Visiting Death Row

We got lost on the way to Death Row. Like any country, America doesn’t advertise its prisons until you are almost on top of them. The sign ‘Correctional Facility’ was well camouflaged but we spotted it, just in time for morning visiting…

Romell's full story is told in the E-book 'Survivor on Death Row'...

The place looked the part - double fences of glinting metal curved inwards and topped with razor wire. We waited to be admitted to the first entrance cage, the heavy gates clanging shut behind us before the inner ones opened. A more impenetrable obstacle awaited us at the reception desk, where the female guard assured us there was no visitation today.

I told her we had come all the way from England, that the visits had been confirmed months before. I asked her to check with the case manager, and gave her the names of the two prisoners we had come to see. She had never heard of them.

‘This is the State Penitentiary?’ I asked her. It wasn’t. It was ten miles from the Death Row institution. Alan, my friend, and I ran back to the car and drove on, through increasingly run-down neighbourhoods - ramshackle wooden houses with falling-down porches, along unmade roads. There wasn’t a soul around to give directions.

The State prison looked slightly less threatening - a fortress with arrow-slit windows and rustier gates - and the guard at reception confirmed our visiting status. Visits were either three or six-hour. We had booked six-hour visits - three hours with each man. I had written to both of them for nearly two years, but their photos were from their admission to Death Row 25 years ago or more, so I might not recognise them.

The visiting room had tables and chairs and vending machines, two guards on a podium, and inmates with only life sentences sweeping the floor. Death Row visitors would not be out in the hall but enclosed in a glassed-in cubicle between two cloister-like corridors.

Through the layers of windows we glimpsed prisoners, with their hands shackled behind them, being let into the back halves of the cubicles. I identified R. by his huge smile and exuberant wave as he caught sight of us waiting.

My first thought was, ‘He didn’t tell me his arm was injured,’ but what I thought were bandages was the Death Row uniform: scrubby long-sleeved top under colourless sackcloth smock. I felt rage: how dare they dress my children like that? - then remembered Lazarus, and Jesus releasing him from the binding cloths.

If he could see past the shroud then so should I.

The meeting was hugely joyful. If I’d wondered how to open the conversation, I needn’t have worried; R. talked non-stop for the first hour. On returning home, I received an email from him: ‘Do you think I talk too much?  When you don’t get to talk much, things just build up and the first time someone will just listen, I can go on and on.’

I had prayed he would feel able to talk to us about things he couldn’t share with anybody, so I was delighted that he was willing to trust us. Not that his fellow inmates were not sympathetic; some of them support each other faithfully. But as R. said, ‘You don’t want to share your bad news with the guys, because everybody has their own, and you don’t want to share your good news when they haven’t got any.’

He opened his heart and shared his life, his court appeals and his memories. And his faith. I knew he believed in God; we had been exchanging scriptures and praying for each other for two years. But I hadn’t expected a man so on fire for God and in love with his word. For a man on Death Row, God is the only lifeline.

I assumed, when I started writing to both men, that they were guilty of their crimes. As someone involved in survivor groups, I struggled with Jesus’ command to love both victims and perpetrators: ‘The Father causes his sun to rise and rain to fall on bad as well as good people.’ As I came to know R. and N. and prisoners in the UK, I realised there was not such a clear dividing line. The maxim that it is hurt people who hurt people is true.

I could understand victims’ families wanting vengeance, but organisations such as Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights affirm that killing the killers only creates more bereaved families and brings neither consolation nor closure.

I knew R. had always said he was innocent, not of every crime - he had been imprisoned several times when younger - but of the one for which the death sentence had been passed, over 25 years before. But many prisoners protest their innocence, and surely the justice system, outside of John Grisham novels, doesn’t allow such horrendous lapses of justice?

Sister Helen Prejean, known as the Death Row nun and made famous by the film ‘Dead Man Walking,’ based on her ministry, gives known examples of miscarriages of justice leading to wrongful execution. She is forthright about the poor quality of legal representation for death penalty inmates and confirms that, ‘capital punishment is for those without capital.’

But still …. We are brought up to expect justice to be just, for evidence to be stringently examined and procedures to be rigorously observed. It’s part of our Western culture, part of the American Constitution, part of being human. Above all, we don’t want to think that someone could be killed for a crime they have not committed and that no one would make a fuss about it. Because then … it might even happen to someone like us.

But here are, Alan and I, sitting listening to R. steadily and patiently explaining that he thinks he knows who did the crime of which he was accused so long ago, and he knows who the police thought was guilty. ‘His alibi was the same as mine - he was with family members - and his car was the same. My defence was “I didn’t do it,” and that’s no defence. I asked for a DNA test and they said the result was a near enough match. They explained that enough of the numbers have to be the same, and that mine were.’

Then he dropped a bombshell. ‘When I was praying, last year, I felt I should stop just believing what the lawyers told me. I had let them rock me to sleep with their promise of always another appeal, another court. I should look into my case myself - everything. So I asked for my files.

‘The boxes filled my whole cell and I said, “Lord, what do I do with all this? I’m not a lawyer; I don’t understand all these documents.” But as I’m going through them, certain items are coming up to my attention, just the very things I need to see. I found two DNA results, both with my name on, and they don’t match each other. The numbers are totally different.

‘So I asked my lawyer, “Where does this second one come from? I’ve never seen it.’ He said, “Oh, ignore that one.” So I asked, “But where has it come from?” and he said, “Someone must have requested it from the lab.” Now, I’m not a lawyer but I know you can’t just call up a lab and get somebody’s DNA; there has to be a court application, and there wasn’t one.

‘So what do I do now? I’ve asked the court for new lawyers but so far they have refused. There’s talk of commuting all the inmates’ sentences to Life Without Parole. It’s less expensive. But for me it wouldn’t be good news. You lose the chance to appeal, unless you can afford to hire your own attorney. I’d be shut away for life and that would be the last anyone would hear of me.’

The visiting time is drawing to a close. We pray with him for God’s perfect plan and justice, he finishes his drink and passes me, through the gap in the plexiglass screen between us, the rest of his packet of crisps. ‘You finish them. I can’t bring anything back to the cell.’

It’s time to meet the second inmate. N. has had difficulty corresponding with me, having to receive help from a fellow prisoner, as he has severe learning difficulties, a low IQ and brain damage. When we reach through the gap in the screen to shake his hand, all he can say for the first few minutes is, ‘Wow! You came! Wow!’

I tell him we went to the wrong prison on the way here and demanded to see him, and he laughs. He has been nervous about this visit; he told me in a previous email that he worried in case he didn’t know what to say, and I told him we would pray and God would bless us, and then either the words would come or else we would sit in silence and enjoy just being together in the place where he lived.

So I suggest we pray straight away and he smiles. ‘Shall I pray?’ he says. And he prays, for everything I’ve told him about myself, my husband, and Alan’s life. There is certainly nothing retarded about his faith. He tells us he has left gifts for us at reception - one of his beautiful, delicate paintings for my husband and me, and cartoon cards for each of Alan’s children.

Then he starts talking. He talks about his case, and again we are overwhelmed. He tells us he always went to a special school and his former teachers and psychologists submitted reports of his certified ‘mental retardation’ to the courts on his arrest, but that his attorney never brought them up in court. Instead there was a report from an ‘expert’ who had only just met him, who said he was normal.

His confession was beaten out of him, he said. ‘I told them I hadn’t done it and I kept telling them, for three days. I knew who did it, that’s all, because he had told me. But he said I was with him, and I wasn’t. Other people knew where I was, but they wouldn’t listen to them.’

A detective, keen for a quick result, had sent other officers out of the room and had beaten his head against the wall. N. was crying and when he was told the beating would only stop if he signed a paper, he signed.

‘Quite a lot of people on Death Row say they’re innocent,’ N. tells us. ‘But I am.’

Unlike R. he now has a legal advisor he trusts. ‘But why has it taken 25 years?’ I ask him. ‘It would have been so easy to put right.’

‘Those people don’t want anyone to know they did something wrong,’ he says. ‘They’re not going to admit they did.’

I expected to find the presence of God on Death Row. These are people he sent his Son to die for, and he loves them. And I also expected to encounter evil. The accounts of the crimes for which R. and N. were given sentence of execution are chilling. I also expected that they might try to justify those crimes to us, for fear we might not love them if we knew what they had done.

We understood that the roots of evil go deeper and wider than individual lives, and my questions about both R. and N.’s childhoods had revealed fragmented families, parental violence and rejection, and vicious, drug-ridden, poverty-stricken neighbourhoods.

But now the thought is beginning to occur to us both that the evil may be more deep-rooted than we had imagined. One politician recently boasted publicly that his term of office had seen over a hundred executions, and the crowd cheered and shouted approval. Are politicians on the ‘Tough on Crime’ bandwagon using executions as a vote-winner?

Do some police officers succumb to pressure to achieve quick arrests and confessions, some prosecutors build their careers on achieving death sentences?

And if they pick the wrong person and make them a scapegoat, do they, as N. says, rely on each other to cover up their wrongdoing and allow an innocent person to receive a lethal injection, become paralysed and die?

The possibility is too horrible to think of, certainly while I am face to face with these children of God - and children of mine. But our refusal to think about it could cost precious lives.

Facts

  • Over 3,000 prisoners currently on the USA’s Death Rows, in 34 States (http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/death-row-inmates-state-and-size-death-row-year)
  • 46 executed in 2010
  • FBI data shows homicide rate is higher in States with death penalty; has dropped in those States without it
  • On strong evidence of innocence, 138 exonerated or pardoned since 1973
  • On strong evidence of innocence, 9 executed since 1989; many more suspected innocent after execution but cases never reviewed
  • At least 44 executions of people with proven intellectual disability 1976-2002; more since, despite ‘Atkins ruling’ 2002 declaring it illegal
  • At least 43 botched executions since 1982 resulting in torture & extreme suffering
  • In the UK, around 50% of the population supports death penalty

First published in the Baptist Times, 2011