TURN IT

Waiting to Die: Life on Death Row
by Richard Michael Rossi


Book Review by Jeffrey Hillard
June 2008

 

Although Richard Michael Rossi was a death row inmate in the state penitentiary at Florence, Arizona, he died in a prison hospital in 2005. His last appeal had been denied, and he was scheduled to be executed. A prolific writer who published much during his incarceration, Rossi left a number of essays, poems, articles, and his provocative memoir, Waiting to Die: Life on Death Row.

Rossi had friends and admirers of his writing that urged him to write this book. He has an insider’s perspective on death row that clarifies, in a very straightforward way, the stringent conditions of the Row without exaggerating the effects of execution or of living day to day knowing you, the inmate, are slated to die.

Waiting to Die is a seminal book from a death row inmate’s perspective on what Rossi calls his adamant opposition to the death penalty. Very few books have been written by death row inmates that so intelligently argue against the death penalty. The book should be read not because it’s essentially a polemic that discounts, from Rossi’s view, the notion that execution is a crime deterrent or “just punishment” for an individual that committed a capital crime, but because Rossi’s personal journey toward his moment of execution is sharply captured.

In the first part of the book, Rossi recounts his life, and he’s especially direct in the way he describes his murder of a man in 1983. It was not premeditated. It happened suddenly. Rossi’s heavy drug use at the time, he writes, clouded his judgment, triggered his anger, and fueled his desire to act violently against someone he knew.

Rossi writes eloquently about his passion, which is his vehement opposition to the death penalty. He writes without resorting to overwrought prose, remaining level-headed in most all of his descriptions and arguments. He was in an institution where occasional administering of the death penalty has been botched or too gruesome to fathom.

Rossi is keen to point out the problems with the death penalty, as he and his outside advocates see them. He makes verifiable points, but most compelling is “the sentencing of execution” when it pertains to a learning disabled person, as in the case of Donald J. Miller, a “mildly retarded” man, Rossi writes, who was executed on November 8, 2000 by lethal injection. In fact, according to Rossi’s account, Miller basically “gave up” after a move to a “control unit” which prompted Miller to go “downhill rapidly.” Even so, a court-appointed attorney – a “caring and capable one” – made a valiant effort to encourage Miller to keep appealing, to keep up his spirits. But, the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADOC) made it difficult for both men, as Rossi writes: “…once the machinery of death tastes of blood, it keeps rolling on, resisting any attempt to deny it fresh bodies.”

Waiting to Die is not chronological, but it’s not difficult to follow. In fact, each chapter could stand alone. The first few chapters cover the essentials of Rossi’s traumatic childhood (severe beatings by his father), drug abuse, early marriage and financial success and failure, the homicide he committed, and his imprisonment – all in about 40 taut pages of writing. Rossi took a man’s life in a feverishly drug-induced, angry moment – something he continually regretted while incarcerated and showed great remorse for.

In succeeding chapters, Rossi shows that he did much research before he died. His writing, though, is never too abstract; it is plain but never boring. He knows stories of inmates on the Row. He wants you to know whether they died of execution or waiting to be executed.

The most important aspect of Waiting to Die is Rossi’s tone in the writing, thus making the book’s title ironic. There may be “dying,” yet the book is filled with hope. Rossi believed that one day the death penalty in this country will be abolished once and for all. In all likelihood, it is going to be a very long time if this abolition occurs. Rossi was never behind bars to give up. You never receive words of hopelessness from Richard Rossi.

 

waiting to die