Dora's Darlings

Prisoners are precious to Dora Schriro, Arizona's new corrections chief

Richard Sindel, Pollard's lawyer, says Schriro met with him and another attorney for the killer for about an hour. "He was on the fast track to hell," Sindel says. "She was in a position as head of Department of Corrections to request a psychiatric evaluation of Roosevelt and to stay the execution -- she had that unique power based upon the statutes of Missouri. The buck stopped with her. I think it was a ballsy act."

Today, neither killer's name rings a bell with Schriro, nor does she recall the meeting with Sindel. "I don't remember talking to [defense] attorneys, per se," she says. "I don't think I would have." She explains that she would have relied on recommendations from state mental-health experts.

Stopping executions isn't the only way Schriro has suggested by her actions that she's against the death penalty. In 1999, she overruled a subordinate and opened death row to Benetton, an Italian clothing manufacturer that produced an ad campaign featuring condemned inmates. Police, victims' groups and legislators blasted the company for insensitivity even as Benetton was putting up billboards of the doomed.

David Hollenbach
Former St. Louis police chief Clarence Harmon says 
Schriro "walked into a mess" there.
Former St. Louis police chief Clarence Harmon says Schriro "walked into a mess" there.

Arguing that prison officials had been misled, the state attorney general sued Benetton with Schriro as his plaintiff, claiming the company had lied its way onto death row by claiming a photographer and interviewer were from Newsweek. That's not what Thomas "Speedy" Rice, an anti-death-penalty lawyer who helped organize the death-row visit, told Missouri prison officials in letters explaining the project and requesting access.

One letter was written on National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers stationery that listed Rice as head of a committee dedicated to abolishing the death penalty. Rice wrote that Benetton was sponsoring the project and that millions of brochures would be distributed around the world. He also telephoned Schriro and sent copies of previous Benetton ad campaigns centered on social issues. "We didn't mislead them at all," Rice says. "The letters couldn't have been clearer."

Schriro could have taken responsibility and admitted that Benetton had been forthright. But she remained silent while the attorney general ranted in the newspapers. Rice doesn't blame her for not taking a stand. "She's probably looking at this career going up in smoke over something that she probably didn't think about, the way it unfolded," Rice says. The lawsuit was settled, with Benetton admitting no wrongdoing but donating $50,000 to a victim-compensation fund and apologizing to families of victims of the Missouri inmates, one of whom was ultimately exonerated and freed from prison.

Schriro won't talk about her views on the death penalty. But some folks wonder.

"I wondered about it," says Tom Block, an anti-death-penalty activist from St. Louis who suggested that Rice contact Schriro to get onto death row. "I never could break her on that, but I respected her for not answering that question in the position that she's in."

Block, who calls Schriro a "humanist," says he never thought she was soft. Rather, she was fair. "If somebody were asking, I know that I wouldn't get Mother Teresa to be superintendent, but I certainly wouldn't mind hearing that Dora Schriro was superintendent of prisons," he offers.

Is she trustworthy? If she makes a promise, can you take it to the bank?

"Let me think about that," Block replies. Twelve seconds pass before he answers. "In my experience, yes," he finally says. "I know her critics would say something different."

The average tenure for a state prison director in the United States is less than three years. Schriro lasted eight in Missouri.

She was replaced in 2001 when a new governor brought in a former police chief who had headed the state Department of Public Safety, which includes the highway patrol. State Representative Larry Crawford, who sits on a legislative corrections committee and has two prisons in his district, says Schriro had to go. Employee morale, he says, had plummeted.

"She was very much a micromanager," he says. "Most people were just scared to death of Dora. All of her [prison] superintendents were in fear, and not out of respect, but the kind of fear that comes from micromanaging and ruling her staff with a kind of iron fist. We had to get her out of the prison system."

Sherry Boldt, who was second in command under Schriro, says most of Schriro's staff respected -- but not necessarily liked -- her. But Schriro had faults. "In her strive for dedication and perfection, she sometimes, I think, overworks an issue," Boldt says. "To me, one thing all of us should be working on is hiring the best people we can and relying on their judgment."

When Boldt arrived, a backlog of grievances had built up in the director's office that took more than a year to whittle away. Some were frivolous, such as inmates complaining they were served Texas toast when they were promised garlic bread, others were more substantive. "There are times when you need to get things expedited instead of 100 percent perfect," Boldt says.

Schriro has demonstrated a propensity for handling things herself in Arizona. She took charge of strategic decisions during the hostage standoff, setting the rules for snipers and repeatedly reviewing a script used by a radio reporter to interview one of the inmates. After the crisis was over, she telephoned an Arizona Republic reporter at 2:30 a.m. when she learned the paper was publishing a story revealing that Lois Fraley, one of the captive guards, had been raped. Shortly afterward, Fraley appeared on Good Morning America.

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