Category Archives: Harsh Sentences

Herman

While Mongo was the most interesting and misunderstood of my acquaintances since incarceration, Herman had to be the sweetest of my friends.  He was at least twenty years my senior and probably the closest thing to a father figure I’ve ever found in this place.  My own dad passed away in 1988.

Herman had a never ending love for all things Astros and Rockets.  If a game was on TV, he could be found in the dayroom with a cold drink or a cup of coffee, cheering or jeering at the screen.  That’s where I found Herman during the ‘94-‘95 season, when the Houston Rockets won their first world championship in basketball.

There he sat, surrounded by Rocket haters, watching Houston destroy Orlando in four games – a sweep.  I’ve watched and loved the Rockets since I was eight years old.  My Uncle Mike was stationed in San Diego at the time, and he took me to my first pro basketball game.  In their first two seasons, they were the San Diego Rockets, and they moved to Houston in 1970.  I’ve been a Houston Rockets fan ever since.

When I arrived, there was one Rockets fan watching the game – then there were two, Herman and I.  And so it began.  Over the next twenty years – off and on because they move fellas around like chess pieces in here – Herman and I would watch the Rockets and the Astros.  In between games, we’d play dominos (his game not mine, I can’t count fast enough).  When he made store, he’d buy coffee and cookies, and when I got money, I’d buy enough for two.  We laughed at and told the same jokes, over and over again, as if they were being told for the very first time.  Herman was my bud.

If I didn’t talk to anyone all day, I’d stop and talk to Herman for at least an hour.  We talked about everything.  He worked all his life in the oil fields and drew a pension.  When he retired at age 54, he drew SSI.  Herman was self sufficient.  Then he was given twenty years for his third DWI in ‘95.  He did 19 years, 6 months on that, and when they paroled him, they sent him to a drug rehab for six months before he finally got off paper.  Therefore, he served the entire sentence.

The system is full of guys like Herman.  It eats guys like Herman for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Guys like Herman are good for the bottom line.

Herman still writes me once a month, twice if he’s up to it.   I don’t miss many people, but I do miss my buddy.  I’m sure he’ll be okay though.  He’s a tough old bird.  We survived nineteen years and six months in here together, how could he not be?

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR  ‘Shipwrecked, Abandoned, Misunderstood’, but he still has the things his father instilled in him – humility, respect and love.  In spite of 25 years behind bars, he continues to wake up every day holding on to his humanity and on a mission to change the world for the better.

John Green #671771
C.T. Terrell Unit A346
1300 FM655
Rosharon, TX 77583

Andre Williams, Serving Forty Years Based On Court’s Acknowledged Error

“I just want to watch my grandkids grow up,” Andre Williams recently told a friend.  It’s not a lot to want, but for Andre it might be impossible.  Just as impossible as it was to watch his own kids grow up.  Williams is just over halfway through a forty year prison sentence.  It’s not hard to understand how he got to prison, what’s hard to understand is why they won’t let him out.

Andre’s beginnings were humble.  He was the last of nine children, born to a mother who struggled with addiction.  She’d fallen victim to the poverty of the world she lived in.  When Andre was born in 1970, he was brought into a neighborhood plagued with drugs, violence, and the hopelessness that comes with it.  Gangs and dealing drugs were a way of life.

Without the stability some people take for granted, Williams struggled in school and had a hard time fitting in.  There was one place he felt at home though, and that was in the care of his grandmother, Mary.  She ran her home with a firm hand, but also a sense of welcome and concern.  At fourteen years old, Williams lost the home she provided when she passed away.  Soon after, he quit going to school.   Andre wanted to support himself, and he began doing it the only way he knew how.  The most successful people in his neighborhood were dealing drugs for a living.

Drug dealing may have been the way Andre made ends meet, but his mother said he had a ‘sweet heart’ like his daddy.  His hard life had taught him compassion.  If he could avoid hurting anybody, he would.  Violence was a part of the lifestyle he lived in, but violence wasn’t a part of him.  He’d seen what the streets had done to too many in his family.  If somebody he cared about needed something and he could do something about it, he would.   He didn’t hold grudges, and tried to see the reasons why people behaved the way they did.   He would try to lift people’s spirits when he could.  He was a drug dealer because that is what life dealt him, but he was a drug dealer with a heart.  To this day, he is still known as a ‘good guy’.

There weren’t just drugs in the Chicago neighborhood Andre lived in. There were also crooked cops.  Too often, people who were supposed to be authority figures became just as much a part of the life.  Some officers would rather take their share of the profits than bring somebody in.   There are unethical people everywhere, and in a neighborhood where money is flowing back and forth on the streets, a badge doesn’t mean you are immune, and some officers had a price.   A drug dealer wasn’t really in a position to report a theft, and everybody knew it.  So, in 1991 when one officer began a four year investigation as a dirty cop – it wasn’t hard to believe.  They had seen it before.

Year in and year out, thousands of dollars and man hours later – the government had built a case.   It helped when a few of those charged chose to cooperate, saying whatever they needed to say to save themselves.  It happens.

Previous to this arrest, Andre had pled guilty to two unrelated drug charges in 1989 and been given probation.

When the dust settled after this case, Andre Williams was sentenced to forty years.  He was not the leader of the operation, but was often in contact with the ‘dirty officer’ for that very reason.  Twenty one people went to trial, and after this year, Andre will be the only one left incarcerated.

He shouldn’t be though.  At sentencing, due to an error in a report, Andre was labeled a ‘career offender’.  The judge who heard the original case knows about the error.  The government knows about the error.  The prosecutor knows about the error.  They all knew about the error at sentencing.  In an Order signed by Judge Robert Gettleman, the original judge, dated November 12, 2014 it states, “the court strongly recommends that the Bureau of Prisons, in classifying Andre Williams, take into consideration that he is not a ‘career offender’, and that the PSR incorrectly labeled him as such.”

There is a United States Brief, filed on January 7, 2015, outlining several of the actions taken on this case.  The important issues get lost among the legal terminology, but, among other things it makes the following points:

  • “Williams, along with other codefendants, stood trial and was convicted of the charges against him on June 7, 1996.”

In reference to the Presentence Investigation Report, used to determine Andre’s sentence, it states:

  • “The probation officer’s determination that Williams was a career offender was incorrect…”
  • “The court and parties became aware of the error several months prior to Williams’ sentencing on April 10, 1998.”

The brief goes on to say:

  • “The state court transcript reflected that Williams had only one prior conviction for possession with intent to distribute, and one conviction for simple possession.”
  • “The Circuit Court of Cook County later corrected it’s records to reflect the correct offense…”
  • “filed a motion… on June 29, 2007, seeking a reduction in his sentence as a result of the amended crack cocaine guidelines…”
  • “The motion was denied on February 25, 2009 because as a career offender, Williams was not entitled to relief.”
  • “On October 31, 2012, Williams filed a motion to vacate void judgment, arguing that the sentencing judgment of April 10, 1998 should be vacated, because the court was without jurisdiction to sentence him as a career offender and because the court lacked jurisdiction to sentence him as a career offender.”
  • “On July 5, 2013, the government responded that the district court did not have the jurisdiction to adjudicate William’s motion, even though he was correct that he was improperly deemed a career offender at sentencing, because it was a second or successive 2255 petition.”
  • “On November 8, 2013, Williams filed a motion in this Court, seeking an order authorizing the district court to entertain a second or successive motion for collateral review.”
  • “On November 15, 2013, this Court denied the motion, reasoning, ‘to obtain authorization, William’s proposed claim must rely on a new constitution rule… or new facts showing innocence… the parties knew about the mischaracterization of William’s prior conviction in 1998; it was discussed during his sentencing hearing… the scriveners’ error was discovered long before 2012 and it is therefore not a new fact.”
  • “On May 7, 2014, Williams filed in the district court a ‘motion to correct record…”
  • “He also sought resentencing without the career offender enhancement.”
  • The government opposed the motion as a second or successive 2255 petition for which he had failed to obtain the permission of this Court.”
  • “On November 12, 2014, the district court denied Williams’ motion, stating ‘it lacks jurisdiction to hear it,’ but noted in the order that it ‘strongly recommends that the Bureau of Prisons, in classifying Andre Williams, take into consideration that [sic] he is not a ‘career offender’, and that the PSR incorrectly labeled  him as such.”

Andre Williams was born into a life and neighborhood where drugs and drug dealing was a way of life.  For whatever failures we have all had in contributing to that – that is the way it was.  He was dealing drugs. He wasn’t a kingpin, and he wasn’t violent.  An employee of the government made an error on a piece of paper, of which everyone from the judge on down is fully aware and has been from the day of sentencing.

The grandfather who was born without opportunity just wants a chance to see his grandkids play outside.  He’s never wanted much, nor expected much from life.  The government won’t let him go.  It doesn’t matter how many papers he files or how many times the courts say he shouldn’t be there, they find reasons to not let him go.

There is a letter dated June 6, 2016 and addressed to the U.S. Pardon Attorney, written by Judge Robert Gettleman.  In it, the judge states:

“Mr. Williams was sentenced to 40 years of incarceration based upon what this court and the government itself has acknowledged was an “incorrect” criminal history indicating that Mr. Williams was a ‘career offender’.

“In fact, the career offender status was the result of a scrivener’s error in the underlying state criminal proceeding, which indicated that he had pled guilty to possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, when in fact he had pled only to simple possession.  Although both this court and the government acknowledge this serious error in computing Mr. William’s then-mandatory Guideline sentence, because the judgment had become final there was no judicial remedy to correct it.”

It went on to say:

“For these reasons, the court strongly recommends to the Pardon Attorney and the President that Mr. Williams’ sentence be reduced to reflect the fact that he is not a career offender and that the Presentence Investigation Report erroneously labeled him as such.”

Twenty three years later, Andre Williams continues to serve the forty year sentence that was the result of an error on a report that everyone is aware of.   One might ask, why does the United States government not simply do the right thing and correct the error, allowing Andre the opportunity to watch his grandchildren grow up – it’s not much to ask.

RESOURCES:

Bogira, Steve. “Criminal Justice.” Chicago Reader, Chicago Reader, 19 Jan. 2018, www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/criminal-justice/Content?oid=893735.

Bogira, Steve. “Criminal Justice.” Chicago Reader, Chicago Reader, 18 Jan. 2018, www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/criminal-justice/Content?oid=893791.

United States of America v. Andre Williams.  14-3570. 21 U.S. Court of Appeals. 2015.

Just Thinking…

It’s 2018, and God willing, I will be a free man in another year and a half.  I once had a Life sentence, but President Obama reduced my sentence to thirty years.  Thirty years is still too much for a man who has never even been to juvenile, much less in any trouble with the law before.  They originally gave me natural LIFE – for Conspiracy.  I’ve been in prison since June 29, 1994.  That’s a long time.

Twenty four years ago, I had four kids, my youngest a newborn son.  Now that son has a newborn of his own and a beautiful five year old daughter.  He brought her to visit me this past weekend.  She proved to me she could count all the way up to fifty before she bit into her corndog.  She hadn’t even finished if before she was asking to go to the playroom with the other kids.  When my son told her she had to finish her food first, she killed it.  I washed up her hands and mouth before she hopped down, ready to go.

That’s when my heart dropped.  She didn’t know.  She grabbed my hand and said, “Come on Pa-Pa.”  My son tried to explain that I couldn’t go, but he would.  How could that make sense to a five year old?  “No, I want Pa-Pa to go.”

Prison doesn’t just confine you to one location.  It takes away a lot more than that.  I didn’t know how to feel in that moment. I felt great that she wanted me to go, and I felt like crap because I couldn’t.  Later that night when I thought about our visit, it brought tears to my eyes.  The smallest things in life, we can’t do.

I can’t wait to be a free man, to take my grandkids to a park, to be able to go out and play.  Just thinking….

 

Robert Booker was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, but has spent nearly twenty-five years in federal prison.  He is the author of Push, Tony Jones, The Janitor, Tales From The Yard: Volume One, and Who Is Karma?

Robert Booker #19040039
Federal Correctional Institution
P.O. Box 1000
Milan, Michigan 48160
www.facebook.com/robertbookersr

Refusing To Say You Are Guilty Can Cost Your Life

If you are innocent of a crime and are offered three years in prison to say that you are guilty – what do you do?  In this country, you better think long and hard about the answer.  Three years in a prison and a criminal record – or your life.

It’s ‘the system’.  If you don’t take the time and punishment you are offered, the charges will be stacked so high, you won’t ever see the light of a free day again.  Messiah Johnson, among others, has learned that.  Some might say our ‘freedom’ is merely an illusion in America, and in this case, it would be hard to argue that point.

In 1998, nearly twenty years ago, Messiah was sentenced to 132 years in prison.  Hearing a sentence of that length, people assume things.  The first assumption is that at least one person must have been killed.  That didn’t happen.  Nobody was killed.  As a matter of fact, no one was injured.

In 1997 a robbery took place at a salon.  Messiah was offered three years to say he did it in a fairly weak case against him.  Three years became 132 years without parole when he refused to take the deal.

Today, Christmas 2017, Messiah Johnson is spending in a prison cell, as he has every Christmas and every day since his 1998 sentencing.  This has happened before and it will happen again.  Without reform of our Criminal Justice System, people like Messiah Johnson will be harshly punished for not agreeing to what they are offered and die locked up in the most incarcerated country in the world, without anybody ever being the wiser.

As it turns out – someone other than Messiah has confessed to the robbery in the salon.  Despite that, Mr. Johnson is spending another Christmas behind bars in the state of Virginia.   The Innocence Project has been on this case for five years.

RESOURCES

Green, Frank. “Man Serving 132-year Sentence for 1997 Robbery under Consideration for Clemency.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. N.p., 22 Dec. 2017. Web. 25 Dec. 2017.

I’m Still Breathing

You can cast me in the darkest pit
and turn from it while seething.
And erase me from this very world,
but baby, I’m still breathing.
Does it really make me worthless
and deserving of no love?
‘Cause the strength to overcome your madness
courses through my blood.
Just like town halls and chow calls
your antics are meant to weaken.
Just like fish under mountains of troubled waters,
still, I’m breathing.
Did you think that I would take it
now you want to unleash your wrath,
‘Cause I’m angry, black, and dysfunctional
the product of your bloodbath.
Do you really mean to demean
my legacy to a lie?
‘Cause I take your punches in the gut
while holding my head high.
You can dub me a gangster, thug, or crook
a hoodlum, or a heathen
and strip from me everything I love
but still, like wine, I’m breathing.
Do you really think that I deserved
the lashings on my back.
‘Cause I made it through your troubled storm
with my soul still intact.
Til the ashes of Mother Earth yields up the voices of my people,
I’m breathing.
Til the day when materialism no longer determines my equal,
I’m breathing.
Til chains, chairs, and chambers are no longer justices’ end and my fellow American can call me brother, regardless of my skin,
I’m still breathing.
When my past sins reinvent themselves as my present day regrets,
I’m breathing.
When the weight of the entire world is riding on my chest,
I’m breathing.
When reason enough for the war to be won
is just knowing that I’m somebody’s son
and I’m breathing,
I’m breathing
I’m still breathing

*This poem was written as an homage to Maya Angelou’s – “Still I Rise”

Chanton ©

Did Texas Just Execute An Innocent Man?

This week while I was driving my kids home from swim practice, a man lost his fight to live.  He didn’t struggle during his execution, but he chanted, trying to make his voice heard and be a part of this place till his last breath.

Most of us are wired to try to save lives, I hope.   Preserve it.  People get paid to keep us safe, heal our bodies and minds, improve the length and quality of our lives.  That makes it hard for me to come to terms with a state strapping a person down and employing people to take their life – while they are immobile – while invited guests watch.  Some people call that justice – I call it barbaric.  I call it the ultimate irony.  I call it a lot of things, but justice isn’t one of them.

Some firmly believe Robert Pruett was innocent of the crime he was put to death for.  They were fighting and calling and praying until the end.  Texas can’t argue some of the reasons they believe that.

Robert grew up knowing what struggle was.  His dad wasn’t always around and was incarcerated for some of his childhood, while his mother tried to numb herself with drugs and moved from trailer park to trailer park.  There weren’t family meals shared around a dinner table, hugs when you needed them, and displays of unconditional love.  He never knew that life.

Stock Photo

When his father wasn’t in jail, the man was running from trouble with his family in tow.  He also taught his little boy how to get high when he was seven years old.  Robert was raised rough, and it was all he knew.  And when he was fifteen years old, he got into a fight with Raymond Yarbrough, a 29-year old man who lived in the same trailer park.  Things got out of hand when Robert’s father and brother got involved.  According to the prosecution and the state and everyone – Robert’s father stabbed Yarbrough to death, while Robert held the man down.  That has never been in question.

At sixteen years of age, Robert Pruett was essentially sentenced to life in prison, receiving 99 years for his participation in Yarbrough’s death.   A boy, who never received any guidance in his life and only knew abuse of all kinds, held down his neighbor while the authority figure in his life, his father, his role model, his guardian, violently killed the man.  Robert wasn’t wired to do anything less.  He needed intervention way before that day, he needed an advocate, a hero, somebody to rescue him – but he never got that.  Instead, Texas felt justice would be served by putting him in prison until he died of old age.

So the sentence began.  The story didn’t end there though.  When Pruett was twenty he was accused of killing a corrections officer.  Daniel Nagle was found stabbed, and the cause of his death was actually reported to be a heart attack.  Two years later, a jury found Robert Pruett guilty of murder, and he was sentenced to death.

It’s not that cut and dry.  Texas doesn’t know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Robert Pruett killed that officer.  Even if the cause of his death was bleeding from the stab wounds, which it wasn’t, there is doubt that the man Texas put to death this week even committed the stabbing.

Eighteen years after the officer’s death, Robert Pruett maintained his innocence.  What’s more, some of the inmates whose testimony was used to convict Robert received rewards for the cooperation.  Often times, in the world of prison, inmates testimony is excluded as ‘untrustworthy’ if it doesn’t benefit the institution, but if it can further their cause – an inmate’s testimony can send someone to the death chamber.   The jury didn’t know that the witnesses benefited from their testimony.

Outside of the inmates, there was no physical or DNA evidence to put Robert Pruitt at the scene of the crime.  In a crime that takes place in such close quarters, it seems logical to think Robert’s DNA would be found on something – the weapon, the torn up disciplinary paper next to the body, the body itself.  There was none.  There was nothing found on Robert’s body either.  Nothing.

I wasn’t on the jury.  I don’t know what they were thinking, but I’ve seen aggressive lawyers paint pictures.  The truth gets blurry – it can actually sometimes get obscured from view.  In a world of smoke and mirrors, should there be a death sentence?  Should death be decided based on ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’?

Corruption takes place in prisons all the time. There is story after story of officers going rogue.  They lose perspective.  According to one report, the officer that was killed had some enemies at the prison because he was trying to shed light on some corruption at the facility.

Everything I read about Robert Pruett leads me to believe he was a smart man.  In addition to the many questions raised in his case, I find myself questioning a man murdering someone who wrote him up and then tossing the torn up report next to the dead body.  It defies logic to try and stay so tidy that you don’t leave any DNA behind, but you leave a torn up note with your name on it.  Again – Robert’s DNA was not found on the note or the weapon.  And the victim’s blood was not found on Robert.

It’s pointless now to argue whether Robert Pruett murdered anyone.  People will continue to question it without me.  But, there is one thing there is no question about.  The state of Texas buckled Robert Pruett down and calmly injected enough poison into his system to end his life, with witnesses watching every moment of the process.  That we know.  We also know that Texas will continue to do that as long as the laws allow.

REFERENCES

Baptiste, Nathalie. “Junk Science? Unreliable Witnesses? No Matter, Texas Plans to Execute Robert Pruett Anyway Mother Jones – 2017-10-10T10:00:11.000Z.” Junk Science? Unreliable Witnesses? No Matter, Texas Plans to Execute Robert Pruett Anyway, Mother Jones, 10 Oct. 2017, dailyreadlist.com/article/junk-science-unreliable-witnesses-no-matter-tex-71.

Randall, Kate. “Robert Pruett, First Imprisoned at Age 16, Executed in Texas despite Questions about Evidence.” Dolphnsix Intelligent News Agency, www.dolphnsix.com/news/5430477/robert-pruett-first-imprisoned-executed-texas.

Robinson, Nathan J. “Texas Should Not Execute Robert Pruett Tonight.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 12 Oct. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/10/12/opinion/texas-robert-pruett-execution.html.

“Texas Inmate Executed for Prison Guard’s Death.” Fox News, FOX News Network, www.foxnews.com/us/2017/10/12/texas-inmate-executed-for-prison-guards-death.html.

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?

Waiting To Die Behind Bars

Jack Allen is a sixty two year old man, and he lives in a Florida prison.  Twenty years ago, in the spring of 1997, he was arrested for Burglary with Simple Battery.  In order for Jack to complete the sentence he was ultimately given, he must die.  If a person gets ‘life’ in the state of Florida, like Jack did, it doesn’t matter if they are twenty years old or fifty – they will live to die in prison.  It also doesn’t matter if they feel remorse or if they dedicate themselves to helping their fellow inmates.  It doesn’t matter if they take every class the prison has to offer.  Nothing they do matters.

There was life before prison for Jack Allen.  There was life before children and marriage and responsibilities.  There was childhood.  For Jack there were some challenges from the beginning.  He tells of being molested by a babysitter when he was three years old.  From the age of eleven, he learned how to deal with foster care, low income housing and being on welfare.

A child’s mind isn’t normally well equipped for those types of things, as they maneuver through life and its growing pains.  None of us can really know how it felt to be that little boy, or the growing man who didn’t know how to process the things he went through and instead attempted to numb himself with alcohol and drugs.

I don’t know much about the case that he is serving Life for.  There are questions, but more important than the questions, to me, is that Jack has served enough time for Burglary with Simple Battery, regardless of the case.

Jack Allen describes a Life Sentence in Florida like this:

“It becomes worse and worse after every court denial, every death in the family, every marriage missed, every child born without you there.  Special days like graduations and so forth are just nails in your coffin.  Each passing day, more dirt is thrown on your grave, you are dead, and your body just does not know it yet.”  

In the twenty years that he has been in prison, Jack Allen has lost three brothers, a sister and a mother.  He is sixty two years old and is not in the best of health.  The little boy who had more than his fair share of troubles, grew into a man that leaned on things he shouldn’t have and found himself in prison.  He was charged with Burglary and Simple Battery, has spent about a third of his life behind bars and as it stands, he will never again be free, no matter how old or feeble he gets.  The state of Florida intends to incarcerate him until his last breath.

If you would like to read more about the details of Jack Allen’s case and sign a petition in support of his release, click HERE.

John 19:16b “So the soldiers took charge of Jesus.”

On the 18th of January this year, I watched as my beloved friend of two years handed himself over to the squad of correctional officers in order that he might be executed.  Before the officers came to get my friend, we celebrated Holy Communion together.  He was grateful to celebrate communion one more time and hear the words that he was God’s beloved.

We knew our time was drawing to an end, so I asked my friend, “If people ask me about you, what should I say?” With a quick laugh and broad smile he said, “Tell them I know Jesus.” Ahhh yes, my friend knew Jesus and Jesus knew him.  I called him my “theological partner” as he uniquely was able to show me facets of God and Scripture that I just could not see. His life had been redeemed and transformed by our all-loving and all-merciful God.  His smile beamed God’s unconditional and immeasurable love every single time I was with him.

Then I asked him one last question, “When you look back over your life, what are you most grateful for?” Without hesitation he said, “For the unconditional love of God, of friends, and especially of family. I feel everyone’s love right now, and it is overwhelming to me. I can’t be grateful enough.” I then told him, “I am grateful for your friendship, your unbounded love for me, and your laughter. I love you so much.” To which he replied, “I love you more.” And I ended, as I always did, with a forthright, “Impossible!”

I was then got escorted out of the cell area and around to the observation room by one of the correctional officers. The observation room was already packed with people.  On the back row there was a seat left just for me. Everyone stared as I sat down. The room was closed and hot; it was like sitting in an oven. There were windows along the right hand side and in front of us. Everyone just sat and stared at an empty gurney; sweat rolled down my back.

After a few minutes, my friend walked into the execution chamber with his head bowed and with his shoulders slumped. There was nothing about him that made him look like a threat to the six or so officers in charge of him. Nonetheless, the officers moved as if he was challenging them. They quickly and forcefully pinned him to the table and strapped him down, each officer assigned a strap, as strap after strap after strap was fastened on top of his body. Maybe they were afraid of some last minute recoil to the macabre proceedings, but he did not do anything to warrant their fear-filled and anxiety ridden actions. They also were all wearing safety glasses, as if waiting for my beloved friend to spit on them – something he would never do.

Once my friend was lying on the table, arms outstretched and completely restrained, a curtain was closed between the witness room window and the execution chamber. We then sat in that sweltering room for the longest 35 minutes of my life. For those 35 minutes all we did was stare at the curtain before us without any idea what was happening on the other side. Whispered requests were made to find out what was going on behind that awful curtain, but it was clear that no one was going to be allowed out of the room.

I slipped my shoes off as I knew that it was holy ground that I was standing on and wanted to treat it as such. I opened my Bible, but I was having a hard time reading it. I flipped to Psalm 46 and read, “Be still and know that I am God.” I repeated it over and over again as a prayer for my friend and as a prayer for me as I stared at the evil curtain in front of me.

Finally the curtain was pulled back and my friend was asked if he had any final words. He said a simple, “Nope.” He had told me earlier that he felt like his words of regret, respect, and apology in a much publicized video before this dreadful hour best conveyed his feelings. I let him know that those words of sorrow were indeed enough. My friend tried to lift his head from the table.

Unfortunately, because the table was parallel to the ground and his body was so tied down, he could only lift his head up an inch or maybe two. Despite the sign that stated “Stay silent. Stay seated” which was prominently displayed above all of us in the observation room, I stood because I had promised to beam love on him until the very end. I had assumed that he was trying to find my face amongst the crowd gathered in the tiny observation room. However, he was only able to hold his head up for a second or two and therefore, I assumed that, sadly, he was unable to see me. Tears were forming in my eyes that I doggedly refused to let fall. And yet there was also a determination in my heart that I would do all I could to let him know that I loved him.

Everyone who was in the execution room with my friend was staring down at their shoes, only glancing over to see him every once in a while. There were two people manning two different phones that were speaking to whoever was on the other end. They were speaking in short phrases, with their silence making up the majority of their conversation. I was so angry that everyone was just standing there – expressionless – and yet witnessing the killing of my beloved friend. I could sense their humanity being drained.

As we all looked on, we had no idea when they started administering the lethal chemicals, as that was controlled from behind yet another curtain. The person pushing the drugs through my friend’s IV could do so behind that curtain of secrecy and shame. My friend started to sob, and I once again forced my tears to stay within my body. I heard a snore, and I saw my friend’s chest move up and down. After a few minutes, an officer pinched my friend’s toes and then took his slippers off of his feet. I am still clueless as to why this officer thought that these two things were so important to do.

I was repeating, in my mind, “Go in God’s love. Go in God’s love. Go in God’s love.” And yet in my heart, I felt like all of us were being tortured and wounded as we looked on at this killing of another human being.

The prison staff members around my beloved friend continued to look on with blank and unaffected stares. The officer who took off his slippers just stared straight ahead. The whole scene was absurd and devoid of any semblance of humanity.

We continued to hear snores and then watched as his chest no longer moved. It seemed like a very long time before the “doctor” came around the back curtain with his stethoscope in order to pronounce my friend dead. At 9:42 p.m. they finally told us that he was deceased. They pulled the curtain closed once again so I could no longer see my beloved friend. The proceedings were over. We all could stand up and make our way out of the prison.

It was then that several of the staff members left the witness room and walked behind the curtain into the execution chamber. Earlier that night, just after I arrived at the prison, I had asked for permission to say a few words over my friend’s body to commend his spirit to God’s all loving hands. My request was denied. So when these staff members walked into the execution chamber, I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, “THEY CAN GO IN THERE AND SEE HIS BODY, BUT I CAN’T COMMEND HIS SPIRIT TO GOD?! Are you freakin’ kidding me?!?!?” I was seething. I wanted to find a space to break down and sob the tears that were welling up inside of me, but I knew that I would have to hold them in and wait until I was finally alone.

Jesus, too, had to hand himself over to the soldiers and let them take charge of him. The truth of executions are that your body is no longer your own. Your body becomes the property of the state. Those in charge can do with your body what they will. The one being executed is told to comply with all of the orders of those in charge. And as onlookers you are told to stay in your place and just look on as the horrific happens in front of you. Only the state is in control, and they will maintain that control at all costs. Sadly, I can only imagine that this prison looked just like other prisons, and I assume that those who took part behaved just like other correctional officers and prison staff in this country who are given the task of killing another human being.

Those who watched this appalling drama play out in front of us did a lot of “cross watching.” And, by the way, I don’t think it is an accident that we execute men and women on a gurney that is in the shape of a cross. Just as Jesus experienced, some of us are sitting under the cross begging for a gracious God to end the suffering of one we love so much. And then, somehow, we try to deal with the fact that we are willing our beloved friend to die. How does one do that? Shouldn’t you be praying for them to somehow live?

And there were others who were “cross watching” in the room who were surely praying that my dear friend go straight to hell.  About a month prior to my friend’s execution, he asked for me to do the following: “Please pray for those who hate me and want me to die.” “Yes, I will, but what makes you think of that?” I asked. He simply said, “Well, Jesus tells us to love our enemies. I am afraid they are going to sin if they want me dead. I don’t want my execution to cause anyone to sin.” With tears welling in my eyes, I put my hand on my beloved friend’s arm and said, “Yes, I will do that. Of course I will.”

When we are a society that kills, we make even the most loving person who is opposed to the death penalty complicit with murder. We only inflict more harm on those gathered around the cross – those gathered around the prison – no matter which side of the death penalty debate they are on. We continue the victimization instead of putting an end to the victimization that has already occurred. Killing another human being solves absolutely nothing. Nothing. It only inflicts more harm on those of us who have looked on or who have stood vigil outside of the prison.

It also says that we do not believe in transformation. It says that your life stopped when you committed your crime. No hope for redemption. No chance for renewal. None. You are your crime and that is that. As a Christ follower, however, I staunchly believe that, in Christ, ALL can be made new – the old has passed away and behold the new creation is sitting right in front of me. I can easily believe this because I continue to have a front row seat at what transformation looks like – I see their faces – I know their names.

Forever, the tape will be playing in my mind of that horrendous scene of my friends’ execution. Forever, I will see and hear my friend on that dreadful gurney. Forever, I am inwardly marked by enormous grief. And yet, if you asked me to do it all over again, I would be there in a heartbeat. I was determined that, although the courts condemned my friend, he would know that he was loved unconditionally, not only by me, but more importantly, by an all-gracious and all-merciful God who claimed him and called him “my beloved son.”

 

Bullying Ends In Tragedy And Sends Seventeen Year Old Boy To Prison For Life

Louis Singleton

If you talked to some folks in Mobile, Alabama, back in 90’s, they may have told you that Louis Singleton was one of the best athletes to come through their town.  Louis had a bright future in front of him, and lots of promise.  He was born in 1976, the son of a brick mason and a high school teacher.  His parents were separated, but Louis, the youngest of two children, grew up in a middle class, stable home.   He had average grades in school, held a summer job, and participated in varsity football and basketball programs.

Louis was heavy into sports from the beginning.  He wasn’t an angel, but he wasn’t trouble either.  He was typical.  He got a speeding ticket once because he was running late to summer school.  He also got in trouble for disorderly conduct when he was sixteen, due to a fight.  But, for the most part, things were looking very good for him midway into his junior year of high school.  His eye was on being the starting quarterback for his high school football team the following year.   Yes, Louis had dreams – big ones.

He never made it to that quarterback position though.  The years of dreaming came to an end the night before his eighteenth birthday.   It didn’t start that night though – the trouble started almost a year before then.  Louis had no idea it was going to end up changing his life in an instant.  He never saw it coming.

The train started going off the track for Louis in the spring of 1993.  There was a girl.  She was known as Meme.   Meme had just broken up with her boyfriend, Kendrick Martin.  Derrick Conner, Louis’ close friend, began dating Meme.  Kendrick Martin didn’t like that.   Louis was involved by association.

The first time things turned physical was during an altercation at a gas station.  Louis and Derrick were there, and Louis went inside to pay for gas and pick up a couple snacks, leaving Derrick outside.   When he came back out, Derrick and Kendrick were going at it.  It was over Meme, and Louis remembers telling Kendrick, “Man, you tripping about one female, when it’s plenty of fishes in the sea.”  Kendrick didn’t take that well.

It wasn’t long before all their paths crossed again.  Derrick Conner and Louis were leaving a local convenience store when Kendrick Martin was pulling into the parking lot.  According to Louis, Kendrick got out of his car and began shooting at Derrick and Louis with a gun as the boys were pulling away.

Louis Singleton was shot at more than once by Kendrick Martin.  Nelson Tucker, the state’s own witness, testified that he was with Kendrick Martin and had shot at Louis Singleton with a gun that he obtained from Kendrick Martin.  Tucker also stated that he was present on two separate occasions when a pistol was fired at Louis.

By Louis’ account of that time, Kendrick Martin pointed a gun in his direction and shot at him on three different occasions, two of these incidents being confirmed by the prosecution’s own witness.   He also reported an incident where Kendrick Martin pulled a gun from a book bag and pointed it at his head.  There was another day in a fast food parking lot, when Louis was in a vehicle, and Kendrick was striking the car windows with a crow bar.

There is nothing that can be said about the tragic events that took place on January 11, 1994, that will excuse what happened that day.  A life was taken, and another altered forever in the parking lot of a McDonald’s restaurant in Mobile, Alabama.  Reading the transcripts, I take away that there was confusion in that parking lot.  There were a lot of people gathered after a high school game, and Louis perceived he was in danger after seeing Kendrick and his friends and hearing some things that were said.  No one can know exactly what was going on in anyone’s minds, and different witnesses said different things, but I think  it is fair to say that if there had not been months of bullying leading up to that day, it simply never would have happened.   Louis, the seventeen year old boy with so much promise, had a gun.  He felt threatened that night, as he had on many occasions over the previous months, and shot at Kendrick, Tucker and another man they were with, Johnathan Martin.   A pattern had been set leading up to that day, leaving Louis feeling the need to defend himself around Kendrick and his friends.  So when words were said and movements were made, he felt cornered and threatened, whether he was or not.  In his mind – he was.

Kendrick Jermaine Martin died from a gunshot wound to the neck. Johnathan Allen Martin was shot once in the neck area and was paralyzed from the waist down as a result.  Nelson L. Tucker was shot three times and was hospitalized for four days and released.

It’s twenty three years later.  The court transcripts described Louis as a boy who, ‘enjoyed a favorable reputation within his community’.  He was evaluated before his trial by the Strickland Youth Center, and they determined that he ‘did not appear to be a behavioral problem’.

Louis Singleton spent his eighteenth birthday in a Mobile Detention Center and has been incarcerated ever since.  In the twenty three years since then, he has obtained his GED, studied brick masonry, anger management and self awareness.  He has also worked with nurses in the prison healthcare system.   And he’s been incarcerated for well over half of his life.   Louis was sentenced to two life sentences and twenty years, to be served consecutively.

Louis didn’t want things to end this way.  Louis Singleton sought help long before that night, from parents, the police, and the school principal.  A seventeen year old boy sought help from the people who were responsible for protecting him.  He did the things he was supposed to do, but those in a position to protect him did not do what they were supposed to.

Louis’ Mom

What stands out from my conversations with Louis is what happened after he drove home that night.  This is what he told me, “My mind was racing with thoughts that I couldn’t even grasp mentally.  I just went home and sat in the house with all the lights out, scared to move, don’t know what to do nor to say.  My mom was gone to a choir convention in Mississippi during the time of the incident.  While I sat in our house quietly and somberly in the front room, my mother pulled up with no clue of what just happened.   When she came in the door, turned to lock the door, I was sitting there in the dark room.  I scared her out of her wits.  As a mother who knew her child, she instantly asked me, ‘Boy, what’s wrong with you sitting in here with all the lights out?’  I was so discombobulated I honestly couldn’t speak, it seemed like somebody had my soul…”

Louis’ mother never had a chance to have her son home again, and has since passed.  They were close, and Louis Singleton will live with the memory of sitting in that dark room and having to tell his mom what happened etched in his memory forever.  He has spent twenty three years in an Alabama prison reliving that day and the months that led up to it, hoping to wake up every morning and have it all be a dream.  He will spend the rest of his life knowing the impact he has had on people, their families and his own.  Nothing will bring back the man who died that night or heal the man who was paralyzed, but the burden of what took place that night should not have been placed solely on the shoulders of a seventeen year old kid who had never been in any trouble.   A seventeen year old kid went into prison after shooting at the man who terrorized him for nearly a year, sentenced to spend every breath for the rest of his life in an Alabama prison, until the day he dies, never knowing what it means to live free again.  How is that tragedy going to make what happened on that night in 1994 any less tragic?