In a previous assignment we made polls and asked our fellow bloggers what they’d like us to write about in the future. My votes were all in favor of grief. The other option that I had listed was hate. The reason for these grim options is simple: they bring out the best and the worst in us.
The current assignment is to rewrite or reflect on something of which you had to let go. I am combining them. As you know, I am a human rights defender. To preserve privacy, names and dates have been changed. The rest is correct. This is a rewrite on which I reflected this morning. But letting go?
In 1988, John James was sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer. I do not wish to expand on the trial or on the issue of guilt. I want to explain what his execution meant to me personally. Obviously, we lost the clemency appeal and that was devastating enough. But it taught me something else as well.
When I started to defend human rights, I wanted to test my own principles of opposing capital punishment. I needed to know whether I was able to treat death row prisoners as human beings who have inalienable rights. After all, it is easy to point a finger at the authorities if you never have to be personally involved yourself.
The weekend before the scheduled execution I had tried to call him but the prison administration would not let me talk to John. I could only call after he had been transported to the final holding cell. When phone calls were finally allowed, we were on the phone until the last hour.
Nothing can prepare you for talking to a man who is about to be executed. Would he be depressed, angry, or outraged? Would he be full of hatred? And in the back of my mind played a tape: do I really want to do this? How big is the chance that I will regret this? If he starts a rant can I bear it? What if he accuses us of not having done enough?
After passing the prison’s telephone desks and the security guards near the holding cell, John picked up the telephone. He sounded uplifted, positive. We talked about the latest appeals, the issues his attorneys were presenting, that the last-minute change of attorneys did not bring any luck, and what Amnesty International was doing to help. John asked me to thank everyone. He wanted everyone to know that it meant a lot to him. The fact that strangers were fighting for his life meant that he was still seen as a human being. And that was the best he could ask for.
His brother Jack James and his father Jason James came to visit. The prison did not allow them to visit John together so they had to take turns. These visits are non-contact visits. John told me that he was sitting in a cage separated from his dad by a shield and wire. It is hard for me to express how inhuman and degrading this is. The authorities did not allow a parent a final goodbye, one last hug. I see no reason there cannot be compassion for death row prisoners’ family members. Why are they punished too and why are they treated so cruelly? One last visit as a family. I know, the victim never got that chance however, punishing John’s family was equally unjust.
To make sure that John could receive as many calls as possible I’d hang up every 15 min and wait a little. Then I’d call back. I called once when Jack was visiting. John wanted to pass the phone to Jack but the guards did not allow it. Jack and I screamed “Hello’s!” through the receiver that John held up against the shield and wire.
Knowing exactly at what time John would be executed made that night the longest of my life. With every telephone call, I would be counting down the hours. I knew I could not stop the execution. About the clemency campaign John said: “All the faxing is good and letters of support but I believe praying and standing in faith is what It’s all about… so let’s plan on a visit this October and as you mentioned we can have a cardboard pizza, ha-ha.” I had told John that I was not too fond of the food in the prison vending machines.
The last time that I spoke to John was shortly before his execution. I asked how he was holding up. He said that he was blessed because God was in his life. He told me not to worry and to have faith. I was worried anyway. He laughed and said “that’s the lawyer in you, the devil, you need to get rid of it!”
He promised to call when he had a stay, told me to keep faith, get some sleep (I was in Switzerland), and that he would call me in the morning. “I am going to get a stay. Are you in this with me? I’ll call you on Wednesday, you’ll see, I’ll be around on Wednesday.” That night, John James was executed at 1205am.
Life is one continuous stream of opportunities to learn and experience. Some people will surprise you and some will disappoint. Some show strength and courage in the most hopeless moments lifting you up instead of the other way round.
To John, still being considered a human being was all that mattered. And if you treated him in a humane way you were his friend and friends take care of each other. There was no hatred in his voice but plenty of grief for everything his brother and dad were going through. A few days later this arrived in the mail. In his last moments, he took care of me.
John’s execution taught me that I can treat prisoners as human beings with inalienable rights without condoning or forgetting the crime committed.
I understand that some of you will keep pointing out that a police officer was killed. And you are right, the officer should never be forgotten.
However, there was more than one victim that night.
The James family became ostracized and fractured. They were denied to grief openly as the lost one was a condemned man. The fact that to the family John remained a son and brother, was conveniently forgotten. The hatred that the community felt for John was extended to his family and friends. Guilty by association.
Hatred and grief, they bring out the best and worst in us.