Darrell W. Maness has never known his father outside of the watchful eyes of prison guards. In 1987, his father was given a life sentence for the murder of a police officer. Growing up, Darrell got to know him through contact visits, in which family members and friends can visit an incarcerated person and exchange hugs, shake hands, and talk face to face.
At age 19, Darrell followed in his father’s footsteps when he was charged with killing a police officer. He has been on North Carolina’s death row since 2006. As is common in high security prisons today, Darrell can only receive visitors through a barrier of Plexiglas, steel, and concrete that prevents him from touching his loved ones.
This interview reveals the effects of prison on the family structure. It takes place within the corridors of the North Carolina death row housing unit, located in Raleigh. It is the manifestation of camaraderie that is tethered to playing basketball, working out at the weight pile, and daily treks to and from the prison’s chow hall.
No longer a teenager dodging the widespread gunfire of cops in a hyper-policed community, Darrell is now a grown man whose perspective on life goes well beyond his 31 years of earthly existence. That perspective has much to teach us about survivor’s guilt and the humanity existing on the short side of authoritarian rule—a predicament that is not as simple as good and bad, right or wrong, or Black or White. By the conclusion of this interview, you may think differently about what society deems a cop-killer.
Leroy: Tell me something about the person you were before you caught this charge.
Darrell: Growing up was pretty hard at times. I didn’t have my real father because he was serving a life sentence for killing a cop. The only time I saw him would be at visits. I’ve never had the chance to see him in the freeworld because he got locked up when I was only months old.
Leroy: By you being introduced to the prison system through him, what type of advice did he give you?
Darrell: My dad would always tell me to stay out of trouble, and especially don’t wind up in prison like him. He was always trying to protect me with his words of wisdom. It was up to me to use his advice. And of course being young, most of what he told me went in one ear and out the other one.
Leroy: Were these contact visits or non-contact visits?
Darrell: Contact. My grandparents and I would go visit him, no matter what prison he was in, once a month. Sometimes we’d have to travel two or three hours just for a two-hour visit with him. But it was well worth it.
This is how I developed a relationship with my dad. We got to take pictures together. Eat snacks. Talk about how I was doing in school. Talk about his life behind those walls. And we even got to hug before we left. Those two hours together were priceless.
I left kind of sad because I wanted to stay with him; he was my dad. But I was also happy because we built on our relationship every time I got to visit. Plus, I got to hug him—sometimes I’d hug him two or three times each visit. It was just something about that hug that I can’t explain.
Leroy: You already have, D.
Darrell: [Nods in agreement.]
Leroy: How about your mother?
Darrell: My mom was on drugs for most of my teen years, so I lived with my paternal grandparents most of the time. There is where I learned discipline. At the time, I just thought they were strict, but they were trying to keep me out of trouble.
It’s hard to see that when you’re young because you want to go, go, go, all the time. I worked really hard cutting wood and mowing lawns with my grandpa for about six to eight years. My grandparents tried to keep me from hanging around the wrong people, and even gave me a curfew at times. So when I turned 16, I ran away, and went to live with my maternal grandmother. I never went to visit my dad again after I ran away. Life moved so fast after that.
Leroy: Elaborate on “life moved so fast.”
Darrell: Well, I got a drug charge at 17 years old, for selling to an undercover cop at school. I was put on intensive probation for six months with two and a halfmore years of supervised probation. Plus, 200 hours of community service.
Leroy: Aside from your drug arrest, how did you relate in school?
Darrell: In middle school and high school, I played football, made the honor roll most times, got perfect attendance and a few other awards. I actually liked school and planned to go to college one day.
I tried out for my high school basketball team but didn’t make the cut. So, I signed up for AAU [Amateur Athletic Union]. I loved sports, but I also found work at SKIDS and Food Lion, in addition to helping my grandpa. Most of my days were pretty full, but I loved working and making my own money.
Leroy: You mentioned your mom doing drugs. Did you eventually indulge as well?
Darrell: Drug use has been in my family for years, so I guess it was a matter of time before I got caught up. When I moved in with my maternal grandmother, there was a little more freedom to do what I wanted.
I was selling weed on top of smoking it. Yet I still went to school, kept my job, and played football. I was around 17 or 18 when I was reunited with my mom. She was off the drugs and things were going good. At 19, I get charged with killing a cop.
Leroy: Please speak freely about the man you’ve become since that time.
Darrell: For one, I’ve become more perceptive. I missed a lot of things while free because I was too carefree. I should have listened more and talked less. Instead of ignoring good advice, I should’ve just followed it.
In here, you have to stay on your toes because guys are trying to run game all the time. I’ve learned to see through most facades. Plus, I have a few close friends that school me. Best believe I’ve listened this time.
I’ve also become hardened around the edges. I still love my family, who is still here for me, and my friends. Although a lot of people have abandoned me over the years, I can understand people have lives to live, and society moves on. It still hurts when people leave you. It does something to you.
Leroy: How would you explain this “something”?
Darrell: When someone tells you, “I’ll be by your side forever,” then they just stop writing or visiting... It’s like being in love and having your heart broken; it hurts! [A brief pause as he adjusts his glasses and gathers himself.]
I’ve developed a thick skin because I don’t like getting hurt. When my maternal grandmother passed, I tried not to let it hurt me, but I just couldn’t help that one. Not being able to be there for her in her time of need hurt me the most. I feel like I failed her, because she was always there for me growing up. As a competitor, I try to learn from every loss, but I don’t like the feeling of losing my grandma. I couldn’t see how to learn from her death at all. Eventually, her passing helped me to see things clearer. Which I guess is learning in a way.
I now know that life can be short and loss hurts as much as love. Until something comes along and shocks you—so to speak—you won’t feel it. The passing of a loved one will make you feel it.
Leroy: So, do you think having contact visits would alleviate some of the familial stress derived from losing a loved one, and being unable to hug one another?
Darrell: Absolutely. My visits with my mother, sister, and friends are different than the ones my father used to get.
I get non-contact visits. There are no hugs... no pictures... no eating snacks... My visits are through bars and glass, and you must talk through a vent. It’s very discouraging for both sides. I don’t get many visits because of it, and I don’t blame them. If I didn’t get to hug my dad on our visits, growing up, I probably would have visited less than once a month.
Leroy: How does a teenager handle being sentenced to die?
Darrell: I got locked up at 19, and got the death sentence at 20. When the jury said “Death,” my heart dropped. It’s like I was looking into the barrel of that cop’s gun again. After things settled down, I started trying to live my life. I loved going to school and playing sports. I still do those things today.
Leroy: You mean through the programs that are available to death row prisoners?
Darrell: Right. Every class brought to death row has nothing but upside. The chess league has helped me with planning every day movements of my life. I’ve read plenty of books, and I’ve also learned how to paint, draw, and write poetry.
I don’t want to fall behind in today’s world, so I try to learn about things and events that have happened since I’ve become incarcerated. I make it a point to learn and be more perceptive. I actually have the time to focus on more things, and I choose to be smarter about the life that I have in front of me.
I’ve found a way to live with the hand I was dealt. I’m not a quitter in anything I do, so until the day I die, I will be the best person I know how to be, and utilize every opportunity that comes my way.
Leroy: Okay, think back. What was your first lesson about dealing with cops?
Darrell: My first lesson would have been when I went to see my dad in prison. I used to see how the correctional officers would treat different inmates, whether it be good or bad. Some of the C.O.’s appeared to be good people just trying to do their job and get a paycheck. Others didn’t seem so nice.
My dad would talk to me about the way they treated him or helped him out. He also told me about the street cops and how he didn’t want me getting in any trouble, and go through a similar circumstance as his.
Leroy: Do you find that to be ironic?
Darrell: Yeah. My dad has reached out through letters and we stay in contact. He’s been by my side the whole time I’ve been locked up, even after I left his side.
The good news is after 30 years of being locked up, my dad is getting out of prison. Whenever I get the chance to communicate with him I find myself giving him the advice that he gave me so long ago.
It’s crazy how this world works sometimes. Our roles will be reversed. He’ll be free and I will be the one locked up. The only question is, will he get caught up in his life and forget about me like I basically did to him?
Only time will tell. He won’t be able to visit anyway because he’ll be out on parole, and no one on parole can visit any prisons. I just hope he writes a letter or allows me to call him because I need my dad now more than ever. I sure do miss those hugs.
Leroy: I feel you. Tell me more about your paternal grandmother.
Darrell: My grandma was a 911 operator. She knew a lot of cops, firefighters, and other government officials. They would come by and speak with my grandparents just to check up on them.
Leroy: So, you didn’t grow up with a “Fuck the Police” mentality?
Darrell: Ain’t no way. I’ve helped my grandpa cut down trees in one cop’s yard, and I’ve mowed the lawn of another. When my grandpa hired a sheriff’s deputy to fix the roof on our house, I assisted him and learned how to put shingles on a roof.
You see, I’ve had good experiences with most cops, it’s just when you’re on the bad side of the law things change. You find those gung-ho cops that’s been in the military and don’t take no shit. They don’t want to hear you out, because to them, you’re already guilty.
It’s like dealing with a racist. We know how those situations turned out, throughout history. You don’t see many White people getting gunned down in the street. There’s very little balance in this world due to prejudice. Young Black men are dying in these streets by the hand of the people who are supposed to keep that balance. They’re doing a poor job and it’s really sad.
Leroy: What would you say to a youngsta on the brink of having an altercation with a cop?
Darrell: Don’t panic. [Shakes his head.] Real talk. When you’re scared it’s easy to go into fight or flight mode, and that’s hard to control. Just try to remain calm. Those gung-ho cops are waiting for that twitch, to give them a reason to apply force, or even worse, shoot you. Don’t resist. Listen to what they say and follow it to the letter.
People still get beat up or shot by cops after following instructions, but I’d prefer for the youngstas to follow, not to make the same mistake I did. Know that what you did was right.
This has been the story of a misunderstood White kid serving a death sentence, due to the panic instigated by the actions of an overzealous police officer. But his plight is tragic to anyone of any race, creed, or economic status. A contrite heart speaks a universal language.
Darrell’s father was released from prison on August 19, 2016. He is the first convicted cop killer to be paroled in the state of North Carolina. If the old aphorism, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” holds any truth, then Darrell Maness is not only redeemable, he is the reflection of a fallen son, receptive to rehabilitation, despite the sour circumstances that deem him disposable.