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On Constancy

John and Joanna

 

Without constancy, there is neither love, friendship,
nor virtue in the world. —Joseph Addison

 

 

I write you every day, not because I have something
new or world-changing to tell you—although
I would love to tell you something that would change
at least your world—but because I know
you want to know that I am here still, that somewhere
in a world you’ve barely known there is a rock to cling to.

So here I am again. Today is Monday.
Yesterday was Sunday, and tomorrow
will be Tuesday. Please know I am not dead,
I am not ill, I have not wrecked my car,
or come down in a plane, or been blown up by terrorists.
Please know I have not abandoned you.

I try to conjure what a friend on the outside is like for you
and find I’m up against that old conundrum,
the one about the tree, the forest, and the sound.
You do not know it? Here it is: When a tree falls
in the forest, does it make a sound if no one’s there to hear?
No one with, perhaps, a panicked heart,

a sudden hard contraction in the belly,
no one awed and terrified by this momentous crash.
And then, of course, what follows on from that:
if no one’s there to see it, is there a tree at all?
And so on to the forest, and so on . . . Or is it all
inside some solipsistic mind, the mind of God perhaps?

See how the question shifts, becomes more slippery?
And yet for people out here in the world it is old hat,
a riddle of a type, offered by professors to beginning thinkers,
who maul it with beginning minds, and then dismiss it with a joke.
To them it is an exercise without an application.
To you, however, it is urgent, real.

Each Friday when I leave the cramped,
sour-smelling visitation booth, you consume yourself
with worry that I have gone for good,
that friendship—all those affirmations—
has vanished down the creaking elevator labeled
Danger! Occupants no more than four!

And next week wait on your side of the viewing glass,
fraught in your flaming jumpsuit,
head bowed, praying I will come, praying
for that miracle again, praying that there really is
a world out there where trees fall with a crash,
that one day you will come with me to listen.

John Lee & Prof. Gorman Gilbert

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

Why are we posting a series of episodes in John Lee’s imprisonment? We felt that it is vital for people to know the kind of man they are being asked to help. It is easy to hear the words “murder”, “death row”, “prison”, and have an image which is hard to overcome. Even with the lack of evidence against John Lee, the deals made with his accusers, the botched legal representation, sometimes it is still hard to see beyond them. Hopefully, these stories will help you to do that and move you to support the freedom of an innocent man.

Sister Ann was not the only one who helped John Lee educate himself. Here is what he told me about Professor Gorman Gilbert, a civil engineering professor at NC State University, in walking distance of the prison.

“After the passing of my beloved grandmother in nineteen ninety-four, I was going crazy. My family had abandoned me. I had no peace, happiness or love. All I could think of was my grandmother being gone, the only person who ever loved me, and all I had in this world. I needed help but I had nobody to turn to.

“So I asked this young lady who was working on my case at the time for help, and this is how I came to meet my father Gorman Gilbert.

“When Gorman came into my life, I had nobody to love me and cherish me and so when he came along and loved and cherished me and wanted to help me, to make me the best I could be in my situation, it was a shock. I couldn’t understand it. Nobody had ever done anything like that for me in my life before, and so it was very, very precious. I learned from him that color doesn’t matter when it comes to love.

“Me and Gorman . . . we had a bond. He was the first white person from the world to really do anything for me. He wanted to give to me. Anything I wanted he would give me and I didn’t even have to ask. He always wanted to buy books for me. Not ghetto trash like you call it. He sent books that were hard to read, he forced me to think. So I would read these books and he was willing to sit with me and listen and reason with me so that over the years what the writers were saying got into my head and educated me. Gorman taught me like a father. He made up for the one I never had.

“Even after he got Parkinson’s and went back to Oklahoma he still wrote me regularly, and he would get on a plane and fly to Raleigh and rent a car and come visit me.

“I could see him deteriorating right in front of my eyes. I’d tell him something and five minutes later he would have forgotten, and it got worse and worse. I told him, ‘You mustn’t be doing this. You mustn’t be getting on a plane. You mustn’t be driving a car. I don’t want you putting yourself in harm’s way just because you love me.’

“I still have mad love for Gorman, even though he doesn’t know me any more. It hurts me that I can’t be there to help him now he’s sick. A son is supposed to take care of his father when he’s old and sick.

“And now my sweet Sister Ann is getting old and forgetful too. I love her so, so much. If I am blessed with freedom, I want to go to Michigan so I can hug her and kiss her and say thank you for all she’s done for me before she dies. She and Gorman helped make me into the man I am today.”

Justice for John Lee: How It All Began – Chapter 4

John and JoannaWhen Joanna first started to communicate with John Lee, well before she became involved with his case and well before she adopted him and took his freedom as her cherished cause, she was barraged with warnings. Little could she imagine that he was beset with almost identical warnings. Here is part of the story…

When I first met John Lee, it seemed the whole world set out to warn me I was being played, I was a bleeding heart, a dupe for some evil person who wanted to manipulate me into something, it was not clear what. What I didn’t know at the time was that John was being warned about me as ferociously as I was about him. This is how he told it to me:

The guys on the block all laughed at me when I showed them the newspaper with the piece out of the book you’d written and said I was going to write to this woman. I was going to try to get her for a pen pal. They didn’t pay attention to the piece out of the book. They just looked at your photo.

“You think a woman like that going write you? A white woman like that? You crazy, man.”

I said, “If I don’t try I’ll never know, will I?”

They said, “Man, you a fool. That sort of woman, she don’t care nothing about you.”

I said, “How come she wrote this book about this slave then?”

They said, “She white, man, white. You jest a black man settin on your ass in prison.”

I said, “At least I keep on trying to reach out to society. At least I keep on trying to find myself a friend. Not like you damn cowards, too afraid to try because you’re frightened of rejection.”

They said, “How you going write her anyways? You ain’t got her address.”

I got pissed then. I said, “Well then, I will get it.”

See, I’ve got this friend in here, first white person I’ve ever been friends with. I got mad love for that guy. He’s one of the few whose family keep in touch with him, so I got him to write a letter to his mother and his mother looked you up in the phone book and sent back the address and then I wrote that letter to you.

Then I sat back and waited. I didn’t tell nobody, but I did not expect an answer, not deep down in my heart.

So I was real surprised how fast you answered. Dear Mr. Conaway. No one ever called me Mr. Conaway.

When I told the other guys, you should have heard them. They told me all kinds of stuff.

“That woman might be using you for her own gain, man.”

“Man, you done lost your mind.”

“Damn man, that woman’s white, man. Man, that woman could be trouble.”

Some of these guys are real bad when it comes to whites. I even had one of the guys real close to me said, “You better be careful, man. That woman might be using you, man.”

I think he’s changed his mind now. I think you did that on your own. You changed him without even knowing it. He was lying in bed one day trying to sleep with the blanket on his head and I ran into his cell and said, “I got a letter. I got a letter from that writer, man.”

He said, “Man, you better be careful, man, with those people, man.”

I said, “What you mean, man?”

He said, “Man, all right man, you know she’s a writer, man.”

I said, “Man, what you talking about, man?”

He said, “All right, boy. She could be using you.”

And guess what I told him? I said, “Well hell, I don’t got nothing to lose.”

He looked at me, just laughed. He said, “Man, you crazy, man.” And he put the blanket back over his head.

So I went ahead and walked off and got my paper and pencil and went down to the table and started writing you back. But don’t think I heard no negative stuff, because I did.

Even one of the correctional officers too, he told me, “Boy, you keep away from those white people. Those white people, they going lynch you, ain’t going do nothing for you, just leave you standing on the corner like a fool.”

So don’t think you were the only one. You caught it in your world. I caught it in my world too. About the only guy who didn’t do that was the white guy got me your address.

Justice for John Lee: How It All Began – Chapter 2

John Lee, 12 years old

John Lee, 12 years old

Who is John Lee, this innocent we are trying to free and have exonerated? If you make a donation, who will you be helping in addition to helping justice?

Joanna responded to John Lee’s first letter by asking him for “an accounting for his presence in the world”. His response to that rather pointed request gives you a measure of the man we are asking you to help.

“I was born April 5, 1967, in Rockingham, North Carolina, to a fourteen year old black female. My father I do not know much about, only that he is a white man who lives in Rockingham. I first learned he was my father from my grandmother. I tried to get more out of her but she just told me he was white and owned a business. My lawyers say he is a well off man.

“I started having a great desire at a very young age to see my father. Seeing all the other children with their fathers made me feel bad. I used to pray to God to take me to my father or that my father would come get me. I cried all the time and then I would hate the world and run away a lot. I was a lost child growing up. No one to love or be loved by.

“When I was two years old, my mother moved from Rockingham to Washington, DC, to live with her older sister. I was a very light-skinned child growing up in Washington, DC, around lots of dark-skinned children. I would get picked on about my light-skinned color and my hair, which was soft and curly, not nappy like real black children’s hair. My mother is dark-skinned, and when people saw me they knew she’d been with a white man. I was a curse to her.

“The problems of abuse started when my mother went to live with my stepfather. His real name was Clarence, but everybody called him Boogerman. He would beat her, and she would beat me. I think when she looked at me she saw the white man who had abused her as a child. She would scream, ‘I wish you was dead.’ It got worse after she ran off from Boogerman and took us to live in Cambridge, Maryland.

“When I was nine years old the Social Service people got me. I was very afraid that day. I was placed in a group home, but I ran away. After that I was placed in group homes and state training schools for young boys more times than I can remember. All my life I’ve been afraid.

“My brother Clarence grew up to be a drug dealer in DC. He controlled a big section of north-east. They called him Big Daddy on the streets. I never did become a crack head or seller of crack. I do not like people who deal in this kind of life. Once a person comes into deep knowledge and wisdom, they wake up from the darkness they were living in and come into a pure light that’s so beautiful. I’ve come from where I’ve been to become a strong man today, mentally, physically, and spiritually. That makes me feel good about myself. I feel that I can overcome anything, and become who I desire to become. My young life is hard to think about. Respectfully, John Lee.”

How Joanna Came to Legally Adopt John Lee

Christmas 2013 Pender Correctional Institution Burgaw, NC

Christmas 2013
Pender Correctional Institution
Burgaw, NC

In late March 2010, I was diagnosed with anal cancer. I had surgery and chemo-radiation and was very sick. I had barely recovered when things went wrong with John Lee’s case and, instead of being released, he was sent back to prison. I have never seen a man more devastated.

I was devastated too, but worse was the realization that I had seen signs of what was pending and due to the befuddlement of illness and recovery, I had not recognized them. Now more than ever John Lee needed somebody to stand by him.

It was then that I began to worry about what should happen if the cancer came back and killed me. I am a quarter of a century John Lee’s senior. If I do not die of this cancer, I told myself, I will surely die before him.

I worried over this until one morning I woke up to the smell of coffee. “Joe,” I said, “as he handed me the cup. “I want to adopt John Lee legally. I want him to have a proper family, I want him to have rights, to feel secure.”

When we were done discussing it, I took a pen and paper. “My dear John Lee, would you like to be adopted?”

“Dear Mom,” he wrote back, “I would LOVE to be adopted!!! I thank you!!! You make me feel beautiful and strong and sure.”

I called his blood mother. She said, “You can do more for him than me. Will I still be his mother too?”

Our lawyer filed adoption papers with the clerk of court in Hillsborough, whose reaction was, Whoa! Is this woman mad or is she up to something?

“This is a first,” he told me when I was summoned to his office.

I told him my story about meeting John, about his abandoned childhood and how I felt he had been given to me by fate, and how having cancer had made me realize I wanted to leave something behind me more lasting than a stack of discount table books.

“I want,” I told him, “to make love my legacy.”

Throughout this speech he watched me with a look I recognized from speaking behind microphones: I had touched his heart. When I was done, he reached back, pulled a law book from his bookshelf, and thumbed through it to the rules on adult adoption.

He did not speak to me, but to my lawyer, all practicality and this-is-how-we-get-it-done. I am very grateful to him. His name is, Jamie Stanford, a good man.

He was cautious, though, about the fortune I might have hidden underneath my bed. Upon my death it would have to be shared with seven children instead of six. So instead of simply notifying them, as is usual with an adult adoption, I must to get them to agree in writing.

This was easy with the girls, as though something natural had fallen into place. But Sam, my adopted Korean son, was somewhere in Afghanistan shooting howitzer rounds into the rocky mountain greenery. Considering that, notification was all we needed. Which, after many attempts, we accomplished through the Red Cross.

Later, when Sam came home on leave, he told me, “If it hadn’t been for you guys, it could have been me in that prison.”

“Yes,” I said laughing, “you were certainly that awful growing up.”

Which left my sons Sean and Mike off in Australia. I must admit I was a little nervous about them. After all, they didn’t know John lee. They knew about him, but they’d never met him.

I took my courage in my hands and called. “So Mike, what would you think?”

An American con for a brother? Neato! Go for it Mom!

And Sean, my eldest?

He said, “John Lee is my brother.”

And so, on September 13, 2011, John Lee became a legal member of our family. His name is now John Lee Scott.

Fourteen Years to Get the Affidavits the Courts Kept Asking For

Innocent CoverOnce John Lee was transferred from Death Row to Safekeeping, he had access to a telephone. This was a great advantage to me as his potential biographer because now, instead of furtively scribbled shorthand on bits of paper smuggled into the visitation booth, I simply had to click on my little tape recorder.

One day I was remarking on how long it had taken for him to find a lawyer who would do what was needed to file an appeal that would hold up in court.

“Yep,” he said, fourteen years it took before I got a lawyer who just went out and got the affidavits the courts kept asking for. I’m grateful to him for that.

“You know,” he said, “one of the interns early on in my case told me I’d be executed by nineteen ninety-eight, so I’d be dead now, I never would have met you if I hadn’t got rid of my old lawyer and got a new one. My old lawyer, she wouldn’t go away and I knew she was going to get me killed. I had to do something to get rid of her.”

“What did you do?”

“Threatened to drop my appeals and let the state go ahead and execute me. I knew that would work because other prisoners had done that to get a new lawyer. I feel bad about doing that to her, but I had to do what I had to do.”

“That’s another reason why I find it hard to trust today. You have to know someone really well, you have to have a history with them, you have to have seen them in all sorts of circumstances, you have to go through stuff with them before you can really trust them.”

“It’s sad to say, but I’m in this predicament today because I trusted where I shouldn’t. I trusted my cousin because he was family, but I hadn’t seen him for thirteen years and didn’t know what sort of man he’d grown up to be.”

“When I came into wisdom and knowledge I would sit back in my cell and think about those two boys from the Pantry store, what got done to them. I wish I could get out of here and help bring the true killer to justice.”

“So who do you think that was, who do you think was the triggerman?”

“I won’t speculate about that.”

“Go on, speculate. Everybody speculates about you.”

“I’m not judging someone else when I don’t know the truth. Not after what got done to me. Joanna, I’m guilty only of bad judgement, not of anything to lose my life over. I’ve always been a good person. I’ve made some mistakes in life, but everybody has made them and I’m still learning and working hard to overcome my mistakes. I just want the chance to be the person I know I can be in this world.”

“True justice is us, making it real through our own actions . . .”

Christmas 2013 Pender Correctional Institution Burgaw, NC

Christmas 2013
Pender Correctional Institution
Burgaw, NC

My good friend Brenda Wilson just recommended I read Licensed to Lie: Exposing Corruption in the Department of Justice, by Sidney Powell.

So I went to Amazon and read the abstract, and then the comments by reviewers. One comment, from a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, struck me very forcibly:
“This book is a testament to the human will to struggle against overwhelming odds to right a wrong, and a cautionary tale to all that true justice doesn’t just exist as an abstraction apart from us. True justice is us, making it real through our own actions and our own vigilance . . .”
“Goodness me!” I said to myself, “this man could be talking about John Lee’s case!”
Railroaded and sent to Death Row, a convenient patsy for someone else’s crime, John Lee has spent twenty-three years “struggling against overwhelming odds to right this wrong.”
Fortunately for him, he now has a wonderful legal team and a circle of staunch supporters, as well as all the good people who continue to give so generously to help us “make justice real for him through our own actions and our own vigilance.”
It has been a long fight, and we are still fighting it. There have been times when I have wept with discouragement, but then I look up at a quote pinned on the wall above my desk and feel my spine stiffen:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” ––Mark Twain.

How John Lee Became a Brother to My Daughters – Part 3

Andy and L'il Man

Andy and L’il Man

In my early days of knowing John Lee, before anyone else in the family met him, his situation on Death Row was hard for me to deal with.

One day, in need of somebody to talk to, I called my daughter Andrea in Sarasota. I had not mentioned John Lee to her so far, but when I heard her voice, “What’s up?” I talked for almost half an hour non-stop.

When I drew breath, she said, “I’ll write to him.” Just like that.

A week later, a breathless letter fell into our mailbox: “Your blood daughter Andy wrote me!”

She came all the way from Florida to visit, brought her little boy Lachlan along. Andy and John Lee clicked instantly. So did John Lee and Lachlan.

John Lee called him “Lil Man.” He made quacking sounds like Donald Duck and entertained him with pictures torn from magazines. L’il Man was the first child to come into his life for sixteen years, and the two of them were delighted with each other.

“I am really glad your blood daughter Andy liked me!” John Lee wrote. “ And I am glad that she is going to keep on writing me, and hopefully she will come to find me someone special too. I know I will like her a lot . . .”

All this may seem extraordinary on Andy’s part, but it is true. She took John Lee into her heart as simply as she had taken in three broken little Korean orphans, helping me to raise them like a second mother

“But,” she told me later, “life moved on. I moved away, went to college, got married, had a son. I couldn’t be there for them as much as when I lived at home. So when John came along and the girls related so strongly to him, I was grateful.

“He and I are very similar people, nurturers. He has that patience, that understanding. It was as though he had taken over my role. Selfish, I know, but ironically also a perfect fit, and I did not feel so bad about not being able to spend the time and emotional giving I had been able to before.”

“But,” I asked her, “you didn’t know he’d be this sort of person. He was just a man in prison, a stranger who could have been dangerous.”

How John Lee Became a Brother to My Daughters – Part 2

sc0038927aMy elder Korean daughter Ashley was more hesitant about meeting John Lee than her sister, but later she would tell me, “Mom, as time went by and I saw you going every Friday to that awful place, and talking about John Lee as though he was a person just like anybody else, I began to wonder why my mother was using her one day off a week to go to a prison when she could be planting flowers and messing in her garden?”

And so she came with me to visit.

“I was very scared,” she told me, “You park. You walk in. You state the name. And they’re not very friendly. And then they give you a pass––okay here you go, kind of gruff. Then you walk up . . . I remember it was a hot day.

“Then you just sit there and you wait. And it has a smell, it’s got this smell, and then you walk into the visitation booth and all of a sudden the weight of the world is right on your shoulders––ooof! And it’s there the entire time until you leave.

“John Lee talked a lot about his childhood and I went away thinking, ‘Wow, we are a lot alike.’ Then two-three days later I got a letter from him saying how great it was to meet me, and thank you for coming, and then he told me more about his life.

“I felt, okay, he’s been open and honest, so I’ll be open and honest with him. So I wrote back to him. After a while of writing, I went back and I reread all his letters. Again it was “Wow!” The similarities between us were really quite shocking because we were from totally different cultures.

“We both only had our old grandmothers to love us. We both were taken from our families and locked up. Me in the orphanage, him in children’s homes. We both tried escaping and kept getting caught. We were hungry all the time because our families were poor. We both stole food. We were both alone with no one to protect us. And both of us had nobody to love us until you came along.

“It doesn’t matter that I’m Korean and he’s mixed white and black. We understand each other, and it’s such a relief to be able to talk to him like a twin brother I can tell anything without worrying he’ll judge me or think I’m weird or crazy. Even though I’m bipolar and he’s not, he understands what it’s like to have that big weight on you.

“It’s only recently I’ve forgiven my birth mother for leaving me and begun to think about what losing her children might have been like for her. John Lee has been better at forgiving his mother than I have, but then he’s older and he’s had more time.

“He’s certainly given me a new understanding that family is a very fragile thing and we’re really lucky to have it. I owe him a lot and when he gets out of prison he’ll have a sister to help him get used to the world.”