Prologue

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.

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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.