Life, while awaiting death, for convicted killer Ploof

Gary Ploof was sentenced to death on Aug. 22, 2003, for the murder of his wife Heidi Ploof in Dover in 2001. (Submitted photo/Dave Chambers)

Gary Ploof was sentenced to death on Aug. 22, 2003, for the murder of his wife Heidi Ploof in Dover in 2001. (Submitted photo/Dave Chambers)

SMYRNA — Gary Ploof doesn’t want to die. But he doesn’t want to spend decades locked up in prison either.

Given the choice between execution and life behind bars, Ploof says he would take death.

For most people, this choice is a theoretical debate. Not for Gary Ploof. He’s facing it.

At the time a member of the U.S. Air Force stationed in Dover, Ploof was convicted of murdering his wife, Heidi, in 2001. He shot her in the head in the parking lot of the former north Dover Walmart and attempted to frame the homicide as a suicide, the court found.

The jury and judge ruled Ploof killed his wife for life insurance money, and because of prior crimes and the premeditated nature of the crime, he was sentenced to death.

“While there are mitigating circumstances which have been proved, they are insubstantial when compared to the nature of the crime and the true character of the defendant as revealed by his crime and by his conduct,” Superior Court Judge Henry duPont Ridgely wrote in his judgment.

That was in 2003.

Thirteen years and numerous appeals later, and with the constitutionality of the state’s death penalty in question, Ploof remains at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna.

The time spent in a cell has changed his attitude, and he says he’s not overly worried about death.

“If the only way out of here is in a box, then that’s the way I go,” he said.

Delaware’s death penalty

After executing eight people from 1992 to 1996, the state has carried out capital punishment less in recent years — just twice in the past decade.

Death row inmate Gary Ploof describes how he’s for the death penalty during an interview Wednesday at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna.

Death row inmate Gary Ploof describes how he’s for the death penalty during an interview Wednesday at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna.

Efforts to overturn Delaware’s death penalty through the Legislature have failed the past two sessions, but lawmakers remain determined.

Meanwhile, a Delaware judge has ordered a temporary stay of the death penalty while the state Supreme Court weighs questions about the law, which could lead to it being declared unconstitutional.

It may seem counterintuitive that someone at risk of being executed would support the law that could lead to his death, but Ploof said his mind is set.

Wednesday, he answered questions about life on the inside during an hourlong interview in a prison meeting room. Unshackled and wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, Ploof provided a glimpse at death row.

Technically, death row no longer exists. In January, the Correction Department opted to begin re-integrating death row inmates into the main cell blocks, although they remain in maximum security.

Thirteen men currently are awaiting execution in Delaware. The majority have been moved to the Medium-High Housing Unit from the Security Housing Unit, meaning they have greater freedoms and more contact with other inmates.

Death row was very repetitive but “wasn’t a bad place,” Ploof said, adding “I was in the military for 20 years so I was used to repetition.”

Life behind bars

He is currently in a single cell but could be moved to a double, which would mean he would have, for the first time, a cellmate.

Inmates in his unit get two recreation periods per day — an hour in the morning and 90 minutes in the afternoon or evening — during which they are allowed to interact with other prisoners, play cards and take part in outdoor activities like basketball.

Before death row was eliminated, those on it received one recreation period every three days.

Even inmates in the highest-security setting are able to use books and magazines, and Ploof said he enjoys crime novels, aircraft magazines and the Bible.

Prisoners also are allowed to purchase amenities from the commissary, such as TVs, fans and food seasoning. Those items are bought through money earned from prison jobs, such as sweeping the floors, a job Ploof has held, or sent by family members.

Three times a day prisoners are led in small groups into the area used as a cafeteria, where they are served food, which Ploof said varies in quality.

Prisons, especially the high-security facilities, generally are seen as rough places, but Ploof said disagreements, let alone fights, were uncommon on death row.

Arguments do sometimes pop up over sports or between men who knew each other on the outside.

“I’m very thankful that on the eighth day God made headphones,” Ploof said of how he ignores loud arguments.

Inmates are not allowed Internet access or cigarettes. The Clean Indoor Air Act of 2002 banned smoking in the prisons.

“If I get out tomorrow the first thing I’m doing is buying a pack of cigarettes,” Ploof said, laughing.

For inmates, there are four levels of privileges based on behavior.

Those at the highest level are able to receive more phone calls and visits, although calls are limited to 10 minutes. Ploof said he is allowed four calls per month and uses them to speak to his parents and children.

After spending more than a decade alone in a cell, he has grown accustomed to having relatively little contact with others and still is acclimating to having more freedom, he said.

That time thinking and waiting has caused him to view death as preferable to life in prison.

Limbo

His government-appointed lawyers still are appealing the case, but Ploof said he initially pushed his counsel not to do so.

In 2013, the state Supreme Court rejected his claims of ineffective counsel during the initial trial. The appeals continue at the federal level, after Ploof exhausted his options in the state courts.

However, should the state resume executions, he said he would order his attorneys to drop the appeal.

“I wish it was tomorrow,” he said of a potential execution.

Ploof supports the death penalty not only for his situation but as the “ultimate punishment” for anyone who commits the “ultimate crime” of first-degree murder. He, though, maintains his innocence, despite repeated judgments from the courts.

He speculated the Supreme Court will uphold the death penalty, which would leave the door open for death by lethal injection.

Death row inmate Gary Ploof, who supports the death penalty even though he was sentenced to death on August 22, 2003 for the November 3, 2001 shooting death of his wife, Heidi Ploof. “If you commit the ultimate crime, you have to pay the ultimate punishment” said Ploof during the interview.

Death row inmate Gary Ploof, who supports the death penalty even though he was sentenced to death on Aug. 22, 2003 for the Nov. 3, 2001 shooting death of his wife, Heidi Ploof. “If you commit the ultimate crime, you have to pay the ultimate punishment” said Ploof during the interview.

However, in recent years, states have struggled to obtain the drugs used for executions. Some drugs are no longer made by companies, while others are not exported from Europe to the United States, according to the Council of State Governments.

Delaware currently does not have any of the needed drugs, calling into question if executions could even be performed if the death penalty is upheld by the courts.

Delaware holds the perhaps-dubious distinction of committing the last legal hanging in the United States. Billy Bailey, who had been sentenced to death before legislation made lethal injection the method of choice, was allowed to choose to be hanged in 1996.

There’s a common sentiment among many that convicted murderers — sometimes referred to as “the worst of the worst” — deserve nothing more than being locked up in a cell and given the bare minimums.

Ploof’s response to that argument is that there is no benefit to it, nothing to be gained.

“No matter what anybody may have done, it’s a human being,” he said.

He originally harbored hopes of being released but has come to terms with only getting out posthumously, be it by “drugs or a golf club.”

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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