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.

But few of us could afford the costs of “proper legal counsel” in defense of capital charges. If you cannot cough up something like a $10,000 retainer fee immediately—not to mention all the costs that follow—it does not mean you are poor. It is just that you will not be able to pay lawyers anything like their regular fees. The book jacket is wrong to claim that Magee “…found that almost all the people on death row are poor and unable to afford proper legal counsel.”

The four who were poor (Imani, Myles, Gleaton, Washington) are also black men, three of whom had previous convictions. Indeed, six of the twelve are black but nothing at all is said by Magee about this gross demographic disproportion. He has democratically salt-and-peppered his book, inadvertently reflecting the dismal news that equality on a one-for-one basis only exists, if at all, before the executioner.

I have tried to imagine for whom anything said in this book might come as a revelation, and I cannot. The author’s claim that people on death row are like other people when one talks to them, and are not subhuman, is after all what everyone with the slightest experience of the world would expect. But there is something peculiarly sentimental, shoddy, and falsifying in the author’s method as he ingenuously records his “talk” with these prisoners about their cases and their attitudes toward life. The reader should not forget for a moment they are all under active death sentences as they speak—and therefore that their separate cases are being considered by the courts and state agencies empowered to commute their sentences to life imprisonment. This destroys utterly, and understandably, the credibility of the twelve people interviewed, especially when they insist on their innocence. Who would believe that eleven out of twelve people on death row are not guilty of the charges they are condemned for? But the author has not sought to relieve the heavy strain that is imposed on the common sense of any one who tries to read this book with sympathy for people who may face execution.

Why is he so obtuse? Perhaps because, as we learn from the introduction, this book derives from bad conscience. “I failed John Spenkelink,” as he writes, “because I kept our acquaintance to myself. Soon after his execution I decided it was necessary to meet more of the nearly 600 other people on death row and to bring their voices and stories across the no-man’s land that separates us from them.” Along with this text there is a photograph of the executed murderer Spenkelink staring out at us. Spenkelink is not one of the condemned interviewed and he has no part in the book—except in the mind of the author.

One wonders what happened during Magee’s acquaintance with Spenkelink that made him feel so strongly. In fact Spenkelink had more connections with the press and more committed people vociferously supporting him than was the case with any death-row inmate in recent years. He was at least as visible nationally as Gary Gilmore—and more articulate. So why does Magee conclude that he or anyone else failed Spenkelink?

He provides a clue when he writes: “I did not watch Spenkelink’s execution.” This is said with the wistful remorse of a professional photographer for whom “watching” means something more than it does to most of the rest of us. He is also telling us he was not among the coterie of Spenkelink’s close supporters and friends invited to witness this most intimate moment. So why should we care if he knew or was acquainted with Spenkelink?

In the same bittersweet tones of resentment, he writes: “I stood with the rest of the press in a fenced-in meadow across from the flat, green buildings of the Florida State Prison and listened first to the radio reports and then to the accounts of the witnesses and pool reporters.” His anger seems more a matter of his failure to join the press pool than Spenkelink’s agony. Were I Spenkelink, I would shudder to think of Magee writing his memories of me.

Aside from his obsession with Spenkelink, the leit motif of Magee’s book is that the condemned, being like the rest of us, do not want to die. But the reality that stands between this banality and the true thoughts of people on death row who are so mercilessly vulnerable to formalities and “iron laws,” he cannot grasp; for he has chatted with the condemned as if they are simply prisoners in deeper trouble than the others. But the death sentence is not really a prison sentence—in many states death row is not even housed in a prison. Death-row inmates are exempt from the prison convict milieu. They are condemned to die, not to serve so much as a day as a prison convict. They do not think or behave as convicts and they are not treated as convicts are in prison.

They are arguing and pleading for their lives, not for parole. When a death sentence is fixed, seldom is it set for more than sixty days in advance. In the interval the legal battles to gain time rise to a higher pitch; usually a stay of execution for an indefinite period is obtained. It is only during a few of these interim periods that the condemned begin to actually entertain vague notions that they may not be saved from execution. Everyone on death row knows the odds against actual execution; they all know that the first five or six times their execution date is fixed they will receive an indefinite stay of execution just by invoking the right of appeal.

After exhausting all legal possibilities in the courts—and this consumes years—the condemned man’s last steps are his pleas to the governor, or the state board of corrections, for his life—not on legal but on humane or moral grounds. Now the questions of the severity and the appropriateness of executing the condemned man come under consideration. His past history, the peculiarities of his crime and social conditions that surrounded them; his character and attitude and the chances of his rehabilitation; and the effect on others of commuting his sentence to life imprisonment—all of these and more are supposed to be weighed in the final decision.

I do not mean to imply that any of this is ever fairly carried out, any more than I mean to imply for a moment that a truly honest trial is possible under our system of justice. I am only pointing out that all those interviewed in this book are adrift in these processes; and this necessarily leaves much to be desired in what they say. Magee has mindlessly compromised them, apparently to let us all know he was “acquainted” with Spenkelink.

If the condemned man maintains his innocence before the informal bodies that meet to consider his last pleas for commutation, this can be used as proof of criminal incorrigibility. I have myself known cases where his refusal to admit his guilt is cited as proof of a lack of remorse for murdering a human being and a cynical act of defiance of society and of the law.

Nor does Magee help matters when he tells us that there is never any serious consideration by bodies that meet to consider commutation. He is convinced of this devastating generality simply because the governor of Florida, who signed Spenkelink’s death warrant, did not sit down with Spenkelink and discuss the matter with him—as Spenkelink had requested—but instead acted on the advice of a board of advisers who did talk with Spenkelink. The fact is that most condemned people have their sentence commuted from death to life imprisonment. Very few are executed.

I was in the Leavenworth hole for being involved in the 1973 Leavenworth rebellion when the Atmore-Holman uprising occurred in Alabama in 1974. One of the rebels was Imani Harris, whom Magee interviews at some length. Our outside defense committee donated, at our request, a portion of our defense funds to the brothers at Atmore-Holman Prison and I wrote propaganda tracts in support of Imani, who took the same radical political positions he outlines to Magee here. Besides Imani, the only other condemned man in this book I could identify with personally is Elvin Myles—probably more than with Imani.

If you read nothing else in this book, read Magee’s jittery account of his talks with Elvin Myles. Myles was the only person Magee had to interview from within his locked cell on death row, in Angola Penitentiary. Myles is the only one who showed resentment and distrust of Magee. Myles’s instincts are intact where Imani’s seem to me buried in a false consciousness of himself and of his condition that is the result of years of association with radical lawyers and middle-class “activists.” There is a simple request that Myles would want to make and that Imani would lose sight of beneath a sea of theoretical Marxist views on “the struggle.” If Myles trusted Magee’s sincerity, I suspect he would say: “If you believe it is wrong to execute me, then pass me a pistol so that I can at the last moment at least die defending myself—or else get out of my sight.” Magee, I dare say, would soon be gone. If the moral arguments against the death penalty are so clear and weighty, must one not risk one’s own ease and safety to aid a victim in resisting such a grossly immoral practice?

The arguments against the death penalty comprise the last chapter of Magee’s book, which consists entirely of a text of some twelve pages written by one Watt Espy of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and read in part in the summer of 1979 before the Alabama Senate, which was then considering a bill to abolish capital punishment. It is a fairly good text that ranges over the history of executions in America and encompasses all the tired and familiar objections to the death penalty: execution is not a deterrent; an innocent man could be killed, as could one who is mentally ill (he cites the case of the demented Albert Fish); execution could be used politically; economic status determines who dies; etc.

Magee himself does not argue against the death penalty. He simply does not like the idea of people being executed. Since hardly anyone does and since he does not tell us why he believes as he does, we are left feeling rather foolish at having expected he had something to tell us. We all know people should not kill one another—capital punishment thus overturns a self-evident truth. Magee does not even suggest how this dilemma might be resolved. Quoting Watt Espy’s speech does not help matters.

So I would submit here, for Magee’s benefit, that it is because we enjoy a higher level of civilization in America today than do people in most parts of the world that the death penalty has outlived what was once perceived as its necessity. What is not necessary in the application of laws is harmful when it remains part of the law; and this is evident in the dilemma of those on death row: no one can reasonably hope to admit his guilt now without increasing the risk of being executed. There is no place for the truth to exist safely in a system of justice that is not also steeped in a tradition of mercy. In less civilized societies the situation is different: a man can sometimes admit his guilt, express remorse, and reasonably expect another chance. The most savage tribal laws that call for death recognize the possible place of truth and mercy at every phase of the march from the crime to the executioner.

Our civilization has become too advanced, our system has become too formal and sophisticated, to accommodate legal executions as a penalty for crime. In a society capable of immense complexity in its understanding of nature, of the body, of human communications and moral concepts, it is not conscionable to support the notion that criminals who commit capital offenses must be dealt with, in our own best interests, by the crude tool of execution. Surely our science and our social imagination can find ways to deal far more intelligently and justly with criminals. This may not be a valid argument in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan or Uganda—in any of many less civilized societies. But it is true for our society. The death penalty is the last remnant of a time when exile, torture, and slavery seemed a just and necessary solution to crime.

I know of no man who has walked away from death row, and life imprisonment, and then been convicted of crime again, much less of murder. When you are defending your life with arguments and pleas you are engaged in a special struggle not given to many in any society. You come away from it more reserved, more considerate: you learn how precious, how fragile, life in society can be.

I have lived among these humble refugees from death row all my life and can honestly report that none I have known has ever returned to prison again. The experience of death row in fact tends to cultivate men. Ten years of death row can and does in many cases create some of the most cultured and considerate people I have ever met. This does not come through vividly in Magee’s interviews but the process of transformation is plain wherever the condemned man manages to speak of how he lives on death row.

Finally, I have observed a good many men who have seen their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment—and I have never seen or heard of a man serving life off death row who spent less than fifteen or twenty additional years in prison before being paroled. There really is no prospect that a man will be “paroled in a few short years” if he is given life imprisonment, the minimum of mercy on death row.

It is not just the condemned who feel this way: none of us knows the price of mercy. We do not know the price we may one day have to pay if we are to survive. We cannot allow ourselves to believe there is but one price: a certain financial ability to protect ourselves. Nor can we believe that our lives will be determined by expectations that we fear the law. We refuse to believe this because we must; because if we can believe this we are all lost—for hardly any of us really ever has the financial ability fully to protect ourselves; none of us really does, wholly and absolutely, fear the law. We may tell ourselves we do, or that we should, but we are too civilized to do that. So we cling to the idea that the kind of men we are will save us from one another, from you and me as well.

We plead on death row, after all is said and done, that we are only human and it is not necessary to kill us. More than that none of us can offer: a life behind bars is enough.

This Issue

March 5, 1981