From anonymous accounts written by seven different men on death row in the United States, collected in Right Here, Right Now, edited by Lynden Harris, which will be published next month by Duke University Press.
My first memory is of a gun. I was two years old and playing with my starship Enterprise in my grandmother’s kitchen. She and her boyfriend Bob were arguing. When I looked up to see what the commotion was about, he slapped her. Grandma reached into her bathrobe pocket, but he grabbed her arm and they tussled. Suddenly there was a loud pop. Bob howled and grabbed his foot. “Goddammit, Rose, you fuckin’ shot me.” My nine-year-old cousin came rushing in. Grandma gave her the nickel-plated .38 and told her to hide it in the basement. I had no idea what was going on, except that Grandma was trying to not get in trouble. It was a lesson I never forgot: “Don’t get caught!”
I was a few months into ninth grade when our assistant principal called me to the office. She said, “Every tardy is an absence.”
I’m like, “All right.” Then I think, “But I ain’t never been to first period. I don’t even know what that teacher look like.”
I must have just been staring at her, ’cause then she says, “You can’t miss more than nine days in a semester. You’ve already missed so many that even if you come to school every day and make straight A’s, you still won’t pass.”
I thought she was joking. It was still the beginning of the year. I was like, “So you’re telling me I can go clean out my locker?”
She says, “Yeah,” like she was relieved I finally understood.
I just walked out. School had just started. So it was a whole year on my own. After that year, my life was a wrap.
It took the jury only four hours to determine my fate. My mother sat right behind me, holding tight to my little sister’s hand. I focused on the judge. He fanned out the sides of his robe like some superhero’s cape. “The jury, having found the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree, sentences him to death . . . ”
My mother screamed.
The judge asked each juror to stand one by one and affirm their verdict. I watched in a daze as the figures seesawed up and down. Suddenly there was a pause. A black woman remained seated after her name was called. She choked back heavy sobs. My heart raised up a little. Was there hope? Gripping her chair, the woman looked at me, and a sob erupted that wracked her whole body. She struggled to her feet, took a breath, and uttered a weak “Yes.” Then she collapsed into her seat, weeping. I almost wanted to console her myself. Even though this woman had sentenced me to death, she recognized my humanity.
The floor was gray. Not gloomy. Not cheerful. Just quiet. The walls were white. This wasn’t how I’d envisioned the ugliness of death. Where were the bloody handprints? The smudges from cigarettes, or roaches, or flies? Suddenly a black woman appeared from an office, her hair fashioned in a trendy style. She wore a sergeant’s stripes on her shoulder. With all the fussiness of a mother hen, she escorted me to where I would be housed.
I scanned the faces as I entered the unit for the condemned, the “worst of the worst,” and was shocked at what I found. An old black man in a wheelchair with an aluminum prosthetic leg staring at the TV with a glassy look in his eyes. A white man, who looked to be about sixty but who clearly had the mind of a child, playing checkers with a black man just like him. Two children in the bodies of old men, playing a game while waiting to die. I put my belongings in my cell. Maybe a nursing home was a kind of death row, but it sure wasn’t the one I was expecting.
This is a strange trait of death-row culture: we shake hands. A lot. Our social interactions throughout the day are pretty limited except when we go to meals, religious services, or recreation. As members stream into a church service, every one of us shakes hands with everyone else. “Peace and blessings.” “God bless you.” “Peace, brother.”
One officer dubbed death row “the Huggy Boys.” We live together, sometimes for twenty or thirty years. We eat together, pray together, elbow one another’s teeth out on the basketball court, borrow one another’s books, teach one another to read, draw, play chess, write poetry. When one of us dies, it’s like losing a limb. We are, unexpectedly, friends. We are the Huggy Boys. Not here to be rehabilitated, maybe, but doing what we can ourselves.
I was playing dominoes when I saw them round the corner. The warden, his assistants, and a handful of white shirts. They had come for my neighbor. I watched as they clustered around him. His face remained blank as he put the last of his worldly belongings on a cart. This is when the rest of us started making our way toward him. It was time for last words, final daps and hugs. When he saw us, his mask of indifference started to crack. When my turn came, I wanted to say something profound, but the look in his eyes was clear: There’s nothing you can do, because you can’t even help yourself. I gave him a hug and let the tears fall.
If you thought you could extend a friend’s life for even a moment, what would you do? Would you defy the authorities? Would you suffer bodily harm? No matter the odds? And how many times would you have to face these questions before it became cruel and unusual?
The day I got my execution date, I learned something that’s never left me. You have to be right here, in this moment. Like a child. They’re not thinking about tomorrow or last week. They’re just here. Now. Seeing a smile on someone’s face, the light in their eyes, is enough. That’s perfect contentment. That’s joy. It’s taken me a lifetime to learn that life’s deepest meaning isn’t found in accomplishments, but in relationships. All there ever is is this moment. You, me, all of us, right here, right now, this minute, that’s love. And that . . . That’s a whole lifetime.