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Life Inside

On Death Row, There's No Such Thing As Closure

A man convicted of murder reflects on his life, his crime and his punishment.

It is August of the year 2000, and I am cold. I know the sun is shining outside, but there are no windows in the courtroom.

The lighting is subdued, darker in the back where spectators sit and lighter in the front where tragedies play out—like a theater. The chairs are made of dark leather, and the floor is heavily carpeted, muffling sound, creating a somber effect.

The prosecutor sits at a table on one side of the aisle, the defendant on the other. The jury box is off to the side—closest to the prosecution.

I sit at the defense table, charged with two counts of first-degree murder.

The term “closure” was used by the prosecutor to justify giving me a death sentence, as though me being killed would somehow bring closure to the victims’ family members in my case. It made sense at the time, I guess, about as much sense as anything else did back then. I was walking through a nightmare—one of my own making—that only grew more horrifying, moment by moment.

When anyone addressed me, I gave a greeting in return. The people who held me in contempt repudiated me with their eyes, but I wouldn’t look away, not immediately. I absorbed the blows like a good boxer, though I never punched back. I tried to use my eyes to show contrition, to say that I understood the pain I’d caused, and to say that I was sorry.

I tried to maintain as much dignity as I possibly could under the circumstances. But my gaze was cast mostly downward, weighted by shame.

I think it was against the rules for anyone to speak to me directly, but that didn’t stop them from staring.

In a sea of people, I felt alone, afraid and cold, even in my thick white sweater. I was allowed to discard the orange garb of the county jail and wear my own clothing for this momentous occasion. Of all the things in my wardrobe, that sweater was my favorite. It was thick and warm, the soft cashmere caressing my skin. It was big enough to pull the sleeves over my hands; I wished I could’ve tucked my whole self inside, like a turtle, and just stayed there… It had been sitting in storage for months but still held the scent of Egyptian Musk, reminding me of the man I used to be.

I scooched up to the defense table and looked over a document that my attorney had given me, and hugged myself.

I did receive encouraging nods from past instructors and co-workers who, in spite of everything, still showed up to testify to my good character. I glanced up and caught the eye of a woman I didn’t know; she gave a sympathetic smile, as if she knew a secret. I acknowledged their kindness with the subtlest of nods, not wanting to embarrass them. Those looks of compassion gave me brief moments of respite, as the failings of my life were being replayed to my condemnation. Small mercies tossed my way like life-preservers.

Maybe there is closure for prosecutors. For them it is truly another case closed. But not really. They use death penalty cases again and again as political tools to extend—their careers, their reputations. The men they’ve sent to death: feathers in their caps. For prosecutors, “closure” is just a word, a means to an end.

They say they do it for the victims' families. But even when those families are against capital punishment, prosecutors pursue it anyway. The hunt must be seen through to its conclusion.

There’s certainly been no closure for my family. The imminent threat of my death sentence is something they’ve had to navigate each day for almost 20 years. For some of them it’s easier not to think about it, to pretend it’s not real. For others, it’s easier for them not to think of me at all. And I get it. I understand.

I wish I could forget sometimes myself, but I’m a book still being written. There’s nothing like closure for me.

Sights, sounds, even smells decades old are at times as clear as if they were right before my face. I can still recall my first day of school, and the dread that filled my entire being, thinking that Mom had abandoned me—then being flooded with joy and relief when I saw her face at the end of the day. Looking up at her as we walked home, hand in hand, I felt like the luckiest little boy in the world.

All the times I’ve felt scared or uncertain in my life, it was the sound of her voice that steadied me. I’ve been away now for more than two decades, but that sound still has the power to take me home.

My eyes still burn when I think of all the times I’ve disappointed her. Of all my sins, breaking her heart is one of the gravest. And that she still loves me is my life’s greatest mitigator.

I remember being nervous, having to hold my newborn daughter just so. Her spitting up milk on my shirt is another of my life’s highest honors. But having to watch her grow up in photographs, that cut bone-deep. She’s a grown woman now and, to my chagrin, never misses an opportunity to remind me that I’m an old man. But I like to remember when she was fascinated with bubbles and her giggles danced on air.

My grandmother died in 2009. I never told her goodbye. The last time I saw her was earlier that year.

She had some sort of contraption from her dialysis treatments latched onto her chest. I knew she didn’t have much longer to live. But I was damned if I was going to say goodbye then, sitting in a dirty visitation booth, squinting through scarred plexi-glass. I wouldn’t have said goodbye even if I’d been home. I would’ve just loved her.

When she used to laugh, she’d make a big screech then a bunch of cackles. Her tummy would shake and her eyes would water. But when she was upset, she’d brood. I’d ask her questions to try and get her talking; she’d answer and make conversation, but it wasn’t the same. A stranger wouldn’t have been able to tell anything was bothering her, but I knew. When she was sad, the house felt heavy. I saw her cry once, and it seemed like the world was coming to an end.

I remember my English instructor, Ms. Morgan. She had a way of reading stories that transported you right into them. One story I recall in particular was “Hills Like White Elephants.” It was a short story about a couple having a conversation on a train—and I was there. I could see the mountains, their craggy humps and snowy peaks. They appeared to be moving in the opposite direction of the train as they sat stoically in the distance.

I could see the snow-covered terrain, feel the motion of the train, and the weight of tension in the couple’s words to each other. When Ms. Morgan finished the reading, I had goosebumps on my arms, though we were sitting in a warm classroom.

I’ve always wanted to travel, but never got around to it. I used my electives to take her literature courses, trying to see the world, riding the cadence of her voice. I can still hear it. None of that is closed.

I’m not sure that death closes anything. It kills any hope of reconciliation, that’s one thing. It destroys all possibilities of redemption. It leaves the living with questions unanswered. But death is nothing. Alive, I can recall the best of times with sadness. And while my life is ravaged by tragedies, the darkest of which I’ve caused myself, I can still smile, sometimes, in the reminiscing. Things long gone but that are mine forever. A fusion of joys and sorrows, trials and triumph, all woven together in a continuum—for which there is no such thing as closure.

Paul Brown, 53, is incarcerated at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he is on death row for a 1996 double murder.