Capturing stories, building connections

Renaldo Hudson and Death Row

Posted by on Oct 24, 2011 in Bill's journalism

From birth to age 18, when he mercilessly killed an elderly man he knew, Renaldo Hudson’s life story was a nightmare. The nightmare continued in prison and then on Death Row, to which Hudson, who is black, was sent after he was convicted of killing Folke Petersen, a white man.

But after a decade of being a tough guy in prison (a gang enforcer), Hudson’s story took a dramatic turn. Basically he found God, first in the form of Islam and later Christianity. And the change in Hudson was drastic. He learned to read and write, gave up violence, became a model prisoner–one who admitted his guilt, unlike just about every other inmate.

That Hudson admitted his guilt is what drew me to his story, which posed a provocative question: Is it possible for a bad person, a killer, to be redeemed, to change his life for the better–to be truly transformed?

Renaldo Hudson Death Row story Chicago magazine 4-2001

To read full story, click on image

That’s a complex question, one I examined in a piece that appeared on the cover of the April 2001 issue of Chicago magazine. I want to believe that true and deep transformation is possible, and Renaldo Hudson’s extraordinary life story suggests that it is. Probably the most powerful support for Hudson came from several guards and administrators that I spoke with at the Pontiac prison where Hudson was on Death Row. They spoke with me in violation of prison rules, which forbids such communication with a journalist. To a person, they said the same things–his change is legit, hard to believe, but on the level. As one administrator who’d talked with numerous guards about Hudson for me, told me: “They said he was a model inmate, which is something we never say.”

(P.S. Hudson and his supporters were hoping that his change, which has remained consistent for nearly two decades, would get him off Death Row and eventually out of prison. Hudson is no longer on Death Row; his sentence was one of nearly 100 that former Illinois Gov. George Ryan in 2002 reduced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. But his chances for getting out of prison some day are slim-to-none.)