Tag Archives: death row

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.

John Lee & Prof. Gorman Gilbert

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

Why are we posting a series of episodes in John Lee’s imprisonment? We felt that it is vital for people to know the kind of man they are being asked to help. It is easy to hear the words “murder”, “death row”, “prison”, and have an image which is hard to overcome. Even with the lack of evidence against John Lee, the deals made with his accusers, the botched legal representation, sometimes it is still hard to see beyond them. Hopefully, these stories will help you to do that and move you to support the freedom of an innocent man.

Sister Ann was not the only one who helped John Lee educate himself. Here is what he told me about Professor Gorman Gilbert, a civil engineering professor at NC State University, in walking distance of the prison.

“After the passing of my beloved grandmother in nineteen ninety-four, I was going crazy. My family had abandoned me. I had no peace, happiness or love. All I could think of was my grandmother being gone, the only person who ever loved me, and all I had in this world. I needed help but I had nobody to turn to.

“So I asked this young lady who was working on my case at the time for help, and this is how I came to meet my father Gorman Gilbert.

“When Gorman came into my life, I had nobody to love me and cherish me and so when he came along and loved and cherished me and wanted to help me, to make me the best I could be in my situation, it was a shock. I couldn’t understand it. Nobody had ever done anything like that for me in my life before, and so it was very, very precious. I learned from him that color doesn’t matter when it comes to love.

“Me and Gorman . . . we had a bond. He was the first white person from the world to really do anything for me. He wanted to give to me. Anything I wanted he would give me and I didn’t even have to ask. He always wanted to buy books for me. Not ghetto trash like you call it. He sent books that were hard to read, he forced me to think. So I would read these books and he was willing to sit with me and listen and reason with me so that over the years what the writers were saying got into my head and educated me. Gorman taught me like a father. He made up for the one I never had.

“Even after he got Parkinson’s and went back to Oklahoma he still wrote me regularly, and he would get on a plane and fly to Raleigh and rent a car and come visit me.

“I could see him deteriorating right in front of my eyes. I’d tell him something and five minutes later he would have forgotten, and it got worse and worse. I told him, ‘You mustn’t be doing this. You mustn’t be getting on a plane. You mustn’t be driving a car. I don’t want you putting yourself in harm’s way just because you love me.’

“I still have mad love for Gorman, even though he doesn’t know me any more. It hurts me that I can’t be there to help him now he’s sick. A son is supposed to take care of his father when he’s old and sick.

“And now my sweet Sister Ann is getting old and forgetful too. I love her so, so much. If I am blessed with freedom, I want to go to Michigan so I can hug her and kiss her and say thank you for all she’s done for me before she dies. She and Gorman helped make me into the man I am today.”

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.”

Pals for the Cats

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

When John Lee first made know his intention to try to make a friend of me, the reaction of the other men on Death Row was pretty much unanimous:

“Damn man, that woman’s white, man. That woman could be trouble.”

“Man, all right man, you know she’s a writer, man. That woman might be using you.”

“Man, you crazy, man. You done lost your mind.”

Even one of the correctional officers got into it. “Boy, you keep away from those white people. Those white people, they going lynch you, ain’t going do nothing for you, just leave you standing on the corner like a fool.”

However, as time went along and it became apparent that I was not going to hike up my skirts and run, that I was a faithful weekly visitor, a faithful correspondent, and a provider of books and funds for needful things, a gradual change took place.

On my way past visitation booths to number nine or twenty-one or -two, I found myself greeted by waves and smiling faces of other men waiting for a visit. A little longer and I would stop a moment in the doorway of this one or that for a few words of greeting, occasionally even going right up to the glass to whisper something or be whispered to. One Christmas I almost got thrown out for bearing Christmas spirit right into someone else’s booth and being merry.

With me suitably checked out, next came requests for pen pals. Ask Miss Joanna if. Does Miss Joanna know? I had a penal once, but then . . .

John Lee took things in hand. If I would find pen pals on the outside, he would give me names of men he knew were good respectful people and worthy of a friend. I would find the friend.

My good friend Beth Browne came up with a name for our little enterprise: PALS FOR THE CATS. And it went well. Some of those palships faded over time. Some are still strong today. The strongest ones ongoing are with local people who can go see their cat in person.

The ladies who work visitation see visitors come and go. They see men disappointed. So at first they were about as dubious of me as the men on the Row. Then they got used to me. They became friendly. They became kind.

One declared herself my fan. “You stick with Miss Joanna,” she would tell John Lee when she saw him about the prison. “You do what she tells you. She’s good for you.”

That lady is rooting for John Lee to get his freedom and not afraid to tell him so. It pained her when things went wrong for him through no fault of his own. She will be one of the first on our invitation list when we finally bring our beloved John Lee home.

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?”

Life on Death Row

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

Being a writer, I was very curious about Death Row when I met John, so I asked him to tell me what life in there was like . . . 

“Life on Death Row isn’t hell. That is far too meaningless a cliche. It is purgatory, an endless waiting, neither dead nor alive, until one pays the ultimate penalty, whether you are guilty or innocent.

“Each of us inhabits a small cell alone, and this cell can drive the strongest of men crazy. Medical care is a joke for Death Row inmates. Unhealthy food three times a day served cold on unsanitary plastic trays and often contaminated with dirty dish water or foreign matter. We must often choose to go hungry rather than risk illness.

“Canteen is a blessing for a Death Row inmate, and only if he is lucky enough to have money to eat out of the canteen every day.

“All men die, some die young, maybe in a bloody accident at work or war, but none will know the exact method and hour of their death except for those on Death Row.

“Outside prison, our dreams and nightmares were fueled by life experiences. Here they are fueled by stark emptiness. I have heard other cats’ anguish echoing in the night, screams, moans, whimpers, animal shrieks of rage.

“Some cats roll up their mattresses and use them as punching bags. Some exercise constantly, even mindlessly. Some don’t move, talk, go to yard, or even shower, only stare into space or sleep day and night, or in my case can’t sleep enough.

“I have seen cats hang themselves, oppress others, smoke themselves into lung cancer, fight about anything at all, get lost in religion out of fear. All this to relieve the tension of facing death every day and night.

“I have seen thirty-five, thirty-six guys executed. I have looked into their eyes before they went to death.

“These guys, though, they need someone to talk to. It’s hard on Death Row, knowing every day you’re going to die. Guys come to me crying. ‘Man, oh man, I did it man, I just hope they don’t kill me, man.’”

“So they don’t all say they’re innocent?”

“What? Of course not.”

“Lots of people out here say they do.”

“Well, some guys are, some guys aren’t, and I can’t read the hearts of other people. I do know one thing, though. These guys ain’t about to tell their hearts to strangers.

“Most these guys in here, they’re not bad people, they did a real bad thing, but they are not bad people. You understand me? They got drunk, they got on drugs, got in a stupid fight.

“There are evil guys in here though, and that’s why I’m in favor of the death penalty. Some guys should just be taken from this world.”

“I’ve never heard of someone on Death Row who supports the death penalty.”

“Well you’ve met one now.”