These Men are Fighting to Abolish the Death Penalty — From Death Row
It was early on a September morning in 1993 when police in Morgan County, Alabama, dragged Gary Drinkard through his car window and threw him to the ground. Minutes before, he’d been sitting in his kitchen with his half-sister, discussing a newspaper article about the murder of a local junkyard dealer named Dalton Pace. A wire taped between her legs recorded the conversation, feeding it to the officers stationed outside.
The police told Drinkard, who had served time for robbery but was working hard to turn his life around, that he was being charged with Pace’s murder. Two weeks earlier, the 62-year-old had been found shot dead, with $2,000 missing from his pants pocket. As Drinkard sat in the Morgan County jail, one of his attorneys assured him that there was no evidence tying him to the crime, and that he would be out in no time.
Neither of Drinkard’s court-appointed attorneys was a criminal lawyer, and neither had tried a capital-murder case. Each received a scant $1,000 from the state to mount Drinkard’s defense.
Drinkard said he’d been at home at the time of the murder—and that a painful back injury would have made committing the crime impossible. His lawyers, however, failed to prepare a key witness and to call in a physician to testify about the back injury. When Drinkard’s case went to trial, he was sentenced to death. That was in 1995.
“I lose everything,” Drinkard, now 63, said 25 years later, still speaking of the verdict in the present tense. “I lose the dream home, lose the family—I mean, it was a bitch.”
Drinkard told his wife to find another man. She thought he didn’t love her, but that wasn’t true; he wanted her to find someone to help take care of their three children.
A couple of months after he arrived on death row at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility, Drinkard met Darrell Grayson, who offered him coffee, cigarettes, and an invitation. Each Wednesday, Grayson and a group of other death-row inmates would meet in the prison’s law library and work on a plan to raise awareness about inequity in the criminal-justice system. Dubbed Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, it was—and remains—the nation’s only anti-death-penalty organization run by death-row prisoners.
When Drinkard arrived at Holman, the organization was just six years old. It had been formed in 1989, after Cornelius Singleton, an intellectually disabled man who had been convicted of killing a nun—but who many believe was innocent—begged two death-row inmates for help. Over the next few months, they put together a five-man committee that outlined the group’s purpose: They would educate the public—the people responsible for deciding their fates—on the realities of the death penalty in Alabama. In a “death belt” state infamous for its dedication to capital punishment, this was a crucial mission.
In the 30 years since, Project Hope’s members have come and gone. Singleton was executed in 1992, Grayson in 2007, and Drinkard won his freedom in 2001. But Project Hope continues, its mission now expanded to include providing legal guidance and emotional support as well as advocacy. The nonprofit is currently composed of 15 men, as well as an advisory board of outside supporters; its mighty executive director, Esther Brown, now 85, is a former psychiatric social worker whom one member referred to as “the most loyal person I’ve ever known.”
Project Hope meets at Holman but says that it represents all 176 people on Alabama’s three death rows, sending its newsletter to the men—and a handful of women—held at the two other prisons that house people awaiting execution. Hidden from the rest of the world, these men and women have reached the end point of a system that seems to have been designed to snare people who are poor, of color, or intellectually disabled. Adequate legal representation is rare; prosecutorial misconduct is rampant. In 2016, Alabama had the highest number of death-row inmates per capita in the United States. Today, half of those men are black, despite making up just a quarter of Alabama’s population. And in the sixth-poorest state in the country, all of Project Hope’s members are impoverished. This fundamental inequity is the axis around which so much of the group’s work spins.
“There are no rich people on death row,” wrote Anthony Tyson, the organization’s chairman, in a letter. (The Alabama Department of Corrections refused to allow in-person interviews with Project Hope’s members, citing a state law prohibiting the press from meeting face-to-face with death-row prisoners.) “If you fit the bill they’re looking for and you are broke, then you receive the death penalty.”
Since the organization’s inception, Holman’s wardens have allowed Project Hope to exist, so long as its members abide by one clear rule: They may not discuss prison conditions. Instead, during the weekly Wednesday meetings, members talk about current death-penalty news, which they learn from articles sent in by one of the advisory-board members. Lately, that news has been focused on legislative efforts to abolish the death penalty in states like New Hampshire, Nevada, and Colorado. The men are hopeful that, with each new state that abandons the practice, the moral tide will shift, drawing the states that still have capital punishment—some 30 in all (though four have recently instituted moratoriums)—into the anti-death-penalty column. They’ve also been working on a long-term project that aims to show the racial disparities of the death penalty in states across the country.
At 10 am on these Wednesdays, the group’s six board members phone Brown, who has been the face of Project Hope for the past 19 years, with duties that include representing it at speaking events and conferences, writing grant proposals, maintaining the website, and keeping the books. (The organization raises roughly $3,000 annually.) Brown pays for the weekly meeting calls (and the yearly Christmas party) out of her pocket. During the calls, the men speak with her on topics that, in addition to death-penalty news, can vary from family and friends to the day’s lunch.
Sitting in a floral-patterned armchair in her home in southeast Alabama last July, Brown listened as the organization’s sergeant at arms, Anthony Boyd, or “Ant,” led a conversation about the ways that spending money on education instead of the death penalty could transform a broken system. “If you pay teachers what they’re worth, there will be less crime and more scholars, but they want to spend money taking lives,” he said.
Tyson, the group’s chairman, knows the state’s priorities are elsewhere. “There’s two things never going out of business in Alabama,” he said: “corrections and funeral homes.”
When vice chairman Bart Johnson took the phone, Brown chastised him for calling her “ma’am.” “I’m Esther—I don’t want this ‘ma’am’ thing,” she joked. Each 15-minute phone conversation ends with “I love you.”
The rest of the meeting takes place among the men and runs until 1:30 pm. Some of them stick around for Tyson’s law class or “enlightenment group,” which educates the men on how to navigate the state and federal appellate processes. For most of them, a key component is learning how to advocate for themselves, including with their attorneys. “Our lawyers need us to remind them of things,” Tyson says. “We are not their top case or their only case. So we have to be our case.”
Over the past 11 years, two of Tyson’s students, Montez Spradley and William Ziegler, have been freed, and several have gotten their sentences reduced to life. Tyson doesn’t attribute the victories to his class, but instead to the teamwork between his newly legal-savvy students and their attorneys. At the end of the year, Tyson administers an exam to his students. Anyone who gets a perfect score can choose any item they want from the commissary. Since taking over the group in 2007, he has paid up twice.
While anyone on death row can join Project Hope, there are rules: Members must act respectfully, and they are required to contribute to the quarterly newsletter On Wings of Hope, which is written by the men on typewriters at Holman and then sent to Brown, who adds her own content and takes it to the printer. The newsletter is distributed to about 1,300 subscribers.
In its most recent issue, Brown—who was diagnosed with a brain tumor late last year—announced that she would be stepping down from her duties. “I would like to be remembered as someone who was incredibly fortunate,” she wrote in a piece titled “Thank You!” “I always received what I gave many times over. I was never a victim, but did whatever I did because it expressed me and rewarded me.”
When he was asked by Darrell Grayson to join Project Hope, Drinkard—who had once been a supporter of the death penalty—wasn’t sure that the group would achieve much. Still, he decided to join. He devoured the law class and quickly earned a reputation as something of a legal scholar. He penned letters to politicians and local leaders, urging them to support a moratorium on the death penalty in Alabama. And, over time, he drew closer to the men in Project Hope. “You met people from everywhere, from every different form, and you were all brothers. You were all there for the same reason: to be killed by the state,” he said.
Despite the kinship, Drinkard sometimes thought of suicide. He was overwhelmed by the hopelessness of facing death for a crime he didn’t commit. And when it came time for his friends to die, as inevitably happened, the scent of their flesh burning in the electric chair haunted him. After Alabama executed his best friend, Brian Baldwin, in 1999, Drinkard nearly jumped on a guard he’d heard laughing about packing cotton up Baldwin’s rectum, a standard practice in executions back then.
It was at times like these that Drinkard would write poems for the Project Hope newsletter, like the one titled “Living Tomb,” which begins: “When oh when, will our nation see / They are likely to be next, sitting beside me?”
Still, death row was a lot less violent than the rest of the prison, Drinkard said. During the nearly six years he was there, he never witnessed a fight. But in the general population, there was a fight or a stabbing once a week. Drinkard attributed this relative calm to Project Hope. Timothy Stidham, a former Holman corrections officer who oversaw death row from 2015 to 2016, agreed: “They’re a great support group for each other. They do a lot of good things for ‘em, I will say that.”
For Tyson, who has spent 20 of his 46 years at Holman, the group’s legacy runs deeper still. “I really feel that this was one of the greatest things that could have been offered for a person in this situation,” he wrote. “A lot of us really didn’t start living until we got here. So, we don’t call it death row… we call it life row.”
One of the ways that Project Hope has managed this shift is by helping keep people alive, quite literally. It’s a feat the group accomplishes not only by providing emotional support for its members, but also by offering legal resources and guidance.
Shortly after they arrive at Holman, Project Hope’s members advise new prisoners to contact the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit legal organization run by Bryan Stevenson, to ask for help obtaining an appellate attorney. It’s a critical task, as Alabama was the only state in the country that didn’t provide counsel for post-conviction proceedings until 2017—and, even now, the quality of the representation remains uncertain. The group also serves a broader advocacy role. When, in June 2018, the state announced that prisoners had three days to decide whether they’d like to die by lethal injection or nitrogen gas—an experimental method that kills through asphyxiation and was cooked up by the state as an alternative to lethal injection—Project Hope spread the word for everyone to contact their attorneys.
These are vital interventions into a system designed to hasten people toward their deaths. In Alabama, the list of circumstances that qualify someone for the death penalty is long; there is no statewide public defender’s office outfitted with the necessary resources to successfully try a capital-murder case (instead, individual attorneys must rely on elected judges to approve funds for experts and investigators); and in 2017, the state made it even more difficult for death-row inmates to fight their convictions by passing the so-called Fair Justice Act, which requires death-row prisoners to file post-conviction claims on issues like ineffective assistance of counsel or new evidence within a year of their direct appeal. While its supporters championed the legislation as a way to speed up “frivolous appeals,” critics say the likelihood of wrongful executions will increase without the opportunity for attorneys to take their time reviewing their clients’ cases.
But perhaps the most egregious feature of Alabama’s death-penalty regime is the anemic trial representation it provides for poor defendants. This remains as appalling as it was throughout much of the South back in the 1970s and ’80s, says Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “I think Alabama represents much of what is wrong with the death penalty throughout the United States,” Dunham adds. There are few standards in place to assure the quality of the attorneys assigned to cases, and the pay is paltry. Until 1999, attorneys received $1,000 to build their case ($20 an hour for out-of-court work and $40 for in-court work). Today, they are paid $70 an hour for out-of-court work, while there is no longer a cap for the trial; direct appeals are now capped at $2,500.
Data shows that hiring an attorney, as opposed to going with the state’s court-appointed representative, is the difference between those who receive the death penalty and those who don’t. Yet paying for an experienced lawyer is not an option in most cases. A 2009 study by criminologist Scott Phillips assessed the outcomes of trials in
which defendants were charged with capital murder in Harris County, Texas, between 1992 and 1999. Harris County is known as the “capital of capital punishment,” yet the standards for appointment to represent capital cases far exceed those in Alabama: Attorneys must be approved by their peers and pass a capital certification exam, and the lead counsel must have tried at least two capital cases before being assigned. Phillips found that people who hired attorneys were never sentenced to death, despite being charged with crimes just as heinous as the indigent defendants’.
Since 1973, 165 people—or one out of every 10 people executed—have been exonerated. These exonerations, coupled with the growing concerns around lethal injection, have helped shift support away from the death penalty, with an increasing number of states opting to put executions on hold. But despite this evolving consensus, for most men in Project Hope, the story still ends in a sterile room, lashed to a gurney, awaiting an injection. (The state has used lethal injection as its primary method of execution since 2002, prior to which it used an electric chair, ghoulishly known as “Yellow Mama.”)
In the week leading up to an execution, Project Hope members say they make themselves available to listen to the condemned. They promise the man they will make calls to friends, family, or an attorney if anything goes wrong—and, as they all know, much can go wrong. Just last year, Doyle Lee Hamm, who was suffering from advanced lymphatic cancer, bled profusely as executioners spent two and a half hours trying unsuccessfully to find a vein.
On the day before and day of the execution, the group’s members protest in the yard, asking all inmates to wear their visiting whites and abstain from sports. A vigil is held, during which the men share memories of the man scheduled to be executed. When a board member is executed, the group holds an election. The higher someone advances in the organization, the closer they are to death.
“Executions are never easy,” wrote Anthony Boyd, Project Hope’s sergeant at arms, in a letter after the execution of Domineque Ray this past February. Ray was left to die alone after the Supreme Court determined that it was constitutional for Alabama to ban his imam from the death chamber. “You worry for the person going through it all,” Boyd continued; “you worry about losing one of your own, and it makes you think about how it could be for you personally, if something doesn’t get done on your behalf.”
For Drinkard, it was luck and persistence that ultimately led to his exoneration. While in prison, he wrote to attorneys asking them to represent him on his appeals. His letters caught the eye of the well-known Alabama death-penalty attorney Richard Jaffe, who told him it would cost $250,000 to represent him—money that Drinkard did not have. In a stroke of luck, Jaffe convinced the local judge to appoint him to the case. Drinkard says his work with Project Hope prepared him to advocate for himself and work more closely with his new lawyers: “I knew what the lawyers should do the second time, where I actually didn’t know the first time.”
The Alabama Supreme Court ordered a new trial on the basis that his first trial had been tainted by prosecutorial misconduct. Drinkard was exonerated in 2001 after his defense team presented evidence proving that he had never confessed to the murder on that static-ridden tape recorded in 1993 and called witnesses to prove he was indeed at home. After nearly six years on death row, Drinkard was freed.
Still, almost 18 years later, he remembers death row vividly: the hot air suffocating his cell, the sound of his friends beating against the bars during executions, and the times he felt overpowered by hate. “I hated the system because they lied, and there was nobody out there willing to prove the lies, nobody would listen, and that’s the worst feeling you can have—when nobody will listen.”
Like those who were exonerated before him, Drinkard never received compensation from Alabama for his time on death row, and he survives on Social Security disability insurance, having been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He studied respiratory therapy after getting out of prison, but no one would hire him because of his murder conviction, which he could not get expunged.
And so, though free, Drinkard says that his living room in the north Alabama backcountry, furnished with a pair of brown recliners, a leather couch, and a flat-screen television, is his new version of death row. In this version, it’s easier to get people to listen. He travels the world, trying to change minds about the death penalty. In October, he went to Paris to talk to high-school students, and in February, he traveled to Wyoming to speak in support of a bill to repeal the death penalty. As always, he mentioned Project Hope. It was only natural—they were family, he said.
“Most of them admitted what they did wrong, [but] there were a couple of innocents that actually died,” he continued. “But the public don’t care. The public’s mentality in the South is, ‘Kill ‘em all and God will sort ‘em out.’”
Lauren Gill is a journalist covering criminal justice. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Appeal, and ProPublica, among other publications.
Co-published with The Nation.