I recently received a handmade card in the mail. It was painstakingly drawn by hand and then colored in by what appears to be crayon or colored pencil. In it is a carefully printed message, it says simply, “ I understand”. I am touched by this handmade card and hold it lightly to my chest and allow the emotions that this message evokes. I hand the card to my husband who studies it briefly, shakes his head and lays it down on our dining room table. I search his face for a response. I’m pretty certain that I see doubt, and then concern.
This card was sent from my pen pal. He is a 25 year old man in Texas who writes poetry and hopes to publish his work soon. My husband gave me his blessing to write to this pen pal and several others in various parts of the US. He however imposed a condition, a condition that doesn’t always set well with the recipients. The condition is that I write from a P.O Box and that I write under a pen name. The card with the message, “I understand” was written in response to my letter explaining that the conditions under which I write are not intended to be an insult but a compromise. This is a compromise that allows me to get to know and learn from the those that I write to. It is an opportunity to take an honest look at myself, to learn about myself and those that I care for, to share what I learn with others so that we can all grow from the experiences of these men and women. The sender of the handmade card bearing the words, “ I understand” sits in an 8 by 10 jail cell awaiting his execution in a Texas prison.
My friends ask me what I, a 44 year old Missouri soccer mom could possibly learn about myself from those who sit on death row.. My response comes easily, I’ve learned that it is easier for me to be fearful than it is for me to be knowledgeable. I’ve learned that raising my children in a safe, warm home and providing them nourishment is a privilege not a right. I’ve learned that I am capable of doing anything, “anything” to protect that privilege. I’ve learned that it is much easier for me to make judgments about a person’s fate before I know him at his or her core. I’ve learned that I am complacent, idle, and blind to what makes me uncomfortable. I have learned these things about myself, and I can’t go back.
On April 10th 2001 the associated press quoted US Supreme Court Judge Ruth Ginsberg in saying, “People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty”. Each of the individuals that I write to share something in common; each grew up economically challenged, each is a minority, each used public defenders and each received the death sentence at age 18.
Prior to my recent acquaintance with my friends on death row, I had the naive belief that the accused in this country were entitled to a fair and unbiased trial. That’s just not true. The truth is that that privilege is reserved for the wealthy and if you are white you get an added bonus. I am frightened about what this means to me and those that I care for. I believe that you should be too.
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