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Making the Most of Life on Death Row: A Review of Dead Run: The Shocking Story of Dennis Stockton and Life on Death Row in America

By Elaine Cassel

In 2002, the number of executions in the United States rose, after having declined during 2000 and 2001. Seventy-one people were put to death in 2002, including one woman. In spite of growing public awareness about the numbers of innocent people released from death row, some within hours of their date, there has been little momentum for slowing the process, let alone abolishing it. Dead Run: The Shocking Story of Dennis Stockton and Life on Death Row in America by Joe Jackson and William F. Burke, Jr. (Time Books, 2000) tells the story of Dennis Stockton, executed in Virginia and thought by most who knew him to have been actually innocent.

Jackson and Burke are journalists who work for a Norfolk, Virginia newspaper, The Virginian-Pilot. They first met Dennis Stockton, sentenced to death for murder, when he was allowed to talk about how six death-row inmates escaped from Virginiaís rat-infested death house, Mecklenburg, that he nicknamed the "monster factory." He recounted the horrid physical conditions in which the men live, the corruption of the abusive guards, and the violence and drug dealing among some of the inmates. Dennisís account, found to be credible by government authorities, led to mass resignations at the prison.

After the paper published the account of the prison break, Jackson and Burke became interested in Dennisís claims that he had been wrongfully convicted of the murder. The journalists were involved in trying to free him or get his capital sentence reduced to life in prison, but without success.

But in a gusty move approved by the reportersí editor, they published Dennisís journal of his last weeks on death row. The story of how Dennis got to death row, how he grew as a human being there and became a model prisoner and one even the guards admired, how his efforts to exonerate himself failed, and how he spent his last hours on earth is set out in this moving book.

From a psychological standpoint, the value of the book lies in its depiction of Dennisís psychological and social development while in prison. He had the typical deprived, abusive childhood of most people on death row; as a teenager and a young man, he was in and out of jail for petty crimes. He maintains that he was framed for a murder that a notoriously violent man committed. Dennis was convicted solely on the testimony of this man, who later went on to brag about how he got away with murder.

Dennis taught himself to write in prison as a way to pass time. Ultimately, writing became a tool of self-understanding. In his final days and hours, he wrote in order to distance himself from the certain death he was facing.

The state prosecutors offered him life in prison if he would drop his claims of innocence. Dennis refused to accept their bargain, preferring to die rather than to give in. His steadfastness in this regard is common with other prisoners who believe they are innocent and who are innocent (such as Ruben "Hurricane" Carter, who was three times wrongly convicted of murder, and served more than 20 years in prison). Psychologically, this typifies an emotion-focused coping skill that enables the prisoner to distance himself from what is going on around him and to concentrate on what he can do to make his life tolerable, even meaningful.

In a legal footnote to the book, the authors note that in denying Stocktonís appeal, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, William Rehnquist wrote for the majority that it was not unconstitutional for Virginia to execute an innocent man if Virginia had followed all of its own legal rules. He suggested that the governor of Virginia grant clemency if he felt Dennis deserved it. That did not happen.

His appeals denied, Dennis focused on how he could find meaning in the rest of his life (something that existential psychologists believe we all must find) even in the most horrible of settings. He became a mentor to younger prisoners and helped them adjust to the horrors of prison life. He became somewhat of a spiritual advisor to men, like himself, who were awaiting death. He tried to instill a sense of hope in them; recognizing that he was not going to get out of death row alive, he refused to engage in self-pity but prepared to die. He chronicled that preparation and his feelings for two months prior to his death. The Virginian-Pilot ran one column of his entries a week until the last week of his life, when they published a column each day. Dennis wrote his last journal entry on the day of his death, and it was published the day after.

In his last entry, Dennis tells how he had made peace with his impending death, and talked about the freedom of death. He said that if he had gotten a reprieve from the governor, he would ask that another inmate who had a young son would be spared instead of him. After all, Dennis said, I am an old man (he was only in his 50s), tired and worn out, but this manís son needs a father.

Dead Run demonstrates how Dennis used many psychological coping mechanisms, including sublimation, compensation, cognitive- and emotion-focused coping, and altruism in order to live as fully as he could until his death. A moving book, it inspires readers to find the opportunity to be a better person and do good in whatever challenging situations they face. Dennis surely achieved what Erik Erikson called "integrity" at the end of his life. Facing death, he had come to terms with his life and fate and shed the shame, doubt, inferiority, and isolation of his youth.

Elaine Cassel, Marymount University and Lord Fairfax Community College