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The rush to the death chamber

Like Timothy McVeigh, more condemned prisoners are in a hurry to die. Does the trend undermine justice?

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More than a few, though, point to the oppression that hangs over death-row cellblocks, saying they can stand it no longer.

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"When you walk into this camp, you can feel the death," says Anthony Boyd, a prisoner on death row in Alabama. He is not trying to hasten his demise, but he knew four inmates who did. "It's like walking into a graveyard.... Guys watch as family members abandon them.... You're treated like animals."

Most death-penalty states isolate condemned prisoners in high-security cellblocks, away from the general prison population. They spend most of the day in a cell about 6 feet by 8 feet.

In Arizona, a federal appeals court has ordered a hearing to determine whether more than a dozen years in isolation influenced convict Robert Comer to volunteer to end his appeals. His lawyer claims that conditions on death row "torture to death" many inmates, leading them to give up their legal rights.

To David Paul Hammer, a federal inmate awaiting execution in Terre Haute, Ind., it's the bleakness of prison life that led him to halt all legal appeals. Though he has since changed his mind and resumed challenges to his sentence, an earlier phone conversation with Mr. Hammer revealed something of his rationale for wanting to seek a "final escape."

"I merely exist" on death row, he said. "There is a big difference in living and existing. In order to live, your life has to have meaning, a purpose."

THE FOLLOWING CASES help explain some of the ways inmates come to their decisions to seek death - and illustrate the ethical conundrums they create for the people working in the criminal-justice system.

'Death wish' of Daniel Colwell

Lawyers and psychiatrists say it's not infrequent for individuals to commit murder as a means of suicide, as in the case of Daniel Colwell in Georgia. He wants to die in the electric chair.

Mr. Colwell admits he shot and killed two people at random in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Americus, Ga. He told a jury he never had the courage to kill himself, but hoped the state would now fulfill his death wish by executing him.

At his 1998 trial, Colwell, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and other mental problems, was found competent to direct his own defense. He pleaded guilty to the murders. He boasted about the slayings to the jury. He threatened jurors and their families if they did not recommend a death sentence. The jury obliged.

Even Daniel Bibler, one of the prosecutors in Colwell's case, says the admitted killer had no motive other than his desire to end his own life.

"We took him as a calm, communicative person who intelligently planned out something, carried it out with full knowledge of what he was doing, and understood the consequences," Mr. Bibler says. "We never disputed that he had been diagnosed with mental disorders. But clearly he was not delusional, and clearly he was in touch with reality."

Colwell, however, still must get past another hurdle to carry out his plan: his own lawyer. Michael Mears believes his client is mentally ill, and he has appealed to Georgia's Supreme Court, asking the justices to prohibit the state from executing people diagnosed with serious mental disorders.

Colwell has fought back, trying to replace Mr. Mears with another lawyer. The court has not permitted Colwell to do so.