My beloved doesn’t bring me flowers or breakfast in bed but this week he proffers one of the most meaningful gifts I’ve received from him during the twenty plus years for which our souls have been entwined. Based on my writing here and a National Geographic Documentary about death row inmates in Texas, he is reevaluating his position on capital punishment.
"Explorer: 'Inside Death Row'." This unflinching and graphic film chronicles the final days of three condemned inmates. One of the condemned, Willie Pondexter, participated in a home invasion robbery with three others when he was nineteen. The 85 year old victim was shot by another but Pondexter, pressured by the first shooter, fired another shot after she was already dead. No pathology reports were presented at his trial. Pondexter committed a horrible crime indeed, but under Texas law, the death penalty cannot be imposed if the accused did not actually commit or cause a murder. Pondexter devoted the fourteen years he spent on death row to becoming a better person. He expressed deep remorse for his crime and was considered a model prisoner. Many prisoners claim the same but David Dow, Pondexter’s attorney and director of the Texas Innocence Project found Pondexter extraordinary and stated that while he had known many death row inmates, Willie Pondexter was a man he would trust with absolute confidence to babysit his children.
The Innocence Project has a particularly uphill battle in Texas. Two Harvard law students working on Pondexter’s behalf attempted to interview a corrections officer with regard to his appeal and were ticketed and threatened with incarceration for trespassing. Pondexter formed a relationship with a British penpal and both stated that in their hearts they felt married. It seemed inevitable, that while Pondexter’s crime was reprehensible, the lack of pathology reports at his trial and the clarity of the Texas law with regard to the death penalty, that there would be a stay of execution. Pondexter’s wife stood outside the prison with a small group of death penalty protesters and received the news that the stay had been denied. In the next frame, Willie Pondexter lays dead on a gurney while his wife holds and kisses him. It was the first time and last time they were to touch.
In honor of my beloved’s fresh open mindedness, here is my thank-you card in the form of a list of former death row inmates who have been exonerated based on DNA evidence. There are about 90 other men whose death penalties have been overturned since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 for reasons other than DNA evidence and when Himself concludes finally that there is no place for the death penalty in a civilized society I will print here the entire list.
Kirk Bloodworth, MD, Exonerated 1993, Served 9 years .
Rolando Cruz, IL, Exonerated 1985, Served 10 years.
Alejandro Hernandez, IL, Exonerated 1995, Served 10 years.
Verneal Jimerson, IL. Exonerated 1996, Served 11 years.
Dennis Williams, IL, Exonerated 1996, Served 17 years.
Robert Lee Miller, Jr.OK, Exonerated 1998, Served 10 years
Ronald Williamson, OK, Exonerated 1999, Served 11 years.
Ronald Jones, IL, Exonerated 1999, Served 10 years.
Earl Washington VA, Exonerated 2000, Served 16 years.
Frank Lee Smith. FL, Exonerated 2000, Served 14 years. Died prior in prison prior to sentence reversal.
Charles Fain, ID, Exonerated 2001, Served 19 years.
Ray Krone, AZ, Exonerated 2002, Served 10 years.
Nicholas Yarris, PA, Exonerated 2003, Served 21 years.
Ryan Matthews, LA, Exonerated 2004, Served 5 years.
Curtis McCarty, OK, Exonerated 2007, Served 21 years.
Kennedy Brewer, MS, Exonerated 2008, Served 13 years.
Michael Blair, TX, Exonerated 2008, Served 14 years.
Himself notes in his blog entry this past week, "Jarvis Masters: Justice Denied," that my recent death penalty research walloped me emotionally and he asked me a number of times to turn off the Nat Geo documentary and I refused, noting how much even more fucked up the world would be if everyone refused to confront things that are disturbing.
This brings me to Mary Beth Sorensen, one of my heroes. MB is on her third trip to Mfuleni Township in Capetown, where she and daughter Elizabeth are working on the creation of a nursery school (crèche). I am sharing some of her pictures and these words, “Life has been busy in the township finishing up at the crèche and purchasing much needed supplies. We made home visits as part of a nutrition project in one of the larger neighboring townships which was a sobering experience. We visited mothers of infants and toddlers that are not thriving and living in the shacks, under quite dire circumstances. Most had no food at all on the shelves. There was no running water or heat and it was quite damp inside due to the recent rains. I could see holes in the tin roofs that dripped water onto the bed and floor. I did not take any pictures...Toys were delivered to the creche and we had a 'ribbon cutting' ceremony.There was joyous singing and dancing by everyone along with tears of pure joy…”
I continue to read everything I can get my hands on about the correctional system and the death penalty. I receive thick letters from my inmate penpals almost daily and things have gone from bad to worse for them given the budget crisis. Guards are subject now to furloughs and reduced overtime. Yard coverage is often impossible and lockdowns of 23 hours per day locked in cells with no mail, one hour of exercise and two showers a week become more and more common. Because most inmate trust accounts are subject to a 55% garnish for restitution and also $5.00 to $10.00 charges for each visit for medical or dental care, it is difficult for many to acquire basic hygiene items such as deodorant or shampoo from the commissary. Prisoners are issued for hygiene, a bar of soap, a tooth brush and a tin of tooth powder. Period. We have tried to send some books to relieve the tedium but the rules are enforced without consistency, and sometimes simply made up on the spot, so this has been hit or miss and very stressful. One batch of Jewish history books we sent was actually destroyed when a guard claimed a new rule prohibiting the receipt of used books. Subsequent batches of used books to the same inmate have been received by him but we never know if what we send is destined to be read or shred.
I like my inmates. I hold their letters for a bit before I open them and pray that there is nothing too sad despite my tacit contract with each to share with them the weight of their sadness. The warden of an Australian in a documentary said that a prison sentence is a punishment; living in prison should not be one. It is heavy for me to think that three men I like, who are kind to me and care about me and my family and send us anniversary and birthday cards and jokes and articles have lived for decades in such grim and punishing conditions. It is a miracle that humanity can flourish in such abundance in such a brutal environment and my family is blessed to witness this.
The first session of the letter writing workshop I am teaching goes well. Each kid gets a letter from a real adult writer. For most it is the first letter they’ve ever received and they are astounded that someone has taken the time to create something interesting and funny and personal just for them. The kids are all ten and I am worried that they will be unable to complete a letter before it is time to walk to the mailbox but they all carefully answer all of the questions their penpals have posed and then counter with some of their own. “How old are you?” is the most common one and I’m sure that will go over real well. I sucker Himself into participation and while all the other writers send word processed letters, his is green ink fountain-penned in his elegant script on good paper. All of the kids write their return letters in blocky printing, but Brian, Himself’s penpal, painstakingly answers in excruciatingly careful cursive. Spuds (enrollee by force) sees my quivering lower lip, a precursor to a full blown blubber and flashes me the ”I swear I’ll harm you if you cry,” look. It’s weird enough being the teacher’s kid and having your dad write a letter in green ink to a ten year old that describes his teaching of Social Issues in Technology. I pull myself together and we head to the mailbox. Each kid puts his letter in the slot and then opens it again to make extra sure that it has gone in the box.
My friend Patty, of the blog that I link to, "Eating L.A.", has a great op ed piece in the L.A. Times "My Son, the Marine" about her son Sam’s enlistment in the Marines. Given where we live and who we are, to be proud of this is to risk censure. I wish that the Peace Corps had as large an enrollment as the Marine Corp. but as liberal as my heart bleeds, it would be ludicrous not to support maintaining a strong U.S. military. I question though the soundness of a military that is mainly comprised of men and women who join up merely because no other options exist. My friend’s daughter Jessie has known since elementary school that she wanted to be a soldier. She enlisted right after high school. In the wonderful HBO documentary "Recruiter," which I wrote about here several months ago, one of the kids clearly has the aptitude for the military, and he like Jessie, took to bootcamp like a duck to water. They are both the kind of soldiers we need and should be proud of. I wish Sam and Patty well and in this new age of Obama I hope more kids with his intelligence are encouraged to act on their patriotism. Perhaps we’ll be able to provide better options for kids who would enlist simply for food and roof. Maybe diplomacy will pay off and future recruiters will be able to focus more on quality than quantity.
Former LAPD Detective Stephanie Lazarus pled not guilty for the murder of Sherri Rasmussen in 1986. I am surprised by this plea. It seems, that with the DNA evidence and proof that she’d harassed Sherri and the report she made several days after the murder that her service revolver had been stolen, slam dunk that she will be found guilty. I imagine that she would inspire more compassion and leniency if she came clean and expressed remorse immediately. She is accused now of murder with special circumstances which makes her eligible to join the twelve other women on California’s death row. Daryl Gates, police chief at the time of the murder deflected speculation that there was a cover up on the part of the LAPD and said that they simply never suspected a female would be capable of such a particularly brutal murder. There will be a hearing on July 21 regarding a motion to obtain Lazarus’ dental impressions.
My dear friend Jayne was a close friend and roommate of Sherri Rasmussen. I cannot imagine what it is like to lose a close friend in a heinous murder and then to have the loss made fresh again two decades later. She is unable to say the name Stephanie Lazarus and when discussing the case, she lowers her eyes and whispers, “that person.” She has lunch with Sherri’s sister and returns home later in the day to find her house crammed with well wishers attending a surprise 60th birthday party for her, planned by husband Michael and daughter Mollie. It is always good form to tell the guest of honor at these milestone birthday bashes, “My God, you don’t look_____!” but in Jayne’s case, it is not a white lie. All of us bootcamp girls are jealous that she looks so amazingly young and fit. Jayne is unflappable in that reason that I worship nurses way. I know that the reopening of the Sherri Rasmussen wound has been very hard for her but she maintains the composure of one whose life is lived to keep others composed. When she returns home and finds it crammed with people whose lives are better for knowing her, I see a different face of Jayne, as composure gives way to radiant tearful joy. This is the Jayne who I will always see now in my mind’s eye. It is lovely to see her showered with love. So many lives, including mine, are made richer by her open heart.
Drean Hanley, the one woman welcoming committee for the tiny Temple Beth Israel that we love, passed away at age 59. a few days after an accident involving a drunk driver. She was active in collecting food for SOVA, the Jewish food panty and other humanitarian projects. This is not only a staggering loss to her friends and family but also to the little temple to which she was tremendously devoted. My friend Diana is marooned in Massachusetts, waiting, as her father, admitted recently to hospice, drifts in and out of consciousness.
Smack in the middle of the summer and it’s death row. Death vigils. Senseless Deaths. Death cruel and death merciful in a world full of things far too terrible and things far too sweet for mere words. MB visits the leaky shacks of malnourished children. She is unable to take photographs but also unable to look the other way. My friend Patty rises to the challenge of averring her pride in a son who chooses a less travelled, surprising, terrifying and righteous path. My prisoner friends are warehoused where we cannot see them, to rot and die and grow more and more forgotten but this does not crush them and their thick heartfelt letters challenge my complacency but also comfort me more than the writers will ever know. Jayne is able to forget for a bit the new news about old horrors and drink in the love she’s nurtured since this loss. My kids at the literacy center come from neighborhoods where kids are more likely to go to prison than to college but their parents intuit that learning to express themselves in words may prevent them from turning to impulsive action. My friend Diana longs to return home but knows that when she does that she will be fatherless. My beloved, who has made two lives by simply loving me, has opened his heart. Rilke wrote "The Archaic Torso of Apollo" about the shattered headless statue of the God of the sun and truth and prophecy and music and poetry and healing, that despite its ravages still shines miraculously bright. “…For here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.” Shabbat Shalom.