By Leonor Ayala, Dateline Field Producer
At 8:45 in the morning, I found myself zipping down a lonely, long stretch of road. State Road 62 in Florida wasn't much to look at in that hour, just lots of open space and farm land (of course this from my city girl's point of view). This led me to second guess myself. Was I going in the right direction?
My mind was racing. I was en route to Hardee Correctional Institution for my very first meeting with a first-degree murderer.
When I thought about stepping inside a prison for the first time, my anxiety wasn't for my personal safety. It wasn't about the pat-down everyone had warned me about, or being a few feet from a convicted killer. It was about getting to the prison on time.
We only had an hour or so to set up our cameras for the interview. I knew we had lots of camera equipment and gear to get through security, and the prison had a laundry list of do's and don'ts. Being late could make the difference between the interview happening or not. I had to get to the prison by 10:30 a.m.
It was only when I saw a water tower on the side of the road that I realized I was going to make it. Jason Kent's parents had told me about a week earlier that this was their landmark on their drive to the prison to visit their son. I felt a huge sense of relief.
It was then I started to really think about what my mission was. I was going to hear Jason Kent's side of the story. Kent, 33, is serving a life sentence for killing his wife's ex-husband. He has been in prison since his arrest in 1999 and this would be the first time he would talk to a national audience about the day he committed murder.
The idea that Jason had gunned down a man in broad daylight eight years ago perplexed me. His parents, Gene and Carol, were good, upstanding, God-fearing people and their description of Jason just didn't fit that of a killer. He was by all accounts a conscientious child and a determined student. A devoted Christian and a naval officer.
I arrived late at 11 a.m. with my head abuzz with all of these thoughts. But I quickly went to the task at hand: setting up the shoot. I greeted the prison officers, who were all very cordial and pleasant but are quick to remind me and my crew that, just like any one else, we will have to pass all of their security screenings. I went first. I was told I'd have to leave my cell phone in my car, along with my keys. Even my pen -- until I argued that I needed it to keep track of the interview. The officers relented.
Then it was the crew's turn. They had arrived at the prison armed with cases and cases of gear. The clock was ticking down to our interview but the guards went through each bag with a fine tooth comb. They asked tough questions about pieces of equipment they thought could double as weapons, in particular our grip gear, which consists of lots of odds-and-ends items like metal hooks.
The crew and I look at each other and puzzled, "How do you really explain grip gear?" Chris Bull, our sound technician, described it as all of the "stuff" we needed to finalize the set. Nearly two (painful) hours later, we were about to get in when we were told we would all have to go into a back room for a pat down, one-by-one. It was actually pretty benign, especially after having experience with extensive airport security screenings.
At 12:15 p.m., we arrived at our location. It was the visitation room where prisoners get to spend time with their families. With its tiny chairs and tables and the drab concrete walls, it looked very similar to an elementary school cafeteria. But the loud buzzing and ominous clearance door clanking away in the background served as a reminder you were in a high-security building.
Our interview was scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. and for a minute, a short sense of panic came over me. Normally, it takes two hours to set up a two-camera interview. We had less than 45 minutes. But somehow Fred Schuh, our lead cameraman, got it all done, which even impressed the guards -- who finally understood why we needed all of that "stuff" to make it happen.
At 1 p.m., Keith Morrison arrived and Jason Kent was called from his prison cell. We waited for him to be escorted to us and to tell his side of the story -- the murder that changed the course of his life forever.
The story of Jason Kent's conviction for murder will be told in a very special Dateline airing Friday, March 21 at 9pm ET on NBC.