The lives lived before landing on death row

Duke University Press, 250 pages, $22.95

What is the worst thing you ever did? What drove you to do it? What would your life be like if you were defined only by that one thing?

Those are some of the questions that came to mind as I read Right Here, Right Now: Life Stories from America’s Death Row, a collection of powerful and often wrenching first-person stories of more than 100 men sentenced to death. It’s an emotionally difficult read, but it’s more than worth the investment of time and heart. The storytellers in this book are among the 3,000 incarcerated adults facing execution in this country. The volume’s editor, Lynden Harris, began collecting the tales in 2013. As she writes in the book’s introduction, “Our core values are simple: All lives have meaning. All stories matter.” By that, she includes those who have been dehumanized and devalued, even those whom we might think got what they deserve. Even those whose worst things are terrible, indeed.

The collection is organized by life stage, including “The Part That Was Innocent” (early childhood), “From Bad to Worse” (age 14 to arrest), before coming around to “Worst of the Worst” (entering death row and solitary), and then concluding with “Every Day’s Worth Celebrating” (facing execution).

It becomes clear very quickly that those who do the worst things have, all too often, been victimized themselves. There are stories of physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. In one story, we meet a boy whose “very first memory ever is a gun” (he was 2 years old at the time); the nickel-plated .38 belonged to his grandmother, who had shot her boyfriend. Grandma Rose did everything she could to hide the pistol. The takeaway to the young boy: “It was a lesson I never forgot: ‘Don’t get caught!’ ”

Another story opens with the words, “I was four when my father started trying to kill me,” and goes on to describe how the storyteller’s father wrapped his head in a towel and then dunked him under the hot water of the tub. “The attacks got more and more intense. He wouldn’t be satisfied until I’d sucked in enough water to piss and soil myself and pass out.” His lesson? “I learned to survive. But what does that even mean?” Finally, one night he feared his father “could drown me for real.” To save himself — to survive — the young boy did the only thing he could think of: He torched the house. The lesson to us: Don’t judge a man solely on his actions.

The storyteller of “Car Ride” explains that when he was 5 or 6, his mother told him to put their two dogs in the car, which he did, and then she drove deep into the woods, and demanded that he let them out. He did as he was told and then got back in the car, at which point she sped off. He continues with the story, “ ‘Momma, please stop!’ I cried over and over again, but she wouldn’t. ... I can’t recall ever crying and screaming like that again in my life. Tears, snot, slobber, and sweat covered both me and the back seat.” Finally, he asks, “I couldn’t help but wonder, if I were really bad, would she do me the same way?”

What these stories have in common is that the young people in them had no safety net, no opportunity to recover from their victimization. Henderson Hill, an attorney with the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, asks in the foreword, “Who and what are the individuals, the institutions, the teachings, and the safe places that gave you and me opportunities to repair from similar insults?” And he poses the question: “What if one or more of those safety valves had been available to the then child-victim, now death row inmate?”

What if, indeed? Reading these stories during the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer subsequently convicted in the murder of George Floyd, I was struck repeatedly by how poverty, domestic violence, illness, and, of course, racism, disproportionately impact Black Americans, who often don’t have access to the safety valves Hill references. Across the country, Black people are overrepresented on death row — 42 percent, versus just 13 percent of the general population, according to a 2020 report from the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. The report’s editor and the center’s executive director, Robert Dunham, explained, “Racial disparities are present at every stage of a capital case and get magnified as a case moves through the legal process.”

But Right Here, Right Now is not about public policies per se; instead, it aspires “to break the stereotype of who lives on death row” by humanizing a group of men commonly thought to be beyond rehabilitation. Touching on this theme, one contributor tells us, “Tough guys [like I’m supposed to be] are soft guys too, tenderhearted and caring. We love animals and children very much and cry sometimes when we see images of their suffering.” There are many dimensions to these men, which — whether we acknowledge it or not — makes them as multifaceted as we are in our own reckoning.

Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, has written: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” My own “worst thing” — an incident shaped by childhood trauma — did not come to define me, thanks in large part to my race and class privilege. The men in Right Here, Right Now, by contrast, are indelibly defined by their worst thing (or, at least, the thing for which they were convicted), even as they show remarkable courage, kindness, and empathy in their lives. No matter how heinous their crimes, it’s hard to leave these stories without a greater understanding of our collective humanity — that we are all broken, albeit unequally so. As Stevenson reminds us, “We have all hurt someone and have been hurt.” Most of us, however, don’t end up on death row. 

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