Prison may be society’s most blatant example of a backfire mission — achieving the opposite of its rehabilitative intent. Very few who are incarcerated come out better for the experience, and most come out much worse. With few exceptions, the punishment always exceeds the crime. The cost of building prisons and housing and guarding inmates has no real, rational measurement as a return on taxpayer investment.
The dysfunction intensifies with capital punishment, with at least one notable difference. Inmates on death row are better protected from violence than those in the general prison population. Stands to reason. The state is very jealous of anybody else usurping its right to kill. A monopoly on lethality comes with its own well-documented problems: corruption, bias, incompetence and the occasional mistake. We put up with executions because the law says we have to.
Attorney David R. Dow is one of the people who doesn’t put up with it, and he’s been pushing against wrongful convictions and punishment for years. In 2000, Dow founded the Texas Innocence Network at the University of Houston Law Center. In conjunction with other projects at the law school, Dow and his team have represented more than 110 death row inmates.
He has written on the subject extensively, mostly notably in The Autobiography of an Execution (2010), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Over the years, one might imagine that Dow has internalized an endless archive of stories of life and death, tragedy and salvation, that could fill a dozen more books.
With Confessions of an Innocent Man, Dow has written his first novel. It’s a mixed bag. Those seeking a more literary touch, perhaps in the paths forged by crime noir masters such as James M. Cain or Jim Thompson — both known for dark, first-person descents into depravity — might be disappointed with this revenge tale. Those who enjoy procedural drama may be drawn to the heavily plotted narrative that coughs up every detail like a MacGyver episode. Really, every detail. More than are needed to move things along, and decidedly at the expense of character development.
The story follows the life-contorting conviction and near-execution of Rafael Zhettah, a young Texan on the make for what looks like a successful career as a chef and restaurateur in Houston. He is falsely accused of murdering his beautiful, wealthy wife, Tieresse, at the rural home and land in Kansas she bought for them. They were deeply in love. But a jury says he is guilty and dispatches him to death row in Huntsville.
Confessions evolves as an extended flashback, as Rafael — Rafa to his wife and Inocente to a fellow inmate — awaits certain execution at the notorious Walls unit. All efforts at reprieve fail. But an 11th-hour discovery and arrest of the real killer, a drifter who murdered Tieresse in the course of a robbery, changes everything. Zhettah finds himself a free, if revenge-minded, widower. Those involved in his unjust conviction are apologetic to various degrees. But it’s too late. His torturous six and a half years in prison have turned him into the criminal that he had not been.
Rafael’s attempt to rebuild a normal life back in Kansas doesn’t last, and he devises a complex plan of vengeance against two judges. This leads to multiple high-tech tricks and trips through Texas and elsewhere, some by air (he has a pilot’s license), and then back to Kansas. Turns out the estate Tieresse bought contains an abandoned missile silo. It will not spoil the ending to say the silo becomes both Rafael’s weapon for settling scores and his own trap. But by this point readers should be pretty good at guessing what’s coming.
One twist that does come as a surprise is Rafael’s change of heart about his extravagant DIY scheme to punish his tormentors. Pangs of conscience, not terribly convincing, make him weak when he should stay angry and cold-blooded. Instead, he seeks personal redemption. Then he gets bad health news, a final plot twist.
Given Dow’s longtime advocacy for the unjustly imprisoned, Rafael’s turn toward redemption perhaps makes sense. Redemption, Dow has said, is rarely possible for inmates who’ve been subjected to years of abuse and isolation. Life without parole, he’s written, is worse than the death penalty.
Rafael learns this unwanted truth very quickly. Especially when he is transferred to death row:
Men do not go crazy from being locked in a cage. They do not go crazy from the outside pushing in. They crack from the inside pushing out. When you take away hope, madness fills its place, and madness is loud. Death row is the loudest thing I ever experienced, louder than anything in the free world, louder than a concert, louder than a jet, louder than a firecracker exploding inside your ear; and it is loud all the time, morning, day, and night. We do not count down the days until we will be free in here. We count them down to our deaths. Making noise is the proof you aren’t yet dead. In place of hope there is anger, and anger, too, is very loud.
Everything that Dow describes in presenting Rafael’s experience rings true. More passages like this one would have given Confessions the depth it deserves, from an author who has seen so much, done so much, defended so many.