Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil

Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil

 

After you are convicted of felony in Michigan, before you even leave the courthouse, the authorities will swab your cheek for DNA, then take you back to the county jail in the cool quiet of their cruiser. You should enjoy the trip, because it’s the last quiet car ride you may ever take.

Things were quiet when I returned to my four-man cell on A North. My cellmates had seen me convicted on T.V., and they were subdued and respectful. The jail personnel were quiet as well—as if I were on my deathbed—and they came around more often than usual to make sure I wasn’t hanging by a bed sheet from the shower nozzle.

I had been under no illusion about how things were going to work out, so I wasn’t disappointed or shocked. In case you one day need this advice, remember: Unless you’ve got a million dollars for a huge defense, expect the worst, because that is what’s going to happen.

I spent the next month in the county jail awaiting sentencing—though since the instatement of mandatory sentencing, that was a foregone conclusion: Life without parole for the felony murder, and ten to thirty years for weapons charge. I was found not guilty on three charges of attempted murder: I had gone upstairs of the unfamiliar house of the crime, came across three apartment dwellers and fired the gun wildly. At sentencing, the prosecutor tried to add more years to my sentence for the three crimes I was found innocent of. She said there was evidence of the crimes, and though I was found not guilty of them, they still happened. Even the judge was taken aback by her request.

I was thinking about that the other night, for no particular reason, and wished that I knew then what I know now. I don’t think I would be as quiet and polite today as I was then. I was too respectful. Today I like to think that if my prosecutor, Karen Hayter (that’s her real name), tried to get me a longer sentence for things I wasn’t even convicted of, I’d yell, “Are you fucking crazy!?” Judge Johnson would have reprimanded me, but so what? What were they going to do, send me to jail for contempt of court?

Remember this as well should you ever find yourself facing prison: Respect the judicial system, but not too much. Don’t be afraid of all those men in suits, those women in fancy pantyhose (I don’t know if it was a courthouse fad or what, but all the women wore hose or stockings with fancy designs in them).

After a month in quarantine in Jackson—which was like heaven compared to the Kalamazoo County Jail—I was loaded onto a bus with forty other men in handcuffs and leg chains and taken to the Level 4 portion of the E.C. Brooks Facility in Muskegon Heights. After I got settled in there, I worked on writing a short story I had begun in Jackson, then got on the list to go to the library. I checked out Moby Dick, began reading it, but only got part-way through because I succumbed to peer pressure to begin “working on my case.”

I learned a lot about good, appealable issues I had. I am not innocent, and have never claimed to be completely innocent, but neither am I guilty of felony murder requiring a life behind bars. For a lot of reasons, mostly dealing with politics (appearing “hard on crime” when re-election time comes around) defendants are more often than not over-charged and spend too long in prison for the crimes they committed.

So you have to appeal despite the insurmountable odds, and it’s a little disingenuous of me to say otherwise (which I’ll do in two paragraphs) as if everyone else’s appeals are frivolous. It’s also less than forthright not to mention that I shot a man dead who had no business being shot by a drugged-out freak in a strange Halloween get-up. On my way out of the courthouse for the last time, the victim’s elderly mother handed me a letter she had written to recite at my sentencing—it was full of forgiveness and a hope that I could do something with the life I was left with. I still have a copy of it, and I’m sorry every day for what I did.

Which, I felt, should have got me a new trial. I spent a lot of miserable time in law books, and went through the process to no avail. I just got angry that no court would see it my way. I would have been better off finishing Moby Dick and not listening to the men around me.

That’s pretty good advice, too—advice I wish someone had told me: You’re better off reading a book about chasing a mythical whale than filing motions and appeals.

Appealing a conviction is similar to the lottery. The odds of winning are about the same, and I’m convinced the higher courts let a case go back to trial every now and then just to keep alive the tiny candlelight of inmates’ hope. Without many of the two million inmates throughout the country filing appeals ad nauseum, many men and women employed by the court system would be out of a job. If the prisoners of America would stop with their court filings for only one year, there would be panic in the courts. But they won’t. Try getting the poor to stop spending money on lottery tickets and gambling. They won’t do it. It’s the only hope they have, so for now, all those men in suits and women in fancy-patterned pantyhose are safe. The law schools are overflowing, just as the jails and the courthouses are.

Despite evidence to the contrary, I’m a very fortunate person. I have a love of books that has sustained me throughout this ordeal. Most of the men I’m around have no such passion. I have loved reading for as long as I can remember, and I paid attention when books like Midnight in the Garden came out, making big splashes, so twenty years later when I see them on a shelf, a little light goes on in my mind’s memory bank. Inside or outside of prison, there is nothing I would rather be doing than reading, and writing about what I’m reading. I’m fortunate to be doing what I love regardless of where I ended up.

 

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is about Savannah, Georgia, and a murder that took place there in 1981. The shooter was an upstanding antiques dealer and the murdered boy a troubled twenty-one-year-old hustler who may or may not have been trying to kill the antiques dealer at the time he was shot three times.

The main character, though, is the infecting environment of Savannah, in all of its insulated quirkiness. This infecting strangeness becomes a problem because it wears thin, fast. Everyone we meet is a “character”: you’ve got your theatrical drag queen; your voodoo woman with purple glasses casting spells everywhere; your loveable Southern womanizing ne’er-do-well; an eccentric genius; the gay antiques dealer; etc., etc. They were actual people, I suppose, but they didn’t seem real. Blanche Dubois, in A Streetcar Named Desire seems real because she was painted in relief against the identifiable lower-class of New Orleans. If everyone in your story is a Blanche Dubois, the audience just gets tired of them. No one can stand an entire city of Blanche.

The people in this book all seem as if they are acting in an overwritten and overacted play. I think I’m supposed to be enamored of their Southern charm, but it comes off as childish and fake, which the author tries to explain by pointing out that Savannah is a little world unto itself. This might be true, but it doesn’t make me like the people, or care about their delusional joie de vivre.

But I don’t know why prison makes someone like me think they should give advice. If I’m so damn smart, what am I doing here? Maybe it is everyone’s’ natural inclination to become characters and types—in this case, the philosophical prisoner dispensing hard-won wisdom. Regardless, here’s a last little nugget: don’t come to prison for the free-time it gives you to read. And, if you begin reading Moby Dick, don’t stop just because some jailhouse idiots say you should be doing something else.

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About the Author

Curtis Dawkins is BULL's chief book reviewer. He earned an M.F.A. from Western Michigan University and is currently an inmate at the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia, Michigan. His short story collection, Prison Ink, is the first release from BULL Books.