You’re locked inside a cell for the most part of every day. You’ve got no freedom, no liberty, no choice and no future. Your only contact with other human beings comes from cursory exchanges with guards and the odd few minutes of daily yard talk with your neighbours - a ragtag bunch of killers, gangsters, drug traffickers, rapists and child molesters. You’re on Death Row. And no one wants to be on Death Row...
With the exception of James Robertson, that is.
December, 2008. It was a night like any other in the Charlotte Correctional Institution in Punta Gorda, Florida. In truth, all nights were the same. But not so for Frank Hart. That particular night was to be the last one he’d ever see. As the call for ‘lights out!’ came, Hart was already under his blanket, tucked up in bed. A short and sleight man, as he slept he could be mistaken for a child, such was the small bump he made in the bed’s top bunk. Weak, old and asleep, Hart was hardly a challenge for the large frame and gritted teeth determination of his cellmate, 45 year-old James Robertson.
As Robertson waited for the guard to walk past the cell on his first rounds of the night, he tied some of his laundry fresh white sports socks together, silently and tightly. As the guard strolled past he knew he had half an hour to kill Hart before the next round. In reality, it took less than five. Wrapping the makeshift garotte around Hart’s neck, Robertson applied more and more pressure until the flailing limbs stopped flailing and the convulsing body stopped convulsing. Without provocation or obvious motive, James Robertson had strangled his cellmate to death.
Four years of legal wrangling later, Robertson would receive the death sentence for his crime. Exactly the outcome he had wanted. Only it turns out that the murder wasn’t without motive. It was a killing for killing’s sake. Taking Frank Hart’s life put James Robertson on Death Row. Just where he wanted to be. The murder was a means to an end.
Robertson had been in jail since he was just sixteen years of age. Originally locked up for a fairly minor theft charge back in 1980, prison life seemed to break what little spirit the young James Robertson had left. Raised in a hugely dysfunctional family that was mired down in a quagmire of drug abuse, alcoholism, crime and violence, he was practically doomed since birth. Rather than act as a shot across the bows to the teenage Robertson, his sentence in jail merely awakened a beast within him. He rebelled frequently and often with quite shocking results.
James Robertson knew that the fastest way out of prison was to keep his nose clean and respect the guards and the system. But he never even tried to do those things.
Due to a series of assaults and stabbings committed while behind bars, his sentence just got longer and longer and longer. By the time he decided to get out of main prison and head to Death Row, James Robertson had accrued over one hundred years of jail time
In jail, convicts quickly learn the rules. They learn what to do and what not to do. How to protect themselves, how to hustle and how to settle for an easy life. It’s a survival thing. You do what needs to be done. But some inmates just can’t get into the life. James Robertson knew that the fastest way out of prison was to keep his nose clean and respect the guards and the system. But he never even tried to do those things. It just wasn’t in him. It wasn’t in his DNA. His combative attitude and unrelenting refusal to compromise or cooperate in almost anyway saw him put almost permanently into solitary confinement. Or, as it’s known in Florida penitentiary lingo, ‘close management’.
Florida’s use of close management is a hotly debated topic down in The Sunshine State. The scale of its use is shocking, with more than one eighth of the state’s prison population in CM at any one time. Ostensibly used as a punishment, it’s widely believed that its overuse can lead to short-term mental instability, long-term behavioural issues and - some folk argue - even irreparable psychological damage.
Conditions are cramped and contact with the outside world is all but nonexistent. Years of close management were enough to force James Robertson’s hand. He knew he needed to kill a man in cold blood to escape the spectre of a return to close management. Frank Hart was the sacrifice he had to make to the prison gods in order to get put on Death Row.
Why Death Row, though? Well, the way Robertson saw it - he was never walking out of Charlotte Correctional Institution. So if he was to be there forever, he may as well try to live in at least some comfort. Death Row is a frightening place to exist for many different reasons but, in the context of prison life, it has its perks. There’s increased yard time, larger cells and TV access. And, crucially in Robertson’s case, there’s no solitary confinement.
Why is James Robertson currently on Death Row? Some would say it’s simple - he took Frank Hart’s life in a brutal, violent and premeditated manner. Others would argue that he’s there out of sheer desperation. That the flawed Florida prison system - with its over reliance on locking men in ‘The Hole’ - is creating murderers, men so driven to avoid the harsh conditions of solitary jail life that they’re prepared to kill to avoid its soul-sapping misery.
Listen to the producers discuss the making of the series in the official podcast.