@

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.  

Read Part 2

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Ronlyn Domingue Ronlyn Domingue is the author of The Mapmaker's War (Atria Books, 2013). Its sequel, The Chronicle of Secret Riven, is forthcoming in 2014. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, was published in ten languages. Her writing has appeared in The Beautiful Anthology (TNB Books), New England Review, Clackamas Literary Review, New Delta Review, The Independent (UK) , and Shambhala Sun, as well as on mindful.org, The Nervous Breakdown, and Salon.com. Born and raised in the Deep South, she lives there still with her partner, Todd Bourque, and their cats.

Connect online at ronlyndomingue.com, Facebook, and Twitter.

51 Responses to “What He Taught Me from Death Row (1 of 4)”

  1. Judy Prince says:

    Riveting throughout, Ronlyn. A fine job of marrying your cautious and warm feelings about Feltus with your introducing him to us as a *person*, not just a name. This is the day he died, a year ago. I do want to know how this unfolds.

  2. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    “Cautious and warm” is spot on. I’m glad Feltus’ humanity came through in this section. I think it deepens as the essay moves on.

    Actually, he died TEN years ago today. It’s taken me a decade to realize how profound and life-altering the experience was for me.

    Thanks for reading, Judy.

    • Judy Prince says:

      Glad you corrected me, Ronlyn; I had noted the 10 years, but didn’t do my ritual proofreading 3 times before pushing “Add comment”.

      I keep realising anew while readingTNBers posts how the writings that most grip and move us are ;usually those that’ve taken the most time and energy to write. Lucid writing, in itself, is a high art, not to mention the drawn images, the invisible but active verbs, the punctuating-yet-subtle views of the narrator.

      A reader takes these for granted precisely because they never draw attention to themselves. It’s the whole point, natch, like not noticing that an actor is acting.

      Am I correctly remembering that you are our Red Feather girl? You’re wearing it just the right way! What about that “grimace”? ;-)

  3. Irene Zion says:

    Ronlyn,

    This promises to be really fascinating reading.
    Can you tell us what he did, so that wondering is over?
    We need to accept the deed first, before we can ever think of him with kindness.
    Do you see?

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      What he did is revealed in Part 2. If you’re interested to know ahead of time, Google his name. You’ll find out within a few seconds.

      It’s up to each reader to decide how he or she wants to think of Feltus. My essay is about him, but really more about my shift in perception.

      • Irene Zion says:

        Naa.
        I’d rather wait, Ronlyn, now that I know I’ll find out in Part 2.
        I sort of figured that your perception would shift from Part 1.

  4. Richard Cox says:

    I like this so far. I like how the words convey your mixed and changing emotions as you lived them. You’ve built some suspense here by withholding certain details and for me it works.

    Looking forward to the next installment.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      If you’re curious to see the next part, I guess I did my job! There’s more struggle to come.

  5. Jordan Ancel says:

    This is absolutely fascinating, Ronlyn. I can’t wait to read the next installment.

    This, particularly, resonates with me:

    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.

    This is keeping me waiting with much anticipation.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      What I didn’t mention is that I supported the capital punishment until my second year of college. One of my college newspaper assignments was to cover an Amesty International meeting. A member talked to me about joining (never mind the timing was inappropriate). I said that I couldn’t because I had opposing views about some issues they worked on, particularly the death penalty. THAT interaction, which was quite cordial, sparked something, and I began to question my opinion. When I met Feltus, I was still grounded in the socioeconomic and straight-out economic arguments against it.

      Well, you’ll see how things turn out…. Thanks for reading, Jordan.

      • Mary McMyne says:

        Ronlyn, I can’t believe there was actually a time when you supported capital punishment. How interesting that there once was.

        I love how much Feltus’ sense of humor and humanity comes through in this part.

        • Ronlyn Domingue says:

          Yeah, I did. It’s a source of sadness for me now. Going even further back, in 10th grade, an English teacher had us write an opinion paper on capital punishment. Nearly everyone in the class supported it. The students who didn’t were mocked (not too badly, but still) for their views. Ms. M did NOT, either. I was SHOCKED that she didn’t. I respected very much and figured she knew the “right” answer to most big questions. Hmmm…. If I were to identify the first fissure in my point of view, it was that moment.

          I try to give myself a break about my former opinion because I recognize that I was shaped by cultural circumstance myself. You know where I’m from… and for all the wonderful qualities of the culture there, some of them aren’t so progressive. I may not have heard outright discussions about the death penalty, but I guarantee that I absorbed the dominant view by osmosis.

          You mentioned in your FB repost that his story is proof that people can change. Well, that applies to me as well.

          Re: his humor.You know, he really was funny. His writing didn’t capture it, in his letters or his book. I wish I’d bothered to journal with more detail during the time I knew him. Missed a lot of gems…

  6. Matt says:

    As per my regular course of action with serialized work, I’m going to withhold from making a major comment until I’ve read the whole thing, but I’ll tell you this much:

    I’m hooked. Looking forward to the 14th.

  7. Marni Grossman says:

    When I was a senior at Vassar, I enrolled in a course on the prison system. We read books, of course, but most of it was visiting a local maximum-security facility and having conversations with incarcerated men. Once a week, every week. I came away from the experience with a passion for prison reform. Fire in my belly.

    The next semester, I took a class about domestic violence. “Lock them up,” I thought. “Lock them up and throw away the key.”

    It was difficult for me to reconcile my feelings about the injustices of our prison system with my feelings about domestic violence. I imagine it was difficult for your friend, Cecile, too. And, of course, you.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      My experience was reversed. As I grew in my understanding of social issues, from a feminist perspective, in early adulthood, I felt the same way–lock the bad guys up and forget about them. I was in my late 20s when I worked for the research office and met Feltus. I learned a lot about the U.S. prison system. My opinions slowly started to change from that point on.

      The correctional system “corrects” very little. It’s a confinement system. As a whole, it doesn’t work. I touch upon this briefly in Part 2 of the essay. Until there’s a huge shift and people are treated for the deep emotional and mental wounds that contribute to their painful choices, the cycle of violence will only continue.

      Yes, I struggle to reconcile, too, even as much as I’ve shifted my thinking. But the struggle is getting easier. I see things very differently now.

      • Matt says:

        Strangely, I was just this weekend musing about writing a piece on my shifting views re: the death penalty.

        And then what do I find?

        • Ronlyn Domingue says:

          Write yours, too! Maybe there’s something pinging through the collective unconscious right now…

  8. Captivating, Ronlyn. Can’t wait to read more.

  9. Dana says:

    Great suspense Ronlyn. When do we get part two?

  10. Alison Aucoin says:

    I’m so excited that you’re posting this! I’m hankerin’ to finish my Angola essay now.

  11. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Too bad we won’t have time for a road trip to the Museum together. *shudder*

  12. angela says:

    can’t wait to read more!

  13. jmblaine says:

    I used to make a practice
    of never looking at the charts
    of patients
    before I
    got to know them.

    That will change your religion.

    When you find someone
    kind and likable
    easy-going
    & then find out they
    were a crack-whore
    or a child-molester-
    well, it makes you a different
    person.

    Hey, this was
    really good.

  14. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    That seems like an incredibly kind way to approach helping someone. Discover their brighter qualities, then move into the darkness.

    With Feltus, what made the difference for me is I read his work as well as saw his file. His writing gave me a glimpse into his humanity before I met him in person.

    Much thanks for the props.

  15. Joe Daly says:

    Gripping stuff. Really looking forward to the next installment.

    One of the consequences of my time spent as a lawyer was that I found myself transformed from being pro-death penalty to anti-death penalty. The reason the death penalty was introduced was as a deterrent to particularly heinous crimes. But these very crimes are committed every day, all over the country, and so on its face, the death penalty is not achieving its purpose. Compounded with all the death row acquittals of the past 15 years, there exists a compelling case to abolish the death penalty, or at the very least, to subject it to a thoughtful analysis.

    I enjoyed how you led us to your emotional connection and how you offer insight into his sincerity without marginalizing his actions.

    Thanks for a great read.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Joe, what area of law did you practice and for how long, if you’re comfortable sharing that?

      The “deterrent” justification assumes that one about to commit murder (or something else horrible) is fully present in the situation and can make a rational decision. The person can pause and think, “Hmm, if I do this, I might be executed.” Of all the case files I read, most of the clients were either on drugs or in such a frantic mental state that rational thought was highly unlikely, if not impossible. That doesn’t excuse their behavior—it’s simply the facts of circumstance.

      I appreciate your acknowledgment of how I’ve structured the piece so far.

      • dwoz says:

        Well, the death penalty has been with us since at least the time of the Old Testament…to deter such heinous crimes as a woman not having an intact hymen on her wedding night, or even just a non-bleeding one.

        That’s a pretty heinous crime.

  16. Irene Zion says:

    Ronlyn?

    Where the hell is “Red Stick?”
    What kind of name is that for a place?
    It’s pretty weird.

  17. alexis says:

    Wow! I am intriuged and simply can’t wait to read more. I have come around to new views on the death penalty myself after readin, last year,called “The Wrong Men”. Reading the stories of so many wrongly accused souls stagnating on death row, I began to believe that there has to be a better route with the Justice currently being served…
    Looking forward to your next installment
    Wishing you a beautious day,
    Alexis

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      It’s quite sad to think how many people have likely been executed for crimes they never committed. Maddening for the families, on both sides, I imagine.

      Your comment is proof that books MATTER–that they have the power to encourage people to question their points of view. I’ve always felt Feltus’ autobiography was in such a category.

      Beautious day to you, too.

  18. Wow. Getting right to it. I’m very interested in reading more of your and Feltus’ work. I am in general prepared to read almost anything shedding light on the what it’s really like inside the American Gulag, but particularly no-nonsense prose that avoids veering toward the overly naive/apologetic. As well as being elastic-minded enough to change views, as you and probably most people do when they see what “throw away the key” really means. Not to mention the gross economic/social injustice that is the implementation of the death penalty, regardless of your moral stand on it.

  19. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    I’m not spoiling anything to say here that Feltus’ book remains unpublished to date. Timing and opportunity haven’t lined up–yet.

    Feltus told me stories of what went on behind the prison gates. It’s a whole culture of its own. There will come a time when people would look back at this period in history and wonder how we could treat fellow human beings that way.

  20. [...] Part 1 and Part [...]

  21. Zara Potts says:

    Finally – I have to the chance to read this wonderful set.
    You are such an amazing writer, Ronlyn. Your words are so much like you. Compassionate. Kind. Sensitive and strong.
    It’s an honour for me to read them.
    Now off to part 2.

  22. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    I am blushing. Thank you.

  23. [...] Parts 1, 2, and [...]

  24. kristen says:

    Oh, man, what a stirring and well-framed beginning. Glad I’m finally getting a chance to settle into this series of yours…

  25. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    The opening paragraphs share one of my most memorable visits with him. I’m not kidding when I say we laughed hard at the joke. Gallow’s humor. Sometimes, that’s all you’ve got.

  26. [...] RONLYN DOMINGUE spends time on death row. [...]

  27. [...] learned a lot from being a writing coach to a man on death row…so much that she wrote a four-part series on the [...]

  28. Judy Prince says:

    ” . . . a writer works hard so the reader doesn’t have to”. It’s a terrific pragmatic statement you read, Ronlyn; thank you for it.

    I love your dorktastic grin in that photo—-as well as the word “dorktastic”. Susan’s Red Feather…..your Red Blazer……wow.

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