Henry sang slowly and with great sincerity and conviction […]
Lord lift me up, and let me stand
By faith on Heaven’s tableland
A higher plane, that I have found
Lord, plant my feet on Higher Ground.
I sat down, completely stunned. Henry’s voice was filled with desire. I experienced his song as a precious gift.
You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.
Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.
Sentimentality about Lee’s story grew even as the harder truths of the book took no roots.
“You see this scar on the top of my head?” He tilted his head to show me. “I got that scar in Greene County, Alabama trying to register to vote in 1964. You see this scar on the side of my head? […] I got that scar in Mississippi demanding civil rights. […] These aren’t my scars, cuts and bruises. These are my medals of honor.”
We’re going to keep all you niggers from running around with these white girls. I ought to take you off and hang you like we done that nigger in Mobile.
It was sad like few other hymns I’d heard. I don’t know why exactly, but I started to hum it as I saw more uniformed officers entering the vestibule outside the visitation room. It seemed like something that might help […] After a few minutes, the family joined me. I went over to Herbert’s wife as she held him tightly, sobbing softly. I whispered to her, “We have to let him go.” Herbert saw the officers lining up outside, and he pulled away from her slowly and told me to take her out of the room.
The next day there were articles in the press about the execution. Some state officials expressed happiness and excitement that an execution had taken place, but I knew that none of them had actually dealt with the details of killing Herbert.
I feel like they done put me on death row, too. What do we tell these children about how to stay out of harm’s way when you can be at your own house, minding your own business, surrounded by your entire family, and they still put some murder on you that you ain’t do and send you to death row?
We’ve been through a lot, Bryan, all of us. I know that some have been through more than others. But if we don’t expect more from each other, hope better for one another, and recover from the hurt we experience, we are surely doomed.
You know they’ll try to kill you if you actually get to the bottom of everything.
They treated us like we were low-class white trash. They could not have cared less about us. […] I thought they treated victims better. I thought we had some say.
Imagine teardrops left uncried
From pain trapped inside
Waiting to escape
Through the windows of your eyes
“Why won’t you let us out?”
The tears question the conscience
“Relinquish your fears and doubts
and heal yourself in the process.”
The conscience told the tears
“I knew you really wanted me to cry
but if I release you from bondage
In gaining your freedom, you die.”
The tears gave it some though
Before giving the conscience an answer
“If crying brings you to triumph
Then dying’s not such a disaster.”
But to be real, I want to show the world I’m alive! I want to look at those photos and feel alive! It would really help with my pain. I felt joyful today during the photo shoot. I wanted it to never end. Every time you all visit and leave, I feel saddened. But I capture and cherish those moments in time, replaying them in my mind’s eye, feeling grateful for human interaction and contact. But today, just the simple handshakes we shared was a welcome addition to my sensory deprived life.
In that moment, I felt something peculiar. A deep sense of recognition. I smiled now, because I knew she was saying to the room, “I may be old, I may be poor, I may be black, but I’m here. I’m here because I’ve got this vision of justice that compels me to be a witness. I’m here because I’m supposed to be here. I’m here because you can’t keep me away.”
I argued to the judge that not taking Avery’s mental health issues into consideration at trial was as cruel as saying to someone who has lost his legs, “You must climb these stairs with no assistance, and if you don’t your just lazy.” Or to say to someone who was blind, “You should get across this busy interstate highway, unaided, or you’re just cowardly.”
Walter’s sense of humor hadn’t failed him despite his six years on death row. And this case had given him lots of fodder. We would often talk about situations and people connected to the case that, for all the damage they had caused, had still made us laugh at their absurdity. But the laughter today felt very different. It was the laughter of liberation.
Knitted together as they were, a horrible day for one woman would inevitably become a horrible day for everyone. The only consolation in such an arrangement was that joys were shared as well. A grant of parole, the arrival of a hoped-for letter, a visit from a long absent family member would lift everyone’s spirits.
His story was a counter narrative to the rhetoric of fairness and reliability offered by politicians and law enforcement officials who wanted more and faster executions. Walter’s case complicated the debate in very graphic ways.
He became uncharacteristically emotional. “They put me on death row for six years! They threatened me for six years. They tortured me with the promise of execution for six years. I lost my job. I lost my life. I lost my reputation. I lost my – I lost my dignity.”
When he talked about his own act of violence, he seemed deeply confused about how it was possible he could have done something so destructive. Most of the juvenile lifer cases we handled involved clients who shared Evan’s confusion about their adolescent behavior. Many had matured into adults who were much more thoughtful and reflective; they were now capable of making responsible and appropriate decisions.
When these basic deficits that burden all children are combined with the environments that some poor children experience—environments marked by abuse, violence, dysfunction, neglect and the absence of loving caretaker— adolescence can leave kids vulnerable to the sort of extremely poor decision making that results in tragic violence.
I watched Joe, who laughed like a little boy, but I saw the lines in his face and even the emergence of a few prematurely grey hairs on his head. I realized even while I laughed, that his unhappy childhood had been followed by unhappy, imprisoned teenage years followed by unhappy incarceration through young adulthood. All of the sudden, it occurred to me what a miracle it was that he could still laugh.
We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness, even if our brokenness is not equivalent […] Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, foreswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.
“I’ve been singing sad songs my whole life. Had to. When you catch stones, even happy songs can make you sad.” She paused and grew silent. I heard her chuckle before she continued. “But you keep singing. Your songs will make you strong. They might even make you happy.”