By Joe Jackson and William F. Burks Jr.
Walker and Co., New York, N.Y. 299 pages. $12.95.
According to Joe Jackson and William F. Burke Jr, the death penalty debate is ultimately a bottomless pit. Compelling arguments can be found on both sides. Dead Run does not patronize its readers with an agenda. Rather, the dedicated, skillful, often poetic writers are concerned with the truth about Death Row, or, as Dennis Stockton called it. "The Monster Factory."
Still, the reader can't help but recoil in shock when reflecting on the current tenor of the death penalty debate. Does anyone remember George W. Bush's smug grin whenever the death penalty was brought up during the Presidential debates? Regardless of your stance, Dead Run informs us, in vivid, shocking detail, of just how flawed and inhumane our state mandated execution system is.
For starters, Dennis Stockton, the book's unique hero (or antihero?),
executed by the state of Virginia in 1995, was probably an innocent man.
Mr. Stockton grew up an "All-American Boy" in the Smoky Mountains, a baseball enthusiast who earned good grades and was scouted by the Yankees. He loved Shelby, which "reminded him of Walnut Grove, site of his favorite TV program, 'Little House on the Prairie.'" When his father returned home from the war, the family moved to Surry County, Va. Soon life was less than idyllic.
Mr. Stockton's sensitive nature was gravely wounded by his father's
abusive tendencies. He saw his mother beaten frequently, and Mr. Stockton was once whipped so severely that he was covered in blood.
The "All-American Boy" started running with the wrong crowds, forging checks, robbing. Crime seemed to fill an emotional void, and he was attracted to the excitement. He earned a nasty reputation with the cops. When his good friend Kenny Arnder was found both mutilated and murdered, a man named Randy Bowman claimed
Mr. Stockton killed him.
Mr. Bowman was the prosecution's key witness and his
testimony led to Mr. Stockton's death sentence. Unfortunately, Mr. Bowman was perhaps not such a reliable witness. Those who were close to him, including his own wife, who was hospitalized on several occasions after Mr. Bowman beat her - claimed that Mr. Bowman bragged of killing Mr. Arnder. But these witnesses, well aware of Mr. Bowman's murderous rages, were too terrified to confess during the murder trial. Mr. Bowman's own son was convinced of Mr. Bowman's guilt. A man who told a local newspaper Mr. Bowman was guilty was later found dead. Years after the fact, Mr. Bowman even confessed to a reporter that he killed Mr. Arnder. But Mr. Stockton was never granted another trial.
Mr. Stockton also learned a cold, hard lesson. Truth and The Law don't always go hand-in-hand. Town officials mysteriously lost letters that could also substantiate Mr. Bowman's involvement.
Which was a good thing for officer Jay Gregory - the misplaced evidence meant an easier victory for him - Mr. Stockton's arrest helped win him enough votes to be elected Sheriff of Patrick County, Va.
Perhaps the difference between the State's cruel indifference to Mr. Stockton's probable innocence and the cold-blooded killers' brutality is just a question of degree.
Federal officials decided not to intervene. U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist declared,
"it is not unconstitutional to execute an innocent man if the rules have been upheld." Nevertheless, federal judges found constitutional errors in 40 % of the capital murder cases they reviewed.
In this context, without hope of rehabilitation, life on "The Row"
is, as William Styron describes in his poignant introduction, "society's closest approximation of hell on earth." Stabbings, homosexual rape, unsanitary conditions (which led to the fatal deaths of both inmates and staff at Powhatan Correctional), are just of the few nightmarish features.
But the authors do not romanticize the prisoners, many of whom perpetrated horrific, stomach-churning crimes. The authors suggest that the surviving victims of their crimes - the parents, children, friends of the departed - are living out their own death
sentence. They also don't romanticize Mr. Stockton, even if they believe in his innocence. Mr. Stockton helped engineer the notorious Mecklenburg prison breakout - the only successful American mass escape from death row.
Mecklenburg was the pride of Virginia. It was called escape-proof. The State's arrogance would catch up with them, as the prisoners would outsmart the underpaid, overworked, frequently corrupt guards. The authors masterfully handle the escape using details from Mr. Stockton's diary. It reads like a classic Hitchcock film, with the requisite psychological tension, detailed plotting and devastating head games. And, as with any good prison breakout story, we find ourselves siding with the bad guys, against our better judgment. Mr. Stockton didn't run with the others. He stayed behind, engaged in the one thing that provided some solace - writing. He loved to write of his beloved Smoky
Mountains and baseball. He wrote of simple characters who spoke in dialect, who lived free. Mr. Jackson and Mr. Burke Jr. make use of both Mr. Stockton's prison writings (some of which were published in The Virginia Pilot), along with their own astute observations to grant the reader a glimpse into a condemned man's inner world.
The book is especially moving and effective as authors chronicle Mr. Stockton's life as a waiting period during the weeks prior to his execution. Mr. Stockton handles the situation with a twinge of anger, but also with grace and honesty. He befriends a boy killer, Steve Roach, gives him his prized Mickey Mantle card, and teaches him how to read. When the press asks Mr. Stockton if he has any words for the governor, he says, "Governor, go ahead and kill me.
I'm 55-years-old by now and my life's done wasted. Let Steve Roach go free in my place. He's a young man on Death Row who
has a boy at home."
Like so many on Death Row. Mr. Stockton finds religion. He also discovers the value of gallows humor. When he is asked about his preferred means of execution, he tells a guard, with a laugh, "I'm an old addict, Lieutenant. Load that baby down with methamphetamine." He continued to follow the New York Yankees, who were having their own share of troubles. He writes, "They could sure use me in the bullpen - a 9th-inning closer."
Dead Run urges us to examine the ethics of a profoundly flawed system that discriminates against the poor. It also has become so popular, it has been an important factor in the Presidential election.
According to Mr. Jackson and Mr. Burke Jr., "When Mr. Stockton first came to Mecklenburg in 1983, only a few executions had occurred nationwide . . . By New Year's Eve 1994, a total of 257 executions had been held in the 18 years since the death penalty's return." Before you commit yourself to either side of the debate, you owe it to yourself to read this rich, rewarding narrative.
(source: review by: Pamela M. AuCoin teaches English as a Second Language (ESL) at Baruch College)