November 6, 2006
They came to my cell at 4:00 a.m., but I was already awake, dressed and standing by my bunk. It wasn't that I couldn't sleep. Those days, I was sleeping better than ever. It was more like my body knew: This is the moment, Chris. Ten years, four months in the making. Let's get it done.
"You ready, Wilson?"
They walked me down the tier, everyone asleep at this hour, nothing but the sound of our shoes on the concrete floor, the doors buzzing as the guards pushed them open, then clanging shut as we left. They put the cuffs on to process me through the last gate, the guard whispering "Good luck, Wilson, we're rooting for you" as he locked the chain around my waist. When he stepped away, he was all business as usual.
The transfer bus took almost an hour: ten minutes through the rolling fields of Howard County; thirty on the interstate; another fifteen through the Washington, DC, suburbs of Prince George's County to the courthouse in Upper Marlboro, where my original trial had taken place. It was still dark, so there wasn't much to see past my own reflection looking back at me through the bars across the bus window.
In the basement of the courthouse: another set of doors and metal detectors, another set of procedures. They locked me in a holding cell with five members of the MS-13 street gang-skinny Salvadorans with tattoos on their faces, because MS-13 is no joke; the members are dedicated to the life. I wasn't chained, but I was in my prison uniform. I never wore it, because I wanted to look on the outside like the man I was inside, but it was required here. This was who the system said I was.
The Salvadorans watched me with suspicion as I slid onto the bench. I nodded, but nobody nodded back. Eventually, they started arguing in Spanish about whether I was a snitch, put in the cell to eavesdrop and gather information. They were in for a preliminary hearing, but the state had nothing, they said, so don't say nothing, especially around this sopl—n. I spoke fluent Spanish-I spoke three languages fluently, in fact, and I was working on Mandarin-but I didn't react. I didn't want to spook them. We were in the cell for almost two hours, and for the last hour nobody said a word.
"Inmate 265-975. Inmate Wilson. Let's go, Wilson."
"No soy un sopl—n," I said as I left. Just so they knew.
I rode up in the elevator with a black female bailiff. She was a grandmotherly type, her hair set, uniform pressed. She smelled nice. Nothing in prison smelled nice. "You have a good judge," she said. "She's a fair lady. What's your sentence?"
"Oh," she said as her face dropped. For lifers, she knew, there was never good news. "Well, good luck."
Judge Serrette was on her high seat, studying me as I entered. How many men like me has she seen today? I wondered. How many this week? This month? The jury box was empty, but the public benches were packed with bored people, mostly women and children, mostly black, waiting for their loved ones to be called. I searched the crowd, but nobody looked back. All these friends and family were here for other prisoners. I knew nobody was coming for me.
The only person there for me-my pro bono lawyer, Keith Showstack-was laughing and joking with the state's attorney. I had known Keith for more than seven years. I trusted him with my life. But when I saw him laughing with the state's attorney, it threw me, the old street mistrust coming back. She's trying to keep me inside forever. Why you talking to her?
Keith put his hand on my shoulder. He winked, like, We got this, Chris.
He looked confident, but Keith Showstack always looked confident. He looked confident the day I met him, in the lawyer's room at the Patuxent Institution, when I was a twenty-year-old lifer and he was a twenty-three-year-old family law intern with slicked-back hair and a South Boston accent so thick I could barely understand him. It took us six years and five rejections by the judge to get this sentence modification hearing-the only way a lifer like me could get out from under-but every three months Keith had slapped his ratty briefcase on the table at Patuxent, smiled like he knew every secret in the book, and said, "They turned down your request again, Chris. But don't worry."
Easy for you to say, when you get to drive home.
"Your Honor, we're prepared," he said, "if the court is ready."
The state's attorney hammered my crime, like I knew she would. A man was shot six times, Your Honor, she said. Shot in the middle of the chest. Shot in the lower right side of the chest. Shot in the right buttocks. In the right elbow. Shot in the hand, Your Honor, as he was running. Murdered, Your Honor, while running away.
"He will never be able to better himself," she said. "He will never be able to say I'm proud of myself, I got an associate's degree. He will never know his children. He will never know his grandchildren. He was shot down at thirty-one years of age. That defendant"-pointing at me-"without any thought to what his life was like, took it away."
The state's attorney sat down, and I could feel the spectators on their benches leaning forward, because this was more than a crime, it was a murder, and I was more than a prisoner. I had been sentenced to natural life in the penitentiary system of the state of Maryland at the age of seventeen, and I had only one shot, this shot, of ever walking out of my cell alive.
So everyone in that courtroom wanted to know what I had to say. Was I innocent? Was I falsely accused? Were there extenuating circumstances, like self-defense? The judge turned to me, like, Well? Not unkind, but curious. I hoped.
I took a deep breath. This was it. My life in a moment. My fate in a stranger's hands. My last chance, or I would die in a prison cell thirty, forty, fifty years in the future, an old man slurping watery farina from a plastic bowl. And yet I felt calm. I knew what I had to do.
"Your Honor," I said. "I want to tell you the truth."
How could they see anything but the shadows
if they were never allowed to move their heads?
-Plato, "The Allegory of the Cave"
My grandparents, Grandma and Big Daddy, moved to Northeast Washington, DC, in 1948, when it was the black part of town. They bought a duplex and raised five children there, the youngest being my mom, who everybody called Mona after the Mona Lisa. That's what Big Daddy wanted to name her, Mona Lisa, but Grandma said you couldn't burden a child with a name like that. Grandma was always practical. So they named my mom Charlene, but ended up calling her Mona Lisa anyway, since Big Daddy refused to call her anything else. One way or the other, Big Daddy got his way.
I hear the neighborhood was nice back in the day. Big Daddy worked as a clerk in various government offices and drove a Capitol Cab. He made decent money, and I suspect most of the people in the neighborhood did, too, although it was segregation money, and there was only so much that ordinary black people could make. Working poor, but proud. Grandma stayed home with the children, and she worked hard, too. She had flowers along the street and a garden full of southern specialties like collard greens-Grandma was from a small town in North Carolina, Big Daddy from an even smaller town in Mississippi-and she kept the house spotless. Most of her children went on to successful lives, although Uncle Buddy still alternates between her basement and the street, and we lost Uncle Gerald to AIDS, which he caught from heroin needles.
Even when my sister and I were living with them in the 1980s, Grandma kept things square. Three home-cooked meals, chores after school. Wash your hands when you walk in the door and don't talk back. Church on Wednesday evening, no excuses. Big Daddy had his recliner and his television shows, and you didn't want to disturb his routine by forcing him to punish you, because he was a large and serious man. It was better to sit with him and watch.
Outside, though, the neighborhood was rough. The working black community had been transformed by housing projects, especially the 440-unit Lincoln Heights Houses. Fifteen depressing three-story cinder-block and brick buildings surrounded by dirt yards, the Houses threw a shadow over the neighborhood from the hill right behind Grandma's house. Three blocks away, next to the elementary school, was Clay Terrace, another 1960s-era government housing project. The Lincoln Heights crews and the Clay Terrace crews hated one another and were always beefing. My grandparents' duplex, with its tidy flowers and neatly trimmed plot of grass, was right in the middle.
It was fine during the day. There were kids on the block, and we played in the street. Heroin addicts wandered up from the bottom of the hill a few blocks away-heroin was the drug back then, and the block known as "the bottom" was where to buy it-but mostly it was kids playing chase, old heads on porches, nosy women hanging out of windows, and Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick blasting all day.
But when the streetlights came on, the crews came out. Mostly I remember arguments, yelling that turned into fights and sometimes brawls. Car alarms going off, windows smashed. Guys tore bricks out of the border around Grandma's garden and used them as weapons, and Grandma went out the next morning, on her knees, and put them back in place. Back then, if it was gunshots, it was only three or four.
"Just keep your head down and your eyes to yourself," Grandma said as she ferociously brushed my hair before sending my sister and me off to school. "Don't talk to nobody and you won't have problems. God don't like the ugly."
It was three blocks to Richardson Elementary, with three ways to get there. I planned my route every day. It wasn't the dealers I wanted to avoid; it was the middle-school girls. They chased us, taunted us, and forced us to kiss them. I loved girls, even at seven years old. Most days I spent my lunch money on candy from the corner store to share with cute classmates. Those teenage girls, though, were terrifying.
I was never a good student. Too much anxiety. Even as a first grader, I stayed awake most nights, worrying about the yelling, the gunshots, the car tires squealing away. More than any other sound from my youth, that's what I remember: car tires squealing away. But I was smart. I read books. I joined the chess club. I was chosen for school trips to Baltimore and New York, where I toured the United Nations and saw the Statue of Liberty. I was even our class representative to CEO for a Day. We spent a few hours at a Safeway, learning how they ran a grocery store. It wasn't a CEO position, and it smelled like cabbage, but I guess they figured that this was the best kids from Lincoln Heights could hope for.
I can't remember how I discovered the Capitol View Library. It was nine blocks away, probably the farthest I had ever walked from my grandparents' duplex. Grandma scolded me when she found out I was crossing East Capitol Street, because it was a four-lane. She thought it wasn't safe, which is funny, because she insisted the neighborhood was fine.
"It's good here," she said, even when a teenager got shot on our block. "Just keep your eyes to yourself and pray. God don't like the ugly."
The library was where I got away from the tension of the street. It had a kids' room where the librarians read books. I remember a librarian telling us about the great library in Alexandria, Egypt, and how scholars came from all over the world to study there, and how boat captains stopped to have the librarians draw them maps before they headed out on long voyages. I thought, Wow. There been libraries for two thousand years. I pictured it like a tower, a thousand stories tall. I didn't know, until much later, the library in Alexandria burned down. I guess everything, eventually, burns down.
It was around then I started noticing the bullet casings and baggies-crack didn't come in vials in my area. The next minute, it seemed, I started seeing young men in nice cars and guys on porches, in broad daylight, putting coolers on the barrels of their guns and loading extended clips.
They'd catch me watching and nod. "That's an Uzi, young," they'd say, showing off. "You like it?"
My sister, Leslie, who was a year older and protective, talked me onto the school track team. I was the smallest kid in third grade and I had asthma, but Coach Perguson took no pity.
"Every kid thinks they have asthma, Chris," he said, walking around in his skintight tracksuit. "You don't have asthma. You're just out of shape."
Even when I was sick and huffing, barely able to breathe, Coach Perguson challenged me. "You wanna quit, Chris?"
"You can quit running right now, Chris, but if you do, you better start walking, because you're off the team. I got no room for quitters. I'm looking for warriors!"
And just when my lungs were burning, and I felt like dying, my sister would run up beside me and whisper, "Don't quit, Chris. Keep going."
There was a fence separating the field from the Clay Terraces, and men would get up against it, drinking from bottles and laughing at us. We saw drug deals going down. One time, a stolen car being chased by the cops slammed through the fence and went skidding across the field in the middle of practice.
"Keep running! Push it!" Coach Perguson yelled like he never even noticed.
I liked track-I liked being challenged. My passion, though, was books, especially after I discovered a section of child-friendly versions of classics like Aesop's Fables and the Greek myths. I checked them out, curled up in a sheet on the floor of my bedroom, and read until late at night. I had a bed, but I never slept in it. I was too worried about stray bullets coming in the window. Since the arrival of the Uzis and Mac-11s, it felt like stray bullets were always coming through windows on Division Avenue.