September 29, 2019

The Jessie Wise Back Story


Author’s Note: Last week’s column was a reprint of a 1999 interview I did with poet, musician, and convicted murderer Jessie Lee Wise, who at the time was on death row at the Potosi Correctional Center in Mineral Point, MO. When that story first ran in January of 1999, Wise had yet to be given an execution date. That would change five months later, and Wise was executed on May 26th of that year. Here’s the back story to what turned out to be a very interesting, very frustrating and, not to overlook his crimes, fairly heartbreaking year.

            No matter what your opinion may be about the death penalty, let me tell you it’s a different game, a different game all together, when someone you consider a friend is about to get the needle. But isn’t that always the way.

            In early spring of 1998, I received a small package out of the blue at my New York Press office. The package contained a brief letter wrapped around a cassette tape. That was not at all uncommon—fledgling bands were always flooding the paper with demo tapes hoping to get a little notice. What made this one unique was that it was from a jazz musician on death row in Missouri who wanted some publicity for a new tape he had for sale. I had no clue why he’d be reaching out to me, but I was glad he did. On top of the music angle, Jessie was obviously intelligent. Much more so than nearly any other convict I’d ever dealt with. For someone who’d spent most of his life in prison, he was surprisingly literate. I thought it sounded like it had interesting story potential, so I wrote him back. He’d apparently sent that same letter and tape package out to forty or fifty different publications, but I was the only one who responded. I suggested a feature interview, and he readily agreed.

            So, very slowly, week by week, I’d send him a couple of questions, and he’d send me a letter telling me a little bit of his tale—whether it was how he ended up accused of a murder he claimed he didn’t commit, or how he’d taught himself to play music, or about some of his friends on death row, or how his lawyers were so bad that he had to defend himself in a capital case. After eight or nine months of this back and forth, I figured I had enough material for a solid interview, so I wrote it up and ran it.

            Usually after I interview someone, that’s it. We both move on, but with Jessie, things were different. In Jessie’s case, we kept corresponding long after the story ran. Since phones were not an issue, we had no choice but to correspond by regular mail, a process that is not only slow, but fraught with its own bugaboos—especially if one of the correspondents happens to be on death row at a maximum security prison.

            I have a confession to make. After almost a year of exchanging letters, I had a terrible thought. What if the whole “death row” line he was feeding me was just a sham? Potosi, where he was incarcerated, was a hard-core place, sure, but maybe, I began to think after a while, maybe he was just a lifer who said he was on death row in order to get more sympathy or make a more compelling story. Focusing on Jessie, who at the time had been at Potosi for a decade, I’d forgotten how long some people have sat on death row, waiting. Helluva lot longer than ten years, but still those doubts began to creep in. Not a nice way to think about a friend, but hell.

            In every letter, he’d drop in things like, “I could find out the date any day now,” and “You never know when it will be until they show up at your cell.” It went on for a long time—in every letter, he was still waiting. I’d check the “pending executions” web site, where all the scheduled executions for the next few months are listed, and his name never appeared. Then one day in late April, it did. So shut my mouth. Ironically enough, his name appeared on the site the same day I received my latest letter from Potosi:

            “I’m sorry it has taken me so long to write back and that this writing will be brief,” his letter opened, “but they set an execution date today: May 26th—does that date sound familiar?”

            To be honest, it didn’t. I felt bad that it didn’t. It wasn’t his birthday. It wasn’t the date the murder he was convicted of took place. It wasn’t the date he was sentenced. I didn’t know what the fuck it could be.

            “I’ll write a longer letter this weekend,” he closed, “You take real good care of yourself, okay?”

            When they finally let him know what the execution date was, they’d given him less than a month’s notice. Well, that’s the way he’d always said it would happen.

            As we wrote back and forth over the previous year, apart from the interview and the death row chit-chat, a number of other things were going on. When he first contacted me about the tape, saying he was using it to raise money for a legal defense fund, he told me a woman on the outside, another acquaintance of his, had agreed to handle everything for him: reproduction and distribution of the tapes, setting up a bank account and post office box, and processing the orders. (Remember this was long before PayPal, Go Fund Me and downloads.) Everything was well in hand, until the woman stopped writing him and seemed to vanish without a trace, leaving Jessie and his legal defense fund stranded.

            That’s when things started to get a little weird.

            Not only did he want me to try and track this woman down for him—he also wanted me to take over the business end of distributing the tape—something I had absolutely no experience in doing. Why I agreed to give it a shot, I don’t know, but what the hell are you going to tell a guy on death row?

            Then he started asking if I could find him some free last-ditch legal help. I made a few calls to the ACLU, found out who I needed to talk to, made a few more calls—only to have nary a one of them returned.

            Then the requests for money started coming in. I guess I expected that. I’d dealt with plenty of convicts before, and the pleas for money always come up, sooner or later. I ignored them for awhile. I had no money myself and had told him as much, but he’d always enclose a deposit slip with each letter.

            He sent me packets of his poems and lists of all the places he’d been published, together with a list of misconduct charges he hoped to file against the St. Louis police department. He told me he was working on several novels and screenplays, and was hoping I might be able to pitch them around for him.

            I quickly found myself in way over my admittedly muddled head, especially when it came to this tape business. He’d sent me a copy, which, as described in the interview, didn’t turn out to be anything of the sort I expected. When you think “death row,” you don’t instinctively think “Kenny G.,” however much you might want to.

            Still, though, as I’d promised I would, I did some asking around—where’s a good place for tape duplication? Where can I get a P.O. box without waiting eight months for it? How do I go about setting up a legal defense fund, where I could deposit all the checks?

            That was another thing. Jessie had told me that he had already exhausted his appeals, that all his shots at clemency were gone—it was just a matter of time before they showed up at his cell door and gave him a date.

            As it turns out, “legal defense fund” was a deliberate misnomer, a bit of deceptive p.r. on Jessie’s part. The bank account wouldn’t so much be for legal defense as it would be a little fund which would allow him to keep himself in toilet paper and other necessities until his execution. But when you’re pitching an idea to liberal outsiders, “legal defense fund” tends to play better than “toilet paper fund.”

            Yes, of course he was using me, same as all cons use whoever they can reach on the outside, because they have no choice. I understood that from the beginning, and accepted it. Even if, deep in my heart, I didn’t believe for a minute that he was an innocent man (the kicker came when he wrote, “Yes, I did some stupid things when I found Gerry’s body, like stealing her jewelry and driving away in her car.”), it didn’t matter. Simple fact was, I liked him.

            Right when I was starting to get a handle on things, and was actually on the verge of opening a bank account for him, things started getting weird again. His letters would arrive weeks after he’d posted them. My letters, apparently, wouldn’t reach him at all. Those letters which did reach me were brief and cryptic and increasingly desperate and angry. What I was able to piece together was that Jessie had somehow offended someone in the Potosi administration, accused him of something, filed a few grievances and, as a result, they started holding his mail. They also apparently didn’t appreciate the fact that he was corresponding with a member of the press—even if that member was just me.

            It all got me to thinking that maybe the woman who’d offered to set things up initially didn’t actually vanish at all, though I confess I didn’t try real hard to track her down. Who knows what kind of ugly complications that would lead to?

            My dealings with Jessie also brought me in touch with Bell Chevigny, who had included one of Jessie’s poems in Doing Time, an anthology of award-winning stories and poems from PEN’s Prison Writers Program, a project Ms. Chevigny oversaw. She stopped by the office a few times to talk about Jessie and take a look at some of the letters and poems he’d sent me. She was a very smart and erudite woman in her fifties or sixties, and to look at her you’d never guess she spent so much time working with hardened cons.

            After a few months, Potosi’s administration, having decided they’d made their point, once again let Jessie’s mail come and go freely. His letters began arriving regularly again. But by now, they seemed more resigned. He’d had two lawyers who were going to make a last-ditch effort for clemency on his behalf before the Supreme Court, but the Court refused to hear their plea. Jessie’s letters got shorter, and sadder. He used to punctuate his puns and jokes with the parenthetical, “(Smile),” but no longer. He knew his time was coming fast.

            He stopped writing music altogether, along with his poems and novels. He gave it all up and brooded. Even his excitement over getting this tape of his out there faded. He knew that, even if it was a hit, even if A&M picked it up and put it out, that he’d never be around to enjoy it.

            In March, a month before he received his official execution date, he told me to forget about it completely. Just forget about the P.O. box and the legal defense fund. It wasn’t worth it.

            A week before his scheduled execution, I received another short letter from Potosi. In this one Jessie sent along a phone number, asking if I could give him a call sometime in the late morning or early afternoon on the twenty-sixth. They would have him in a different room by then, the same room where he’d be given his last meal, and he would be allowed to take phone calls.

            Holy fuck, right? I knew I had to call, there was no question about that after this past year. If I didn’t, it would haunt me for the rest of my life—and quite possibly Jessie would, too. But what in the fuck do you say to someone, anyone, when you know the State is going to murder them in an hour or two. You can’t very well tell them “good luck,” or “I’m sure everything will turn out okay.” I mean, you could if you were a sick bastard, but I wasn’t going to do that to Jessie.

            I forget what day of the week it was, but I was home on the twenty-sixth. That was a relief. It wasn’t the kind of call I wanted to make at the office with all those interns and fact checkers and ad reps milling about. I sat at the kitchen table for an hour or more, staring at the phone, still having no idea what I was going to say. I just chain-smoked, filling the ashtray two or three times over. Jessie was scheduled to get the needle at three-thirty that afternoon, Missouri time. At two I finally picked up the phone and dialed the number he’d sent. The phone rang once, and an operator picked up. I was then transferred through three other operators, explaining to each who I was trying to reach and why. Finally about two-fifteen, Jessie picked up. We’d never spoken before, but he sounded pretty much exactly like what I thought he’d sound like—intelligent, soft spoken, and in much higher spirits than he had a right to be given everything.

            How I wish now I’d recorded that conversation. I had the technology next to me on the shelf, but I didn’t use it. At the time I thought it would be an intrusion. I didn’t even keep notes. This was no longer about being a journalist. The whole ten minute conversation went by in a blur, and I recall very little of what was said. You know what’s sad? The only thing I do remember is talking to him about his last meal. That whole business we’ve been fed since childhood about condemned prisoners getting whatever they want—anything at all in the world—for their last meal is complete bullshit. They handed him a menu with four choices, and he got to pick one. Jessie went for the fried shrimp and steak, which he said was fine. He said he didn’t much care what he had as a last meal, but that it was okay.

            As we signed off, I thanked him for everything, he did the same, and we hung up.

            The next morning’s papers confirmed the execution had taken place as scheduled. That afternoon, Bell from the PEN Prison Writers Program stopped by the office and we talked some more about Jessie. She asked me if I thought he was innocent, and I told her no, not for a second. She brought me a copy of Doing Time, and asked if she could borrow some of Jessie’s letters and poems. I put a handful in a manila envelope, and tucked the rest inside the book. I don’t know if Ms. Chevigny ever did anything with those poems and letters, but I never saw them again., and the book was lost in the floods.

            I don’t tell this story to be maudlin or weepy. I don’t tell this story to make any sort of point about the death penalty, either. Jessie was just a man who made some awful choices in life. He had great gifts, but he made some pretty fucking awful choices, and got stuck with the ultimate consequences. And he was a friend.

            That’s all. I just, for it all, wish I had learned the significance of May 26th.


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