The Dean of Death Row

A Photo Essay by Jennifer Lindberg

In February, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in Atkins v. Virginia over whether or not the execution of the mentally retarded constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. They will render a decision in June. For mentally retarded Texas death row inmate Walter Bell, that is not long to wait. He has been waiting to die since 1975. At 27 years and counting, Bell is the longest resident in the history of Texas death row.

Austin photographer Jennifer Lindberg visited Bell last fall, after hearing about his case on National Public Radio. Lindberg, who said she never believed President Bush’s campaign trail claim that Texas does not execute the mentally retarded, felt compelled to photograph Bell and the nine other mentally retarded inmates on Texas death row.

Bell, the “Dean of Death Row,” was seventeen years old when he was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of Irene Chisum, as well as the murder of Fred Chisum, both of Port Arthur. Punishment, however, has been anything but swift. According to Rod Conerly, an assistant district attorney in Jefferson County, Bell has led “a charmed life in terms of capital murder conviction.” That’s a difficult assessment to swallow, considering that Bell has watched more than 450 of his fellow inmates go to the death chamber, including, most recently, the one who helped him write coherent letters to the outside world.

When Lindberg first photographed Bell in September 2001, she arrived to find Bell’s mother waiting for her son to come out of his cell. When he finally walked into the Plexiglass booth, his mother approached the glass and pressed her hand to it. Walter quietly placed his hand across from hers. She hasn’t touched her son since 1986. She’d watched him grow a foot taller, his hair turn gray, and meat settle on his bones in state prison. All she wanted, she kept saying, was to hug him.

In Bell’s 1975 mug shot, his face shows a vacant stare and a strong chin. He looks numb and distant, but not angry. His right eye droops a bit lower than his left. A run-of-the-mill mug shot, except that it fails to frame the fact that Bell–with an IQ somewhere between 60 and 70–is mentally retarded. After Bell saw a portrait that Lindberg had taken of him–in which his features have softened considerably–he wrote her a thank-you note. Newspaper photos, he said, made him “look like a killer.” In Lindberg’s shot, however, he saw himself in a new light. He looked, he said, “like a human being should look like.”

Lindberg’s second visit to Bell found him in a subdued state. “I guess I was OK but not that much,” he wrote to Lindberg a week later. “One of my homeboy and friend I know and who been helping me with my letters writing was put to death that day.” He then tried to cheer her up: “You know at time I still be seeming you waving good-bye to me and smiling to me, I be in my cell listen to my rock music when I bee seeming waving and smiling good-bye, you muster be happy to see me, I wrote ken [his lawyer] to let him know you came by again. If you haven’t know, I’m a shy person and really don’t talk much.”

Bell eyes the media with suspicion. He wrote to Lindberg that “a lots of people are getting in touch with me to take part in a film or book they are doing about death row but I let them know that I really doesn’t care to take part in it, I want of getting off of deathrow and going back home, they don’t want to help me but yet they want to make moneys off me.” Lindberg said her motivation was to convince Governor Perry to ban the execution of the mentally retarded. “I can’t believe that Texas and Texans are willing to put to death people who clearly do not understand the justice system and who in many cases are not even able act on behalf of their own defense because of their low IQs. People with mental retardation qualify for all kinds of special services, but, if they break the law, we hold them most culpable for their crimes. It makes no sense.” If the Supreme Court does not find the practice unconstitutional, Lindberg–who has shot for a variety of magazines on such subjects as teen mothers, women in the KKK, and orphans in Mozambique–said she intends to document every mentally retarded inmate on death row, possibly for a book on the subject.

For the complete photo essay, see the May 10, 2002 copy of the Texas Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST