The people on death row may be more isolated from the world than any other humans on earth. When we sentence them to death, we cast them out of the human family. We say their lives are no longer worth preserving, their stories no longer worth hearing.

But what if their stories could help us understand the roots of crime and the true meaning of justice? What if we were forced to see them as full human beings, with complex life stories, before we sent them to their deaths?

Here we share art and writing produced by the men and women on death row


CERRON HOOKS

“I have always loved to doodle, but here in my later years I have learned to respect the craft more. It’s like a new language I’m still trying to master. With it, in the future I hope to speak for more than just myself. Because I know what it feels like to not have your story told. To barely be recognized. Seen, but as quiet as a defendant.”  —Cerron Hooks


GEORGE WILKERSON

Illustration by Calum Heath for the Marshall Project

“But something happened. The bongo drums had synchronized, the beat bobbing up and down in tandem, while the maracas and hand-claps wove together to support them. We had become one.

For the next half-hour, we made real music; we throbbed and pulsed with it, everyone swaying in unison. We’d found a sort of sacred fire to gather around, dancing and grinning. There was no need for words.”

Check out George T Wilkerson’s Death Row’s First Ever Talent Show on the Marshall Project.


PAUL BROWN

 

Paul Brown has been on North Carolina’s death row since 2000. He shot to death his estranged girlfriend, Latashonette Cox. The bullets also struck and killed a baby, David Dishon Franklin. For many years, Paul has expressed deep remorse for his crime and the two lives he destroyed.

Before the murders, Paul was working hard to build a decent life. He was the primary caregiver to a 10-year-old daughter. He had just earned an associate’s degree. He was working in a Caterpillar factory and trying to start his own business selling clothing.

But Paul’s life had been shaped by the world of violence, substance abuse, and poverty he grew up in. One night in 1996, under intense pressure and in a stormy relationship, he made a horrible decision that ended two lives — as well as his own.

Paul has never made excuses or minimized the impact of his crime. He acknowledges that the harm he caused can never be erased. He has grieved privately for the pain he caused his victims and their families, as well as his own family. He has said that he cannot forgive himself, and that he understands the sentence he received for his crime.

Paul is now 52 and has spent 18 years on death row. With executions stalled, it’s possible he will live there for much longer. Over the past few years, he has become determined to make something of what life he has left.

As he writes: “I’m alive, and there’s something about being alive that causes me to ask, ‘Well, what shall I do?’”

Paul has become known as a force of kindness and wisdom for other death row inmates. He has also devoted himself to telling his stories, both of his life now and the life that led him to death row.

Some of his essays recall happier times spent with his daughter, or childhood evenings jumping on the bed with his cousins. Others explore the violent world of his childhood, as a poor African-American boy in Washington D.C. Brown writes of watching his stepfather pull a gun on his mother in their kitchen as a 4-year-old, witnessing a murder as a 10-year-old, and being robbed at gunpoint as an 11-year-old.

“I learned that all the things I held dear in this life, the things that meant everything to me, could be taken away at any moment; to some people, they meant nothing,” he writes in one essay. “It’s a lesson I learned early, and all of my life has felt tenuous, like trying to climb a greasy pole – at times it seemed easier to just let go.”

Other essays focus on his life as a prisoner. Visiting with his toddler granddaughter through thick plexiglass, feeling joy and shame in equal measure. Watching geese build a nest in the prison yard.

His stories offer no simple conclusions. They are the record of a complicated and broken life. Yet, they speak poignantly to what it means to be human.

With Paul’s permission, we are sharing some of his reflections, essays, and poetry. Note: Paul’s writings are protected by copyright and should not be reproduced without his permission.

 

speaking from the grave: an introduction

by Paul Brown

 

I’m not sure how to tell my story. In some ways it’s like a near-death experience, and in others it’s like speaking from the grave.

I was sentenced to death on August 28th of the year 2000. However, I’d been living with a fractured spirit for so long that being sentenced to die seemed somewhat anti-climatic. It’s been a hard life, and it’s not pretty, but eventually, I’ll reveal all…

Living with a death sentence is to die a little each day, but that’s common to the human experience; we start dying the moment we’re conceived. The difference in having an actual death sentence is the day-to-day psychological maintenance of the machinery of death. I live, yet I don’t.

I live; subjugated. I live under the judgment of my conscience; unforgiven.

I’m alive, and there’s something about being alive that causes me to ask, “Well, what shall I do?” For too many years, I had no answer, I merely existed, awaiting my go in the death chamber.

I’m told that I’m nothing, that my life has no value. Hell, I’m even inclined to agree.

I’ve searched my memory for events, trying to find something noteworthy or worthwhile, but I saw worthlessness.

When I looked at my mistakes, the people I disappointed, the people I hurt… I mentally turned away. It was much too difficult to face all at once, or even one at a time.

It’s too late to say I’m sorry. Apologies simply won’t do; too much happened…

When I stood in the courtroom and the judge said, “…on behalf of the people of the State of North Carolina, I sentence you to death…may God have mercy on your soul…” I could only say, “Thank you, your honor.”

I really did understand. Had I been the one holding the gavel and wearing the black robe, I’d have done the same.

Actually, the anticipation was worse than the pronouncement of the death verdict. When I first walked into the courtroom, my legs shook like two spaghetti noodles, but were firm as I walked out…

I’m alive and still asking, “What can I do ?” The human spirit is peculiar in that even when you want to give up and die, it will still find ways to live and grow; it won’t let you quit.

When my mom was battling cancer, I tried to comfort and console her with the only thing I had: my words. When my grandma was losing her life to diabetes, I had a dream of applying a dab of lotion to her hands…I just wanted to hold her hands.

When my only daughter was having emotional issues due to, among other things, having a reckless father sentenced to die, I tried to implore and encourage with my words. I used superlatives, pressed down harder with my pen; I wrote long letters, short ones, as if I could give her my love and affection by sheer force of will, through pen and paper.

When Haiti was devastated by an earthquake, I wanted to help, if only by providing food and water.

Whenever I see a traumatic event and people suffering, my heart goes out to them and I want to be among the first responders.

There was a brutal murder in this state recently that ripped at my soul. There was a public memorial for the victim. Moved to contribute something to the memorial, I drew a crude little card. It wasn’t much really; I’m definitely no artist. I drew a picture of an angel on it that looked more like a cross between Miss Pac-Man and melting butter; but the sentiment was heartfelt.

I asked my attorney if she’d deliver it, and she said she would, although she looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. Perhaps I have.

The thing is, I don’t know how to stop caring about people, even as I await death; I don’t know how to stop being human.

I’m not really sure what to do though, so I write.

I’ll open the door and show you a man who is dying, but still living, growing, evolving. I’ll give you access to my innermost thoughts to let you see what I see.

I have no agenda; I’m merely relating my experience to you, one human being to another.

 

a whirlwind: visiting with a 5-year-old granddaughter through bars and glass

by Paul Brown

 

I saw her again. Mom and Rose came to visit today, and they brought her. They moved here to Raleigh last September, and I’m getting to see them more frequently now. I feel like the luckiest man in the world, or at least the luckiest one in Central Prison. I was expecting them, and was already smiling as they neared the visitation booth. When I saw a tiny pair of legs walking along with them, my heart skipped a beat. It was Mariah!

It was the kind of surprise where everything stops. My breath got caught in my throat and all I could utter was “Aaahh!” All the words I’d wanted to say just left me, and I know not where they went. It was a moment frozen in time, and I was stuck there, my face lit up with the silliest grin.

Mariah is my youngest granddaughter. The first time I saw her she was 2, and I was torn: elated to see her, yet horrified we had to visit under such awful, dehumanizing conditions. She’s 5 now, and she is gorgeous. I have a bunch of photos of her, so I already knew she was a little cutie. But her pictures do not compare to seeing her in person.

She knows who I am, which is amazing and a testament to the strength and love of my family, particularly mom and Rose, our matriarchs and the glue that holds our family together. She assured me, through song, that she knows her letters and numbers, which she does although she’s not been enrolled in school…

Guilt rains down on my head like brimstone when I think of the challenges she’ll face, knowing that I’m supposed to be there to help her navigate the pitfalls she won’t be able to see or anticipate. I try to be creative and say grandfatherly things, and hope they’ll somehow make a difference in her life. I know I must speak with assurance even though my own circumstances are tenuous.

They say she may have Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, or ADHD as they call it, but I don’t believe she does. She’s an extremely bright child, bursting with energy with a brain that is naturally curious. All she needs is the discipline to channel all that energy in ways that will be beneficial. She’s just grandfather-deficient, and that’s on me.

In the cramped space that is the visitation booth, she was a little dynamo: sitting first in one seat, then the other, then standing before sitting again on the arm-rest up against the plexiglass between us, then standing on that, until Rose made her get down. It was incredible. I didn’t think so much could be accomplished in such a small space. She was a whirlwind. Mom and Rose appeared to grow tired just watching her. I laughed thinking maybe it was her who brought them to me, instead of them bringing her.

After only minutes, she said, “I wanna go home.” When she was informed that the purpose of the trip was to see her grandpa, she gave me a curious glance, and asked “Granddaddy, you comin’ home?” She said it so sweetly and with such innocence, and I know her words will echo in my mind like a bitter-sweet melody till the end of time… I gave her some mumbo-jumbo about being patient, told her I was working on it, and how important it was for her to be a good girl and to listen to her mom… She heard me out graciously, then promptly hopped into Rose’s lap and went to sleep.

It wasn’t until later that I realized what I’d told her made no sense… We were sitting in an area the size of a phone-booth, sitting on stools that were not designed for comfort; our stiff, aching joints screaming for relief. The lighting was medievally dim and we had to strain to see each other through bars and permanently scratched and grease-stained plexiglass. With 12 visitation booths lined side by side in a tiny corridor, and only a tiny slot to speak through, we barely heard each other while also catching snippets of other visitors conversations. Of course she wanted to go home.

I was struck by the purity of her child’s mind, vibrant with promise, not yet tarnished with grown-ups’ notions of fear and acceptance of the absurd. She glowed brilliantly even as she slept. Mom said she has my dimples… She would know. I don’t even remember having dimples.

She blew me a kiss as they were leaving. I’m still floating on clouds as I pen the thought and hold the memory of the light in her eyes; and those dimples.

The next time she asks, I will answer honestly… I want to go home too.

 

witnessing murder at age ten

by Paul Brown

In the ghetto, there’s lots of improvisation. As young boys, we were very active and had loads of energy. We liked to play baseball, but lacked the equipment. No problem.

For a bat, we used a broken broom handle. An old fuzzy lime green tennis ball served as the “baseball.” Our hands were the gloves, and our Levi’s and Sears Tough-skin jeans and T-shirts were our uniforms.

The stadium was a patch of grass towards the end of the apartment complex. First base was an old, discarded half gallon milk carton. Second base, an empty UTZ Bar-B-Q potato chip bag. There was a bald patch in the corner where no grass would grow, as if it was naturally meant to be third base. Home plate was the other half of “first base.”

There were eight of us, so we played four-on-four. It was my brother Pat, cousin Boo, Tony and Malcolm; against my other cousin, Boo’s brother Kenny, Tony’s brother Reggie, Joe and me.

With this arrangement, one would pitch, another played catcher, someone played first base, and the other played the outfield. Of course the first baseman was also the short-stop, while the pitcher also had to cover second and third base; and the outfielder had to play the entire outfield himself.

All of this was manageable because the field was so tiny and sloped slightly upward into a wood. I was pitching, and I remember we were losing, but had no doubt we’d come back to win when we got our turn at bat.

It was a Saturday in August, a perfect summer afternoon. As I was about to toss the next pitch, two figures emerged from the wood. We waited until they passed. They were grownups. One was slightly built, medium brown-skinned and wore glasses. The other was big and stocky, a bit taller and wore a neat beard. What was odd about him was that he wore a wool hat as hot as it was and he had a shotgun slung over his shoulder.

There were always a few odd characters in the neighborhood though, so I thought nothing about the way he was dressed, and it was not my first time seeing a gun…

I thought maybe he was just taking it home to put away. I was more annoyed at the way they just strolled through the field. Like they owned the place, holding up our game. When they finally passed, I got set to pitch, but everyone else took off, running as fast as they could.

I called after them, “Hey, where y’all goin’? I want my ups!” I was so intent on winning the game: I wanted my turn at bat. As soon as I had spoken, I heard the shot.

The sound a shotgun makes when fired in an open area is not very loud. It’s not a big boom, but more of a cracking sound. I can recall the reverberations as they echoed off the apartment buildings. I froze…

The gunman was running back towards me. However, now his hat was pulled down over his face; a ski-mask. He carried the gun in both hands as he ran right past me. Had we been playing football, I could have tackled him easily. He was not very fast; he seemed to waddle as I watched him disappear back into the woods.

I then walked in the direction from which he’d come. I proceeded slowly, and with trepidation. When I turned the corner, I saw a slim, light skinned man, in his late teens or early twenties, with a little facial hair. He wore cut-off jean shorts, some sort of Hawaiian shirt; I never noticed his shoes…

He was standing beside a radio, a boom-box. I cannot recall if there was any music coming from it. Beside the radio was a brown paper bag with a bottle inside; a cold beer. He was slinking to the ground seemingly in slow-motion, as if about to faint.

Half his head was gone. My mouth went dry. I could not move. I knew it was real, but somehow it didn’t seem real. How could someone only have half a head?

On the half of his head that was still there, the eyeball was not in its socket, it was out of the skull, and just hung there as if by a coil…

I can only remember certain sounds. Mrs. Carter was walking back and forth on Savannah Street crying and screaming “Oh God, his poor momma, his poor momma!”

Everyone else seemed to be standing as far away as they could, but still trying to see. I suppose I could have been among them, but I was stuck; my eyes glued to the corpse.

First to arrive at the scene was the ambulance. The driver, a young, slightly built, light brown-skinned dude with a close-cropped hair cut, jumped out, put on a stethoscope, checked the body for vital signs; finding none, he hopped back into the ambulance and drove away.

This seemed strange. I mean, I knew he was dead, but it still seemed he should not be alone, that someone should be tending to him.

Next to arrive were the police. They only cast a glance at the body, then spread out to ask questions. One of the officers, a white dude with a friendly face, but cold, mean eyes, went to the corner where men had been drinking, smoking and selling drugs. He used his baton to knock over drinks that were left there, asking whose were they.

He then made his way over to where I stood, and asked “You see anything?” I shook my head no. This seemed to amuse him. He smirked and said, “Man gets his head blown off in broad daylight, and no one sees anything, heh?”

It was only a cursory question though. Had he been paying attention, or merely asked a follow-up question, it would have been obvious that I was in shock and could not speak, but that was all he asked.

Then a huge red truck drove up, and two attendants got out with a stretcher, strapped the body on, covering it up completely. They used these thick, orange rubber gloves to gather up pieces of brain, storing it in a plastic bag, then drove away.

This one act, more than anything else, served as a sort of “rite of passage” for me. It effectively ended my childhood at age ten.

I never played in that area again, and we used to play there all the time. If not stickball, it would be tag, kickball or football. When younger, we’d gather plywood and build tree-houses in the woods. Sometimes we’d catch bees inside of Nehi soda bottles, observe their behavior, then remove the tops and take off running.

After the shooting, things just seemed different…

The way the apartments were situated, the woods sat directly behind Aunt Rose’s apartment, particularly behind Boo and Kenny’s bedroom window. After the shooting, I was conscious not to walk directly in front of that window. I’d sit on the floor when inside the bedroom, and if I was on the bed, I’d lay down flat. At night, I’d make sure the blinds were fully straightened and the curtains completely closed.

As I write this, I realize I’m confronting these emotions for the first time. I’ve mentioned the details of the shooting before, but never admitted to being afraid. Part of how I coped at the time was to suppress it, not deal with it at all. Now that I’m conjuring up these memories, the emotions I felt back then somehow arise as well.

I was scared. I can feel it now as I write, and the fear is still palpable 39 years after the fact.

I observed everyone else during that time and they appeared to be doing fine. I thought if I said something, I’d be seen as weak. In hindsight, I’m sure others felt things similar to what I felt, but we never talked about it. No one said a thing…

We still had to function and live in that area. There was no psychoanalysis, family counseling or therapy. We could barely afford the necessities of life; I couldn’t afford to break down.

Besides, this was not something the culture would allow, especially for boys. At the first sign of tears or hesitancy of any kind, the rebukes would be immediate, harsh and constant. “Fuck you crying about?” “Stop acting like a lil bitch!” “Soft motherfucker!”

There was a persistent emphasis on “Being Hard.” It seemed the more horrible something was, the more you were expected not to be affected. From a small nick to a punch in the face, a broken bone, or murder, you were told to “Shake it off.”

When I hear that refrain today, I laugh at the absurdity of it. Shake it off…

Sometimes I think what a luxury it must be to feel safe; I’ve not known the feeling since that day.

 

nurturing new life on death row

by Paul Brown

 

Going out for a run the other day, I ran into two beautiful birds. They were on our recreation yard. Someone told me they’re Canadian geese.

They have fat bodies, covered with grey feathers, long-skinny black legs and wide-webbed feet, long elegant necks and curved beaks, solid black except for a  ribbon of white curving around the neck, under the beak and behind the eyes. They are lovely birds. I gave them a respectable berth as I made my laps, checking them out.

I was pleased to see they were still there when I went out today. They’re nesting. The female has made a nest. Though clearly made with great care to keep her eggs, I can’t tell what it’s made of exactly. She just sits there on those eggs all day, refusing to move.

The male struts around the yard, on patrol. It’s more his yard than ours really: he’s there all day and night; we only get the one hour a day. Guys gave her a bowl, which we keep filled with water, and keep her supplied with loads of bread.

Sometimes other birds will swoop in to snatch a piece; she’ll allow it, but if they venture in too close, she’ll snap her beak at them.

He’s fearless too. Rather than flinching when someone gets in his comfort zone, he’ll chase them. He has a bow-legged but determined gait, and attached to that long neck, he has quite a reach when he snaps his beak.

He’s strolled right in the middle of corn-hole games, reaching up with his beak at the bags as they’re tossed through the air. He’s held up play on the volleyball court. He won’t step on the basketball court though. Smart bird – that’s where all the drama usually starts.

I noticed the female keeps her mouth open, panting. I could see the pink of her tongue, and her beak is always wet. Then it dawned on me that it is really hot and she’s without shade.

The male has his own water pail off in the corner, but she isn’t moving without her babies except to stand periodically, to check and turn her eggs. However, when anyone nears, she’ll plop back down, and use her beak to re-tuck the nesting beneath her. I was amazed at her protective motherly instinct, and her willingness to make any sacrifice for her babies.

I’m proud of the way guys are taking care of the birds, even down to picking up the droppings.

There were no discussions or meetings; everyone just knew instinctively to care for the birds.

Being forced to live in an unnatural setting that devalues life, the birds have given us a chance to behave in life-affirming ways.

Having no contact with our families for such a long time — for some of us, it’s been more than twenty years since we’ve had any meaningful human contact — the instinct to care still comes naturally. It is really good to see, and to know. Some of us are barely hospitable with each other, yet we’re all attentive and accommodating to the birds.

I’m expecting a visit from my mom this week. She’s coming via train. She’s 70-years old, and it’ll be her first time traveling alone — so, I’m worried. I’d much prefer she not have to travel by herself, but I’m excited about the visit. I’ve not seen her in years, and miss her terribly.

I feel pangs of shame too; shame she has to travel such a long distance to visit her wayward son, shame, because I’m supposed to be taking care of her…

I remember how she’d implore my younger brother and I to be careful and to do the right things. She said, “I’ll do anything for you, but if they get you in the system, I won’t be able to do anything…” But our heads were hard as rocks, and we dove head-first into trouble.

Now she has to take trains just to visit us, still making sacrifices. My heart will melt just seeing her face.

I’m excited about going outside tomorrow too. I hope the eggs will hatch. It will be nice to see a family together.


DRAWINGS BY UNNAMED ARTISTS ON NC’S DEATH ROW