Death Row Dance by KAREN HUNT
from LETTERS FROM PURGATORY
​        "Given Jimmy Luna’s history of bizarre behaviors, his psychiatric referrals, and his numerous threatening and violent behaviors towards others, resulting in job loss and eviction, it is difficult to understand why the prosecutors in this case failed to have him evaluated psychiatrically prior to accepting his account of the murder and his reasons for committing it. More incomprehensible still is the failure of Ms. McDermott’s defense counsel to demand that Jimmy Luna have such an evaluation. Had they done so, they would have uncovered a history of extreme abuse, dissociative states, psychotic misperceptions of reality and fantasies of murder and castration. Had this condition been recognized, his credibility as a witness would have been destroyed.  

        “Mader, a public prosecutor whose paramount duty is to seek the truth, having known all of the above, did not require Jimmy Luna to undergo a psychiatric examination before offering him an 'opportunity' (her words) to save his own life by helping her put a 'white' woman (her words) on death row. Mader committed grievous misconduct by failing to have Luna examined by a psychiatrist prior to resting her entire case on his obviously delusional account of the crime. Had such an evaluation been obtained, Luna would have been excluded from testifying as a witness period. This Court has a duty to vacate petitioner’s conviction.”  

—Dr. Dorothy Lewis, 2002, quoted from Maureen McDermott's unsuccessful habeas appeal


I don’t feel good. Most of the time I feel like somebody flushed me down the toilet. I look like it, too. I used to look not that bad. I get the shakes and I can’t stop. I sweat a lot. I’m suffering and I’m alone and that’s all I’ve ever been. I wish I could have known something different. I used to see kids getting out of minivans and going to the market with their moms and I tried to imagine what that was like. Why couldn’t that be me? Why should I deserve any less?  

It’s an evil world and you can’t tell me otherwise. Not a single person alive right now or ever can give a good reason why some people suffer so much when others don’t. Oh sure, the shitheads who stepped on our faces in order to get ahead, they’re the ones who make up stupid reasons, like karma, and all of us losers just say, oh, okay, because we feel dirty and unworthy, over-used and worn-out. That’s me.  

That’s why I can say that I don’t really think I had a choice. I was pushed in a corner. I was desperate.
The detective interviewed me after it happened. I don’t remember his name. I don’t even remember what he looked like. He wasn’t a nice person. He didn’t care about me. He didn’t understand my problems. I tried to explain, I thought if I explained he might have some sympathy because he acted sympathetic. But it was just a trap. He didn’t play fair and I don’t think they should be able to do that to a person like me who’s been through so much.  

They made me sit in a bare room with bright lighting. I’m sensitive to light and atmosphere. It made me nervous to be there. 

“So talk to us, explain why you did it.” He sounded almost nice—must have some college degree in being able to talk like that.

I wanted to open up. I liked that he was interested, as if he had all the time in the world to listen. Never once did he look at his watch. He wasn’t antsy or rude. 

So I really did open up and it felt good. I didn’t mind talking. I didn’t have anything to hide. I wanted him to understand about me. 

I told him, just to start off in the right place, “First, I want to say that I’m a very sensitive person. I cry easy, I’m very emotional. I don’t cry for sympathy, for somebody to feel sorry for me. I cry because I hurt inside. And constantly, each and every day that goes by, I hurt.”

“Right, I got that,” said the detective.

I felt sort of okay with his response. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but close enough and I felt like if I continued and explained everything, by the end he would feel real sorry for me, as well he should, you know? Behind the glass others were watching me, first time in my life so many people were interested in what I had to say, most of all, the Lady in the Suit who held in her hand the power of life and death. 

The words just came out, first to the detective and then there was this therapist and of course, over them all, the Lady in the Suit. I don’t really remember what I said to any one person, it’s all jumbled together in my conversation with the detective, I guess because that’s the first thing that happened, where it all started, where the words first came out and then it got easier and easier to talk.

“You don’t know how it feels to be so desperate. It’s like all your life you try to do right, you try to make the best of the situation but nothing ever works out. So you try again and you keep a smile on your face but it doesn’t matter. I can’t tell you how many times I got raped by my male relatives when I was a kid. I was small. It wasn’t my fault, I couldn't defend myself. I had to go down on my older cousin. Do you think a person can turn out normal after that? I mean, do you really? 

“My dad tried to kill me by hanging me from a tree. One day he got mad. I don’t know why he got mad. How mad could a dad get to do something like that? How bad could a kid be? He got a rope and put it round my neck and strung me up and left me there. The rope didn't hold and that was lucky because he meant it to. Can you imagine how my life was after that? You see your dad that night and he’s drinking a beer and no one says nothing when a few hours before he hanged you from a tree? I’d tell myself he didn’t mean it and it was just a joke that went bad. But he did mean it. 

“My entire childhood, all I ever felt was fear. I never knew what it was like to lie down at night and go to sleep. Just close my eyes and sleep. I had to tell myself all kinds of stories to get me through each day, so I could pretend I was someone else and these things weren’t happening to me. 

“So, maybe you could tell me, why didn’t my dad ever go to jail? Why didn’t my older relatives get punished? Why didn’t nobody make sure I was safe? Why didn’t nobody care?”

I asked the detective those questions or maybe I didn’t, I don’t remember, but the thing is, I wanted an answer and nobody ever gave me one.  

"How can I get you to understand? Somebody like me who’s been treated like less than an animal since the day I was born, just abused and used and stuffed in the garbage and then every time I tried to climb out just stuffed back in again, well, even if somebody like me tries over and over, it’s like you’re daring people to hurt you—putting it in their face, like you’re saying, ‘see, look at me, I’m not giving up, I want to better myself, I can stand tall, just like you, I can have a job, I can have an apartment, pay my taxes, I can be a normal human being.’ 

“And I did get a job and I did work hard. That was a big achievement for me. But then they all turned against me because of my problems. I’m not denying it, I do have problems. But I tried, that’s the point I’m making. I always kept trying until there was no way for me to try anymore.

“Me daring to do that, daring to put it in their faces means they can laugh and sneer and think it’s okay to kick me in the teeth. It’s easy for them to kick me in the teeth, you know? They can do it and nobody even blinks, nobody treats them like they committed a crime by what they did to me. They don’t get in trouble. They can punch the smile right off my already bruised and bleeding face, making it more bruised, more bleeding, swollen, infected, so it’s like I have a big sign on myself—abuse me. But then forget about it if I try to turn around and hurt someone else in order to get ahead of the game. Oh no, not allowed. I get punished.”

“Well, you didn’t just hurt him. You killed him.” The detective said that to me, like a slap, and I didn’t really think it was nice of him to do that. He wasn’t getting it at all, he was so dense.

Not that I can't say that he wasn’t right, in a certain kind of way, and I thought I was being very reasonable and honest to admit it when I said, “True. But that’s what I’m trying to explain about being pushed. It’s not like one day you just decide to kill someone. You get pushed there, you know?”

“Who pushed you?” 

I think I rolled my eyes at that point because it was pretty obvious where he was leading with that one. I wasn’t an idiot. They’d made it obvious what they wanted to hear and sure, I’m not going to say anything except the truth, right? And that’s what I did. I didn’t want to end up strapped to that table, all those people looking at me through glass, not to mention the years I’d have to live in isolation before it happened. I don’t do well cooped up. I wasn’t doing well in that interrogation room.

“Tell us about your relationship with Miki.” 

“We had a special relationship. She cared about me when nobody else did. She was the only one in the hospital who loaned me a few bucks here and there, helped me over a hump. And then, even with her, I wasn’t sure anymore. She was going to leave me. Just like that, kick me to the curb. I don’t believe for a minute she really wanted to but she thought she had to in order to make more money. She was desperate, just like me. We had a lot in common. We understood each other. I wanted to help her. She’d done a lot to help me and I was willing to make a sacrifice for her sake so she wouldn’t have to leave. I mean, who’d want to go and be a nurse in Saudi Arabia? What woman in her right mind would want to do that? They kill queers like me and her in that place. They have all kinds of laws against women, like they can’t even drive a car, what the fuck? They have to cover their entire bodies, they’re treated like slaves. She had no business going there. What if she never came back?

“She wasn’t thinking straight. When you’re desperate you don’t. I know what I’m talking about. 

“So I had to do something to stop her from going. I had to keep her here, for her sake and mine. And whatever tears she’s crying now, trust me, she was happy when I did it.”

“So you’re saying she told you to do it?” 

You see? That detective knew his job. The Lady in the Suit needed to be satisfied.  

​I rolled my eyes some more. Eye-rolling is a very good thing to do when you need to make a certain kind of point. 

“She put her blessing on it. Why would I think up something like that? Whatever people tell you, I’m not a bad person—I had a bad life. See the difference? If you had my life, you’d be one sick mo’fo’ too, you’d have a lot of anger, you’d need someone to help you, take care of you and not throw you on the street. Miki did that when everybody else had given up on me, so I returned the favor. I did something for her that she’d never do for herself. I messed it up, I know that. And okay, I shouldn’t have been so easily convinced to do it in the first place. But my heart was right. All I wanted was for Miki to stay home and not worry anymore. If she had that insurance money, she’d be okay. A hundred thousand dollars and she offered me half of it, see how generous she was? I bet she’d of let me move in, been her housemate instead of that prick. I never trusted that piece of shit. She always complained how he yelled at her dogs. I mean, who’d yell at a dog? For what? And people call me bad? I don’t yell at dogs. 

“He wanted to sell the house. I bet if she’d gone to Saudi Arabia, he’d of sold that house right from under her. I bet when she came back—if she wasn’t killed over there—she’d of had nothing. He’d of taken it all. And she was such a pushover. She wouldn’t have done nothing to punish him. That’s how I know she didn’t see it coming. She didn’t see what he was planning right under her nose. I know about those things. I know about back-stabbers. But Miki was so trusting, only liked to think good of people. 

“I feel justified about what I did. I know it was wrong but I think God will forgive me. I think God understands. I think when I stand before God I won’t even have to defend myself. I won’t have to tell my side of the story. He knows all that stuff. I bet we’re all going to be surprised when we find out who’s in heaven and who’s in hell. 

“I was just trying to fix an impossible situation. I was trying to do some good, and okay, maybe that’s a stretch, maybe hard for people to accept, but there it is. In my screwed up mind that’s how I saw it. I was trying to do some good. Afterwards, when I got caught and you told me what I did, I couldn’t believe it. Anyone who’d stab someone forty-four times must be a maniac. I don’t remember that. I thought I stabbed him, like, maybe seven times or so. Not forty-four. Come on. And then I cut off his penis and took it to my aunt’s house and flushed it down the toilet? I did that? I buried the knife by the clothesline? That’s insane, not to mention stupid. 

“But I was drunk. I had to get drunk in order to do what I did. I can’t remember carrying his penis all the way back home with me. Why’d I do that? Was it in my pocket? In a plastic bag? My aunt can’t be happy about that. Every time she shits on the toilet I bet she thinks about that penis swirling round and round and then down it goes. What if it got stuck, what if the toilet overflowed and it spilled onto the floor? And she has to sit there and think about it. That’s fucked up. 

“But anyway, my point is you don’t need a fancy psycho-whatever degree to know that somebody who’d do something like that is seriously out of his fucking mind.”

I threw up my hands. I remember doing that a few times, like I was surrendering. And I was.

“Okay, Miki was the one behind it all. But I still have to say, just so we’re clear on this, that sometimes I get confused and I wonder if I remember things right. Like now? Maybe I’m not telling the story the right way. And the fact that I think that and I’m saying it out loud should prove what I said before, that I’m a very honest person and I’m continually second-guessing myself.” 

“Do you think what you did was wrong?”

I’m not sure who asked me that, probably the therapist.  

“I keep telling you—it might have been a bad thing, but I did it for a good reason.” I felt frustrated, like I could repeat myself a million times and they still wouldn’t get it. 

When I finished talking I knew I’d done my best. I’d told my story with a lot of emotion, not cold-hearted because that’s not how I am. I thought I’d feel better after that but I felt empty, used and forgotten, just like always. They’d got what they wanted and they left me alone. Everybody was done with me. Everybody went home. I came here. 

I wish for once people could look inside at who I really am—a sensitive, caring person in terrible pain, no different from all the other poor, abused people who don’t stand a chance. And now I’m going to die in prison. A demon with sharp teeth somehow got inside me and he’s tearing apart my liver and my skin. I saved my skin and the demon’s eating it.

This isn’t how my life was supposed to be. I was a little boy once. I had hopes and dreams just like everybody else. When I was sitting up in that tree and looking down on the world, dreaming of where I’d go, the things I’d do, I was happy, I was really happy. But that was before I got hung on it and ever since, hard as I try, I can’t bring back the happiness. The world looked different after that and I got scared to climb above the dirt. 

I cry for that little boy, filled with so much love. I loved flowers. I loved animals. The people who sucked the love out of me are the real maniacs but I’m the one being punished and that’s not fair because, trust me, just living my life has been punishment enough, while they all toast success for getting their story. 

I’m weak. Pain is my world. I try to look back and think of something good to remember, something sweet to put on my tongue to make my suffering not so bad. But nothing’s there. I wish I could think of climbing that tree without hanging from it. But that’s impossible. 

I lie in the dark, sweating, panting, an agony of nightmares crawling all over me like a swarm of stinging ants and I say why? There’s no answer that comes to mind, just silence and another needle. 

Soon I’ll be dead and Miki will still be alive. She’s the one sentenced to death and I’m the one dying. How about that? The Lady in the Suit and all the demon servants are the ones that put her there, not me. I’m telling you, they’re the maniacs.

It doesn’t matter in the end, though. I’m not saying sorry for the part I played. I didn’t do anything bad. Well, it was bad, but I explained all that, right? 

I seen a documentary once about how during the plague in the Middle Ages, everybody partied. They knew they were going to die anyway and figured they might as well go out happy and high as fuck. So how’s that any different from today? We’re all dancing in a pool of blood, some of us just move faster and harder than others.  

Look at me. I don’t deserve it any more than you do.  











KAREN HUNT  is a native of Los Angeles who has lived in England, Switzerland, France, and Slovenia. She has written and/or illustrated nineteen children's books, among the best-selling The Rumpoles & The Barleys series, which have been translated into numerous languages. In 1995 Karen went into Central Juvenile Hall with a vision to teach creative writing to incarcerated youth. Out of that experience grew InsideOUT Writers, which Karen built into a nationally acclaimed nonprofit. Karen received many awards for her work including the Child Welfare League of America’s Award for Community Service to Children, Youth and Families. She is a Fellow at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Hambidge Center for Creative Arts & Sciences and Martha’s Vineyard and has used her time in these locales to work on her book Letters from Purgatory. She has just returned from Istanbul where she went to research and finish the last chapter of the book. Karen’s short stories and essays, such as The Day I Lost My Skin (short-listed in the Fish International Writing Competition) reflect her commitment to giving a voice to the poor and disenfranchised youth within the juvenile justice system. She is especially proud to have had excerpts from her childhood memoir Into the World published in Damazine in Syria, a magazine that has since been shut down due to the violence and oppression there. 
The Adirondack Review
FALL 2014