The story of one man’s life on death row in the worst prison in America

May 13, 2024
Prison image for death row blogpost

Not all people on death row are guilty. Kelvin "KJ" Jordan is one of hundreds of innocent people sitting on death row awaiting execution. #deathpenalty #capitalpunishment #innocent #prisonindustrialcomplex #freeKJ

Marsha McDowell recently completed both the MA in Human Rights Practice and the Graduate Certificate in Gender-Based Violence. During Marsha's time in the program, she worked on a series of videos including one working with a man incarcerated on death row, Kelvin "KJ Jordan. In this blogpost, Marsha explains more about KJ's experience and presents the video. KJ has provided his consent for inclusion of his story in the video and in this blogpost.


How In The Hell Did I Get Caught Up Here?

The story of one man’s life on death row in the worst prison in America

Many people believe that if a person is on death row, they did something bad enough to deserve that punishment. However, since 1973, there have been 189 death row exonerations, 100 of those exonerees being Black. That is one exoneration for every 10 people that have been executed since the reinstatement of the death penalty in the United States in 1976. As of January 1, 2023, there were 2,331 people on death row with an overwhelming amount being members of ethnic and racial minority groups. That means there are at least 250 people who have been given the sentence of death even though they are not guilty of the charges they were convicted of. Kelvin “KJ” Jordan is one of those people.

I met KJ through a volunteer program with the Compassion Prison Project. Created to bring childhood trauma education to people who are incarcerated, they have a pen pal program that connects volunteers with people on death row.  At the onset, I could see that KJ was lonely and in need of someone to talk to and share his story with. We wrote letters back and forth for approximately 6 months before I gave him my phone number. I had originally suggested writing an article about KJ’s predicament but after we started speaking on the phone I felt that a recorded story told by him would be a more powerful and effective way to get his story heard. 

First person narratives can be a powerful tool to share information and gain sympathy of the listeners with the hope of encouraging them to act and help make changes to these systems. They can also elicit empathy and compassion for those suffering in these inequitable, dangerous, and oftentimes dilapidated living conditions.

Kelvin LeShawn Jordan, “KJ”, was born on Christmas Day in 1977 on the side of the road in the deep South of Jasper County, Mississippi. He was not breathing when he was born and after being rushed to the hospital and revived, was given only four years to live. Despite the brain damage he suffered which resulted in a seizure disorder and low mental acuity, KJ survived. KJ was raised in abject poverty in the deep woods of Pachuta, Mississippi. The home he lived in required navigating weak spots and missing sections in the floor so he wouldn’t fall through and the home did not have a bathroom. The home was frequently without electricity as his mom did not have enough money for it to remain on at all times.

His dad was not part of his life and KJ only remembers speaking to him once when he asked KJ to get him a beer while they were both at a relative’s house. KJ’s older brother, Michael, was in and out of prison and was killed in 2012. Due to the struggles he faced in his life and at school, KJ stopped going to school in the 8th grade and never learned to read and write. At 17, his mother remarried and left KJ alone to fend for himself.

KJ was close to his cousin, Frontrell, growing up although it was an unequal power dynamic with KJ being very easily persuaded by his cousin, often getting KJ into dangerous situations. At the age of 12, Frontrell shot KJ in the stomach accidentally while playing with a gun. KJ was taken to the hospital but was told he would need to come back for surgery to have the bullet removed. His mother never took him back and the bullet remains inside and can be felt by KJ to this day. During his teenage years, KJ had three interactions with the juvenile court system for minor infractions under the influence of Michael and Frontrell. However, he was never convicted of any crimes and spent no time in prison. 

In December 1997 at the age of 19, KJ was convicted on two counts of capital murder for the 1995 deaths of Tony Roberts and his two-year old child, Codera Bradley, and sentenced to death. KJ maintained his innocence throughout the arrest, trial, conviction, and sentencing. While he admitted being at the scene and helping his cousin Frontrell burn Roberts’ vehicle after the murders, he did not fire a shot nor did he have access to the caliber of weapon that was used in the murders. After his arrest, KJ cooperated with authorities to locate the bodies, vehicle, and weapon although he never admitted that Frontrell was the one who fired the shots at the victims. However, Mississippi.Code Ann. § 97-1-3 (Rev.2000) provides that “[e]very person who shall be an accessory to any felony, before the fact, shall be deemed and considered a principal, and shall be indicted and punished as such; and this whether the principal have been previously convicted or not.” 

Five days before his 20th birthday, KJ arrived at Parchman State Penitentiary where he is to remain until his appeals weave slowly through the court system. Two appeals have been filed citing ineffective counsel due to, among other reasons, attorneys not including testimony from a psychologist on KJ’s intellectual disabilities nor his mother’s testimony that he was highly influenced by Frontrell. Additionally, the initial psychological examination was done in the presence of a sheriff deputy who had repeatedly used racial slurs and even threats toward KJ. 

The appeals were denied for several reasons including the idea that people are entitled to counsel but that no constitutional right to errorless counsel is afforded. Furthermore, although the judge noted arguments could possibly be made for ineffective counsel, the attorney who filed the appeal was one of the original trial attorneys and the courts stated that she could not be the one who argued council was ineffective. Therefore, a second appeal was filed in 2017 by different state appointed attorneys but the case has yet to be heard in court while KJ continues to sit on death row in horrible conditions and locked in an 8x10-foot cell 23 hours a day.

Over 30 hours of phone calls were recorded spanning an 18 month period where KJ shared stories of his life growing up in Pachuta, details of the crime that occurred in October 1995 leading to his eventual death sentence, and spending the last 27 years of his life in one of the worst prisons in America. KJ's experience includes meals with small portions of mostly processed food which at times is inedible due to spoilage, infestations of rats and bugs, an iron bed covered in rust, peeling paint on the walls, and brown tinted water from the faucet to be used for drinking and personal care. Outside of his cell, the unit he is housed in is over 100 years old and in disrepair. There is no air conditioning in the sweltering summers and no heaters during cold snaps in the winter. KJ has only two jumpsuits, two pairs of socks, one pair of shoes, and one cap which must be worn until they are threadbare or he has enough funds to purchase additional clothing. On top of poor living conditions, Parchman is an incredibly violent prison and KJ must continually be on guard to protect himself from fellow prisoners as well as from guards.

While KJ’s story may sound sensational, it is the unfortunate reality of thousands of people living in the United States Prison Industrial Complex. Every day, men, women, and children in this country are convicted of crimes they didn’t commit or crimes that do not warrant being sentenced to live in overfilled and poorly maintained prisons where they must struggle daily to stay alive. Kelvin Jordan’s story, sadly, will not be the last. 

While you watch this short film and hear KJ's story, you will hear the account of a child born into poverty who ended up on death row before he had the chance to grow up. As you listen to KJ’s narrative of life behind bars, hopefully, you will have a deeper understanding of the tragedy that is the US prison system and the persistent prejudice that keeps it filled with people just like him.