James Allridge is an unusual sort of artist. His work has been exhibited in New York, Washington and Switzerland, and yet he has never been present for one of his own openings. He has a lively correspondence with dozens of friends around the world, including the Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon, but he never visits them and they hardly ever come to see him.
The reason? He is a prisoner on Texas's death row, who faces execution by lethal injection later this month unless he can convince the state's notoriously reluctant Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend commuting his sentence. Allridge's many friends argue that he is a model prisoner, who has been completely rehabilitated following the brutal murder he committed at a Forth Worth convenience store in 1985.
Four of the jurors at his original trial agree, as do a number of the prison guards who have watched over him. They say that he is such a calming influence at the Polunsky Unit in Livington, where Texas's death row inmates are housed, that he has almost certainly saved lives.
The question is, will this be enough in the state that carries out more executions than any other place in the Western world? "Executing people like James sends a message that there is no point rehabilitating people and turning them into positive members of the prison community," says his lawyer, Jim Marcus of the Texas Defender Service.
This is an unusual case in every respect. Prison in the United States - with its notorious culture of systemised rape, terrifying spasms of physical violence, endemic racism and drug use - can turn the gentlest of creatures into either a monster or a psychic wreck. Allridge, by contrast, has a strikingly clean record. The last time he was written up for failing to obey prison staff was 15 years ago. He had two fights in his first two years inside, and in both cases he was written up as the victim, not the instigator.
"He has spent his time focused on trying to better himself," Mr Marcus said. …