I'm on Death Row for Punching a Man
Illustration by Haejin Park
It’s 1988. Me and my homeboy—Schoolboy we called him—are sitting in a car in Las Vegas, drinking. A woman we know comes up to us. She has a black eye, and we ask her what happened. She says her pimp had beat her up and she wants him out of her room. She wants us to help her.
So we go over to the hotel room and open the door. The guy jumps off the bed and throws his hands up. In my neighborhood, that means you want to fight, and so we start going at it. I landed some hard punches, but when I left he seemed fine, just bleeding a little bit. The woman goes off to do her thing and we fall asleep in the car.
The next day the police surround us, saying we killed somebody. I didn’t know the guy had died. It turned out he had a brain aneurysm.
I eventually confessed and pleaded guilty. Schoolboy was charged with involuntary manslaughter, but I was charged with murder. The prosecutors told a different story of the fight, one that capitalized on things I said while high and suicidal. They said I walked in planning to kill him and did just that.
I’d been incarcerated before and it was horrible. I was 19 and heard about people getting raped and killed. When I left, I thought, I’ll never go back to that place. I was not in my right mind. So when I was arrested this time, I thought, I would rather die than go back to prison. I was on a suicide mission. You want to kill me? I thought. Come on with it!
I started admitting to other murders, murders that it became clear had never taken place, all to guarantee I’d get a death sentence. I wrote the judge a letter and challenged him to kill me.
A doctor who interviewed me in jail found I was not competent to help my defense lawyer, but then the judge wrote a report saying I was competent and pretended it had come from the doctor. We later proved in court that the report was typed up on the judge’s typewriter. (I know this all sounds wild—just go read the court papers if you don’t believe me.)
Once I got to death row, I thought I’d get executed right away, or at least within months. But then the years started passing. My mind cleared. People said, “You shouldn’t be here forever for a fist fight.” I started reading. I read that the law requires you get an “impartial tribunal” that “preserves both the appearance and reality of fairness.” I read that some courts have ruled that two guys who start a deadly fight are equally guilty, so then why did Schoolboy get manslaughter? I was meeting guys on death row with two or three bodies in their past.
My family prevailed on me to start fighting. My brother was in prison at the time, and he said, “I don’t want to get out and visit you as a plaque on the ground.” My mom said, “You’re going to beat this.”
Earlier this year, I heard that Kim Kardashian got the president to commute a woman’s sentence for drugs and money laundering, and I wondered: What do I have to do to get this sort of help? After three decades, I now feel like I’m dying a slow death. My mom and brother have both died, along with many aunts and uncles.
I’d always been kind of slow. I never learned to read or write, even in high school—because I was black they just kept passing me on. I didn’t learn to read until I got to prison. My public defender said they could fight my death sentence by having me classified as intellectually disabled. This worked. I have a new sentencing coming up next year, and recently my judge tried to find any other murder cases with my name on them—the ones I made up—and none came up.
But nobody has fought my underlying murder conviction. To defense lawyers, if you don’t get executed, it’s a win for them. But I’m facing life in prison for a fist fight, and some crazy things I said 30 years ago.
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J.T. Kirksey is currently incarcerated at High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs, Nevada, pending a medical procedure. He can be reached by mail via death row, at the Ely State Prison, with the ID number 30379. He can be emailed through his wife Gretchen Kirksey at firstname.lastname@example.org.