Today's Reading

This time his voice came through loud and slow as he carefully enunciated each word: "How would you extract the truth from a man like Chester?"

Then I heard a rattling noise that wasn't coming from my throat, and I realized it was the sound of the phone shaking in my hand.

I lit a cigarette. "I ain't stupid, you know," I said to Watkins.

The aide in the front seat shook her fleshy arm at me. "Quit it with the cigarettes. We talked about this, Mr. Buck. I know you ain't forgot. My little boy got asthma. He don't need to be smelling your smoke on me."

"It's my goddamn car, isn't it?" I said to her. "Crack the window."

In my ear Watkins said, "What does that mean?"

"I know you're trying to set up some sort of smear on me with your little program. Why should I help you do that?"

"I am going to tell this story whether you participate or not. If you'd like to tell me your side of it, I'm willing to listen. But your input is not required."

"I'll think about it," I said, and I flipped the phone closed. This was the start of a real mess, and maybe I wouldn't be able to handle this reporter on my own. "We're going to have to call William," I said to Rose.

"Yes," she said. "I guess it's time we told him about the cancer."

"Who has cancer?" I asked.


CARLOS WATKINS (NARRATION): In the state of Tennessee, they send the worst of the worst down to the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, in Nashville. About 750 men live in this complex of twenty low-slung buildings, and two-thirds of them are "high-risk inmates," convicted of serious violent crimes and considered to pose a continuing danger to society. Sixty of those high-risk inmates have been sentenced to die by lethal injection. Riverbend is where Tennessee's death row inmates live, and Riverbend is where they will be executed, unless they're spared by Providence, a court order, or death by natural causes.

Of those sixty condemned, half are black, even though black folk comprise only 17 percent of the state's population. And half of the state's death row inmates hail from "West Tennessee," and that mostly means Memphis.

Philip Workman was put to death here at Riverbend in 2007 for the 1982 killing of a police officer in the parking lot of a Memphis Wendy's restaurant. Ballistics experts had some doubts about the evidence that convicted him, four of the trial jurors later repudiated their verdict, and two Tennessee State Supreme Court justices asked the governor to grant clemency, but none of that was enough to stop Workman's execution. He tried to donate his last meal, a vegetarian pizza, to the homeless. The state denied his request.

Riverbend is also the home of serial killer Bruce Mendenhall, a long-haul trucker who traveled America's highways murdering sex workers. Mendenhall isn't on death row; he was sentenced to life for the 2007 murder of Sara Hulbert. But he's facing more charges here in Tennessee, as well as in Alabama and Indiana, and he's under investigation in five other states, so he may yet get his date with the needle.

It was from an inmate who dwells in these bleak environs that I recently received a letter. It's not terribly uncommon for journalists to get letters from prisoners. Prisoners send a lot of letters. Writing letters passes time, and passing time is the chief occupation of those who are trapped in the teeth of the American criminal justice apparatus.

But this letter stood out immediately as unusual. I've asked the man who sent it to read it aloud for you, and then I'll tell you more about him and the circumstances in which he finds himself. I apologize for the poor audio quality.

CHESTER MARCH: Dear Mr. Watkins,

I listened to your recent feature on the plight of three prisoners who have spent decades in solitary confinement at the Angola penitentiary in Louisiana, and I thought it might be worthwhile to reach out to you, and to share my experience.

My name is Chester March, and I have been on death row in Tennessee for about thirty-five years. Death row isn't quite as restrictive as a segregated unit; I am allowed to have books and a small radio. These things go a long way toward keeping me sane. However, condemned inmates here are confined in an eight-by-ten space for twenty-two hours each day, I take my meals alone in my cell, and my visitation privileges are extremely limited.

I am one of the oldest men awaiting execution in the United States. Tennessee doesn't relish keeping a man around who holds that distinction, and it seems my appeals are soon to run their course. I wonder if you and your listeners might be interested in hearing my story before the state kills me by lethal injection. I just learned that I have an execution date scheduled in two months.

I am in this place because I was hunted and persecuted by a famously brutal police detective, and convicted on the basis of a confession extracted during a torturous interrogation, in violation of my constitutional rights. I have spent decades fighting for a new trial, but the criminal justice system refuses to acknowledge the insufficiency and illegality of the evidence supporting my conviction.

My appellate lawyers, who work on my behalf at no cost to me, seem competent and dedicated, which is something I cannot say of my trial counsel or about some of the lawyers who worked on my previous appeals. However, I no longer believe my salvation can come through the system in which they operate. The only way I will be spared is if there is a public outcry against the injustice perpetrated against me. You are my last hope, Mr. Watkins.

Yours in Christ, Chester A. March

This excerpt ends on page 18 of the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book Beating About the Bush by M. C. Beaton.

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