Christopher Dahl, up-and-coming Florida author, takes us inside the world of death row inmate, Loran Cole, in his recently published work of nonfiction, Meet the Devil: The Loran Cole Story.
Rather than providing a social analysis on the death penalty from the outside looking in, the book explores the issue from the inside, told straight from the mouth of “the devil.” The story is a compilation of letters written by Cole himself, including Dahl’s intermittent commentary that provides background information and thought-provoking interpretation. Dahl’s book is one that raises questions. It demands an open mind, one that is not willing to settle for a quick and easy solution deemed by authority. He merely asks his readers to think. “Anyone can become the Devil, given a little weakness and the right circumstances,” Dahl begins in the book. This is what he illuminates throughout. Although we all take different paths through life, some of us stepping lightly into them while others are violently shoved, we are all human. Cole was sentenced to a life in prison before he left the womb, and now sits in one made of steel, waiting for death. We travel through his world, beginning with his nightmarish childhood up to his current life where he sits on death row at the Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, Fla. Raised by an alcoholic mother and her obscenely abusive partners, Cole begins his journey through a metaphorical Hell. “As a child, I endured pain and tortures beyond any comprehension. I was literally beaten with everything imaginable [...],” Cole recounts in the story. As one boyfriend left, another followed, carrying out an atrocious legacy of sickening paternal misguidance. One of his mother’s boyfriends actually taught Cole how to rape and torture through firsthand demonstration, all in the name of “God,” further uprooting our instilled conceptions of morality. Throughout his tale, we see the brutality Cole is exposed to as a young child naturally reflect in his own actions. He eventually lands himself in the Florida Industrial School for Boys, a black hole where evil only grows stronger as more boys are thrown in. Here, Cole’s already twisted perception of morality is further warped by merciless actions at the hands of those who were intended to teach him right from wrong. His portrayals of the ruthlessness and corruption of the institute’s staff are jaw-dropping. We see how Cole’s many horrendous experiences fuel the hatred brewing inside of him. He shows us that you cannot rid violence with more violence, just as you cannot put out a fire with more flames. One does not extinguish the other, they simply fuse and become stronger. There’s an old adage that says, “Some people are born on third base, but think they hit a home run.” Cole was born in the outfields. From infancy, he lived in environments that were breeding grounds for “devils.” We are forced to question what chance someone born in hell has of crawling out of this world of savagery. To what extent do we have total and absolute free will? Dahl never outwardly justifies Cole’s actions, but leaves us with these questions to dwell on. Finally, Cole tells us his side—he recounts the night Florida State University student, John Edwards, was murdered. This was the night that determined the rest of his life. A product of his environment, Cole asserts that no one is born evil, but rather molded by it. Thus, he seems to offer himself as a model in order to find a solution to better society, and to prevent children from being fashioned into criminals by the brutality of others. His tale is a cautionary one, pleading for justice and change. Christopher Dahl has corresponded with death row inmates for the past three years, listening to their stories, and trying to understand their pain. While freeing Cole is irrefutably out of the question, Dahl shows us how condemning him to the death penalty is morally disputable. “If you do listen, it’s not that simple,” Dahl said. “It’s not a black and white issue at all. It’s twisted.” Dahl has published several other books about death row inmates, including Killer Art, which holds a compilation of artwork created by the prisoners. Through his years of correspondence with the men, Dahl has developed a distorted sense of empathy. “I can see the humanity,” Dahl said. “They were someone’s father. They had jobs but then they did things that you would never imagine doing in your wildest dream.” Most people crave simplicity. The bad are jailed, the worst are extinguished, and the good are the executioners. Dahl shines a light on the complexities and convoluted elements involved in one individual’s condemnation to death, which forces us to explore justice on a broader spectrum. Does destroying one man bring us closer to destroying evil altogether? Or are we merely decapitating one head of a beast, where two more will grow in its place? Pick up the book. You may learn a thing or two from the devil on death row.