January-February 2012

Now I Walk on Death Row: A Wall Street Finance Lawyer Stumbles into the Arms of a Loving God.  By Dale S. Recinella. Baker Books. 317 pages. $14.99.

This fast-paced autobiography is a “downward ascent,” to use the author’s phrase. Dale Recinella goes from being a prosperous lawyer to a lay chaplain on death row. A Catholic who came to believe that “Jesus meant what He said,” Dale considers his apparent decline in social status to be something like the raising of Lazarus: “I was imprisoned in a life I had made for myself, and God resurrected me and gave me a second chance.”

Born in 1952 to Italian immigrants, and the eldest of eight children, Dale studied at Thomas More College and Notre Dame Law School. At age 30 he was getting rich representing “state and local governments on Wall Street and in the world capital markets,” but he realized that his life was empty. In 1986, after building an expensive home, he dreamed that a beautiful voice was calling him, but he was chained to the bricks of his new house. Soon Dale, his wife, Susan, and their children moved to a smaller house, and later to an apartment near Good News Ministries, where he started volunteering. After he pared down his law practice to 20 hours a week, friends and clients rebuked him: “Dale, this is not the best use of your talents.” In 1993 he embraced full-time volunteer ministry, emptying his law office of hundreds of closing reports, some of them half-billion-dollar deals.

Dale loves human beings in all their nitty gritty. At age nine he helped his mother wash the cloth diapers of his younger siblings. In 1988, while attending a posh conference in Baltimore, he spent hours finding a shelter for Dennis, a smelly derelict with open sores. At one point Dennis sobbed against his shoulder and Dale ended up hugging him. Later, he visited a youth dying of AIDS, shackled to a bed in a prison hospital. Kneeling next to the bed, Dale offered to take him into his arms and cry with him. The two cried together, and the youth (who died three days later) said, “a thousand pounds has been lifted off of me.”

In 1998 Susan, who has a doctorate in psychology, took a job in a hospital in Macclenny, Florida. They visited the local Catholic church and met “Pastor Joe,” who had been praying for 15 years for someone like Dale to help him on death row at Union Correctional Institution (UCI) and Florida State Prison (FSP). The following chapters are riveting. Most people don’t know how subhuman the conditions are on death row. Pastor Joe takes Dale on a “gate walk” at UCI’s main death-row building, which houses over 330 condemned men. Each prisoner lives in a six-by-ten-foot cell with only walls to look at — “some [men are] white, some black, some Catholic, most not, some young, some old, but all dressed only in their shorts, the attire of choice for those living in a solar oven.” Here Dale sees “men my age and even my dad’s age, suffering in concrete and steel boxes with no air-conditioning, shade or air movement…. They soak their sheets in the water of their toilet and then wrap themselves in them while they lie on the floor, hoping that some evaporation will occur, reducing their core body temperature.” Dale calls it the “bowels of hell” and asks, “What is our standard of care for men we are holding in cages until we kill them?”

After covering 90 cells, they go to another tier where the inmates are locked behind solid steel doors with a small window and a flap for sliding in a food tray. Pastor Joe unlocks the flap to give Communion and slips reading material through a quarter-inch gap between door and wall. In one episode reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, a young man asks to say his confession, and Pastor Joe puts his ear to the flap. Dale hears a voice near him saying, “Brother, if you’re a man of God, please talk to me.” He finds a tall black man pressing his face against the gap. Pressing his own lips to the rusted metal and moldy wall, Dale offers to lead him in prayer. “Please,” the man whispers. “We pray for forgiveness,” Dale intones, “for healing, for deliverance, for protection, for hope and for perseverance. We pray the name that is our victory, the blood that is our protection, the empty tomb that is our hope and the Spirit that is our strength.” The man thanks him: “I needed to pray so bad, but I didn’t know how to get back.”

The next week they enter FSP through eleven steel-barred doors — the last with simultaneous locks on both sides. Pastor Joe points to the execution chamber and says he still has dreams of the last execution he witnessed: “the man had flames shooting from his head.” Dale falls into a routine: two days a week at UCI, two at FSP. Those nearing execution start asking him to be their spiritual advisor. On one man’s last day, a sergeant who has known the prisoner for 20 years visits him and says, “The man I’ve known inside these walls is more of a Christian than I am…. I know that you will get in heaven long before me. Good­bye, good man.” Evidently, the man executed was no longer the same man who had committed the crime.

In 2001 Dale goes to a state-sponsored seminar on death-penalty law, teleconferenced to nine locations. In attendance are a Florida Supreme Court (FSC) justice, a state senator, and the whole “death penalty industry” — costly state lawyers. Laughter erupts when an expert says, “Florida jurors almost always believe that execution is cheaper than life imprisonment without possibility of parole.” These insiders know the death penalty can be “two to three times more expensive” than life in a maximum-security prison and that Florida could save $50 million a year by abolishing the death penalty.

Besides its cost, the death penalty can be monstrously unjust. Among the examples Dale gives is of a decorated Vietnam veteran executed in October 2006 even though another man had confessed to the crime. The FSC wouldn’t allow an “evidentiary hearing” because of the “procedural bar” — a common law doctrine that prevents new proof of innocence (except DNA) from being admitted after a certain time. In Florida the “bar” is 24 months post-trial, after which the court will only decide whether proper procedures were followed. In the veteran’s case, one judge dissented: Justice Harry Lee Anstead wrote that “the confession of another person raises the most compelling and fundamental doubt about a prior determination of guilt. Here, we have not only a claim that someone else has confessed, but we have sworn testimony attesting to its validity.” Indeed! What an egregious miscarriage of justice.

Dale Recinella writes with warmth and candor and, despite his grim subject, has a great sense of humor of the self-deprecating kind. This book is highly recommended.

- Anne Barbeau Gardiner





Back to January-February 2012 Issue


©