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Thursday, Conner was eager to talk to his new visitors.

'That gives me shivers just hearing it'

The tour was for Federal Communications Commission member Ajit Pai, who had come to the prison to meet Corrections Commissioner Homer Bryson and talk about what the federal government could do to help combat the scourge of contraband cellphones. After their meeting, warden Bruce Chatman led a small group on a tour of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson.

Besides being home to death row, the lockup receives male inmates just as they enter the state prison system. Some are there for the first time. Others have been through the process before. It takes about 10 days to figure out an individual inmate’s needs – such as mental health or substance abuse issues – before sending him to one of the state’s prisons, Chatman said.

Chatman led the group through a series of red doors and yellow-barred metal gates. Large hand-painted signs, such as one that read “Break the silence – say no to sex abuse,” covered the prison walls.

When Chatman disclosed he would take the group to death row, Pai said, “That gives me shivers just hearing it.”

Upon entering the row, Chatman acknowledged some cellphones have been found on death-row inmates. “But it’s been a while,” he said proudly.

Each cell, roughly six-feet by 9-feet, contains a metal commode and a sink embedded in the wall. Along with a bunk, each inmate gets a small bookshelf to store sparse belongings. TVs line the wall on the other side of the hallway.

Conner lives in one of the four pods on Georgia’s death row, which is home to 80 condemned inmates.

As Conner kept talking, Chatman told the tour group it was time to move on.

"He will engage with you all day," the warden said. "But there are some who won't engage with you at all."