No Choirboy takes readers inside America's prisons and allows inmates sentenced to death as teenagers to speak for themselves. In their own voicesraw and uncensoredthey talk about their lives in prison and share their thoughts and feelings about how they ended up there. Susan Kuklin also gets inside the system, exploring capital punishment itself and the intricacies and inequities of criminal justice in the United States.
This is a searing, unforgettable read, and one that could change the way we think about crime and punishment.
No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row is a 2009 Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year.
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)|
|Age Range:||14 - 17 Years|
About the Author
Susan Kuklin is the author of nonfiction books for young adults and children, including No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row, Trial: The Inside Story, and Iqbal Masih and the Crusaders Against Child Slavery. She is also a professional photographer whose photographs have appeared in Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She and her husband live in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
August 12, 1993
Kevin Gardner was not home, even though it was way past his eleven-o’clock curfew. Kevin was a good kid, and it was unusual for him to stay out late without calling to let his parents know where he was. When he didn’t show up the next morning, his father called the police.
That same night a police officer had received a dispatch to meet some individuals at Cedar Lake. They had discovered a body. It was Kevin’s.
Before long, the focus of the investigation turned to Kevin’s friend Roy Burgess Jr. Like Kevin, he was sixteen years old.
Roy: The judge said, “Stand up.” I was crying bad. I was so nervous. “By the power invested in me by the State of Alabama, I hereby sentence you to die by electrocu—” He couldn’t get the word out ’cause I went crying and screaming. In the court there was a big commotion. My mother. My father. My brothers. They was all screaming.
Nine or ten police rushed to the courtroom. There were two big redneck policemen—one had juice dripping down his chin from chewin’ tobacco. They literally carried me from the courthouse through a catwalk, a tunnel, and straight down to the garage and into a squad car. There were a few ladies there, female judges. Their eyes were filled with tears. They tried to control it when I went by. They had their hands over their mouths, but I could see the tears in their eyes. The officer with the chewin’ tobacco had a huge pistol, like a .357, some long-barrel revolver. He said, “You done killed one, but I’m going home tonight, and I’m going home alive.” I was still crying. They sent somebody to gather up my property, what little I had. I didn’t get to see my family or say good-bye or anything.
It’s a big mess. A big mess.
They put me in belly chains and dragged me, still crying, to a squad car. We rode over five hours, maybe seven, to the state prison. They had the red and blue lights on, but no siren. They were going seventy, eighty. But for the time I came to this prison here—in ’96—that was one time I was on the highway after the trial.
It was December, around seven or eight o’clock, so it was dark when we arrived. Before we even got there, I could see the prison for a mile or two. It was all lit up like a dome, like an aura. There was razor wire all around, and towers. My knees were knocking so bad.
I don’t see myself as a monster, man. I can be productive. I can carry a job. I got a work permit when I was fifteen. My first job I worked at Popeyes. I cooked. The second job I had at Long John Silver’s. And the third job I got at a steak house.
I got something to tell. I’m embarrassed to talk into this tape ’cause I know my grammar ain’t so good. I’m into talking about this to you because I don’t have many people to talk to here. The other inmates can be hateful. This place can make people hateful. There are some genuine gangsters here. I try to keep that in mind. I was a coward. I still am.
To get back to what happened when I went to death row, they searched me and took my measurements for clothes. They found out what I’m allergic to, if anything. They checked to see what I got that I ain’t supposed to have. I just had my clothes, didn’t have nothin’ else with me.
Then I was taken to my cell. The cells were in tiers like you see in the movies. Twelve cells upstairs and twelve downstairs. They took me to cell 5-6. That’s tier five, cell number six. It was tan, light brown, with steel walls. It got bars in the front of the cell. It was really small. It looked like a closet. Roaches everywhere. There was a steel cot with a mattress that they issue. I didn’t get a pillow at first. There was a toilet and sink. There was a shelf over the bed for the tv, if you got one. Your family would have to buy it. The way I understand it, when a guy didn’t have a family, other inmates would try to assist him, or the chaplain would.
The thing that tripped me out the most was after they had me processed. See, they took me to my cell. At that time you could have radios. Everybody was playing the blues. Soul music. It creeped me. There was blues all up and down the tiers. You know, I come to like it after a while, but back then it creeped me out so bad. On the street I listened to Led Zeppelin, Shardee, stuff like that. Everything but bluegrass. This was just the blues.
There were a few people there who I know’d from the county jail. They spoke to me when they saw me come in or heard me come in. Thank God I made it to my cell without cryin’.
I hadn’t eaten all day. The guard went to the commissary and brought back a bag of cookies. I’m crying all night. Cryin’ and eatin’ cookies, all night long.
That first night, I thought the state was going to kill me right then and there. I’m thinking that I’d be dead in a month. I didn’t understand what the appeals process was about. I thought I only had a few weeks.
Oh, man, I was scared. I had seen a lot of movies about prison, but I had never been to prison. And now here I am not only going to prison for the first time, but I’m going to death row, too. Man!
Roy’s been in prison since he was sixteen years old. First he was in a county jail and then on death row in a state penitentiary. In 2001, his death sentence was reversed, and he was shifted from death row to a general, maximum-security prison. It’s only been a few years since he’s been off the row. This year is his tenth year locked up, an anniversary that weighs on him.
The time I was on death row I was a kid, man. I wasn’t even able to vote for the politicians who opposed the death penalty. I wasn’t able to join the military. I wasn’t old enough to buy liquor. How do you sentence somebody that young to death?
As long as you’re alive and breathing, you got a chance. Once they kill you and bury you, it’s over. I got hope, but I ask myself how long is it gonna take? Ten years? Twenty? I’m twenty-six. In twenty years, I’m forty-six. Whew. Can’t get that time back.
It’s a mess. One big mess. I mean, the whole thing happened so fast. You don’t take time to care about it. At least I didn’t. I know I did an awful thing. If they change me from life-without to just life, the minimum time is seven. Seven years. That’s if the family, the Gardners, don’t protest.
This Friday will be August 13, and I will be off the street ten years. Man. I ain’t seen the moon or the stars in ten years. I ain’t felt grass on my feet in ten years. Women talk about a biological clock, right? I feel like I have a biological clock. I want a family. I want kids.
Man. My whole life, man. I’m done. Man!
Here’s what led up to Roy landing on death row.
He was hanging out with a group of guys—Kevin M., Demetrus S., and Richie J.—who shared an apartment across the street from Roy’s girlfriend’s house. They were a few years older than Roy. No one can figure out how these guys paid their rent because only one of them worked, part time, delivering pizza.
“See, that’s what I don’t like about this whole mess.” Roy leans forward. “They weren’t what I thought they was at the time. They was gang members. I got very little respect for gang members. They were older. The one time I hung out with a tough crowd, it got me in trouble.”
Roy lived with his family in a middle-class development. His mother worked in a bank. His father worked for an antifreeze company. Though he came from a stable home, Roy had his problems. He was in and out of school. “I want to tell you about that,” Roy says. “I was just weak, just coasting through life. Man! I don’t even know how to describe myself.
“I went to school. I was in the tenth grade when I got locked up, getting ready to go to the eleventh. I had teachers I admired, but I didn’t pay them no mind at the time, you know what I’m saying? As far as teachers, man, I had three teachers I wish I could get in touch with now, just to let them know they made some type of impact on me.
“That’s another thing—I had conflicts sometimes. I can’t resist conflicts. Sometimes I bite my tongue about this. I got in trouble a lot. But it was all kid stuff. It wasn’t violent. Firecrackers to school. Pranks. I was suspended for saying certain things.”
“Saying stuff in class.” [pause] “Sometimes we all need to grow up. But I never got suspended for fighting or things like that. There was a lot of self-deprecation ’cause I tried to fit in. I was a fair student, Bs, Cs, an occasional A. I liked science. Math intimidated me. The more I do math, the more beauty I see in it. I wish I had applied myself more.”
According to the trial records, Roy had been picked up for petty thefts, but he had no significant prior criminal activities.
“I was an ass.”
Roy sips his Coke. His thoughts are beyond this room, in some other place. The small space where we are talking is quiet but for the humming of the air conditioner.
On the day of Kevin Gardner’s murder, all the guys were hanging out at the apartment, drinking beer, smoking weed. They got to talking about how they needed some money. One of them said, “Let’s go steal a car, or a car stereo, or something at the mall.” They all hustled over to the mall. While the others went inside, Roy hung around the parking lot talking to someone in a white, sporty-looking pickup truck.
Roy hitched a ride from one end of the parking lot to the other with the driver of the truck. Later, at the trial, the man told the court that Roy stopped him outside the mall and asked for a ride, asked about his speaker system, asked if he had any money and did he want to buy a gun. The prosecutors used this to suggest that Roy was trying to carjack the truck. It had nothing to do with Kevin Gardner. According to Roy, what he was trying to do was sell the man a broken-down pistol.
After not coming up with money at the mall, Roy and his friends went back to their homes. Later in the day, Roy returned to the guys’ apartment and asked Richie and Demetrus if they wanted to go to a party at Cedar Lake. Kevin Gardner, a kid in his class, was waiting to drive them in his blue Firebird.
Roy introduced everyone and climbed into the front seat. Richie sat in the back behind Kevin. Demetrus sat behind Roy.
The stereo was blasting so loud, Richie and Demetrus later said, they couldn’t hear the conversation in the front. The car turned onto an unpaved road in an isolated area. Kevin refused to drive farther. They would have to get out and walk. According to Demetrus, Roy opened the door, then quickly turned and shot Kevin in the head.
Richie and Demetrus said they were terrified about what had happened. They were scared and huddled in the back seat. They wouldn’t help move the body. Roy had to do it himself. Then he drove the car back to town.
They returned to the apartment to find more guys. When told what had just happened, the new guys later described themselves as shocked and scared. But somehow they all had enough courage to come up with a plan to sell Kevin’s car to a chop shop in Birmingham, a little south of Decatur. Roy and Kevin M. drove Kevin’s car, and the rest followed in the car of a kid named Hayes.
As they caravanned to Birmingham, Roy and Kevin M. threw out items belonging to Kevin. A set of drums was tossed out on the road. Golf clubs he had borrowed from a friend were left at a service station. In Birmingham, they couldn’t find a chop shop, so they ended up leaving the car in the parking lot of a go-go club and returned to Decatur.
Demetrus and Richie kept the car speakers. Roy went home with some cds and the cd player. He later sold them to a former neighbor, who would testify at the trial.
Demetrus also testified against Roy at the trial. He told the jury that he could not stop thinking about the murder. He said that he had trouble sleeping. He described the following day, when all three roommates paid a visit to Demetrus’s grandmother, who lived in the Cedar Lake area. First, they stopped to see if Kevin’s body was still there. It was. They called the police and said they found a dead body while they were out picking blackberries. On the witness stand, but for a few minor discrepancies, the other two roommates told similar stories.
After the police found Kevin’s body, they interviewed the three blackberry pickers. There was not much to go on, no obvious leads. One of the police officers had worked in narcotics divisions and already knew one of the guys. Since he knew where to find him if he needed more information, the police let Demetrus, Richie, and Kevin M. go home. Since they were all together in one apartment while Roy was alone at his family’s home, there was plenty of time for the three roommates to come up with a single story.
Soon thereafter, the police brought the three guys back to the station house and started to interrogate them. By law they could be charged with the murder because they were accomplices. There was plenty of evidence that they took part in the planning of the crime and stole Kevin’s car stereo. But Kevin M., Demetrus S., and Richie J. were promised complete immunity as long as they were not the ones who pulled the trigger. They fingered Roy for the murder of Kevin Gardner, and in return they spent not one day in jail.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book features 8 young men who were convicted and sentenced to death while teenagers. It is told from their point of view after several years in jail. Some are still on death row, some have had their sentences changed to life with or without parole.
I work with at risk youth ages 16 to 24, few of whom are willing readers. I checked out this book and did not even get the first page read before a student borrowed it. To date, about 8 students have read the book and several others are interested. I will be purchasing at least one copy for the classroom.
If you¿re a teenager and sentenced to death row, what is your life like? In No Choir Boy, author Susan Kuklin provides answers to that question by interviewing three men who were sentenced to death when they were teens. Each story opens up with the circumstances surrounding the individual¿s sentencing, and then delves into the time he has since spent in prison. The men explain the environment of each prison they have resided in, and prison culture is laid bare for the reader. The cruelty the men endured as teenagers in prison is disturbing, as is the fact that they adjusted to the lifestyle and now know no other way of life. Kuklin recorded her interviews with each of the men, and the transcripts from those recordings are what comprise the book. She allows them to tell their own stories, and only interjects with her own words when further explanation about a situation is necessary. When such a situation arises, the author¿s words appear in italics. Each man has his own chapter that is divided into sections, in which he tells the story of how he came to be in prison, and gives his background, giving readers a firm idea of the environments these convicts originally came from. In some instances, Kuklin also corresponded with the convicts¿ lawyers, and those transcripts are also included in the book. No Choir Boy comes to a powerful end with the interviews of the families of a boy who was killed after being sentenced to death (and whose controversial case rocked the nation and changed the capital punishment law for juveniles) and a boy who was murdered, but whose parents did not seek the death penalty for his young murderer. ¿Everybody has parents. Mom and Dad lost their son, and someone else was going to lose their son if ¿justice¿ was carried out?¿ says Mary, the sister of the murdered boy. The end of the book contains a glossary of legal terms, further reading, and websites about the death penalty, so readers can do some of their own research on the topic. Not for the faint of heart, No Choir Boy is best suited for high school.
This book is important. Young adults and adults alike will benefit from reading these interviews with young convicts, their families, the families of victims, and the lawyers who work with them. For anyone interested in our criminal justice system or curious about life in prison, or for anyone with strong feelings about capital punishment, this book matters.
A very gritty reality of teens on death row. The author talks with the teens, a victim's family who are against capital punishment and a lawyer that wants to prevent injustice in this world. The stories are sad and very eye-opening. I agree that this is a must read for high school students.
Chapters explore the lives of juveniles convicted of crimes, some of whom are on death row, and the impact of the death penalty on juvenile offenders, families, and the families of victims. Kuklin lets those being highlighted in her book tell their stories in there own words. She also incorporates transcripts, correspondence, and other information. It was an enlightening read and a look at a complex problem that is clearly continuing a cycle of violence and suffering. Kuklin incorporates many different perspectives on the issue at hand which adds depth and complexity to the work.
A series of interviews of teens who were convicted of murder and sentenced to the death penalty or life in prison. This book is valuable for its vivid descriptions of life behind bars, and it really drove home for me how racist, arbitrary and unfair our criminal justice system, in particular the death penalty, is.
This is a very powerful book that I think should be required reading for all high school students. It examines the life of teenagers tried for murder as adults and put on death row or life in prison without parole. You get to know these teens and how they live now. The book also talks to victim's families, so you get their perspective as well. This book has the power to open minds and change lives!
Being involved in the Jail Library Group for over two years, this really puts some perspective on the whole criminal justice system. No, Dane County jails are not death row, max security prisons in Texas, but the problems are across the board. It was a great book; I'm pretty shocked that I didn't cry at all.
This was a good book could not put it down great for teens
I cant even get passed pg.9 stupid book dont ever get this dum, stupid , and very bad book
The book No Choirboy grabs your attention. This book is about man that go to prison because they make a bad decision. This book is by Susan Kuklin and it is a group of Non-fiction short stories. One of the character is Kevin Gardner. Kevin was on death row because he murdered someone during a robbery. In this book you know the story of how Kevin got off death row. You need to read this book because you would learn a lesson. I learned from this book that if you make a bad choice you pay a big price. The Author wants you to know that people can change. You should read No Choirboy because you learn that death row is a place that you don't want to be. The book tells how Kevin Gardner got a second chance so you need to give this book a chance.