Slow Coming Dark: Interviews on Death Row
It was during the first years in prison that I gradually became aware of them. They seemed to be eccentrics at the time; some were suspected of stealthy perversions, some seemed to go about as if they were part of the prison staff. They were the most educated—and the most vulnerable of us all. They were all shy and careful men who seemed to be ashamed of the rest of us. There were only about ten of them but they were easily indentifiable: they had all served about twenty years apiece; each was a man whose death sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment. They had left death row at least a decade earlier and now were men in their late middle-age—all on the threshold of old age.
They lived in a different world from the rest of us—preferring the solitude of their cells rather than the crowded yard, staying in a recreation area where they carried on quiet pursuits, like stamp collecting, drawing, reading. None was a thief outside prison and I cannot remember one who was at ease with convict prison talk or ways. I remember them mostly as a fleeting species, forever slipping away to their cells (quietly, unobtrusively). None ever complained of anything.
And then I was on death row myself for a while, over fifteen years ago, with men who were younger then and whom today I imagine to be among that odd species of convict who serves a life sentence off death row. But I was only held there for about a year during my prosecution for killing another inmate, and for a couple of years after my conviction. Fortunately, I was never convicted of a capital offense. But I remember what the condemned of death row were like.
Slow Coming Dark is an excessively dramatic title for this collection of twelve interviews with people on death row under active death sentences. As is obvious from the interviews of those condemned to die, the “darkness” is always there, as complete as it will ever be, and death is not slow, but sudden; as sudden as an airplane careening out of control. Those on death row, when they get the hang of it, think of their executions as hapless future accidents that might occur with varying degrees of probability. No one on death row anticipates death. The odds against dying are great. That is all any of them knows for sure; the rest is a chaos of darkness and confusion. The confusion in which these people and the author (a news reporter and photographer) find themselves illuminates nothing. The book in fact obscures the question of the death penalty.
But that was not the author’s point. His point was merely to demonstrate a familiar theme: those condemned to die by execution are ordinary mortals, people such as the rest of us—a sentimental point that strikes me as informative and useful to no one and very probably harmful to the people he interviewed.
Of the twelve people he talked to on death row, only one had pleaded guilty (David Washington)—and he has since been executed. Only four of the remaining eleven admit to killing; they claim to be innocent of an intent to harm or murder. Seven claim to be altogether innocent and to have no knowledge whatever of the murders for which they are condemned to die.
By their own accounts, one might conclude that over 90 percent of these people on death row are innocent—and over 50 percent of them are not just innocent of premeditation or criminal intent, but of any involvement with the death of others. More likely, of course, one would conclude that they are not to be believed. With every page the latter conviction grows and by the time you have read all the interviews, your attitude toward condemned people is at least less sympathetic than before. The reader who literally believes what he is told here is likely to be a gullible, sentimental fool.
This is a book the prosecutor could recommend to juries to read while they deliberate on trials for capital offenses: whatever shadows of doubt cross their consciences, they may be soothed to learn that hardly anyone facing the death penalty ever admits guilt after his conviction and that they are all people much like us. It is a palliative to the guilty conscience of those who decide others must die—including the judge, jury, and the murderer himself. What is so horrible about taking someone’s life if people like the rest of us do it without apparent remorse? Do it and never talk about it.
What Magee does not say is that they cannot even talk about it among themselves on death row without jeopardizing their positions of innocence before the courts. I remember that when I was on death row every prisoner expressed an obsessive concern that he might have talked in his sleep, might have betrayed himself as he tossed about through troubled dreams. All you had to do to gain the undivided attention of every cell on death row was to say: “Someone was talking last night in his sleep.” The silence that followed was deadly. I used to do this as a cruel joke—and it worked every time. Prisoners testify to conversations regularly, especially when someone wins a new trial on death row. And since they are all hoping for new trials, they all keep their secrets well.
Of the twelve condemned prisoners interviewed by Magee, half had previous convictions. Mr. “Anonymous” had served a term in the mental penal institution at Vacaville, California. Jimmy Lee Gray spent seven years in Arizona State Prison—he was the only one with a previous conviction for murder. J.D. Gleaton served one year on a Florida road gang for “destroying a Bell telephone” (as he puts it). Elvin Myles had been in and out of the Angola State Prison in Louisiana all of his life, since he was fifteen years old. Johnny “Imani” Harris was already a convict when he was tried and convicted for the murder of a prison guard at Holman Prison in Alabama during a rebellion.
As one might expect, on death row the distinction between those who believe in the hereafter and those who do not tends to become more acute than it does elsewhere. Only two of these six with previous convictions have turned to religion. One is the simple, illiterate Gleaton, the “Bell telephone” assailant who could not understand what went on in the courtroom at his trial for the murder of a gas station attendant during a robbery. The other is the most disturbed—and |disturbing—of all, Gray, whose previous conviction was for killing a girl friend and whose mother wrote the governor and the appellate courts asking them not to stay his execution and who lobbies in favor of capital punishment.
He is a slight, shy young man; a computer programmer, thirty-two years old, who treats his emotional problems by a species of self-healing McGee calls “Christian psychology.” He sits on death row convicted of the rape-murder of a three-year-old girl. Gleaton and Gray are the only ones with previous convictions who have put their hopes in the hands of God. The rest with previous convictions—“Anonymous,” Mike Moore, Imani, Myles—seem to me to face their situations more perceptively than the others among the twelve interviewed in this book.
Of the other six, for whom this is their first conviction, three are actively and intensely religious: one is Rebecca Machetti, the only woman among the condemned in this book. Convicted of having conspired in the deaths of a man and his wife, she has devoted all of her days on death row in Georgia to maintaining a “prison ministry” through the mail. She does not believe a woman will be executed, and I suspect she is right. Four years ago I helped circulate a petition among fellow inmates at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary protesting the death penalty in her case—and everyone there endorsed it. Seldom do prisoners sign petitions at Atlanta.
Another is Charles Young, Jr., a black Georgian convicted of murdering a white banker for transferring his debt to his grandmother, who had co-signed his loan. Throughout his interview, references to his grandmother and God appear regularly; he has now put his hopes into the hands of God. Since he is black, and his lawyer seems less than competent, and he is on death row in Georgia for killing a white man, one can see the logic of this decision.
Lastly, there is David Washington, who was interviewed at the Florida State Prison before he was executed. He was on death row after having entered a plea of guilty to three separate murders and waiving his rights to a trial by jury. All this cooperation did not encourage the judge to extend mercy in the form of a life sentence. Washington did not want to die, he told Magee, and hoped, finally, that his confession was at least received by God—mercy on earth having been wanting. He had boasted of the murders to his friends and committed his last murder—of a university student whom he killed for $80—as the victim recited the Lord’s Prayer while Washington repeatedly stabbed him. He first murdered a homosexual client during an act of prostitution and, second, an old lady who dealt in swag merchandise. That full and remorseful confession of these crimes did not gain him mercy was, you may be sure, duly noted by others on death row.
Of the other three with no previous convictions, two have intellectual interests. Doug McCray is a black college graduate convicted of the rape-murder of a sixty-eight-year-old white woman in Florida. When he signs his name with an “X,” he calls it “ghetto hieroglyphics”: he angrily denounces his trial as a racist frame-up. The other is Phil Brasfield, a trained drug abuse counselor, on death row in Texas, who consoles himself by doing what he calls “grief work”—a counseling technique that could be called a sophisticated equivalent of Christian psychology. He is on death row for the rape-murder of a six-year-old black boy.
Finally there is Keith Berry. Of all the condemned in this book without a previous conviction he seems to me the most composed and impressive. Neither religious nor intellectual in his outlook, he defends himself so well he excited the “detective juices” of the author to see whether he was telling the truth. He is on death row for having killed his father-in-law in order to inherit a farm in Tennessee, valued at $100,000. He was an accountant and his defense is careful and intricate. He is the only person interviewed who seems to have gone a long way toward convincing the author of his innocence.
Mr. “Anonymous” is the son of an independent farmer and he spent his short life of freedom as a thief. Doug McCray had for a year been a student at San Diego State University at the time of his arrest. Rebecca Machetti was a forty-one-year-old registered nurse and mother of three at the time of her arrest. Jimmy Lee Gray was from a middle-class background and was a successful computer programmer when he was arrested. Phil Brasfield was also from a middle-class family and he ran a group of six detoxification centers that had recently run out of money about the time of his arrest. Mike Moore was from the middle class, had been to college for two years, and was accused of dealing illicit drugs at the time of his arrest. Charles Young, Jr., was from the black middle class, a college drop-out (because, he says, of boredom); he owned property when arrested. Johnny “Imani” Harris was from a very poor family; he never finished school, and served time in correctional institutions off and on all his life. Elvin Myles’s background was similar to Imani’s. Keith Berry was a middle-class college drop-out who had studied accounting. J.D. Gleaton came from grinding southern poverty and had virtually no education. David Washington was also very poor and never finished high school. So of the twelve interviewed, only four, Gleaton, Imani, Myles, and Washington can be said to have been victims of poverty.