Category Archives: safekeeping

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.”

A Letter from Safekeeping – Part 2

John Lee, 12 years old

John Lee, 12 years old

You know, Joanna, a lot of my past is what motivates me to become successful in life one day. My past makes me hunger for lots of knowledge and deeper wisdom so I can one day go back to all of those in my past and teach and speak to them about what they helped me do in life.

I thought about you and the family on Thanksgiving Day, but it was not hard on me. Every year I think about you and the family, but I think that Christmas is the hardest for me.

I have never been a part of a family for Christmas, and have never had a Christmas gift except the bike my grandmother bought for me in 1980. (That bike got stolen after just one week!)

I ran away from home every Christmas. I think the only Christmas I didn’t run away was when I was with my grandmother. I even slept under the house one Christmas while it was snowing outside.

My life was a hard one all because of my white blood and light skin as a child. But it have made me a stronger person and a better human being. Lots of mix-blooded children went through this.

I can’t wait to meet Joe! Just knowing that your husband supports me means a lot to me! All my life I have been without strong support, and I have always known that I was and still am a very good person, and to have this chance means a lot to me.

Tell Joe I love him! (I don’t care if men don’t suppose to say this to other men.) I love him for caring!

I can’t wait to get away from this place, and live in a clean place that smells good. You know it will all be new to me, right? Having my own place and car and bills to pay.

I have never had these kind of responsibilities before, and I look forward to it, smile! I understand a lot more about the world than I did years ago, and the more I educate myself about the world, the more responsibilities I will be able to take on, right?

Prison is a very dangerous place. Every day I wake up and step out of this cell I must keep my eyes open and my ears open for the first sign of trouble. I need to be able to relax for once in my life, mentally, physically, and emotionally.

 

Joanna, I do not think about myself no more now. I think about you, Andy, Katy, Ashley, Lil-man, Joe, and all of those who have shown me that they care, and getting my freedom is so important to so many others.

 

I am just glad that I have a chance to get away from here!

A Letter from Safekeeping

John and JoannaWhen John Lee’s sentence was overturned, the court stipulated “Retry or release within 120 days.” He was then moved off Death Row to the Safekeeping section of the prison. Sixteen months later, he wrote this to Joanna:

I do not know what is going on throughout the universe, but I have been walking around this hell-hole with a very funny feeling, and I do not like it.

It is like I am not sure of anything any more, like waking up for the very first time in a long time, and seeing everything around me for the very first time in years. I am afraid!!

One cat here on the block with me, about two cells down from mine, have hanged himself. They cut his body down this morning.  Can you believe this? Why would someone hang themself?

I have been here too long, I need to get away from here. I talk with this cat every day and he goes and hangs himself! Just shows you never know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. The cat did not have a big charge or anything, and had a chance to go home again. So sad.

A lot of these new cats here on Safekeeping who have never been locked up before and never saw a person hang himself is messed up by this deeply, mentally and emotionally.

Joanna, I am doing all I can to keep this cat off my mind. I can’t believe I was just talking to him the other day, and after my visit with you he asked, “How was your visit?”

I said, “It was a very good one.”

He said, “That’s good.”

Now he is dead.

When I am free, I want to go to the woods and just sit down and hold your hand for hours, OK?

Off Death Row

sc0038927aIn 2008, when the Middle District vacated John Lee’s sentence and granted him habeas corpus, I was privileged to be the bearer of the good news.

His appellate lawyer had sent me the Decision, so I printed out the critical sentence, enlarging it so John Lee could read it through the dim window of the visitation booth, and carried it triumphantly with me to the prison.

I wanted to make the most of the surprise so I said mildly, “I’ve got a thing here you might like to read.”

He said, “Okay,” then took hold of the bars and pulled himself up close to the window. I pressed the page against it and watched his face. First puzzled curiosity, then concentration. He read it twice and I could almost see the words dropping through the layers of his mind.

He looked up at me as if to satisfy himself this was not a joke, then flung out his arms, hands thrusting at the wall like Samson bring down the pillars of the temple.

What he had just read was:

Conaway’s Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 must be and hereby is GRANTED. Respondent is directed to retry or release Petitioner from custody within 120 days of the entry of this Order.

Two days later he was moved off Death Row to Safekeeping. This is a cell block where men who have not yet been convicted are housed. It is not a delightful place, but John was looking freedom in the face and it was as though his entire body glowed.

He wrote to me: “Been watching the cats cut grass in front of the prison, and thinking how blessed they are to be able to cut grass in front of the prison. Even small things like this is a big blessing for a person in my shoes.

“I saw a big grasshopper jump up on the window, and I think the cutting of the grass chased the grasshopper away. The grasshopper stayed on the window for a few hours, and I was able to look at it as if I was looking through a microscope! I have never seen the underside of one of these grasshoppers before. It was a new experience for me.

“I know when I am free I am going to have to modulate slowly back into society. There is so much I do not know, and so much I will be afraid of, smile! You will have to hold my hand for a while, OK?”