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Death row joke died before the punch line

The moribund story of a prisoner facing execution using MySpace for a joke contest

Call it a high-tech case of gallows humour: Death-row inmate Patrick Bryan Knight, the self-proclaimed “Dead Man Laughing,” spent months using his MySpace Web page to solicit submissions for a joke to tell as his last words on June 26.

But when the lethal injection came, Knight ending up ditching his cyber-search and simply stated: “Death has set me free; that’s the biggest joke. I deserve this.”

Not exactly a rib-ticker. Why, then, did he change his mind about telling a joke?

We’ll never know, but it could be that his efforts weren’t deemed chuckle-worthy by all.

A few months before his execution date in Texas, according to news reports, Knight wrote to Doreen Hawk, a Massachusetts death-penalty opponent, about spreading the word that he wanted joke submissions for his final statement. At first Hawk found the request disturbing, because Knight seemed to be making a joke out of something as grave as capital punishment. But eventually she came to accept Knight’s perspective. “He knows they’re going to do it,” Hawk reportedly said, “so he might as well go out laughing.” Hawk set up a MySpace page called “Dead Man Laughing” to publicize the contest.

Knight said the idea came after a friend, Vincent Gutierrez, was executed in March. Gutierrez apparently laughed from the death-chamber gurney: “Where’s a stunt double when you need one?” Knight claimed he started the joke contest in part to “ease the tension” of the conditions on death row.

Many of the jokes received apparently dealt with the idea of death and the legal system. “Lawyer jokes are real popular,” Knight said. Inmates on death row were initially supposed to choose the best joke, according to Knight, and the winning joke was to be kept secret until the time of his execution.

Although Knight insisted the Dead Man Laughing campaign should not be interpreted as a lack of remorse, some people disagreed. “It’s not a funny occasion,” said victim’s rights advocate Andy Kahan. “I don’t think he’d find it funny if the state decided to pump in Another One Bites the Dust or Hit the Road, Jack.”

Randall County Sheriff Joel Richardson thinks Knight’s joke contest is insensitive. “This tells you a little bit about the guy’s character, anyway,” said Richardson, who was chief deputy at the time of the double homicide committed by Knight. Richardson said that the victims’ son, who has since moved out of the area, has said he won’t speak about the case anymore. “They don’t want to draw any more attention to this guy than is possible,” Richardson said.

In the end, Knight isn’t around to explain why the Dead Man Laughing passed away without delivering a punch line.