Tag Archives: innocence

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.”

“True justice is us, making it real through our own actions . . .”

Christmas 2013 Pender Correctional Institution Burgaw, NC

Christmas 2013
Pender Correctional Institution
Burgaw, NC

My good friend Brenda Wilson just recommended I read Licensed to Lie: Exposing Corruption in the Department of Justice, by Sidney Powell.

So I went to Amazon and read the abstract, and then the comments by reviewers. One comment, from a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, struck me very forcibly:
“This book is a testament to the human will to struggle against overwhelming odds to right a wrong, and a cautionary tale to all that true justice doesn’t just exist as an abstraction apart from us. True justice is us, making it real through our own actions and our own vigilance . . .”
“Goodness me!” I said to myself, “this man could be talking about John Lee’s case!”
Railroaded and sent to Death Row, a convenient patsy for someone else’s crime, John Lee has spent twenty-three years “struggling against overwhelming odds to right this wrong.”
Fortunately for him, he now has a wonderful legal team and a circle of staunch supporters, as well as all the good people who continue to give so generously to help us “make justice real for him through our own actions and our own vigilance.”
It has been a long fight, and we are still fighting it. There have been times when I have wept with discouragement, but then I look up at a quote pinned on the wall above my desk and feel my spine stiffen:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” ––Mark Twain.

How John Lee Became a Brother to My Daughters – Part 2

sc0038927aMy elder Korean daughter Ashley was more hesitant about meeting John Lee than her sister, but later she would tell me, “Mom, as time went by and I saw you going every Friday to that awful place, and talking about John Lee as though he was a person just like anybody else, I began to wonder why my mother was using her one day off a week to go to a prison when she could be planting flowers and messing in her garden?”

And so she came with me to visit.

“I was very scared,” she told me, “You park. You walk in. You state the name. And they’re not very friendly. And then they give you a pass––okay here you go, kind of gruff. Then you walk up . . . I remember it was a hot day.

“Then you just sit there and you wait. And it has a smell, it’s got this smell, and then you walk into the visitation booth and all of a sudden the weight of the world is right on your shoulders––ooof! And it’s there the entire time until you leave.

“John Lee talked a lot about his childhood and I went away thinking, ‘Wow, we are a lot alike.’ Then two-three days later I got a letter from him saying how great it was to meet me, and thank you for coming, and then he told me more about his life.

“I felt, okay, he’s been open and honest, so I’ll be open and honest with him. So I wrote back to him. After a while of writing, I went back and I reread all his letters. Again it was “Wow!” The similarities between us were really quite shocking because we were from totally different cultures.

“We both only had our old grandmothers to love us. We both were taken from our families and locked up. Me in the orphanage, him in children’s homes. We both tried escaping and kept getting caught. We were hungry all the time because our families were poor. We both stole food. We were both alone with no one to protect us. And both of us had nobody to love us until you came along.

“It doesn’t matter that I’m Korean and he’s mixed white and black. We understand each other, and it’s such a relief to be able to talk to him like a twin brother I can tell anything without worrying he’ll judge me or think I’m weird or crazy. Even though I’m bipolar and he’s not, he understands what it’s like to have that big weight on you.

“It’s only recently I’ve forgiven my birth mother for leaving me and begun to think about what losing her children might have been like for her. John Lee has been better at forgiving his mother than I have, but then he’s older and he’s had more time.

“He’s certainly given me a new understanding that family is a very fragile thing and we’re really lucky to have it. I owe him a lot and when he gets out of prison he’ll have a sister to help him get used to the world.”

How John Lee Became a Brother to My Daughters

John and Katy

John Lee and Katy

I have three daughters: an Australian blood daughter who lives in Florida, and two adopted Korean daughters who live in Chapel Hill. They are all grown now, but the two Koreans are the youngest.

When John Lee came into my life, my younger Korean daughter Katy was antagonistic because she couldn’t understand why I would take up with someone who did something so hateful as to shoot two people, which John Lee must have done because he was on Death Row.

But after a month or so, when I had talked more about his case, and how he had been framed for something he didn’t do, she began to take an interest.

“After a while,” she told me later, “I thought, well, everybody says don’t judge a book by its cover. Read a couple of pages first and then decide whether you like it or not. So I decided, okay, fine, I’ll go with Mom and talk with him.

“That’s when I found out John Lee and I are similar. We like the same kind of music. We have the same kind of humor. We both like drawing, we can do it easily. And when he starts explaining something to me I know what he’s talking about. He doesn’t have to explain in depth. I can get it.

“He can say, ‘You know what I mean?’ And I say, ‘Yes, I know what you mean.’ If he says slang words I know what he’s talking about because when I was in Maryland at high school I had black friends so I learned slang words.

“When I got to know him more, I found that I could talk to him about anything wanted. I had that sort of brotherly connection. Even though he wasn’t a physical brother outside the prison, I could talk to him and write to him about any problem I had.

“He never judges me, but he wants me to learn, to always do better for myself. I say, ‘I can do this,’ and he says, ‘You can also do that.’ “He always wants me to make goals for myself and accomplish them because he knows I can do it and wants me to know that too. He always gives me good advice about stuff and I can count on him to do that.

“I’m not a very patient person, I know that. He said I had to learn to be patient, and I know that too. And I’ve learned to be a lot more patient because of him. He’s made me look at myself, how I am as a person.

“He’s always telling me slow down, take a step back and reflect on what you’ve done, what you’ve said. Don’t always be so on the go with things because that can be a bad thing. You need to just relax, be calm––he’s always about being calm––and look at the things you’ve accomplished. He helped build my confidence.”

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.

An Offering of Thanks

Christmas 2013 Pender Correctional Institution Burgaw, NC

Christmas 2013
Pender Correctional Institution
Burgaw, NC

Today I am offering up thanks for my family and all my friends, in the flesh and in cyberspace, who are supporting me in this arduous journey toward justice with John Lee.

For your donations, thank you. For your constancy, thank you. For your understanding when I am exhausted from the long weekly drive back and forth to Burgaw, NC, where John Lee is now, thank you so very much.

Despite whatever concerns my friends may have had––and for all I know may still have privately––when I first began to visit John Lee at Central Prison, it did not take them long to come around. When they came to understand that I was serious and that John was not a menace to society, or me, or even to himself, they stood beside me.

Many of my friends are poets, so there’s something to be said for poetry! I will not tell their stories, they are not mine to tell, but one by one they came to visit or began to write, or rooted from the sidelines.

Every single person I have taken to see John has come out of the prison with a desire to help him in some way, and a gratifying number have become part of what he calls his supporting cast. And whatever any of these folks may have told John in letters or in visits, whatever secrets they have shared, not once has he breached confidence to me, not once.

John Lee says to tell you this:

“I do not think about myself no more now. I think about all of those who have shown me that they care. Getting my freedom is so important to so many others that I want to do something for them to show they have been helping a worthwhile man.

I am proud of myself because I have not allowed prison to shape me like most other cats have allowed it to do to them. I have done the best I can or could in this situation. Still, I hope to do a lot better with myself when I am free of this hell-hole, and able to better myself with the help of all my friends and loved ones.”

A Letter from Safekeeping – Part 2

John Lee, 12 years old

John Lee, 12 years old

You know, Joanna, a lot of my past is what motivates me to become successful in life one day. My past makes me hunger for lots of knowledge and deeper wisdom so I can one day go back to all of those in my past and teach and speak to them about what they helped me do in life.

I thought about you and the family on Thanksgiving Day, but it was not hard on me. Every year I think about you and the family, but I think that Christmas is the hardest for me.

I have never been a part of a family for Christmas, and have never had a Christmas gift except the bike my grandmother bought for me in 1980. (That bike got stolen after just one week!)

I ran away from home every Christmas. I think the only Christmas I didn’t run away was when I was with my grandmother. I even slept under the house one Christmas while it was snowing outside.

My life was a hard one all because of my white blood and light skin as a child. But it have made me a stronger person and a better human being. Lots of mix-blooded children went through this.

I can’t wait to meet Joe! Just knowing that your husband supports me means a lot to me! All my life I have been without strong support, and I have always known that I was and still am a very good person, and to have this chance means a lot to me.

Tell Joe I love him! (I don’t care if men don’t suppose to say this to other men.) I love him for caring!

I can’t wait to get away from this place, and live in a clean place that smells good. You know it will all be new to me, right? Having my own place and car and bills to pay.

I have never had these kind of responsibilities before, and I look forward to it, smile! I understand a lot more about the world than I did years ago, and the more I educate myself about the world, the more responsibilities I will be able to take on, right?

Prison is a very dangerous place. Every day I wake up and step out of this cell I must keep my eyes open and my ears open for the first sign of trouble. I need to be able to relax for once in my life, mentally, physically, and emotionally.


Joanna, I do not think about myself no more now. I think about you, Andy, Katy, Ashley, Lil-man, Joe, and all of those who have shown me that they care, and getting my freedom is so important to so many others.


I am just glad that I have a chance to get away from here!

A Letter from Safekeeping

John and JoannaWhen John Lee’s sentence was overturned, the court stipulated “Retry or release within 120 days.” He was then moved off Death Row to the Safekeeping section of the prison. Sixteen months later, he wrote this to Joanna:

I do not know what is going on throughout the universe, but I have been walking around this hell-hole with a very funny feeling, and I do not like it.

It is like I am not sure of anything any more, like waking up for the very first time in a long time, and seeing everything around me for the very first time in years. I am afraid!!

One cat here on the block with me, about two cells down from mine, have hanged himself. They cut his body down this morning.  Can you believe this? Why would someone hang themself?

I have been here too long, I need to get away from here. I talk with this cat every day and he goes and hangs himself! Just shows you never know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. The cat did not have a big charge or anything, and had a chance to go home again. So sad.

A lot of these new cats here on Safekeeping who have never been locked up before and never saw a person hang himself is messed up by this deeply, mentally and emotionally.

Joanna, I am doing all I can to keep this cat off my mind. I can’t believe I was just talking to him the other day, and after my visit with you he asked, “How was your visit?”

I said, “It was a very good one.”

He said, “That’s good.”

Now he is dead.

When I am free, I want to go to the woods and just sit down and hold your hand for hours, OK?

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.”