Dead Run; the untold story of Dennis Stockton and America's only mass escape from death row

“Dead Run; the untold story of Dennis Stockton and America’s only mass escape from death row.”

“Dead Run; the untold story of Dennis Stockton and America’s only mass escape from death row” tells the story of an innocent man killed by the state of Virginia for political reasons, an event made easy and in all probability common by a law banning the reopening of a case to hear new evidence later than 21 days after a conviction. This applies even to evidence illegally suppressed during the original trial.
The book is extremely well-written, and much of it is exciting and suspenseful, particularly that dealing with the escape. Stockton was in on planning an escape from death row, but did not take part in it. New evidence of his innocence had just emerged, and Stockton apparently had enough faith left in the justice system to believe that he stood a better chance of freedom by not escaping. He may also have been driven by a desire to declare his innocence. He later refused a deal from the state of life imprisonment in exchange for ceasing to appeal his conviction. He also published diary entries in a newspaper which he knew would win him the ill-will of many with power over him.

This excellent book is marred slightly by the introduction’s instructing us that “…there is no need to pity most criminals.” Such a comment transfers its author’s inability to pity to the rest of us. I’d be curious to know how many readers of this book feel no pity for the escaped murderer who arrives at the border of Canada, grows scared, telephones his mother, and – on her advice – turns himself in to be killed.

More importantly, the comment about pity leaves the debates over criminal justice within the framework of a battle between vengeance and pity – a framework in which the reduction of harm done by and to both criminals and the falsely accused can have no place.

The vengeance-versus-pity idea shoves aside the question of innocence-versus-guilt, and even where guilt is evident it shoves aside questions of societal healing, restitution to victims, rehabilitation of offenders, deterrence, and costs to tax-payers.

Everyone knows that crime is most easily and cost-effectively reduced by fighting poverty. It is unlikely that America’s recent draconian measures will reduce crime in the long run. Stockton chose to trust the system rather than attempt an escape, but he was relieved to be killed when the only alternative was the hell-hole known as a correctional institution, a place full of flying feces, rape, murder, and abuse of every sort.

Lately, Virginia has been doing to juveniles what it has long done to adults convicted of crimes. The director of the dept. of juvenile justice [pun possibly intended] has resigned effective Dec. 1, 1999, following the death of a retarded youth in custody, the initiation of a self-defense program allowing guards to hit and kick kids, a girl being handcuffed on her way to a hospital to give birth, and poor conditions at the state’s largest detention center so egregious that the agency’s board decertified the place last week citing overcrowding and sexual misconduct.

Concern for convicts (innocent or not) is not in conflict with crime reduction. It is in
conflict with state violence, with the anger promoted by politicians even in the names of victims who publicly disown it. As long as advocates of vengeance are permitted
to masquerade as advocates of crime reduction, justice will be a sham.

This book is so well done that to find anything significant to complain about, I had to turn to the introduction, which the authors didn’t write. The authors are an editor and an ex-reporter for the Virginian-Pilot, a Norfolk newspaper. Much of what they write is taken from Stockton’s diary, transposed into the third person, fact-checked, and supplemented. The only thing I could fault these talented writers for is the occasional misplaced journalistic balance. The preface mentions “ultimate fairness – or lack thereof,” as if the whole point of the book were not to describe unfairness. On page 19, the authors accept the term “monsters” as a useful one, without really defining what it should mean. On page 234 of a book describing the Dantean conditions of a prison, they write of a victim’s mother’s dealing with the years before an innocent man was executed for her son’s murder: “It was like she was in prison too.” Maybe she had said those words, but had she read this book? Did she have any idea what being in a prison is like? On page 251 the authors say that Stockton was “witness to a struggle between justice and mercy.” He wasn’t. He was witness to a struggle between evil politics and vengeance on the one hand, and the demands of innocence on the other. Justice cannot be opposed to mercy because justice should be merciful. Justice is, after all, an attempt – where all else has failed or not been tried – to reduce harm.

This book is not just an exciting page-turner. It also provides a great deal of useful information, including some shocking statistics. For example: “An October 1993 report by the U.S. House Judiciary Committee said that forty-eight innocent men had been freed from Death Rows across the nation since 1972, That came to a nearly one-in-six ratio of freed to executed prisoners. Of the forty-eight men, 52 percent ‘were convicted on the basis of perjured testimony or because the prosecutor improperly withheld exculpatory evidence.'” Is this surprising in a country with the bizarre practice of ELECTING prosecutors to office – and voting them out if they leave a crime unpunished?

Nov. 17, 1999

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