In 1954 I received a long and highly articulate letter from Caryl Chessman, who had then been six years on Death Row in San Quentin Prison, California, awaiting electrocution for kidnapping and theft. It told me, unforgettably, about the effects of America’s ultra-slow-motion criminal justice on the mind of the waiting captive. We corresponded for some years and I remember that, when I expressed astonishment at its inhumanity, it was he who pointed out that the prolonged wait for death was usually brought about, at least in part, by the prisoner’s skill and persistence in exploiting every possible means of appeal, in which the American system was more humanely vulnerable than the British. In 1959 when I happened to visit San Quentin I was not allowed to see him. Two years later he was put to death, having in his twelve years on Death Row written three books, countless articles and letters, and appeals to publicists all over the world – it was as though America wanted all mankind to know about its seemingly heartless judicial cat-and-mouse homicide.
The condemned murderer in Dreiser’s An American Tragedy soliloquised:
‘Oh if he could only go away from here – never to see or hear or feel anything more of this terrible terror that now hung over him. The slow coming dark, the slow coming dawn…’
The dark of death has seldom been so slow-coming as it is now for America’s Death Row prisoners, waiting for years to be woken up and killed. Slow Coming Dark is therefore an evocative title for this grim anthology, which comes as a kind of curtain raiser for the coast-to-coast series of executions that will now, presumably, follow the US Supreme Court’s decision that the death penalty is not, after all, outlawed by the Constitution’s distaste for ‘cruel and unusual punishments’. The book opens with the first of them (if you except the man in Utah who insisted on death by firing squad in 1970):
‘Just after ten o’clock on the morning of Friday the 25th of May 1979 John Spenkelink was wrestled from his cell in the Q Wing of the Florida State Prison by six guards, and carried struggling to a small room down the hall. His head and right calf had been shaved forcibly, and he was gagged because he had shouted ‘This is murder, this is murder!’ In the center of the small room where he was taken was a three-legged oak instrument: the electric chair.’