TILLERY — When he was 20, Dalton Windley fetched a .22-caliber rifle from his car, aimed it from the hip and fired a single shot at Glenn Brame from about 150 yards, catching the young man in the neck.
They'd been arguing over a girl. Windley knows it doesn't matter, but he insists he didn't mean to kill. Those few seconds of wildness got him a life sentence in prison and, after nearly 20 years, he doesn't expect to get out.
Prison gives a man plenty of time to think, and the way Windley looks at it, his life is a waste. One big nothing. He took a man's life, robbed a little girl of her daddy. Not only that, but he ran from the crime scene, then from the police, who caught him fleeing into the Beaufort County woods.
So nearing age 40, he'd like give his life some small purpose. If he can't do it as a free man, he'd like to try it behind bars. Windley's hope: donate a kidney and one blue eye, while he's still living.
"Let me step up to the plate," said Windley, practically pleading behind the razor wire at Caledonia Correctional Institution. "If this is going to be my life, I want to do some good. I am better than this right here. This is not me. I'm better than this."
Windley promises he isn't crazy, and his plan isn't as freakish as it might sound.
In Arizona, Maricopa County encouraged inmates to sign up as organ donors, and many did without promise of reward.
In South Carolina, the legislature flirted with offering reduced sentences for organ donations in 2007, though doctors called the idea unethical.
In Oregon, convicted killer Christian Longo has asked - without success - to donate his organs after death. His offer also raised ethical and practical objections, especially from prison officials and the victims' family.
"I spend 22 hours a day locked in a 6 foot by 8 foot box on Oregon's death row," he wrote last year in an opinion piece published by The New York Times. "There is no way to atone for my crimes, but I believe that a profound benefit to society can come from my circumstances."
Contrast this with the words of serial killer Charles Starkweather, when asked shortly before his execution in 1959 whether he would consider giving his eyes: "Hell no! No one ever did anything for me. Why in the hell should I do anything for anyone else?"
Whether Windley can actually donate an organ, I couldn't say. Numerous medical sources specify that eye donations come from the dead except in the rarest circumstances. I've called Carolina Donor Services several times and can't get a call back.
But I have some experience here. About eight years ago, I donated bone marrow when - to my great surprise - I turned up a match with a woman in Charlotte who had leukemia. So I can assure any potential recipient that donors go through extensive screening. If there's anything wrong with Windley's eye or his kidney, it won't go unnoticed.
Windley grew up in Beaufort County, just east of Greenville, where the Tar River becomes the Pamlico.
Before he shot Brame, he'd been living in a mobile home park, working on tractors for a living. He and his girlfriend were going to have a child, but she miscarried, and Windley blamed himself. He thought maybe he'd put too much pressure on her, and the feeling haunted him. He started sleeping in his car.
A fight over a woman
Around that time, Brame accused Windley of fooling around with his girlfriend, with whom he had a daughter. Windley denied it.
They fought both over the phone and in Brame's front yard outside Chocowinity. The only reason Windley had a gun that day in 1993 was he'd gone fishing, and had used the rifle to shoot turtles.
Witnesses said the two had finished arguing and walked away from each other when Windley retrieved his rifle. When he fired, at long range, Brame dove to the ground. It took him two days to die. Windley pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, avoiding the death penalty.
Today, he occupies a bunk at Caledonia, a 7,500-acre prison on the Roanoke River where inmates work on both a farm and a cannery. The razor wire is stacked six rolls high at the fence. Brick towers surround the prison, surveying wide open fields in every direction beyond the gates.
In his early years as a prisoner, Windley often found trouble. His record behind bars is marked by a string of infractions, including assault with a weapon and taking a hostage. But it stands nearly clean for the past 10 years.
"I came here as a young'un," Windley said. "I was scared. I thought I had something to prove."
At age 39, he stands roughly 6 feet tall, beanpole-thin, arms inked with serpents and skulls.
For the first time in his life, he is growing a beard, just to see how long it can get. There is time for this kind of recreation in prison.
His parents are elderly. His younger brother has a house full of children. He'd like to help them. But after repeated parole denials - Windley counts eight - he is resigning himself to being locked up.
A chance at redemption
But sitting in prison, stewing, analyzing what might have been, he dwells on the chance for redemption. He doesn't want people to think of him as a murderer, to remember him as the man who killed Glenn Brame. He's never spoken with Brame's daughter. He doesn't even know her name.
Windley says he doesn't want validation from anybody but himself. You can tell he's not looking for any favors - just a sense of self-worth to carry around inside the concrete walls. He talks about this for an hour, sitting in an office chair, until a correctional officer cuffs him and leads him back inside, where he will keep trying to outlive those few, stupid seconds.
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