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?”

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