The first time I saw a sheet-draped corpse pushed into the back of a quiet ambulance it might have been fifty yards from my cell window. The image was clear beneath the prison’s lights. A few dozen prisoners whose cells faced the access road behind the prison witnessed this post-execution spectacle, though I still felt entirely alone.
“We’re not supposed to see this,” I tried, lying to myself even as it was obvious this was a message that couldn’t be ignored. WE ARE COMING. YOU WILL BE KILLED. Two prison officials chatted with an EMT, smoking cigarettes, possibly telling jokes. They shook hands then the EMT got into the ambulance and drove away.
The next time this scene played out I imagined being under the sheet, my veins coagulating with blood and lethal chemicals. My heart still for the first time in its beating existence. I thought about the conversation between the EMT and prison staff, wondering if they discussed sports or car repairs or some other mundane topic – anything to avoid acknowledging the dead. Or, maybe they were angry and didn’t want to be involved. This made me snort. Of course they wanted to be involved, it was evident in their grins and nonchalance.
My Christian beliefs say the soul passes from the body at the moment of death, to go before God and await judgement, but it’s hard not to let Tales from the Crypt enter my thoughts . . .
Maybe I’m not dead at all when the EMT wheels me in to see the medical examiner. Some drug like pancuronium bromide was administered during the execution and, rather than flop and jerk for an hour from the fire that is a dose of sodium chloride, I’m merely paralyzed. Unable to show pain or terror, trapped in an unmoving body but able to feel everything. Then the M.E. begins the autopsy . . . cutting, removing and weighing bits that used to be me.
What if, instead of a dozen select witnesses, they televise the execution on the evening news to demonstrate the State’s indomitable might and control over its citizens? They could do so to deter future crimes since 2:00am executions behind closed doors don’t work. There are cable TV programs that show open-heart surgeries, why not medicalized state-sanctioned homicides?
These and other thoughts have stayed with me over the years and are impossible to displace. I’m well aware the public isn’t willing to witness their twisted sense of eye-for-an-eye justice any more than their squeamishness allows for phrases like “destroying unwanted animals in gas chambers,” “the large scale eradication of human populations,” or “suicide by cop.” Anything to make the truth more palatable.
Even though there haven’t been any executions in North Carolina since 2006 because of various legal challenges to the punishment’s constitutionality, it’s extremely hard not to hold a grudge against the criminal justice system. This is particularly true for the innocent, but also for those who have waited over 20 years to be put to death or given relief through the courts. A life and death sentence was never mentioned during any phase of my trial yet that is exactly what I and others are serving.
However righteous such anger may seem it cannot be balanced against the pain and anguish of the victim’s families. They have suffered and continue to do so, and we must remember this whether innocent or guilty of murder. Their loss cannot be ameliorated by punishment alone – an honest attempt should be made to help repair the damage caused by our actions and the actions of others. Accountability in all things leads to the right way.
As someone who tries to prepare for every possible future I realize how difficult it will be to shift your frame of mind after decades of hopelessness. I know how hard it will be to get over being told to prepare for death every day you put on that red jumpsuit, but you must. The fact is most of us will not be executed. We face life in prison or some other sentence. You know the statistics. 71-74% of NC death row inmates have had their sentence overturned.
It’s pretty unlikely you’ll hear this speech from a Central Prison case worker so curb your cynicism for a moment and listen. Maintaining an optimistic, goal-oriented attitude in the depths of this punitive world is challenging, but it can be done. On death row you can rail at the injustice of capital punishment and do nothing more than assume the role of a victim. You can do the same thing with a life sentence and spend the rest of your days bitter and empty.
There are alternatives, and they all have to do with your quality of life. You can continue the cause of justice for our brethren still on death row in NC and other states, finding a way to effectively campaign for them. Or, if you don’t want to carry that cross there is enough injustice within the criminal justice system that the mind and pen should never be idle. So long as we live and breathe our eyes must recognize the potential of every environment, granting our lives purpose.
Look around you. I know prison is not where any of us want to be, but for the time being it’s all we have. You’ve got nothing to lose by investing your time in worthwhile endeavors and everything to gain. In leaving death row you are charged with a responsibility no other graduating class has ever fathomed. Your time here is a tool of change, use it to educate others about the system and your own poor choices. You can’t pretend this didn’t happen – that you were never on death row. It should motivate you every single day so that when you meet a young guy on the yard with only a few years there is a chance to save him from your experiences.
Whatever the length of time we spend in prison, it’s essential to remember life may involve suffering and regret, but it need not end there. Now is the time to define how you will live. Plan for the future and educate yourself and others at every opportunity so in ten years you can look back and see that your life has meaning. If you and I are to move on from this crucible and meet the next as evolved human beings and better men we must have the courage to live every day as if it is our last.