Category Archives: death row

The Bubble Pot

John and JoannaI met him quite by accident, although later
I’d concede that it was Fate, that tripartite
goddess alert to put a twist in things.
Spoke in the wheel. Bird in the bush.

Round about the caldron go;
in the poison’d entrails throw.

As if they cared tuppence what would
become of us. Those Weird Sisters.
Harsh Spinners. Maiden, mother, crone.
Witches, stirring at the bubble pot.

Fillet of a fenny snake,
in the caldron boil and bake.

He wrote to me, you see. That piece
out of my novel in the paper, the cat
in the next cell whose mother
looked up my address. All that.

Eye of newt, and toe of frog.
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog.

He asked me to come see him, and I came.
Lamb to the slaughter, peat to the flame.
It was, he told me later,
as though it had been planned.

Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
lizard’s leg, and owlet’s wing.

I had never been inside a prison
in my life. He had barely been outside.
So it was up to me to take that giant
leap across the tracks.

For a charm of powerful trouble,
like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

One small step, the spaceman said.
Moonwalker. Moontalker.
The moon is cold.
The witches’ brew is hot.

Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
then the charm is firm and good.

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 – 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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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?”