Writing About the Death Penalty

If you've read Death Becomes Us, you know that I communicated with two different men on death row. For my MFA thesis, I contacted Khristian Oliver to speak with someone who knew the day they were going to die. (That sounds horrible and callous, but I guess you'd have to read my book to understand.)

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The second man, Larry Matthew Puckett, had the same spiritual adviser as Khristian and he asked if I'd also write to Matt. Matt wrote about his life on death row in Mississippi, as well as the men who were scheduled for execution. I agreed and we corresponded until he was executed in March of 2012.

 

I met Jamie Arpin-Ricci, one of Matt's other penpals, via Facebook and we have remained friends. (True tidbit...he designed my book's cover!) As a fellow writer who has tackled the difficult topic of the death penalty in America, I decided to invite him on the blog to talk about his book. So, welcome Jamie!

 
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Jamie Arpin-Ricci

 

Jamie Arpin-Ricci is an author, speaker, and community advocate living in the inner city of Winnipeg, Canada with his wife & two children. He is the pastor of Little Flowers Community, an inner city Mennonite church. He has written several books, including "The Last Verdict", “The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis, & Life in the Kingdom”, “Vulnerable Faith: Missional Living in the Radical Way of St. Patrick”, and several other books.

 

What is your book, The Last Verdict, about?

"The Last Verdict" tells the story of two mothers whose lives collide because of a tragic murder- the mother of the victim and the mother of the man condemned for her death. The story follows their complicated and heart-wrenching pursuit of justice for their children.

What was the genesis of this book?

Several years ago I read a novel about death row. While I had long been ideologically opposed to the death penalty, the story touched something in me, pushing me to go deeper. I knew that I needed to personalize the topic. So I became pen pals with two men on death row. I chose one of the men, Matt Puckett, because we were born almost a month apart.

Matt and I soon became good friends, writing regularly about things such as justice, faith, reading, and life on death row. Through him I became friends with several of his family members, especially his mother, Mary. Before Matt was executed, I asked me to use my writing to try to change people's hearts and minds about capital punishment.

I struggled to know what to write for quite some time. However, through my continued friendship with Mary I began to be moved by her mothers heart. Aside from the ethics and politics of capital punishment, I realized that on both sides of a murder are people who deeply loved those involved. So I decided to write a story that helped people get a glimpse at both sides.

You mention with Matt that you reached out to him because of your closeness in age. Were you scared about communicating with someone on death row?

I suppose I should have been at least nervous, but to be honest, I wasn't. As my wife will tell you, I have an uncommon ease with reaching out to people who others might be afraid of. I was cautious, as I didn't know what to expect. The cynic in me wondered if they would be honest with me, so I was somewhat guarded. Matt quickly put me at ease.

What one thing about the death penalty would you want people to know. I ask this, as most people don't really know much about it, until it touches
them personally.

I think it is just that: It has to be personal for us to meaningfully engage on the issue. I've always said, if you are going to be for the death penalty, I hope you do so with a heavy heart knowing that we get it wrong so often, and even when we get it right, it harms innocent people. And if you are going to be against the death penalty, I hope you do so with a heavy heart knowing what that means to the victims family and friends. It shouldn't be easy, regardless of what side you take.

I would also say that we need to dismantle our binary "good guy vs. bad guy" mentality. We want our bad guys unredeemable and our good guys pure as the driven snow. Because we think in these terms, we all too often don't consider the potential for a wrongful conviction on a murder because the person has a record of abuse or crime. Matt was the first to admit to me that he was no angel before his arrest. Yet, too many people will use those things to write off the possibility of innocence. I wonder if we do this, in part, because to acknowledge that complexity means acknowledging that none of us are angels.

Do you still communicate with anyone on death row?

Yes. On the same day I began writing Matt, I chose another man to correspond with. Ron Smith is the only Canadian on US death row (in Montana). Ron never denied his guilt. So overwhelmed with grief over the brutal murder he committed while high, he requested the death penalty. While he received his sentence in 1983, he has been on death row ever since. It didn't take him long to change his mind about wanting to die. It is unlikely that Montana will ever follow through with his sentence. He's a very nice man.

Do you have any new books in the works?

I have a couple of projects on the go, including a coming-of-age novel and a progressive Christian theology book. Ideas are never in short supply, but with a 15 month old baby, time and energy are.

Thanks, Jamie, for taking the time to answer my questions!

If you'd like to reach out to Jamie...

http://www.jamiearpinricci.com
http://facebook.com/JamieArpinRicci
http://twitter.com/jamiearpinricci
http://instagram.com/jamiearpinricci
http://pinterest.com/jamiearpinricci

If you, dear reader, would like to share your story on my blog, whether it's about working in a death profession or the death of a loved one, please contact me! Let's continue to keep the conversation flowing!

Also, don't be afraid to comment, ask questions, or like these posts. I don't bite.

Remember remember the 5th of November

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.

Surrender

     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,
 Did 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.
J
            Take Care,
            Khristian Oliver

     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 smile.” 
     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 smile.
     “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.
     How 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 meal. 
     “Fried chicken, chocolate ice cream and coffee.”
     “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 some more. 
     I did.  Even though he had answered all of my questions, my whole reason for being there, I felt compelled to speak with him againI 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 Libra.”
     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 surprise.
      “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 asked.
     “No.”
     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 fingers.
     “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 lot.”
     “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 again.

     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.
Amber and 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 clock.

     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 everyone.
     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 bureaucratic barrier.
     “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 mind.
     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 4:12pm 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 another...The 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.
                        
My 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...

There 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.
    
And he did.

    

    












Monday Mournings: When Your Son is Executed. A Mother's Story

My name is Mary Puckett, I am 56 years old and I am the mother of 4 boys.  I live in Vicksburg, MS, where I was born and raised.  My husband and I lived in Texas for a time when our boys were small. My youngest son was born in Houston.  In 1986, we moved back to Mississippi.  Soon after moving back, I obtained my GED as I had dropped out of high school years before. In 1994, at age 38, I enrolled in Computer Programming at a local community college.  At that time, my son Matt was a senior in high school and my son Trey was a junior.  I wanted to do really good in this program because I wanted my boys to be proud of me.  

In October of 1995, the year that Matt graduated and as he was preparing to leave for a stint in the Navy, he was arrested and charged with capital murder.  In August of 1996, Matt was tried and convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection. He was 19 years old and innocent.   I don’t plan to go into the details of the crime and the trial on this blog right now because it would take forever and this blog is about death.  Matt’s death.



In the time that Matt had been incarcerated, we always believed in him and his innocence and knew that one day justice would prevail and Matt would come home. I worried what type of man he would be then, after all the years that he had been subjected to MS’s penal system.  But, Matt was a good man who also believed that one day he would come home and he planned to do good things when he was finally on the outside.  He read and he educated himself on the law.  He wrote stories and essays and letters and he made friends.  He wanted to be a writer and he wanted to make this world a better place. 

Unfortunately, Mississippi’s “legal” system was determined that Matt would die.  On March 20, 2012, the guards at Parchman Penitentiary walked my son down a hallway and into the death chamber and strapped him onto a gurney and killed him.  They put needles in his arms and pumped poison into his veins and they “murdered “ him.  In the name of “justice”, they “murdered” him.  Matt left this world and obtained his “freedom” that day. We had prayed for his freedom for all those years and that day our prayers were answered, just not the way we had expected.  He was 35 years old and he was FREE

Matt and I talked as much as we could in the months leading up to his death.  We knew that our legal options were running out but we were still hoping for a miracle.  About two weeks before, Matt called me and tried to prepare me for the worst. I could not begin to acknowledge that the worst could happen and that I would lose my son. He told me that he was prepared and that the biggest mistake that he had made was not to prepare me. He told me how much he loved me and how thankful he was that I stood by him all those years and believed in him. I only did what any mother would do.  I loved him and believed in him no matter what the rest of the world thought about him.  He was my son and NOBODY knew him like I did. 

We went for a visit two weeks before the date that the State had scheduled to kill Matt. How strange that sounds – a date scheduled to KILL someone… so barbaric and horrific.
During this visit, Matt told me that he needed me to go to the funeral home and take care of arrangements for his body.  I stared at him and resolved not to break down and cry. I assured him that I could do whatever he needed me to do. The State was requiring him to do this and to have all final arrangements on paper and notarized by the next day or they would not let his body be released.  We were still in the Supreme Court but the State was forcing us to face Matt’s death whether we wanted to or not.  He apologized for asking over and over.  Matt was facing death but he was more worried about me than he was himself.

That afternoon, we made those arrangements and I emailed them to the prison chaplain the next morning. 

We were allowed a final visit on the day he was to be executed.  There were six of us.  We sat in a circle around a glass partition and talked about anything and everything.  We talked about the fact that we had three chances left to stop this and that surely the odds were in our favor.  The US Supreme Court still had not ruled on the latest filings, Matt had actually handwritten a filing to the MS Supreme Court and the Governor of MS had a petition for Clemency that had been filed with over 6000 signatures pleading for Matt’s life to be spared.  I put my hand on the glass and Matt did the same on the other side and I told him that I loved him no matter what.  I looked into the eyes of the kind, bright, compassionate and good son that I had raised and told him goodbye.  He smiled and told me “I got this”.  I knew he was at peace and that I would in all probability I would never see him again.

We were turned down by all of the Courts and the Governor refused to commute Matt’s sentence.  The lawyer called and delivered that news to me while we were still in the van driving back home. Matt called while I was talking to the lawyer and I had to tell him the news that we had lost and I was powerless to stop it. I told him how much I loved him and how proud I was that he was my son and that there were so many people that loved him and that he had taught all of us lessons about forgiveness and living.  He asked me to tell them not to squander the lessons they learned.  He told me that I had to learn to forgive the people that had done this to him so that I could be with him when I died. He told me he would be there waiting on me.  I will always treasure his last words to me. He left this world knowing that I loved him and that his brothers and his family loved him and I know that he loved me.  What a blessing in the midst of all this tragedy that I was able to tell him that one last time. 

Matt’s body was brought back to my hometown and we were allowed to see him away from that prison for the first time in many years. I was allowed to touch him again, something that I had been forbidden to do for too long . The next morning, he was cremated as he had asked to be.  When Matt and I had talked about what he wanted, he just said he did not want to be left at Parchman. Anything else we did would be fine with him.  The following Saturday, we held a memorial service.  Many of Matt’s friends from school and even some of his pen pals came to the service. Our family and friends were there also.  Father Tim Murphy, Matt’s priest from the prison and Bro. Wayne Whiteside, Matt’s friend and pen pal delivered the most uplifting and inspiring service that I have ever heard.  If you were in that room and did not really know Matt, you did when you left. Those two men described their relationship with Matt and the things that he had taught them and you knew without a doubt the affection they felt for him. The room was filled with people who loved and mourned for Matt but we all knew that he was in a far better place. 

Our family picked the music that was played at Matt’s service.  I grew up hearing the old hymns, so we played, The Old Rugged Cross, How Great Thou Art and Amazing Grace.  They are my favorites.  I also had sent Matt the words to a song by Rascal Flatts, I Won’t Let Go, as an encouragement, so we played that one.  The last song, I Can Only Imagine, by MercyMe was recommended by my sister. I thought it was perfect.  I have them saved on my ipod and listen to them often.  I know that Matt would have been pleased with the decisions we made.  Matt’s ashes are still with me, in a box on my bookshelf.  One day soon, we plan to scatter them in the Mississippi River so that he can float to the Gulf and then to infinite points beyond.

I have been to many funerals of both family and friends. My Mother died in 1995, just a few days before Matt was arrested.  Matt was a pallbearer at her funeral and that was also one of the last times that I saw him as a free man. I remember how proud I was that he and his brothers were willing to do that for their Grandmother.  Matt’s Dad died in 1998 of a heart attack. We all believed that his heart was broken over Matt and he never recovered.  My oldest son, Jason died in 2007 of a heart attack. He had a weak heart but we never knew. He would have been 33 years old that week.  I grieved differently for all these people as I loved all of them differently.  I thought I would never recover but I have to a point.  I will always miss them but I also believe that I will see them again once I leave this earth. 

All of these deaths have impacted my life but none as much as Matt’s. His death was senseless and accomplished nothing but creating more victims and grief.  It did not magically bring back the victim in this case and the death of the true “murderer” won’t do that either.  I do not want this State or this country to commit “murder” in my name whether the accused is guilty or innocent EVER…..