One day, I decided to write to someone on death row, USA. This wasn’t like one of my usual reckless fripperies (which tend to be more along the lines of ‘shall I risk putting green underpants into a whites wash?’ or ‘if I grate some vegetables into my daughter’s pasta sauce, will she notice?’)
No. This was something that had been brewing in my mind for several years.
It all began when I was 15 years old and I watched a certain documentary called ’14 Days in May.’ A very powerful film that shows the last 2 weeks in the life of a young man who was executed in Mississippi’s gas chamber in 1987.
You can still watch it – here
The film centred around the last days of Edward Earl Johnson and his (then) very young lawyer – a now rather well known chappie who goes by the name of Clive Stafford Smith.
That documentary left a bitter taste in my mouth. Something was wrong here. Something was very, very disturbing about the way that we were operating in our so-called ‘civilised society.’
Unlike the marvellous Jan Arriens – who immediately began to write to inmates on death row and who very soon afterwards set up the letter-writing organisation ‘Lifelines’ however – I didn’t embark on a call to action (hell – I cared, of course I did, but back then I was rather more worried about ‘will I ever get a boyfriend? Oh woe is me!’)
Thankfully, Jan is the forgiving type and it wasn’t until 2000 that the notion of writing to someone on death row actually took root. I’m an avid letter writer. I still prefer the old fountain pen and Basildon Bond in comparison to email. So after some long, hard contemplations (the issues of ‘do I care what kind of crime the person I write to might have committed? Will they think that I’m a nutter British woman who wants to have some kind of romance with them? What if they escape, track me down and fry my liver with onions?‘) I applied to Lifelines.
Thankfully Jan and Co had trodden these very paths before me. They gave me sound advice and urged me to think long and hard about my true motivations for writing. In the end, they allowed me on board and I joined Lifelines. And then I ‘met’ Anthony.
And I did meet Anthony. We wrote for many years and I flew out to Texas to visit with him. This isn’t the forum though, for me to prattle on about the friendship that we struck up, how dear he became to all of my family….how I never expected to get so much love and support back from some random bloke who was shoved in a cage for 23 hours a day.
This point in time is where I remember him and why I don’t get letters from him any longer. Where I remember how sick the system is. How even the innocent note to my little girl was twisted and used in order to murder him. My daughter had asked me to tell Anthony that she would like to learn to fish as he used to when he was free – and would he show her one day? Anthony wrote back – joking as always – and said ‘Sure – but I’ll have to use Ms XXXXX as bait!’ A certain female prosectutor was hiking up Anthony’s dates for execution. But without us knowing – our correspondence was being monitored.
So the little comedy moment between Ant and a tiny snip of a girl in the UK ended up as ‘evidence’ in court that Anthony had threatened to take the life of the prosecutor.
Which ultimately led to an even faster execution date for him, even though Clive Stafford Smith’s crew at ‘Reprieve’ did all that they could to help the bizarre miscarriage of ‘justice’ which Anthony had become embroiled in.
Dangerous to get involved in the lives of people who have nothing.
Dangerous to joke about how sick the so-called judicial system is in the USA. Dangerous to laugh and to reach out to others, maybe…
But still, Anthony told me that he would never have had it any other way.
In memory of you dear pal….and of your own poor, family who never deserved the shame and the grief inevitably involved.
And with a big hats off to all who go out of their way to give something to someone else who has nothing left to live for. Even if it is only the odd, kind word.