At this time of year I find myself wondering what Christmas has become. For almost 30 years now, I have been in continuous solitary confinement, condemned to death. Here on Florida’s Death Row there are no shopping malls or shiny decorations that have come to define the holidays in the real world. I can watch it all on my TV, and if what I’m watching is what Christmas out there in the real world is, then maybe I’m more fortunate that those who have been consumed by commercialism, and have lost sight of what it should mean.
What are we really celebrating at this time of year? Don’t get me wrong – I would give almost anything to spend Christmas with my children and grandchildren, and see that magic sparkle in their eyes as they rip open brightly colored packages stacked beneath a beautifully decorated Christmas tree.
And what very little I might still have left afterwards, I would willingly surrender too, if only I could spend Christmas Day gathered around Mom’s table with long-lost family as we share a traditional meal while basking in the glow of each other’s company, as those are the moments that memories are made of.
But for me, Christmas will be spent in a cage and there won’t be any warm hearth, or gifts beneath a tree. I will spend my holiday alone just as I have done for too many Christmas’s past and although it may be difficult for others to understand, I still feel blessed to celebrate Christmas in my own way.
I came to Florida’s Death Row in March of 1984 and it’s that first Christmas on “The Row” that I look back upon and remember. That was a very hard year. In that first year, there were eight men here on The Row put to death, one almost every month, and at a time when there was barely 100 of us here. That number now has increased to almost 400, with executions averaging two yearly.
With so many facing imminent executions, the stench of death practically hung over all of us like a toxic cloud, threatening to suffocate us. My cell neighbor had been on The Row for about eight years at the time, and throughout that first year James (J.D.) Raulerson looked out for me and, as only condemned men living in close proximity can, we became as close as family. He took me under his wing and generously and kindly showed me the ropes.
But just before the holidays, the Florida governor signed a “death warrant” on J.D., and he was taken away to the death watch area to await execution. His Christmas would be spent alone on the bottom floor of Florida State Prison’s infamous “Q-wing,” a few feet away from the door that leads into the execution chamber, and the following month, J.D. was executed.
Although I had sat in my death row cell as eight others were each put to death, and executions were not unfamiliar to me, by the time that first Christmas on The Row rolled around and J.D. was moved to death watch, it hit especially close to home. He was the first one that I was actually close to, though far too many others I came to later know as both friends and brothers would follow through the years.
That first Christmas on The Row was especially hard in part because I still held on to the more traditional way in which most celebrate this holiday. I missed being able to be with my loved ones and I could only wonder how my children might be spending their Christmas that year as I had no way to communicate with them, and hadn’t heard from them since my arrest in early 1983.
But that doesn’t mean that my family and friends were not in thought, and each night I anxiously waited for the mail to come in, hoping upon hope that maybe, just maybe, I might get a card or letter, but those cards and letters didn’t come.
Even as alone a condemned man might feel in that solitary cage, that physical isolation becomes a distant second to the overwhelming sense of abandonment one feels as each day ever-so-very-slowly drags by and that mail you so anxiously hope will come doesn’t, and each day without a word pushes you down further into an abyss of hopelessness and despair that slowly kills you from within – one small cut at a time.
Today I can look back and understand what I could not back then; that what I felt was not at all unique amongst those I lived around. It is part of the experience we all feel on The Row. When it comes down to it, those who love and care about us in the world don’t know how to handle our death sentences. When that sentence is imposed, there’s a presumption of finality not unlike what families experience when they learn a loved one has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Even those who truly do love us often become uncomfortable and distant, unable to cope with the impending loss of someone they love.
For them, there is the added stigma of having a loved one convicted of a heinous crime in the very community they, our families, must continue to live in. It took me many years to see beyond the misery of my own circumstance and come to understand that even as hard as it might be on me, my conviction and condemnation was at least just as hard on those I left behind.
For the many months of that first year, J.D. was my mentor and source of support and then he was gone. Many mornings I would awake, still expecting to see his arm reaching around that concrete wall that separated our cells, extending a cup of coffee or perhaps some kind of snack – his way of inviting me to get up and talk a while. Although we couldn’t physically see each other, as each solitary cell was only open at the front, facing outward, being able to stand there at the front of the cell and talk around that wall was a very real sense of communion that we shared.
Just that quickly, it was no more and in that month leading up to that first Christmas, that cell remained empty, leaving me all but isolated (as the man on my other side chose to keep to himself and would rarely talk at all.)
Perhaps I have always struggled with depression, although I can’t help but wonder who wouldn’t if thrown into a solitary cell facing the reality of death all around you. But that first Christmas had me feeling especially abandoned and overwhelmed and I became almost obsessed with questioning the “why” of it all. Finding few answers, I contemplated whether I should take the easy way out, and if I could find the strength to commit suicide. I did think about the many ways that might be accomplished and, as those thoughts too often invaded my overwhelming isolation, the person that I was back then would have welcomed an end to what has become an ongoing nightmare.
That Christmas of 1984 was on a Tuesday, just as it will be this year (2012) and when the cards and letters I hoped to receive didn’t come by that last weekend before Christmas, like too many others around me, I clung on to the hope that they would come that Monday, Christmas Eve.
Then that Monday came and I was not the only one on the wing who silently stood at his cell door hoping upon whatever measure of hope remained that this night before Christmas would miraculously bring that one card or letter from a loved one. It was almost a collective ritual, as each of us anxiously watched that clock in anticipation for “mail call.” We strained to hear the sound of those heavy brass keys as the guard came down to open the inner catwalk gate that led into the cellblock area, where he would slowly work his way down the wing, one cell at a time, passing out the mail. The whole floor went quiet as each of us anxiously waited for what we might receive.
As the guard approached my cell that night, he stopped and I’m sure in that moment my heart skipped a beat as I held my breath like a child would if confronted by Santa Claus. I watched as the guard looked down on his small stack of mail and silently picked up the top one, then unceremoniously laid that one plain white envelope on my door and without a word, walked away towards the next cell.
I picked that envelope up from my door and looked to see from who it might be, but there was no name or return address. I then looked at the postmark and could see that it was mailed from Key Largo, Florida a few days earlier, but I didn’t know anyone down in Key Largo.
A small piece of scotch tape had been used to seal the envelope, and I pulled it apart, then carefully reached in to pull the card out. It was just a plain card sporting a modestly decorative pattern on the front, with gold print letters that read, “Happy Holidays,” and inside, a generic wish that the season would be joyful and not much more.
But then I read what was written inside – just three simple words, and that was all… “I forgive you,” signed E. Banner. There was a moment of confusion before that sank in, and then I realized what I was holding, and I involuntarily sunk down upon my bunk. Sitting in silence, I stared at that simple card for what may very well have been hours as the passage of time became irrelevant…. “I forgive you.”
That simple card was from the mother of the victim in the case for which I now sat on death row. I recognized the name from court documents, and as I understood it, “Chip” was her only child. Throughout my trial, she never came to court and unlike the family of the young woman who also died that night Ms. Banner never campaigned for or demanded my death as the only acceptable measure of justice.
I didn’t sleep that Christmas Eve and carefully laid that simple card up on my small bookshelf and that night I laid there alone and in the darkness and solitude that surrounded me, I cried for the first time in too many years and then I got down on my knees and prayed to a God that I had given up on. That night I found the words and in my own incoherent way, I thanked Him for that card, and asked Him to touch Ms. Banner in a special way.
Not much is ever written about the personal persecution of condemned men, but I’d like to think that I am not the only one who has often struggled with an overwhelming sense of remorse for the tragedy that has touched too many lives.
But we live in a world in which the qualities that define what is good in humanity are only too rare, and a condemned man reaching out to ask for forgiveness is met with the heavy hand of scorn and impassioned vengeance. How dare we ask, much less expect such. But that card was sent on her own - from something within her – a quality that I can only stand in awe and respect of, as in my entire life I have known so very few people who had the strength and moral character to rise above their own personal loss and suffering to reach out with such compassion and forgiveness.
What made this act of unsolicited compassion especially remarkable is that she did not know what had actually happened that night that tragically resulted in her son’s death. She knew only what the prosecutor had told her, which now, many years later has been revealed as fabrication (see https://southerninjustice.weebly.com/) When she wrote out that simple card, she had every reason to believe that I had deliberately take the life of her child. In the years since, it has been revealed that the prosecutor deliberately manipulated and concealed crucial evidence while coercing false testimony that would have substantiated my consistently pled claim of being involuntarily compelled to act in self defense.
For this reason, that simple card meant so much and as I sat in that solitary cell that night before Christmas, I received a gift that I could not have imagined, beyond even that measure of mercy and compassion we all wish to receive from our fellow man, especially when we find ourselves alone and overwhelmed and feeling like the whole world is against us. There is no greater gauge of our humanity than summoning the strength to forgive another, and it’s a quality that is tragically too rare.
As that Christmas came and went, that card remained on my bookshelf, and countless times every day I would pick it up and read it again, and I thought about how incredibly hard it had to be for her to write those three words… “I forgive you.”
That Christmas card was, for me, the very definition of Christmas. So many get lost in the materialism of this spiritual holiday. But then there are these moments when the magic of Christmas shines through and in these moments we are blessed with the gift of being reminded of what Christmas is really about and our faith in humanity can be renewed even under the darkest circumstances.
Few of us seem to find that measure of strength within ourselves to forgive another, but I do believe that strength is within each of us, and knowing only too well how that simple Christmas card touched me on that Christmas so many years ago, it is my wish today that each of us can find that strength within ourselves.