Foreword by Studs Terkel

Every thoughtful person at one time or another has had a fantasy
about the last words he or she would say in approaching death. It
might be toward the end of a lingering illness, a sudden accident,
or murder. As for me, last words can be in the form of an epitaph.
Mine’s a simple one: “Curiosity did not kill this cat.”

In Robert K. Elder’s remarkable, deeply moving assemblage of
last words, his informants are all inmates of death row. And who are
the most likely interpreters of last words? Those who know the time,
the place, and circumstance of their deaths.

Elder, as an assiduous journalist, has collected these final
thoughts. Before I chose just a few of Elder’s selections, I thought
of Delbert Lee Tibbs. He was an African American theologian who,
while hitching rides in the South on a vacation, was accused of the
rape of a white woman and the murder of her friend. It was an all-
white jury, and the trial was something of a farce. He was patently
innocent, but he was convicted and remained on death row for over
two years, until the Florida Supreme Court acquitted him.

Here are some of Tibbs’s thoughts while in prison: “I believe that
life is endless. We can’t talk about life without talking about death.
We can’t talk about death without talking about life.”

He quotes the Dalai Lama. He was reading the Bible, the Old
and New Testaments; he was reading the Bhagavad-Gita. He quotes
Krishna: “This body wears out, like garments. And when a garment
wears out, you take it off, and you lay it down, and you pick up an-
other and put it on.”

“When I meet people today now, if they try to make a big deal
about me having been on death row, I sometimes gently remind
them that we’re all on death row,” Tibbs says. “The difference is
that here the state’s gonna do it, and at some point you’re gonna
know the date and the hour, but that’s the only difference. I mean, if
you’re walking around here, shit—you’re on death row ’cause you’re
going to have to leave here. You’re going to lay down and they’re
going to throw dust in your face.”

He goes on: “If you really want to punish a guy, lock him up on
death row for twenty or thirty years. After five years, he’ll probably
beg you to put him in the chair or strap him to the gurney.”

What this book does is record and celebrate the final thoughts
of some of Tibbs’s colleagues on death row. This book’s approach
is an apolitical one, if that is possible. My own opinion is this: We
are the only industrial country in the world that still maintains the
death penalty. We are the only industrial country in the world that
does not have universal health insurance. One represents death; the
other represents life. Can it be that we are a necrophilic people? In
order to prove we are not we would, of course, have to abolish the
death penalty.

Some of the comments from this collection are from those who
admit to the crime and beg forgiveness. Some are funny. This one is
from a Dallas football fan: “What about those Cowboys?!” (William
Prince Davis, September 4, 1999).

Some are resigned: “No sir, I just want to pray a chant, do what
you have to do” (Timothy Lane Gribble, March 15, 2000).

Many deliver similar messages that could be boiled down to
these heartfelt statements: “I am innocent, innocent, innocent.
Make no mistake about this: I owe society nothing. Continue the
struggle for human rights. . . . I am an innocent man, and some-
thing very wrong is taking place tonight” (Leonel Torres Herrera,
May 12, 1993).

But there are better quotes here.

“You all brought me here to be executed, not to make a speech.

That’s it” (Charles Livingston, November 21, 1997). In many cases
it’s as simple and sharp as that. A great deal of these are sacred
thoughts. Even those who may have been innocent speak of the
kindness in all people. That’s the remarkable part.

Indeed, several of the inmates’ last words provide the strongest
arguments I’ve heard for rehabilitation.

“The act I committed to put me here was not just heinous, it was
senseless,” said Napoleon Beazley (May 28, 2002). “But the person
that committed that act is no longer here—I am.”

He goes on: “Give those men a chance to do what’s right. Give
them a chance to undo their wrongs. A lot of them want to fix the
mess they started, but don’t know how. The problem is not in that
people aren’t willing to help them find out, but in the system telling
them it won’t matter anyway. No one wins tonight. No one gets clo-
sure. No one walks away victorious.”

In tackling this book, Robert K. Elder is a journalist in the no-
blest tradition, getting at a certain truth. And the truth may come
from the most rejected members of our society, the most reprehen-
sible, and yet the humanity is still there. In some cases, it’s casual. In
some cases, it’s dramatic. In some cases, it’s ecclesiastical. In some
cases, it’s secular.

Perhaps there will come a time when a book such as this will no
longer be needed but will be remembered as a history of a prehis-
toric time. It’s all moving stuff.

What I will remember best about this book is its poetry—the ac-
tual poetry in the speech of people at the most traumatic moment
of their lives.

Note: Terkel, a Pulitzer Prize–winning oral historian and recipient of the Presidential National Humanities Medal, interviewed Delbert Lee Tibbs in his book Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith (New Press, 2001).

During the editing of this book, Terkel passed away at age 96.