Molding A Case To Fit A Death Sentence

It happens. All lawyers aren’t motivated by what the public likes to believe they are – justice. There are a good number who are motivated by money. For others, their motivation may be career advancement. Some are motivated by fear of losing their position.

There are all sorts of reasons why some lawyers have no interest in revealing the truth so justice can be served. Unfortunately, in the world of our justice system, things are rarely what they seem, and if an advantage can be gained by twisting the truth, or making it up altogether – truth be damned. If truth isn’t a factor, lots of things can be done to make the pieces fit.

For someone facing the death penalty – this flaw in our system takes on an entirely new meaning. It becomes ‘life or death’ if a defendant is appointed an attorney without the proper experience or determination required for their case. Combine that with being prosecuted by someone who is not motivated by seeking the truth, but rather by winning a conviction. It’s the perfect recipe for a case to be molded to fit the desired outcome.

Did that happen in the case of Ralph Trent Stokes? And, if it did, isn’t his story the only story we need to abolish the death penalty? If there are questions or doubts, to any degree, in any single case of a person sentenced to death – isn’t that enough argument to not reserve death as a means of punishment?

In July of 1983 Ralph Trent Stokes was sentenced to death for the murders of Mary Louise Figueroa, Eugene Jefferson, and Peter Santangelo, a crime that took place in Smokin’ Joe’s Corner in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Roger King was the prosecutor. He had a reputation, experience, and actually held the record for most death sentences achieved in the state of Pennsylvania when he retired. I suppose we’ll never know Mr. King’s motivation, but his results speak for themselves. He wasn’t just known for death penalty sentences, he also had charges of misconduct against him in death penalty cases. One would hope that when sentences involve death, a prosecutor would pursue that course going by the book. One would hope that death penalty cases wouldn’t be thought of as notches in one’s belt. One would hope. That’s simply not always the case. A law degree is not a badge of honor. A law degree does not guarantee the one who earned it has any interest in justice.

Malcolm H. Waldron, Ralph Stokes’s defense attorney, came late to the case, after Ralph’s first lawyer was permitted to withdraw. Waldron was appointed on April 19, only three months before the conviction. He had three months to prepare for a trial involving murder and the death penalty. From Ralph Stokes’ account, his attorney lacked the experience and the conviction needed to make the case evenly heard. That’s just the way our system works. It simply isn’t a reality that the guilty get convicted and the innocent walk. It has a lot more to do with how determined, or not determined, your lawyer is. That is reality. Ralph’s defense attorney did not even use an investigator in his effort to put together a legal defense.

In a petition filed by Ralph Stokes it says that during the trial the prosecutor made a lot out of sneaker prints left in barbecue sauce at the scene of the murders that night. There were items taken as evidence from Ralph’s home, including a pair of sneakers. It was argued and implied in court that there were stains on the items that were a combination of blood and barbecue sauce. In reality, and left out of the trial, was the fact that the prosecutor was in possession of lab reports that revealed no blood or barbecue sauce was found on the sneakers or any of the items. So, the prosecutor not only linked Ralph to the scene through those sneakers, but he was also aware while he was doing it that there was no scientific link between Ralph’s sneakers and the crime scene.

So, the jury was led to believe there was physical evidence placing Ralph at the location of the crime – that didn’t exist.
Apparently, in 2004, when attorneys for Ralph were trying to locate the homicide file from the police department, it was ‘missing’. I am unaware if it has ever been found, but, again, this is an issue that involves taking the life of Ralph Trent Stokes as a form of punishment, so I would think every stone should be turned, every bit of information at hand. This isn’t a tea party. There shouldn’t be time limits on new evidence, nor should there be missing evidence. The prosecutor, King, was also linked to other cases where homicide files went ‘missing’.   Isn’t that, in itself, a red flag?

Donald Jackson, one of the witnesses against Ralph, was supposed to have been his partner in the crime. Let’s face it – it was in Donald’s best interests to say whatever he had to say to save his own neck. It has already been determined that the prosecutor wasn’t as interested in the truth as he was a conviction, and Donald had previous crimes he had to deal with.  Donald Jackson was a witness that was motivated by self preservation.

Another witness against Ralph, Eric Burley, was a friend of Donald Jackson’s. He also had charges against him in unrelated crimes at the time of his testimony. For him, he was facing an attempted murder charge in a case where he shot a man. Oddly enough his charges were downgraded to aggravated assault at the same time he was being interviewed by police in Ralph’s charges. Some would argue that a man who can point a gun and shoot someone, isn’t someone who would be adverse to saying whatever he needed to say in order to make his own day in court a little more comfortable.

Leonard Wells, Eric Burley’s brother, was yet another witness. It was in everyone’s best interest to point fingers at Ralph.

Even Renard Mills had a reason to point his finger at Ralph. He was an employee at the restaurant that knew Ralph and testified that he recognized Ralph’s eyes through the ski mask. He was the only eyewitness and his testimony was crucial. But – the prosecutor withheld the fact that Renard was actually being investigated for the crime and was a person of interest. Again, another witness whose best interests were served by Ralph being found guilty.

Ralph has proclaimed his innocence from day one and has never wavered. He is a man sentenced to lose his life for three murders.
He was prosecuted by a man who valued the number of death penalty convictions he could accumulate, a man who has been accused of misconduct in other cases, and a man who was willing to not share some of the truth that he knew at Ralph’s trial in order to better his odds.

Several witnesses who were key components of the case had criminal backgrounds and something to personally gain by pointing to Ralph as the murderer.

The only eyewitness, who claimed to recognize Ralph from the holes in a ski mask, was also under suspicion for the same murders.

In 1983 Ralph Trent Stokes was nineteen years old. He has been in prison for thirty-four years. He has been facing the death penalty for over three decades.  Was the case against Ralph molded to fit the crime, truth be damned?


The author, Rev. Cari Rush Willis, ministers to men on Death Row in Virginia and North Carolina.

Isaiah 53:5: “He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities.” (NIV)

Over the last six months or so, I have become friends with a Franciscan friar, Fr. Steve Patti, O.F.M., who also visits with people on death row. I read an op-ed essay that he had written, and I noticed that he used a lot of the same terminology that I use when I talk about my visits with my friends on the row.  Right away, I wanted to get to know him.  Over these months, he has become a confidant like no other person because he has been there – he gets it – he understands what I have seen, heard, and felt.

During our last visit, I shared the horrific details, insane nuances, and bits of grace when walking with my beloved friend before, during, and after his execution.  I gave him dribs and drabs, not being able to connect any of the dots as I usually do. This time it was a dot here – a dot there – a dot way out yonder.  At the end of it all he said, “It sounds like everyone involved in the execution was wounded.”  I have to say that one of my favorite things about hanging out with him is his uncanny ability to name things.  He identifies things so succinctly, but also profoundly deep, that it lingers on my lips and in my heart.  “Wow. Wounded.  Yes.  I will have to think about that.  I think there is something there.  Wow. Wounded.”

The Scripture that kept coming back to me again and again was the text in Isaiah that foretells of the Messiah: “He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities.”  I had to look up the Hebrew to see what the term “wounded” meant.  I found out that it means “pierced or bore through” as well as “to profane oneself, defile oneself, and pollute oneself.”  What struck me the most about those definitions is that woundedness includes profaning, defiling, and polluting oneself.  I had never heard, and actually never expected, those definitions.

As the state officials and correctional officers were each taking part in my beloved friend’s execution, they were indeed profaning, defiling, and polluting themselves as they slyly looked on at all that was happening. No one was staring at the proceedings. Every one of them was looking down, looking away, and then peeking over to see what was going on with my beloved friend.

Those of us who were watching from the observation room were indeed profaning, defiling, and polluting ourselves. A sign over the two large windows in front of us said “Stay Seated. Stay Silent.”  We were to show no emotion, and we were to sit in our seat and act as well behaved participants in a sweltering room in order to watch this dreadful drama unfold before us.

Even those who were standing outside the prison, whether they were standing in support of the death penalty or were standing against the death penalty, were being profaned, defiled, and polluted. They could not escape the horror of the evening as they waited and waited and waited for some word from anyone as to what was happening inside the prison. Some of them stood in a circle praying for a Holy God to be ever present to everyone who was being caught up in this appalling evening. Some just stood by themselves and stared at the prison in the distance.

And finally, my friend certainly was being defiled and polluted as he was pumped full of drugs that were never meant to kill someone. He was wounded in the worst possible way. As a society, we want to forget how Jesus totally reframed an “eye for an eye” when he said, “Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? No more tit-for-tat stuff.” (Matthew 5:38, 42, The Message Bible)

No one cared to get to know the man that they were killing in this macabre process.  The judges and governor had made up their mind on who he was based upon the media headlines.  No one saw any need to sit with the man that was on that execution table to find out if his life had changed and whether or not he was having a positive influence on those around him.  They defined him by his crime that he committed years ago.  And yet, my beloved friend was not his crime. None of us are defined by our worst acts. My friend was one of the most loving people I had ever met.  He was also my theological partner who opened my eyes to see God’s irrational and unbounded love and mercy towards us all.  He showed me facets of God that I would have never seen without his unique set of eyes.  He loved me with a big love – a really Big Love! He lived his life based upon Jesus’ words to love God and to love one’s enemy as well (Matthew 5:44). It was love that he spoke of at the very end of his life – grateful for the overwhelming love that he had received and telling all of us who were around him that he loved us with an enormous love.

I have thought often of Mary under the cross. I simply cannot understand the weight of her grief. Part of her soul must have died as she watched her beloved son being killed by those bent on hate screaming, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” In seminary, we were taught to “listen” to Scripture both for what is written there, but also what isn’t written. In other words, we were taught to listen to the muteness – the silence – of the text. We never hear a single word from Mary or any of the women who were under the cross with her. There is a voicelessness – a muteness – to grief. How do you put the enormity of that kind of grief, pain, and trauma into words?

And Jesus was mostly silent while he hung from the cross that held him. One of the few words that he spoke was a question that he screamed at the top of his lungs, “Why!?!?!”  The scream happened as the darkness descended on the land.  And yet, when Jesus bellowed out, “Why?!?!” from the cross, he surely looked down and saw Mary, John, and the other women. Their presence reminded him that God had not left him, God was with him.

As I sat there looking on to see a man I greatly loved being killed by the state, I was not only told to be silent by the same system that was killing him, but I also lost any voice because there simply are no words for such a barbaric act.  As I exited the prison and made my way to my clergy friends, family members, and others, all I had were hugs and tears.  All I could do was speak of our beloved friend’s overwhelming love for each of us.  But even those words were quick statements, “He loved you so… he loved you so!”  I didn’t have any great words of comfort.  I just had my presence.

As my beloved friend was brought into the execution chamber, he strained to see those of us who were there to just pour out all of our love on him.  By our presence, he knew that God had not abandoned him during this most difficult hour of his life.  God’s love was present because we were present.  I even took my shoes off because, even if I was the only person who knew it, I knew that I was walking on holy ground even if the state was using the space for evil intent.  Those of us who loved our friend were willing to be wounded by the prison system in order to “be Christ” in the midst of the horrific and the profane.

On the day that I first met my beloved friend almost two years ago, I wrote in my journal the following: “I still don’t understand why people don’t get that we become people who kill when we say the death penalty is okay.  We are all murderers.  We all should get life behind bars.”  Each of us took part in a premeditated murder.  None of us are exempt.  All of us are profaned, defiled, and polluted because we executed another human being.

And just like Christ, I will forever be known by the wounds I carry in my heart.

May God’s mercy be poured out on us all.


The “Row”

Not so long ago, I posted an article written by a Rev. Cari Willis, detailing the day she had to say goodbye to her friend on death row.  Her words changed me.

I didn’t want to think about ‘Death Row’ before that post.  It was distant and removed from my reality, the least of my worries – until she described what it was like for her to accompany her friend on the day of his death and being separated by glass as she watched him lose his life surrounded by men doing their job – killing him.  She made it real.

So – I contacted someone on death row.  One handwritten letter later, I knew I would keep moving forward with my penpal.  And – I’m scared, honestly.  I’m scared, because after one letter I felt his humanity, let him into my heart, and now consider him a friend.  A friend I will have to say goodbye to when his day comes to be surrounded by men whose job it is to take his life.

I didn’t have a solid plan when I wrote that first letter.  I wanted to, in some way, try and share death row through my blog.   I wanted to possibly get to know someone on the ‘row’, as he calls it, sharing that experience – so people would no longer feel that it was far removed from their lives. I wanted to impress on people the gravity of this country’s practice of taking life as a form of punishment.   I didn’t necessarily want to ever talk about the law, or crime, or even a name.  I had no plan.  Still don’t.

What I know for certain is – after holding one handwritten letter in my hands – I will never turn back.  I heard someone say this week, “When you see injustice, you can’t turn away,” and I can’t.

It turns out my new friend isn’t very keen on the idea of me getting to know him in a public forum.   And, I won’t share his thoughts or feelings or details of our friendship without his permission, so you may not hear much more about him, or you may hear a lot.  We’ll see.

What I do want to share about him is this.  In spite of the actions that got him where he is, he has a heart that beats.  He has a mind that remembers a life he will never be a part of again.  He is as human and flawed and vulnerable as I am.   He doesn’t like to call it ‘death’ row, because he doesn’t like to keep saying the word death.  It is the ‘row’.  And I also know my heart hurts for him, knowing he wakes up every day to the knowledge he will one day be executed.   Some people would call that justice, to try and justify it for the pain he caused others.  That is excusing the horrible act of murder.  There is no excuse for murder.

The Necessity Of Breaking The Rules – Part III

I could go on and on about how prison society is and the many rules broken on a daily basis, not with malicious intent but as a necessity to survive, be comfortable and feel as much normalcy as possible. I’ve been told it’s selfish that I risk phone calls and visits to have an extra piece of chicken or survive in comfort, and I don’t care. It has nothing to do with selfishness and not caring.

I am serving LWOP in prison in a very, very harsh, restrictive and oppressive environment. I take full responsibility for my own actions, and it’s no one else’s fault but my own that I am in prison, regardless of the facts and circumstances of my case. I don’t live in prison, I survive in prison. I must go through the pain, the torture, the dehumanizing, the mistreatment, the restrictions, the oppression, the chaos, the violence, the disrespect, the boredom, the monotony, the loneliness, the confusion, the scariness, the coldness, the darkness, the hopelessness, the loss and the constant unstable unpredictability of prison life. I don’t function in my daily life of ‘prison survival’ not caring about family, friends, loved ones and connections on the outside.

Mail is a right in prison that the prison cannot deny; phone calls and visits are a “privilege” that can be taken away at any time, whether I do something wrong or not! I love being able to call people on the phone, but phone calls in prison are expensive, and not everyone accepts collect calls or sets up phone accounts for us to call them. The times we are able to actually use the phone is not always a convenient time for those on the outside. They are either at work or unavailable to answer the phone. So, for me, I don’t get my hopes up, nor depend on phone calls.

Visits – what person in prison would not love to receive a visit either contact or noncontact?  It’s a wonderful thing. Someone actually is thinking of you and wants to see you and spend time with you in person, that is a very wonderful feeling indeed. They drive, fly and subject themselves to searches etc., to spend quality time with you and make the effort to share comfort and a sense of normalcy with you. But not everyone receives a visit. Many people, even your own flesh and blood, do not think of you, do not have time to visit, do not try, do not want to visit or whatever the reason may be. Visits are a luxury many, many, many prisoners do not get or have. It’s just a privilege that is not guaranteed and can be taken away at any time.

Visits and phone calls are great, but I do not expect them. Yes, I may hope, wish and yearn to share in these things, but in our reality, they probably won’t happen, so I don’t survive in my everyday life thinking about a privilege I may or may not get. It doesn’t mean I am selfish or do not care, I just survive this life realistically in the moment from day to day because even tomorrow is “not guaranteed”.

People in the free world live their lives as comfortable as possible and that’s all we do as well. I’m not talking about breaking the rules with malicious intent or doing wrong because we are reckless and do not care. There are so many petty, restrictive and oppressive rules in prison that make our lives harder than they have to be, which is not right at all! I survive LWOP in a manner that is as comfortable as possible, even if it means breaking rules, for it is worth the risk.

Many prisoners do not want to lose privileges nor have to break rules, even the most petty, but it’s a fact of life behind these bars and walls. When I got locked down, I asked someone I was cool with if they could give me a pen, some paper and an envelope so I could write my loved ones and let them know my situation, since IDOC violated their own rules, policies and procedures and did not give me any of my personal property, not even sheets or a blanket to sleep with at night, so I broke the rules. It was a necessity, not selfishness or not caring about what privileges I may lose, but a necessity for me. Maybe people will understand and maybe they won’t, but to truly grasp it, someone must put themselves in our shoes and understand most of it is not with malicious intent nor because we are selfish and do not care. It’s all part of the many different ways that we survive in such an unpredictable dirty, cold, lonely, boring, monotonous, chaotic, restrictive, mean, harsh, inhumane, sad, confusing, dark, bleak, unforgiving and oppressive environment.

I just wanted to give some clarification and understanding on that, especially for those who do not understand or think it’s selfish and carelessness when it’s not.  Any questions, comments, etc., post them or you can get at me directly always. Take care.
Gerard G. Schultz Jr. R55165
Pontiac C.C.
P.O. Box 99
Pontiac, Illinois 61764