September 22, 2019

Death Row Jazz


Author’s Note: This story was written over the course of several months in 1998, and ran in the New York Press in January of 1999. I dredge it up now because I’ve been thinking about Jessie Wise lately, maybe because I recently marked the twentieth anniversary of his execution. For those interested, selections from Lament for Tony M. Are now available on YouTube.

In December of 1990, after a nine-day trial, Jessie Lee Wise was found guilty of brutally murdering Geraldine Rose MacDonald, forty-nine, with a pipe wrench, in her condominium outside of St. Louis. After being sentenced, Wise was sent to serve out his term at the Potosi Correctional Center in Mineral Point, MO—an experimental prison which had been opened just a year earlier. There are plenty of things that make Potosi an anomaly among American prisons, but probably foremost among them is the fact that being incarcerated at Potosi means you’ve been given one of three sentences: fifty years to life without parole, life without parole, or death.

            Wise was sentenced to death, and will probably die by lethal injection in the very near future.

            Wise himself is an anomaly among American death-row inmates. Not because he maintains his innocence (which he does) or argues that he was framed by the police and the prosecution (which he does as well). Most inmates I’ve dealt with over the years claim both those things. No, Wise is an anomaly because it was in prison that he became an accomplished, self-taught jazz musician. He’s even offering his latest cassette, Lament for Tony M., to anyone who contributes to his legal defense fund. On top of that, he’s also an award-winning poet and writer. That’s what first interested me in Wise. I’ve dealt with any number of prison inmates over the years, but have never encountered one quite as literate as Jessie Wise.

            Because of Wise’s situation, conducting a normal interview with him, whether over the phone or taking him out for a few beers, was pretty much out of the question. Since it had to take place via regular surface mail (which also ran into some snags when Potosi started holding both his incoming and outgoing letters), the following interview took place over several months, during which Wise moved closer and closer to his execution date.

            “I was born in St. Louis, MO on April eighth, 1954,” he wrote me when I asked for some biographical details. “My childhood was nothing exceptional except for the fact that I ran away from home scores of times because the woman at home was not my biological mother, and I don’t think I cared for her too much.”

            He went to jail for the first time when he was sixteen. Then in January of 1971, Wise, about seventeen, was found guilty of first degree murder in the shooting death of Ralph Gianino, the father of eight children. He was sentenced to life.

            “My first murder conviction was much of the same as this one: a lot of misconduct by misinformation. I was coerced then into pleading guilty to first degree murder by two inept attorneys when the evidence and circumstances supported a clear case of self-defense: I warded off a homosexual attack by shooting a white guy who was about three times as large as I was . . . I received a life sentence in late 1971, and did the majority of the sentence at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City.”

            He was paroled in April of 1984, after serving thirteen years. Upon being released, Wise, who had a long history of mild drug use—pills and pot, mostly—turned to cocaine, and things quickly started slipping out of control.

            “I had only been back in St. Louis for four and a half years when I was arrested and accused of murder again. During that period I primarily worked as a housekeeping supervisor for several hotels, motels and nursing homes. Fortunately, my first conviction was never entered into the automated police system and I was able to find fair employment, but my heart was far from being satisfied. I was an artist—I had skills—but I had neither the formal training nor support to go further. Being married with stepchildren, I had to make a living, so I set aside all artistic notions.”

            Gerry MacDonald was found murdered on August 29th, 1988, bludgeoned to death in her condominium. She had been dead for two or three days when her husband and daughters discovered her body. Court records cite August 27th as the actual date of the murder. Wise was picked up on August 30th. He not only had her car in his possession, but some of her jewelry as well. He would later claim he was the one who first discovered MacDonald’s body, but did not call the police. On September 13th, he was indicted on charges of Murder in the First Degree, Robbery in the First Degree, two counts of Armed Criminal Action, and one count of Stealing a Motor Vehicle.

            “So,” I wrote him. “what happened?

            “I was accused and eventually convicted of murdering a legally-separated white woman . . . while robbing her. The police, prosecution and court conveniently obscured our intimate relationship—the media, too—and failed to properly investigate the case. Sure, I did some very dumb things after finding Gerry dead; like stealing from her and taking her car, but the overall evidence supported the fact that I could not have killed her and that her separated husband was the actual murderer who committed the offense in a jealous rage, and then attempted to frame me.”

            Wise, who was still married at the time of the murder, was living and working as a maintenance man in the condominium complex where MacDonald lived. So, how was it that he happened to be the one to find MacDonald’s body? And why didn’t he call the police when he did?

            “I found Gerry’s body when I finally decided to go check on her. I had told her the day before, the day she served the divorce papers on her husband, that ‘the shit is about to hit the fan.’ I told her this immediately after her husband came to her condo, seeking entrance to discuss the papers served, but before she let him in, she had asked me to leave, which I did through the back door. This occurred on Friday around 4, 4:15 p.m. and I initially discovered her dead the next morning around 10, 10:30 a.m. She wouldn’t answer her telephone and I suspected that something had happened to her because her car was still in its parking space.”

            The jury brought back a guilty verdict on December 10th, 1990.  On March 15 the judge announced the sentence: Death for the murder, Life for the Robbery, thirty years (times two) for Armed Criminal Activity and seven years for Stealing the Car, all sentences to run consecutively.

            As reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on the following day, Judge Melvyn W. Wiesman, in accepting the death penalty, put a great deal of weight on the prior murder conviction. The story also stated that Wise, acting as his own attorney, argued for an acquittal, claiming the state had failed to prove its case against him. Prosecutor John Ross told the judge that the issues raised by Wise “were questions that have already been decided by the jury.” Ross also cited the previous murder and claimed that McDonald’s murder was “particularly brutal and heinous.”

            The state’s evidence included the fact that one of Wise’s fingerprints was found at the scene, the recovery of the jewelry and the car, and the head of the wrench—the murder weapon—discovered in Wise’s maintenance locker. There was also a confession, which Wise had given to police at the time of his arrest. When it was all over, Judge Wiesman said that Wise had done a competent job of representing himself. I asked him how he ended up acting as his own attorney in a capital case.

            “I was literally forced to proceed pro se, represent myself in an infamous case,” he wrote back, “due to lack of trust towards attorneys. The previous attorneys completely refused to investigate my innocence, and the two that were finally appointed as the actual trial attorneys committed grave offenses that competent counsel would never have done under similar circumstances: turned over my work-product confidences, investigative notes and requests, my strategies and defenses to my prejudice. Something like that would turn any criminal defendant against attorneys.”

            The evidence against him, I pointed out, seemed pretty damned solid, if you believed what you read in the newspapers. Given that we’re used to hearing convicts of all stripes proclaim their innocence, claim that they had been framed, what evidence, I wanted to know, could he present in his own defense?

            “This case is clearly embedded in racism. All of the participants are white, except me. How do you think a wealthy white male will react after finding out that his wife is having an affair with a black ex-convict drug abuser? She had just served him with divorce papers several hours before she had to have been killed, and he was the last to see her alive! I did commit some very dumb acts after the fact, like . . . pawning her jewelry, but it must be understood that I was in a completely drug intoxicated state before, during and especially after she was murdered, after I found her. I surmised that I would be the prime target as her assailant, because of that prior murder conviction. I was powerless, confused, afraid and speechless. That’s the reason I didn’t contact the police myself. Irregardless, I would have still been the prime suspect.”

            As far as hard evidence of his innocence is concerned, Wise cites a crime scene videotape, discovered in a locked cabinet in the chief prosecutor’s office two years after the conviction. The tape, Wise claims, contradicts the confession he gave to police at the time of his arrest on several key points.

            “A trail of bloody shoeprints led from Gerry’s body lying between the master bedroom and hallway, and ended directly in front of the trash compactor in the kitchen where a pair of blood-drenched surgical gloves were found. The bloody shoeprints were later determined not to belong to either myself or Gerry’s daughter, as the police initially surmised. Scientific testing proved this fact. Further, my fingerprints were not found inside the plastic gloves, but the outside was coated with Gerry’s blood. Secondly, the video shows a broken gold chain on the living room sofa that was never preserved or reported, blades of grass and a button which was later determined to have come from Gerry’s husband’s shirt. Now, this crucial evidence goes clearly against my purported ‘confession’ of going down the hallway in the opposite direction, to kill Gerry; never once is the living room mentioned. . . . The evidence found in the living room depicts a struggle, but there is no mention of a struggle in the alleged ‘confession.’ The prosecution’s theory was that I murdered Gerry and robbed her on a Saturday morning. But evidence demonstrates that she was killed on the previous Friday, due to the fact that she had on the same clothing when found Monday that her family last saw her wearing that Friday. Nothing corroborates the alleged ‘confession,’ but two police officers’ testimonies that I confessed to murder to them. No audio, no video, written statement or rough notes exist, nothing but the officers’ police reports, and upon reading them one could easily discern that it was fabricated because there are at least ten instances when the ‘confession’ goes totally contrary to the physical evidence, and that my alleged ‘confession’ is replete with the police supplying answers to their own leading questions.”

            Now that he’s been on death row—especially in a place like Potosi—for nearly ten years, I wondered, what does a man do to maintain his sanity and prepare for the inevitable?

            “There are approximately one hundred prisoners on Missouri’s death row, and though we all are subject to the same fate, we each have our own agendas. Some sleep their lives away, a defense mechanism, I presume; some are fluent in criminal law, fighting their way out of this deflating, airless balloon; some are strong while others are weak, intolerable, pitiful. And some have decided that what will be will be. Others, like myself, are trying to make the best of a very bad predicament and seek to rise above both environment and fate. . . . Fortunately, I am assigned as the inmate music room’s coordinator, which I perform daily. I teach the fundamentals of music and instrumentation to prisoners, and am also responsible for the upkeep of the musical equipment.”

            That was the opening I needed. I wanted to talk to him about his musical career more than anything else. You hear about a lot of writers on death row, but precious few musicians. I asked White how he ended up with the teaching job.

            “I was given the job because I’m the most competent,” he wrote back with undisguised pride. “Not only have I had years of experience, but no other person here, including staff, knows more about music than I do. I generally have three to six students at a time with the set-up of the prisoners’ recreation schedule.”

            Lament for Tony M., which Wise is releasing under the pseudonym WiseGuy, is a collection of ten pieces, which he performs mostly on guitar and keyboards. It’s extremely, and surprisingly, mellow, coming from a man who’s been accused of such brutal crimes. When I first received a copy, I was expecting some nasty blues, maybe, or just a wailing harmonica. Anything but New-Agey, cool jazz synth washes. Wise freely admits that people will be interested in his tape for its novelty value.

            It was during that first long stint—the life sentence when he was in his teens and twenties—that Wise decided, with no prior training of any kind, to teach himself music. He said he wanted a way to communicate with other musicians.

            “There was no one to teach prisoners way back when, so I just gathered all the books I could, made drumsticks out of pencils and fretboards and keyboards out of cardboard, and went to work.”

            He taught himself how to play keyboards, drums and guitar, and went on to lead several prison bands. Along with the cool jazz, he also writes R&B ballads. He’s frustrated with the equipment he has to work with at Potosi, though: “Being close to a decade old, it all leaves plenty to be desired, especially since the technology has advanced to a point where one musician can do everything electronically.”

            I asked him how this new tape came about.

            “I was prompted to do Lament for Tony M. after the State of Missouri executed my friend and fellow musician, Robert Anthony ‘Tony’ Murray. For a few years at this institution, he and I were the nucleus of one of the best bands. His death touched me because his creativity and musicianship were stripped from the world. Irregardless of what he had allegedly done over a decade before, people do change while incarcerated, but no one takes notice of that fact. Anyway, I miss one of my best friends; we collaborated on many exciting and interesting compositions.”

            While he’s not currently in a band, Wise says some of his old prison bands were pretty good, and a few of them even tried recording a few times. They always ran into trouble, though.

            “We could never complete a project before some of the members were transferred or executed,” he wrote, without the slightest bit of irony. But, he says, they did play a lot of in-house shows, primarily on holidays.

            Apart from an active musical career, Wise has also, over the years, maintained an active writing career from inside his cell, turning out poetry, screenplays, even working on a couple of novels.

            “I’ve been fortunate and have won poetry awards over the past twenty years, all minor accomplishments. In 1984, I sold one of two teleplays to CBS for The Jeffersons.” (The episode, though produced, was never aired, because the series was cancelled.) “Presently, I have a collection of poetry, enough for a chapbook, that I would like to see in print. My writings during this particular imprisonment have focused on death and dying, definite melancholic material, especially my poetry collection, which is entitled, Silhouette of a Colored Portrait.

            “I have begun on several books and full-length feature screenplays,” he continued. “One of the screenplays, and the very first one I began during this incarceration, is a comedy about a black guy and a white guy who were ex-slaves. The setting is during the gold-rush years and is entitled The Forty-Eighters. Believe me, it is hilarious. One of my so-called novels, The Theocracy, is a helluva drama about the real right-wing extremists and their plans for the end of the world; how they have systematically decided to end all of mankind, except for a chosen few, by Christmas of 1999. One other, and my favorite, The Cerebus Agenda, is just a little too deep to discuss; it concerns the migration of all black people around the world back to Africa to rebuild it, ending for the first time the old slave conceptions and mentality around the globe.

            “As my case progressed through the appellate courts, I was forced to set aside any and all extensive writing projects and focus on my case. I haven’t a clue what the future will bring, and if I am executed, I will most likely burn all of my unpublished manuscripts. I have no one to leave them to who would appreciate the effort. I want to write my books so bad; I want to start and when they come to get me I just want to tell them that I’m not through with this life, that I have so much to say, and ask them if they can wait awhile. Crazy, isn’t it? It’s ridiculous to even consider compassion from such an obnoxious system, and they care less if they’re killing a possible creative entity.”

            Back in late spring, when I first heard about his tape and his plans to set up a legal defense fund, Wise didn’t think he’d see the new year. At present, no firm execution date has been set yet. Still, I wondered why it was that he waited so long—ten years—to think about setting up a legal defense fund? Didn’t it seem just a little bit late?

            “I actually didn’t wait until now to put the tape project together,” he explained. “I’ve been planning and working on it for the past two years, and I figured the best way to have my music work for me was to begin a legal defense trust fund and request donations. As a gesture of gratitude, I would offer Lament for Tony M. in its original, unmastered version because I’m not out to make money, but to possibly leave something behind to let the world know I once existed. Fortunately, and after ten years, I may have finally obtained two lawyers who will work diligently on my behalf.”

            In October, Wise’s new attorneys attempted to file a petition on his behalf before the United States Supreme Court. The Court refused to hear the case.

            On Christmas Eve, I received a card from death row. A gold card, with foil poinsettias splayed across the front. I hadn’t heard from Jessie in a while, and was getting a little worried. We’d been having trouble with the mail for some time. I’d heard, though, that a poem of his was going to be published in an anthology of writers who had won the PEN prison writing award.

            Inside the card, he wrote: “The juvenile court placed me in the custody of my maternal grandmother—to the obvious displeasure of my father. My grandmother was the only mother I have ever known. I can remember undergoing a lot of tests, thinking they were due to some undiagnosed or misapprehended behavioral problems. But I later realized that they were aptitude tests.  I was a subject because of my high I.Q.—a black boy during the early Sixties.”

            White completed the ninth grade, but dropped out while he was a freshman in high school. He fell in with a rough crowd, and began a life of petty street crime. After his grandmother died, he was sent to a juvenile home after being picked up following what he calls a “strong-arm robbery.”

            “It was something I didn’t do,” he says today: “I was just on the scene. I was actually just with the kids that did it, having no idea at the time what was about to happen. I was just there with my childhood friends and got caught up in their nonsense. Actually, that should have been a hint and a half of what was about to happen very soon. Just despondent these days over some extremely bad news from the courts. Have a good holiday.”


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