“I will never be free of death row”

By: Darby Tillis and Alice Kim

DARBY TILLIS, along with his co-defendant Perry Cobb, were the first to be released from Illinois’ death row in 1987 after spending more than nine years on death row for a crime they did not commit.

Since then, Darby has traveled around the country speaking out against the injustices of the death penalty. He is a musician who plays a mean harmonica, he has written his own one-man show, and he is a loving father. He spoke with ALICE KIM about the twenty years since he left Illinois’ death row.

You recently celebrated 20 years of freedom. What have those 20 years been like? How have you survived?

I don’t feel that I’ve celebrated freedom, I’ve celebrated 20 years of release, not freedom. I’ve suffered pain and endured pain for the last 20 years, and I will never be free of death row. I have to build a fight every day to keep from getting subdued. The minute that I stop fighting, I fall into a certain state of mind that brings about more suffering, pain and hurt. As long as I’m fighting these injustices and fighting for the men who are still locked up, regardless of whether they’re on death row or not, I can be steadfast. That energy keeps pushing me forward.

And the struggle keeps opening new doors and introducing things to me that I feel like will be helpful to the struggle to someday abolish the death penalty. Can you tell us what you remember about the day that you were released from death row?

I was released and I didn’t even have a quarter in my pocket. They wanted me to come out and fall prey to some of the silliness of the street and go back to jail. I remember when I was released that morning, I didn’t have any money, and there were rumors that we would be killed when we walked out the door by the victims family members. When I came out, I was on guard with everybody who approached me. I went to church, and I prayed to God for releasing me and putting me back into society. My main priority at the time was my daughter.Tell us about your one-man show, Death Row Blues. How and why you were inspired to do this? Each day, I look for a different twist as to how to expose the horrors of death row and the flawed system to the public. My CD was singing. The play is singing and dramatizing the pain and the hurt that was done to me by the system. It’s another way of opening the door for people to peep into this painful ordeal.

What do you want the public to know about your years on death row?

That it was deadly. I died a little bit. I lived a little bit. Life and death were intwined. You’re scarred forever. You can live, but the pain never goes away because the death penalty still exists. The people that impose the pain and the hurt back then are still out here today—the judges, states attorneys, politicians. And new people have taken their place, but the game they play is still the same. They’re body snatchers and flesh merchants. They’re just like dope dealers and pimps. They use human beings to propagate their profession for monetary gain. Any time you use human beings for some ill reason, you are a flesh merchant. You’re a body snatcher because you snatch them from their homes, the world they live in, their families. Just like slavery days, for monetary gain, to build careers—for slave labor, as they’re doing in these penitentiaries. They take a group of men and warehouse them in units called condemned units and keep them there and let them waste away until the time they feel the time is right to kill them.

One of the songs that you wrote is called “Bags Under My Eyes.” What is this song about and what inspired you to write it?

Well, everybody cries one way or another, one time or another. The bags under my eyes are there because the bags held the tears I cried, the tears that never fell. And the bags grew bigger and bigger. Each time, I look in the mirror, I’m reminded every day of the times that I cried, and the tears that wouldn’t fall.

Last December, you played the role of Stanley Tookie Williams in a re-enactment of the execution that took place on the one-year anniversary of his death. What was that like?

I had died many times in my mind before. Playing the role brought me as far as I can go. It was a great feeling of pain and hurt. Being left in the room when everyone began to stand for the curtain call, when I was still strapped to the gurney, it reminded me of what it’s like to be left dead and everybody’s gone.

I thought about people leaving me. I was laying back, and I was helpless because I couldn’t get up until they came and took the straps off. It’s another look into the world of this sickness. Tookie, he was a very brave and courageous man to the end, and I was honored to be selected for the role.

At the beginning of this year, executions were halted in over a dozen states due to questions surrounding the constitutionality of lethal injection. Do you think this is the beginning of the end of the death penalty?

I think it’s the beginning, and we need to rush it. We can’t waste a minute.

Do you have a message for the men and women currently on death row and their families?

Be strong. Be encouraged. We’re still fighting. Don’t give up. I will be here fighting as long as I’m breathing.


A song by Darby Tillis

The bags under my eyes
Once held the tears I cried.
The pain and disgrace you see on my face
Is all because I was dying
Doing time for another man's crime.

I cried and I cried, from day to day
But no one would hear what I'd say.
I tried so hard to tell the truth
Until I felt it was no use.
It's so hard
Doing time for another man's crime.

Then one day, God spoke to me.
Said cry no more, you're going free.

It's so hard
Doing time for another man's crime.