Category Archives: innocence

From An Innocent in the House of the Dead

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

 

DEATH ROW

He was an accidental package, thrown away
to float upon the surface of the world,
an obstacle, a mouth to feed,
the nuisance bastard of a rough man’s wife,
a punching bag, a dog to kick,
a pale-skinned black boy good for nothing
but to shove aside, to mock,
to stare at with that hard and silent
slow-neck-turning straight-on stare
that sees so little and yet says so much.

An ordinary story his, the giddy highs off gasoline,
the Bull malt liquor and Wild Irish Rose,
the swift onrush from foster home to foster home,
group home to group, as though he traveled
down a glass-slick tunnel with the four harsh
winds of fate exploding at his back,
his panicked hands flung out to seize
whatever shone along the way—a box of donuts
and an apple pie, a winter coat, a pair of shoes
with solid soles, a pack of socks, a watch, some bikes—

until a handgun, loaned out of his grandma’s purse
to a cat who called him cousin, friend,
slammed him, spread-eagled like a cartoon character,
against the tunnel’s silver-badged,
blue-uniformed dead end.
And then the slave-like hobbles, lost-child mug shots,
and the prison label black, ignoring half his ancestry,
the stunned astonishment at what he had become.
And after that, beneath a high, shrill,
ever-burning light, the long slow dirge
of days and years toward the needle’s fatal,
sympathetic slide into his arm.

Justice for John Lee: How It All Began – Joanna Receives Advice from a Gentle Nun

Sister AnnShortly after meeting John Lee, a letter came for me addressed in the shaky handwriting of the very old:

“Dear Joanna Catherine Scott,

“I am a Dominican Sister who is retired and living at our Mother House in Adrian, Michigan. I am able to write to John Lee but I am not able to travel to visit him. John Lee has been wishing to have a friend who lives close enough to visit him. He wrote to me saying that now he does, and he is very happy about it. It is an answer to much prayer by both of us. Over the years he has told me about his life and he may be doing that with you also. He is now waiting to hear from the judge about his case. We have been praying for a good judgment. I have been having the Sisters here and my family praying too.”

Sister Ann gave me her email address and phone number so I emailed her telling her I’d call her in the morning.

To which she replied: “Before you call me I want you to know that all during the time I have known John Lee, I have been sending him a little money and books. I told him recently that I will not be able to continue doing that because of my situation here. When I met him, John Lee  had no one to give him any help and he was very sad and lonely. I do not want him to be in that same state if there is someone who can give him a little help. If you are able to do that I would be happy for him and grateful to you.”

I emailed back and told her I would be happy to take care of him any way I could.

To which Sister Ann replied: “Dear Joanna, I just read your email. It made me cry. I am so happy you have found him. I have been loving him for all these years that I have known him. I will keep in touch with him all I can even when I can no longer support him. I am looking forward to talking with you tomorrow. John Lee and I have been praying for so long for this that I am sure it is a real gift from God. Please tell him that when you see him. I love you also, Ann.”

Next morning we talked. Sister Ann was a gracious and wise woman who had worked with children in the Los Angeles ghetto and understood the problems of the poor.

“I believe,” she said, “God puts people in my way who need my help and for six years now that’s been John Lee. I’ve been a teacher all my life and I know there’s always one or two who need special help. John Lee only has a little formal education, sixth grade I believe, but he’s been working to improve himself and trying to help the younger men, so I take care of his needs by sending him books to help him do that. And we write back and forth all the time. Sometimes I write him every day, but at least two or three times a week. I’m eighty-one and too old to teach anymore, so I spend my time talking back and forth.

“He really loves you and I am happy you have so many children (I have seven now, including John Lee) because it shows you have learned how to nurture. The way I see it, he needs nurturing more than anything, and I think God has sent you to him so he can have that.”

I hung up the phone and sat a long time contemplating that word “nurture.” A gentle word from a gentle lady.

 

Justice for John Lee: How It All Began – Chapter 6

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

I have always been aware of the responsibility I have as a writer toward my readers, that what I write can effect their lives. But not until John Lee came into my life did I realize that what I write can change the course of my own life.

One day John said to me, “I’ve been thinking about your book, The Road from Chapel Hill.

“What did you think?” I asked him.

“Tom’s life was like mine in many ways.”

“Tom was a slave. How could his life be like yours?”

“Because I’m a slave too, a slave of the state. It says so in the thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. And because Tom did not know his father, and he was taken away from his mother when he was very young. But mainly because . . . you know that part in the story where Tom learns to read and realizes he’s not stupid?”

“You mean when he ran singing and shouting through the streets?”

“Yeah. I know how he felt. See, my true education did not start until I came to Death Row in nineteen ninety-two at twenty-five years old. I was very upset and confused when I was sent here. I could not understand why this had happened. Then one day an older prisoner came to me and gave me a book called Holy Qu’ran. He told me that if I studied that book it would lead me into knowledge, wisdom and understanding. “

“That night while locked in the cell, I realized that I couldn’t read this book very well because I wasn’t a good reader. The next day I talked with the older cat about this problem. He told me to have no shame and to start asking everyone for help. So I started asking everyone to explain word meanings to me, and every day I would sit in front of the TV and look at different commercials and repeat what the person was saying and the name of the product, and when I didn’t understand I would ask someone to say the name of the product for me. “

“Now reading is my biggest educational strength today. My attachment to books has restrained me from getting involved in gambling, drinking, fighting, and doing unpleasant things in here. And it’s taught me how to express myself. At first when I wrote to penpals, I didn’t know how to put my thoughts into words, so I would copy out of books because the writer could say it better than me. Gradually I learned from writing it all out how to say it for myself. It taught me how to think as well, because while I was writing it out, I was thinking through what the writer was saying. Now I am thinking and analyzing everything all the time.”

I was fascinated. “Tell me what it felt like, how it felt inside your head when you first began to think.”

He thought a while.

“It was like when you notice a butterfly not as a butterfly, but as a living, pulsating energy as it flaps its wings. I began to see things a lot differently and more clearly. Free! I felt free! Just like Tom did in your story.”

“I’m still learning about thinking and I’m getting better at it all the time. That’s why I like to talk to educated people, people like you. It makes me think in different ways and I get to understand more about the world and why people do the things they do. You don’t know this, but you’ve already helped me change some of my opinions just by being willing to come see me and talk with me like I am a human being.”

He smiled. “Thank you!”

“Don’t thank me,” I said, “Your Muslim brother’s the one who started you off thinking for yourself. You should thank him.”

John Lee looked at me with something painful in his eyes. “Oh, nah, I can’t do that.”

“Why not? What’s the matter? Have I upset you?”

“They executed him. He was a good man too. He taught me a lot to help me be a better person.”

Justice for John Lee: How It All Began Chapter 3

John and JoannaJohn Lee is now housed in a medium security facility in Burgaw, NC – Pender Correctional Institution.[1] However, 8 years ago when Joanna first knew of John Lee, he was on death row in Central Prison in Raleigh, awaiting an appeal. That is where Joanna first visited him.

“As I turned into the doorway of the visitation booth at Central Prison, I could see John Lee waiting on the other side of a glass partition. Intensity came off him like an arm reaching out to drag me in.

“Shut the door,” he said, so I shut it and sat down, my first experience with a prison stool.

Up close I could only see my own reflection. Then I saw my own reflection with what appeared to be a head inside it. After a little experimenting with position, I was looking at a young man in a blood red jumpsuit.

The visitation booth was small and double, like a pair of telephone booths set one behind the other and separated by a thick, wire-crises-crossed window. Cream-painted metal rods ran vertically behind the glass. A narrow ledge ran below the window, and between the window and the ledge was a fine-holed rectangular grille for speaking through. A matching grille, I came to understand, was on the other side, the two separated by several inches of dead air. This arrangement made for a curious intimacy, since it was necessary to lean in close to be clearly heard.

At first we just sat there looking at each other. Then I said, “Hello, I’m Joanna,” and he said, “I’m John Lee. Thank you for coming.”

He turned his head aside, looking down. “I’m nervous,” he said in a small voice.

“I’m nervous too,” I said, and we began to talk.

Despite the photo, I had expected John Lee to be a thuggish sort of person, someone ignorant and inarticulate, a murderer no less. But this young man had kind eyes and a gentle manner. He was honey-skinned, carefully spoken, remarkably well read. It was a strange conversation. In his letter he’d seemed intent on telling me about his life, but here we were talking about the effect of ancient Egypt on modern culture. There were other topics too, all as esoteric, and it was not until years later that he told me he had crib notes on the ledge below the window and was desperately trying to make me think he was intelligent enough to be worthwhile.

Eventually silence fell, at which point I said, “Well, I guess I’ll be going now.”

He looked at his watch. “We’ve got four minutes left.”

That’s when I learned visitation at Central Prison is an hour and a half and nobody leaves early. They want every second of their loved ones they can get.

“Oh,” I said, and tossing around for something else to say, asked if there was anything I could do for him.

He hesitated. “Will you come again?”

Up till then I’d thought this visit was a one-off, not consciously, but now I knew I had. Oh dear, I thought, I’m into something here. At which point a guard thumped back the door behind me and John began to say goodbye.”

______________________________________________

[1] We will tell the story of this situation as soon as the lawyers working on John Lee’s behalf approve the text. It is somewhat sensitive due to the on-going nature of the case.

Justice for John Lee – How It All Began

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

The Justice for John Lee Fund grew out the relationship between John Lee and author Joanna Catherine Scott. From their first meeting eight years ago, to her assuming the role of advocate, to legally adopting him and bringing him the family he had never known, to building a privately-funded legal team to represent him, Joanna has championed John’s cause and his efforts to gain his freedom. In her words, here is how it began:

“For many years I have written other people’s stories. The love, the pain, the losses and the triumphs, the good in them, the dreadful.That is what I do.

When someone reaches out to me because of something I have written, I feel a moral obligation to reach back. Sometimes this has come to nothing, sometimes I have gathered to myself a friend, a new experience, a growth in understanding. It has taken me to dark and painful places too.

And so it was I met John Lee.

I had just published a novel called The Road from Chapel Hill, the story of a slave who ran to freedom through the turmoil of the Civil War. It got good reviews. The local paper ran an excerpt.

And then one day a letter came stamped in big red letters MAILED AT CENTRAL PRISON. In the top left corner, a large round hand gave me the prisoner’s name and number and the fascinating words “Death Row.”

“This is interesting,” I said to red brick pillar of the mailbox. I went inside. It was Saturday afternoon. My husband Joe and our two Korean daughters, Ashley and Katy, were watching football.

“Has anybody heard of Central Prison?” I asked, but no one answered so I sat down in the old blue armchair and opened the letter.

A photo was inside: grey floor, bright blue backdrop. A young man crouched before it in the posture of a man about to run. That and the pure white sneakers made him look athletic. At the same time his pose was reminiscent of Rodin’s The Thinker. His hands were clasped before him, an elbow on one knee, muscular, Rodinish, and his gaze turned downward. He wore a neat beard and mustache, and the signature blood red jumpsuit of Death Row. Macabre, that.

I set the photo on my knee and unfolded the letter. It wasn’t dated, but it fell into my mailbox on October 18, 2006.

“Dear Miss Scott,” it said, “I hope you are the right person I am seeking to contact. If not, then forgive me, and just throw this picture and letter away, OK? On Sunday, October 1, 2006, I read about you in the News & Observer. Also, I notice that you are an author of many books. If you are interested in something different and new to write about, then I would be willing to work with you on writing about my life. Please contact me at this address. We can work out a visiting time for you and agree on whatever an author agrees on with someone they are writing about. This is new to me, but I am willing and believe my life story should be heard by the world. Hope to hear from you soon. God bless you. Respectfully, John Lee.”

As I said, I am a writer. I wrote John back and asked for an accounting for his presence in the world.”

Why is John Lee Still in Prison – A Footnote

John Lee, 12 years old

John Lee, 12 years old

 

 

Many who have read the explanation of why John Lee remains imprisoned despite the order to release or retry him have asked for additional information.  Because of continuing legal actions, this is not something which we can post.

However, if you will send an email to us at info@justiceforjohnlee.org, leave a comment on the web site (they are not public until approved) or send us a message on Facebook, we will get in touch with you and give you a full explanation.  Thank you for your understanding and for supporting John Lee’s fight for justice.

How I Became John Lee’s Mother – 3

John and JoannaAfter much struggling with my soul, I had accepted John’s plea that I accept him as a son. He said very little at the time, as though if he spoke the prospect of a family to love him and stand by him might fade away as his own blood family had faded.

A few days later, though, I got this letter:

“Dear Mom,

“It makes me very, very proud to write that. After you left, I went back to my cell and I sat on the bed and I felt this warm feeling all over my body, and I said to myself, Is this what true love feels like?

It didn’t go away and I lay awake all night just feeling good. I am not always an emotional person as far as letting my feelings show, as my present situation here requires that I never let anybody know what I am feeling.

I’ve been looking for love all my life, and meeting you have been a dream come true!! I was shocked when you said you love me. No one in my life before ever said they loved me, not just flat out like that.

And no one ever did love me except my grandmother. She loved me hard. She never said so, but I judge love by actions not by words.

I have never had a mother who loved me through actions and fought for me when I was in trouble. I only can recall my mother saying she did not want me, she wished I was dead.

It has been a long time since I was able to let my heart open up and let myself really love and trust again. What can I say but thank you and you have my undying love and friendship.

This certificate is a gift of my undying love for you. I have all of your children’s names on it. I used only the initial of their first name. JL -John Lee; A-Andrea; K-Katy; L-Samuel; S-Sean; M-Michael; A-Ashley. Yes, I have included my own name, that’s how close I feel to you.”

Enclosed was a handmade document with an ornate purple border and Old English lettering in black.

Certificate of Appreciation
presented to
Joanna Catherine Scott

In recognition of of your faithfulness, endurance, perseverance
and patience in this journey with me, I thank you
from the bottom of my heart. Traveling this road
can get mighty lonely at times, but your companionship
has made the miles that much easier to bear. I will
forever treasure your companionship.
– Love expressed in action
is priceless––J,A,K,L,S,M,A

 I sat there looking at it for a long, long time, and then I took it to the frame shop.

How I Became John Lee’s Mother – 2

John and JoannaThe night after John Lee offered himself to me as a son, I could not sleep. I heaved and humped and kicked until Joe moaned, “What on earth’s the matter?”

So I took my pillow and crept out of the room. My Korean daughter Ashley was sleeping in the spare bedroom, the pull-out couch in the family room was cumbersome and heavy, so I got a spare quilt from the hallway closet and lay down on my office floor and tried to sleep, but I could not. I was thinking about execution.

What if John’s appeal should fail? What if the executioner should get him after all? Could I bear it? Could I bear to go and watch him die a cruel death? And what would happen afterwards? What would they do with his body? Bury him in the prison yard so that he spent eternity locked up? So I could not even take flowers to his grave. Could I bear that? And if he didn’t die, if he spent his life in prison, could I bear that?

The door cracked open and Joe’s voice said, “What are you doing on the floor?” “I can’t sleep.”

Joe knows me well. I did not need to explain. He crept into the room and sat down on my ergonomic office chair. “You’re not going to be any good to him if you’re hospitalized for exhaustion.”

“But what if they execute him after all?”

“That’s out of your hands. You can only do what you can do for him.”

“But I’m not doing anything to help. I’m just this person loving him and being kind to him. What good is that?” Joe was silent.

“He says he wants to be my son. He says he wants me to be his mother.”

“Then be his mother. Come back to bed.” “It means I can’t ever change my mind. I have to stick with him. I have to go and watch him executed.”

“If they execute him, then they execute him. Worry about that when it happens. In the meantime, if you want to be his mother, be his mother. What harm can it do? I’m going back to bed.”

But still I agonized and could not sleep. Each night that week I lay there on the floor and thought and thought. By Friday I must give John an answer, but I could not come to a conclusion. For the first time I asked myself if I would have been better off never to have met him. If I had ignored that letter, never taken that rainy drive to Raleigh, never gone to see his lawyer, if I’d been scared off, or decided after all I didn’t want to get involved, I would by now have finished maybe two new novels, advancing my career. So why, I asked myself, why should I do this? Why make such a big commitment?

By now it was Thursday night and I must have fallen off to sleep because I woke to Joe saying, “Aren’t you prisoning today? It’s almost ten o’clock.” I didn’t shower, just leaped into my clothes, grabbed a hairbrush, lip gloss and mascara and ran for the front door with Joe’s voice behind me, “Hey, hey, slow down there.” He grabbed me from behind and held me for a brief, tight moment. “I think you’re wonderful, I want you to know that. I admire you. You’re doing a wonderful thing.”

Then I was racing for my car, backing up so fast I scratched along the hedge, stuck the mascara brush into my eye at the corner stoplight, and set out one-eyed and lipstickless along the highway. I marched into that visitation booth and plonked myself down on the stool.

“About me being your mother.” John Lee came alert. I could almost feel it physically.

“The answer’s yes, I’d be proud to be your mother.” Nothing still, just that alert watching. “Because I love you, baby, you know that.”

John Lee Makes a Confession

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

Given the restrictions from John Lee’s legal team on posting elements of his ongoing case, we are continuing to post stories which we hope will give you a better understanding of the man we are asking you to support.

From Joanna:

John Lee and I were halfway through a visit when he took hold of the bars and looked directly in my eyes.

“I want to make a confession.”

I thought, Oh God, what’s this? I said, “Okay.”

“When I first came to Death Row,” John Lee went on, “I seriously injured a man. It happened when I was moved onto a block with a bunch of white guys. There were sixteen men on that block and thirteen of them were white supremacists. The other three guys were black, so the white guys ran the block.

“A black guy in a wheelchair got into an argument with some of these white dudes. I’d been out at rec and I came in on the middle of it. The white guys pulled out razor blades and the guy in the wheelchair jumped up on wobbly legs, so I got in front of him and told them to back down.

“This one guy, he was into the Aryan Nation white power movement, he said, ‘We can do something about you too, nigger.’

“I just walked past them and went up the stairs to go to my cell. But when I looked back down over the rail, that guy had the twelve other white supremacist guys with him at the bottom of the stairs, all looking up at me.

“So I knew I had to choose between being possibly killed and fighting back. I didn’t really have a choice because Death Row isn’t locked down during the day and I had to live in the dayroom with these guys.

“I put two batteries in a sock and went down the stairs. I hit that guy right in the head and split it open and they took him away to the prison hospital. It was the only time in my life I’d intentionally set out to hurt someone and I did not intend to hurt him that badly.

“I did enough checking with the guys here in the prison to find out that the guy was doing fine. He told them he forgave me, but if he ever saw me again he’d kill me. I don’t blame him for that.

“I was put in solitary for a year and a half. During that time I wrote to the guy and asked him for forgiveness. He sent a message through the other death row inmates that he forgave me but he was still going to kill me.

“After I got out of solitary I saw him in a hallway. He turned and went the other way, so I guess he wasn’t going to kill me after all.

“I put all that as far out of my mind as I could, but about fifteen years later, it started coming up every time I went to sleep. I tried to say, ‘Well, be here now. Let it go,’ and all that, but I couldn’t.

“It was like something knocking on my door that wouldn’t go away. When I finally opened up to it, I went straight through fifteen years of repressed guilt, shame, and fear in a few months’ time. I really needed that. I really needed to grow up in that way.

“It doesn’t hurt me anymore, but it will certainly be in my memory all my life. I have faith that these things happen as they need to. Even when we deny it, we feel pain for pain we cause, and it’s going to have to come out sometime. I learned that lesson the hard way, but now I see how much more compassion and tenderness I have as a result.”

Learning to Forsee Consequences

cropped-sc0038927a2.jpgOne day John Lee called me from the prison. “You know,” he said, and I reached to click on my recorder. “I think,” he said, “my cousin might feel bad about what he done to me. He came up here to Central Prison for medical just before he was released, maybe around two thousand.”

“One of the guys on Death Row was sitting up there in the cages at the hospital and this dude started talking to him, asked him if he knew me. Said, give my love to my cousin, tell him I got him in my heart, tell him I’m thinking of him, hope he’s holding up.”

“The Death Row guy, he came back and told me about this dude but he didn’t know his name. I said what’s he look like, and then I knew who it was sitting up there still calling me cousin.”

“I told the Death Row guy who he was, what that boy had done to me, and he said, ‘Damn! I wish I’d known that. I’d a tried to talk some sense into that guy. Told him to confess.’”

“So I think my cousin feels bad. They say he’s gone running to the church. Maybe that’s why. He wants Jesus to forgive him.”

“You know, my grandmother warned me about him when I first came down to Rockingham. He came to her house one day to take me somewhere, him and a couple of guys I didn’t know.”

“Grandma came out on the front porch. She said, ‘Baby, don’t get in that car, don’t get in that car. Baby, them boys ain’t your friends.’”

“But I got in anyway. I was a stupid, ignorant young boy back then and I said, ‘It’s just Kelly, Grandma.’ And I got in the car.”

“That was bad judgement on my part, trusting a cousin I hadn’t seen in thirteen years. If I’d paid attention to Grandma I wouldn’t be in this predicament today.”

“You know, when you’re forced to sit and think and can’t go anywhere, just sit and think about your life, you see things differently, and I know now that was part of my downfall, always moving, never sitting back to really think.”

“Not that I could have back then, I still had a street mentality back then. It’s not that I was a bad person, I just couldn’t see into the future, I didn’t have the right frame of mind to see what consequences might come down the road.”

“I had to come here and be forced, just forced into a different frame of mind. I can look into the future now, and I can look at past stuff and apply it to the future.”

“A shame you couldn’t do that back then.”

“Yeah, yeah. If I’d taken Grandma’s advice . . . but, you know, when I first moved down there to Rockingham, I went to see Kelly’s family and they were, ‘Johnny Lee! Johnny Lee!’ Hugging me, happy to see me. I liked that, I felt wanted. Kelly was my cousin. I held him in my arms when he was a baby in DC.”

“You think one day he’ll confess?”

“Not if he thinks they’ll put a murder charge on him.”