November 28, 2006

Executing A Stranger

The other day I ran into an old friend that I hadn’t seen in at least ten years. Back then he was my cell neighbor for several years here on death row. We are both about the same age and had come to death row about the same time – Class of ’84. After a few moments of bantering back and forth, he commented on how much I had changed since he last saw me … that got me to thinking about just how much I really had changed since I last saw him – how much we all change through the years.

I’ve been on death row 23 years. When I was originally charged in this case I was only 22 years old. Now at the ripe age of 45, I’m a grandfather. It’s been a long journey and like any journey each step – each stumble – has changed me in an infinite number of small ways that add up to completely transforming the person I once was into who I am today.

I’m not the only person who has spent an entire lifetime in solitary confinement condemned to death. Here in Florida I know some who have been living under a sentence of death for 32 years – or better. Most people out there haven’t even given any thought to how death rows across the country have become multi-million dollar geriatric units, indefinitely housing those who slowly grow old while awaiting theor fate. Here in Florida more men on death row die of natural caused than of executions as old age sets in. We the condemned are more likely to die of cancer, heart disease, or other ailments common to aging than we are to die from execution; yet the state still spends millions upon millions of dollars pursuing our deaths.

The question I want to confront today is this … when it takes at least ten years, and often even twenty or thirty years to carry out a court imposed sentence of death, is the person we’re executing really the same person we originally sentenced to death? Or are we executing a stranger?

How many of us can say we are the same person today that we were ten years ago? How about twenty years ago? What about thirty years ago? Many of those sentenced to death committed their alleged crime when they were relatively young and immature. Almost without exception they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol – or both. That single act of violence led to their condemnation. Assuming for the moment that our judicial system is perfect and everyone condemned to death is in fact guilty, can we really say that person we condemned then; is the same person we want to execute today?

The fundamental truth here is that we all change. Most of us become better people as we age – more mature and responsible. I’ve seen men come to death row twenty years ago consumed by hate and anger, only to find faith and hope in the most unexpected environment and become a new person.

Myself, I too was once consumed by anger at being wrongfully convicted and condemned to death for a crime I know I am innocent of. (See, Southern Injustice: Condemning An Innocent Man). In the early years that anger was my strength. I wasn’t just sentenced to die; I was condemned to slowly rot away in solitary confinement one eternal day at a time. (See, A Day in Life Under Death). Believing in my innocence actually mattered, I pushed to expedite review in a desperate attempt to end this nightmare, (see, Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied); only to have my appeals up held out of spite by actions attributable to the state.

Although my impatience at ending the injustice remains, I know I’ve changed. Though I still must deal with frustration, I am no longer consumed by anger. When I came to death row, I had little education or even will to be educated. Since I’ve been imprisoned I got my G.E.D. and with it a sense of accomplishment. I searched my soul for spiritual meaning and found myself. (See, "To See The Soul -- A Search Of Self"). I began taking correspondence courses and earned a degree in Christian Theology, which gave me even greater confidence in who I was – and who I could yet become.

I have a faded photo of me taken a few weeks before I was arrested on these charges. That photo reminds me of who I was. When I look in the mirror today I see the person I’ve since become. I am not the same person sentenced to death so many years ago.

So, now I ask you this – Are you the same person you were so many years ago? In your younger and more irresponsible days have you ever made a mistake you came to regret? If we all recognize that each of us does change as the years pass, then doesn’t it stand to reason that we also have to admit that the person we seek to execute today, over 20 years or more later, is not the same person we sentenced to death so long ago – that when it comes down to it, aren’t we really executing a stranger?