Category Archives: innocence

Your Donation Will Help John Lee Achieve His Dream

John Lee, 12 years old

John Lee, 12 years old

“You know,” John Lee said to me one day, “when I was a child I used to steal out of stores because my blood family was so poor. A lot of times there was no food to eat and my little sister and brothers would be crying to me. My little brother Clarence got so hungry he ate the paint off the wall and got lead poisoning.

“When I got older I didn’t do that stealing any more. I’d walk in stores and wouldn’t steal. Not even broke as hell.

“My Aunt Ree, she had a bunch of children, but when she had to take her rent money and her bills money to the place Western Union, sometimes she would ask me to do it over her own children! She didn’t trust any of them with her rent money, only me.

“The guys on Death Row used to trust me too. They would give me their money––this was back when Death Row had cash money––and I would take their orders and go get canteen for them. I never had a problem. No one ever challenged me. I always gave right change.sc0038927a

“Maybe this is why, when I got off death row and they put me in the population, the warden asked me to run a canteen.” He shrugged. “Or maybe he thought I’d mess up, I don’t know.”

John Lee did not mess up. He agreed to take the job on condition he could run the canteen as he saw fit. He was assigned to the most difficult canteen in the prison, the one that serves the Safekeeping and Diagnostics population.

Here, in a store he kept assiduously spic and span, he refused to engage in hustling, for which canteen men are routinely fired, developed a relationship of trust with the staff, and skillfully managed a very difficult group of inmate customers, especially the young ones, who are the most dangerous and constantly on the alert for weaknesses in others of which to take advantage.

He did so well, achieving the first zero deficit at canteen stocktaking in the history of Central Prison, that he was taken up before the warden for congratulation.

I tell you all this because John Lee dreams of starting his own business when he gets out of prison. He is currently at Pender Correctional, a medium custody prison in Burgaw, NC, but has applied to take a plumbing course at another prison so he will have a skill when he gets out.

If he is accepted to the course he will move north to Pamlico Correctional, east of New Bern. Classes start on May 19, and he will not know if he has been accepted until he’s called to get on the bus.

We are all waiting with bated breath, hoping he gets this opportunity. As he said to me, “If I can manage a big canteen at a close custody prison, I can start my own business and make it a success when I am free.”

John Lee’s Reunion with His Birth Mother

John Lee, 12 years old

John Lee, 12 years old



When I met John in 2006, he had not seen his birth mother in sixteen years, so I arranged to bring her down from Hurlock, Maryland, to visit him for his birthday. The experience was so powerful that the only way I could express it was in this poem, which became part of the collection An Innocent in the House of the Dead:



I brought your mother down from Maryland.
I intended to surprise you,
but in the way of close-held secrets, it leaked out.
Or else I told you.
Maybe out of curiosity to see what you would say.
Are you trying to give me a heart attack?
Or to give you something wonderful to think about.
Yes, wonderful, despite the sixteen years.

Or to test you, maybe, to determine
if you tell the truth
when you say you have forgiven her for all
the beatings, for throwing you away,
when you say you’ve always loved her,
wanted nothing as a child but to go back to her.
I do not know. Intentions are so slippery.
Like ice squeezed in the hand, they skid away,

they melt, take on another shape.
Intentions, when you come right down to it,
are not much good for anything,
which is why trials go awry,
why men are locked up when they shouldn’t be,
or not locked up when they should.
So my intentions do not matter.
All that matters is I did it. And she came.

I thought you both would jump
clear through the bars and glass.
No touching. Touching not allowed.
Not even after sixteen years. Not even for a mother.
I wanted you to be alone. I offered,
and was glad when both of you refused.
Glad to be a witness to this amazing joy,
this grief pent up so long.

A visitation booth is tiny.
Like a phone booth, like a shoe box,
like a bathroom in a dollhouse.
But joy and grief are big, enormous,
and they filled it, made the walls bulge
and begin to crack,
like an explosion in a cave, or mine shaft,
or railroad tunnel underground,

or like the high priests’ rams’ horns
blown outside the walls of Jericho,
or a story told across the years
compressed into a poem, or a song.
There was that intensity.
It backed me up against the door and I slid down it,
sat there with my arms around my knees—
high heels, stockings, and my best gray suit.

I wanted to be small, to disappear.
Intruder. Voyeur. Secret agent.
But you said, No, get up, sit next to her,
sit right there on that stool.
And she kept saying, Baby, oh, my baby,
my sweet Johnny Lee.
The boy locked in the frame before her.
Ageless. Beautiful. Child out of her womb.

The Innocence of John Lee

John and Joanna

Immediately after meeting John Lee, I borrowed the transcript of his trial from his lawyer and read the whole thing through intently. I may not be lawyer, but I do know how to read a story, and the plot of this one made no sense. I made a copy for myself and read it through again. I drew diagrams, made notes, looked up maps on Google, and drove south to Richmond County.


Here I followed the trail from where John’s cousin Kelly and two of his friends went off into that fatal night, Kelly holding John Lee’s grandma’s gun, which he had borrowed from John Lee because, he said, some guys were out to get him and he needed protection.

I followed the three boys across the railroad tracks, down Clay Street to the Pantry store where two white store clerks were about to vanish, abducted in their own rattletrap Granada.

They would be found a week later in the woods outside of town.

The three boys would swear in court John Lee was with them, that he performed this crime all by himself. With the girl he loved waiting on the bed at their apartment, he abducted the two clerks while the three boy waited, oblivious, behind the store. Then he forced them at gunpoint into the Granada with the victims and drove them all out to the woods.

Here John Lee, who’d been in town for only twenty-seven days and owned no transport but a bicycle, was supposed to have fortuitously stopped at the entrance to a trail, led two strangers to a trash-littered clearing in the deep darkness of the woods, and come out to brag about how they had gone down on their knees, begging him to spare their lives.

What puzzled me most was why two grown men would have docilely allowed this skinny kid, even with a gun, especially with a little gun, a notoriously unreliable little gun, a Lorcin .25, to lead them to their deaths without bolting off into the darkness of the woods? After all, they had grown up in these woods and knew them well. After all, one of them had a mother and stepfather living a hundred yards or so down the road.

And why such a vicious killing, a close-up shot through each one’s temple? Because viciousness was in those shots, vicious hate and anger. The sort of anger that has festered over time. The sort of hatred that’s reserved for someone known.

Piece by piece I took the plot apart inside my head, but when I tried to put it back together the pieces would not fit. The DA seemed to have some trouble with it too. He said it all came down to choosing sides: believe John Lee or believe the codefendants. And with the help of Kelly’s cousin on the jury, the codefendants won.

But there was something else that bothered me. There seemed to be a sort of hollow in this final scene, the one set in the courtroom, a sort of giving up, as though the fix was in, the game was thrown, and John Lee had no hope from the start.

So, I told myself, he’s right. He didn’t do it. 

An Innocent in the House of the Dead – NPR with Frank Stasio

Innocent Cover


In an interview with Frank Stasio on NPR’s “The State of Things”, Joanna tells the story of meeting John Lee and the origins of their poetry collection “An Innocent in the House of the Dead”.  To listen to the story via WUNC,  CLICK HERE