Works of Justice Podcast: Maurice Chammah
This interview is part of Works of Justice, an online series that features content connected to the PEN America Prison and Justice Writing Program. Works of Justice reflects on the relationship between writing and incarceration and presents challenging conversations about criminal justice in the United States.
Our work at PEN America’s Prison Writing Program has been profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, as incarcerated people remain one of the most at-risk populations in the nation. Amid this anxiety, uncertainty, and loss, we have sought to foreground the spirit and resilience of incarcerated writers—linking their literary dispatches to interviews with experts in criminal justice and opportunities for advocacy—through the launch of Temperature Check, our rapid-response content series focused on COVID-19 in prisons.
In this episode of our Works of Justice series, I had the pleasure of speaking with Maurice Chammah, a journalist and staff writer at The Marshall Project whose reporting on the criminal justice system has been published by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Esquire, and Mother Jones. His first book, Let the Lord Sort Them, a study of the rise and fall of the death penalty, was just released.
Let the Lord Sort Them is a haunting and absorbing tome of a book that focuses on Texas, Maurice’s home state, as a microcosm of our country’s preoccupation with the death penalty, and a symbol of our tendency toward retribution and punishment. The timing of his book’s release also feels uncannily relevant, with Trump having overseen 13 federal executions in the last six months of his presidency—and the first executions we’ve seen in the United States since 2003.
This interview also presents a unique opportunity for us, as Maurice has a special connection to PEN’s Prison and Justice Writing Program. Over the past two years, Maurice has served as a mentor for two of our Writing For Justice Fellows. The fellowship, which is currently open for applications, commissions writers—both with and without justice involvement—to write about critical issues connected to mass incarceration. Maurice’s expertise was first leveraged in a mentor role working with Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, a 2018 Writing For Justice Fellow whose project painfully details his own personal experience on Texas death row.
In this interview, in addition to sharing his professional and writing trajectories through and beyond the book, Maurice spoke in depth about his experience as a Writing for Justice mentor, and about how his relationship with Thomas Whitaker impacted his own work.
After listening, we invite you to take a look at our Writing for Justice Fellowship process and application.
FRANCES KEOHANE: First, I want to welcome you and thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. It’s really an absolute pleasure. So first I just want to ask, how is everything? How does it feel to have a book out in the world, and what has that experience been like during a pandemic?
MAURICE CHAMMAH: It’s actually been really thrilling and exciting. And I don’t know what it’s like to publish a book not in a pandemic—this is my first one. I had been prepared for a lot of traveling or bookstore events. And now, of course, everything I’ve done is at home.
On different days, I’ll jump between different events and different kinds of interviews, and really, it feels very exciting to have everyone I’ve ever known send me an email or give me a call and cheer me on. So it’s been good, and it’s also broken up the pandemic experience a little bit insofar as the days don’t feel all the same, the way that they used to. There’s a lot more excitement with jumping between these different book events. So generally, it’s been good. I live in Austin, TX, and Texas has not handled the pandemic necessarily very well compared to other states. So it seems like we’re going to be inside for the foreseeable future.
Other than that, it also has made the book’s release feel like it’s actually reaching a bigger audience in certain ways because people can engage with the book without me having to fly to a city to do a book event. There’s an ability to have it be over Zoom. And so, I’m doing panels with people who maybe live very far from me. And that’s really exciting, too.
“In some ways ironic and in some ways tragic, this aspect of the decline of the death penalty is that there are far more life without parole sentences now than there ever were death sentences—far more people who will die in prison under what many lawyers call a virtual death sentence than people who ever got a real death sentence.”
KEOHANE: Yeah, thank you so much. I mean, it was great on my end because I just got it shipped to me and I got to read it. So that was awesome. I’m curious: Tell me and listeners a bit about your professional story. What drew you to the field of criminal justice, and specifically to interacting with this field as a journalist? Then, tagging onto that question: How did you begin reporting specifically on the death penalty? And what about your work or experience—research—led you to the idea for a book?
CHAMMAH: Sure. So I first got interested in the death penalty even before I was a journalist. I finished college and moved back to Austin, which is where I was from. I was mainly a musician at the time and was casting about for what I wanted to do with my life. My first job after college was with the Texas After Violence Project, which is a small nonprofit based in Austin, TX that does oral history research on the death penalty and state violence and these issues. It had been founded by a longtime defense attorney named Walter Long.
At the time I came in, I was young and I spent a year driving around Texas, interviewing people connected in some way to the death penalty. These were family members of people who had been executed, family members of people who had been murdered in death penalty cases, lawyers. I even interviewed a woman who ran a house in Huntsville, TX, where people would stay when they were visiting town to witness an execution—so just this incredible range of people. And it made me see the death penalty, which until then had been a very abstract issue for me, one that was very compelling because it was so dramatic—it was something people seem to fight about a lot—but made it less of an abstraction and more just a reality in people’s lives and one that touched a stunning number of people, far more than I would have ever expected.
So I spent that year doing those interviews, transcribing them, working with the University of Texas to archive them. There was this whole idea that we were building an archive for posterity—that’s why it’s called the Texas After Violence Project, sort of building toward a world in which we can understand better the causes, the violence, how to prevent it, how it touches people’s lives.
At the same time, I was realizing that personal storytelling was a way for people who knew nothing about a particular public policy area, whether criminal justice or anything else, to get to know the way these policies really affect people’s lives. And it was a way into understanding policy, understanding the world around us, that was very intimate—like you could reach a lot of people at one time to have a collective conversation about these really difficult questions. That appealed to me more than approaching it as an academic or an anthropologist or these other ways that maybe one can get into scholarly work about these questions.
I read magazines—I was reading Texas Monthly and The New Yorker, and these were the things I would just read for fun. And I realized, wait a minute, journalists are the ones who get to skip from subject to subject and learn a ton about them and then communicate with a wide audience about what they’ve learned and guide the collective conversation we’re all having about things like the death penalty and criminal justice.
So I decided to become a journalist. I interned at a few different small news outlets. I didn’t get a journalism degree, but there were a few opportunities in Texas and also in Egypt where I looked for a little while to just intern at newspapers and get to know how you do this work.
And because I already knew a little bit about the death penalty, having worked at the Texas After Violence Project, just that little bit of extra knowledge about the law, about the politics of it, meant that I was realizing that I could pitch stories about death penalty cases that were a little more unique and that might be interesting to editors. So I was interning for about a year at The Texas Tribune, which is a nonprofit here in Austin. I was writing about cases of people who are maybe going to be executed. I was talking to their lawyers, learning about the issues in those cases, and then thinking: Oh, in addition to writing about this one man who’s facing the death penalty, who’s facing an execution, I can also explain that, for example, his interrogation—when he was first interrogated for the crime—was never recorded. And so, if he was interrogated in such a way that he gave a false confession and he’s really innocent of this crime, we don’t know. Turns out, the Texas legislature is debating a bill that would require interrogation recording in all cases.
And so, I could match up the case to this public policy question and do a story. I was feeling my way out, but I got more and more immersed in journalism, and at every step I was continually returning to death penalty cases and also starting to drift out of that into the criminal justice system more widely, because obviously hundreds of thousands of people in the prison system are not under a death sentence.
Fast forward a few years, you get to 2014 and criminal justice—which I had been immersing myself in—kind of explodes nationally as a subject of concern. This is when Michael Brown is killed in Missouri; Freddie Gray is killed by police in Baltimore. There’s this debate about police brutality and deaths. And, in that moment, it feels like there’s just a kind of random luck—at least for me—in terms of career, that I’m interested in a subject that now suddenly everybody else is also interested in, in a broad way. And, around that time, The Marshall Project was founded.
The Marshall Project is where I work now. We’re a nonprofit news outlet that covers the criminal justice system. It was created even before Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, but certainly I think got a boost in awareness from the big protests that were happening at the time.
“You wonder what great writing and coverage and documentation of these cases could we be getting, if the support was there.”
I’ve been at The Marshall Project ever since. While working there, doing stories, I continued to revisit the death penalty, continued to broaden out and cover trends as opposed to individual cases. I did a story there about how the death penalty is very expensive, for example, and this was a story that touched on a dozen cases as opposed to just one. And I started to realize in those early days with The Marshall Project that I knew enough, I’d encountered enough cases, that I could see the big picture.
I could see that Americans had come to embrace the death penalty about 40 years ago—there had been a big rise in capital punishment in terms of death sentences and executions. And then things reached a peak around the year 2000, and they had been falling ever since. I started to see that you could do a book that was about that big picture embrace, but going all the way back to that Texas After Violence Project experience, I also saw that you could tell that story through the individual experiences of people. So this is all a very long-winded way of describing the path to the book, but at every turn, everything’s been interconnected.
KEOHANE: Thank you so much. That was awesome. I’m a big fan of The Marshall Project, so again, this is an honor for me to be interviewing you.
You touched on this in your answer, and you talk a lot about this in the book. You talk about how the death penalty is this symbol of our country’s overarching tendency toward retribution and punishment. To quote you, “It makes very long prison sentences appear lenient by comparison.”
But then you also talked about how initially for you and for many, the death penalty can be a standalone and aloof issue. So my question is, how does addressing the death penalty impact other areas of reform? For example, how do you think that the abolition of capital punishment might quicken efforts for sentence reduction or other types of sentencing reform?
CHAMMAH: It’s a really great question. When I first was conceiving of the book, I wanted it to speak to the larger criminal justice system. I didn’t want it to feel like it was about this one punishment in this one state. The book focuses on Texas, and the Texas death penalty can feel very, exotic to somebody living in New York or Idaho—places that maybe don’t have the death penalty or don’t have it used as often. Texas can just seem like this outlier.
But Texas played this role in American criminal justice, where we were the symbol of a punitive approach to crime. There was a review of my book where they said that “Texas is to America what America is to the rest of the world.” The sort of place that we look to for these impulses—or one part of our impulses—and Texas becomes a symbol for a really harsh, punitive approach to crime.
Now as the death penalty has disappeared, it’s been replaced by life without parole: sentences where people are sent to prison for the rest of their lives. In some ways ironic and in some ways tragic, this aspect of the decline of the death penalty is that there are far more life without parole sentences now than there ever were death sentences—far more people who will die in prison under what many lawyers call a virtual death sentence than people who ever got a real death sentence. I think that’s important to highlight because it would be a shame if Americans turned away from the death penalty, but didn’t turn away from the harsh, richer—or at least, I’m not prescribing what we should do—but didn’t at least question the harsh retributive philosophy that led us to the death penalty, to that embrace.
One way you’re seeing lawyers in particular—but also advocates and writers—try to chip away at that, even beyond the death penalty, is through something called mitigation. So in my book, I tell a handful of stories about cases where somebody committed a really atrocious crime and was on a conveyor belt to death row because they committed that crime in Houston or a place that really celebrated capital punishment. And lawyers managed to convince a jury in that place to spare this person’s life because they did really, really rich research on their whole past.
I mean, there was this one case of a man named Juan Quintero, who murdered a police officer in Houston. He was undocumented—it was assumed, I think in legal circles, that he was going to get the death penalty. His lawyer went to Mexico and had a team interview everybody he’d ever gone to school with in Mexico, got all of his school and hospital records, had translators working on this, and built a portrait of his life story—a portrait of all the little moments in his life where he did his best, but the circumstances shaped him in one way, whether that was a brain injury or an addiction to alcohol. And, that the person who committed this murder—that’s not all there is to say about him.
He was an innocent child at one time. He’s capable of redemption now in the present, and we should spare his life so he can be a full human. That’s not to say that he shouldn’t go to prison. She wasn’t trying to convince the jury of that. She was just trying to convince them to spare his life, and the lawyer in this case conceded.
“We can hear statistics all day, but it’s not until some story gets lodged in our head that we come to care about some of these issues and think about them in a richer way. It’s the storytelling that gets us there.”
He is still in prison now. I saw in that story and many similar ones about the death penalty being beaten at trial, an approach that doesn’t have to be limited to the death penalty. Of course, it’s expensive to mount one of these big investigations. You probably couldn’t see that happening for every murder, not to speak of every armed robbery.
But you can see the way that looking into the life circumstances of people—the big picture, swings of history and policy that shaped their lives, the failure to treat mental health problems, the addiction issues, brain injuries—all of these different things can shape someone’s life on the path to a crime. If society spends more time learning those stories and trying to understand that, they might see people as more capable of redemption and rehabilitation. And the outcome of that can be, at least in individual cases, shorter prison sentences or prison sentences that don’t send them away for the rest of their lives, that say: “This person did something awful; we don’t want them on the streets tomorrow, but we also don’t want to completely close the door do the idea that they can find mercy and redemption and rehabilitation in prison.”
KEOHANE: Thank you so much. Earlier, you talked about your work in more local journalism, at The Texas Tribune and then The Marshall Project—which is obviously more national. You also in your book touch upon the impact of local and national news on public sentiment around the death penalty. So how do you think that the decline of local news and journalism, which is really a hot topic right now because it’s been exacerbated by COVID-19—how do you think that decline will affect the trajectory of the death penalty and of public sentiment toward it?
CHAMMAH: I think that the decline of newspapers throughout the country is generally just bad for our collective conversation about public policy in criminal justice, the death penalty, and everything else because there’s less information about individual cases, about individual situations that allow people to really think through what has happened in the world and their biases and how to respond to these local news events.
I mean, at a national organization like The Marshall Project or even at a statewide organization like The Texas Tribune, unless you have hundreds of reporters, there’s just so much you can’t cover. And at a national organization, we’re often looking for a particular state or a particular case that illustrates a national theme and maybe encourages people to go learn about what’s happening in their communities.
I wrote a story last year about a particularly horrible jail, where lots of people were dying, being abused by guards, and neglected. This was in Missouri, and the headline of the article was “Your Local Jail May Be A House of Horrors.” The suggestion of the article was very much that people should go try to learn about what’s happening in their communities. But I also realized that for many people, it’s not easy to do if there’s no local paper reporting on what’s happening.
I’ve also seen in the Austin American Statesman—which is my local newspaper—there’s been a turn where 20 years ago, newspapers maybe just told the story that prosecutors and police wanted to tell about somebody who’d been arrested and generally portray them as a monster who deserves a long prison sentence. You’re starting to see more local journalism do the opposite and try to humanize the defendant; talk to the defense lawyers; give a more rounded, holistic view of who they are. And I’m seeing that in the Statesman and other local papers, but at the same time, I’m also seeing these papers close and fewer reporters.
I’ve talked to reporters at a lot of papers who would love to do more in-depth, rounded coverage of criminal cases but just don’t have the time. And so you can see how, if newspapers weren’t in such decline, the general trend toward criminal justice reform would be shaping that coverage in a richer way.
But there’s only so many hours in a day, and there’s not enough money to pay enough reporters to actually do that work. And so, you wonder what great writing and coverage and documentation of these cases could we be getting, if the support was there.
KEOHANE: Thank you. Yeah, it’s frightening to think about the decline of local journalism like that.
You talked about this again earlier, in terms of the diversity and span of interviews and perspectives you got with your TAVP work. I think one of the most striking and moving parts of your book is along the same line—you illuminate and validate the many different actors within the justice system; —you have the victim, the defense attorney, perpetrator, etc. And you speak particularly about the nuanced and diverse experiences of victims in their reaction to the death penalty. Can you share with our listeners a few of these reactions that most surprised or moved you? And then, more broadly, how do we include the victims and all of their complexity, perspectives, and reactions in the process of justice?
CHAMMAH: Victims play a really interesting role in the criminal justice system, because for many years, the system would say that in any particular case, it was the State of Texas versus so-and-so, the State of New York versus so-and-so. And the victims didn’t technically have a role in that—it was the state that was prosecuting and trying to punish people who committed crimes, no matter who the victim was.
“These family members, having been traumatized by the crime, now are traumatized by feeling like they’re just a political pawn of a prosecutor, and they’re only worth the time of day if they comport to what the prosecutors want them to do. . . there’s just nothing monolithic about how people respond to having their world ripped apart by a crime in this way. And we shouldn’t, as the public, as elected officials, presume to know what they want.”
In the 80s and 90s, there was a rise of what’s called the Victims’ Rights Movement. This was victims who organized politically, generally around more punitive criminal justice policies, generally around sending people to prison for longer. They tended to be supportive of the death penalty, and they held a lot of sway. If you were running for mayor or city council member in a city like Houston or Philadelphia, you really needed the victims’ rights community in that town to support you—and the way you got them to support you was by saying, “I’m going to use the death penalty more often.” And that was the assumption I had about the world of victims going into the book research.
Early on, I did interview a woman who witnessed an execution of a man who had killed her brother and sister, and she said that it was an incredibly healing experience for her and her parents—that she wouldn’t have traded it, and she feels generally good having witnessed it. That comported with, I think, my expectations, but then as I got deeper into the research, I realized that it wasn’t monolithic and that she was, if anything, maybe an exception. Many, many family members of victims—I should step back and say, I don’t think she’s an exception. I think many people do profess to get something out of witnessing an execution.
But at the same time, there were many people who felt jerked around in one way or another, whether that was because death penalty cases by their very nature take many years and involve a lot of appeals and we, as a society, have decided that nobody should be executed without having a lawyer who can really investigate their case and bring claims to the courts about whether this person might be innocent or was sentenced unjustly for one reason or another.
We want a system that separates the innocent from the guilty and separates those who really deserve—however you define it—a punishment from those who don’t, but what that creates is a lot of years going by and a lot of twists and turns in the case where somebody’s sentence is overturned and they have to be retried. All of this continually retraumatizes the victim family members who have to go from feeling like their case is resolved to feeling like it’s not resolved. Like, they have to check the newspaper every day on the off-chance that the man who killed their loved one is going to be let out of prison. This is the thoughts that go through their minds because they’re traumatized from this horrible loss that they’ve suffered. This is, of course, I’m describing cases of murder where it’s the family members left behind by a murder, but this is also true for a victim of sexual assault or robbery—who is traumatized by what they’ve been through.
I started to also find victim family members, who as a result of all of that, had come to feel like they oppose the death penalty because there’s no way out of that situation. It ultimately robbed them of a kind of peace and closure and wholeness because the case was constantly back in the news—the person who committed the crime was himself constantly in the news and almost treated like it was their name in the newspapers, not the family member who had been murdered.
And, as victim family members started to tell prosecutors, “We don’t want the death penalty,” there were really heartbreaking cases where the prosecutors, having once been supportive of them and in touch with them, do a 180 and stop talking to them, don’t tell them about court dates. These family members, having been traumatized by the crime, now are traumatized by feeling like they’re just a political pawn of a prosecutor, and they’re only worth the time of day if they comport to what the prosecutors want them to do.
So this is all to say, through the research, I found this incredible variety, and it made me realize that there’s just nothing monolithic about how people respond to having their world ripped apart by a crime in this way. And we shouldn’t, as the public, as elected officials, presume to know what they want. Getting our arms around what they want is a slow and difficult process that we’re only—I think in an early stage, as a country—really thinking about in a rich way.
There are restorative justice programs that think about how to make the victim whole, in some sense. There are really interesting cases where they meet the person who committed the crime and talk about what happened, and they want to encounter the remorse that person has or know that person has remorse. I have heard that, in other countries, sometimes the victim will have their own lawyer who’s separate from the prosecutor, and it frees the prosecutor to pursue what they think justice is outside of what the victim wants, but the victim actually still gets their own representative in the process. And so, you can see a fairness to that—even if the outcome isn’t what the victim wants, they at least have their voice heard in a more formal and powerful way.
So I think as a country, one thing I’ve learned is that we profess to be for victims, but we have really limited the ways in which they can express their needs. And we are still, I think, in an early phase of getting to a point where they’re really heard in the full way they deserve to be.
KEOHANE: Thank you. Quickly, I’m just going to pivot to exploring your interaction with our program, Prison and Justice Writing at PEN America. Just to give some context for listeners: Right now, we have applications open for our Writing for Justice Fellowship, which commissions writers both with and without justice involvement to write about critical issues connected to mass incarceration.
So first, as a writer in this field yourself, can you offer us any insight on the kind of power you think writers have to influence the larger criminal justice debate and to make change in the field? And then specifically, how did you think about your book’s own impact as you were writing it, and did you make any creative choices—specifically tailored to your audience in mind?
CHAMMAH: So when I would tell people that I was working on this book—people who I maybe met at a party, or people who had no connection to criminal justice or the death penalty—one of the reactions I got more than any other was, “Oh, have you seen the movie Just Mercy? Have you read the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson?”
“I think the trick for us as storytellers is to be really honest with ourselves and really careful and to do the research so that we can tell a three-dimensional story that doesn’t flatten any of the participants.”
That’s an incredible book and film about his career as a defense lawyer in death penalty cases. The primary narrative is about his efforts to free an innocent man from death row in Alabama. And what I realized from that book’s fame was that we can hear statistics all day, but it’s not until some story gets lodged in our head that we come to care about some of these issues and think about them in a richer way. It’s the storytelling that gets us there, that takes the messiness of the world, the fact that the world is just full of facts and shapes those facts into a clear line of this happened, and then this happened, and this is the meaning of that string of chain reactions and events in the world—how police did their job in a case, how the defense lawyers did their job in a case, what stories got told in the courtroom.
Another example that comes from the world of journalism is that there had been advocates calling for the closure of Rikers Island—the jail system in New York City—for many, many years, but many people in advocacy and political circles told me that really what got the conversation about actually closing Rikers really going was the story of Kalief Browder. Kalief Browder was this young man who was in solitary for a great amount of time at Rikers and came out and sadly took his life several years later and was just terribly traumatized as a teenager, basically, by his time in Rikers Island. I saw also in that story how there was an awareness that Rikers had problems—there was an awareness that people were coming out of that jail worse than they went in, but it was this one particularly compelling story about a kid who steals a backpack that appeared in The New Yorker that motivated a lot of political change.
And so, that’s where I see the value of storytelling. But the person who does that storytelling can vary. So in my own book, I talk about lawyers a lot because they’re the ones who often create these narratives, who do all this research and investigation and present to the jury a narrative.
If you’re a prosecutor, that’s a narrative of: This person started committing crimes as a teenager and then got worse and worse and worse. And now, he’s 30 and he committed a terrible murder and he should get the death penalty. The defense narrative is something more along the lines of: This innocent child grew up and had a tremendous amount of misfortune and problems in their life and dysfunction in their family and struggled through life and eventually got to this point where they committed this really horrible crime—but they want to seek redemption now.
I mean, I’m painting with broad strokes, but these are the kinds of narratives you get. And those are the narratives that are compelling to members of the jury and then eventually members of the public when they encounter these narratives through journalism.
But I also think that fiction writers, poets, playwrights—it’s not just journalists that shape these stories. It’s all of these people who take the raw experience of the world, the raw data of either their own personal experience or the research that they’ve done, and craft it into “this happened and then this happened and then this happened”—A story that sticks in people’s minds and is the thing that makes them obsessively interested in this subject.
I also want to say that just as prosecutors and defense lawyers can have two different versions of the same story, this sort of thing is not value-free in the sense that there used to be a whole genre of true crime writing that would—much like prosecutorial narratives—make the murderers into these flat, one-dimensional villains.
I often think of superhero movies or something where the villain is an unredeemable bad guy who we can feel okay about killing because there’s nothing redeemable about them. And so, I think the trick for us as storytellers is to be really honest with ourselves and really careful and to do the research so that we can tell a three-dimensional story that doesn’t flatten any of the participants.
KEOHANE: To dive more deeply into your specific connection with PEN: You have been a Writing for Justice mentor for the past two years for Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, who’s a fellow, and his project centers around writing about his own experience on Texas death row. Can you speak a bit about how you worked with Thomas’s writing through this role as a mentor? I’m also curious if your relationship with Thomas impacted your own work or thinking in the field—and maybe even the book.
CHAMMAH: Absolutely, it did. I came to know Thomas when I was fairly far into the writing of the book, into the research. The Writing for Justice Fellowship pairs writing mentors like myself with people who are writing about the system—many of whom have direct experience, and many of the people with direct experience are now out of prison so that they can talk on the phone or meet in person with the mentor.
But for Thomas’s case and also another fellow in Washington state that I also worked with, these were men who are currently in prison and that really restricted our ability to communicate. It was very difficult if impossible to get on the phone with them. And so, we were primarily communicating through letters, and that meant that things took a very long time to get back and forth.
“I knew that, when Thomas was going to be published, that there would be people who would be unforgiving and who would Google him and who would maybe say, ‘This man’s a monster. Why are we giving him a platform?’”
We sometimes even had to use coded language because he was concerned about the censors at the prison intercepting or maybe blocking a letter in either direction from going through—or if not blocking it, sitting on it for so long that the advice is moot by the time he actually gets the letter from me.
I was able to meet him in person one time; I was able to visit him. He’s no longer on death row. He’s in a general population prison, and I was able to go spend a few hours with him, speaking to him as a visitor. It was an interesting experience for me because I had only ever entered prisons as a formal journalist, doing an interview. Whereas this was—I was on his list of essentially family members and friends and was going in and was treated by the guards a lot less than nicely because they didn’t realize that I was a journalist. If they knew I was writing about the prison, I think that they maybe would have been on better behavior. But there was a gruffness and a kind of like, “you don’t matter” feeling that I felt comparatively as I went to visit Thomas.
We spoke for a few hours and had these really rich conversations—at least I found them very rich—about how to present his story. Because Thomas was a phenomenal writer, he was so good at just spinning a yarn where you get sucked into the series of events as he tells them. He’s really good at using dialogue, at remembering what people said, at describing people. And often he’s writing about the Texas death penalty, about his own experience being convicted of murder himself. I mean, the crime that he was convicted of was really horrific—it was in the news.
And so, he understands the gravity of all of that, but he also has a sense of humor because that’s just a human thing to have, and everybody has one. No matter how dark your circumstances, your environment, your life experiences, having the ability to find humor in little moments is just such a human thing to do. And he could get that humor into his writing, which I found really tremendous.
In terms of the conversations with him, there was a lot of, how do you present your life story? How do you present the crime that you committed? Because as a writer, you have a tremendous power on the page, but you also know—at least in this day and age—that a reader who sees your name at the top of an essay, if it’s published in a literary magazine, can, if they want to, Google you and find out what 48 hours or whatever crime television show or newspaper said about your crime. It might be a pretty unflattering image, and it might make people say, “Oh, not this guy.”
We’re speaking in early February, and I mean, just today—I haven’t spent that much time on it—I saw that there was a big explosion of anger around Poetry magazine’s decision to publish a man who had been convicted of really egregious sexual crimes against children. Which is a crime that really, really makes people deeply uncomfortable to talk about and triggers a lot of trauma for victims of abuse who maybe encounter this man’s name in a poetry magazine.
These are hard conversations. They’re not easy to have. Google and Twitter in some ways help, but they also raise the temperature of everything, right? And I knew that, when Thomas was going to be published, that there would be people who would be unforgiving and who would Google him and who would maybe say, “This man’s a monster. Why are we giving him a platform?”
I think that a lot of value could come from Thomas talking through what happened and his experience. Maybe he decides not to, but just—those are decisions to make as a writer. And the goal, I think, of a writing mentor is just to increase the number of individual decisions that a writer makes that are thought through, basically. The actual outcome of that decision can vary depending on the writer, but just the idea that you thought about it for a few minutes.
When it came to my own work, I mean, at a practical level, Thomas was really helpful in verifying some aspects of what life is like on death row. There were times where somebody told me something about death row, and I thought that sounds like it could be true, but I just, I don’t really know—I’m taking a man’s word for it. And so, then I would ask Thomas, and he would say, “Oh yeah, that’s absolutely true, and here’s some proof.” So just as a reporter, I found Thomas to be a really helpful source to talk about death row, as somebody who had been there, lived there for many years, and had now left. He knew many of the men that I was writing about personally and could talk about them.
Also going back to what I said before about his skill as a writer: I think the humor in his writing was inspiring to me. I realized that some of these really heavy, dark sections of the book where I’m talking about death row or a trial or a murder—you want to be dignified in the way that you talk about some of this stuff, write about it. But you also know that humor is just part of the human experience, that there’s a little silliness that can creep into even the darkest moments and that if you can, in a dignified way, weave that into your writing a little bit, it maybe makes the reader more likely to be surprised and a little excited and to keep going for that reason.
So I was inspired by just Thomas’s skill with humorous descriptions of people that he met and humorous descriptions of the discombobulated nature of bureaucracy, even when death is on the table. There were times where I would laugh reading Thomas’s writing, and I thought, “Oh, maybe I can get a little of that sense of levity into my own writing here and there as a way of propelling the reader forward and keeping a range of emotions in what is primarily a very depressing book and subject.”
“There’s a bit of an irony in the fact that, by embracing the death penalty so strongly, Trump raised its place on the agenda.”
KEOHANE: Thank you. Yeah, that was actually something that stood out to me when I was reading. I think your point about the innate humanity in humor is so true. And I definitely appreciated that in the book.
Then, to sort of look forward: In your epilogue, you mention Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Even after the book is put out, the arrival of Amy Coney Barrett has further solidified the Court’s conservative majority. But then on the other hand, we have Biden, who ran and won on the most progressive criminal justice platform we’ve seen. So how do you think this tension between Biden’s progressive agenda and the newly conservative Supreme Court will play out in legislative and judicial arenas in the coming months and years, particularly in terms of the death penalty and other sentencing issues?
CHAMMAH: Well, it’s interesting. I first wrote a proposal and went to publishers to try to make this book happen about five years ago. At the time, Trump was running for president, but at least in these publishing circles, there was an assumption that Hillary Clinton was gonna win. And so, often people asked about the book, “What do you expect to happen under President Hillary Clinton?”
It’s a naive time in early 2016, and there was a moment back then when it seemed like perhaps the Supreme Court would rule that the death penalty violated the Constitution. There were five members of the Court where there was at least some chance that they might come to that decision together. Defense lawyers were debating, “What case do we bring to the court? How do we bring the case?”
Then Trump was elected, and Trump has completely reshaped the Supreme Court. He’s had three appointments—all conservatives who have shown that they support the death penalty broadly speaking, and are unlikely to do something big and dramatic. I mean, they still will actually rule in both directions. There are cases where even Neil Gorsuch has ruled in favor of death row prisoners on individual, small issues. But the big swing is sort of over, and so now the conversation has shifted away from the courts and the Supreme Court to Congress.
Congress is now considering a bill that would abolish the federal death penalty. This is something that President Biden promised on the campaign trail. You have members of Congress like Ayana Presley and Dick Durbin promoting the abolition of the federal death penalty. But even if that were to pass—there’s no guarantee that it would—the death penalty would not disappear because it’s still primarily a state thing.
Under Biden, it’s pretty unlikely that we’ll see any more federal executions. There’s a question of how much he’ll do, but it appears that there’s no likelihood of him pursuing executions. And because Biden is not pursuing these executions, it means that all the executions are going to be happening in Texas, in Alabama, in Florida, in these states that still maintain the punishment. These state legislators are not likely to abolish the death penalty any time soon.
Although, just today, February 3, Virginia’s State Senate passed a bill to abolish the death penalty. Virginia seems on the cusp of doing this, and it would be the first Southern state. So that could offer a template to opponents of the death penalty in Texas and Oklahoma and other states in the South to at least make a push in their legislatures.
I don’t know that any of that would be especially successful, but I think that you’re going to see this tension basically play out over the next few years. You’re going to see the Supreme Court essentially allow executions to happen. You’re going to see Joe Biden maybe do something dramatic, maybe commute some death sentences—at the very least not pursue executions. He has a choice of how far he goes, and he could also incentivize states. He said that he’s interested in potentially tying federal money, for example, to states promising to give better defense for death row prisoners, or there’s various ways he could try to incentivize them.
You’re going to see these dynamics play out over the next few years. But I also think that the long-term trajectory that I document in the book, now that Trump is gone, now that Trump is not pursuing executions, is more true than ever. There’s going to be this long downswing where there’s fewer and fewer executions every year, fewer and fewer death sentences. I think it would take a lot culturally and politically for us to turn back toward the death penalty in a big way.
And then the last point: I think there’s a bit of an irony in the fact that, by embracing the death penalty so strongly, Trump raised its place on the agenda. I think the death penalty was disappearing in relevance year by year. Most people didn’t spend much time thinking about it.
If Trump was not pursuing executions, it’s hard for me to imagine how much of a priority it would be for Congress now. And so, in a way, he’s ironically paved the way for the end of the death penalty. And, as with anything historical, you can never predict the way these things are going to go. The death penalty is no different.
KEOHANE: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I think you’ve left me and our listeners with a lot to think about, a lot of really awesome answers and questions. Thank you so much.
CHAMMAH: Thanks for having me. Really nice to be here.