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Gary Gilmore Is Dead. Long Live Gary Gilmore.
By Janice Leber, March 24 2009
On March 20, Gov. Bill Richardson banned the death penalty in New Mexico, apparently as a result of long, hard, personal thinking about it over a number of years. That's something the governor and I have in common. I've been thinking about the death penalty for a long time. Over 32 years, actually.
Well, maybe even longer than that. I have a vivid memory of listening to an execution over the loudspeaker at my elementary school, live from San Quentin. I was young and thoughtless and my only reaction was, "Why did they make us listen to that?"
Mind you, I wasn't thinking about the horror or reality of it. I was thinking it was really a waste of time. After all, whoever this guy was in the gas chamber, he had to have done something really bad. You get what you deserve. Clearly, whatzisname had this coming.
That was about as much thought as I put into capital punishment for the next 15 years or so. I used to say, "Charles Manson -- there's my argument for the death penalty." That was it for me.
Meanwhile, capital punishment had been abolished by the Supreme Court, then reinstated but unused, so it was all a moot point anyway. There was no reason to think about it at all. That is, until Gary Gilmore.
Gary Gilmore. One of the few Death Row criminals whose middle name you never hear.
Gary Gilmore was a scumbag. He coldly shot a gas station attendant, let this father and husband and upstanding member of the community bleed to death on the restroom floor, for a couple hundred bucks and some change. The next night he shot another stranger just trying to do his job and feed his family.
Gary Gilmore was gifted. He could draw and paint and write. Nobody who spoke to him ever doubted his native intelligence.
Gary Gilmore was damaged by a prison system that, as he often articulated, was not set up to rehabilitate anyone, and certainly failed him -- messing up his mind with brutality, forced drug injections, and long stretches in solitary, even as a youngster.
Gary Gilmore vaulted into national headlines when he admitted his murderous crimes and dared the State of Utah to execute him. Said he wouldn't fight the sentence, and they might as well get on with it.
Many had been sentenced, but nobody had been put to death since capital punishment had been reinstated. Everybody still had some appeals left and it was just kind of assumed it wouldn't happen again.
And then came Gary Gilmore.
I remember reading about him. I can still picture the red, white and blue Newsweek cover with him glowering over his shackles. I saw pictures of his artwork. It broke my heart that so much potential was being utterly wasted, eaten up by a system that didn't know what to do with such a one.
I wasn't against the death penalty, but I did not want Gary Gilmore to die. I felt like I knew him, and despite his unspeakable crimes, I liked him.
The clock radio clicked on early on the morning of January 17, 1977, and the first thing I heard, the very first sound out of the radio, were the words, "Gary Gilmore ... is dead."
I sat up and rubbed my eyes. It couldn't be true. It had to be true. I didn't want it to be true.
I stumbled over to my guitar and wrote this song. I called it "January 17, 1977: An Ambiguous Post-Mortem":
"Ambiguous," indeed. From the perspective of over three decades I can't help noticing that I was lamenting the death penalty and sticking up for it at the same time. There was still a part of me that felt he got what he had coming.
I read Norman Mailer's outstanding book, "The Executioner's Song," and felt even more keenly how much was lost with the execution of Gary Gilmore, even as more executions began. Gary Gilmore was just the first of a parade of criminality brought to America's death chambers.
But I didn't know anything about these guys, so I was still ambiguous at best about the issue. I wasn't even sure what the big deal was about capital punishment.
It's kinda funny, what turned my thinking all around on the topic: Lethal injection. They were trying so hard to make the death penalty more "humane," and that is precisely what got me to thinking -- humane? How in holy hell are you going to make DEATH -- capital punishment, executions, murder, whatever you want to call it -- you think there's any way in HELL you're gonna make THAT "humane"?!?!?
This is all rolling around in my brain one evening. I'm staring at the ceiling thinking, "If it's wrong, it's wrong. There's nothing, not one thing you can do that will ever make it right.
"You might as well ... just ... STOP!"
Like duh! Where have I been all this time???
I turned to my husband and said, quite simply, "I think I'm against the death penalty."
"YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW LONG I'VE BEEN WAITING TO HEAR YOU SAY THAT," he exclaimed.
That's when I found out I had been living for years with someone who felt right down to his bones almost all of our society's ills have roots in the karma of legal murder. He never argued with me about it, but had long been shocked by my ambiguity on the issue. As far as he was concerned, it was a no-brainer.
Coming to this understanding from deep inside my own fevered little brain, I felt obliged to write another song, "Kinder and Gentler Killing Machines," about all the various mechanisms and technologies people had come up with over the years to make executions more morally palatable. The end of the last verse went like this:
So that was it. I had unexpectedly discovered I was against the death penalty.
Just in time, too, because I was about to meet Noelle Hanrahan, founder of the Prison Radio Project. Noelle has gained fame for, among many other things, recording the voice of Mumia Abu-Jamal for NPR and Pacifica Radio. Noelle was producing a series of radio programs about the many different aspects of imprisonment and capital punishment, and she was looking for a host. That's how we started working together.
The prison in southwest Pennsylvania where Mumia remains on Death Row had banned Noelle from its premises, but Mumia had new essays she wanted to get recorded. We happily got permission from the warden for me to come record Mumia reading his essays (although, to be honest, we were not entirely forthcoming about the reason for my visit to Death Row). (You can read my account of that visit by clicking here.)
Working with Noelle fortified my position against capital punishment. If you happened to see a big ol' neon sign, "ABOLISH THE DEATH PENALTY," cruising around the State Building in San Francisco, chances are it was my pickup truck carrying it. I was surprised at how heartfelt my position was, considering how late in life I came to it.
I talked about this on the radio once. I told listeners on KPFA that I had only come to this mindset in the last few years, and people responded with alarm that I had ever been so dense as to think otherwise. I could imagine that my very husband felt the same way, but you'd never hear it from him.
It was while working with Noelle that I came into possession of a book entitled, "Shot In The Heart" by Mikal Gilmore. The book came with me when I moved to Portland, but I couldn't really bring myself to crack it open until a few weeks ago.
Mikal Gilmore is Gary Gilmore's younger brother. I wanted to read his memoir from the day I first heard about it. But at the same time I knew how unbearably sad it would have to be, about a promising life so utterly wasted, and the other lives he destroyed in the process. So I put it off. I kept putting the book aside and reading other things.
One day last month I finally decided it was time to read what Gary's kid brother had to say. I read about a disastrously dysfunctional family, with two parents who probably should not have had children and four brothers who pretty much ran wild, given little or no moral center. Mikal was the baby and he received more fatherly love than the others. Thus, perhaps it is not a coincidence that Mikal emerged from that violent, unpredictable family dynamic the least damaged -- although he came out with plenty of scars; make no mistake about that.
But hearing the story of the Gilmore boys' bizarre upbringing, told by a relatively undamaged youngest child, had an effect on me I had not anticipated: I could relate.
Don't get me wrong: my parents were much better equipped to be good, effective parents than Frank and Bessie Gilmore. But, just like Mikal Gilmore, I looked up to a bright, gifted, charismatic older brother who was drawn to society's dark side, and who ended up consorting with hookers and thieves. Mikal quotes Gary talking about being an "outlaw," and jeering at his little sibling who didn't know anything about that kind of life.
I could just as well have written that particular paragraph.
My brother once told me a hilarious story. It seems he had woken up one morning to find that he was straddling a motorcycle at a four-way stop. He had no idea how he'd gotten there, and drivers were just carefully driving around him. Finally one of them honked, and that was how he woke up. He laughed and laughed as he told me about that.
He was right about one thing: I could not understand anything about that life.
My brother eventually "cleaned up." I put that in quotes because to this day I don't really know why he died. He never made it to age 50, and I don't think he ever kicked his addiction to the dark side. If my brother's parents had been more dysfunctional and amoral, his crimes might have been more substantial. As it was, the main person he harmed -- after Mom and Dad, of course -- was himself.
It actually is a little ironic that I'm the one who's been to Death Row, now that I think about it.
There are terrible people in this world. That's for sure. My brother sometimes scared me. I wouldn't want to meet a desperate Gary Gilmore in a dark alley. But I also don't think either one of them was expendable.
And neither is anyone else.
For much of my life I have been completely ambivalent about the death penalty, if I thought about it at all. But eventually I found my own truth and it is this: Capital punishment is wrong, and a society that tolerates it is condoning death. This is a fact that has woven its way into every corner of our common consciousness.
Anyone who kills is damaged. What does that say about America?
copyright 2011 Janice Leber, Chopped Liver Productions