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.)
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!
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, 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.
A year or so ago, I came across April Moore's blog about the 93 men that were executed at Folsom Prison. With my own connections to two executed men and to Folsom Prison, where my brother served thirteen years, I was intrigued. This past week, I read April's book, Folsom's 93: The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison's Executed Men.If you are a fan of true crime or just a history buff, you will love this book. I did. And the book's genesis is totally cool. April's Aunt Betty had this box filled with the mugshots of these men and a history of Folsom. Being more curious than a five-year-old kid on Christmas eve, I wanted to know more about Aunt Betty and Uncle Tom and how they acquired these historical treasures.
The book is about each of the 93 men, their crime and details from their execution. It also includes details about California history, as well as Folsom's history. All of the executions took place before 1937 and the amount of time from crime to execution date is incredibly brief. A lot of research went into the writing of this book!
I asked April if she would answer a few of my questions and she graciously accepted my offer.
DW: As a reader, I wanted to know more about your family and how they acquired these records. Have you ever written about that?
April Moore: I wrote a blog post last year that had a little more detail than the introduction does, about how my great-great uncle acquired the records. You can read about it here. I kick myself for not asking my aunt more questions about it before she passed away several years ago, but at that time, I never imagined writing a book about them. I suppose some things are meant to remain a mystery.
DW: What was the most difficult aspect of writing Folsom’s 93?
April Moore: I'd have to say, that cross referencing information was the toughest part. Obviously, I didn't want to get any facts wrong, but locating collaborating sources was a struggle sometimes, given that many documents and sources no longer existed, or were just unavailable.Of course, coming across conflicting information was also a headache, so I spent a good deal of time deciphering fact from fiction. I will add that the other difficult aspect was knowing when to stop researching and just write the damn book!
DW: Before writing this book, did you have an opinion on the death penalty? If so, did it change?
April Moore: Great question. I have to admit, I didn't really have a strong opinion before, so this project really forced me to examine the issue and decide for myself. To begin with, from a financial standpoint, capital punishment is much more costly to states and tax payers than keeping offenders locked up for life without parole. Currently, California spends roughly $137 million per year to keep inmates on death row, but without it, the cost could drop to $11.5 million. Instead, states could allocate that money for education, crime prevention, and rebuilding crime-ridden neighborhoods, just to name a few. I understand that it may bring closure to the victim's family, but it only creates another grieving family--the inmate's; the grief cycle continues. It's also been shown that the death penalty does not deter criminals from committing a capital offense. Lastly, I believe the system is incredibly flawed. Too many innocent people have been put to death. I get that executions has rid the world of some pretty heinous individuals, but it has come at a great cost. The Innocence Project has exonerated 18 people from death row, but there were countless others who were not saved in time. It makes me wonder if all of the 3100+ inmates currently on death row in the United States are truly guilty.
DW: After doing your research, did you feel that any of these men were innocent?
April Moore: Yes, absolutely. Several of the 93, particularly the minorities, weren't necessarily given fair treatment or even a fair trial. Oftentimes, it appeared they were doomed from the moment of arrest. During the turn of the twentieth century, investigation practices and methods were shoddy--at best. Investigators routinely mishandled evidenced, were prejudiced against minorities, or were simply overzealous about landing a conviction. It broke my heart to see some of these men be convicted when serious doubts about their guilt existed. If it's that easy to be wrongly accused today--given all of our technology and crime collection methods--think how easy it was to be wrongly accused back then.
DW: Which man did you find the most fascinating?
April Moore: Probably #28, Jacob Oppenheimer. For a man who spent most of his adult life in solitary confinement, he had this incredible insight into the human psyche and the outside world. He wrote such poignant and thoughtful essays, stories and letters that made me think, that given the opportunity, he could have been one of America's more revered authors. On the flip side, the man was a killer, although it's hard not to argue that the prison and their treatment of him, contributed a great deal to that.
DW: I’d read that you went on a tour of Folsom. What did you think of the prison?
April Moore: Oh my gosh, that was quite an experience! Such a formidable presence; if only those gray walls could talk. It was fantastic to finally see the place that I had spent so much time researching. The history nerd in me was going crazy with excitement! I really didn't know what to expect, but I certainly didn't think I'd be walking through the cell blocks and through crowds of inmates in the yard. The highlight of course, was seeing the original condemned row; walking the steps to the trap door, and standing where so many men took their final breaths. Creepy, but surreal. It's impossible to not have tremendous awe and respect for the prison, as well as the staff who risk their lives everyday working there. As incredible as it was, I'm not anxious to tour it again any time soon. The view from the outside is enough for now.
DW: What is in store for you now? More historical nonfiction?
April Moore: After five years of research and writing Folsom's 93, I'm headed back to fiction for a little while. Years ago, I wrote a novel and set it aside, so I might revive that, but I've recently started an urban fantasy that I'm having a lot of fun with. It's nice to get back into the fiction realm, but I'm sure it won't be long before the history geek in me starts itching for a new project.
Thanks April! I'm going to leave my readers with a song.
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.