A portrait of a Swiss pen pal

Maria Eggimann holds up a self portrait of Marcus B. Cotton

One line in Marcus B. Cotton’s request for a pen pal convinced Maria Eggimann to write to him: “Sometimes silence can be worse than violence, especially at mail call”.

This content was published on September 25, 2003 minutes

Eggimann and Cotton have been exchanging letters for three years now, but the correspondence could soon end since the death row inmate has nearly exhausted his appeals.

“He says he’s not going to make it to his 30th birthday and he just turned 29,” says Eggimann.

Eggimann is a schoolteacher and lives with her husband and children in the village of Gimmelwald in the Bernese Oberland.

Despite juggling her family and professional life, as well as running a bed and breakfast, she still finds a couple hours each week to write to Cotton.


She got the idea to write to a death row inmate after reading a magazine article, believing it could be a way of throwing a lifeline to a condemned man – as well as help her improve her English.

“Marcus has no family and no friends, so the thought of improving my English quickly became secondary because I saw all of a sudden that I had a big responsibility for this person,” she says.

Eggimann is convinced of Cotton’s innocence, believing he was used as a “scapegoat” because of his previous criminal record.

She says Cotton’s co-defendant in the 1996 murder of an assistant district attorney in Houston, Texas, testified against him in order to receive a reduced sentence.

Eyes and ears

“I can’t stop writing because I am his eyes and his ears in the world outside.”

“I sometimes feel the correspondence is one-sided, [when] I go into detail about what I’m doing,” she says. “But he answers, ‘that’s okay, it’s very interesting for me to read each small detail because I don’t have this kind of life’.”

In response, Cotton writes openly about his imprisonment.

“It’s always up-and-down in his letters. I can see very clearly how he must be feeling when he writes his letters.”

Questions of humanity

Eggimann also sends books to Cotton, which she reads herself.
“We often discuss the books and that enables us to touch on profound questions of humanity, which goes beyond talking about the ordinary things that happen in our lives.”

Eggimann has set up the “Life and Legacy Fund” to find money to pay for legal aid for Cotton, and to that end, sells postcards of illustrations he draws to while away the long hours spent each day in isolation.

She displays the postcards in the guest rooms of her family’s bed and breakfast, where they come to the attention of her mostly American guests.

“It’s always very interesting to see their reaction when I tell them about my pen pal,” says Eggimann. “I find that most of them don’t have any idea about what’s going on in their own country.”

Divided society

“America is a great country, but it also has its dark side,” she continues. “It really strikes me how divided American society still is. There is still a large group of poor people who are given few chances.

“In his entire life, Marcus never felt accepted, or loved – just tolerated, and sometimes not even that,” Eggimann adds.

“It’s a completely new experience for him to find somebody who is genuinely concerned and takes so much time to listen to him, instead of judging him.”

“For the first time, he has started trusting somebody.”

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Gimmelwald

In brief

Marcus B. Cotton can be contacted through Maria Eggimann at or written to directly:

Marcus Bridger Cotton
999 252
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM. 350 south
Livingston, Texas 77351

End of insertion
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