Virginian-Pilot editor Burke and writer Jackson produce a dark epic chronicling the only multiple escape from death row, and the redemption of a man condemned for a killing likely not his own doing, in that rare volume that is at once a taut, gripping true-crime ride and a disturbing indictment of the nether regions of criminal justice. Career criminal Dennis Stockton received a 1983 death sentence for a 1978 murder only tenuously tied to him, and was sent to Mecklenberg, a supposedly —escape-proof— prison, in reality deeply compromised by collusion between cowed guards and convicted killers with nothing to lose. Led by the notoriously vicious Briley brothers, six prisoners pulled off an astounding escape that involved capturing a dozen guards and forcing an officer to simulate a bomb scare; yet Stockton stayed behind, in hopes of proving his innocence in court. Later, he sent his —Death Row Diary— to the authors; his disclosures amplified the escape scandal, and embarrassed officials sent Stockton on a long tour of Virginia's worst penal institutions. Stockton was executed in 1995 in the midst of growing attention to unearthed discrepancies in his case, and evidence including signed affidavits asserting the real killer's identity. This grim tale is transformed into something more weighty than mere violent pulp by its audacious portrayals of the prisoners; without minimizing their ghastly deeds, Jackson and Burke evoke their doomed humanity and the strength they needed to survive the elaborate terrors of a death sentence. The centerpiece of the escape plot is rendered authentically, as great ingenuity in the face of desperate odds—an irresistible drama. And Stockton himself emerges memorably, an incorrigible crook transformed through craft and late bravery. Though the authors— prose is brisk and engaging, the generous implication throughout is that this self-taught writer's perceptions and observations are paramount. Even jaded readers, attentions captured by the pyrotechnical escape plot, will recognize the likely injustice in Stockton's state-sanctioned fate.
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