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Death Row

In response to:

The Condemned from the March 5, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

One reads the strangest things in print these days and to my dismay, The New York Review is no more an exception. In his review of Slow Coming Dark, by Doug Magee, Mr. Jack H. Abbott, a prisoner in Marion, attempts to qualify his following critique by telling us that he’s an authority on death row and death row prisoners. Generalizing from the beginning, Mr. Abbott places every man he’s allegedly known who was once on death row as “…eccentrics, and…the most vulnerable of us all.”

Abbott further explains that he was “on death row” himself, in the Sixties, yet not under a death sentence. One supposes this somehow makes him the trained observer of human behavior and therefore qualified to make a series of value judgments upon the author as well as the subjects.

I happen to be one of the men who agreed to talk to Doug Magee. I also happened to have been on death row, yet I know better than to believe—or to attempt to make you believe—that I’m an expert on the subject, except from my own point of view. My capital murder conviction and death sentence were overturned just over a year ago and I’m presently waiting for re-trial, on non-capital charges, since the Court of Criminal Appeals in Texas found credibility in my appellate brief and lack of credibility in the state’s attempt to take my life.

I have maintained my complete lack of guilt—both moral and legal—since the time of my arrest because that happens to be the truth. I did not kill the six-year-old black child that I”m still accused of killing. In time, and by a jury of peers, I hope that fact is established in a court of law and I can regain the shards of my life and try to rebuild its present fragmented state. It’s enough to be off death row, of course, but when one has lost everything due to gross misapplications of the law, then one naturally hopes to somehow rectify these anomalies.

It is because of this that I give the other men and women on death row who maintain their innocence the benefit of the doubt. Whether they really are guilty or not is no concern of mine. What is a concern of mine is setting some facts straight that Mr. Abbott has crookedly laid out.

To begin with, David Washington is alive and I hope well. I’m unsure of Mr. Abbott’s sources of David’s execution, however they are greatly exaggerated. Abbott continues to burden the rest of his prose with conclusions that are not so much based on facts, but some rather conservative attitudes of a personal nature.

Slow Coming Dark is an understatement more than anything else. The facts presented are as unique as every individual who risked an interview with a member of the fourth estate. I say risked, because any of us who has been tried in the daily press long before the actual trial begins, is wary of most journalists. Magee is an exception to the norm, and the book he has presented us with is indicative of Doug’s sensitivity to the human beings under sentence of death.

The readers who choose to believe my small contribution to Slow Coming Dark but who fear being thought of as “…gullible, sentimental fools” are welcome to look into the court record, the statement of facts, and other sources of documentation concerning the circumstantial evidence against me. When you realize that this is also true of every other person who lets us share a slice of their life on death row, one might conclude, regardless of Abbott’s conclusions, that the man who pleads innocence in spite of the evidence against him has nothing to gain at all, especially the sympathy, mercy, or consideration of the persons empowered to commute his sentence to life imprisonment. Perhaps Mr. Abbott is just sour on life in general though, after his long duration as a captive American.

It has been my experience on death row to have listened at length to other men while they agonize and come to accept their responsibility for taking another human’s life. True, if there were other, non-death-row people within earshot, no one talked about much of anything. I hope Mr. Abbott derived enough visceral pleasure out of his “cruel jokes” of the past in his seemingly obsessive quest for the “undivided attention” of those around him when he was among the condemned…but not part of that pathetic, involuntary in-group.

I will not belabor you by going through Abbott’s prickly prose line by line and rectifying what I perceive to be nothing but a self-serving collection of cheap shots and warmed-over sentiments that would sound more appropriate coming from one of the guards at Marion, instead of one of the guarded.

I will say, however, that each individual who is now on death row or has been on death row under sentence of death exists in a constant state of awareness of impending death at the hands of the state. Although I personally felt that my case was so glaringly evident to a higher court, so as to be reversed, I could not place my trust in any other place except in my Creator. The counseling skills used for my adjustment and adaptation to caged life were like bandaids on a mortal wound.

The healing came slowly, one hard step at a time and much of that healing came from a source other than human, but through other humans. Bluntly put, had it not been for people like Doug Magee and others I have come to know during the past forty-one months, and the willingness to accept me for myself, despite the total rejection of society, i.e., the death penalty, then I doubt that I would have chosen to see another anniversary on death row….

I hope the readers of Slow Coming Dark will never forget that everyone interviewed at the time was under an active death sentence. In talking to Doug—and subsequently receiving exposure—perhaps the reader will realize that our society is embracing a manner of punishment that demeans us all and actively gives the subliminal message that life—human life—is expendable in some cases. Man is best taught by the example of others, ideally his parents. Society is presently given the example that it’s fine to take a life under certain conditions, death row among them, by the surrogate parents in the body of the state. We should know by now, wherever we are, that violence begets more violence.

That three men, Gary Gilmore, John Spenkelink, and Jesse Bishop, have been executed in the past few years, while the rolls of the condemned climb to ever higher numbers, is no guarantee that there won’t come the time in America when state-sanctioned killing is an active practice. Simply because America is the only nation that has used atomic weapons against another nation…and that there have been no such weapons used since, is no guarantee that it cannot happen again and in fact, is considered “acceptable” in some circles of Washington.

Perhaps, and I pray this will be so, if the men and women facing death by mandate are considered to be what they are, human beings, it won’t be so easy or so acceptable to kill them for their crimes, or as in my own case, the crime one is convicted of, regardless of the truth. If Slow Coming Dark or any other endeavor can bring this into reality, then Doug Magee will have realized what many others have tried to do; to stop the self-consuming practice of retribution, when the potential for reconciliation and, yes, repentance is alive in every man and woman on death row.

Magee is not alone in feeling that he failed John Spenkelink. I feel the same way, personally as well as a member of the rest of society. Why? Simply, tragically, because John Spenkelink was executed! His execution was, for many, a sign that our nation had stepped back into the dark areas of behavior where might equals right. John Spenkelink was killed, not necessarily for his crime, which incidentally, he admitted and explained in detail…but because a group of ambitious lawmakers and law enforcers used every means at their disposal to snuff him out. Governor Graham’s actions speak for themselves, I believe. Capital punishment is a political tool of oppression, even when it’s used by men who truly believe that there is some purpose served in killing another person.

In conclusion, what perplexed me most of all about Abbott’s critique was the change of tone, once he had finished shredding Magee’s ability to express in print what we, the subjects, tried to express in person.

Mr. Abbott suddenly speaks out against the practice of capital punishment and goes on to tell anyone who cares to read him that he’s lived among former death row prisoners, and indeed, they’re pretty much just like everyone else, if not more considerate, quiet, and aware of his responsible conduct among other human beings. Bravo. That’s what Magee’s gentle use of understated prose presents. That’s what those of us who were (or remain) on death row have tried to say. Perhaps with more efforts from men like Doug Magee, our country can at last and forever, put the gallows solution away.

I haven’t any idea what Mr. Abbott is serving time for. If he’s survived prison then he deserves his chance at freedom again. I’d like to wish him well on his parole consideration the next time the board meets. Maybe his critique will show the board just how well he’s adapted to their way of thinking, so successfully he has parroted the rhetoric of the law-and-order evangelists who speak so loudly and with such authority that their noise drowns out the voices of the people who survive on death row and for the most part are never heard from or of, until their deaths are scheduled and sensationalized.

The men and women on death row who I know personally have expressed a sense of gratitude for Slow Coming Dark because no conclusions were drawn about a subject that no one can claim expertise about, from either side of the cage. From my standpoint, even before experiencing the brutalization of death row in all of its ramifications, taking another human’s life for any reason is unacceptable. When society realizes that we enhance all life by affirming life, then collectively we will have moved an inch or so on the emotional scale that is dwarfed and overshadowed by the technological scale, which more and more, places us all on death row through the nuclear arms race.

When we all realize our continuing sentences of death, then life—mine, yours, everyone’s—will become that greatest of gifts that no one will dare take from another for the “good” that never results.

Philip C. Brasfield

Lubbock, Texas

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