As I sit in my concrete cage condemned to death, I take a moment to remember that today, November 11th, is Veteran’s Day. That is the legal holiday in which America honors those who have served in the military, willing to give their life to protect the constitutional liberties we all too often take for granted. In America, on the 4th of July, we celebrate our freedom, but today we take a moment to remember those who are fighting to protect our freedom.
Growing up in the San Francisco bay Area in the late sixties and early seventies, I often witnessed the chaotic protests against the Vietnam war at the time and because of the era in which it was, veterans coming home from service in that war were all too often looked down upon. For reasons that made no sense to the child that I was these men who served – often voluntarily – were blamed for a war they didn’t want to fight. Only many years later when I enlisted into the army did I realize the truth of a bumper sticker I saw while stationed at Ft Sill, Oklahoma: “Politicians start wars, soldiers fight them”.
It wasn’t that long after that brief military experience that I awoke early one morning, hours before even the sun came up, to a deaf-defying scream that awoke the whole wing on death row. About 4 or 5 cells up from me was a black man named David Futchess. At the time I was still new to this strange world in which I remain condemned to, and didn’t know that David often had these nightmares in which he was once again in Vietnam in yet another firefight with an invisible enemy, that was methodically picking off his fellow comrades one at a time. The technical term is post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and it is common among men who served in combat, as David had.
In the coming months I came to know him as we shared the recreational yard together. For the most part, he was a quiet guy and easy to get along with and some might even say he was passive. But sometimes in the middle of a conversation his mind would just drift away and his eyes would go death as if staring off into a distant horizon and his hands would start shaking, sometimes causing his whole body to tremble. On one such occasions as he stood there in his trance a ball hit the ground near him and David spontaneously fell to the ground, screaming something incoherent.
A few years after I came to death row, in April 1986, the State of Florida put David to death in the electric chair. Just in the relatively short time that I was on death row, David was the 12th man executed since I came to Florida State Prison. Back then when the cell lights would go off just before an execution, I would pray for each, dropping to my knees and pleading with a God that never once answered my prayers and I continued praying until the lights came back on, knowing that once they did, yet another man was dead. Through the window out on the catwalk in the front of my cell I could then see the same white hearse they brought in through the back gate to collect the remains of the executed and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who stood at my cell door silently watching it slowly drive past our windows with the body of our friend and brother inside.
Those familiar with David Futchess’s case know that serving his country screwed his head up. After coming home a forgotten hero his neighbor said that it was not uncommon
for David to dig foxholes in his yard and sleep in them. Others talked about how sudden loud noises put him into a state of shock. Some said he turned to drugs to deal with the nightmares and it wasn’t that much of a surprise that one day he snapped and killed somebody. Just that quickly he was no longer an American hero who sacrificed his own sanity to serve his country and the very country he so willingly served with honor turned against him and quickly condemned him to death. I can only hope that now he has found peace.
Through the years I have come to know many others here condemned to death who by every right and reason are American heroes – now abandoned and condemned to death by the country they gave so much to protect.
Perhaps few cases could illustrate the tragedy of this injustice more than that of George Potter, who remains here on Florida’s death row to this day. George is now in his seventies and growing old on death row is not easy. I have been blessed to know George through the years and I find strength in his own perseverance. But when I think of the injustice that has been so deliberately inflicted on this man of honor and integrity I become disgusted of what my country has become and how quickly we turn on our true hero’s.
When George was barely 17 the Korean War broke out and George was so anxious and determined to fight for his country that he went down to the local military enlistment center and lied about his age. Within months this kid quickly became a man while fighting a war for a country that he believed in. While the friends he grew up with were still struggling to graduate high school back home, George was on the front line fighting a war. Not long after that George was shot and subsequently awarded a purple heart.
Even then, George refused to go home, insisting that they send him back up to the front line as he refused to abandon his fellow soldiers and brothers in arms. Even before his first wound fully healed, George was back on the front lines pushing North under General
McCarthy when his company (attached to the Eight Army) was suddenly overrun by the Chinese army and slaughtered.
Back to the south the politicians calling the shots decided to just let them die as the Chinese army could not be stopped. But George never gave up, not even when they gave up on him and left him for dead. Most of his comrades were killed, their bodies thrown into heaps like garbage. George was again severely wounded in combat and presumed dead. Only days later was he found and treated and subsequently awarded another purple heart and other medals honoring his sacrifice and service to his country. Then they sent him home.
For over 30 years George was an outstanding citizen and member of the community. But he was still haunted by the nightmares he couldn’t escape and like is only too common he turned to drinking to drown the ghosts of those who died beside him. During one of these drunken bouts George got caught up in a spontaneous event, a domestic argument with a woman he dated that too quickly escalated into her tragic death. Unable to cope with what happened, George pled guilty, then went back to his cell and attempted to take his own life.
But he lived and just as quickly our legal justice system forgot about his honorable service and the many medals bestowed upon him and quickly condemned him to death. Years later numerous high ranking military officers came to court to testify on behalf of George, speaking of how George earned each of the medals for honor and bravery and asking the court to show mercy to this genuine American hero – but the court refused to do so and denied their appeals. George remains here on death row, barely able to read and write, not only abandoned by the country he fought for, but also most of his family and friends.
But the stories I tell about David and George are only a few of the so many more. The tragic truth is that there are many forgotten heroes on death row, those who did not hesitate to run into battle to defend the very constitutional liberties now used to condemn them to death.
Many of the veterans served during the Vietnam War and were changed by their experience, but their numbers now dwindle as Florida is only too eager to put them to death. A few years ago it was Arthur Rutherford who had served as a marine in Vietnam and never recovered from that experience. As with all the others, his service to country meant little to a judicial system that sees military service only as a minor “non-statutory” mitigation factor given little to no weight when deciding whether these men should be condemned to death.
Many of these men have too much honor and self respect to argue that their military service should be used to save them. Take for example Thomas Pope, who has now been on Florida’s death row almost 30 years. Like Rutherford, he too has served honorably as a marine in Vietnam when still a young man and was recognized for his service and sacrifice for his country.
But the years have not been kind to Tom (Pope) as his service to country has long been forgotten. Now he very rarely even gets mail or a visit – like so many others his family and friends have long ago forgotten him. For many years Tom was my cell neighbor and I love him like my own brother. But now he is housed in another part of the building and I haven’t talked with him in a long while as it is almost impossible to talk to others housed on other wings. But he is not forgotten and I can only hope that others might also remember him. In a few months (January 29) he will be 60 years old so maybe someone will send him a birthday card to let him know that he is not forgotten.
Now, a new generation of military veterans is coming to the row as already I see new faces and learn of their own experiences that forever changed their lives. Not long ago I talked to a man now condemned to death who served with my older brother in the first Gulf war in Iraq. He remembered crossing paths with my brother shortly before my brother took an Iraqi grenade in the chest. More recently I see younger men now coming to join the ranks of the condemned who fought in combat in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So, today I want to take a moment to honor these men who stood their ground willing to sacrifice their lives for this country and the constitutional freedom that we often take for granted. All of us fall short of the glory of God and not one of us is perfect. Even assuming that these men committed a crime for which the law demands accountability, I think that it is indeed a sad commentary on the degradation of our own moral values as a society that we so quickly condemn our heroes to death and forget the service and sacrifice they gave so that we could remain a free society. Today I salute these forgotten heroes.