The men who escaped their fate on Death Row

For a few short months in the 1970s, the death penalty was abolished in the United States - and more than 500 convicted killers were spared. Three decades on, the lawyer Joan M Cheever meets the men

Saturday 29 April 2006 00:00 BST

On 5 October 1994, I no longer had a client on Death Row. I had been Walter Key Williams' lawyer for nine years, and I felt I needed to be an eyewitness to his execution on a warm autumn night in Huntsville, Texas. Time ran out for him, but in the summer of 1972 time was a gift for the 587 men and two women facing execution in the United States. A narrow 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court in the case of Furman vs Georgia meant that, for a short time, the death penalty was considered unconstitutional, and was abolished. For those in a state where a life term meant exactly that, chances are they would still die behind bars. But for those, for example, in the overcrowded prisons of Texas, you could cut that down to 20 years or less.

In the months that followed, while politicians rewrote death penalty laws, several men who had been on Death Row since the 1950s walked out of prison free. "The class of '72" remains the largest unexamined social experiment in US criminal justice history. Can convicted killers be rehabilitated? Will they kill again? For years I travelled across America in search of these men. No one was paid for an interview for my book, but each man I talked to felt he had a duty to tell his story.

Chuck Culhane

I meet Chuck Culhane on a college campus in upstate New York to see him teach a course on criminal justice. It is 1997 and Culhane is 53. Dressed like a college professor, in blue-gray tweed jacket and black beret, he looks more like a middle-weight boxer. The Bronx native paces the hall. His audience, made up of conservative and vocal Generation Xers, is tough. They know that their professor was on Death Row for three years and in prison for 26; that's the first thing he told them. He's stiff as he begins, maybe nervous. He hesitates and then looks away, clears his throat, stammers. He seems to have lost his footing. Where is the man who verbally and physically sparred with Death Row guards?

Culhane is the middle child of seven; always the family's "black sheep", with a juvenile criminal record. He escaped from an abusive home and found solace in the streets, particularly the bars. In 1966, Culhane returned to prison for robbing a gas station attendant at gunpoint and for wounding two police officers in the process. His accomplice was Gary McGivern, who had never been to prison. He took a plea bargain and would be out in a couple of years. Culhane was given 10 to 20 years.

Soon, however, both men were on Death Row. In September 1968, Culhane, McGivern and William Bowerman, who had been convicted of a separate armed robbery, were being transported from prison to a court hearing by two deputy sheriffs in the deputy's private car. Bowerman attempted to escape and wrestled a gun from the driver. Both he and Bowerman were killed. Culhane and McGivern said they had nothing to do with the escape and blamed it on Bowerman, who they said killed the deputy. At trial, the surviving officer said McGivern killed his partner. Both Culhane and McGivern had been shot in the ensuing gun battle - McGivern in the arm, Culhane in the chest. There was medical evidence that Culhane had been crouched in the back of the car during the shooting and, therefore, could not have been involved. The deputy disputed the theory. The trial ended in a hung jury. In 1972, after a second trial, they were convicted of capital murder.

The classroom is quiet as Chuck tells the teenagers of his life on New York's Death Row. He describes the day he became an abolitionist. In his cell in Greenhaven Prison, barely a month after his life had been spared by the Furman decision, he picked up Life magazine. Flipping through, he stopped at some photographs taken in a field in Nigeria, of men only minutes from execution, tied to wooden posts held in place by oil barrels. In 1972 more than 200 armed robbers - men who had never taken a life - were executed by the Nigerian government. Culhane was hypnotised by the eyes of one man. That picture changed his life.

Culhane's lips begin to quiver, his eyes brimming with tears. "I saw myself in those eyes. He was me. We were both convicted robbers. But for me this was a time when the door was opening. The Supreme Court said, 'We're not gonna kill ya. You're going to live.' But it certainly wasn't a time of hope for these people. I just started crying and crying."

It's time for questions. In a sweatshirt and baseball cap bearing the name of his fraternity, a student in the audience picks apart the statistics and studies. "Look. You do the crime, you do the time. That's it. Pure and simple."

"Do you know what it's like to do one year in prison?" asks Culhane.

"No, I don't. But you know what else, I'm not gonna do anything that's gonna land me in prison for a year," he replies. "I'm not going to go out and hold up a store." Culhane looks at the clock. The class is over, although he's not ready for it to be. Not on this note.

The ex-con struggles, trying to understand that the teens of the Sixties are very different from those today. "The only way to eliminate the death penalty is to put a face on it," he says. "Then they will see who they are killing. Guys like me. People who can be rehabilitated. Who can make something of their lives. And have."

While incarcerated, Culhane took university classes. He became a nationally recognised prize-winning poet, winning first place in 1989 from PEN, the international writer's group, for one poem. In 1988 Chuck won the International PEN second prize and dedicated the poem to then-California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird, an anti-death penalty advocate. His poetry has been published. He's won two PEN awards for his one-act plays. He collaborated on a play, The Capeman, with Paul Simon, and it opened on Broadway.

In 1985, when he first became eligible for parole, his case became a cause célèbre in the abolitionist movement, supported by media heavyweights such as Allen Ginsberg and folk singer Pete Seeger. Culhane is still prohibited from drinking alcohol and can't make public statements about the death penalty, but it's hard to be an abolitionist and keep quiet.

After his release from prison in 1992, Culhane returned to college for his Masters, taking courses in psychology. He completed the coursework but he doesn't have the $2,200 for tuition. Like almost every former Death Row inmate I've interviewed, he is struggling financially. Few employers want to hire a convicted killer. He does odd jobs for friends and church members, and he's paid $100 a week to teach the college class. He stays at a peace centre for free, in exchange for being its handyman. He counsels addicts, for free, at a youth centre.

In January 1994, Culhane was stopped by police after running a red light - he had been at his brother's house where he'd had dinner and two glasses of wine. He was given a 30-day sentence but the New York Parole Board sent him back to prison for 11 months. After we met, he returned to prison, in May 2002, after eight years on parole, for a substance-abuse parole violation. He left prison on 26 June 2003. Two years later, he joined a drug rehab programme where he was arrested, after testing positive for cocaine, and sentenced to 14 months; a parole officer increased the term to 24.

Moreese 'Pops' Bickham

I find Moreese "Pops" Bickham in a modest stucco ranch home in a crime-ridden Oakland neighbourhood. Bickham is the oldest of the Class of '72. From 1958 to 1996, he was incarcerated in Louisiana's infamous Angola prison, a 28-square-mile plantation bordered by the Mississippi on three sides and snake-infested hills on the fourth. It was the bloodiest prison in the nation - 40 prisoners were stabbed to death and 350 were seriously injured by knife wounds from 1972 to 1975. Of Bickham's 38-year incarceration, 14 were spent in a six-by-eight foot cell, just down the hall from the electric chair.

When I step inside, Bickham's house is filled with great-great-grandchildren, great-grandchildren and grandchildren. "Last night's dinner didn't start until 10pm, five hours later than when we ate in the pen," grumbles Bickham, goodnaturedly. "They eat late, stay up late and sleep all morning long," he adds, half complaining, half teasing, still smiling.

Bickham is making up for lost time. After he walked out of Angola at 12:01am, on 10 January 1996, he kissed the dirt. "Family has always been very important to me," he says, his eyes filling with tears. "That's what kept me alive." He grabs my hand and leads me to the sofa where he tells the story of what happened in the early hours of 12 July 1958. Tears drip down his face as he squeezes my hand, telling me how sorry he is for the deaths of two police officers. "I pray. Lord, I pray all the time for forgiveness. It always weighs heavy on my mind. I didn't feel like I had a choice that night. It was me or them."

Ernestine, his wife, knows too well where this story is heading. Bickham was not with her but his girlfriend, Florence Spencer, at Buck's Bar in Mandeville, a small Louisiana town that had an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. It is the hometown of former KKK leader David Duke and headquarters of his National Organization For European-American Rights (Nofear), an anti-black, anti-Semitic hate group.

Bickham and Spencer were in a "coloured-only" bar when the couple began fighting. "The next thing I knowed, she hit me over the head with a bottle," Bickham recalls. "Then the deputy come over and took her away and told her he was taking her home. And I said, 'Not without me. You want to arrest me, go ahead.' The deputy said, 'If you get into this car, nigger, I'm gonna kill you.' And then I said: 'When?' And he said: 'Tonight.'

"So, I walked to my uncle's house, about five or six blocks away, to get a gun. But when I come home, I didn't see nobody. When I went back outside, those deputies were there. One said: 'Hey, he's got a gun and the other one said, 'Good. He'd better have one.' I told them, 'It ain't loaded,' and then I put my hands up and got shot in the chest. I fell down and loaded my gun and when he came up to get me again, I shot him. Then when the other one run around and grabbed his shotgun, I shot him too." They died.

"In those days a black man didn't hardly get to the courthouse," Bickham explains. Even his lawyer, who refused to put his client on the stand, called him "a darky on a Saturday night".

After the Furman ruling, Bickham spent another 23 years in Angola. He brought his reading scores up from the sixth grade level to almost the 11th grade. He worked diligently, in the kitchen, for two cents an hour. By the time he left, Bickham had $864.10 in his prison savings account. He also became an ordained Methodist minister and the prison church's pastor and president for nine years.

On 10 January 1996, Bickham had accumulated so much in "good time credit" from his 13,695 days behind bars that his sentence automatically expired. There were a lot of firsts: a ride in a limousine, an airplane trip to California and a conversation on "one of those cell phones - can you believe that?" Bickham says, laughing. He stopped at a convenience store to buy root beer on his way home. "I get up to the cashier and put down 25 cents. She looks at me like I'm crazy. She says, 'Sir, that would be a dollar.' Lord have mercy was I surprised. When I went in, it was a nickel."

We are both laughing until I hear it: the sound of either a gunshot or car backfire. I flinch. "You thought that was a car, right?" he asks, smiling. "No, young lady. You'd be better off movin' away from the window."

He admits that he was "a little wild" during his youth and probably drank and partied much more than he should have. Death Row, he says, kept him alive and out of trouble. Bickham has survived three heart attacks and prostate cancer. "I knowed that I'm in a bad situation but I'm gonna make the most out of it."

In December 2002, after that visit, his wife died. Bickham now lives with his daughter, a few grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee

Seven members of the Class of '72 have been found to be innocent; four from the State of Florida and three from Massachusetts. Caught in a rainstorm and Friday rush hour, I am more than an hour late to meet two of them, Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee. They spent nine years in cells next to each other, down the hall from the electric chair. When I meet them in Miami, the two have been waiting for 35 years for the state to admit they are innocent and to pay them for the 12 years they were illegally imprisoned. When the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Furman in 1972, their appeals had run out.

When he was 19, Pitts was a private in the US Army, stationed at Fort Rucker, Florida. He wonders how far he might have gone in the military had he not attended the "pay day party" at Wilbert and Ellie Mae Lee's house on 1 August 1963. The Lees were poor and lived in a two-room wooden shack on 215 Avenue D, an unpaved street in the black shantytown of Port St Joe on the Gulf Coast of Florida. During the party, Freddie and Wilbert and three women left and drove to the nearby MoJo gas station because Wilbert had to make a phone call and Freddie wanted to buy some crisps. They didn't hear the heated argument between the gas station attendants and the women who came with them, about wanting to use the "Whites Only" bathroom. Freddie and Wilbert never heard the angry shouts between the white men and the black women, but Curtis "Boo" Adams did. He was hiding in the men's room next door, getting ready to rob the gas station. Shortly after Freddie, Wilbert and the women left the MoJo, Adams, a 23-year-old convicted armed robber, came out from his hiding place, robbed and kidnapped the two attendants, drove them to a canal bank and shot both men in the head.

Investigators targeted Pitts and Lee because they'd both been at the MoJo and witnesses heard the argument. The two were questioned at one point for more than 17 hours. They were beaten and told to confess or face a lynch mob. Pitts and Lee confessed. For the next 10 years, at the Death House, they would be known simply by their Inmate Numbers, 009491 and 009492.

Eventually, the law caught up with Curtis "Boo" Adams. He wanted to visit his dying mother, and told a Key West detective he had information about the MoJo murders. He thought that would be enough to earn him a ride home. But he underestimated Sheriff Byrd E Parker's search for the truth.

Pitts had worked non-stop on his appeal, writing to the sentencing judge and the FBI. The Bureau sent two agents to Raiford to interview the pair, investigating claims of civil rights violations. "We figured that the Army, the court system, the justice system, someone would just sort this mess out sooner than later," he says. Wilbert, who was illiterate, spent his time listening to guards describe how a man dies in the electric chair. They spared no detail, and told him to listen for the generator, a signal that an execution was imminent. Decades since he first heard the hum of the generator, Wilbert says he will never forget it. "It was just a horrible sound. The sound of death." The memories are painful. Wilbert rubs his forehead, wipes his eyes. I'm not sure if he will continue. Finally, he looks up. "How can you make up for all that lost time?"

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, of the 121 men and one woman who have ever been released from Death Row based on innocence, 15 confessed to murders they did not commit and another 54 were sent to Death Row on the basis of perjured testimony from witnesses, many of whom were jailhouse informants who testified in exchange for leniency. Seventy-four are black or Hispanic and the group spent an average of nine years in prison before being released.

The Miami Herald reporter Gene Miller's book Invitation to a Lynching resulted in freedom for Pitts and Lee in 1975 and a Pulitzer Prize for Miller in 1976. Pitts got a job as a guard for a Miami security company, and was given a gun. He worked his way up to patrol supervisor but then decided he could earn more in the trucking business. He has been married for 20 years and lives in a middle-class area in the Miami Shore suburb. Lee's work, the case of State vs Pitts and Lee, and a $1.5m claim that has been pending for the past 22 years against the state of Florida for wrongful imprisonment, fills his life. Lee went back to prison - as a prison counsellor. In 1985, the 62-year-old was named "Counsellor of the Year". He is now retired.

A year after we met, in a small room at a black-owned radio station, Pitts and Lee were each handed a check for $500,000, drawn on the Florida State Treasury. A Miami Herald reporter described their reactions as identical. Each scanned his cheque for a few moments, then carefully folded the paper and tucked it in a breast pocket. There were no shouts, no cries of joy and no fits of elation.

Kenneth Allen McDuff

To date, five members of the Class of '72 have killed again while on parole. More than a handful of killers say they support the death penalty. They say it's a way to eliminate, forever, those who are truly evil.

In 1998, aged 52, Kenneth Allen McDuff was executed. He makes a strong case for the death penalty. Unlike almost all the Furman parolees, McDuff took his second chance at life and cashed it in. Five more murders. Perhaps even nine. When McDuff left prison in 1989, he had one thing on his mind: revenge and murder. The former car mechanic had been in prison for 21 years and been denied parole 14 times. He walked out of the Michael Processing Unit in Huntsville, Texas, filled with anger.

The day before he was finally executed, in 1998, I was in the waiting room of my doctor, with a temperature of 102. I had bronchitis and was looking for "permission" to fly to Houston's Death Row. What are my chances of keeping pneumonia at bay? I asked. "Honestly? Zero."

I was relieved not to fly. I had never written to McDuff. Perhaps it was because he may have agreed to an interview. I had read almost every article about him and the book about his case, f

Bad Boy From Rosebud, and I had seen him in various news documentaries. I had done my homework too well. I knew I fitted the profile of McDuff's victims to a T. Small, petite women. Brunettes. Women like me. Colleen Reed, a 28-year-old accountant with the Lower Colorado River Authority, a state agency, was washing her car in Austin on a Sunday afternoon over Christmas 1991. It was the same neighbourhood where I had been in 1983, also working for a state agency, as a 26-year-old briefing attorney for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. I lived less than a mile from the site where Reed was kidnapped, raped and stabbed repeatedly.

Perhaps, all along, I was worried that McDuff may have had a "get even" list, as one former Death Row inmate told me he had. Maybe I thought McDuff would have put me on it. It's not far-fetched. He admitted killing Reed in the state capital to get back at "the state system" that had turned down his parole.

At the time of his execution, McDuff was the only man in US history to have got off Death Row and walked out of prison a free man, only to check back into the Death House four years later. He had been sentenced to die in two different ways - electrocution in 1966; lethal injection in 1998.

Perhaps I don't want to face the truth: not every paroled killer can be rehabilitated. Some, like McDuff, kill again.

William Henry Furman

"Miss Cheever. I have found Henry Furman."

Within 30 minutes of that telephone call from Dan Welton, Furman's former parole officer, I have booked a flight to Atlanta and am ready to finally meet the elusive Mr Furman. I have waited for 13 years for this.

Dressed in an Atlanta Braves T-shirt, jeans and work boots, Furman ushers me into the small living room in this old, run-down three-room $137-a-month duplex and points to a chair. The room is dark; a sheet and a blanket cover the windows. Cautiously I sit down. When Furman closes the door, I flinch. I've been trying to conduct these interviews in public. I slip my hand into my bag to locate the phone. But I can't find it. I have left it in my car.

My fears dissolve when Furman begins to speak, slowly and with much effort. Furman, who has never married and never had children, says little, but the answers are more than the yes's and no's that I expected after talking to his former parole officer. He turns away; his hands cradle his face and his lips quiver. "It's still rough on me. I think about it a lot. Once or twice I thought I would be executed. I came close to death. I try to put it in the back of my mind. I think to myself - I'm here. I have more time. And time is standing still."

At 56, Furman is in bad shape, physically and mentally. He seems slow. He doesn't know his own telephone number and has to bring me the phone book, on which his number has been scribbled in pencil. He has trouble with his eyes. I don't know if he can write.

At his 1968 trial, doctors diagnosed Furman as having "mild to moderate mental deficiency, with psychotic episodes associated with convulsive disorder", which meant periods of insanity related to epilepsy. He doesn't seem insane; maybe alcohol triggered those periods. Since his release in 1984, he has had two mild heart attacks. He's given up the booze because, he says, it's not good for his heart. He wants to live. He cannot walk for long periods because he has difficulty breathing; he had to quit working in construction. His right eye is off kilter so he rarely looks at me while speaking.

It turns out the reason I couldn't find him for 13 years is because he's moved around. "I stayed on the street for a while; living in cars and abandoned houses." Now he keeps busy, picking up aluminium cans, walking to the corner shop for Coca-Colas and volunteering at a Methodist soup kitchen. He gets disability and welfare cheques and spends his days watching TV. It is the memories that have kept William Henry Furman out of trouble since his release from prison. Memories too painful to share.

Furman isn't exactly clear as to how his case came before the Supreme Court. His lawyers weren't clear, either. Furman says he remembers the morning of 29 June 1972, the day of the historic ruling that bears his name. Looking through the bars of the Central State Hospital in Midgeville, Furman saw reporters descending on the hospital grounds.

He insists the 11 August 1967 murder was an accident. He's been nicknamed the Bungling Burglar for good reason. The 24-year-old was drunk when he decided to burgle one of the neighbourhood's poorest families, hoping "to pick up a radio or two". He made so much noise that he woke his victim. William Micki rushed toward him in the kitchen. "I thought he was going to shoot me," Furman explained. He said he backed away, pulled his gun and tripped on a wire from the washing machine. When he lost balance, the gun went off. He said he had no idea the bullet struck Micki, and he fled.

B Clarence Mayfield, a local black lawyer, was appointed to represent Furman and try to keep him out of the electric chair. Mayfield was paid a grand total of $150. Furman, who lived with his mother, had already been convicted and incarcerated four times for burglary. At the time of the murder, he was on parole. Both jury selection and the trial began on 20 September 1968. They ended the same day.

I've been waiting years to ask, "Mr Furman, how do you feel about your contribution to the abolition of the death penalty?" He seems startled. Maybe he doesn't understand the question. I rephrase it: "Mr Furman, your case is the one responsible for saving the lives of 588 people on Death Row. How do you feel?"

He looks at me and shrugs. There is an uncomfortable silence. He leans closer. "I didn't do nuthin' back then but try to stay alive. I just wanted ... to stay alive."

Extracted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. From 'Back from the Dead: One woman's search for the men who walked off America's death row', © 2006 by Joan M Cheever, priced £16.99. To buy this book at the special price of £15.99, including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 0870 0798897

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