NEW YORK - For death row inmate David Hammer, each bite of the cheesecake was doubly sweet: It was homemade, and the plastic fork was even his favorite color, purple.
He enjoyed it during a break in an appeal hearing, his shackles and chains unlocked. A guard delivered the treat that Sister Camille D'Arienzo baked for him.
It was another gesture by the nun toward the man corrections officials once warned her was their "most dangerous prisoner." He was now her friend - a convict she had counseled as he faced execution three times in the past eight years.
Back and forth, in tortured dialogues, the two explored Hammer's ambivalence about whether to live or die. He retracted his appeal of his death sentence several times, only to reinstate it.
Why? He asked to be executed "out of exasperation, frustration, recognition that he was never going to be free," D'Arienzo says.
"And I'm saying to him, 'God gives you the gift of time to work out your salvation. Think of all the good that you can do for others.' And he would say, 'I've got to think of what's best for me. If you say that God is in heaven and that God has forgiven me, why wouldn't I want to be with God? Why would I want to be here?'"
Awaiting execution for strangling his cellmate while already sentenced to more than 1,200 years for crimes committed in his youth, Hammer sometimes felt he deserved to die.
Still, he listened to D'Arienzo, a Roman Catholic Sister of Mercy. And he began to change in mind and spirit. In the words of his lawyer, Ronald Travis: "Here's a person who was saved."
Now, each year Hammer paints holiday cards that D'Arienzo markets. The proceeds go to children who grew up poor, abused and in danger of becoming criminals, like him. And the 48-year-old inmate writes all the time: pen-pal letters to the children, material for a Web site, DeathRowSpeaks.info, and two books including an autobiography titled "The Final Escape."
In an essay, he explained how he decided that he should keep living: "Through the love, guidance, concern and understanding of family and friends it has become clear to me that by dying, I will forfeit any opportunity to make amends to those whom I have harmed."
In 2005, a judge voided his death sentence, ruling that jurors in his murder trial had not heard evidence that might have exonerated him. Prosecutors want the sentence to go back before a jury and are keeping him on death row pending that decision.
Hammer has requested a new trial.
And D'Arienzo sums up: "David Paul Hammer has put a human face on the death penalty. … The impact he has had on other people has been profound."
Hammer, his brother and a sister were born to parents who eked out a living in western Oklahoma, moving from shack to shack while doing farm work.
Once, his volatile mother became angry and killed two puppies while he watched, he says.
"She was bipolar, and unmedicated," David's brother, Martin Hammer, says in a phone interview from his Oklahoma City home. David has testified that family members beat and abused him, emotionally and sexually.
He ran away from home at age 14, dulling painful memories with drugs and alcohol while "hustling" to survive. A marriage when he was about 16 ended quickly; with another woman, he had a son who is not in contact with him.
At 19, Hammer landed in prison after holding hostages at a hospital where he'd gone for help, high on PCP and threatening suicide. He's been behind bars ever since, except for two brief escapes. During one, he shot and wounded a man.
Hammer was serving time at the federal penitentiary in Allenwood, Pa., when in 1996, cellmate Andrew Marti was found dead. Hammer pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death.
The judge who lifted his death sentence said jurors had never heard evidence that might have led them to conclude the strangling was accidental.
"They were having rough sex, and David choked him - he accidentally choked him too hard," says Martin Hammer. "But I don't think David was trying to murder him."
When Robert Marti, Andrew's father, testified at Hammer's trial, he wept as he struggled to read his son's last letter home. Hammer was crying too.
"My actions … took away forever a son, a brother, an uncle," Hammer later wrote. From his cell at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., he believes that "in the end, one must accept responsibility…"
Hammer was counting the days to his first execution date in January 1999 when he met D'Arienzo.
He had read about the "Declaration of Life" - her anti-death penalty effort symbolized by a card anyone can sign and carry that says, "If I'm murdered, I want my killer punished but not executed."
One day, she got a letter from Hammer, who was "looking for someone to pray for him and to pray for the man he killed in prison," D'Arienzo says.
On an icy winter day, she drove to the penitentiary, where officials had warned that Hammer was "the most dangerous prisoner they had."
Facing the convict in chains, she listened as his "big tears kept dropping onto the table," she says.
He asked her why she had decided to come, "and I said, 'Because I couldn't find anyone else.' He burst out laughing. It was a good, healthy laugh."
Hammer told her that his execution had been stayed after he decided to appeal the death sentence days earlier.
His transformation was beginning. Within a year, Martin Hammer says, the tone of David's letters home changed. "You could feel the positive; before, it was all negative." Even some of the clinical problems from which psychologists had testified he suffered seemed to improve, his brother says.
Here's how David Hammer expressed it to The Associated Press:
"The one thing I lacked in my life was the warmth I now feel from those who care for me. As I grew up, I felt the world was a cruel, cold place - and that helped shape me. Had I seen this world back then, my life probably would have been much different."
D'Arienzo has changed, too.
A former schoolteacher and college professor who broadcasts commentaries for a radio station, she is the daughter of Italian immigrants. D'Arienzo lost her mother to illness when she was 8 and was brought up on Long Island at a boarding school run by the Sisters of Mercy, later joining their order.
Though she had had no personal experience with a felon, her work with troubled children and adults gave her a strong personal belief: "If people have one person who cares, that can be enough - one, just one."
About every four months, she flies from her home in New York to Terre Haute. For as long as 10 hours over two days, she and Hammer sit on either side of thick security glass, communicating through intercom receivers.
"He makes me think about a lot of things. We are connected in conversation, ideas, in values, in desires for ourselves and for other people. We talk about books, movies, television programs, the news."
From him, she learned "not to focus on the future, or to dwell on the past, but to live in the moment, to live in the day."
In 2000, she became Hammer's godmother at a prison service during which he was confirmed by Indianapolis Archbishop Daniel Buechlein.
Hammer's execution was stayed then because he had again changed his mind about wanting to die, and appealed. A new date was set in 2004. Again, the proceedings were halted when a court ruled a hearing had been improperly handled.
At the moment when he'd been scheduled to die, Hammer was instead praying with D'Arienzo, their hands on the security glass, palm to palm.
Their friendship helps Hammer "not in what he does, but in what he is," she says. "And that gets communicated to other people, in ways that I'll never know."
The holiday card project, started seven years ago, benefits people chosen by Hammer - a food bank near the Terre Haute prison, hungry children in Haiti, the families of women on parole in New York.
Proceeds also go to his pen pals in Jamaica - at-risk boys at the Alpha School in Kingston, and the St. John Bosco Children's Home in rural Hatfield, both run by the Sisters of Mercy.
Last year, D'Arienzo brought them a check for $4,000 - for new woodworking equipment - accompanied by a letter from faraway prisoner No. 24507-077. She read the letter aloud.
"I feel a personal connection to each of you," Hammer wrote. "As I sit in my cell on federal death row, I often recall the times during my early years growing up on a farm in the state of Oklahoma. The work was hard, and I longed for the day when I could escape the poverty of being a farm laborer …. Now, I would give anything to be free and to work on a farm."
When she ended, the school assembly hall echoed with the children's cheers.