The Missouri break
[ places - october 02 ]
Each year the Centre for Capital Punishment Studies in London asks attorneys in the States and the Caribbean who specialise in death penalty work if they'd be willing to suffer a few British law students for a couple of months, and each year the innocent and unsuspecting ones say yes. I was accepted by Sean O'Brien in Kansas City, Missouri. Perhaps my CV made him laugh. Emails started to arrive saying an apartment had been arranged, ending with a few ominous comments about piles of work awaiting us. I realised, to my horror, that in a flurry of exams I'd made no travel plans. I mailed to say I'd be there some time soon and set out for the airport, hoping for the best.
After an eight-hour flight and the same films twice over, a Greyhound Bus to Kansas City meant that at least I'd have something to look at. The sheer size of it all was the first thing: out of New York through Pennsylvania, and what looked as crowded as the Home Counties on the map emerged through the dawn as a vast forest wilderness with a single highway plunging from ridge to ridge, touching occasionally on some eerily quiet three-street town. On through the night and the sky was raked by extraordinary lightning, silent, as if laid on for someone else's amusement. The routine established itself. Two or three hours of driving; dozing, reading, then a break at a service station, larger or smaller but each one selling the same trinkets, the same candy, the same fast food, to people who might as well have been the same customers. Change at Des Moines, a first feeling of real heat, thumbnail-sized bugs throng the stopover, then at last, KCMO at five in the morning. 305 East 63rd Street, according to the map, was a straight walk, so after yet more candy I set out at dawn, staggering under my luggage and too blasted from lack of sleep to realise that straight roads go on for ever here. The sun rose on a few cars cruising lazily up the wide leafy suburban streets with their endless empty pavements, from one horizon to the other, a Twilight Zone suburb abandoned to the cicadas. There followed a grim tedium of aching shoulders, counting off thirty or so streets as 63rd grew closer. Nowhere was open. Arrived at the offices of the Public Interest Litigation Clinic, an anonymous bungalow with another lawyer on one side and a 7-11 on the other, and it was shut too. Monday, 3 July, the day before Independence Day, and everyone had taken an extra day off. Great.
The main thing about the next two months was the heat, like a giant hand pressing down. You learn to move and speak with a sort of slow, breathless leisure. Most days it was over a hundred in dead calm and clinging humidity, and walking outside the blessed air-conditioned cool of the office was like opening an oven door and standing braced in the rush of heat and the steady insistence of the cicadas. Waiting for the bus made the sweat drip down your back. Rain would fall without warning in sudden downpours, gone in a few moments. Overnight, huge operatic thunderstorms would scatter the ground with leaves and branches. Inside was the quiet of a library, just attorneys in their offices, typing away. Occasionally, a telephone would ring once or twice before being answered. Sean was an amiable soul, noble and bearded like a Pilgrim Father, with the boyishness of a sophomore: his office was hung with model aeroplanes. Clarence was huge and black and warm-voiced and warm-hearted. Kent came to the office every other day with some new and revolting form of deep fried fast food for 'the Brits' to try - chicken gizzards, or whatever was considered a delicacy in rural Missouri. When we left, we bought them a little ornamental suit of armour at the local market, three or four foot high, to stand in the corner of the reception area.
Virtually all the cases were post-conviction, dealing with the Kafka-esque, labyrinthine appeals procedures of American courts. The centre was set up at public expense a few years ago because nobody, least of all the lawyers, could manage a capital case properly from start to finish (a period likely to be more than a decade) without expert help. What began as a resource centre soon found itself taking on cases in its own right. Again and again, the inhabitants of death row arrive there more because of the incompetence of their attorneys - or just dumb luck - than whatever it is they've actually done. The death penalty is not mandatory in America, and multiple murderers with good lawyers are much safer from it than the poor, uneducated defendant with court-appointed counsel, an overzealous prosecutor and an unscrupulous bench.
The bemused staff at the 7-11 took pity on me that first day and let me look at their phone book, where I found the name of the office manager with whom I'd made my incomplete travel arrangements. Once she'd got over her surprise, she dragged one of the other attorneys out to come and take me to the apartment they'd arranged for us, a surprisingly large suite in a beautiful regency-style terrace screened from the main road by a tranquil civil-war cemetery and a few real American Gothic wooden houses, with stained glass, painted fretwork and cushion-covered swings on the porch. I had a moment to put my things down and admire the place before nature took its course and I fell asleep at last. Sean's two teenage daughters arrived to hang a new shower curtain for us in what they'd thought was an empty apartment, and stood at the bottom of my bed having an amused conversation about which one of the three this half-naked slumbering Englishman might be.
The feeling of being on a film set was never very far away, more so the further from the cities one drove. The rural south of the state has to be seen to be believed: endless farmland so green it hurts the eyes, always the same towns, each with a watertower bearing its name, loose groups of shabby houses rambling through the greenery and the same expression of mild surprise as farmers in dungarees emerge from their tumbledown homesteads and pick their way between the dogs and dusty machinery to give directions. You could hear the tolling of the railroad bell across the trees and fields for miles in every direction as the unhurried train drew nearer. Here and there, a whole family out on the porch, fat and listless after their meal, staring at us as if in freeze-frame as we drive past. After two days in the same town contacting witnesses to a 10-year-old case, the postman stopped us in the street to give us directions; he'd heard yesterday that we were looking for someone. The clerks at the tiny local courthouse asked us to the town's summer barbecue. We took a trip one weekend to the Ozarks and stayed in the world's most rundown motel, renting a boat from the owner the next day. He loaded us in his truck and took us out along the James river, telling us to keep right when the stream forked and we'd end up back where we started, so we floated in baking heat down a silent gorge thick with jurassic ferns, wading when we grounded in shallows. Once, the cliffs gave way and there was a little shingly beach, where an Amish woman in 19th-century dress and headdress sat by the shore watching her children bathe. That evening we joined the throngs who flock there at weekends to enjoy the shows at Branson and see the lakes and mountains: we pulled in at what looked like the sign for a restaurant and found a huge car park among the trees. There at the bottom was a paddle steamer offering dinner and a show, trips out every few hours, a viewing platform and gift shop built of logs and shaded by the trees. Family after family emerged from the woods to buy their tickets, beaming with goodwill and ready to be entertained, until the steamer returned and its occupants spilled happily out to make way for them.
On the evening of the Fourth we were all invited to Sean's for a barbecue. We sat on the front lawn of his modest house eating hot dogs while his daughters and their friends let off fireworks under the trees. Sean and I were a little to one side of the group. I asked him about the cases we'd be working on, and he started to tell me about Steve, who'd been brutalised by his mother, then taken away by social services while still a toddler and given to his uncle, a certified sadist paedophile. Steve had raped and beaten his schoolteacher out of shock and horror at the affection she tried to show him, then been passed around in prison as currency by the pimps. He could not be left alone with visitors in case he reacted violently to some imagined threat of rape. He had eventually killed his prison lover and fellow-sufferer in a failed suicide pact, tying up and raping him just as he had learned from his uncle, and was now on death row. From nowhere the air between us began to glitter with fireflies, and the thick grass and the tree under which we sat. Sean caught one and showed it to me. As a teenager on the run, Steve had spent a few nights in a kennel with a dog, who himed and kept him warm. When the police found him and dragged him away, it had bitten one of them on the behind. Steve laughed, and later said it was a happy memory.
I met Steve about a month later in Potosi. I kept thinking, absurdly, that the prison was like a Stanley Kubrick film set: white tiles on the floor, white painted walls, white acoustic-tiled ceilings, immaculate and inhuman, just like the guards. We were ushered through a series of long rooms, each with a sofa or drinks machine or snack dispenser stood half-heartedly against the wall, through four or five heavy, slow-swinging doors into the visiting room, white like the others but with tables in the middle and more doors to either side. More guards in the corners. Steve greeted us in a ridiculous little room off to one side, no wider than a door, with a glass partition in the middle. He was a small, skinny, fragile-looking man with thin, grey hair and no shoulders to speak of, who smiled amiably and a little sheepishly and spoke at breakneck speed in a thick, slurred rural accent about anything that came into his head: jokes he'd heard (though he usually had to tell them two or three times to get them right); funny bits of gossip about guards or prisoners; nutty half-serious conspiracy theories. He greeted Clarence after a little prompting (they'd met before), but he neither knew nor cared who I was. We were both utterly charmed. But that was the point, as Clarence told me later: the liveliness and wit was psychosis, not intelligence. You had to listen carefully to realize just how profoundly retarded he was. Clarence and Sean had asked him about the killing several times and had never been given a straight answer, or even the same answer twice. He didn't know or couldn't remember, and the fraught emotions of the time had evaporated. A year or so before, he had been viciously beaten by the guards or the other prisoners or both, but even a day later the event had faded and become simply something which had happened to him once, without particular significance. He will certainly die on death row, hopefully of old age. The State dares not execute someone so obviously insane for fear of looking bloodthirsty, and the Governor dares not commute his sentence for fear of looking weak. Sean is dragging his feet, making no fuss and hoping not to complete the appeals, since to do so would make the Sate honour bound to act in some way.
That evening we went out in St Louis and found, of all things, a Welsh theme pub with red dragons on the walls. In the morning we rose ridiculously early, blinded by hangovers, and drove back across the state on one of those endless highways. About half an hour into the journey we stopped and Sean grinned at us - "you guys just have to see this place - it's the coolest thing." In the baking air by the side of the road was a shack with a few billboards, 'The Elvis Is Alive Museum'. Had it not been for the bored woman sat behind what must have been the counter, we could have mistaken it for someone's junk room, which I suppose it really was. You could buy postcards of places the King had been sighted in since his death, and his face stared blearily back at us from the rows and piles of dusty exhibits, faded cardboard or tacky plastic, pictures, album covers, cocktail mixers, the front half of a car he'd once owned, or driven, or something. There was sunlight slanting in through the gaps in the boards. The traffic noise from outside was muffled, but the noise of the cicadas was unceasing.