Reviewed by Brenda Anderson
Vol. 24, No. 1-2, 2002 pp. 20-21
Randolph Loney, A Dream of the Tattered Man: Stories from Georgia’s Death Row, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdsmans Publishing Company, 2001. With a Foreword by Will D. Campbell.
In A Dream of the Tattered Man, Randolph Loney sheds light on what has been a dark and abandoned ghetto in our criminal justice system today: death row. Loney’s book is a stirring account of what he has witnessed as a frequent visitor of Georgia’s death row. He unlocks the gate to the reality underneath our superficial understanding of the death penalty through his experiences visiting death row inmates in the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison near Jackson. Loney, a liberal minister and social activist who lives in rural Georgia, breaks the barrier our society encloses around convicted criminals by giving us an opportunity to get to know the human behind the criminal, something that otherwise our society would sadly overlook. By writing about the relationships with his friends on death row, Loney gives a voice to a deeper side of the story that is unfortunately suppressed and ignored.
The book’s title is taken from Loney’s recurring dream from which he feels the “tattered” man that appears in it is a reflection of himself. Loney views the tattered man as an inner darkness in him and as representing feelings of shame. He expresses his frustration and shame with the death penalty system that we, as a society, embrace. Aside from the brutality behind the death penalty, Loney argues that the death penalty is unfairly applied, only targeting the powerless. Loney’s seriousness and dedication in providing the weak with support is evident in his commitment to Georgia’s death row inmates. He stresses the need for embracing the “least” of those in our communities, instead of executing them.
Through his book, Loney shares his experiences as a witness to the culmination of years of societal, racial, and systematic repression and abuse. Stories of death row inmates that reach far back, often describing a childhood haunted by consistent abuse and trauma, illustrate the tragic lives these individuals experienced long before they were involved in crime. He walks us through the lives of the convicted before they fell to crime. The cases present how a negative environment at an early age can affect people enormously, critically affecting their behavior and decision-making as adults. Loney stresses the importance of recognizing the critical role that traumatic events in childhood could play in a person’s responsive behavior.
As Loney demonstrates in the stories he shares of the men on death row, the men’s pasts held overwhelming circumstances out of their control that inevitably affected them negatively. Loney invites the reader into his close friendships and expresses the deep ties he shares with these men. They become relationships that hurt when his friends are finally executed. As painful and depressing as his role becomes, he shares with the reader his struggle to continue being a witness and learn about the very people our state kills but knows almost nothing about. Loney gives voice to their humanity and presents us with a version of capital punishment that the system fails to acknowledge. He adds color and dimension to our black and white, one-dimensional perception of what the death penalty entails.
Jerome Bowden was one of these men on death row who made a tremendous impact on Loney. In 1986, Loney was distraught at knowing that all efforts to plea for a clemency had not been enough to save Bowden from his scheduled execution. Loney had hoped that by presenting Bowden’s unfortunate life story to Georgia’s Board of Pardons and Paroles, they would have showed mercy and commuted the death sentence to a term of life in prison. His efforts were, however, unsuccessful in preventing the
execution. Loney describes Bowden’s childhood and the unlucky circumstances under which he got charged with murder. He states that ever since Bowden was a child, his mother knew that he was psychologically incapacitated. At the age of fourteen, a clinical psychologist diagnosed him as being “definitely retarded.” Bowden was black and poor; he grew up in a segregated community and was subject to discrimination based on his race and mental illness. Under his circumstances, Bowden never received the help he needed. As Loney explains Jerome Bowden’s case, he expresses the sadness and disappointment of realizing how our society once again failed Bowden in condemning him for a crime in which there was significant doubt to his guilt. The loss of this great individual was devastating to Loney. Yet, it offered him strength and a sense of hope, as Bowden not only left a mark in Loney’s heart, but in the courts as well. In response to Bowden’s tragic execution, in 1988, the Georgia legislature barred future juries from giving death sentences to the mentally ill.
Along with Bowden’s case, Loney narrates valuable stories of other men on death row that are very meaningful to him. By sharing a personal letter written after the execution of a dear friend, Loney tries to come to terms with the death of his close friend of many years. Coming to terms with our criminal justice system and realizing his important role in it, Loney has been deeply affected by the relationships he built with these men. Reading Loney’s stories of death row will leave the reader concerned about our ideals in justice and their true ramifications in a society more and more obsessed with poetic justice. Loney points to an important facet of the criminal justice system that has been ignored for too long. Who are we killing? And what is our role in the process? Society alienates and dehumanizes those whom our state condemns to die. Randolph Loney bridges the gap and brings us face to face with the ultimate punishment we brutally inflict upon ourselves. Loney’s touching account will broaden the reader’s understanding of what our death penalty system really means and will help the reader realize the discriminatory flaws deeply embedded in the system.
Brenda Anderson is a history major at Yale University in her senior year. Originally from Laredo, Texas, Anderson plans to attend law school.