They entered the narrow corridor, father and son, on this morning in late February 1996, and made their way to the tiny cell on Death Row where Antonio James had lived for fourteen years. Sixteen-year-old Marshall Cain was used to the cell blocks, locks, and multiple doors of a maximum-security prison. He'd grown up in that world, grown up making prison rounds with his dad and riding horses with the cowboy inmates working the cattle at the Louisiana State Penitentiary--familiarly known as Angola.
Now he wanted to visit Antonio.
He didn't have much time. In just a few days, James, sentenced to death for killing a man in a New Orleans robbery, would leave his "home" for a final journey. Guards would transport him to a holding cell in Camp F, some distance from the Death Row complex and on the other side of the broad expanse that is Angola.
Shortly before sundown on March 1, guards would escort James from the holding cell into an area where visitors normally congregated with other prisoners on visiting days at the prison. Then they would take the condemned man through a heavily secured metal door, down a short hallway, and at last into a brightly lit but sterile room where he would be strapped to a gurney and put to death by lethal injection.
The teenage, Marshall Cain, had asked his dad, Burl, the warden of Angola who would preside over James's execution, if he could take a plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies to the condemned inmate, now less than a week from his appointment with death. The father, who had come to deeply appreciate how James made the most of his days on Death Row, readily agreed. "I had no idea what kind of interchange might occur between a sixteen-year-old and a man counting off the last days of his life," Burl Cain said later.
Antonio James seemed delighted to see the two visitors. He quickly got up from the cot that he used both for sleeping and as a chair of sorts in which to sit, study, write, and watch the communal television anchored high on a wall across from his cell. He extended his right hand through the bars, and both the warden and his son shook it. They marveled at the upbeat countenance of someone who, it seemed, had so little to look forward to, locked up as he had been in this tiny cell for so many years and now preparing himself, as best he could, to die.
Marshall Cain's eyes momentarily turned away from the man whom society had sentenced to death for what he had done. The teenager began taking mental snapshots of the scene, snapshots he would never forget, absorbing details of Antonio's meager existence. It was such a tiny cell where James lived, about the size of a cage housing wild animals at the zoo, without windows, pictures, or any signs of warmth. There was barely enough room for a thin cot, a small wooden chest in which the inmate stored his belongings, a weathered stainless steel toilet, and small sink with a faded mirror above it. Marshall stifled a shudder.
Then something else caught the teenager's attention. There, on top of the chest, was a worn and much-underlined Bible, Antonio James's most precious possession. The inmate kept it open so he could immediately turn to one of his favorite passages. James would say that it was the Bible and its message to him, that not only prepared him to accept his ultimate fate, but also served as an encouragement to other Death Row inmates struggling to keep from losing their sanity and flat out giving up. Burl Cain had told his son how this condemned man had come to use his time over the years teaching other Death Row inmates how to read so that they, too, might find a measure of hope in a hopeless situation.
Antonio James had dodged death once before when in March 1995, only hours from having his life ended, his attorneys had successfully negotiated a stay of execution. He had tried to make the most of the subsequent time he had left, tried to leave behind something good. But now his additional time was rapidly running out, falling away like the grains of sand slipping through a narrow hole of an hourglass. There was virtually no likelihood James would avoid dying on schedule this time.
Yet here he was, still reaching out to others and now taking a moment to savor the sweet aroma of the cookies he would soon devour. His smiling face offered no hint that the inmate dreaded, or would struggle against when the hour arrived, what the state of Louisiana planned to do to him as final punishment for a killing he helped to commit as a teenager...