I knew that my brother’s killer was serving a life sentence in an Arizona state prison. I didn’t want to confront him; I was in truth scared to death at the possibility, however remote. Here I was being sent to the same prison system as the man I wanted killed. My thoughts were roiling. What if there wasn’t a D.N.H. in my jacket? What if there was a screw-up — not unheard of in prison bureaucracies — and I was sent to the same prison as him? What if I ran into him? What would I do? What would he do? That D.N.H. in my jacket made me instantly realize just how close I was to an actual death penalty — so close that I could personally administer it. One little mistake on the part of the Arizona Department of Corrections and all my wishes for bloody vengeance would have become a reality. “Here’s your death penalty, son. We’re gonna accidentally (wink, wink) put you in the same prison with this dirt bag, where you can stab him in his sleep with a homemade shank. Slash him to ribbons with a razor blade in the shower. Bash his brains out on the ball field with a baseball bat.”
It’s easy enough to think about vengeance, even to declare a desire for it, but being confronted with the mechanics of murder is a different matter entirely. It forced me to examine my motives more closely, and to think about the sheer intimacy inherent in acts of violence. I’d been in fistfights in jail and prison — fighting is just a fact of life on the inside — but they were relatively harmless and over quickly. Now I was forced to contemplate actual murder, and decided that it just wasn’t in me to attack another human being with intent to kill or, a distinct possibility, be killed. It took that D.N.H., that rote product of penal bureaucracy, to teach me that I didn’t want to kill anybody, and from there it wasn’t much of a mental leap to conclude that I didn’t want the state do it for me, either.