When I arrived at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in the summer of 1978, I entered the most violent and primitive prison system in North America—a hate factory so dangerous and barbaric, a federal judge declared it “cruel and unusual punishment,” and said it offended principals of human decency in violation of the Constitution of the United States.
There was no security. From the petri dish of prison, the Administration culled the strongest, meanest convicts they could find and used them as inmate “guards.”
- These inmate “guards” used this privilege as power and ruthlessly ruled over the other prisoners with brute force.
- Everyone carried a homemade knife and used it to fight to the death.
- If you got stabbed, it was an inmate orderly who tended to your wound with iodine. If anything else was wrong with you, you got Tylenol, which was dispensed as the prison panacea.
Not a day went by that I wasn’t consumed by courtroom images of witnesses, police, and prosecutors all working together to ensure I was convicted and sentenced to death. These images often left me mentally and emotionally crippled with rage and despair.
“Truth-hunger is a hunger just as real as food-hunger,” H.P. Lovecraft said, and I was starved to understand how I could have been sent to this purgatory.
This is when my transformation began, from a ninth-grade dropout, a 22-year-old kid, really—and therefore, by definition, someone who expects someone else to come to the rescue—into the CEO of my own life, a grown-up who had to fight for himself. And when you’re fighting a legal system, that means getting an education.
In one empty cell, I found an old Webster’s dictionary. And I read it from A to Z, practicing new words on staff and prisoners who often didn’t know what I as talking about. My brother, Doyle Wayne, was my only outside support. He sent me educational books so I could learn how to write and speak effectively.
Because I was classified “Death Row,” which meant automatic Administrative Segregation, I wasn’t permitted to attend the prison school system. I persuaded them to at least allow me to be sent a GED handbook so I could study from my cell and take the exam directly, and I passed.
Then I enrolled in college correspondence fromSam Houston State University. I had a GPA of 4.0 when the Texas Legislature passed a law banning anyone sentenced to death from taking "in-cell" college courses. The logic was, I was there to be put to death—NOT to get an education. Nevertheless, following a more or less conventional path, after college I went to graduate school. Ignorance of our legal system helped send me to Death Row innocent, so I read law books voraciously.
My most prized possession was a Black’s Law Dictionary Doyle Wayne saved up and sent me for Christmas. He also paid for a paralegal correspondence course and eventually I received a paralegal certificate. Once I was educated, I stuck out my shingle and started practicing as a jailhouse lawyer.
I wrote writs for other prisoners in exchange for stamps and the writing materials I needed daily to fight for my life. I hammered day in and day out on a manual blue Royal typewriter to anyone empowered to help me: The President, the Governor, the Justice Department, and all media outlets.
I also wrote to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest appellate court for death penalty appeals. After nine years, they finally wrote back: ruling 8-1 in favor of my conviction and execution.
The Court said my argument that the evidence was insufficient to support a jury’s verdict of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt was overruled because:
- The eyewitness to the murder had seen me in the apartment at the exact same time the pathologist testified the victim had died, and a policeman testified the fingerprints were left on her patio door.
- A fellow inmate testified that I had confessed the murder and told the jury things only the real murderer could have known.
In stunning fashion, the highest criminal court in Texas simply echoed the fabrications of the police and prosecutors. It became apparent the appeals court never even reviewed the actual transcripts in the case.
Announcing the high court had cleared the way for my execution, a Dallas Morning News photograph showed the transcripts of my case sitting in the basement of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals building. If you look closely, you can see the seal was never broken from when Smith County sent them up.
I was wrong.
Darkness came to my Death Row cell, and this time, I had to draw strength from an empty well.
My whole life, my biggest inspiration had been my brother, Doyle Wayne. He was the person who made me believe that nothing was impossible, and no mountain was too high to climb.
Two weeks after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals cleared the way for my execution by saying nothing was wrong with my conviction, Doyle Wayne was shot and killed. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and it cost him his life.
I found myself faced with this brutal irony: here I was in prison, branded a murderer, and now I had lost my only brother to a senseless, violent homicide.
I finally understood how Linda’s family must be feeling. It was awful.
I wanted to kill. I wanted to die. I wanted . . . to start over.
So I did.
Kerry Max Cook is the author of CHASING JUSTICE: My Story of Freeing Myself After Two Decades on Death Row for a Crime I Didn't Commit. The story of Kerry’s struggle concludes
The story of Kerry’s struggle concludeshere tomorrow.