Saturday, November 22, 2014


3rd in this series of 19 things I've done that you will find hard to believe----events in a life that one relative has declared a life "thrown away".

Our knees touched at a personal growth seminar---electricity! Some months later I moved in with her.
A high-powered Attorney with an incredible story:  She and her impoverished family lived during her youngest years in a reclaimed chicken coop.  During her last year of high school she mustered the courage to write a letter to a famous girls college---telling her story and of her ambition to become an attorney fighting for social justice.  They admitted her---full scholarship---telling her on arrival: The hard part was getting here---consider that you have it made---your challenge now is to make your life interesting.

 AND SHE DID----emerging some years later a fully qualified lawyer---joining the premier social justice law firm in the U.S.---the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Her specialty: defending death row cases in Alabama. She monitored dozens of them---filing motions to delay executions etc.
(I overheard a phone conversation where she asked the prisoner if he knew that his execution date was only 2 weeks away. I laugh now remembering his loud and emphatic response: OF COURSE I KNOW IT.  She comforted him---assuring him that delay was routine and that the motion was already filed.)
She was a Communist in her political beliefs---hated injustice and grievous inequality.  Hated Russian style Communism---"nothing but tyranny".  Needless to say we debated almost daily.  The sorest point of contention was the death penalty----I supported it---she opposed.

One day she made me an offer I couldn't refuse:  "Come with me to death row---meet some people condemned to die and see if your opinion holds".  I went with her---to Atmore, Alabama and sat beside her as they brought one after another of the condemned men to a secure room.  I was glad to see a burly guard peering through a window.

They were all black.  The first was stone crazy---moving jerkily around the room---yelling undecipherable phrases---unresponsive to his lawyer's questions.  She tried without success to get him to talk to me. I was afraid he would attack---the burly guard seemed ready to rush to our defense.  ---and in a few minutes she signaled and two guards ushered him away.  She whispered to me:  He's pretending to be crazy---hoping they won't execute an insane man.  I've forgotten what his crime was---no doubt it was murder.

The next guy ushered in was calm, penitent and demoralized.  She asked him to tell me about the night of his crime.  And he did--in gruesome detail.  A planned rural robbery of an old couple rumored to keep a lot of money.  Knock on the door---car trouble--could they use phone to call for help.
But the old man said no!  I will always  remember the next two sentences: "I decided to shoot through the door into his legs---but I shot too high and it killed him".  They conferred a bit more--lawyer client stuff and he too was taken back to his cell.

I have forgotten everything about the third one.

But the fourth was unforgettable.  (I think the prime reason for coming)  He was a beautiful, powerful, well spoken, courteous, dignified personality.  The escorting guards seemed to know he was special---did not touch him---simply walked beside him---chatting in a friendly manner.  I supposed that Martin Luther King Jr was likely treated thus during his incarcerations.  As he entered the room, the lawyer rose and shook hands with him.  She introduced me and we briefly shook hands---and that was all that was said to me.  But he got right down to business---INSTRUCTING HER--what he wanted her to do.
He took some part of the case away from her and told her to assign it to someone else--so that she could focus on another aspect.  Apparently he had a team of lawyers. I can still see him standing like a great general, arms folded, head tilted downward, gathering his thoughts, then looking her in the eyes and gesturing gently, like the godfather giving his instructions.  My mind was blown:  WHO IS THIS GUY?  WHY IS HE ON DEATH ROW? HOW DID HE DEVELOP SUCH PERSONAL POWER? (only in the presence of Werner Erhard have I ever felt so LESS THAN)

They talked awhile and then it was He who signaled that the conversation was over and motioned for the guards.
On our way home she explained that he was in prison for a relatively minor crime when a riot occurred and a guard was killed.  Alabama judged that everyone in the mob was guilty but selected only one to be tried for murder. (like the army when a whole regiment was cowardly in the face of the enemy---selected private slovak and executed him) Likewise, Alabama selected this guy and convicted him.
His case had become an international 'cause celebre' as you will see.

She then asked if my views had changed.  I said that I would personally pull the switch to execute the first three.  But not the 4th.

Back home---one morning she rose early to have breakfast with no less than Ramsey Clarke--one time Attorney General of the United States---who had flown down to consult with her about this case.
(It seems that the Chinese government---always defensive about its human rights situation was charging the US with abuses of its own and on that list was this guy on death row in Alabama.)

RANDY RUMINATES:  I don't know what happened to this case---don't know how to find out.  I moved away to Florida.  The most intriguing aspect to me is how a prisoner can find himself and develop himself into a powerful, attractive, wise personality.  Many just turn sour and rot. This guy made me think of Malcom X.

ADDENDUM:  I forgot to tell that by and large, I have changed my mind on the death penalty.
I've learned that it cost so much to legally execute someone that it's cheaper to house them for life. I'm also appalled at the number of wrongful convictions.  All in all I'm not sorry that the trend is toward no executions.

Next up:  I think I will share how I participated in an underground railroad for safe abortions.


Pam said...

I am loving this series. Your relative could not be more wrong.
I can't wait to hear about the underground abortion railroad.

I'm against the death penalty. My biggest problem with it is the way juries are selected in death penalty cases. In most states, the potential jurors are asked if they support the death penalty and if they say "No," they are excused from the jury. That, to me, seems like they're stacking the jury with pro-prosecution jurors. At the very least, you've got a jury stacked with pro-death penalty jurors. That doesn't seem fair.

Also, by having the jurors thinking about the penalty phase before they have even heard the evidence of guilt or innocence, they are being not-so-subtly programmed to be predisposed towards guilt. It strikes me as contradictory to tell jurors they are to see the defendant as innocent until proven guilty but then to simultaneously have them thinking about the penalty phase. You can't un-ring that bell.

I find it almost laughable that most Americans are big supporters of "tort reform" because they don't trust juries to decide cases involving corporations and damages but they have no problem letting juries decide if someone lives or dies. That boggles my mind.

Corrine said...

Thanks for sharing your stories. Not a wasted life by a long shot.

I used to be pro death penalty when younger. It was partly an a "eye for an eye" thing but it was also my naive assumption that the system was fair and thorough. When I realized that last part was more often than not the case and therefore I refused to support it. Incidentally my state stopped executions because of that very thing.

I have served on juries twice, one them for murder but didn't involve death penalty. The judge made a point of telling us during selection that it wasn't but it sure made me wonder what if it did.

G said...

Your series are extremely fascinating. This last one especially so. A proclaimed communist yet no example of a country that follows it correctly. If it were me I would have to start wondering if it was a practical belief seeing that humans would have to make it work. At least democracy has a better chance at that.
As for the inmates on death row, I can see trying to defend the 4th man. Even if I was an attorney defending death row inmates, I would have a hard time doing so with the first three because my first temptation would be to speak to the family of the person murdered....
Can't wait for your next post!

Jim said...

The biggest problem with capital punishment is our so-much-less-than-perfect system for convicting inmates. Our system is broadly proclaimed as "beyond repair". Even in my own beloved Idaho, we held a man on death row for 13 YEARS(!) before he was exonerated due to DNA analysis of the physical evidence (a few hairs) used to sentence him to death.
Nationwide, hundreds have been exonerated due to DNA re-examination of the physical evidence -- at least in those cases where the evidence hasn't been "lost" or "misplaced". If I were king, lost or misplaced evidence would be reason enough to set the person free. Yet not all states even recognize a convict's right to compel the state to re-examine the evidence using DNA technology. Invariably, the judges and prosecutors involved refuse to change their opinion in these exonerations -- these aren't guys who drove the car but didn't shoot anyone. These are people who had absolutely no. thing. to do with the crime.
It has been said it's better to let 12 guilty go free than to convict one innocent but I believe our system as it exists enforces the opposite. We don't limit the freedom of others without limiting our own. We can't sentence them to death without putting our own life at risk as well. If we're going to kill someone for a crime, there is absolutely no room for error. If I know I'm going down if I get caught for whatever it is I'm about to do, you can bet your last dollar I'll be taking a few others with me -- whether they're innocent or not will no longer matter to me EITHER.

Randy said...

Pam, Corrine et al: Thanks for your insightful comments. You reminded me that I failed to include my own evolved opinion on the subject. Basically, I've come to agree with you. I've added an addendum to this post as a result.

Anonymous said...

>>>a life that one relative has declared a life "thrown away".

O.K. That explains it and makes more sense.

dr.dave said...

In 1988 my stepbrother was murdered in drug related "I dare you to kill me" shooting in San Diego. His murderer came from a wealthy family and they hired the best attorney's in San Diego. He got 7 years, but only served three. If my stepbrother had been on the other side of that gun he would have gotten the death penalty, more than likely.

If you have the ultimate punishment you must have the ultimate legal system. Tonight, Ferguson burns. Clearly we have a long way to go yet, as a country and as a species...

Anonymous said...

The Alabama inmate you wrote about might be Johnny Harris. Many articles about him are online. Evidently, he won release in 1991.