Five Days to Execution and Other Dispatches From the
By JIM DWYER, PETER NEUFELD and BARRY SCHECK
An Innocence Project
Trapped in a wilderness of wrong places, Inmate 85A6097 howled, body
and soul. His skin erupted. His teeth rotted. His feet grew warts too big
for his shoes. His lungs flooded with pneumonia. His scalp dried to sand,
his hemorrhoids burned so hot that only a surgeon's knife could cool them.
He was often cranky and defiant with the prison staff, so whatever time
he did not pass at sick call or in a hospital usually was spent in a disciplinary
Marion Coakley had been a young man when he entered prison to serve
a fifteen-year sentence for rape, and everyone who met him agreed that
he was a simple soul and a difficult convict. "Marion is mentally retarded
and a very angry individual," wrote a prison psychologist, one of many
to use those words after meeting Coakley. "He has little insight into his
behavior." The one bright note in his record was sounded by a prison teacher,
who said that even though Marion understood little, he tried hard. She
awarded him a certificate of merit for successfully memorizing the multiplication
tables from zero to nine. He was thirty-two years old.
At ten minutes to five on September 3, 1987, Marion rose from the cafeteria
table in the Fishkill penitentiary where he had been resolutely chewing
every last bite. He was alone. Moments before, his unit had been ordered
to leave the dining area. It was two years to the week since he had arrived
in prison, and he certainly knew the rules required him to leave the table
promptly when ordered. But Marion continued munching until he was good
He pushed back his chair and strolled over to a trash can to dump his
tray. At the doorway, Corrections Officer T. Hodge waited.
"When the unit officer calls your unit to leave the mess hall, you have
to leave," said Hodge.
"I wasn't finished," said Coakley.
"Doesn't matter, you had your time to eat," said Hodge. "When you're
called, you're supposed to leave."
"I'm a man," roared Coakley. "I'll leave when I am done eating. And
nobody's gonna tell me what to do!"
A supervisor, a corrections sergeant, walked over to serve as a human
blanket on the fuss. The inmates ate in shifts, and a new cohort was waiting
at the doors. The officers wanted to move Coakley out of the way quickly
and quietly, before any sympathetic rumble could gather force.
"I ain't gonna leave till I'm finished," yelled Coakley, whirling his
arms. "Now I'm finished, so I'm leaving."
"Please keep your arms at your side," said the sergeant.
"I ain't doing nothing, finishing my dinner," said Coakley, palms up,
a shrug that did not mean surrender.
"This is a direct order: Keep your arms at your side," said the sergeant.
Coakley dropped his arms.
"Give me your ID card," said Officer Hodge.
"Don't have it," said Coakley, an automatic infraction.
Another sergeant arrived, and the three officers quickly pinioned Coakley's
arms to his side and rushed him away. He was put under immediate "keep-lock,"
an on-the-spot discipline administered to prisoners who pose threats to
the order of the institution. He was confined to Cell 20.
As soon as the door closed behind the guards, Marion knew what he was
facing, because already he had passed four months under keep-lock and related
disciplines. He would lose his commissary privileges, his phone call privileges,
and his package privileges. Visitors, too, most likely. He would not be
allowed to leave his cell for much of the day because he would have no
prison job to go to.
"This ain't right," he screamed. "This ain't right."
Then he did to his cell what his body had done to him during his two
years of confinement. He slowly, solitarily wrecked the place.
The bedding was first to go. He hated the bed that owned too much of
his nights and days. "I do not like to laying up doing noetin," he had
written a few months earlier, asking to be released from an earlier keep-lock
regimen. Now he hurled the mattress and blanket to the floor. He slammed
the bed frame into the door, pounding away until it fractured. With a bar
broken from the bed, he pulverized the sink. And with anything he could
grab—paper, pillowcases, clothes—he stuffed the toilet bowl, where he had
bled from his tortured hemorrhoids.
A small group of corrections officers gathered outside the cell, listening
to the destruction. They saw water flowing under the door from the clogged
toilet and busted plumbing. When the racket had settled for a minute, one
of the guards shouted at Coakley to knock it off.
Marion responded by using the bed frame to batter the metal screen of
the observation window in the door. The window screen buckled at the assault;
then the glass shattered, flying into the courtyard of the cell block.
"I want to see the warden," howled Coakley. "I don't belong here."
Spent, he collapsed in the flooded cell. Three hours after the start
of his one-man, one-cell rampage, he was coaxed out by a prison chaplain.
Marion was escorted to an empty cell, where he whistled and shrieked into
the block. No one could sleep. The next morning, a prison psychiatrist
was called to assess the inmate. A man could lose it one night, but Marion
Coakley's overall record was dreadful. From the day he shuffled his manacled
feet into the prison system's reception center, Coakley showed "persistently
negative adjustment" and had "performed less than satisfactorily in work
placement." He refused to "accept staff direction," and showed "limited
intelligence, little insight into his problems and current dilemma." He
had been kept on antipsychotic medicine. The measure of its futility could
be seen in the remains of Cell 20.
Less than twenty-four hours after Marion Coakley destroyed a very sturdy
cell with his bare hands, the psychiatrist with the Department of Corrections
concluded, unsurprisingly, that Marion Coakley remained an angry man. The
Fishkill psychiatrist had the solution: Make him another prison's problem.
"Psychiatrist recommended immediate placement in a more structured and
secure environment," stated an evaluation written by the staff after the
night of destruction. "Subject transferred at direction of the first deputy
(C) 2000 Barry Scheck, Jim Dwyer and Peter Neufeld All
rights reserved. ISBN: 0-385-49341-X