On the night of June 3, 1973, a Chevrolet Caprice, driven by a woman, was forced off Interstate 57 in southern Cook County, Ill., by a car carrying four men. One of them pointed a 12-gauge pump shotgun at her, ordered her to strip and then to climb through a barbed-wire fence at the side of the road. As she begged for her life, her assailant thrust the shotgun barrel into her vagina and fired. After watching her agonies for several minutes, he finished her off with a blast to the throat. Less than an hour later, the marauding motorists stopped another car and told the man and woman inside it to get out and lie down on the shoulder of the road. The couple pleaded for mercy, saying that they were engaged to be married in six months. The man with the shotgun said, "Kiss your last kiss," then shot both of them in the back, killing them. The total take from three murders and two robberies: $54, two watches, an engagement ring and a wedding band.
The man ultimately convicted of the "I-57 murders" now sits confined in the Menard Condemned Unit, the official name for death row in the Illinois prison system. Yet Henry Brisbon Jr., 28, does not face execution for those three killings nearly ten years ago. Illinois' death penalty was invalidated in 1972 and was not restored until 1977, the year that Brisbon was finally brought to trial. At that time, the judge sentenced him to a term of 1,000 to 3,000 years in prison. It took Brisbon less than one year to kill again, this time stabbing a fellow inmate at Stateville Correctional Center with the sharpened handle of a soup ladle. At the trial for this murder, Will County State's Attorney Edward Petka described Brisbon as "a very, very terrible human being, a walking testimonial for the death penalty." The jury agreed.
Brisbon's eleven months on death row have been quiet, compared with his Stateville years, when he took part in 15 attacks on inmates and guards, instigated at least one prison riot, trashed a courtroom during a trial and hit a warden with a broom handle. "I'm no bad dude," he says, "just an antisocial individual." The third of 13 children, Brisbon thinks that his upbringing by a strict black Muslim father made him different: "I was taught to be a racist and not like whites. As I grew up, I decided I didn't like nobody."
Brisbon has 90 well-supervised minutes each day outside his small (7 ft. 7 in. by 5 ft. 10 in.) cell. He works out with weights, keeping his 155 lbs. (on a 5-ft 9-in. frame) in shape. He complains about his confinement: "Can't take two steps in this cage. It's inhuman. And that dull-ass color blue on the walls in no way brightens my life." He has devised a novel idea about judicial reform: "All this talk about victims' rights and restitution gets me. What about my family? I'm a victim of a crooked criminal system. Isn't my family entitled to something?" The shadow of the death penalty does not faze him: "I don't see that happening to me. What would killing me solve? Isn't that just another murder? If I got to die, it's going to be of natural causes." The state of Illinois thinks otherwise. Says Michael Ficaro, who prosecuted the I-57 case: "On the day he dies in the chair at Stateville, I plan to be there to see that it's done. Nobody I've heard of deserves the death penalty more than Henry Brisbon."
On February 15, 1983. Slipping out of handcuffs and breaking away from a guard on death row, he used a piece of sharpened heavy-gauge wire to stab convicted killers William Jones and John Wayne Gacy. (Neither man was seriously injured.) At this writing, Brisbon is awaiting execution -- and, undoubtedly, preparing for his next attempt at homicide.