No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row

No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row

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by Susan Kuklin

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No Choirboy takes readers inside America's prisons and allows inmates sentenced to death as teenagers to speak for themselves. In their own voices—raw and uncensored—they talk about their lives in prison and share their thoughts and feelings about how they ended up there. Susan Kuklin also gets inside the system, exploring capital punishment itself

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No Choirboy takes readers inside America's prisons and allows inmates sentenced to death as teenagers to speak for themselves. In their own voices—raw and uncensored—they talk about their lives in prison and share their thoughts and feelings about how they ended up there. Susan Kuklin also gets inside the system, exploring capital punishment itself and the intricacies and inequities of criminal justice in the United States.

This is a searing, unforgettable read, and one that could change the way we think about crime and punishment.

No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row is a 2009 Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“* This powerful book should be explored and discussed in high schools all across our country.” —School Library Journal, starred review

“A searing and provocative account that will touch teens' most fundamental beliefs and questions about violence, punishment, our legal and prison systems, and human rights.” —Booklist

VOYA - Stephanie Petruso
Until 2005, the United States was one of few countries that still sentenced teenage offenders to death. Kuklin offers a series of interviews with young men on death row, their families, and the families of violent crime victims who oppose the death penalty. Speaking with inmates and their lawyers, she highlights flaws in the American justice system that can allow evidence to be blatantly ignored or one person involved in the crime to become a scapegoat for others. She aims to show that a crime, no matter how heinous, does not define a person's entire life. Such is the case of seventeen-year-old Nanon Williams, who was sentenced to death for murder despite conflicting testimony from the key witness. In prison, Williams became a scholar and writer. He published several books and a prison newsletter, becoming the reluctant keeper of the stories of the death row men. Ironically death row has proven to be one place he could focus and educate himself. The young men featured made serious and terrible decisions, but each has other contributions to offer the world. Basically a critical view of the American legal system, this book's arguments apply not only to teenagers but also to any person sentenced to die in a flawed legal system. It is a good nonfiction choice for boys, and teachers may want to teach it in a unit on the death penalty. Reviewer: Stephanie Petruso
Children's Literature - Renee Farrah
Six anti-death penalty interviews stir up questions about morality and the United States justice system. Three interviews are with men who were convicted of crimes before they turned 18 and blame their youthful ignorance for dooming the rest of their lives. Two interviews are with families that have been affected by death, one that lost a son and brother when he was the victim of murder, and the other that lost a son and brother to the death penalty as a convicted killer. The last is with the venerated lawyer who represents two of the condemned storytellers; he explains why he takes on death row cases. What connects the stories is more than the young age of the offenders, but rather a sense of disbelief. The book pushes the injustice of sentencing teens to death row, but the prison conditions are just as appalling. The constant fear and violence of prison pushes convicts further from their humanity and makes adjusting to outside life, if they were ever to be released, seem impossible. Many of the procedures of lawyers and courtrooms also seem corrupt, to the extent that reading this book almost feels like reading about conspiracies. That is what makes this book ideal for discussion, despite its one-sided presentation. Includes cursing, discussion of rape, drugs, homosexuality, and violence. Reviewer: Renee Farrah
School Library Journal

Gr 9 Up

Kuklin tells five stories here; four are about young men who committed murder before they reached the age of 18, and one is the story of a victim's family. Each narrative presents a picture of a troubled youth who did something he later regretted, but something that could not be undone. Within these deftly painted portraits, readers also see individuals who have grown beyond the adolescents who committed the crimes. They see compassion, remorse, and lives wasted within the penal system. Some of the stories tell of poverty and life on the streets, but others are stories of young men with strong, loving families. One even asks readers not to blame his family for his act of violence. Most of the book is written in the words of the men Kuklin interviewed. Their views are compelling; they are our neighbors, our nephews, our friends' children, familiar in many ways, but unknowable in others. Kuklin depicts the penal system as biased against men of color, and any set of statistics about incarceration and death-row conviction rates will back her up. She also emphasizes that being poor is damning once a crime is committed. She finally introduces Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who has worked on the cases of two of the interviewees, who talks about his efforts to help those who are on death row. This powerful book should be explored and discussed in high schools all across our country.-Wendy Smith-D'Arezzo, Loyola College, Baltimore, MD

Kirkus Reviews
Death Row inmates sentenced to die for crimes they committed as juveniles are profiled here, as well as victims' families, the family of one man already put to death and the lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, an organization focused on the rights of indigent prisoners. Kuklin lets the inmates tell their stories in their own words, providing some minor narration about legal points. Readers may be surprised to learn of the diverse backgrounds of those convicted of capital crimes: Not all came from broken homes or disadvantaged backgrounds. Some didn't have a criminal record prior to their convictions. This is an excellent read for any student researching the death penalty or with an interest in law and sociology. The author/photographer paints the convicts and their families as neither wholly good nor bad, but human. The convicts themselves speak with a wisdom that can only come from years of negotiating the dangers of prison life, and their stories may change more than one mind regarding what makes a criminal. (Nonfiction. YA)

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Product Details

Square Fish
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range:
14 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

Decatur, Alabama,

August 12, 1993

Kevin Gardner was not home, even though it was way past his ­eleven-­o’clock curfew. Kevin was a good kid, and it was unusual for him to stay out late without calling to let his parents know where he was. When he didn’t show up the next morning, his father called the police.

That same night a police officer had received a dispatch to meet some individuals at Cedar Lake. They had discovered a body. It was Kevin’s.

Before long, the focus of the investigation turned to Kevin’s friend Roy Burgess Jr. Like Kevin, he was sixteen years old.

Roy: The judge said, “Stand up.” I was crying bad. I was so nervous. “By the power invested in me by the State of Alabama, I hereby sentence you to die by electrocu—­” He couldn’t get the word out ’cause I went crying and screaming. In the court there was a big commotion. My mother. My father. My brothers. They was all screaming.

Nine or ten police rushed to the courtroom. There were two big redneck policemen—­one had juice dripping down his chin from chewin’ tobacco. They literally carried me from the courthouse through a catwalk, a tunnel, and straight down to the garage and into a squad car. There were a few ladies there, female judges. Their eyes were filled with tears. They tried to control it when I went by. They had their hands over their mouths, but I could see the tears in their eyes. The officer with the chewin’ tobacco had a huge pistol, like a .357, some ­long-­barrel revolver. He said, “You done killed one, but I’m going home tonight, and I’m going home alive.” I was still crying. They sent somebody to gather up my property, what little I had. I didn’t get to see my family or say ­good-­bye or anything.

It’s a big mess. A big mess.

They put me in belly chains and dragged me, still crying, to a squad car. We rode over five hours, maybe seven, to the state prison. They had the red and blue lights on, but no siren. They were going seventy, eighty. But for the time I came to this prison here—­in ’96—­that was one time I was on the highway after the trial.

It was December, around seven or eight o’clock, so it was dark when we arrived. Before we even got there, I could see the prison for a mile or two. It was all lit up like a dome, like an aura. There was razor wire all around, and towers. My knees were knocking so bad.

I don’t see myself as a monster, man. I can be productive. I can carry a job. I got a work permit when I was fifteen. My first job I worked at Popeyes. I cooked. The second job I had at Long John Silver’s. And the third job I got at a steak house.

I got something to tell. I’m embarrassed to talk into this tape ’cause I know my grammar ain’t so good. I’m into talking about this to you because I don’t have many people to talk to here. The other inmates can be hateful. This place can make people hateful. There are some genuine gangsters here. I try to keep that in mind. I was a coward. I still am.

To get back to what happened when I went to death row, they searched me and took my measurements for clothes. They found out what I’m allergic to, if anything. They checked to see what I got that I ain’t supposed to have. I just had my clothes, didn’t have nothin’ else with me.

Then I was taken to my cell. The cells were in tiers like you see in the movies. Twelve cells upstairs and twelve downstairs. They took me to cell ­5-­6. That’s tier five, cell number six. It was tan, light brown, with steel walls. It got bars in the front of the cell. It was really small. It looked like a closet. Roaches everywhere. There was a steel cot with a mattress that they issue. I didn’t get a pillow at first. There was a toilet and sink. There was a shelf over the bed for the tv, if you got one. Your family would have to buy it. The way I understand it, when a guy didn’t have a family, other inmates would try to assist him, or the chaplain would.

The thing that tripped me out the most was after they had me processed. See, they took me to my cell. At that time you could have radios. Everybody was playing the blues. Soul music. It creeped me. There was blues all up and down the tiers. You know, I come to like it after a while, but back then it creeped me out so bad. On the street I listened to Led Zeppelin, Shardee, stuff like that. Everything but bluegrass. This was just the blues.

There were a few people there who I know’d from the county jail. They spoke to me when they saw me come in or heard me come in. Thank God I made it to my cell without cryin’.

I hadn’t eaten all day. The guard went to the commissary and brought back a bag of cookies. I’m crying all night. Cryin’ and eatin’ cookies, all night long.

That first night, I thought the state was going to kill me right then and there. I’m thinking that I’d be dead in a month. I didn’t understand what the appeals process was about. I thought I only had a few weeks.

Oh, man, I was scared. I had seen a lot of movies about prison, but I had never been to prison. And now here I am not only going to prison for the first time, but I’m going to death row, too. Man!

Roy’s been in prison since he was sixteen years old. First he was in a county jail and then on death row in a state penitentiary. In 2001, his death sentence was reversed, and he was shifted from death row to a general, ­maximum-­security prison. It’s only been a few years since he’s been off the row. This year is his tenth year locked up, an anniversary that weighs on him.

The time I was on death row I was a kid, man. I wasn’t even able to vote for the politicians who opposed the death penalty. I wasn’t able to join the military. I wasn’t old enough to buy liquor. How do you sentence somebody that young to death?

As long as you’re alive and breathing, you got a chance. Once they kill you and bury you, it’s over. I got hope, but I ask myself how long is it gonna take? Ten years? Twenty? I’m ­twenty-­six. In twenty years, I’m ­forty-­six. Whew. Can’t get that time back.

It’s a mess. One big mess. I mean, the whole thing ­happened so fast. You don’t take time to care about it. At least I didn’t. I know I did an awful thing. If they change me from ­life-­without to just life, the minimum time is seven. Seven years. That’s if the family, the Gardners, don’t protest.

This Friday will be August 13, and I will be off the street ten years. Man. I ain’t seen the moon or the stars in ten years. I ain’t felt grass on my feet in ten years. Women talk about a biological clock, right? I feel like I have a biological clock. I want a family. I want kids.

Man. My whole life, man. I’m done. Man!

Here’s what led up to Roy landing on death row.

He was hanging out with a group of guys—­Kevin M., Demetrus S., and Richie J.—­who shared an apartment across the street from Roy’s girlfriend’s house. They were a few years older than Roy. No one can figure out how these guys paid their rent because only one of them worked, part time, delivering pizza.

“See, that’s what I don’t like about this whole mess.” Roy leans forward. “They weren’t what I thought they was at the time. They was gang members. I got very little respect for gang members. They were older. The one time I hung out with a tough crowd, it got me in trouble.”

Roy lived with his family in a ­middle-­class development. His mother worked in a bank. His father worked for an antifreeze company. Though he came from a stable home, Roy had his problems. He was in and out of school. “I want to tell you about that,” Roy says. “I was just weak, just coasting through life. Man! I don’t even know how to describe myself.

“I went to school. I was in the tenth grade when I got locked up, getting ready to go to the eleventh. I had teachers I admired, but I didn’t pay them no mind at the time, you know what I’m saying? As far as teachers, man, I had three teachers I wish I could get in touch with now, just to let them know they made some type of impact on me.

“That’s another thing—­I had conflicts sometimes. I can’t resist conflicts. Sometimes I bite my tongue about this. I got in trouble a lot. But it was all kid stuff. It wasn’t violent. Firecrackers to school. Pranks. I was suspended for saying certain things.”

What things?

“Saying stuff in class.” [pause] “Sometimes we all need to grow up. But I never got suspended for fighting or things like that. There was a lot of ­self-­deprecation ’cause I tried to fit in. I was a fair student, Bs, Cs, an occasional A. I liked science. Math intimidated me. The more I do math, the more beauty I see in it. I wish I had applied myself more.”

According to the trial records, Roy had been picked up for petty thefts, but he had no significant prior criminal activities.

“I was an ass.”

Roy sips his Coke. His thoughts are beyond this room, in some other place. The small space where we are talking is quiet but for the humming of the air conditioner.

On the day of Kevin Gardner’s murder, all the guys were hanging out at the apartment, drinking beer, smoking weed. They got to talking about how they needed some money. One of them said, “Let’s go steal a car, or a car stereo, or something at the mall.” They all ­hustled over to the mall. While the others went inside, Roy hung around the parking lot talking to someone in a white, ­sporty-­looking pickup truck.

Roy hitched a ride from one end of the parking lot to the other with the driver of the truck. Later, at the trial, the man told the court that Roy stopped him outside the mall and asked for a ride, asked about his speaker system, asked if he had any money and did he want to buy a gun. The prosecutors used this to suggest that Roy was trying to carjack the truck. It had nothing to do with Kevin Gardner. According to Roy, what he was trying to do was sell the man a ­broken-­down pistol.

After not coming up with money at the mall, Roy and his friends went back to their homes. Later in the day, Roy returned to the guys’ apartment and asked Richie and Demetrus if they wanted to go to a party at Cedar Lake. Kevin Gardner, a kid in his class, was waiting to drive them in his blue Firebird.

Roy introduced everyone and climbed into the front seat. Richie sat in the back behind Kevin. Demetrus sat behind Roy.

The stereo was blasting so loud, Richie and Demetrus later said, they couldn’t hear the conversation in the front. The car turned onto an unpaved road in an isolated area. Kevin refused to drive ­farther. They would have to get out and walk. According to Demetrus, Roy opened the door, then quickly turned and shot Kevin in the head.

“Oh, shit.”

Richie and Demetrus said they were terrified about what had happened. They were scared and huddled in the back seat. They wouldn’t help move the body. Roy had to do it himself. Then he drove the car back to town.

They returned to the apartment to find more guys. When told what had just happened, the new guys later described themselves as shocked and scared. But somehow they all had enough courage to come up with a plan to sell Kevin’s car to a chop shop in Birmingham, a little south of Decatur. Roy and Kevin M. drove Kevin’s car, and the rest followed in the car of a kid named Hayes.

As they caravanned to Birmingham, Roy and Kevin M. threw out items belonging to Kevin. A set of drums was tossed out on the road. Golf clubs he had borrowed from a friend were left at a service station. In Birmingham, they couldn’t find a chop shop, so they ended up leaving the car in the parking lot of a ­go-­go club and returned to Decatur.

Demetrus and Richie kept the car speakers. Roy went home with some cds and the cd player. He later sold them to a former neighbor, who would testify at the trial.

Demetrus also testified against Roy at the trial. He told the jury that he could not stop thinking about the murder. He said that he had trouble sleeping. He described the following day, when all three roommates paid a visit to Demetrus’s grandmother, who lived in the Cedar Lake area. First, they stopped to see if Kevin’s body was still there. It was. They called the police and said they found a dead body while they were out picking blackberries. On the witness stand, but for a few minor discrepancies, the other two roommates told similar stories.

After the police found Kevin’s body, they interviewed the three blackberry pickers. There was not much to go on, no obvious leads. One of the police officers had worked in narcotics divisions and already knew one of the guys. Since he knew where to find him if he needed more information, the police let Demetrus, Richie, and Kevin M. go home. Since they were all together in one apartment while Roy was alone at his family’s home, there was plenty of time for the three roommates to come up with a single story.

Soon thereafter, the police brought the three guys back to the station house and started to interrogate them. By law they could be charged with the murder because they were accomplices. There was plenty of evidence that they took part in the planning of the crime and stole Kevin’s car stereo. But Kevin M., Demetrus S., and Richie J. were promised complete immunity as long as they were not the ones who pulled the trigger. They fingered Roy for the murder of Kevin Gardner, and in return they spent not one day in jail.

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Meet the Author

Susan Kuklin is the author of nonfiction books for young adults and children. She is also a professional photographer whose photographs have appeared in Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times. She and her husband live in New York City.

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