First, I should probably say that I'm not a big fan of prison shows. Or cop shows. Or lawyer shows. Or courtroom drama shows of any sort. I guess that's one of the side effects of being sentenced to death for a crime I didn't commit. In 1993 I was unfortunate enough to see what the inside of the American judicial machine is truly like when I was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for three counts of capital murder. One thing I learned is that almost everything you see on television shows is complete and absolute fiction. Perry Mason is no mote realistic than Superman. So when I was first asked to watch a new show called Rectify, I was wary.
Rectify is the story of a man who was sentenced to death for a crime he didn't commit, and spent 19 years on death row before getting out. Much like in my own real life case, the local politicians refuse to admit he's innocent even after DNA testing points towards someone else. In fact, there was so much about this show that mirrored my own life I began to wonder how much of my story had crept into the script.
The writer of the show, Ray McKinnon, was somewhat familiar with my case. His late wife, Lisa Blount was a friend of mine. She and I exchanged letters while I was on death row in Arkansas, and she even sang at a concert in Arkansas, along with Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith, and Johnny Depp, to help raise awareness about my plight.
I heard that McKinnon also did research into the cases of other men who had been on death row and had been released or exonerated. It paid off. I can tell you from first hand experience that Rectify is a very realistic show.
The main character is a man named Daniel. When you look at his eyes, you're looking into the eyes of a man who has seen Hell. There are moments when he looks like he's about to begin screaming at any second, and never stop. The first time you see this is in episode one, when he's about to leave the prison. The guard is treating him like a human being, and it's evident this hasn't happened in an extremely long time. You see the confusion on his face as he wrestles with suddenly being treated decently by the same people who have treated him like an animal for years. He can't quite process it. I know that look well. As he's about to leave the prison, the guard helps him tie his necktie, as he can no longer remember how to do it himself.
It reminded me of my very last day in prison, as I was dressing to leave. I was putting on real clothes for the first time in nearly 20 years, as were the two other men being released -- Jason Baldwin and Jessie Miskelley. I looked over to see one of the guards tying Jessie's tie. He was doing it gently, as if he wanted Jessie to look good on his first day of freedom. It was odd, thinking back on how I'd been beaten, starved, and treated as something sub-human by prison guards for years. Most people have nothing in their frame of reference that would allow them to understand what an impact that has on a person's psyche -- but somehow McKinnon manages to capture it.
Another thing McKinnon captures is the shock and trauma of someone just released after nearly 20 years on death row. The main character falls asleep on the ride home from the prison, and then falls asleep again as his sister drives him around to see how the town has changed. When I first walked off of death row I was so deeply in shock and traumatized that for nearly three months I couldn't watch a movie, a television show, read a book, or take a car ride without falling into a deep, dark sleep that didn't seem to refresh me much when I awakened. All I wanted to do was go out and walk the streets of New York City at all hours of the day and night. I would walk until I was so exhausted I'd stumble over my own feet like a drunk -- and I was drunk. I was drunk on the river of human energy that flowed all around me, over me, and through me. The human interaction and energy I'd been starved of for almost 20 years.
One other thing McKinnon manages to capture is the wonder a man experiences once he's returned from the land of the dead. The main character walks through a convenience store, staring at the hot dog rack like it's a minor miracle. And to him, it is. For me, it was Chinatown. I would walk up and down the streets of Chinatown staring at all the flotsam and jetsam being sold on the side walks in awe. They were the most beautiful things I'd ever seen -- colors, shapes, smells -- I couldn't get enough of it. I could stare for hours at the pigeons everyone else seemed to find revolting. Everything was amazing to me. Everything. I would lie on our balcony in the rain, staring at this beautiful beast of a city that I had fallen head over heels in love with. I would look at the skyline of Manhattan and be so overwhelmed with the monstrous beauty that I wanted to sob and kiss the filthy sidewalks. McKinnon manages to catch something of that energy.
One last thing he manages to convey is how flawed the justice system is, and how skewed our belief in it tends to be. Law enforcement and politicians in the show say that despite what DNA testing shows, the lead character would not have confessed if he weren't guilty. That greatly mirrors the sentiments I've heard in the outside world. The reality is that anyone can be so worn down that they'll eventually confess to anything, no matter how strong they believe themselves to be. And it happens all the time -- from people who are killed after confessing to practicing witchcraft, to people sentenced to lethal injection even though the crime scene bears no resemblance to the confession tortured out of them.
All in all, I'd say Rectify is a powerful and realistic show which more than holds the viewer's attention. But will I be watching it in the future? No, because it's all a rerun to me.
This story appears in Issue 45 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, April 19.
Follow Damien Echols on Twitter: www.twitter.com/damienechols