I met Sonya Reed several months after I'd met and written about Khristian Oliver. She sent me a lovely letter to thank me for being there for Khristian on the day of his death. A friendship blossomed. We send each other letters, I visit her when I can and I adopted Violet, the cat she saved from being euthanized by the prison.
DW: Who was the person that died?
SR: The person I lost was my husband, Khristian Oliver.
DW: How old were you at the time?
SR: I was thirty-seven.
DW: How old was the person?
SR: He was thirty-two. He'd been on death row for almost twelve years.
DW: Was it a sudden death or did you
know it was going to happen?
SR: We knew it was going to happen. We hoped it wouldn't, but there's a certain inevitability for people with a death sentence. The only thing I can remotely compare it to is that it felt similar to having a loved one die of a terminal illness.
Did you and Khristian talk about death?
SR: We communicated several times a week via letters and the prison wardens allowed us a one hour phone conversation on his last day. It was immeasurably precious and far too short. I cannot possibly describe what it feels like to be someone's last wish. It was surreal. I cried through the entire conversation. Bless his heart; he tried to be stoic, to comfort me, but I could hear the fear in his voice. He said, "I think they're going to get me, baby." I could hear the surrender too. He wanted to live, but he also bore an enormous burden of guilt. He told me, "nothing they could ever do to me is worse that what I've already done to myself."
DW: Had you experienced any other deaths in your
personal life before this person died?
SR: I experienced death early on when my grandfather, whom I was close to, passed away. My older brother was killed in a car accident when I was six. That's when I first started having panic attacks. Also, being from a rural area, I experienced the deaths of pets and other animals more than I care to remember. I always took the deaths personally, as if there was something I could have done to prevent them.
DW: Were people supportive of your
grief or did they shy away when you were grieving?
SR: I experienced such a wide variety of reactions from others when Khristian was executed, it's hard to classify them as either supportive or shying away. An execution is not a normal death and given that it was on the news, most people here at the prison were curious, at best. I felt like I couldn't get away from all the voyeuristic type questions; "what were his last words?" and "what was his last meal," etc. So many people were incredibly insensitive to my grief while trying to satisfy their curiosity, but there were some who were genuinely supportive and just let me be. It's impossible to find private time in a women's prison, but that's all I wanted to do--to grieve alone. It seemed everyone felt that their words of comfort or advice were the very ones I needed to make it through, but nothing anyone said or did could have ever made it better.
DW: Is there anything you wish you'd done differently
with this person?
SR: I have so much regret concerning Khristian, it would take a book to write it all down. I wish I could have saved him. I wish I had been more assertive with him and saved someone else, too. I wish I had shown him more that I loved him as much as he loved me. I wish my love could have healed his emotional damage. I wish I'd take him to the beach. He never got to go. After he was sentenced to death, and the subsequent appeals were lost, one by one, it became increasingly important to me that he know that he was loved and cherished. That his life had merit and value. That he meant something important to someone--that if he died, his life would not have been in vain. I can only hope that I did that for him.
DW: Was he buried or cremated?
SR: He was buried, but I was not allowed to attend the funeral and have not seen the grave site. I hear he has a beautiful Celtic cross headstone, but my only concern is that there's a place for me next to him. I wrote a memorial, a eulogy of sorts, which his sister read at the funeral. It helped me to feel a part of it.
DW: Did you learn anything about the
grieving process that you'd like to share?
SR: Knowing beforehand that there are psychological steps to the grieving process helped me to an extent. I'd recognize my thoughts or behavior and think, "ohhhh, that's where this anger is coming from." Being there for Khristian's mother helped a great deal, even though I didn't recognize it at the time. She'd been through what no mother should have to endure. I just listened and gave her love. In those first few months, I think being there for her gave me the strength to keep going. When depression finally hit me, it was being there and caring for a little cat that saved me. Violet gave me a purpose when I felt I had absolutely no reason to keep going. Even now, almost four years later, I am still committed to saving these helpless prison cats.
You can read about these cats on Sonya's blog, here.
DW: Last but not least, were any songs played at
the memorial that were important to the person?
SR: I so badly wanted Khristian's favorite song played at his funeral Sophie B Hawkins' "As I Lay Me Down." It's ironic that his favorite song is one of goodbye. His sister was unable to find it and they played something else.
How could I forget? On November 5, 2009 Khristian Oliver was executed by the state of Texas. I hadn't given the death penalty much thought until I met him the day before he was killed. And, well, it deeply affected me.
This past weekend, I went to Austin to march in the 13th Annual march to Abolish the Death Penalty. Here I am prior to the march with a photograph by John Holbrook that I carried. At the march was Mary Puckett, my penpal Matt's mom. He was executed this year and she came to Texas to learn about starting an abolition movement in Mississippi. I was so happy to see her.
Yesterday, I went to visit with Sonya Reed, Khristian's girlfriend. She has become a dear friend in the past three years. Due to the law of parties, she received a 99 year sentence even though she did not commit a crime. Wrong place, wrong time.
After my visit with Sonya, I went to visit with Kermit and Katie Oliver, Khristian's parents.
To commemorate the date of Khristian's death, I have decided to post the essay I wrote about my experience meeting him. It is called "Surrender" and it was first published by Ten Spurs, the literary journal of UNT. I could try and get it published elsewhere, but I thought I owed it to my blog readers.
If you feel so inclined, you can donate a buck or two to the coffee fund, which is actually the get Violet an echocardiograph fund. But, don't feel you have to. Enjoy. If anything, I hope this essay makes you think about the death penalty in America.
If you can't handle reading the white text on black background, you can read it here.
I clicked through a series of black and white mug shots and terse murder
descriptions on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s website. For my graduate thesis, I was looking for a
person who knew the day that he was going to die. There were hundreds of men to
choose from, but only a select few who had a scheduled “date.” This was a difficult process of elimination,
as I had strict criteria for my selection—they couldn’t scare me. I knew that I
would never be able to communicate with the man who’d killed his entire family
or the man who’d raped and murdered a nine-year-old girl. Their acts were too personal, too evil for
comprehension. I had to find someone who
had made a horrendously bad decision in a moment of extreme duress.
After about a half an hour of
searching for the perfect research subject, I found him. I surmised from the looks of his mug shot and
the brief description of his crime that Khristian Oliver was a wide-eyed
twenty-year-old kid with a buzz cut, a high school diploma, and a clean
record. With a couple of friends and his
pregnant girlfriend, he had burglarized a vacant house. When the owner came home and found the
intruders, he shot one of them with his hunting rifle. Khristian shot back.
Despite his horrific actions on that night, he did not scare me. Yes, he committed murder, but in my mind, I
could rationalize how things had happened.
Add the cockiness of youth, a little bit of desperation, a burglary, a gun,
and probably an intoxicating substance or two.
I sent him a typed, official looking letter explaining that I didn’t
want to talk to him about his crime. I
simply wanted to know his feelings about knowing the day and approximate time
of his death.
Within a week, I received his response—not only no, but no thank you. He was polite, to the point and his words
were written neatly on lined notebook paper.
His attorney didn’t think it was a good idea for him to communicate to a
stranger with appeals pending. I never
pursued another inmate; I just put the whole idea to rest.
Twenty-one days before his scheduled execution, he sent me another
letter. Dear Pamela,
you ever find anyone to help you with your thesis? If not, I will. I know I declined at first but today my attorney says I
don’t stand much of a chance of getting any relief and my execution date is
for Nov. 5th. So if you’d like, send me a list of questions you’d like
answered or whatever you had planned. If
you don’t need me that’s cool too, just thought I’d offer.
At my subdivision’s mailbox, I sat in my
car and wept. I didn’t know if it was
the fact that a complete stranger wanted to help me with my thesis, or the fact
that a condemned man had ended his devastating letter with a little smiley
face. When I got home, I searched the
Internet for the cheapest ticket from Colorado to Texas, and booked it. I
didn’t know how I was going to meet him, but I figured it would probably help
if I were in Texas. I wrote him a series
of questions on yellow legal pad paper with an additional request to be added
to his visitor’s list and sent it for next day delivery. Our time was running out.
After several letters of correspondence
and an okay to visit him, I flew to Huntsville, Texas, arriving three days
before his scheduled execution. After a
fitful night of sleep in a cockroach-infested motel, I woke early and drove the
forty miles to the Polunsky Unit, home to Texas’s death row. Before turning into the parking lot, a guard
at a kiosk stopped me to inspect my vehicle.
After combing through the nooks and crannies of my rental car, he asked
me the name and number of “my inmate.” I
rattled off Khristian’s information. The
guard then pointed towards the prison.
“You’re going to go to that first building
there. And remember, you can’t bring
nothing inside but your ID, some money if you want to buy him something, and a
I entered the first building. I didn’t know if it was a Texas thing, or
what, but the whole security procedure felt relaxed and informal, like being at
an airport when you get pulled aside and patted down. Within minutes, I was
given the go ahead to enter the prison with a yellow visitor’s lanyard and a
blue piece of paper stating Khristian’s name and our relationship—“FRND.”
The large visiting area at the Polunsky
Unit was divided by a long row of booths with low stools and phones. Unsure of where to go, I walked towards the
smaller room that contained a set of bathrooms and a variety of vending
machines. A lone female guard sat at a
table. I handed her my blue piece of paper.
“How are you today?” she asked with a
“I’m a little nervous,” I replied,
thankful for her kindness.
“Khristian’s not in his room yet, but Mr.
Whiteside, his spiritual adviser is,” she said.
I followed her to a small room that
contained several metal chairs, a wooden table, two phones and a thick
Plexiglass window. Even though he didn’t
know me, Mr. Whiteside greeted me with a disarming sincerity. In a soft
Southern voice, he told me that Khristian was “Unlike a lot of the other men I
meet in here. He isn’t
institutionalized. He’s very shy and
gentle and kind. He’s like a kitten.”
Before I had a chance to digest those
words, Khristian entered the room behind the glass. He looked nothing like his mug shot that was
taken eleven years earlier. He was
heavier, wore glasses and his buzz cut had been replaced with a thick mane of
jet-black hair. He was dressed in an off
white t-shirt with a white sleeveless jumpsuit over it. Because I didn’t know what else to do, I
smiled and waved at him like we were a couple of old friends. He wiped the phone down with his shirt and
placed it next to his ear. Before saying
a word, he flashed me a look of amazement. I guess neither one of us could
believe that we were actually sitting there face to face.
Behind his tinted glasses, his pupils
were large, making his eyes look black.
When he smiled at some of my nervous attempts at levity, it was not a
tooth-baring grin, but a slight lift of the corners of his mouth. Although he
was born and raised in Texas, there were only hints of an accent in his
speech. His voice was calm as he
thoughtfully answered my death related questions.
are you approaching your execution—with hope or surrender?
Do you believe
in an after life?
Do you have a
witness list for your execution? How do
they feel about being present?
Khristian said he was at peace with dying;
it was merely a transition for him. He
was nervous, but also excited to move on.
He said the Twenty-third Psalm would be his last statement. He asked if I was familiar with it. I knew it, but I was so overwhelmed by the
situation, I couldn’t recall the words.
I tried to recite it, but stumbled after, “Yea, though I walk through
the valley of the shadow of death.”
I asked what he had selected as his last
“Fried chicken, chocolate ice cream and
“Really?” I said in disbelief. That seemed so ordinary.
“Fried chicken is the only thing they
really know how to make any good.”
Even though his parents had visited him
every week for the past eleven years, he said they were guarded with their
emotions, so he didn’t really know how they felt about his impending
death. Because of that, he wasn’t sure
if they should be present for his execution, especially his mother. Neither of his siblings had ever visited him,
but his brother finally came this week and his sister was coming tomorrow.
Distracted by something, he looked over my
shoulder toward the visiting area. His
mom had arrived. I recognized her from a picture in a newspaper article I’d
read about her famous artist husband in the Houston paper. She was a tiny woman with light brown skin
and an ornate scarf, perhaps one that her husband had designed for Hermes,
covering her hair. She wore a pale yellow coat—a sunny visual in such a dreary
place. I asked Khristian if I could come back tomorrow.
“You can have a full hour if you want to.”
I nervously introduced myself to Mrs.
Oliver. She gently shook my hand after I
told her that I had been writing her son for the past few weeks. In a quiet,
almost whispered voice, she asked me if I needed more time. I told her I didn’t want to take any time
away from her, but she insisted that it was fine if I wanted to talk to her son
Even though he had answered all of my questions, my whole reason for
being there, I felt compelled to speak with him again. I returned to the tiny
room and told him that I thought his mom was very nice. He agreed and told me that she was more open
and outgoing with her emotions than his father.
I asked if she was born in February, thinking she might be a
Pisces. Khristian knew what I was
getting at without explanation on my part.
“No, she’s not an Aquarius. She’s a
He leaned forward in his chair. “Can you guess what I am?”
“I can’t guess because I already know your
birthday. You’re a Virgo.”
I looked back towards his mother. I imagined she probably thought that I was
this serious graduate student who was going to write about her son in an
academic way, and there I was chatting with him about astrology. She had only today and tomorrow, eight measly
visiting hours to spend with him. I
needed to go.
Outside the front door of the prison, Mr.
Oliver stood patiently waiting in the bright Texas sun. Since only two visitors per inmate were
allowed in, he had been counting the minutes for me to leave. I didn’t know what to say to him, so I said
nothing and walked to my rental car.
I sat in the prison parking lot with the
car windows rolled down scribbling copious amounts of notes in an attempt to
make sense out of the fact that this perfectly healthy young man was going to
die in twenty-four hours. Horses whinnied and dogs barked in the distance. Birds and monarch butterflies were
everywhere, their effortless flight taunting the inhabitants of the flat, taupe
building that stood behind two barbed wire fences. I attempted to remain inconspicuous to the
man in the tall guard tower in case he thought I was casing the joint. But he
was oblivious to me. He was leaned over the railing and staring off into the
distance. A faded orange plane with a
loud motor flew above us. I wondered if
it was some sort of tourist flight. “And
if you look directly below us folks you’ll see the infamous Polunsky
Unit—otherwise known as DEATH ROW—home to the most fiendish, horrible, and
dastardly men in Texas.” As the plane
took another pass over the prison, I saw it—Mrs. Oliver’s pale yellow
coat. I ran from my car towards his
parents. His mother looked at me with
“We’re so glad you’re still here. We have to be somewhere. You can go back and visit with Khristian if
you’d like,” she said.
“He doesn’t have any more visitors?” I
Khristian’s parents walked solemnly
towards their newer model SUV. Mr.
Oliver’s hand rested on the small of his wife’s back, as if he were gently nudging
her to leave.
When I entered the visiting area, I looked
towards Khristian’s room. Another man
was now behind the glass conversing with two elderly women. I approached the guard and handed her my blue
piece of paper. Within minutes, we were
face to face again.
When I questioned him about his parent’s
early departure, he said that they were going to Austin to plead his case at
the Governor’s office. Because we had
covered all of my questions, we spent an hour and a half talking about our
lives. He asked me about my children and
then revealed that he had a daughter of his own named Kittisue. They had never
met. He told me he loved her and, if he
had one dying wish, he wanted her to know that.
He revealed that he passed the time in his
austere cell by making pencil drawings and painting with a children’s set of
watercolors. His art was not allowed to
hang on the white walls of his cell.
They had to remain blank. Since
he was only allowed two hours of outdoor “rec” time a week, he spent a lot of
time reading. He enjoyed fantasy books
and was fascinated by science, especially studies of the brain. He told me about his depression, the
medication he was on and his time spent in the psych unit. He revealed his
scars to me with outstretched arms from three different attempts to end his
life with a shaving razor. Each time, he
was “saved,” from bleeding to death. I
asked him if he realized the irony in that.
He did. He said that a couple of
years back, another inmate had killed himself the day before his execution and
it had caused a media firestorm. In his
deathwatch cell, the place where all inmates are moved prior to their
execution, a video camera was trained on Khristian to ensure that he didn’t try
to kill himself again.
To lighten our conversation, I told him
about a recent trip I took to New York.
He wistfully recalled a high school trip he took there. His class had visited the Twin Towers and
went to see The Phantom of the Opera,
a play that he enjoyed. In the midst of
this fond, light-hearted recollection, the female guard approached with splayed
“Five minutes,” she said.
On November 5, 2009, the day of his
execution, I arrived at the Polunsky unit at 7:30 a.m. Hyper aware of how
limited his time was, I rushed to the visiting area. Khristian was not in the room. Mr. Whiteside
waited with me for him to arrive. When
he did enter, Mr. Whiteside recited the first line of Psalm Forty-six to him,
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble.” He assured Khristian that he would see him
later this afternoon in Huntsville and they knocked knuckles on the glass.
I asked Khristian if I could get a picture
taken with him, one of the concessions offered for a small fee at the prison. He agreed and I paid the guard three
dollars. She entered the room with a
digital camera and told me to stand as close to the glass as I could. Khristian did the same. She took one picture and was disappointed by
the glare from the window. As this was
going on, Khristian’s sister entered the room and watched the whole awkward photographic
process. Her eyes were red from
crying. The guard suggested that I move
to the other side. I did. She revealed that the second picture was just
as bad by showing it to me. She was hell
bent on taking a good picture and I wanted to say, “We’re in a prison for
crying out loud. There really are no
good pictures. He is going to die
today. Please, just take the damn
picture so he can spend some time with his sister!” After the third attempt, I
politely told the guard that whatever the result was, it was fine. I turned to face Khristian and picked up the
black phone. These would be my last
words to him and I felt their weight.
“Khristian. I want to thank you so much for taking the
time to share with me. It really meant a
“You’re welcome. Take care, Pamela,” he said.
I could not utter the word “Goodbye.” Instead, I said “Thank you,” and left the
room. I closed the door quietly and sprinted
to the women’s restroom by the Pepsi machine.
My eyes were burning as tears streamed down my face. I tried to pull it together, but I couldn’t. I felt hopeless and helpless staring at my
contorting face in the prison bathroom’s florescent light.
Giving up, I put my sunglasses on and
exited the restroom. The guard handed me
the print out of the photo.
“It’s a good picture. You look nice.”
I thanked her and walked through the main
visiting room, holding this remnant of a human life that I would never see
I arrived at the Walls Unit in Huntsville
at 4:00 p.m. and took a seat on a low wall across from the prison. Khristian had been transported here in the
afternoon. Upon arrival, he would be
addressed as Offender Oliver. Unlike the
guards at the Polunsky Unit, none of the guards at the Walls Unit knew
him. It made their job easier.
Even though I was told that protestors
gathered at this wall on execution days, the lot was empty. I felt like I was in an alternate universe. I couldn’t help thinking about Khristian in
that red brick building. He was probably sitting with his state- assigned
chaplain—a man he met just a couple of days ago. His last hours would be spent with strangers.
I wondered what he was talking about.
Would he call his parents? What
would he say? I love you Mom. You’ll be
okay. I’m sorry for all the pain I’ve
caused you. They say I’ve gotta go. I love you too. Goodbye.
In just an hour and a half, or maybe less,
he would be led into the death chamber, he would be strapped down to a gurney
by four uniformed guards, two IVs would be inserted into his arms by a medical
team, and the curtains would be pulled back in that tiny room for Khristian’s
family and the victim’s family to witness the worst show on earth.
A young woman in her twenties took a seat
on the wall by the corner of the street.
I asked if she knew which side we were on—the for or against side?
“I’m not sure. Sorry.”
“So. Which side are you on?”
The young woman’s face scrunched up as she
tried to suppress an emotional outburst. Her name was Amber and she had been
Khristian’s pen pal for the past nine years.
They had never met. Within
seconds we were both crying on the corner of Avenue I. I asked if she needed a hug. She did.
I’m not a touchy feely person, but I felt that hugging this grieving
stranger was the most natural, appropriate thing to do. I handed her a Kleenex from my purse and we
wiped our eyes.
Two women arrived in anti-death penalty
t-shirts, and we realized that we had been on the correct side of the street
all along. One of the ladies set up a
lawn chair at the entrance to the parking lot.
The other lined up signs along the wall.
Cars whizzed by. It was business
as usual in Huntsville.
After introductions, I told one of the
protestors that the saddest thing besides the obvious, was that Khristian would
not be allowed to hug his family before his death. “The only time his family gets to touch him
is when he’s dead on a gurney,” she replied.
I remained quiet, transfixed by these cold words, the street and the people who
might cross it as it got closer to six-o-clock.
There was nothing more to say.
A few minutes before six, as the sun set
on Huntsville, the media witnesses crossed the street and entered the
prison. A few paces behind, I saw the
pale yellow coat ascend the steps. Mrs.
Oliver was entering that building to witness her son die. The last time she
would see him alive, he would be strapped down and helpless behind glass, like
a fish in an empty tank. She would not
be able to rush to him, comfort him or hold his hand as he took his last
breath. She could only watch.
The street in front of the prison was now
empty. Six bells tolled on the prison
As the clock ticked forward, I repeated
the words “Don’t be afraid,” inside my head.
And even as I said them, I didn’t know who they were intended for,
Khristian or for myself. Amber, who
stood beside me on the edge of the grass began to cry. I felt numb.
At 6:00 p.m., a microphone was lowered
from the ceiling towards Khristian’s mouth. In a room to the right of his head
stood the victim’s family. In another
room near his knees stood his own. He
addressed them both during his last statement.
Collins family, I know you’re not
going to get the closure you
are looking for tonight. I wish you the best. I prayed for y’all
every day and every night. I have only the warmest wishes. I
am sorry for what you are having to
go through. Mom, Pa, Kristy,
Khristopher, Tony, I love all
y’all. Thank you Mr. Whiteside.
He nodded towards the state chaplain. The warden signaled the executioner, and the
drugs began to flow as he recited the Twenty-third Psalm.
Like the hundreds of men and women who
came before him, Khristian spent the average amount of time on death row prior
to his execution, 10.26 years. He was
killed with a lethal concoction of: Sodium Thiopental, which was used to sedate
him, Pancuronium Bromide, a muscle relaxant that collapsed his diaphragm and
lungs, and finally, Potassium Chloride, which stopped his heart. According to the Texas Department of Criminal
Justice’s website, the cost per execution for the drugs used is “$86.08 and the
offender is usually pronounced dead approximately seven minutes after the
lethal injection begins.” At 6:18 p.m., Khristian Oliver’s spirit exited his
human body. Officially, he became the
four hundred and forty-third person to be executed in Texas since the death
penalty was reinstated in 1976.
At 6:25 p.m., Khristian’s family and the
media exited the prison. The protestors
packed up their signs and casually spoke of the next execution on the eleventh.
“His poor family,” I said to no one, to
I needed something. It wasn’t a cigarette or a drink or even a
hug. I knew I couldn’t just walk away from this and go back to my motel. I
turned to the bearded man next to me.
“Do his parents get to take his body back
to Waco tonight?” I asked.
“They take everyone to a funeral home
right around the corner. They’ve got a
pretty sweet deal with the state.
Everyone, regardless of where they end up, has to go there. That’s where his family is probably headed
right now. You can go too if you want.”
After all the patting down and security
measures and thick glass walls and telephoned conversations, I couldn’t believe
I could just walk into a funeral home and see Khristian without some sort of
“You probably want to get there when his
family walks in.”
I turned towards Amber who stood at my
side like a lost little girl.
“Do you want to go with me?” I asked.
She nodded yes.
I was not thinking at this point. I was merely doing. When we arrived at the funeral home, Mr.
Whiteside was walking towards the entrance.
We quickly followed him. A tall
older man blocked the door with his arms crossed. He looked at Amber and me with a dour
expression as Mr. Whiteside introduced us.
“This is Pamela, a friend of Khristian’s
and this is…”
“Amber,” I said to fill the void.
Wearily we entered the funeral home. Khristian’s parents, another man and woman I
didn’t know, and his brother and sister with their spouses stood at the front
of the room. Amber and I took a seat on
the first pew and tried to remain inconspicuous. I turned off my cell phone; its happy
decelerated jingle made me want to crawl under my seat. I grabbed a handful of tissue and looked
towards Khristian’s body at the front of the room. My eyes welled with tears and my body shook
from trying to suppress the guttural sobs that wanted to escape my mouth. When I finally broke down, nobody seemed to
Mr. and Mrs. Oliver stood by their son’s
lifeless body in the horrendously bright room.
A burgundy blanket was pulled up to Khristian’s collarbone. His eyes were closed and his lips were
slightly parted. Mr. Oliver’s arm rested
on the small of his wife’s back, just as it was at the prison. They both look stunned. Mrs. Oliver turned in the direction of my
nose blowing. With wide sad eyes, she
nodded in my direction, acknowledging my presence.
“I’m so sorry,” I hiccupped between
sobs. She turned back to her son. The small group parted as Mrs. Oliver stepped
up to the gurney. She did not cry or
scream or throw herself to the floor.
She simply touched his face, something she hadn’t been able to do in
over eleven years.
Out of nowhere, a Muzak version of “Let There Be Peace on Earth” played. It was loud and totally distracting. I don’t know if this was the state chaplain’s
attempt to drown out the sound of my crying or if he was trying to comfort the
family members with music. A funeral home employee approached us and said that
when we exited we “Need to use that door. It leads out to the parking lot.”
Realizing that our time was limited, Mr.
Whiteside asked us to join hands in prayer.
I took Mr. Whiteside and Amber’s hands and we formed a circle with
Khristian’s family. When the prayer ended with a collective “Amen,” I walked
back towards the pew.
Each member of Khristian’s family stopped
to spend a moment with him before exiting through the right door. I was the last to leave. I had never seen a dead person before. I walked up to his still warm body and gazed
down at his youthful face. I placed my left hand on his shoulder, said
“Goodbye,” and walked out the door.
By spending time with Khristian Oliver in
the hours before his death, he became much more to me than just a mug shot or
the succinct summation of his worst day.
I discovered a gracious, kind, and honest human being. I empathized with his isolation, his
loneliness and his fear. How could I
not? I too am human.
A letter arrived from Khristian on Monday,
November 9, 2009 in my Colorado mailbox.
I didn’t want to open it, knowing that it would be the last time I’d
ever hear from him. Unlike his other letters, it was written on graph paper and
there were no smiling faces. It read
like a slowly deflating balloon. Having been locked up over 10 years I’ve grown complacent over the years and my execution date seems
surreal to pop up what seems so suddenly. I try to distract myself but it’s rather hard to do so with something as profound as death
looming over me. I seem to
be growing more nervous as the hour approaches but I doubt I’ll lose any sleep over it—I’m pretty tired
and it’s only as I
write this. I received a call from my
attorney saying I lost my appeal in the state court and in the court
of criminal appeals, so they very likely will execute me in 26 hours. Is there any peace with this process? I don’t find peace outside my spirituality—my belief in the Lord is the sole source of my
peace and tranquility. I
hate to think of this as a process—it makes it sound so cold and clinical.
I of course believe in an afterlife—death is merely a transition from one state of existence to
best way to deal with this situation (or what works for me anyway)is both Hope and Surrender.
Hope that relief will be given but surrender to the reality of the situation. Never give up hope though.
family has been handling this situation very reserved and humble. We’re not a
family that wears our emotions on our sleeves so you would be hard pressed to know anything was wrong. Both me and
my family are accepting of what will be however my mom refuses to contemplate my execution. I think all this will be hardest on her. I’ve told my family that it’s up to them if they want to be present. I’ve put my parents, my brother, my sister, and her husband on my list of witnesses. We’re
not allowed contact visits for any reason.
My last goodbyes will be by phone at Huntsville...
are a couple of reasons I keep to myself in here—first because a lot of people here are looking to use you for their own
ends. Some try to learn as much about you as they can so that they can
testify against you if you receive relief from the courts—others
are just looking for someone to support their eating habits. Secondly the majority of the people here are very easy to anger. They think you’re weak if you help someone out, they say you’re scared if you don’t join a gang—just aggressive machoism. A lot of the guys here deserve very much to be locked up (Not
necessarily on Death Row—I really don’t believe in the Death Penalty). Well,
I hope this letter is sufficient—I have a long day ahead of me so I’ll close here.
In 2009, when I first began writing my MFA
thesis about people who work with death in their professions, I also wrote
about my own experience with death, which at the time was limited to my
cats. My last mentor thought it was kind
of ridiculous to equate a pet’s death to that of a human, but I know a few pet
owners who would beg to differ. At one
time, I had four cats living with me—Spooky, Binky, Larry and Penny. Penny was the youngest cat (11) and she was
the first to die. I came home from work
and found her foaming at the mouth and struggling to breathe. I freaked out and my husband took her to the
vet. After an xray, it was discovered
that she had several tumors in her lungs.
We made the horrendously difficult decision to end her life that night.
Four years later, my 15 year-old cat Larry began to urinate
outside the box which was the first sign that something was wrong. He was going through liver failure. We also made the decision to end his
life. While I didn’t go to the vet for
Penny, I took Larry in. He loved nothing
more than to be brushed, so as he cowered on my lap I brushed him to calm him
down. The vet couldn’t find a vein, so she
said it would be best if I left the room as she would have to administer the
shot into his heart.
A few months later, Binky, Larry’s sister succumbed to the
hyperthyroidism that we had treated her for for years. Out of all my cats, she was my favorite. She was a rotund Calico who was snuggly and
social and would face off with any dog that dared enter the house. When we took her to the vet, I stayed for the
first injection, but I couldn’t be with her for the final one. It was just too painful.
After Binky, the only cat that remained was Spooky, my
oldest. At 20 years old, he stopped
eating and hid behind the TV. I knew he
was ready to go and it broke my heart.
I’d had that cat for half of my life and when he died, I vowed to never
own another cat. It was too difficult to
When I went to pick up Spooky’s ashes, I met Judy and fell
in love. Despite the fear of another
loss, I took a chance on love. And I’m
so glad I did. Judy is a lovable cat who
is chipper and snuggly and loves to destroy my furniture. And I don’t mind because I love her. Her
presence makes me calm and happy.
I didn’t want another cat.
And then I met Sonya Reed. She
had written me to thank me for being with Khristian on his last day on earth
and making him laugh. A friendship
developed. We wrote. I went to visit her. In the year that followed she told me of her
cat at the prison. She named her Violet. She snuck food to her and tamed her. She loved this cat like a child. The Sun published a piece about Violet and Sonya.
But then the prison decided they were going to trap the
feral cats at the prison and kill them.
Sonya pleaded with the Assistant Warden to let her trap Violet and let
someone adopt her. And even though I
didn’t want a second cat, especially a feral one that might hurt Judy, I agreed
to do it. I didn’t do it out of a love
for a cat, but out of love for my friend.
I wanted to take care of the one thing she loved and make sure that she
was safe from harm.
So, I arranged to have Violet tested for Feline Leukemia and
HIV and she tested negative. I got her
spayed and vaccinated. I brought her
home on October 23, 2011
and amazingly she thrived in her new environment. She is now an important and loved member of
This past weekend, I awoke at
to the sound of her labored breathing under my bed. I knew this wasn’t a good sign. I found an emergency vet and brought her in
immediately. They took chest x-rays and
found some inflammation. They didn’t
know if she had asthma or pneumonia or really what was wrong. They gave her steroids and an antibiotic and
kept her for 12 hours. She didn’t
eat. I knew she was stressed out in that
foreign place, so I took her home where she could rest and feel comfortable.
Yesterday, October 23 exactly one year from the day I
brought her home, I took her to her regular vet. She still wasn’t eating and had vomited. They
did blood work, including a heartworm test and last night, the vet called to
confirm that she had heartworms, which are fatal to cats. Violet spent the first two years of her life
living in a culvert outside the death row facility in Gatesville. Heart worms are contracted by a mosquito. There is no treatment for cats. I am devastated.
I wrote Sonya a letter last night through JPay to break the
bad news. I wish I didn’t have to do it that way. I wish I could have called her and spoke to
her in person, but she’s in prison. In addition
to dealing with the news of Violet, her daughter with Khristian just had her
fourteenth birthday and in two weeks, it will be the three year anniversary of
Khristian’s death. I don’t ask much of
people, but if you want to score major kharmic brownie points, would you please
send Sonya Reed a letter? If only to say
that you’re praying for Violet. She
needs her spirit lifted and right now I can’t be the only one to do it.
Her address is:
Sonya Reed #878111
2305 Ransom Road
You can write her the old fashioned way or buy a stamp
through jpay and send an email. It would mean the world to me if people reached
out to her with compassion. You don’t
have to be her best buddy, just say something simple.
I am trying to make sense of this turn of events. Violet was the happy ending to my book. I couldn’t save Khristian Oliver or LarryMatthew Puckett, but I could save a tiny cat from death row. And look at what happens. Despite my best
intentions, death will take her anyway. I just wish and hope and pray that this
little cat can beat the odds and recover.
If you are so inclined, will you please pray for her?