Kuntrell Jackson was 14 years old when he participated in a robbery. The robbery went bad, which is a softball way of saying the clerk was shot and killed. Kuntrell was arrested. He was sentenced to life without parole.
When you read about it in a book, when you hear about it in the news, when you watch people in split screen screaming about law and order, it’s easy to demonize what you don’t fully understand. Of course it’s terrible the clerk was shot and killed. Of course it’s terrible for the child who lost a parent. Of course any role you play in a robbery is a violent act of desperation and terror. But throwing away people and forgetting about them is like flushing a goldfish down the toilet, little more than a humiliating water burial. Can’t we do better? I don’t know. That’s why I asked the question.
At the end of my 2nd day in Montgomery, as I was getting ready to meet Vinny Vegas for dinner at Lek’s Railroad Thai, I sent an email to Kuntrell.
He replied within 5 minutes, literally.
Once the interview was confirmed, I sent him a text so we could stay in touch more easily.
MONTGOMERY, DAY THREE
When I was Kuntrell’s age I was late to everything. My friends used to call it Morelli Standard Time. It’s a miracle I had friends, looking back. But that’s the perspective of my older-self. To my younger-self, everyone running around trying to get everywhere on time seemed ludacris. My Grandpa Bernie was obsessed with being early. He made it a point of pride. So I made it a point of punk-ass pride to be late to everything.
I suppose I wanted to show Grandpa Bernie there was another way. But I was wrong. He was right. At some point along the way, to switch the script, I began showing up earlier than him, just to get under his skin, I called it “spite early.” But Grandpa Bernie got the last laugh because it only reinforced his position since what I learned was how relaxing it is to be early, to arrive ahead of someone else, to notice how they hit the room, their attitude, their energy, it’s all there. Plus, when you’re late you’re sending a signal and here’s what it’s saying: no one’s time matters nearly as much as mine. I’m telling you this because I also suspected Kuntrell Jackson might flake. He’s a criminal and criminals lie. He navigated prison yards and prisoners know how to get out of something with a smile. He’s a kid. This is the most important thing to remember. He’s a kid!
Kuntrell Jackson was 14 years old when he was arrested. He was 17 years old when he was sentenced to life without parole. 16 years later he was released but I think his emotional growth was stopped on the day he was arrested. So you have to cut him some slack. I was talking with Vinny Vegas over a cup of coffee at Prevail Union, we were thinking about getting out of Montgomery and making the pilgrimage to Selma when Kuntrell Jackson walked in the door.
“I’m too much of a talker,” Vinny Vegas said. “I’ll ruin it.”
“Stay,” I said. “Leave in the middle.”
“I’ll see you soon,” Vinny Vegas said. He shook hands with Kuntrell and left us to talk.
“I’m gonna grab some shots along the way,” I said as I began taking pictures. “Just be you. If you wanna pick up the phone, pick up the phone.”
“Okay,” Kuntrell laughed nervously.
“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “We’re just gonna talk.”
I’m not going to bore you with too much about my process, but I thought you should know a few things about how I conduct these interviews. I learned this when I used to do my series called “The Regulars Of Max’s Deli.” When I let people know, at the top, I’d be taking pictures along the way, it put them at ease. I didn’t want the traditional smiling picture or the typical pose, like the one you see at the top of this story. I take roughly 63 pictures to get 1 picture that I like.
Over the course of this interview, I took 179 pictures.
“Thank you, Kuntrell, for showing up,” I said. “What were you doing before you came here?”
“Man! I was in the museum,” he said. “Talking to children and a lot of other people that witness my story. That’s what I was doing.”
“Tell me what happened,” I said. “Tell me what went wrong.”
“I know what I did wrong. I went along with my cousin and my friend by being there at a place they wanted to rob and I didn’t want no part of it but I still walked along with them and when they went in the whole thing went wrong and they did… Even though I never went into the store until the end, I went in because I thought they were really playing. So when I went in I was like, man I thought y’all was playing and by the time I said that my homeboy he pulled the trigger.”
I didn’t mean to put Kuntrell back on the stand. This is what you say to the judge. This is how you explain yourself to the jury. This is how you talk to your team of lawyers, when you’re finally lucky enough to get a team of lawyers instead of the court appointed jackass who doesn’t even know why he became a lawyer besides to make his mommy and daddy happy and to find the fastest possible route to exploiting loopholes with corrupt judges to rack up legal fees. This is what you say to get out jail. Make no mistake, I have the utmost respect for the tightrope Kuntrell has walked his entire adult life. I jumped right in, at this uncomfortable spot, so you could get a sense of how every conversation has to start like he’s talking to his parole officer.
Kuntrell Jackson is out of prison but he’s not free.
The interview is broken up into 4 parts. Part 1 is 19 minutes and 48 seconds. Part 2 is 8 minutes and 23 seconds. Part 3 is 26 minutes and 45 seconds. Part 4 is 18 minutes and 57 seconds. Along the way we really got into in, the nitty gritty of how he feels about what he did, his thoughts on the woman who was killed, the child she left behind and what he plans on doing with his life outside of the prison yard.
Before I get into it, I need to step back and address a picture Vinny Vegas sent me. He has an amazing sense of humor. Almost always, it lands like a knockout punch.
In the picture, I’m sitting on the scooter my parents bought for me.
I was about the age Kuntrell Jackson was at the time he was sentenced to life without parole.
I was wearing a wig. I’m not sure why I was wearing a wig. I think I wore it at a halloween party and liked the way it looked. I was pretending to wear it in the picture to be funny but truth be told, it was the way I wished my hair looked for real. If you look at the picture, what you’re struck by is the “gayness.”
There are boys on the roof of the fraternity house flexing their muscles, shirtless, one boy in short-shorts. At that moment in time, it was even worse to be gay than it was to be a drug addict. So I’m sure if any of those boys heard me call them gay, back then, they would have tied me to my scooter and dragged me across campus. If they hear me call them gay today…
Fuck those guys!
They’re not boys anymore, they’re men
And by fuck those guys I mean I hope their husbands are fucking those guys and if they’re not comfortable enough with their sexuality to enjoy a good blowjob, no matter who’s sucking their dick, well then track me down, fire up the scooter and tie the noose. I don’t give a fuck. Or as Dr. King said on the night before his death, “I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Least of all a fraternity boy from 1988 who can’t get over himself in 2019.”
Dr. King had a gift for looking into the future.