The deadly politics of living on death row


Dennis Stockton was a habitual criminal from shortly after his birth in 1940 until the state of Virginia put him to sleep permanently in 1995.

Although not well known outside of Virginia and North Carolina during his lifetime, Stockton is quite likely to become famous posthumously as a result of this superb book by two Virginia Beach journalists.

Describing the book briefly is difficult. It is part biography and part autobiography of Stockton (because so many of his own newspaper columns from prison are reprinted). It also includes short biographies of other inmates entering Stockton's life, an expos of the prison system, an inside look at journalism as practiced at the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, and a legal brief for a man convicted of a murder probably committed by somebody else.

Burke, the newspaper editor who contacted Stockton in a Virginia prison after a mass escape from the death row there, and Jackson, the reporter working for Burke who turned up seemingly exonerating information about a homicide supposedly committed by Stockton, have woven the disparate parts of this story into a coherent, compelling whole.

The setting is Mecklenberg Prison, a southern Virginia facility that was the pride of the penal system just a couple of decades ago. Shortly after Stockton arrived on Mecklenberg's death row in 1983, he became involved in a plot to escape.

Although Stockton had little formal education, he had a high intelligence quotient, common sense, and street smarts. He knew a death-row escape attempt had never been successful even in the country's ancient, rickety prisons. So, Stockton had no reason to believe the plot would play out in supposedly escape-proof Mecklenberg. But Stockton thought neither he nor the other death-row inhabitants stood to lose much if they failed.

Eventually, Stockton decided to drop out of the escape attempt, thinking his murder conviction might be overturned on the basis of new evidence. But he helped the plotter in various ways and also started keeping a daily diary.

On May 31, 1984, the escape plan worked, as six convicted murderers broke out of Mecklenberg. The reasons it worked are complicated. The guards and administrators were overly confident that low-life convicts would never outsmart the system. That overconfidence meant the guards and administrators ignored what should have been obvious signs over many months of preparation for a mass escape.

As newspaper-editor Burke probed to learn the reasons behind the escape, he heard about Stockton's diary. After complicated negotiations, parts of the diary appeared in the Virginian-Pilot. Because he named names, Stockton ended up persona non grata with inmates, guards, and prison administrators. He felt used by the newspaper, too, although he somewhat forgave the Virginian-Pilot years later thanks to the sleuthing of reporter Jackson.

A sociopath at best, Stockton belonged behind bars. But he probably did not deserve to be on death row, because police, prosecutors, and judges knew about evidence that the jury never saw and heard, evidence casting grave doubt on Stockton as the murderer of 17-year-old Kenny Ardner, an acquaintance of Stockton's.

A relatively brief yet significant portion of the book explains to a mostly unsuspecting public how often innocent men and women end up in prison. The wrongful-conviction phenomenon is not a cause only bleeding-heart liberals could love. In fact, it is a law-and-order issue, because the incarceration of an innocent means the actual perpetrator is at liberty to strike again.

Jackson and Burke understand that lesson well, just as they understand that in prison and the rest of the criminal-justice system, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the good folks from the evil ones. Any open-minded reader of "Dead Run" is bound to reach a new understanding of how elastic the meanings of good and evil can be within the American system of criminal justice.

*Steve Weinberg is a freelance investigative journalist in Columbia, Mo., who writes frequently about apparent and actual wrongful convictions.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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