I spent most of last week in Mississippi, working on a very cool new project related to the Cory Maye case. Details on the project itself forthcoming. I’ll also post some updates on Cory’s legal situation later in the week. For now, though, some rambling thoughts (and photos) from my trip:
This was my fifth trip to Mississippi, and backward as the state’s politics and criminal justice system may be, the place is growing on me. There’s a rustic, pastoral kind of beauty to Mississippi. I’ve made the drive from Prentiss to Jackson about a dozen times now, usually at dusk as I’m headed back to the hotel, and it’s a really pretty ride. Rolling, fence-lined pastures, still green in December, turn to hilly roads tunneled by tall, skinny pines shooting up from their shoulders; lots of lazy, grazing cattle, still gnawing on cud as the sun slips behind the hills; and loads of charming, deep-south imagery—the odd roadside barbecue joint; a massive catfish restaurant with an always-bustling parking lot; a crazy fundamentalist’s property with Bible verses and admonitions against smoking, drinking, and molesting babies tacked to the trees; and your occasional scraggly dog tethered to a tree or beat-up dog house, watching the lumber-hauling tractor trailers blow down the highway. And of course, the people are incredibly warm. I think every third word uttered down here is “sugar,” “hon,” or “baby.” As in, “More coffee for you, baby?” Or, “some pie, sugar?”
On Wednesday we visited Melissa Longino, grandmother of Ta’Corrianna, Cory Maye’s little girl. In a better world, she’d have been Cory’s mother-in-law. Melissa offered moving testimony at the September 2006 hearing. She recounted a deep affection for Cory, and detailed the way Cory doted on his daughter in their short 18 months together. She also talked about how he’s struggled to remain a part of his kids’ lives from prison. As she said at the hearing, Longino told us this week that Cory has never missed an important day when it comes to staying in touch with his kids. He calls both his children every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, every birthday. His cards, she said, come three or four days early, just to be sure Mo (T’a’Corianna’s nickname) gets them in time. Each time Ta’Corianna visits her grandmother, Longino said, the first thing she does is tear through the house to look for the cards and letters her daddy sent her. “Did he write me?” she asks. And yes, Longino says, every time, there’s at least one (usually several) letter from Cory waiting for her. She is and always has been, Longino says, a “Daddy’s girl.”
On Thursday we talked to Dorothy Maye Funchess, Cory’s mother, and she relayed much of the same sentiment. Cory, she says, is better at remembering birthdays than she she is—not just his kids’, but those of everyone in the family. He tells her exactly what gifts to get the kids, and often knows before she does what they want for a birthday, or for Christmas. He calls in the fall to make sure they’re well-outfitted for school, and if Funchess is busy with work or occupied by her other grandkids, Cory enlists his sister to make sure his kids always get what they need. In fact, Funchess says, the first thing Cory said to her after he was sentenced to death was, “I love you mama. Please take good care of my kids.”
Unfortunately (but understandably), Chanteal Longino’s been seeing someone new for a couple of years, and is trying to move on with her life. She now lives in Covington, Louisiana. But her efforts to distance herself from what happened on December 26, 2001, though understandable, mean necessarily distancing Ta’Corrianna from that night as well. And it’s impossible to distance the little girl from the raid and its fallout without also taking her away from Cory. So Cory’s finding it more and more difficult to remain a part of his daughter’s life, despite his best efforts, and despite that he’s a better father from prison than many kids get in their own homes. Dorothy says Cory’s heartbroken over the increasing distance between he and Ta’Corrianna. As is she.
I don’t doubt that there are lots of convicted felons who struggle to stay parents to their kids from prison. But in Cory’s case, it’s particularly brutal. He’s in prison not because he was a poor father, or because he engaged in a life of crime that hurt or put his kids at risk. On the contrary. By all accounts he was loving, attentive father. He had no criminal record. Talk to Cory’s relatives, and they’ll tell you that their memories of him have him dressing his kids, bathing them, changing them, holding them, and brushing and braiding their hair. He cooked for them, and played with them. When construction jobs dried up and he couldn’t work, he became his daughter’s primary caretaker while, Chanteal worked nights at the chicken plant. He’s in prison precisely because he acted out of fear for his daughter’s safety. He thought someone was breaking into his home to harm the two of them. That that act has now put him in a position where he’s being slowly erased from his daughter’s life—from a jail cell where there’s little he can do about it—is a crushingly cruel twist of fate.
To believe Cory was guilty of capital murder, you have to believe that he knowingly and intentionally killed Ron Jones, and that he did so with the knowledge that Jones was a police officer. You have to believe that this man, who had no criminal record, and who’s “crime” was no more than a burnt roach in his apartment, knowingly decided to take on a team of raiding police officers; laid in wait for them to kick open his bedroom door; deliberately chose to engage in gunfire in the room where his daughter was laying; decided to fire just three rounds; shot and killed a police officer; then surrendered with bullets still left in his gun. Almost nothing about that makes sense. It doesn’t make sense even if you don’t know Cory. And it certainly doesn’t make sense if you talk to anyone who knows him.
This isn’t a dangerous, unrepentant cop killer who needs to be separated from society. The far more plausible explanation is that this is a guy who had just moved away from home; who was wary of his neighbor (who actually was involved in the drug trade, and by all appearances was the reason for the raid); who was scared; and who did what he thought he had to do to protect himself and his daughter.
Below, some photos, culled from my several trips to Mississippi. Post resumes after.
When we visited yesterday, Dorothy had just spoken with Cory on the phone. When she told him we were coming, Cory asked her to make sure we were well fed with southern cooking. So she fixed us up a feast of Cory’s favorites: barbecue chicken, smothered cabbage, cornbread, shrimp stir-fry, and rice with gravy. I was full for a day-and-a-half.Dorothy then gave us a tour of her home, the house where Cory grew up. It’s a single-story, humble but well-kept ranch house. There’s a light woods to the back, and a bright green cattle pasture across the street to the front. The property is surrounded by long fences, sad old barns and abandoned properties, and winding gravel roads. The backyard is home to two ponies and three dogs, including one scraggly, war-torn mutt that had just given birth to a litter of six fluffy black puppies. The house has two bedrooms, a living room, and a bright, red and green kitchen. An aging, cast-iron wood-burner warms the place during Mississippi’s short and mild winters.
Dorothy then showed me the woods behind the house where Cory shot at rabbits and raccoons while growing up; the stove and grill where he learned to cook; and the pictures of Cory growing up that she keeps on the wall. Dorothy had initially kept Cory’s childhood room intact, “hoping against hope,” she says, that he’d be home from prison in short time to sleep in his bed again. But she eventually had to pack up Cory’s things and put them away. When Cory Jr. would visit, he’d immediately go back to his daddy’s old room, see Cory’s bed and his belongings, and start to cry. Dorothy keeps some shoes and old clothes in the room now. She says she didn’t want to move Cory’s things, but she also didn’t want her grandson associating visits to her home with tears, sadness, and missing his daddy.I received a letter from Cory last week. He’s trying to settle in to his new surroundings. He’s now at Unit 32 at Parchman Penitentiary, the hardest-knock wing of one of the hardest-knock prisons in the country. It’s the highest-security wing in the prison, save for Death Row. When it comes to living conditions, it’s likely worse. Lately, Unit 32 has had problems with rioting. There have been three inmate murders in the last two years. In a 2005 complaint, the ACLU described Unit 32 like this:
…profound isolation and unrelieved idleness; pervasive filth and stench; malfunctioning plumbing and constant exposure to human excrement … grossly inadequate medical, mental health and dental care; the routine use by security staff of excessive force; and the constant pandemonium, night and day, of severely mentally ill prisoners screaming, raving and hallucinating in nearby cells.”
This is Cory’s home, now.
Even after his death sentence was tossed in the fall of 2006, Cory requested to remain on Death Row. He was isolated there. He could stay in his cell and read and watch TV. When I asked him about Death Row in September 2006, he actually said he had no complaints (though Bob Evans, Cory’s chief counsel, says he rarely complains about much of anything). He didn’t need to fear for his safety there—about getting beaten or raped. Cory’s a shy, gentle guy. It’s hard to see him thriving in the general population of a high-security prison unit. So he remained on Death Row until last month, when he received his new sentence, life without parole. He’ll now need to learn to live in the general population, with Mississippi’s worst of the worst.
Cory’s still isolated for now, which he says is common for newcomers to gen-pop at Parchman. He just enrolled in a GED program. And he’s hoping to land a job in the prison kitchen, so he’ll be able to cook again. In spite of the circumstances, the letter seemed upbeat. Dorothy said he told her he’s disappointed that the guards won’t let him wash his own clothes, as he’d grown accustomed to doing on Death Row. In Unit 32, he says, his clothes come back from the laundry dirtier than they were when he sent them away.
I’m back in Virginia now, from what was a pretty emotionally draining trip. I’ve other stories to work on until the next hearing or development in Cory’s case. For Cory, Dorothy, Melissa, T’corrianna, Little Cory and everyone else affected by Cory’s incarceration, there’s no plane to board that’ll drop them into another life. They wake, eat, breathe, and, when they can, sleep (when they can) with this stuff—with the continuing fallout from that raid six years ago.
The family of Ron Jones won’t ever get away from it, either. I’m sure that as the anniversary of the raid approaches, as the holidays near, the Jones family’s pain will again grow starker and harsher and harder to handle. We also visited the memorial to Jones in front of the Prentiss city hall while we were in Mississippi last week. The afternoon was sunny, but brisk and windy. Jones’ polished, stone slab memorial rises from the sidewalk like a headstone, framed by the entrance to the building that houses the mayor’s office and the police and fire departments. Strongly as I’ve advocated for Cory’s innocence, there is of course no mistaking the tragedy of Jones’ death, too. That, incidentally, is always something Cory always emphasizes and expresses his sorrow for in his letters. Still today, he refers to Jones as “Mister Ron,” a term of respect and affection. I sat near Jones’ parents both days of the 2006 hearing in Poplarville. Their pain was obvious. I’m sure this has all been agonizing for them, as will the coming years, particularly if things go as I and Cory’s supporters hope they will. There were two tragedies, here. That’s unfortunate. What’s even more unfortunate is that one of them can be undone, at least partially, but not without making things worse for the people still hurting from the other one.
Much of my trip centered around the people affected by Cory’s incarceration. But there was a moment of pronounced solemnity while standing front of Jones’ memorial. Downtown Prentiss isn’t a terribly busy place. All was quiet while we stood there—only wind lapping at the U.S. and Mississippi flags ten feet or so above the memorial. My thoughts drifted to a particular part of the hearing last fall when Jones’ death was recounted in testimony. I saw Jones’ mother’s head fall, her eyes close tight, and her thumb and forefinger pinch at the bridge of her nose.
If there’s something particularly cruel about Cory’s act in defense of his daughter that night leading to him now being increasingly separated from her, there’s also unfortunate irony in Jones’ death. My reporting indicates that Jones was a one of the few police officers trusted and respected by nearly everyone in Prentiss, black and white. Over and over, blacks in Jefferson Davis County have told me of Jones, “He was a friend,” or, “He was one of the good ones.” I should add, here, that I think Jones took some shortcuts that night. And those shortcuts are in part to blame for what happened. But after talking to lots of people in Prentiss and Jeff Davis County, I’m also convinced Jones was a good guy doing what he thought was good police work. There was nothing malevolent about him. In an area of the country where black people are particularly wary of white cops, Jones was respected—nearly beloved. Bob Evans says that knowing what he knows of Jones, had it been any other officer killed that night, he believes Jones would have been an advocate for Cory Maye.
One of the people I spoke to during my visit two years ago is Linda Shoemaker, who runs the Prentiss tobacco shop. Shoemaker’s a white woman, middle-aged, and was described by many to me as the town’s unofficial historian. She knows everything that happens—judging from my time there, likely because nearly everyone in town stops by her shop to buy tobacco. Shoemaker knew Ron Jones well, for most of his life, and was quite fond of him. But she’s also one of the few white people in the area who doesn’t believe Cory ought to be in prison. I still have a quote from her in my notes from two years ago. “If somebody every broke in on me and my grandbabies…” She then paused. Her eyes filled with tears and she glanced upward. “Forgive me for saying this, Ron,” she said. “You know I love you. But if anybody broke in on me and my grandbabies at night, I’d have done the same thing Cory Maye did.”
You have one man taken from his family, in the prime of his life. You have another man, also taken from his family, now losing the prime of his life. You have a son taken from his mother and father. And you have a loving father being taken from his son and daughter.
Thank this war. The goddamned drug war. It is so incredibly senseless and stupid. And it’ll continue to claim and ruin lives, because too few politicians have the backbone to stand up and say after 30 years, $500 billion, a horrifyingly high prison population, and countless dead innocents, cops, kids, nonviolent offenders, decimated neighborhoods, wasted lives, corrupted cops, and eviscerations of the core freedoms this country was allegedly founded upon, the shit isn’t working. It’ll never work. It never has. It’s a testament to the facade of truth that is politics that no leaders from the two majors parties have in thirty years been able to say this. That maybe, just maybe, we’re doing it wrong. Maybe, just maybe, kicking down doors in the middle of the night and storming in with guns in order to stop people from getting high….isn’t such a good idea. Maybe, just maybe, the idea getting tips from racist, illiterate, drug-addicted informants about which doors, if you kick them down, will lead to drugs? Well maybe that isn’t such a sound policy, either. We can’t even get one of the leading candidates for president to say that. The safe position is always to advocate for more money, more government power, more militarism—and less freedom, less common sense, and less worry about collateral damage. Sensibility, honesty, or compassion? Too risky.
Incidentally, the whole no-knock, door-kicking, middle-of-the-night-storming stuff wasn’t the result of trial-and-error police tactics. It wasn’t suggested to policymakers by academic criminologists with years of experience studying best practice police tactics, either. It wasn’t even something police were particularly interested in at the time. If you read the book Smoke and Mirrors, journalist Dan Baum’s terrific history of the drug war, the sad fact of the matter is, the “no-knock raid” was a concept dreamed up in the late 1960s by political strategists working for the Nixon campaign.
That’s right. This map comes courtesy of a bunch of political hacks who knew very little about actual police procedures or criminal justice. But they did know a little something about winning elections. The no-knock raid was one of several get-tough-on-crime policies they thought would win over white suburban voters. They wanted to implement it in Washington D.C., the one urban area over which Congress had the power to directly implement criminal justice policy. What tougher crime policy could there be than to let narcotics cops bust down the doors of suspected drug users and distributors? These were voters who’d mostly only seen D.C. on TV, but they were voters Nixonians (correctly) anticipated were fed up with seeing evening news reports of black people rioting in the streets, and hippies smoking dope on the National Mall.
The plan worked. Nixon won, and his crime platform and appeal to the “silent majority” had a lot to do with it. By 1972, he’d initiated the modern “war on drugs.” Wars of course mean combat. And so door-busting narcotics raids took off 1970s, then exploded in the 1980s with the rise of SWAT teams.
I’m not a huge fan of conservative political theorist Richard Weaver. But he was certainly right about one thing: Ideas have consequences. The door-bashing drug raid—an untested, unstudied, get-tough-on-crime political tactic dreamed up not by guys in badges but by party animals in tailored suits—has had some very real consequences. One of those consequences can be seen in the memorial outside the Prentiss, Mississippi city hall, which marks the too-early death of good cop. T’a’Corianna Longino and Cory Maye, Jr. are also consequences of that idea dreamed up three decades before they were born. Just two more black kids who, if the state of Mississippi has its way, will spend the rest of their lives without a father. In this case, that’s despite the fact that they have a father who loves them, and desperately wants to be a part of their lives.
I’ll leave you with the message from the Thanksgiving card Cory sent to Ta’Corianna this year. A bit of context: Cory had hoped to see his daughter last month, when he was allowed out of Parchman for his re-sentencing hearing. Unfortunately, Ta’Corianna’s aunt got lost on the way to the courthouse. The hearing was over and Cory had been moved back to Parchman by the time they figured out where they were, and how to get to the courthouse. Cory writes:
Hi baby! I know we didn’t get a chance to see each other while I was down for court. Hope you’re doing well, cause I think of you each day. You’re always within my heart & prayers. You & I have a lot of thinks to talk about & time to make up for.
We’ll be together soon if it’s the Lord’s Will. He’s been protecting us & making sure we stay strong for one another. So I’m sure he’ll send me home to you one day. Just try not to worry.
I know it’s been hard at times, but just try to do what I do. I look at your pictures & think happy thoughts, where all of this will be behind us. We’ll be fishing at the lake. Yeah, daddy’s going to take his little girl fishing at the lake. We’ll have a picnic, and we’ll talk until the sun goes down. Maybe we’ll have some ice cream, too. If we can keep it from melting.
Take care and stay sweet. I love you more than life and words can say. Happy Thanksgiving!
Cory J. Maye.