The Benefits of Being a Dead Man Walking

Ernest’s family had beaten me to the prison and were already visiting him in small groups by the time I arrived. I circulated among those waiting, to see how each was doing. Eventually, John and Matthew, and even the two law students who had worked on the case, made it to the prison. John had to literally chain-saw his way out of his driveway.

Not wanting to take family time away from Ernest, we lawyers patiently waited for an opportunity to visit with him. After the lunch break, we were given our chance, so we made our way through the gauntlet of steel doors to reach the visitation area.

It is perverse, but the visits on a condemned inmate’s last day on this earth are often some of the most enjoyable of his life. Instead of the usual visits in a small phone booth with no possibility of human touch, leaning down to speak through a grate, visits before an execution bring visitor and inmate together in the same small concrete and glass cell, with full opportunity for talking, laughing, crying and, yes, touching.  All hugs, kisses and touches, however, are closely monitored by a guard in the cell, as well as others monitoring from outside the cell, and thus, must be quick and appropriate. It is like being in a fishbowl or more aptly, a research lab. The inside guard writes down every move made and every word said.

Ernest was in good spirits. He was enjoying his visits and, as with most “dead men walking,” he had been given drugs to relax. Most of the day was lighthearted. After all, there was still hope that Ernest would not be killed that night. We joked about how the Governor should grant clemency because of the weather, if for no other reason.

Darkness set in early. So did hunger. We had put so much energy into getting to the prison that we hadn’t thought about needing to leave it. The students volunteered to venture out in search of food. Though we were in the middle of the city, it took them over two hours to return with food. “We couldn’t find anything open; then we saw a pizza place with its lights on,” Matt reported. “They had a generator and were pumping out the pizzas, but they were low on ingredients.” He opened a box; the sauce was ranch dressing. We dug in.

Outside the prison gate, about a dozen protesters braved the bitter cold and ice to stand vigil. I threw on my coat, hat and gloves and headed up the hill to see if Pat was among them. It was hard to identify anyone; they were all bundled like Eskimos head to toe. Then, I recognized the familiar big purple parka. I grabbed Pat and asked a guard if I could bring him in. The guard stepped aside and let us pass. A banner attached to the fence read: “The death penalty makes us all murderers.”

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