40 x 40 cm
Oil on canvas 2009
Death Row Mississippi
Commuted to Life 2008 – present day
In 1982 Howard was sentenced to death for the murder of his niece and his half-brother. The only prosecution evidence was his confession made after two days of interrogation. No lawyer was present. The statement was not recorded, written down or signed. Howard has an IQ of 54 and the approximate equivalent mental age of an 8 year old. He claims that during his interrogation he was intimidated and assaulted.
After a long wait and intimate searches I boarded a bus with other death row inmate families. We passed small units encircled by massive razor wire fences where prisoners in distinctive stripy trousers hung around on yards or worked the land. Finally, we arrived at unit 32-C, Death Row, Mississippi State Penitentiary, the notorious ‘Parchman’, where Howard has been held for the past 26 years. As he shuffled into the visiting room, I hesitated, not recognizing this stocky middle-aged man from the only photo I had of him – his mug-shot taken 26 years earlier. As he stared intently at me, I knew it must be him. With his ankles chained together, and to the stool, and wrists chained to his waist, he sat awkwardly behind the glass. He struggled to put his ear to the phone, bending sideways to hold it in his chained-down hand.
He told me about his traumatic childhood when his abusive father took his dog and drowned it in the creek. At the age of 9 he was placed in an institution for the “mentally retarded”, followed at 16 by a spell in a state mental hospital. Despite this history and a 2002 ruling that “mentally retarded” prisoners should not be executed the state of Mississippi required Howard to take more intelligence tests. Unaware of the significance of these tests Howard told me that he was determined to do his best, repeatedly asking me if I thought he seemed retarded. In 2008, a year after I met him, the state finally accepted his low IQ and commuted his sentence to life without parole.
He remains at Parchman but has finally left the 6’ x 9’ cell where for 26 years he spent 23½ hours a day. He is happier now he has a job in the kitchens and can go out onto a bigger yard and, with his simple Christian faith, he seems touchingly optimistic about the future.
Drawings by Howard Neal
“They killed a inmate here last Wednesday. He was on death row over 20 years.” - Excerpt
from one of Howard’s Letters
"Yes I am OFF death Row now. I am very blessed to get OFF death Row. I got me a job working in The kitchen. I love to work and stay busy. I love to go on they yard, we have a big yard here. I do a lot walking on The yard. I am a very busy man now. smile.” - Excerpt from one of Howard’s Letters