This morning I read that Douglas Dennis, died from a heart attack suffered while serving out his life sentence in Angola for a murder that took place in the 1950’s. I only knew him by his nickname Swede.
Swede was the most intriguing ma
n in that place. Sarcastic, bitter, but funny and brilliant. I used to bring him New Yorker Magazines which he loved and we’d talk about almost any topic imaginable as though he had been everywhere and thought of everything. No doubt about it, Swede was the smartest person in Angola and a good storyteller.
Over the years, I asked Swede every time I saw him if I could make a film about his story. He was always resistant, saying that if he did that he ran the risk of losing the ‘nickels’ the prison afforded him, meaning the bits of freedom he had achieved within the system. You see Swede had escaped in 1979 and was free and living successfully in Silicon Valley, California until 1989. Eventually he was picked up and brought back to serve the rest of his life sentence. As a risk threat he was never permitted to travel.
The crazy part of the story is that Swede was picked up for drunkenness while on a cross country road trip, ended up in the drunk tank with another man, got into a fight and the guy died. He had no record until then. That was in the 1957, the day I was born. In the early 1960’s he got into a fight with another inmate in Angola and was sent to death row until 1976. In 1979, while working for the Governor he escaped out of Baton Rouge, apparently first traveling to Central America and later returning back to California.
It would have been powerful for him to share his story with the world and ironically, the last time we met he actually indicated he’d consider doing it. Maybe somebody else can still tell his story, but I’ll always feel that I let it get away somehow except inside of me.
I remember Swede telling me the night that Antonio James was executed in 1996 that he wasn’t sad, but a bit envious. The other inmates working at the Angolite said, ‘Tell him Swede, tell him what you do every night!”. Gruff as always, he said, “every night before sleep, I kneel down to pray. I ask God, please don’t let me wake up in the morning’.
For him, it was preferable to be dead then to serve forever in Angola. Well, he finally got his wish…