Justice for John Lee: How It All Began – Chapter 2

John Lee, 12 years old

John Lee, 12 years old

Who is John Lee, this innocent we are trying to free and have exonerated? If you make a donation, who will you be helping in addition to helping justice?

Joanna responded to John Lee’s first letter by asking him for “an accounting for his presence in the world”. His response to that rather pointed request gives you a measure of the man we are asking you to help.

“I was born April 5, 1967, in Rockingham, North Carolina, to a fourteen year old black female. My father I do not know much about, only that he is a white man who lives in Rockingham. I first learned he was my father from my grandmother. I tried to get more out of her but she just told me he was white and owned a business. My lawyers say he is a well off man.

“I started having a great desire at a very young age to see my father. Seeing all the other children with their fathers made me feel bad. I used to pray to God to take me to my father or that my father would come get me. I cried all the time and then I would hate the world and run away a lot. I was a lost child growing up. No one to love or be loved by.

“When I was two years old, my mother moved from Rockingham to Washington, DC, to live with her older sister. I was a very light-skinned child growing up in Washington, DC, around lots of dark-skinned children. I would get picked on about my light-skinned color and my hair, which was soft and curly, not nappy like real black children’s hair. My mother is dark-skinned, and when people saw me they knew she’d been with a white man. I was a curse to her.

“The problems of abuse started when my mother went to live with my stepfather. His real name was Clarence, but everybody called him Boogerman. He would beat her, and she would beat me. I think when she looked at me she saw the white man who had abused her as a child. She would scream, ‘I wish you was dead.’ It got worse after she ran off from Boogerman and took us to live in Cambridge, Maryland.

“When I was nine years old the Social Service people got me. I was very afraid that day. I was placed in a group home, but I ran away. After that I was placed in group homes and state training schools for young boys more times than I can remember. All my life I’ve been afraid.

“My brother Clarence grew up to be a drug dealer in DC. He controlled a big section of north-east. They called him Big Daddy on the streets. I never did become a crack head or seller of crack. I do not like people who deal in this kind of life. Once a person comes into deep knowledge and wisdom, they wake up from the darkness they were living in and come into a pure light that’s so beautiful. I’ve come from where I’ve been to become a strong man today, mentally, physically, and spiritually. That makes me feel good about myself. I feel that I can overcome anything, and become who I desire to become. My young life is hard to think about. Respectfully, John Lee.”

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.”

Why is John Lee Still in Prison – A Footnote

John Lee, 12 years old

John Lee, 12 years old

 

 

Many who have read the explanation of why John Lee remains imprisoned despite the order to release or retry him have asked for additional information.  Because of continuing legal actions, this is not something which we can post.

However, if you will send an email to us at info@justiceforjohnlee.org, leave a comment on the web site (they are not public until approved) or send us a message on Facebook, we will get in touch with you and give you a full explanation.  Thank you for your understanding and for supporting John Lee’s fight for justice.

How Joanna Came to Legally Adopt John Lee

Christmas 2013 Pender Correctional Institution Burgaw, NC

Christmas 2013
Pender Correctional Institution
Burgaw, NC

In late March 2010, I was diagnosed with anal cancer. I had surgery and chemo-radiation and was very sick. I had barely recovered when things went wrong with John Lee’s case and, instead of being released, he was sent back to prison. I have never seen a man more devastated.

I was devastated too, but worse was the realization that I had seen signs of what was pending and due to the befuddlement of illness and recovery, I had not recognized them. Now more than ever John Lee needed somebody to stand by him.

It was then that I began to worry about what should happen if the cancer came back and killed me. I am a quarter of a century John Lee’s senior. If I do not die of this cancer, I told myself, I will surely die before him.

I worried over this until one morning I woke up to the smell of coffee. “Joe,” I said, “as he handed me the cup. “I want to adopt John Lee legally. I want him to have a proper family, I want him to have rights, to feel secure.”

When we were done discussing it, I took a pen and paper. “My dear John Lee, would you like to be adopted?”

“Dear Mom,” he wrote back, “I would LOVE to be adopted!!! I thank you!!! You make me feel beautiful and strong and sure.”

I called his blood mother. She said, “You can do more for him than me. Will I still be his mother too?”

Our lawyer filed adoption papers with the clerk of court in Hillsborough, whose reaction was, Whoa! Is this woman mad or is she up to something?

“This is a first,” he told me when I was summoned to his office.

I told him my story about meeting John, about his abandoned childhood and how I felt he had been given to me by fate, and how having cancer had made me realize I wanted to leave something behind me more lasting than a stack of discount table books.

“I want,” I told him, “to make love my legacy.”

Throughout this speech he watched me with a look I recognized from speaking behind microphones: I had touched his heart. When I was done, he reached back, pulled a law book from his bookshelf, and thumbed through it to the rules on adult adoption.

He did not speak to me, but to my lawyer, all practicality and this-is-how-we-get-it-done. I am very grateful to him. His name is, Jamie Stanford, a good man.

He was cautious, though, about the fortune I might have hidden underneath my bed. Upon my death it would have to be shared with seven children instead of six. So instead of simply notifying them, as is usual with an adult adoption, I must to get them to agree in writing.

This was easy with the girls, as though something natural had fallen into place. But Sam, my adopted Korean son, was somewhere in Afghanistan shooting howitzer rounds into the rocky mountain greenery. Considering that, notification was all we needed. Which, after many attempts, we accomplished through the Red Cross.

Later, when Sam came home on leave, he told me, “If it hadn’t been for you guys, it could have been me in that prison.”

“Yes,” I said laughing, “you were certainly that awful growing up.”

Which left my sons Sean and Mike off in Australia. I must admit I was a little nervous about them. After all, they didn’t know John lee. They knew about him, but they’d never met him.

I took my courage in my hands and called. “So Mike, what would you think?”

An American con for a brother? Neato! Go for it Mom!

And Sean, my eldest?

He said, “John Lee is my brother.”

And so, on September 13, 2011, John Lee became a legal member of our family. His name is now John Lee Scott.

How I Became John Lee’s Mother – 3

John and JoannaAfter much struggling with my soul, I had accepted John’s plea that I accept him as a son. He said very little at the time, as though if he spoke the prospect of a family to love him and stand by him might fade away as his own blood family had faded.

A few days later, though, I got this letter:

“Dear Mom,

“It makes me very, very proud to write that. After you left, I went back to my cell and I sat on the bed and I felt this warm feeling all over my body, and I said to myself, Is this what true love feels like?

It didn’t go away and I lay awake all night just feeling good. I am not always an emotional person as far as letting my feelings show, as my present situation here requires that I never let anybody know what I am feeling.

I’ve been looking for love all my life, and meeting you have been a dream come true!! I was shocked when you said you love me. No one in my life before ever said they loved me, not just flat out like that.

And no one ever did love me except my grandmother. She loved me hard. She never said so, but I judge love by actions not by words.

I have never had a mother who loved me through actions and fought for me when I was in trouble. I only can recall my mother saying she did not want me, she wished I was dead.

It has been a long time since I was able to let my heart open up and let myself really love and trust again. What can I say but thank you and you have my undying love and friendship.

This certificate is a gift of my undying love for you. I have all of your children’s names on it. I used only the initial of their first name. JL -John Lee; A-Andrea; K-Katy; L-Samuel; S-Sean; M-Michael; A-Ashley. Yes, I have included my own name, that’s how close I feel to you.”

Enclosed was a handmade document with an ornate purple border and Old English lettering in black.

Certificate of Appreciation
presented to
Joanna Catherine Scott

In recognition of of your faithfulness, endurance, perseverance
and patience in this journey with me, I thank you
from the bottom of my heart. Traveling this road
can get mighty lonely at times, but your companionship
has made the miles that much easier to bear. I will
forever treasure your companionship.
– Love expressed in action
is priceless––J,A,K,L,S,M,A

 I sat there looking at it for a long, long time, and then I took it to the frame shop.

How I Became John Lee’s Mother – 2

John and JoannaThe night after John Lee offered himself to me as a son, I could not sleep. I heaved and humped and kicked until Joe moaned, “What on earth’s the matter?”

So I took my pillow and crept out of the room. My Korean daughter Ashley was sleeping in the spare bedroom, the pull-out couch in the family room was cumbersome and heavy, so I got a spare quilt from the hallway closet and lay down on my office floor and tried to sleep, but I could not. I was thinking about execution.

What if John’s appeal should fail? What if the executioner should get him after all? Could I bear it? Could I bear to go and watch him die a cruel death? And what would happen afterwards? What would they do with his body? Bury him in the prison yard so that he spent eternity locked up? So I could not even take flowers to his grave. Could I bear that? And if he didn’t die, if he spent his life in prison, could I bear that?

The door cracked open and Joe’s voice said, “What are you doing on the floor?” “I can’t sleep.”

Joe knows me well. I did not need to explain. He crept into the room and sat down on my ergonomic office chair. “You’re not going to be any good to him if you’re hospitalized for exhaustion.”

“But what if they execute him after all?”

“That’s out of your hands. You can only do what you can do for him.”

“But I’m not doing anything to help. I’m just this person loving him and being kind to him. What good is that?” Joe was silent.

“He says he wants to be my son. He says he wants me to be his mother.”

“Then be his mother. Come back to bed.” “It means I can’t ever change my mind. I have to stick with him. I have to go and watch him executed.”

“If they execute him, then they execute him. Worry about that when it happens. In the meantime, if you want to be his mother, be his mother. What harm can it do? I’m going back to bed.”

But still I agonized and could not sleep. Each night that week I lay there on the floor and thought and thought. By Friday I must give John an answer, but I could not come to a conclusion. For the first time I asked myself if I would have been better off never to have met him. If I had ignored that letter, never taken that rainy drive to Raleigh, never gone to see his lawyer, if I’d been scared off, or decided after all I didn’t want to get involved, I would by now have finished maybe two new novels, advancing my career. So why, I asked myself, why should I do this? Why make such a big commitment?

By now it was Thursday night and I must have fallen off to sleep because I woke to Joe saying, “Aren’t you prisoning today? It’s almost ten o’clock.” I didn’t shower, just leaped into my clothes, grabbed a hairbrush, lip gloss and mascara and ran for the front door with Joe’s voice behind me, “Hey, hey, slow down there.” He grabbed me from behind and held me for a brief, tight moment. “I think you’re wonderful, I want you to know that. I admire you. You’re doing a wonderful thing.”

Then I was racing for my car, backing up so fast I scratched along the hedge, stuck the mascara brush into my eye at the corner stoplight, and set out one-eyed and lipstickless along the highway. I marched into that visitation booth and plonked myself down on the stool.

“About me being your mother.” John Lee came alert. I could almost feel it physically.

“The answer’s yes, I’d be proud to be your mother.” Nothing still, just that alert watching. “Because I love you, baby, you know that.”

How I Became John Lee’s Mother – 1

John and JoannaOne of the most frequent questions Joanna gets is: How did you become John Lee’s mother?

It does seem a little unusual.  A British/Australian woman with six kids, three of them adopted, suddenly adopts a grown African-American guest of Death Row.

 

Here’s the story in three parts:

I became John Lee’s de facto mother before I ever thought of adopting him. I had recently confided in him my grief over how a youthful divorce had hurt my three Australian children growing up.

He had spent many hours telling me about his life, all the good, all the bad, all the stumbles and failures and successes. One day I asked him, “Why do you tell me all this stuff?”

“Because,” he said, “I want you to truly know me. Most people don’t know me. They don’t understand me. They judge me by my mistakes. But I think you’re different. I think you know how to look at the real person.”

“Oh,” I said. “I see.”

“No, I don’t think you do. Joanna, I hope one day to be free from this hell-hole. You know how I got here better than anyone. You know I am having a very difficult time coping with this injustice. I need someone to fight for me.

“Lawyers are lawyers and fight accordingly. A mother is a mother and fights accordingly. A friend is a friend and fights accordingly. And family is family and fights accordingly.

“I am in prison and the question is, who is going to fight for me the most? I don’t believe in the words weak and can’t. For me, it’s no picnic. It’s a lot of daily suffering, but I don’t complain when you come to visit.

I have no right to ask you to fight for me when my own blood family won’t fight for me, but the guys who went home from Death Row in the past had people fighting for them, and this is one of the hardest things for a person on Death Row to have in his life.

“Oh,” I said again. “I see.”

“I believe that sometimes good things happen when we are humble and seek to live a good and gentle life. I do believe that, yes. And when you look at you and me, even though we’re from different sides of the tracks, even though we’re different from each other in everything––race, education, experience in life, it seems to me we can help each other.

“Because you have a burden and I have a burden too. I have the burden of being innocent in prison. You have the burden about how divorce hurt your children. I need family to fight for me and love me. You need a son to love and fight for.”

He stopped and took a breath. “Joanna, I give myself to you as a son. Will you accept me?”

And then the door banged back, the guard called, “Time!” and he was gone.

 

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.”