I stood with my hand on the cold metal gurney-gray shelf under the screen separating us. For the third time, I tried to leave. He was in the closet-sized room opposite me. The bulb was out above his head. There was hardly any light coming through the tiny window in the door behind his back. He leaned forward and said in a mock whisper, “You’re gonna think I’m paranoid, but there are people up in here tryin to kill me.”
His familiar smile turned into a crescent moon. He widened his eyes until then gleamed. Then I laughed from my gut, where I felt it most. He joined in with that quiet, shoulder-shaking heh-heh-heh-heh he used when his humor was darkest. Between the two of us, we smothered out the noise behind him: box fans, clattering key rings, steel hitting steel.
I laughed to myself even after I left the visitors’ room, passed his name on the white board in the office downstairs, and walked along the flower-lined sidewalk distantly edged by chain link and razor wire. It was broiling outside compared to the air-conditioned sections inside the prison building. The car’s interior wouldn’t cool off until I was 10 miles from Louisiana State Penitentiary. The overgrowth along the hills defied the May drought. I listened to Marvin Gaye’s album Let’s Get It On. Part of me felt the need for symbolic gestures, that I should have chosen What’s Going On? instead. But I knew Feltus Taylor, Jr., the man who was alone in his cell by then, would want me to listen to whatever made me smile. Then I laughed quietly at his joke again.
Someone was trying to kill him—and would in 21 days.
He would die on June 6, 2000.
* * * * *
I worked for an office within a state university’s School of Social Work when I was asked if I would help Feltus with his autobiography. I’d been on the staff less than a year. The office had several on-going criminal justice projects, most of which involved program monitoring and evaluation. The director’s death penalty work didn’t fit neatly among them. An expert in criminology, Cecile was a social worker who gave mitigation testimony during the penalty phases of first-degree murder trials. Her role was not to save a defendant’s life, although that was implied intent. She gave a judge and jury information about a person’s life history, the facts and circumstances that might explain how one human being could kill another.
For months before each trial, she personally interviewed the defendant as well as his family, friends, teachers, doctors, and others who knew or treated him. Some staff members collected dozens of documents—records from schools, physicians, counselors, police, prisons, employers. All of this was synthesized into a defendant’s social history, a map of his life, a trail leading to the day he was arrested for murder. I compiled and created her court presentations, which meant I knew the details. After I saw those case files, the academic research I’d read was no longer theory. Risk and protective factors translated into real people, real life.
I didn’t support the death penalty, but my reasons were pragmatic. First, poor people, especially minorities, were most likely to get death sentences because they couldn’t afford private attorneys who could plea down charges or get them off. Second, taxpayers paid more to give a person years of appeals and execute him than to sentence him to life in prison in the first place. My opinion had little to do with morality or compassion. That would change, drastically.
Because my view was so logical, I couldn’t relate to Cecile’s approach to her work. I’m not sure she often believed that any of her clients were guilty unless the facts were indisputable. In the same conversation, she would talk about sad, awful abuses within families and then give some example about how they were “wonderful people.” She had empathy for the crime victims, but she seemed to have more for those accused of the crimes.
When she talked about Feltus Taylor, I figured he was no different from the rest. No better, no worse. He had been on Death Row five years before she got his case. It was in the post-conviction phase, which meant his case was moving into higher levels of the justice system and would reach its end at the U.S. Supreme Court.
I don’t know how long she had a copy of his autobiography before she asked me if I’d be interested in helping him. She’d read it and couldn’t believe how good it was for someone with so little formal education. I agreed to read what he’d written—because I was morbidly curious—but made no promises. I expected to turn down the request with ease. How good could it be? I read the entire manuscript in one sitting. When I got to the last page, which ended in the middle of an event, I wanted to read more. I searched our office files to try to find the rest of the book. When I found Cecile later that day, she said there wasn’t anymore because he hadn’t finished it. I thought it was remarkable, unexpectedly eloquent yet simple. He had the gift of a natural storyteller.
My enthusiasm was pure instinct. I knew that he had something to tell the world. Not as a prophet, martyr, or saint, just as a man who didn’t whine or make excuses about the wrongs he’d done. Although I knew I had to help him finish his autobiography, I also knew that I’d have to keep my distance somehow. I couldn’t deny two facts. He was a convicted criminal, and he was going to be executed one day. So from the first letter I sent him, which took me at least a week to carefully word, I had my guard up. I decided that my role was to be his coach and editor. I could offer no more.
* * * * *
Because Cecile was part of Feltus’ legal team, she was allowed to have contact visits with him. This meant she didn’t have to see him in a regular visitors’ room, where partitions gave little privacy and mesh screens distorted faces. She tried to arrange a contact visit for me because I was her employee. She apparently told the warden the real reason for the visit because he refused her several times, stating Feltus and I could work on his book using the telephone and mail. That’s exactly how we would work together, but I wanted to meet him in person. I didn’t fully trust the opinions of those who knew him, I wasn’t sure how much he’d written was true, and I had to let my gut tell me what I could believe.
Cecile managed to finally convince Warden Burl Cain to let me in. A visit was scheduled before Christmas in 1998. Until then, Feltus and I had communicated only through letters. I focused on what we had in common—writing. I had written fiction sporadically since I was old enough to print, and all of my jobs since high school had involved writing and editing on some level. He stated that he had a passion for writing that he didn’t discover until he went to Death Row. We were opposites—white woman, black man; middle-class, working class; free, imprisoned—but our appreciation for the power of words was a significant shared interest.
Our correspondence wasn’t particularly personal, but I began to get a sense of who Feltus was. I knew that I was at least dealing with someone who was sincere. In his response to my first letter to him, he wrote:
“My dream is to have my book published, and live to see it help kids and teens. Than [sic] I will know that my life wasn’t a total waste. I made a really bad mistake in my life. And I am paying for it now, and may pay for it with my life. But I don’t want teens to make the same mistake that I have. And a lot of them do. And are coming to prison younger and younger these days. Even to death row. And it really needs to stop, you know.”
Cecile joined me for the first visit. At the prison entrance, there were colored lights, wreaths, and holiday greeting signs. Beyond the checkpoint, I noticed a huge painted wooden Santa and his reindeer on top of the administrative building, which was connected to the first building a visitor sees to the right of the security gates—Death Row. However, at that time, Death Row prisoners had been moved to cells toward the back of Angola’s 18,000 acre complex, land that was once a plantation.
Once we approached the building, we had to walk through narrow fenced corridors blocked by gates with electric locks. All of the windows had bars. Not a single face peered out to enjoy a cool breeze. On the first floor, there were several guards on watch and prisoners pushing large laundry hampers on wheels. I found it strange that none of them acknowledged us, not even with glances. They must have seen plenty of white women in civilian clothes—lawyers, social workers, nuns—standing in the open spaces under fluorescent lights. Cecile and I stood there at least 10 minutes before our escort put us in a room upstairs that was used as a doctor’s office. He locked the door behind him.
For half an hour, I watched guards and inmates talk to each other like co-workers. Then, two guards led Feltus into the room. He was as short as I expected—I knew from reading his case file that he was about five feet six—but he was much broader, like a bulldog through his arms and chest. His hair was cut close to his skull. He had bright, kind eyes. Cecile hugged him, but he couldn’t hug back because his wrists were shackled together. I offered my hand, which he shook, then he leaned a shoulder toward me, an armless hug. I patted his back lightly.
Cecile started the conversation. He was reserved, even though he’d seen her many times. Still, a dry sense of humor came through, a quality I hadn’t noticed in his letters. When he smiled, one dimple creased his right cheek. At age 37, he had a mischievous boyish innocence about him. He was a good listener. I noticed that he looked people in the eye when he spoke. His attention focused on what was said, and his responses didn’t fly off in tangents. Cecile talked nearly the entire time we were there. When she gave us a chance to chat, Feltus stressed how much he wanted to do something that could help kids and that was the reason he was writing his life story. I told him I would read his manuscript as he wrote it, give him suggestions on what to do, and edit it once he was done. That I agreed to help seemed to mean a lot to him, as if he didn’t deserve this gesture but would accept it. Our brief talk was direct and thoughtful. He impressed me with an intelligence that called into question the IQ score of 80 I saw in his case file.
I left knowing I’d made a commitment to a murderer, a man I genuinely liked.