Tag Archives: John Lee Conaway

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.”

“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.

Your Donation Will Help John Lee Achieve His Dream

John Lee, 12 years old

John Lee, 12 years old

“You know,” John Lee said to me one day, “when I was a child I used to steal out of stores because my blood family was so poor. A lot of times there was no food to eat and my little sister and brothers would be crying to me. My little brother Clarence got so hungry he ate the paint off the wall and got lead poisoning.

“When I got older I didn’t do that stealing any more. I’d walk in stores and wouldn’t steal. Not even broke as hell.

“My Aunt Ree, she had a bunch of children, but when she had to take her rent money and her bills money to the place Western Union, sometimes she would ask me to do it over her own children! She didn’t trust any of them with her rent money, only me.

“The guys on Death Row used to trust me too. They would give me their money––this was back when Death Row had cash money––and I would take their orders and go get canteen for them. I never had a problem. No one ever challenged me. I always gave right change.sc0038927a

“Maybe this is why, when I got off death row and they put me in the population, the warden asked me to run a canteen.” He shrugged. “Or maybe he thought I’d mess up, I don’t know.”

John Lee did not mess up. He agreed to take the job on condition he could run the canteen as he saw fit. He was assigned to the most difficult canteen in the prison, the one that serves the Safekeeping and Diagnostics population.

Here, in a store he kept assiduously spic and span, he refused to engage in hustling, for which canteen men are routinely fired, developed a relationship of trust with the staff, and skillfully managed a very difficult group of inmate customers, especially the young ones, who are the most dangerous and constantly on the alert for weaknesses in others of which to take advantage.

He did so well, achieving the first zero deficit at canteen stocktaking in the history of Central Prison, that he was taken up before the warden for congratulation.

I tell you all this because John Lee dreams of starting his own business when he gets out of prison. He is currently at Pender Correctional, a medium custody prison in Burgaw, NC, but has applied to take a plumbing course at another prison so he will have a skill when he gets out.

If he is accepted to the course he will move north to Pamlico Correctional, east of New Bern. Classes start on May 19, and he will not know if he has been accepted until he’s called to get on the bus.

We are all waiting with bated breath, hoping he gets this opportunity. As he said to me, “If I can manage a big canteen at a close custody prison, I can start my own business and make it a success when I am free.”

How John Lee Became a Brother to My Daughters – Part 3

Andy and L'il Man

Andy and L’il Man

In my early days of knowing John Lee, before anyone else in the family met him, his situation on Death Row was hard for me to deal with.

One day, in need of somebody to talk to, I called my daughter Andrea in Sarasota. I had not mentioned John Lee to her so far, but when I heard her voice, “What’s up?” I talked for almost half an hour non-stop.

When I drew breath, she said, “I’ll write to him.” Just like that.

A week later, a breathless letter fell into our mailbox: “Your blood daughter Andy wrote me!”

She came all the way from Florida to visit, brought her little boy Lachlan along. Andy and John Lee clicked instantly. So did John Lee and Lachlan.

John Lee called him “Lil Man.” He made quacking sounds like Donald Duck and entertained him with pictures torn from magazines. L’il Man was the first child to come into his life for sixteen years, and the two of them were delighted with each other.

“I am really glad your blood daughter Andy liked me!” John Lee wrote. “ And I am glad that she is going to keep on writing me, and hopefully she will come to find me someone special too. I know I will like her a lot . . .”

All this may seem extraordinary on Andy’s part, but it is true. She took John Lee into her heart as simply as she had taken in three broken little Korean orphans, helping me to raise them like a second mother

“But,” she told me later, “life moved on. I moved away, went to college, got married, had a son. I couldn’t be there for them as much as when I lived at home. So when John came along and the girls related so strongly to him, I was grateful.

“He and I are very similar people, nurturers. He has that patience, that understanding. It was as though he had taken over my role. Selfish, I know, but ironically also a perfect fit, and I did not feel so bad about not being able to spend the time and emotional giving I had been able to before.”

“But,” I asked her, “you didn’t know he’d be this sort of person. He was just a man in prison, a stranger who could have been dangerous.”

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.”