• When your neighbor is Death Row
When your neighbor is Death Row
By Joan Ryan
The furniture is movieset white inside Marika Sakellariou’s home. She is wearing all white, too, down to the French manicure on her hands. Her hair is pulled back into a tight ponytail, evoking the look of the ballerina she once was. A Realtor now, she could be the poster girl for Marin County life, with her Wolf range in the kitchen, late-model Mercedes in the driveway and million-dollar view of San Francisco Bay from her back deck.
But she has an unusual neighbor.
About 500 feet down the street from her pale-blue cottage is the front gate of San Quentin State Prison.
When she walked outside Tuesday afternoon, about 12 hours after the midnight execution of Stanley Tookie Williams, Sakellariou looked at the water bottles and coffee cups, the torn newspapers and forgotten placards strewn along the picket fences and hedgerows. They were the detritus of the 1,500 or so people who had jammed the tiny Village of Point San Quentin until late Monday night to protest or support the execution.
Main Street here surely is one of the oddest little streets in the country. Its quaint lane of bungalows and Victorians ends abruptly at the hulking prison, which houses the only death row in California. For most of the year, the 45 or so residents on the street live a small-town life, walking to the yellow-stucco post office to pick up their mail, calling all their neighbors by name.
But on a night like Monday, when a high-profile execution is scheduled, the place explodes with lights and noise and the chilling countdown to death.
Like most of her neighbors, Sakellariou hadn’t gotten much sleep.
“Mentally and physically, I’m exhausted,” she said. “I love it here because it’s the most beautiful place in the world, but after yesterday … It was just horrible.”
She didn’t mean the protesters or the TV trucks. In fact, like most of her neighbors, she rented out her driveway to the media, this time to Clear Channel out of Los Angeles and KGO radio. And she ventured out among the eclectic collection of protesters, overcoming her fear that there might be gang members and violence.
“I felt I needed to find out who was out there,” she said. “There were so many young people. People were freezing to death trying to make a point. I was very, very touched. How many of us would put ourselves in this kind of discomfort to make a point? That really moved me. I thought, ‘Marika, why aren’t YOU speaking out?’ I felt horrible that somebody was being executed down the street from me. It felt barbaric. Archaic.”
Across the street, 34-year-old yoga teacher Jacquie Greaux was gathering up yellow caution tape along the side of the road. She and her husband had stretched it across their front hedges Monday night when protesters began spilling off Main Street to sit on the front steps of their brown two-story home. The house had been the warden’s residence from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Greaux’s husband grew up in the house, and Greaux moved in nine years ago.
“I’ve been here for four or five executions, but last night takes the cake for the largest and longest media circus,” she said.
Usually, they put in earplugs and go to bed. But Monday night, they stayed up to watch the coverage at a neighbor’s house, convinced that Williams’ life would be spared at the last moment.
“I still can’t believe they did it,” she said.
Her opposition to the death penalty complicates her feelings about living down the street from a prison. She has been nervous at times, but she opposes moving San Quentin to a remote location, as many in Marin are advocating. If executions are carried out far from an urban center, Greaux said, they wouldn’t draw the number of protesters — and the media attention — they do now.
“People need to be out here so everybody knows that this is going on,” she said.
As Greaux tossed the caution tape in the garbage can by the curb, six or seven men in greenish-yellow jump suits walked through the gate of San Quentin. It was about 2 in the afternoon. Two guards with guns walked at their side. The men, minimum-security prisoners, picked up the cups and papers on the street.
Greaux moved quickly into her yard.
“Let’s go up the side stairs,” she said. “I don’t want them to see me and know where I live.”
The San Quentin schedule calls for another execution in three weeks. Death again will visit Main Street.
“Three weeks?” Greaux asked, sighing. “I’m going away. I’m not going to be here for that one.”
- Joan Ryan is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Send comments to her in care of this newspaper or send her e-mail at email@example.com.