Dr. Bill Kimberlin '98: Conversations with the Condemned

Dr. Bill Kimberlin, a ‘98 graduate of Heidelberg’s graduate counseling program, returned virtually to Heidelberg on Monday to speak with Dr. Sarah Lazzari's Contemporary US Social Issues Class

Kimberlin is an author, a professor, but first and foremost, a researcher. “I never wanted to be the kind of professor who only taught about things I’d read about,” he began when introducing himself. “I wanted to do the research, and have a background of my own experiences to pull from when we discuss today’s most controversial topics.” 

The controversial topic that Dr. Kimberlin is most well-versed in, without a doubt, is capital punishment. His research involved multiple interviews and interactions with people on death row. While there are many stories of people being proven innocent after years on death row, or even posthumously, Dr. Kimberlin doesn’t prioritize cases where this is possible. “I never talk to folks who still claim they’re innocent. They have to admit their guilt before I try to learn from them,” he said. Confirmed and admitted murders and serial killers, the kind who try to intimidate or brag about their crimes, know Dr. Kimberlin’s mailing address, where his kids went to school, and often send him their art.

Dr. Kimberlin, in his long talks, dinners, and occasional last meals with these inmates, uses humor, confidence and honesty to make connections with the condemned. “When they see that there’s no fear in my eyes or the way I’m talking to them, they open up more,” he explained, “But, deep down, I’m always a little worried about something because they have nothing to lose. They tell me, ‘The guards decide if you come in, but we decide if you go home.’ And it’s true.” 

From his talks with the inmates, Dr. Kimberlin has gained a lot of information.“At Heidelberg, I learned how to listen. The less you ask, the more people will tell you,” Dr. Kimberlin told the students. “It takes a long time, and it takes a lot of patience to understand how they’re thinking.” 

As mentioned earlier, Dr. Kimberlin frequently receives art in the mail – not just from the convicted people he’s interviewed, but from death row inmates around the country who have heard of him. In preparation for his presentation, he saved and didn’t open three envelopes of art he received that day to open for the first time in front of the class. The art came from death row inmates in Ohio, San Diego and San Quentin, California. There was a pencil sketch of David Crosby, a few colorful drawings of women, some with flowers and crosses, others with wings and skulls. There were some birds done in pointillism, an imitation of The Scream by Edvard Munch and a rude sketch of the state of Florida. As the class looked over these never-before-seen pieces, Dr. Kimberlin explained, “I don’t even really like art that much. I’ve received over 2,500 pieces of art, and letters I’ve never even opened – you get overwhelmed with it.”

At the end of the discussion, Dr. Kimberlin shared his final thoughts about death row as a whole. He reflected on the lengthy legal battles that drag on for hope of some final closure. Those on death row have all the time in the world to pursue the appeals process, ultimately causing the loved ones of their victims to relive trauma over and over. “When I started this, I was all for the death penalty, 100 percent, but after all these years, nothing can convince me that it’ll ever work.” 

Thank you to Dr. Kimberlin for sharing his expertise with Dr. Lazzari’s class! We look forward to hearing more about women on death row when Dr. Kimberlin speaks to Dr. Lazzari’s Women, Gender, and Crime (SOC 380) class in the Spring 2024 semester.

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