By Glenn Townes
After nearly 20 years—17 to be exact, federal executions resumed and three inmates were put to death in one week earlier this month at a federal prison camp in the state of Indiana. While I have waffled back and forth between advocating capital punishment and condemning it, the recent executions reminded me of the one and only time that I stood face-to-face with a death row inmate. We locked eyes. It was a cold and icy glare directly at me from the weathered and ruddy face of a killer. He had murdered—by some estimates, as many as a dozen men and buried them on his rural farm. There he was—this frail shell of a man, standing in front of me, garbed in an orange prison uniform, shackles and flanked by two big and burly sheriffs’ deputies in Trenton. His name was Ray Copeland.
The year was 1992 and I was on a special assignment at a small rural hospital in Trenton—Trenton, Missouri. Believe me when I tell you that Trenton, MO is a universe away from the ghetto fabulous, drug infested urban ‘hood of Trenton, NJ—the one I knew well and had grown up near. This rustic and isolated community is located in the northwest part of the state of Missouri. It was lush, bright, clean and replete with rolling hills and a quiet calmness of a mostly pallid population of, at the time, less than 4,000 people. The locale was an ideal place for authorities to bring a high profile killer like Copeland and not attract too much attention. At the time, the case against Copeland and his wife Faye, had made international headlines and shown a less than flattering spotlight on Kansas City and neighboring towns and communities in the western part of Missouri. I found out later that law enforcement agents had brought Copeland to the isolated and remote hospital for an examination. I recall hearing one of the deputies say, “Yes, we are here to check in Mr. Copeland…” At the time, there wasn’t anyone else in the lobby. As the deputies checked in Copeland and completed paperwork, the tattered and tethered man wearily looked around the small and nondescript hospital waiting room and stared at me. It was a brief, yet intense stare—perhaps lasting all of 20 seconds, however, it’s one I will never forget.
I grimaced. At first, I wanted to reach out and punch him, knock him down and pounce on him in a blind rage. I wanted to inflict some serious pain on him for brutally murdering unsuspecting and transient laborers he had hired to work on his dilapidated farm. Another part of me went into reporter mode. I wanted to rush over and interview him. I wanted to ask him why he had committed such brutal and heinous crimes against men hoping to make a buck? I wanted to see if he felt any remorse. Instead, I did neither, I just stood there and glared back at this decrepit old man—a monster named Ray Copeland. The sheriffs eventually escorted him into a private holding area of the hospital and I never saw him again. The image of our silent, yet potent interaction remains indelible.
The details of the gruesome murders were significant because at the time, the Copelands—Ray was in his mid 70’s and his wife Faye was in her late 60’s were as salacious as they were gruesome. The couple would lure vagrants to work for them as farmhands and eventually kill them—using their identification to forge checks, swindle buyers, steal livestock and commit fraud in various farm related schemes. When the two were each convicted of murder and sentenced to death, they became the oldest man and woman on death row in the country. Copeland died from natural causes less than a year later, Faye died in 2003—her death sentence was eventually commuted to life in prison.
Lastly, research has shown that white Americans are more likely support the death penalty when the accused is African-American or someone of color and the victim is white. Data also shows that people of color are sentenced to death twice as often as other perpetrators. While that has little to do with the case of Copeland—as he was white and so were all or most of his victims, the relevant point is that capital punishment is often used as the final tool in an already unfair and biased judicial system. However, the judicial system got one right when they sentenced Ray Copeland to death—I know, because I was in Trenton and saw the look in his eyes!