Derrick Jamison dresses keenly. Tonight he’s wearing black slacks and polished black loafers with a Cincinnati Reds jersey over a long-sleeve black t-shirt, a large silver cross dangling from a chain around his neck. A brand new flat-brimmed Reds ball cap presses down a large shock of hair that just peaks out from beneath. Derrick is black, six foot four, and almost always grinning. He stands out in most places, but he really stands out in this section of the baseball stadium of mostly white males.
“I’m looking forward to this! It’s been a long time,” Derrick says as we all sit down in the Great American Ballpark, just behind the Mets dugout. “There sure are a lot of Mets fans here. You think they travel with the team?” he says aloud, and then taps a guy in front of him on the shoulder who’s wearing a Tom Seaver jersey. “Are y’all following the Mets around the country?” he asks sincerely.
The Mets fan barks dismissively, “No. I live here,” and turns back around, quickly working into the conversation he’s having with another fan that he was at Game 7 of the 1986 World Series between the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox. While he was at that game in 1986, Derrick Jamison was on Ohio’s death row.
Since 1977, there have been 155 death row exonerations. Derrick is number 119. In all, he spent twenty years inside, seventeen of them on death row. He had six stays of execution, one of which came just 90 minutes before death. He had already had his last meal and made arrangements for his body.
And yet, here he is now at a Reds game on a cool September evening, on the same day that Pope Francis addressed Congress and called for the abolition of the death penalty. A month from now, on October 25, it will be the ten-year anniversary of his release from prison.
For Derrick though, celebrating that release is a mixed bag. He’s living proof of what’s at stake when we talk about the problems of the death penalty. Derrick was accused of the brutal murder of a Cincinnati bartender named Gary Mitchell,who was killed during a robbery in 1984. Two months later, Derrick was arrested for robbing a Gold Star Chili restaurant, and was wearing Pony shoes, as had been Mitchell’s killer. When a man named Charles Howell was arrested for being an accomplice to the murder, he claimed that Derrick was the killer. Howell got a reduced sentence for his testimony.
Derrick was sentenced to death on October 25, 1985, becoming one of 26 people sentenced to death in Hamilton County, Ohio, between 1981 and 1992. For context, this one county sentenced more people to death than 18 of the 38 states that enforced capital punishment during this time period.
But witness descriptions of the suspects didn’t match Jamison’s actual appearance. When one eyewitness to the robbery and murder was shown photos he identified two men—neither was Derrick Jamison. This evidence was suppressed by the police department. In 2000, Derrick was granted a new trial and a Federal judge said that the prosecutor working on the case, Mark Peipmeier, withheld evidence. The charges were dismissed in 2005.
According to the Innocence Project, over one-third of death row exonerees haven’t been adequately compensated. When Derrick was released, the prison gates were opened, and that’s about it. He received no restitution, no support. Despite enduring six stays of executions, eating what he was told was his last meal each time, and being 90 minutes away from his execution, Derrick received no compensation, because Ohio could claim he would have been incarcerated anyway for robbing the Gold Star Chili restaurant.
A few years later, Derrick was walking across the street from the justice center in Cincinnati and he passed Piepmier. He looked over and it was clear that he recognized him.
“He knew he was wrong, but I don’t hold in anger. How you gonna enjoy life like that? I saw those prison guards and their anger,” he pauses. “They killing people and then going home and kissing their kids goodnight.” Derrick says his faith got him through. And, perhaps, his kindness, his gentle demeanor. While in prison, he helped organize care packages for other inmates who did not have support from the outside. On the way into the ballpark, despite his limited resources, he stopped to talk to a homeless man and then gave him a dollar.
Derrick has a lot that he could be angry about. While on death row, his mother and father passed away—he blames their early deaths on the stress of his situation. “The death penalty not only kills inmates,” he says, “it kills families.” In some strange ways, though, he has a new family—that of death row exonerees, a group that forms a singular tribe of the once-incarcerated. They meditate daily not only on their newfound freedom, but on the fact that they were almost killed.
“Just to be clear, you know, I’m not just an exoneree, I’m an abolitionist. I got friends who are still inside.” After spending 20 years of his life in the system, Derrick spends his time trying to change it. He has spoken in every death penalty state and has travelled to other countries to fight against the U.S. death penalty. “I’ll fight ‘til my knuckles bleed for others on death row,” he says, “but I can’t go back to visit them. I can’t have that door close behind me again.”
Tonight provides Derrick with a temporary break in this fight. Tonight he’s most concerned with his Cincinnati Reds. It’s been a rough season. They’ve traded away starting pitchers Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake. And it shows. They’re at the bottom of the National League Central and the Mets are at the top of the East.
After the Reds got one back to tie the game in the sixth, one of the Mets tossed a ball to our section that was caught by the Mets fan wearing the Tom Seaver jersey. Derrick is delighted to be so close, and after the fan shows it off to one of his friends, he shoves the ball into the side pocket of his cargo shorts. Derrick asks him if he can see it. “No!” he yells back to Derrick, barely turning to look at him.
“There are some rude people in this world,” Derrick mutters under his breath.
Throughout the game, Derrick talks openly about his experience in prison among this crew of Mets fans. He tells a story of his basketball team, the one made of death row inmates who could beat the guards when the general population couldn’t.
At the end of the 7th inning, as the Mets jog off the field to their dugout, second basemen Danny Murphy tosses a ball several rows behind Derrick, there’s a mad scramble, and Derrick, along with Jack and Sean, the authors of this article, turn to their right to see who would catch it. Almost immediately after turning to follow the ball’s path, Sean sees that the ball has been knocked forward by fans competing to catch it and sticks his left hand out to catch it.
Derrick asks, “Where did the ball go?”
“Right here,” Sean says, handing the ball to Derrick. “Now you have your own.”
Derrick is ecstatic.
Soon after, a man who was sitting in our row a few seats down from us approaches Derrick after watching us take photos with the ball.
“Didn’t you talk at our church on Martin Luther King Day?”
“Yes, I did,” he replies.
“I recognized you. It’s good to see you. Congratulations!”
Derrick Jamison’s presence is testimony—an argument for abolishing the death penalty. Exonerees like Derrick give people a name and a face, a story to attach to the numbers and often vague pronouncements about capital punishment.
But since 2005, Derrick’s life has been rough at times. He struggles financially and psychologically, mostly with the personal trauma of being so close to death, and so often.
In the soft glow of the lights in the 8th inning, thumbing the caught ball in his hands, none of that matters. And it doesn’t matter that the Reds are losing. It’s just a game. There will be more chances, more games.
Sean Dunne is assistant professor of Sociology at Shawnee State University. He has published articles in The Irish Times, The Irish Independent, Z Magazine, and elsewhere.
Jack Shuler is author of three books including "The Thirteenth Turn: A History of the Noose" (PublicAffairs, 2014). His writing has appeared in Salon, The Atlantic, Los Angeles Times, Truthout, among others. He teaches at Denison University.