On a courtroom bench, Dick Cunningham looked like any other lawyer. He wore a nice suit that blended in with all the suits around him.
But if you looked closer, along the floor, in the row of shiny wingtips, you'd see a pair of weather-beaten shoes, with a soft sole and the kind of leather that you can't put a high polish on. Lawyers who knew him miss seeing those shoes. They knew that he went places in them that you wouldn't want to.
Cunningham walked through a world of hurt, a world where killers raped and stabbed and set people on fire; where the killers themselves had often suffered, getting beaten or abandoned or shot.
He walked some of our criminal justice system's darkest halls -- through police stations where suspects are tortured and courts where judges don't care and prisons where inmates are executed in front of witnesses who sit in a room where the floor slopes from back to front so that any vomit will flow toward a drain and can be easily hosed away.
He offered lessons on living and dying to men on Death Row. Don't leave this world with your middle finger extended, he told one man about to be executed. Don't give them that to remember you by. To others, he said, paint, read, write, learn, hope. Live a life that is worth saving, a life that will be missed.
He appealed for more than 20 Death Row inmates in his career. They had killed more than 50 men, women and children.
In his office, in the back of his home, Cunningham kept trial transcripts on the floor and prayers on the walls. "Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon." That was the prayer on the wall he saw most, the one facing his desk.
He fought as hard as any lawyer in Illinois for an end to the death penalty. His work threw him against all the elements that would spur the state's historic moratorium on executions and a possible commutation of Death Row.
But what set Cunningham apart was his ability to relate. Wherever he looked as a lawyer and saw hurt and misfortune, he could probably superimpose his own life. He was an alcoholic and his son was mentally ill. Demons surrounded Cunningham at home and at work, allowing him to empathize but refusing him escape.
Three days past his 56th birthday, Dick Cunningham was stabbed to death, by his son.
"Champion of Death Row inmates falls to knife," the newspaper said.
He lived as he asked others to. He lived a life that is missed.
Word of his stabbing arrived late to Death Row. But once it did, it screamed down the galleries, bouncing off the concrete floors and glass-block windows and the cinder-block walls that time has turned from white to pale yellow.
It passed from cell to cell, each with a removable nameplate above it, the inmate's identity reduced to his last name and prison number.
Dick Cunningham represented six men on Illinois' largest Death Row. And on this morning in late winter, the news reached each of them and filtered among others. Cunningham's son, Jesse, had stabbed his father 18 times with a kitchen knife, first in the back, then in the chest and arms. "Why are you doing this?" Cunningham had asked as they struggled, police records show, but Jesse didn't answer.
The Pontiac Correctional Center's condemned unit has two stacked tiers, with 48 cells above, 48 cells below. But that makes it sound bigger than it is.
The top tier sits so low and heavy, it appears ready to crush the bottom tier. The cells are so narrow a man can stretch his arms and touch facing walls at the same time. The inmates can't see each other without mirrors, but they can hear. Men five cells apart sometimes play against each other in chess.
News can start at one end of Death Row and reach the other within minutes.
Aaron Patterson, an inmate, caught the news while watching television early on the morning of March 2, 2001, one day after Cunningham was killed. He went to the front of his cell and hollered to no one and everyone, "Turn to Channel 5, turn to Channel 5."
Dick Cunningham believed in redemption, and his life testified to that belief. After a quarter century of hangovers and denial, he quit drinking and stopped hurting the people who needed him and loved him. He received a second chance, and he used it to pursue second chances for others.
He represented more than 20 Death Row inmates in his career. Most were killers, and he knew it. He saw them as men who had suffered and caused suffering in turn.
He also campaigned against capital punishment in general. He'd talk to one person on a street corner or to millions on "Good Morning America."
He kept charging, and the walls he bloodied his head against were just starting to give.
As word of his death spread, it marched through the state's system of capital punishment and all that Cunningham loathed about it. It marched through stories of lazy defense attorneys and thuggish cops, through the occasional claim of innocence that makes you stop and wonder, and through cases where Cunningham thought mercy was deserved, if only we looked underneath and tried to understand.
Patterson's call reached Ronald Kitchen, convicted of setting a fire that killed five people. They included a 3-year-old boy and his 2-year-old sister, found lying on a bed together, holding hands.
Kitchen says he confessed, falsely, because Chicago police beat him. Louva Bell, Kitchen's mother, would call Cunningham at night, crying.
She kept seeing her son strapped onto a gurney. "It's going to be all right Louva," Cunningham would tell her. "We're going to get Ronnie out of there." When she heard about Cunningham's death, her world caved in.
"Who's going to be there now for me and Ronnie?" she thought.
Patterson's call reached Henry Griffin, convicted of shooting a man four times in the head. Cunningham believed Griffin's background would have cried for mercy -- if only his trial lawyer had presented it. He was put in a mental hospital at 14. His father was a violent alcoholic and a drug addict, and his mother died young.
But by his own admission, Griffin's trial laywer didn't bother to learn his client's past. Instead, he approached the courtroom gallery on the day of sentencing and asked if anyone there had something to say on Griffin's behalf. That was it. His law license has since been suspended because of misconduct in other cases.
Cunningham, it seemed, was always cleaning up messes like that. Six times he represented a Death Row inmate whose trial lawyer had been disbarred or suspended. One was the only lawyer in Illinois history to be disbarred twice.
Patterson's call reached Edward Spreitzer, a member of the Ripper Crew, a group that murdered and mutilated as many as 21 women. A neurological expert examined Spreitzer after his trial and found brain damage. Cunningham argued that if the jury had only known that, then one juror -- and that's all it takes, just one juror -- might have chosen mercy, to which a federal appeals court judge replied, "I think you have a dream."
Cunningham ran into all kinds of judges who were nasty, sarcastic, impatient. One denied an appeal before Cunningham could even argue it.
Another refused DNA testing -- testing that would free Cunningham's client, an innocent man sentenced to die.
Ultimately, word of Cunningham's death reached Renaldo Hudson. To the prison system he was HUDSON, B-02995. To Cunningham, he was something more.
The day before -- the day that Cunningham died -- Hudson had called and called, but got no answer.
Hudson sat on his bed and listened to the rings. The phone's cord snaked out the chuckhole, the cell-door slat through which he received his meals.
Instead of bars, Hudson's door had holes, small and bunched, like a honeycomb. Hudson is 6-foot-2, 300 pounds. On his right arm a bunny tattoo competes for attention with the scars from a shotgun wound he suffered when he was 15 -- a wound so clean and deep the doctor could poke a finger through each side of Hudson's arm and touch tips in the middle.
When Hudson was 19, he got high on pot, cocaine and brandy and stabbed a 72-year-old man 60 times, then watched a Bowery Boys movie on the man's television while he died.
Hudson and Cunningham talked once or twice a week. How are you doing? Cunningham would ask. How are the conditions there? Did you get your visit this week? Got enough money for the commissary? Other attorneys would start in with whatever briefs they were filing or hearings that were pending, but Cunningham saved those matters for later.
Cunningham sent his clients birthday and Christmas cards, and inside he would often place a $25 money order. To Hudson he would write, I know how much you love snacks, buy yourself some potato chips. Cunningham also sent books -- biographies of Malcolm X, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglas; a collection of Lincoln's favorite speeches; books on faith.
Hudson called his lawyer Santa Claus because he had this happy, jolly face, and whenever Hudson made him laugh, Cunningham's cheeks would turn red.
But lately, when Cunningham would ask how he was doing, Hudson would say, Man, how are you doing? He heard the sadness in Cunningham's voice, and he knew where it came from.
Over the years Cunningham had talked about Jesse, his son who went away to college with such promise but came home mentally ill. Doctors prescribed antipsychotics, but Jesse resisted. The last time Hudson talked to him, Cunningham said Jesse's condition had worsened.
To Cunningham, Hudson epitomized Death Row. He committed a horrific crime. But look underneath and try to understand.
Growing up, Hudson was "shipped from cousin to cousin to auntie," as he put it, and often beaten, usually with a 2 by 4. His twin brother, Ronald, fell down a flight of stairs when he was child and died. As for that shotgun wound, the blast went through Hudson's chest first, then his arm. When Hudson's brother William was 16, he shot Renaldo, then 15, and left him for dead. William then shot five other family members, killing two.
Cunningham and Hudson talked often about second chances, and each grew fond of the other.
Hudson is 38 years old now. He has gone from one of the most reviled men on Death Row, a man who attacked guards and other inmates, to one of its most respected.
He admits his guilt -- that alone makes him unusual -- and is remorseful, reflective and devout. He has counseled troubled teenagers and earned such trust with his keepers that they once made him a trustee, allowing him to work outside his cell without cuffs.
Cunningham and Hudson weren't so different, and they recognized that.
They met in the middle, two men with dark chapters behind them, two men who knew about alcoholism and mental illness and redemption and faith.
Ken Armstrong, who wrote this series, covered the criminal justice system for the Chicago Tribune for five years.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times