isited death row for the first time two weeks ago. I went there to see Charles Walker, a 35-year-old New Yorker who had written to me about his case. A Guilford County jury sentenced Walker to death in 1995 even though the victim's body and a murder weapon were never found. His trial was one of the few "no body" murder cases in North Carolina history.
When I called Central Prison in Raleigh to find out about procedures for interviewing death row inmates, I was referred to Captain Marshall Hudson. He grilled me about the reason for my visit and told me he needed a written request for an interview and formal permission from Walker's attorneys. We went around in circles for several days. Hudson insisted that an initial letter from the attorneys wasn't detailed enough and he needed another before I could see Walker. The secretary in the law office was indignant when I called to tell her about the holdup. "We sent them the standard letter that says you're working on the case," she said. "Anything other than that is none of their business."
Finally, the paperwork was in order and I found myself in the waiting area on the grounds of Central Prison. The room was as impersonal and unimpressive as a bus station, with its aging water fountain, long greenish couch and a row of orange lockers. After we produced our driver's licenses and signed a visitor's log, Hudson escorted the two attorneys and me up the driveway and into the prison. We got into an elevator and rode in silence for a few seconds, then entered a low-ceilinged room divided by a glass window that was rounded like a fish bowl. Almost immediately, Walker was led into his side of the room and seated in a folding chair.
Sunlight hitting the glass obscured his face and I had to squint to make out his features. We talked for more than an hour. Hudson sat silently at my elbow the whole time. When it was time to go, Walker's attorneys promised to send me the trial transcripts and went off to visit another client. It wasn't until I'd pulled out of the prison parking lot and was several miles down Western Boulevard that I realized I hadn't once seen Walker's hands. They'd been behind him the whole time, in shackles.
A few days later, I called the prison warden, Robey Lee, to ask whether death row inmates are usually restrained when they have visitors. He told me that Walker was in chains as punishment for breaking prison rules. But when pressed about the interview setup, Lee admitted that things have gotten stricter since a furor erupted some months ago over an ad campaign by the Italian clothing company Benetton. The ads feature in-your-face interviews with death row inmates--including seven from North Carolina.
Prison officials claim they were misled into thinking the interviews were for a magazine feature story. Since that time, media interviews with death row prisoners are "non-contact" encounters, Robey says, conducted behind glass and in the presence of prison staff.
Walker has his own theories about the way media visits are handled on death row. In a letter to the warden, he wrote that the shackles were a ploy to intimidate me and make him appear "as a notorious, ruthless murderer" instead of "an innocent man wrongfully put in jail on death row." In a letter sent to me that same day, he enclosed four snapshots that were taken before his trial. I can see his hands in every one.