A Good Man, at One Time

How a Mississippi inmate became an advocate for his own execution

photo illustration of Cox's mug shot overlaid with handwritten note, torn into shreds and fanned out
Photo illustration by Adam Maida. Sources: Mississippi Department of Corrections / AP.

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By the time David Neal Cox’s life was put to an end last fall by the state of Mississippi, the man had become a rarity among death-row prisoners—a jailhouse advocate for his own execution. Some in that unusual tradition have had an agenda, such as Timothy McVeigh, who expected his 2001 death to become a symbol of federal brutality; others, including another Mississippian, Bobby Wilcher, who was killed in 2006, waived their appeals in a fit of pique or despair and then died trying to reinstate their pathways to survival. But not Cox. No ardent supporter of capital punishment could have found their passion for the practice better matched, or their reasoning for it better embodied, than in the 50-year-old man’s rawboned frame.

The state of Mississippi wanted Cox dead, and Cox did too. In the days leading up to his death, the family of Cox’s victims—people who were once related to Cox himself—told reporters that Cox was evil; that if he were ever free, he would kill again; and that his execution would bring closure to their beleaguered clan.

Cox had earned their hatred. Around dusk on a May 2010 evening in the northern-Mississippi town of Sherman, Cox, armed with a .40-caliber handgun, shot his way inside a trailer in search of his estranged wife, Kim. Cox was apoplectic. He had spent nine months in the Pontotoc County Jail, after being arrested on charges of statutory rape, sexual battery, child abuse, and drug-possession offenses related to crystal meth. The victim of his alleged sexual predation was Lindsey Kirk, his 12-year-old stepdaughter, whom he had raised since she was 2. Cox blamed Kim for his incarceration because she told the police that her daughter had been abused. A few weeks out of jail on bond, Cox had come for revenge.

He had set out with enough ammunition to kill not only Kim but her father and stepmother, Benny and Melody Kirk, and her sister, Kristie Salmon, with whom she was staying. Benny and Melody were, mercifully, miles away at the time. Kristie managed to escape the hellish scene, along with Cox and Kim’s 7-year-old son. Only Kim, Lindsey, and the couple’s other son, who was 8, remained trapped inside.

First, Cox shot Kim twice, once in the arm and once through the abdomen—an injury that, a local surgeon told the jury at Cox’s trial, likely generated agonizing pain as the contents of the intestines spilled into the abdominal cavity during the several hours it took Kim to bleed to death. The greater torture is harder to quantify: In a taped interview reviewed by the jurors, Lindsey recounts that after Cox shot her mother, he forced the young girl to undress and then sexually assaulted her while Kim looked on, helpless. Lindsey struggled to tell the story through tears, indicating where on her body Cox had touched her as her mother lay dying.

Over the course of approximately eight hours, police gathered outside the trailer and attempted to negotiate with Cox. Occasionally, he would take to the telephone to spew poison at the police (if law enforcement tried to breach the premises, he warned, he would be “going for head shots”) or at Benny, Kim’s father, whom he seemed to delight in tormenting with details of his daughter’s imminent death, at one point informing Benny that Kim was “bleeding like a stuck pig.” On the phone, Cox told his sister Sharlott’s husband that he had a bullet for Lindsey and another for himself, and yet that isn’t how the assault came to an end: Eventually, around 3:30 in the morning, a SWAT team stormed the trailer. The officers rescued Lindsey and her half-brother and arrested Cox. Kim was already dead.

Cox pleaded guilty to charges of capital murder, sexual battery, burglary, kidnapping, and firing into a dwelling. If he meant to avoid the death penalty with a swift and complete admission of guilt, he failed. In September 2012, the jury returned a unanimous verdict sentencing Cox to death.

For a time, it seemed as though Cox would, like most prisoners condemned to die, fight his fate. In 2016, his attorneys began filing the sundry motions associated with post-conviction relief. But by the summer of 2018, Cox had begun communicating directly with the Mississippi Supreme Court, sending handwritten letters demanding that his lawyers be fired and all appeals be waived. Cox had come to a new faith, he said, and he wanted to die as soon as possible.

“I seek in earnest to wave all my appeals immediately, I seek to be executed as I do here this day stand on MS Death row a guilty man worthy of death,” he wrote. Spiritual awakening notwithstanding, Cox was unrepentant. “If I had my perfect way & will about it,” he wrote, “Id ever so gladly dig my dead sarkastic wife up of in whom I very happily & premeditatedly slaughtered on 5-14-2010 & with eager pleasure kill the fat heathern hore again.” When overt hostility failed to elicit the instantaneous response Cox was looking for, he offered a constitutional plea. “I am Anabaptist,” he wrote some weeks later, “namely, old order Amish, & it is in conflict with my religeon to have lawyers.”

Five days later, Cox’s lawyers filed a motion to retract all of Cox’s efforts to waive his appeals. Cox had been extremely depressed when he sent the letters, they wrote, but he had since spoken with them and changed his mind about his situation.

This didn’t last, however. In November 2018, Cox wrote again to the court, insisting anew on his desire to die. “I am worthy of death & I do not wish to challenge the State of Mississippi any further,” he said. “I seek to bring clousure to my victims & family & all I hurt whether it be emotionally, phsyikally or both, by the speedy execution of my guilty body.” A couple of days later, Cox explained in a handwritten affidavit that he had withdrawn his earlier pleas to live because he suffered a divided existence, torn between two parts of himself, which he described as “skin #1” and “skin #2.” “Skin #1 seeks life & relief,” Cox wrote, while “skin #2 seeks death & relief, still.”

Cox’s second skin won out. And despite the alarming impression that his declaration of a split psyche gave about his mental state, the Mississippi Supreme Court found him competent to waive his appeals. In October 2021, the court obliged Cox and set a date for his execution.

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In court opinions pertaining to Cox, Mississippi’s jurists appear largely incurious about what, precisely, had motivated the man to campaign for his own death. Maybe that sort of thing lay beyond their purview. The state had already condemned Cox to die, after all, so the termination of his appeals was, in all likelihood, just a matter of quibbling over time.

Still, I was intrigued by Cox’s death-row volunteerism. There is an old adage, often attributed to Samuel Johnson, that the sight of the gallows clears the mind. With the total and irrevocable finality of death imminent, priorities fall into their proper place, pride and bluster wither away, and people begin to act rationally.

black and white collage of court documents, official seals, Mississippi State Penitentiary sign
U.S. Geological Survey / Wikimedia

Yet Cox’s proffered motives for seeking out his end didn’t seem to me to reflect anything of the sort. In fact, they implied the opposite: that the possibility of hastening his own demise had motivated Cox to concoct lies and cruelties and misdirections, all with the goal of dying, which he felt was a better immediate prospect than the others available to him. His rationale was never coherent; his statements about his decision were contradictory. Yet he had a clear aim in mind. Why else would someone in one breath boast that they would “with eager pleasure” kill their victim again, and in the next express a desire to provide closure to that same victim’s family in partial redress for emotional injury?

There was something else that could have—should have—been of interest to a Mississippi jurist with a real and heartfelt concern for justice. Cox had long been suspected of involvement in another disturbing incident, still unresolved. His brother’s wife, Felecia Cox, had been missing since July 2007. According to Felecia’s daughter, Amber Miskelly, Felecia disappeared while visiting Kim, a beloved friend, and it was Kim who filed the missing-person report. Miskelly told me she had suspected for years that Cox knew more about her mother’s whereabouts than he let on, and had even written letters to him in prison begging him for information.

Miskelly told me that she was 18 years old and pregnant with her first child when her mother went missing. Her mom knew she had a grandchild on the way, Miskelly said, which is how “I knew she wouldn’t just leave.” So Miskelly searched for Felecia, whom she described as kind and loving—“my best friend”—for some 14 years. It was a painful, aching loss, kept fresh by uncertainty. But if Cox knew anything about Felecia’s fate, he had never confessed.

Miskelly was distressed by the news that the court had agreed to execute Cox. “I thought I had more time to try to figure out—or at least contact David myself or something,” she told a local news station.

If anyone was ever going to learn what had happened to Felecia or the location of her remains, Miskelly thought, it would come down to Cox himself, and the bloody war between his two skins.

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And so I turned up in Mississippi on November 17 to see David Cox die.

The execution arrived at a tense moment in the national debate over the death penalty. Roughly three weeks earlier, Oklahoma had executed a 60-year-old prisoner named John Marion Grant using a three-drug cocktail beginning with midazolam, a sedative. Grant’s death did not go as planned. While media witnesses looked on, the man heaved, convulsed, and vomited before finally succumbing to the other drugs in the triad—vecuronium bromide, a paralytic, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.

Grant’s torturous death inflamed a years-long battle over whether lethal injection, in any of its many forms, is the humane and scientifically sound method of execution that its supporters claim it is. And while capital-defense attorneys across the country anxiously reviewed their clients’ cases in light of Grant’s misfortune, Mississippi openly planned to proceed with Cox’s execution using the very same drug protocol.

Cox was to be killed at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, in Sunflower County, about a two-hour drive from Memphis. The prison, better known as Parchman Farm, sits near the center of the Mississippi Delta, some 7,000 square miles of broad, flat, rich-soiled floodplain.

Cox grew up in the northeastern corner of the state, the tail end of Appalachia. He was born to a 41-year-old mother of four; a sister, Sharlott, followed a year later. Before the girl was born, Cox’s father left the family. From then on, Sharlott stated in a sworn affidavit, their mother worked multiple jobs, as a nursing-home cleaner, a school-cafeteria worker, and an aide to the elderly. Money was tight and occasionally absent altogether. Cox’s mother seems to have relied on the kindness of kin with mixed success. When the family’s utilities were shut off, Sharlott recalled, their church raised money to cover the bill. When, one day, Cox and Sharlott arrived home on the school bus to find their mother standing newly evicted at the end of their driveway, the trio walked 15 miles to their aunt Myrtis’s house, Cox told a social worker during a series of interviews in October 2018. They were permitted to sleep on a mattress in the chicken house adjacent to the hog and hen enclosures, where sun and rain fell intermittently through a hole in the roof. On starry nights, Cox recalled, his mother would drag the mattress underneath the hole and the three would gaze up together at the spangled Mississippi sky.

An itinerant and impoverished childhood gave way to an adolescence rife with substance abuse, neglect, and despair. Cox, who had been placed in special-education classes in elementary school, dropped out in seventh grade. By then, he had already been huffing gasoline on a daily basis for years, a habit that would persist into his adulthood. When he huffed, he told the social worker, he was “no longer a pissed off loner, I was no longer hungry, was no longer ugly,” and he “loved the feeling of not being me.” Cox and Sharlott sometimes stayed at their father’s house, where Cox alleged that he witnessed his father sexually abusing his sister on at least one occasion. Their mother, Cox recounted, feared informing social services out of concern that the children might be put into foster care due to the family’s abject poverty. Cox left home at 19 to work on a farm; by age 25, he had become a commercial truck driver.

I thought of Cox’s life on the road during the drive south from Memphis. Maybe he once worked routes like these, where raw cotton fibers blow back from great heaping bales stacked on the beds of semitrucks crisscrossing the Delta. It would have been his last taste of real freedom, his closest brush with clean living. According to a sworn affidavit by Ricky McCain, Cox’s first cousin, Cox was happy behind the wheel of his truck. “David loved being on the road,” McCain said, “and would want to get back on the truck as soon as he could.”

In 1995, while pulling a short-block engine from his pickup, Cox injured his back, which required surgery and, naturally, postoperative opioids. In 2003, a driver rear-ended Cox, further damaging his back. Another surgery, more pills, and disability benefits followed. By 2005, Cox was addicted to meth and cooking his own supply.

Cox had met Kim Kirk several years earlier. The two had married in 2000, and had two sons. Cox told the social worker who interviewed him in prison that he loved being a father, though he and Kim disagreed about how to raise the boys, leading to marital discord.

In April 2009, Kim and Lindsey left the home they shared with Cox and the boys to live for a time with Kim’s cousin Brandy. Cox looked after the couple’s sons, stewing in suspicion that Kim was cheating on him. In July of that year, Cox told the social worker, Kim called Cox in tears, asking to come home; Cox agreed that she and Lindsey could return. But before they did, Lindsey confided to Kim that Cox had raped her. Kim reported the allegation immediately, and Cox was arrested and incarcerated at the Pontotoc County Jail in August 2009, a turn of events that infuriated him. Cellmates of Cox’s would later testify that he repeatedly vowed to kill Kim during his stint inside. In April 2010, Cox made bond. Weeks later, Kim was dead.

The night before Cox’s execution, Melody Kirk, Kim’s stepmother, told me that he had always been an “outdoor person,” and that he likely hated being trapped inside. As the prison came into view, it occurred to me that the grand openness of the roads that once signaled freedom for him must now feel like a mockery of the same. The fields stretching for miles on either side of the highway had long been picked clean. A man would find it hard to escape from Parchman. The horizon would give him up.

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Inside Parchman Farm’s visitors’ center—a white, windowless, barnlike building surrounded by a chain-link fence—I sat with a handful of local media personnel at two-seater tables facing a platform with a lectern, awaiting an address from Burl Cain, the commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

Cain took to the podium at 4:47 p.m. to answer the press’s questions. A former warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, infamously known as “The Farm,” Cain is himself something of an institution. His tenure at Angola was long and exceptional, marked by the introduction of what Cain calls “moral rehabilitation”—the establishment of strong religious organizations to take the place of the unifying, anchoring, guiding presence otherwise supplied by gangs. Cain presided over occasional scandals and controversies at Angola too, including some of the sort one would associate with a large prison built on a former plantation, though he has denied any wrongdoing. According to Cain (but not his critics), his reign greatly diminished violence at the Farm. Now, at Parchman, he hopes to bring about a similar transformation.

He stood before us in a blue suit and blue-tinted aviators under a swoop of white hair. A local journalist asked Cain whether Cox had said anything about the possible location of Felecia Cox’s body. Cain said he had confessed nothing, but noted that prison officials hadn’t pressed him to. Another journalist asked who would claim Cox’s body upon his death; Cain had no idea. Someone asked if Cox seemed remorseful.

“He is very, very remorseful,” Cain said. Cain told us that he had shared Cox’s last meal with him, a southern feast of fried catfish, french fries, coleslaw, and banana pudding. The man, Cain said, was “ready to go.”

Later, sitting in the same small auditorium after Cox was dead, Cain would tell me that he had asked Cox about Felecia—at length, many times. And though Cox never said whether he had killed the woman, “he did tell us that he dug the grave … but he wouldn’t tell us where.” Cox seemed to have believed that if he explained the details of Felecia’s death and burial, he’d have to live through another trial, delaying his death. With his execution in sight, he was unwilling to risk that.

I asked Cain why he thought Cox wanted so badly to die.

black and white photo of Burl Cain wearing aviators and speaking at a microphone
Burl Cain, the commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, shared Cox’s last meal with him. (Rogelio V. Solis / AP )

“He said to me the other day, ‘I’m so tired of doing this. I need rest. I just need to rest,’ ” Cain said. He told me that Cox had become fervently religious in prison, a devout Anabaptist, as Cox had told the court, and that whatever hope he had for the future seemed to be invested in the next life. “David would say, ‘I used to be a good man, but now I’m a real bad man’ … He didn’t like being a bad man. It was like—almost like he was demon-possessed.”

Some evil is hard to explain in any other way. A few hours earlier, as we waited to be taken away to the execution chamber, I’d wondered whether Amber Miskelly would ever know what had happened to her mother. What reason would Cox have to tell anyone anything about a crime he had more or less gotten away with? Sometimes prisoners surrender bits of information about prior crimes during lengthy sentences in exchange for better conditions or other rewards; a canny convict might have gambled with the details of a past killing to delay his own death. But Cox showed no compunction about dying, rather the opposite. It was hard to stake much hope on the man’s conscience.

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At 5:30 p.m., the media witnesses were led one by one into a staging area at the rear of the visitors’ center, where we were parted from our phones, computers, and recorders, then given steno pads and pens. We waited on maroon-vinyl-cushioned chairs in a tiled room like a church basement until a white prison van arrived to transport us to the execution chamber.

Night was falling. The van rolled along a few narrow back roads before arriving at Unit 17, where, under blazing-white floodlights, the death house is located. We were searched and patted down, then taken to the chamber itself.

We filed into a small, stuffy room fit with rows of folding chairs facing a window covered on the opposite side with a curtain. We were told not to speak. A row ahead, I saw two of Cox’s long-suffering attorneys, Humphreys McGee and Treasure Tyson, both slump-shouldered and defeated. And then the curtain lifted away, revealing David Neal Cox, already strapped to a gurney. A prison official asked an officer by the door of the witness room to hit the lights, and a murky dimness fell around us.

Cox looked peaceful, or resigned, or maybe just worn-out. As tall and lanky and awkwardly proportioned as ever, dressed in a red prison jumpsuit, a needle already in his arm. His hair was long, with a beard to match—maybe in accordance with his Old Order Amish inclinations—wiry and gray, speckled with white. The prison’s superintendent lowered a microphone so Cox could deliver his last words.

“I want my children to know that I love them very much,” he said, “and that I was a good man, at one time. And don’t ever read anything but the King James Bible. And I wanna thank the commissioner for being so kind to me. And that’s all I got to say.”

Later, press reports would note that Cox’s final words contained not a hint of remorse. But perhaps he had already expressed it. Cain told me that Cox’s 18-year-old son, whom he had last seen fleeing from the trailer as a boy, had come to see him that day, something Cox had been anxiously hoping for. Cain told me that Cox had said to his son, “I wish I hadn’t done what I did. I wish I hadn’t done it. I wish I hadn’t taken your mama away from you.”

Not that what he had to say mattered; it wasn’t as though any expression of regret could have redeemed him, not then. Nor had Cox ever been good at finding the right words. Humphreys McGee told me that Cox had hated himself, that he had insulted his own intelligence frequently, his inability to express himself, to say what he meant to.

They don’t tell you when they start the poison drip; it just begins. You can see the changes, though, in the person. Sometime after six, Cox took a few labored breaths, and his lips worked fruitlessly for a moment or two. His skin began to appear livid to me then, shades of violet settling near his ears. And then a long stillness. A woman with a stethoscope stepped forward and declared Cox’s time of death to be 6:12 p.m. The curtain dropped, the lights came on, and they herded us back to the van.

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I read the statement Cox’s attorneys issued after his death the next day, as I traveled home. Cox had asked his lawyers to say that the “inhumane prison conditions at Parchman” had factored into his decision to give up his appeals. Vermin ran rampant inside the prison walls, Cox told McGee: rats, mice, spiders, cockroaches, snakes, opossums. There was no air-conditioning during the long southern summers. The humidity control was so poor, Cox said, that when it rained outside, “it rained inside,” with water falling from the ceiling. (Cain says that most buildings in the prison are now air-conditioned and have undergone cleaning and repairs.)

I thought of Cox peering up at the stars through the hole in that chicken coop he’d lived in with his mother and sister, with the fowl and pigs squawking and shuffling nearby. Everything had ended more or less the way it had begun for him: misery to misery, isolation to isolation, dust to dust.

I went home. The holidays arrived. Cox haunted my thoughts. McGee had told me that Cox had said he wanted to die so he could experience something in the next life that he couldn’t in this one. He recalled how Cox had reminded him to treasure his family and friends, because he himself had lost all of those relationships—or destroyed them. “And I didn’t contradict him,” McGee said. “I wanted to tell him, ‘You do have friends.’ But I just let him talk.”

In the end, the monster of North Mississippi was a wizened, miserable old man, alone in the world and hounded by guilt and shame and ceaseless pain. Cox had never wanted to be himself—hardly anyone had ever seemed to want him for any reason at all—and the American criminal-justice system had only confirmed what he had perhaps always known: that he was worthless, his life was worthless, there was nothing in him of any value to anyone, and the only good he could do, even for his own children, was to die. Much of his personal hell was of his own making, and he had no fixed presumption as to whether the next life would hold more or less of the same.

map on lined paper with labels "mobile home," "rock driveway," "shed," and arrow to "X" with "Felisha Cox Body"
Cox drew a map in October, after the court had set a date for his execution. (Mississippi’s First Circuit District Attorney’s Office)

Still, Cox’s better skin spared time for one last act. On October 26, after the court had set a date for his execution, he drew a map of the area near his mobile home where he had buried the body of Felecia Cox. He attached a waiver permitting his attorneys to share the information after his death, and mailed the documents to their office, trusting that they would disclose what he had asked. And then, a day before his execution, he dictated a letter for his attorneys to transcribe and deliver to Amber Miskelly. He apologized “for taking your mom away.” Roughly a month after Cox was killed, on December 12, Felecia’s remains were recovered from the site Cox had indicated.

Felecia hadn’t done anything wrong, Cox said in his final dictation. He said that her death was senseless. He said that he shouldn’t have harmed her. He said that he prayed for forgiveness.

This article appears in the April 2022 print edition with the headline “A Good Man, at One Time.”