On the Trail of Former Death Row Inmates Joan Cheever, author of Back from the Dead, followed former death row inmates who were released when the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972.

On the Trail of Former Death Row Inmates

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This week's conversations about the American underworld include the ultimate punishment. A writer and lawyer wanted to know what would happen if death row inmates got a second chance at life.


That lawyer, Joan M. Cheever, found a kind of real life experiment. In 1972, the Supreme Court briefly outlawed the death penalty. Hundreds of people were taken off Death Row. Some were eventually released, and Joan Cheever interviewed as many convicted killers as she could.

Ms. JOAN M. CHEEVER (Author, Back from the Dead): I believe that these were the worst of the worst, so I understand the fear people have. I have the same fear. I did try to conduct all the interviews in public because that's smart. But, you know, in one town, the individual said, you know, it's either at my house or it's not.

INSKEEP: Cheever is an opponent of the death penalty. She started searching for released killers after one of her own clients was executed. She tried and failed to win an appeal for Walter Williams, whose original defense lawyers had presented no evidence on his behalf.

Ms. CHEEVER: I went down to Texas. He asked me to witness the execution. I wasn't on the witness list, so that turned into a battle with the state officials and...

INSKEEP: You fought to get in...

Ms. CHEEVER: I fought...

INSKEEP: ...to witness the execution?

Ms. CHEEVER: I fought. One of the prison officials said, Ms. Cheever, do you have a father or a husband? I said yes, I have one of each. And he said, they must have beans for brains because I wouldn't let my little girl or my wife see what you're about to see. I said don't worry about me. Let's worry about Walter. He said, what if I let everybody? If nobody followed the rules, then everybody would want to witness an execution.

INSKEEP: I think a lot of people wouldn't want to witness one, or wouldn't want their loved ones to witness an execution. Why did you feel it was so important to witness this?

Ms. CHEEVER: Because he asked me to, and he said he didn't want to die alone.

INSKEEP: And how was he executed?

Ms. CHEEVER: Lethal injection.

INSKEEP: What it look like?

Ms. CHEEVER: It was a long six minutes to watch someone die. I really don't even want to revisit it. I mean he - a tear rolled down his cheek. He asked for forgiveness. He said good-bye. Then he struggled to breathe and then it was over.

INSKEEP: What did Walter Williams do to get on Death Row?

Ms. CHEEVER: He shot a convenience store clerk in the back of the head. It was a brutal crime, but he had no prior record.

INSKEEP: A lot of people who support the death penalty would say he shot a man in the back of the head. If he gets the death penalty, maybe he shouldn't have shot a man in the back of the head.

Ms. CHEEVER: Right. But not everybody who shoots somebody in the back of the head gets the death penalty. We're supposed to reserve the death penalty for the worst of the worst, for the people we believe will go out and kill again. But we just give the death penalty in certain states all the time. Why is it that some states don't have it, or some states don't use it, or they're more discretionary about indicting someone for capital murder?

INSKEEP: Who is someone who completely turned his life around after being freed unexpectedly from Death Row?

Ms. CHEEVER: I can think of Chuck Culhane of New York. The only way you could get to the Death House in New York State was for a police officer to be shot, and Chuck was not the triggerman but a police officer was killed. So he's not - I mean, they aren't angels on Death Row. You know, there's very good reasons why they're in prison but, you know, he didn't pull the trigger.

INSKEEP: Walk me through this man's story. He was on Death Row as of that date in 1972.

Ms. CHEEVER: Uh-huh.

INSKEEP: And then what happened?

Ms. CHEEVER: And then he was taken off Death Row and paroled in 1993.

INSKEEP: And then what happened?

Ms. CHEEVER: While he was in prison, he had taken writing courses and taken college courses. And he's a very accomplished poet. He's won several awards from PEN. He's written plays. He got out and worked as a paralegal, and then he taught a college course called Crime and Punishment in America.

INSKEEP: Did he use his past in the class?

Ms. CHEEVER: He did. He told the students where he had been, and that if they didn't feel comfortable being taught by a convicted killer about the nuances of the death penalty and what prison is like, he totally understood and they could drop the class. And he, you know, answered all the questions. It was a, you know, group of college kids that really believed in the death penalty. But they said well, you know, now that I've met you, it's kind of different. I didn't really think that people like you would be on Death Row.

INSKEEP: What do you learn from looking into so many faces of so many people who are guilty of so many murders?

Ms. CHEEVER: I learned that there is chance for rehabilitation. I also found that every one of them was remorseful. Every man that I talked to openly cried. They relive it every day, as I know the parents of murder victims live it too. There is a lot of pain in this country and there are a lot of victims. The victims' families and the families of those who are on Death Row are also victims, too.

INSKEEP: Did you, as you talked to these men who'd been freed unexpectedly from Death Row, find people who agreed with the death penalty?

Ms. CHEEVER: Yes, some of them, very few. But some of them said, you know, Joan, if you knew some of the people that I knew, you might not want them out.

INSKEEP: You write about a man name Kenneth Alan McDuff. You're grimacing as I say his name.

Ms. CHEEVER: I am because he's - he's the biggest failure in this group. He's the one that - the poster boy for the death penalty. He was in Texas. He committed a brutal crime in 1965. He went to Death Row. They didn't want to parole him but they had a prison over crowding lawsuit. He left prison and shortly thereafter bodies started turning up and the Texas Rangers knew exactly who it was.

INSKEEP: He killed more than one other person?


INSKEEP: How many?

Ms. CHEEVER: Six or seven. What got him on Death Row is three teenagers were killed.

INSKEEP: And he got this second chance at life and went right on killing.

Ms. CHEEVER: Well, that's what I don't get. I mean, he was a psychopath, a serial killer. They knew it when he came in and they knew it when he came out, and I don't know why he was released. I can't believe that it was just because of a court order for over-crowding.

Ms. CHEEVER: Joan M. Cheever is the author of Back from the Dead. Thanks very much.

Ms. CHEEVER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Joan Cheever interview about 130 inmates who got off Death Row thanks to that Supreme Court ruling in 1972. Of those former inmates, some went on to commit other serious crimes. Others went back to prison for parole violations, including Chuck Culhane, the success story Cheever mentioned earlier.

MONTAGNE: Our conversations on the American underworld continue tomorrow with a journey back in time. In Kansas City in the 1930s, it was said that the mob ran pretty much everything, including gambling. One man hunted through seedy gambling halls and backroom poker games in search of the world's greatest card cheater.

Unidentified Man: And they said if anybody would know, there's a guy here name Snakey Davis. So I asked, I said, where could you meet this guy Snakey Davis? And they said you can't meet him. He said, he doesn't talk, he's the head of the Mafia in Kansas City.

MONTAGNE: You can hear all of our conversations on the American underworld at npr.org.

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