Monthly Archives: April 2014

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.

John Lee’s Journey Toward Self-Improvement

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

When I look back, even though I did not do the dreadful things I was accused of, I was still a very ignorant young man with no wisdom at all. But because of Gorman helping me, I was able to occupy my time with reading and learning.

Having someone out there in the world who can uplift you a little bit with funds and books, it makes a big difference in here . . . yeah, it’s a big BIG difference, you just don’t know.

You might have eighteen guys at the poker table trying to make a dime so they can go get themselves a soda, and while they’re at that table it causes all sorts of other negative problems. Next thing they get to cussing, they’re fighting.

I’d been out there doing all that stupid stuff, trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents. But now I didn’t have to.

Every book I read, I could feel myself changing and elevating. It excited me and I wanted other people to start learning and elevating too. But all I knew to do was preach at them, try to make them read books they didn’t want. I never took time to find out why people did the things they did. I just judged them.

Even when I tried to help people I was still being judgmental. And when you’re judgmental, that means you’re putting yourself on a higher level. You’re saying, I’m better than you. I’m a better person.

Guys accused me of being a sell-out, guys tried to fight me, because they didn’t understand that a person needs to think for himself and follow his own path and not think and act like everybody around him.

It’s a hard thing to do, not worry about what other prisoners say. I had to do that, though, so I could go forward.

As I came to reflect more, it finally started to click on me that the man who is going to do most good in the world, is the one who can step back and sit up on the mountain and see everybody down in the valley clearly.

When you’re living in that valley and you’re caught up in all the stuff that goes on in the day rooms, it’s controlling everything about you, the way you perceive and everything, and you can’t see what the man sitting on the mountaintop can see. What affects them, what guides them, what controls them.

When you can see that, you’re in a position where you can truly help people.

Fond Memories of the Special Ed School

John Lee, 12 years old

John Lee, 12 years old

“What’s the happiest memory you have about your childhood?” I asked John on one visit. “I mean aside from Grandma?”

He set his elbows on the ledge below the visitation booth window, folded his hands beneath his chin, and turned his eyes aside and downward in the way of a man thinking hard about a problem.

“There was this lady used to drive the school bus when I was a little boy and I used to go to a special school for children with problems. In the regular school they said I was slow, so they put me in this special school and the bus driver actually made me the favorite child on the bus. Me out of all the white kids.

“Back then I didn’t realize what she was doing, but when I sat up in these cells and pondered on my past I began to realize that lady cared and she knew my mother was abusing me. If I didn’t go to school that day because I didn’t have the clothes or my mother wanted me to stay home and babysit, I’d hear her bus pull up in the yard.

“She’d pull right off the road, all the way up to the door, nearly hitting the door with the bus, and she’d blow that horn, keep blowing it––bom! bom! bom! bom! bom!––until somebody came to the door and told her what the deal was with me.

“That young white woman, she treated me like I was her son, treated me like a little boyfriend. She really took an interest in me and I looked forward to getting on that bus with her.

“One of the songs she used to listen to, when I hear that song right today it reminds me of her. It’s an old song from the seventies by Conway Twitty called “Slow Hand.” They don’t play that song too often. I remember the words, though.”

And he began to sing.

He was halfway through the second verse when he trailed off, smiling sheepishly. “I’m not a good singer like my brother Clarence.”

“It was beautiful,” I said, “just beautiful.”

“I know it’s a love song about a man and a woman, but it’s more than that. It’s about taking time to really care about a person, and that’s the memory I have of that bus driver, she really cared about the little abused boy I was back then.

“That school bus only fit seven people. I was the only boy. There was a little crippled girl, and an older lady who took care of her. She used to get me to help lift the little girl up, put her on the platform that lifts the wheelchair up on the bus. That made me really feel important as a little boy.

“I was doing good in that school. I guess I felt like I was somebody. So there’s some fond memories I remember as a child. And that’s a shame, because who’s going to have fond memories of the special ed school?”

The Strange Way a Childhood Dream Came True

From John Lee:

John Lee, 12 years old

John Lee, 12 years old

When I was a child I wanted to be a state trooper, probably because I stayed in state troopers’ cars so much. When I would run away, the state troopers were always the ones who would find me and take me back to the group homes. They were always kind to me, and they got to drive around all day and help people. I know I don’t have to be a trooper to help people. That was just one of my past dreams. I always had one dream or another.

Back in the late seventies my best friend and I would sit back at the waterfront pier in Cambridge, Maryland, and watch time go by. If we saw an airplane we would say, ‘One of these days I want to be on an airplane,’ or if we saw a speedboat flying by, it would be, ‘One of these days I want to race one of those speedboats.’ Young minds full of hopes and dreams, we always found something we wanted to be.

Kids don’t grow up saying, ‘One of these days I want to spend my life in prison,’ or, ‘One of these days I want to be a criminal.’ As a child, prison was the farthest thing from my mind. Matter of fact, I never knew such a place existed. We always had the most innocent goals in life. Now, sitting in this prison, my mind sometimes drifts back to those days. I think of the times my friends and I filled water balloons on hot summer days and drenched each other and the girls we had crushes on. My friends and I never had much but we had each other. I remember my first kiss, my first date. All these memories began with, ‘One of these days.’

As the years pass, it gets harder and harder to make sense of what happened to the days when I sat and dreamed some of the most ridiculous dreams a child like me could dream. My hopes, mine, all mine. To have them snatched away is worse than ice water thrown in my face. Still, some people succeed in spite of hardships, others succeed because of them. The truth is our problems help to make us what we are and those who struggle can learn perseverance. Those who fall down can teach others how to rise again.

That is why I work so hard to make myself a better, stronger, wiser person who will be of very great value to society. Because I know that one day I will overcome this injustice. I know it because of the people who have come into my life and loved me and cherished me, the lawyers who believe in me and are fighting for my freedom, and the good people who are giving their money to help a stranger.

Waiting for the Judge

sc0038927aWhile we waited for the court’s decision on the appeal that would vacate John Lee’s sentence, he talked to me about his life. Not in any organized way, just a memory here, a memory there, in the patchwork way we all remember our lives.

He told me how he used to take a line of children to the playground holding to a rope, one behind the other with him in the lead. “To keep them safe crossing the roads,” he said. And how they played so hard and got so tired he’d have to bring the little ones back home cradled in his arms.

“What children?” I asked. “From one of the group homes?”

“Nah, nah, that was in ’91, just before I came down here to North Carolina. I was a grown up man when I was doing that. I was living in DC with a girl called Debra. Known that girl all my life. Wanted to marry that girl. If she’d married me I’d have stayed up in DC, never would have got into this predicament.”

“Why wouldn’t she marry you?”

“‘Cos she knew how much I wanted children of my own, make a family, you know, all of that, and she couldn’t have any.”

“It’s quite a responsibility, taking care of other people’s children. The mothers must have really trusted you.”

“O’course. All the mothers loved me. I used to do jobs for them, all sorts of jobs, clean the house, babysit, painted one old lady’s house. The young single mothers were always after me to babysit so they could go off to the clubs.”

“They paid you?”

“What you talking about, paid? They had no money, I just did it.” He shrugged. “I guess I just love little kids. So I took them to the playground. I’d love to have a child of my own,” he says, and then he sighs. “Maybe if I’m lucky with the judge . . .”

Sixteen Years of Appeals

A number of people have asked why it took sixteen years for John Lee’s conviction to be vacated. The reason is multifaceted, but here is a nutshell explanation.

When a man (or woman) is sent to death row, he receives legal assistance in the form of a state-appointed attorney who appeals the conviction on his behalf.

Only Death Row inmates get this assistance and the attorneys are paid significantly less than their normal fee. Some make sincere efforts despite this, others drag their feet. Different attorneys may represent the inmate as the years go by.

For an appeal to be successful, the high bar of a constitutional violation must be met. Not just identified, but accompanied by conclusive documentary evidence.

Time, sometimes years, is expended in investigation and discovery, preparation of the appeal document (called a Motion for Appropriate Relief) and filing with the court. Once the appeal is filed, the wait begins for a decision. This can also take years.

As appeals are rejected for one reason or another, a new appeal is filed with a higher court in this order:

1. NC Appellate Court
2. NC Supreme Court
3. NC Middle District Court
4. Fourth Circuit Court, Richmond, VA
5. US Supreme Court

After rejection by the US Supreme Court, the only recourse is to request the governor for a last minute stay of execution.

In John’s case, his constitutional right to a fair trial was violated. Juror Number 1 was the double first cousin of one of the co-defendants who testified against John Lee. This juror was well aware of the relationship, had a heated confrontation with his daughters and other family members over it, but still he hid it from the court.

This may sound a simple thing to prove, and indeed it was, but for fourteen years not one of John Lee’s lawyers went out and got the documentary evidence necessary for an effective appeal.

Just before I met John Lee, this had finally been done. Juror Number 1 was now deceased, but John Lee’s latest lawyer had procured affidavits from his family establishing the relationship and surrounding circumstances.

The new appeal was filed a month before I met John Lee in December 2006. We waited together, he in a state of extreme tension, for two more years.

Then, early one cold October morning in 2008, as I was preparing to drive to Raleigh for my weekly visit with John Lee, his lawyer called asking me to pass on to him the two words he had been waiting sixteen years to hear: “We won!”

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. 

Break Out! John Lee’s Story of His Youth

John Lee has had a very tragic adult life.  It began as a tragic childhood.  Now that he has “come into wisdom and knowledge”, he is able to talk and write clearly about both.  The J Journal: New Writing on Justice of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, published this part of John Lee’s story, in his own words.

Breakout! by John Lee Conaway, J Journal- New Writing on Justice

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