THE FIRST TIME Michael Marcum saw the byline “Brandon Astor Jones,” he was working as a jail commander in San Francisco. It was 1993; Marcum can’t recall what the article was about. But he remembers it made an impression — and when he saw the author’s bio, he was taken aback. Jones was a man on Georgia’s death row.
Jones sent his articles everywhere, from newspapers in Atlanta to Australian political journals. His musings on politics and prison life found a particularly receptive audience abroad, where he had a number of devoted pen pals. Marcum wrote to Jones at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison, asking permission to reprint the piece in his jail newsletter.
It was an unusual publication, produced by prisoners and staff alike. But then County Jail #7 was an unusual jail. In the era of “three strikes” and the 1994 crime bill, it was an experiment in corrections, where prisoners raised plants in a greenhouse and tended to buffalo. Marcum had helped design it, firm in his belief that if the state of California was going to build new jails, they should be places for education and vocational training. Instead, Marcum saw the country going in the other direction.
Jones wrote back to Marcum, granting his permission to reprint the article. The two soon began exchanging letters. “We wrote a lot about our childhoods,” Marcum recalled. They found unexpected overlaps in their lives: Jones had grown up on the South Side of Chicago, where his favorite pizza joint belonged to Marcum’s father-in-law. Marcum continued to publish Jones’ writing in the newsletter; he saw it have a positive influence on inmates and staff alike. “Some of the prisoners saw Brandon as a role model,” he said.
But what really connected Marcum and Jones was the search for redemption. In 1966, when Marcum was 19 years old, he had shot and killed his own father with a hunting rifle — the violent culmination of years of domestic abuse against Marcum and his mother. It was Marcum who called the police; later he pleaded guilty and got a sentence of five years to life. When he was released in 1972, he said, “I felt I had to prove my value as a human being.” He was lucky. His parole officer helped him get into college and Marcum began an unlikely career in law enforcement, determined to use his experiences in prison to reform the system from within.
Now a retired assistant sheriff, Marcum acknowledges his journey is unique. But “this was California, not Georgia,” he said. “And I wasn’t black.”
Indeed, for his friend and pen pal across the country, the future held a very different fate. In 1979, Jones and an accomplice, Van Roosevelt Solomon, had killed a white man named Roger Tackett, the manager of a convenience store in Cobb County, Georgia. Jones and Solomon, who was also black, robbed the store, then shot Tackett to death, only to be apprehended immediately by a cop on patrol. The forensic evidence showed that both men had recently fired a gun — both denied shooting the fatal bullet. Both were convicted and sentenced to die.
Jones remained on death row — today he is 72. He no longer publishes articles, and some years back, Marcum stopped receiving letters from him. Then, earlier this month, Marcum came home to a message I left on his landline. Georgia had set an execution date for Jones — the state planned to kill him on February 2.
Marcum was shaken. “I had no idea,” he wrote in an email, agreeing to an interview. He then wrote two letters — one to his old friend, and one to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole in Atlanta, asking it to stop the execution.
IF JONES DIES by lethal injection on Tuesday, less than two weeks from his 73rd birthday, he will be the oldest prisoner ever executed by the state of Georgia. After more than 35 years facing execution, he embodies what Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer last year called the “unconscionably long” time prisoners spend on death row, many of them elderly and infirm. But Jones is also a relic of an earlier era of the death penalty in Georgia, the roots of which remain impossible to ignore.
To date, the oldest prisoner executed in Georgia was Andrew Brannan, a 66-year-old Vietnam veteran with PTSD, who was killed last January. His was the first of five people executed by the state in 2015 — among them, an intellectually disabled man, a man with claims of innocence, and a woman sent to die for a murder her boyfriend carried out and who had became a poster child for rehabilitation.
If 2015 reaffirmed Georgia’s reputation for controversial executions, it also quietly revealed an opposite trend. “Despite the relative flurry of executions,” a Georgia legal website, the Daily Report, noted last December, “the other end of the death penalty process has slowed significantly.” Georgia did not send a single person to death row in 2015 — a development the Report called the “newsmaker of the year.” The turn away from capital punishment is part of a larger nationwide trend, even across the most active death penalty states. “The same thing that is happening in Georgia is also happening in Texas and Virginia,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told the Report.
Bridging the disconnect between the “new Georgia,” as Dunham put it, and the state’s recent spate of troubling executions are people like Jones. “We have this very strange situation now in which these people sentenced to death a long time ago — and who managed to get through all the stages of review — are now being executed,” said Stephen Bright, president of the 40-year-old Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. “They almost certainly would not be sentenced to death today.” (In court filings, lawyers for Jones point out that death sentences for killings carried out in the course of a robbery have “fallen into complete extinction.”) Bright describes them as “zombie cases” — convictions that “remind us of just how unfair” the system used to be.
Indeed, it was not until 2005 that the state opened the office of the Georgia Capital Defender, seeking to remedy a decades-old problem: defendants on trial for their lives with grossly inadequate representation. “At the time of Jones’ case and so many others,” Bright said, “any lawyer who was a member of the Georgia bar could be appointed to represent someone in a death penalty case.” With no meaningful funding for indigent defense — and a sloppy, ad hoc network of public defender offices throughout the state — death sentences were often handed out “not for the worst crime, but for the worst lawyer,” as Bright wrote in a 1994 article for the Yale Law Journal.
The problem was especially pronounced when it came to race. In 1974, five years before Jones landed on death row, a Georgia man named Wilburn Wiley Dobbs was sent to die for a murder carried out during a robbery. His court-appointed lawyer made no effort to save his life — in fact, he referred to his black client as “boy” during trial, later admitting that, as the grandson of a slaveholder, he believed African-Americans to be “inferior to whites morally and intellectually.” Dobbs’ death sentence was overturned in 1997, yet he has never had a resentencing hearing. At 66 and sick with prostate cancer, he will almost certainly die behind bars.
In a different 1974 case, a Georgia man named John Young was ineptly represented by an attorney who not only was later disbarred, but encountered his former client on the prison yard at the county jail, where the lawyer had been sent on drug charges. “Being born black in America was against me,” Young said before dying in the electric chair in 1985. “Y’all cry out that America was built on Christianity. I say it was built on slavery.”
Evidence that the state’s death penalty was racially biased was a major contributing factor that led to Furman v. Georgia, the landmark Supreme Court case that in 1972 suspended the death penalty across the country. (The plaintiff, William Henry Furman, was a black man deemed “mentally impaired” by a state psychiatrist, who had been convicted in a one-day trial in Savannah.) Furman forced states to amend their death penalty statutes to avoid the “arbitrary and discriminatory” imposition of capital punishment.
Just four years later, the Supreme Court upheld Georgia’s new death penalty law in Gregg v. Georgia. Yet the law showed clear continuity with decades past: Of the first dozen people to die in the electric chair following Gregg, nine were black.
Bright still bristles at the “arrogance of that; to think that all of the problems identified in Furman — the racism, the consequences of poverty — to think that you could have that fixed in four years was just so incredibly preposterous.”
Jones was sent to Georgia’s death row three years after Gregg. Among the people there when he arrived was another black man named Warren McCleskey, who had been convicted of murdering a police officer in the course of an attempted robbery in Atlanta the year before. McCleskey went on to appeal his conviction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, on the basis that Georgia’s death penalty system was racially biased. His evidence was a now-famous 1983 empirical survey of Georgia murder cases during the 1970s, which found that black defendants convicted of killing white victims were far more likely to be sentenced to death.
But in its 1987 ruling in McCleskey — one of its most derided and consequential in death penalty law — the Supreme Court concluded that racial bias in the application of the death penalty was not unconstitutional unless it could be proven to be intentional. The effect was far reaching; in the New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes that the ruling “immunized the criminal justice system from judicial scrutiny for racial bias.”
AFTER TEN YEARS facing execution, Jones got a lucky break. A federal court overturned his death sentence, finding that jurors had consulted a Bible during their deliberations. (His codefendant, Solomon, was less fortunate: He died in the electric chair in 1985.)
As he awaited a resentencing hearing, Jones began a life on death row. He read voraciously and soon began writing. His essays were both autobiographical and sharply political, and he wrote a lot about race, inspired in large part by his own upbringing.
Jones was born in Indiana and spent his childhood in Chicago, where his family life was unhappy and abusive, according to the findings of a defense investigator. Jones described “extremely violent beatings” by his uncle, as well as sexual abuse at the hands of a cousin when he was 5 years old. One friend and neighbor recalled that his “arms and face were always covered in bruises.”
When Jones was 13, he robbed a milkman and was sent to a reformatory outside the city that sat on some 900 acres of farmland, where boys underwent military and religious training. Then at 15, he was sent to Sheridan, a state reformatory where he said he was beaten, which became embroiled in scandal soon after his release. In 1961, the superintendent and six staffers were fired following reports that boys at Sheridan were “beaten, confined naked in unlighted cells, and put on bread and milk rations,” as described by one Illinois historian. An investigation also found that the younger boys —15 years and under — were preyed upon sexually by the older ones, including men in their 20s.
Later, according to court documents, a clinical psychologist would determine that Jones had a “lifelong pattern of behavior consistent with childhood-onset bipolar disorder,” and signs of PTSD rooted in “physical, sexual, and emotional trauma.”
After an unsuccessful stint in the military at 19, Jones spent his early adulthood in and out of jail. He admitted to investigators that he “sometimes would get charged with something, make bond, change his name, and never show up again.” He married twice; his wives described him as “unstable” and physically abusive, including to his children.
In his letters to people like Marcum, Jones would occasionally express regret at his fractured relationships with family, saying he understood why they did not keep in touch. In his published essays, which he often began with a passage or quote from a newspaper article, he sometimes shared his memories of relatives as part of a broader critique of society.
In one piece, a local report on the detrimental effect of carrying heavy backpacks reminded Jones of a time he went to pick cotton with relatives in the Mississippi Delta. His aunt suffered crippling back pain, he wrote. “My question is, when will a doctor in America show concern for those countless Black backs still bent with the pain and weight of American slavery past and present?”
In another essay, Jones discussed a boating program geared toward African-American kids from Philadelphia. As a lover of boats, he was a devoted subscriber to WoodenBoat (“I read every issue cover to cover”). He wondered why the magazine had not run an item about the Philadelphia program, which he considered very important.
In 1996, the Canadian New Internationalist published an essay by Jones that would prove particularly moving to people. It described the small ways he sought to ward off the intense sensory deprivation of death row: collecting scraps of wood to be able to feel their natural texture, picking a bay leaf out of one of his meals and taking it back to his cell, where “I washed it off,” he wrote, and carefully stored it for months.
One reader, Sue Bond, remembers the essay vividly — it was one of the first by Jones she ever read. More than 20 years later, she has struggled to solicit support for him over Facebook. She still has all his letters, she told me over email. “I can’t bear to open that box right now. It is too painful, knowing that he may be executed very soon.”
The same essay prompted an artist in the U.K. “to send him one of my detailed textured landscapes and lead him on a ‘walk’ through it, encountering the sounds and textures along the way,” as she wrote in an email. She too forged a friendship with Jones, as did her son, John. (This month, John set up a website to solicit clemency letters for the Board of Pardons and Parole.)
As his 1997 resentencing trial approached, Jones’ readers galvanized to try to save his life. Readers from the U.K. and Australia volunteered to testify via video on his behalf. In a letter to the Georgia Indigent Defense Council, Michael Marcum described the “value in Brandon’s life and in his writing,” how it conveyed to “young offenders who are still at risk of committing violence upon release from our jails into our community … that they can retake control of their lives before they further harm others and themselves, and they can make a lawful place in our society.”
But in his closing statement on the day of the resentencing hearing, the prosecutor said that for all of his writings, Jones had shown no remorse for his crime. “He’s got all kinds of pen pals who apparently would do anything for him,” he said, and yet none of them had sought out the victim’s family to seek their forgiveness on his behalf. “So where is the remorse? Is not that the kind of conduct that deserves the death penalty?”
Defense attorneys asked for a mistrial, saying the statement violated Jones’ Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. But they were denied. After reaching an “impasse” due to the misgivings of a single juror, the judge ordered the jury to continue deliberating. A few hours later, Jones was once again sentenced to death.
FOR YEARS, JONES RELIED more on his relationships with readers than he did on his family. He seldom received visits. Nor did he have many friends in prison — at least according to one prison guard who got to know him on death row. Bobby Allen was 20 when he went to work at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in the 1980s. He remembers Jones as well-behaved. “I never had a moment’s problem with him,” he told me. Yet Jones wasn’t particularly well-liked among the guards or counselors, Allen says, or by his fellow prisoners for that matter. Spending most of his time writing in his cell, his attitude seemed to be that “he had a superior intellect over everybody.” Part of what Allen found vexing was that Jones “didn’t see himself as an inmate. He didn’t see himself as a lawbreaker.”
Allen was at the prison on the day the state executed Jones’ codefendant, Van Solomon — one of 10 people killed by the state of Georgia during his years working on death row. Allen’s duties included escorting the condemned prisoner from his cell — first to the medical unit “for a full physical,” and then down “the last mile,” to the holding cell where the prisoner awaited execution. One of the worst parts, he remembers, was passing the electric chair, which prison officials covered in a white sheet. “I have nightmares about it even today,” he said. He often struggled to reconcile the men he knew on death row with the crimes they had committed. “I believe that I saw some of these men change,” he said.
Allen can’t speak for Jones, he says. “I don’t know the man he is now.” But, he said, “I can say that the people that we did execute might not have been the same person he was when he committed the crime.”
As he aged in prison, Jones lost some of his longtime supporters. In 2001 he cut ties with the Australian editor of a radical leftist magazine after it refused to publish a column following the 9/11 attacks. In it, Jones expressed sorrow and patriotism while condemning any retaliatory violence against Muslims in their homes or mosques. The essay included a drawing of an American flag he had hung in his cell “at symbolic half mast, midway between the floor and ceiling.” In response, the editor, who was white, accused him of “wrap[ping] himself in the flag under which the white ruling elite in North America enslaved black people.” Jones was deeply offended.
Jones’ most recent writings reveal a man in decline. In a 2013 column addressed to the Georgia prison commissioner, he describes being told he must remain shackled while eating and being denied a free hand to clean himself after using the bathroom, policies that “rob medical prisoners of our human dignity.” Other posts are less lucid — bitter missives about prison policies, or defective purchases at the prison commissary.
But last month, Jones received a visit that he never expected. His four children came to see him in prison. Now in their 50s, they barely knew him growing up. “It was the first time that all four of us had seen him together,” his son David told me over the phone from Texas on Friday. The trip to Georgia included a contact visit — “the first time I ever touched his body.”
For decades, David refused to visit his father. “I felt he was dead,” he said. Jones himself seemed to have given up on life. Until his children visited, David said, Jones planned to reject the clemency process. He did not want to give the state of Georgia the satisfaction of hearing him plead for his life. But in the visiting room that day, David thinks his father realized “he has a reason to live for his own family. He stood up and walked to the end of the visiting area with each of his children, one by one. I could see them crying and holding each other.” In recent weeks, “My children have been talking to him for the first time in their lives,” David said. If the state of Georgia kills Jones on Tuesday, they will lose the grandfather they have only just met.
On Saturday, David went back to Georgia to see his father again. On Tuesday, he will represent his family, asking once more for the state to spare his life. “I’m not oblivious to the pain that’s been created by his crime,” he says. “But many lives got lost in 1979, not just one. Today, he has a lot of people who love him.”
Top photo: A prisoner faces the wall inside the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga.