Dead Man Waiting

Billy Elledge brutally raped and murdered a woman in Hollywood 25 years ago. He has sat in prison since then, evidence that Florida's death penalty isn't working.

And the taxpayers, of course, continue to pay for it all. For starters, it costs about $66 a day just to feed, shelter, and otherwise take care of Elledge at Union Correctional Institute. Extrapolated over 24 years, that works out to a cost of well over half a million dollars. On top of that are the much greater costs incurred by the prosecutors, defense attorneys, investigators, judges, bailiffs, jurors, psychiatrists, and sundry others whose lives have at one time or another intersected with this drawn-out affair.

"I shudder to think what it's cost the taxpayers on this case alone," Elledge says deviously. "There's no way that I'm gonna ever get out of prison, so where's the sense in continually pursuing this case with such a vengeance when it's all a waste of money?"

When a death row inmate makes the move from Union to Bradford County, he's generally not long for this world. Union Correctional Institute is where most of the 368 men on death row spend the bulk of their days as their appeals snake their way through the courts; Florida State Prison, in Bradford County, is where Old Sparky sits. (The four women currently on death row reside at the Broward Correctional Institution in Pembroke Pines.)

Three fences of varying heights surround Union Correctional Institute. They are wrapped in enough barbed wire to fence in a small city. The death row unit, which accounts for more than 300 of the facility's 1700 inmates, is situated on the east side, down a caged walkway that separates the condemned from the general population.

A six-by-nine cell on one of the tiers is Billy Elledge's physical world. His bed is a steel slab with a mattress lying on top. Beneath the bed are two footlockers containing all his worldly possessions: one for personal items and another for legal materials. A stainless steel unit contains both a toilet and a sink. Across from the bed is a ten-inch, black-and-white television.

Twice a week Elledge is let out of his cell for two hours. In the exercise yard, he can play basketball or just sit around and chew the fat with the other condemned killers. Every other day Elledge gets to bathe. He is shackled, handcuffed, and walked to the showers -- about ten feet from his cell. On the weekends he is allowed visitors, but few people make the effort. "I've never had a family visit," he says. "Never got a package from 'em. Never got a stamp. Never got a money order. Nothing."

The rest of the time, from his predawn wake-up call to when he goes to bed well after midnight, is spent in his cell. He reads (Ken Follet, Anne Rice). He does legal work. He makes instant coffee using tap water. He writes poetry. He watches television (PBS and movies). He sleeps. He writes letters.

Within this stark setting, Elledge has led a relatively thriving existence. The high-school dropout earned his GED in prison and has taught himself a decent amount of law. He says things like, "I was associated with the A.R.E., out of Virginia Beach, for a long time," a group that advances the teachings of the late psychic Edgar Cayce. He quit using drugs and alcohol, though he says they are available on death row.

Through letters, which he often punctuates with elaborate smiley faces, Elledge communicates with people all over the world. He married in 1993 and divorced in 1996 a Flint, Michigan, woman whom he met through an advertisement in a supermarket tabloid. "When we first got married, she thought she could do without the sexual aspect of the relationship," Elledge says. "But she just couldn't hold out." Elledge says that right now he is "fairly serious" about a widow in Louisiana to whom he writes.

On a Website called "Penn-Pals," Elledge has a personal ad of sorts that he pays to have posted. "It really helped me a lot when the Internet started opening up that way, because you get a chance to meet people that are a little more liberal-minded than the United States citizens," Elledge says. The site features a picture of a bemused-looking Elledge in prison garb. His home state is listed as California, his occupation as cook, and one of his hobbies as "nature." "Sometimes I feel like a one-legged dog in a million-dollar race!" his note reads. "I'm looking for someone who knows LONELINESS the way I do. Someone who can overlook the stupidity of my youth."

Billy Elledge wasn't always such a sweetheart. In August 1974, when the Wichita, Kansas-born roughneck arrived in South Florida, he was a habitual drug user and alcoholic with a rap sheet that belied his 24 years of age. He was separated from his first wife, whom he physically abused, and had come to South Florida with a girlfriend to crash at her brother's house in Davie.

It didn't take long for things to go rotten. On Friday, August 23, Elledge got into a fight with his girlfriend. He then committed a string of robberies, breaking into a butcher shop, a dry cleaner's, a hardware store, even the next-door neighbor's house. He rented a room at the Normandie Motel and Apartments on Ocean Drive in Hollywood.

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