Riddle’s Painting

November 17, 1994

Death row seeks to reduce people to the worst thing they’ve ever done. But relationships aren’t built on conversations about a man’s depravity. I had to consider each man anew, to understand the person beyond his crimes. Riddle was a test case in this. He loved to paint, though he wasn’t great at it. He’d order books on watercolor painting from the library. Like a prison yard Picasso, he’d stay up late at night, painting pictures for hours after the rest of us had gone to sleep. Sometimes he’d paint nature, creating his own national parks. It seemed as good an escape as any for a man trapped in a cage. This wasn’t his first exposure to paint; he’d learned to use it long after it learned to use him.

“What’s with this painting, man?” I asked him one night on the block.

“I just like it,” he told me. “Used to be, I’d get high on paint with my girl. We’d sit out in the middle of a field and huff all night. It was my retreat from life on the streets.”

Once, he said, the paint took hold and bastards closed in. He dipped off of planet earth into the depths of a bad trip. Dogs chased him in his waking dream as he ran so far he ended up in a tree. Those trips were routine for Riddle. He’d become addicted to drugs at a young age, succumbing to the uncertainty of his surroundings.

Riddle’s story was typical. Lurking behind almost every heinous crime was a backstory seldom told. Children growing up in crack dens, exposed to violence and harsh living. Many were abandoned, forced to face the world alone. They’d sought shelter in gangs, starting criminal careers that ended in some gas station hold-up, some home invasion, or maybe a drug deal gone bad in a park. Their backstories didn’t make their victims less dead. But those stories did partly explain how once-normal kids ended up facing the final weeks before being strapped to the gurney.