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.
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.