It could only make sense in the twisted world of American justice. A death row prisoner’s life was saved because he wrote to a judge begging to be executed.
After decades behind bars protesting his innocence, he could no longer stand the failed appeals, the enforced silences, and the despair of another extinguished dream of freedom. He requested that his trip to the electric chair take place in the coming months.
“Dear Judge Giles, I ask that the one right that I have be recognized—and that is a condemned man’s right to be executed,” he explains in the documentary The Fear of 13. Nick believed this was the final chance to take control of his destiny.
“I was going to be executed but I was going to have some words for them when I left in eloquence, not anger,” he told The Daily Beast.
Over the previous 20 years, a messed-up kid, who was addicted to drugs and could barely read, had transformed himself into an erudite student who had worked his way through 10,000 books.
He would write down the new words he encountered each day—sometimes 30, sometimes 50 at the beginning—spelling them out over and over again, learning their meaning. “With every new book I found something wonderful about myself,” he recalled.
“On the day of my execution I was going to quote something so beautiful. I could prove to them, I had erased and broken the person they thought me to be—while showing I had replaced them with someone I loved. That was my whole goal of educating myself.”
Nick’s extraordinary metamorphosis is charted in an engrossing true crime drama, which is playing at Doc NYC next month. With the help of well-shot reconstructions, most of the documentary is simply a searing and captivating monologue as one man recounts the jaw-dropping twists of fate that left him falsely imprisoned for so long.
Speaking after the premiere in London, director David Sington told The Daily Beast that The Fear of 13 wasn’t a campaign film about capital punishment but Nick’s story highlighted one of its greatest failings.
“I think the worst aspect of the death penalty as it exists in America is this very long period between conviction and execution,” he said. “You’re not really executing the person who did the crime. You’re executing this different person who’s now had a decade or two decades of a completely different kind of world.”
Sington had been planning a more conventional documentary that charted Nick’s false imprisonment and his eventual release, which came when Judge James T. Giles responded to his letter by ordering a full review of the evidence, including DNA tests that would prove his innocence.
After meeting the death row inmate, it became clear to Sington that allowing the camera to roll as Nick, now 54, let rip was the only way to go.
“He is a master storyteller telling his own story. The story he’s telling is how he became a storyteller. And that’s very important, because he gets into prison because he tells a stupid story, he makes up this foolish lie to get him off something—ironically he was destined to get off in any case—but in the end, of course, he liberates himself with another story—a letter.”
Nick’s intensity and look are reminiscent of James Carville in full flow; the more time you spend with him, the more you are left in awe.
How can he possibly remain so positive, and reject any feelings of bitterness after spending 23 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit?
“Swear to God, the last time I let that bitterness get to me was after my brother died. I realized I ain’t got a damn reason to be bitter because my brother is dead. My parents have lost him,” he said. “I can steal every good intention of my parents and my family who prayed and prayed for me by being a cock. By coming out [of prison] and being a self-centered bitter bastard, I would rob everyone who cared about me or cried for me of the dignity they deserved.”
He hopes this movie and his story of overcoming a terrible start in life will help to inspire other teenagers who feel they are in a spiral of drug-taking and criminality. “I don’t want them to be ashamed, I want them to be empowered. If I can achieve that then my own embarrassment is set aside,” he said. “The greatest quote I ever heard was Pablo Picasso. He said, ‘The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.’”
Nick continues to share his “gift” by extolling the virtues of reading, and broadening the horizons of young people who may be on a path to imprisonment.
With inhuman levels of equanimity, Nick says he partially deserved to be in prison for all that time because he was not a nice person when he was jailed at the age of 20. That doesn’t mean he can’t see the errors of a system of capital punishment he describes as embarrassing for the United States.
“We’re in an antiquated mindset,” he said. “Shamefully, 140 people were exonerated last year, and some of them with as much as 35 years on death row. How is that still possible in the modern age? I got out 11 years ago and I expected some significant change. I was the 13th death row prisoner set free because of DNA in America. I can’t believe those are the only mistakes they made in that whole time. I fail to believe that.”