My death row experience: missing the lives of my children

Screen Shot 2016-02-20 at 1.06.04 PMIf you conducted a poll asking the public to identify the men on death row with a handful of monikers, “father” would likely fall very low on the list. But most men there had children, and many of them kept on caring, even while disconnected from their families by the walls and the impending doom of an execution date. If staying clean and full felt like a challenge on death row, then staying a parent felt like a climb up Mt. Everest.

I had to watch my kids grow up behind a plexiglass window when my mother would bring them to visit me in prison. I would talk to them about what was going on in their lives, and give them my best fatherly advice. After every visit, I had to watch them walk away after putting their hand up to their hearts and telling me that they loved me. I always made sure that I told them that I loved them when I could. But as I watched them leave I knew that it would be awhile before I saw them again. The next time they would have grown a little hair under their lips, then a little hair under their chins. They would eventually go through school without me being able to attend a parent/teacher meeting, or help them with their homework. I would eventually miss out on all of their sporting events. I would miss out on seeing them having their first crush on a girl and needing some advice. I knew I would miss out on the total experience of being able to be a dad to my children, and then they would become young men just like that. Men that I wouldn’t get a chance to raise. Men I could only hope one day to get to know. They would become dads, too, as I became a Pa-Pa to their children, from behind those bars. Life would eventually move forward while I would always be stuck in the same year that I had been arrested. Nothing changed in prison, ever, while I knew so much was happening without me on the outside. So much I should have been there for, so much that was taken away from me and that I could never go back and experience.

My mother would often write to keep me informed with what was going on with the family. One evening I got a letter from her. I opened it, happy to be receiving mail for the day, until I read the contents of it. The letter started off with a greeting and then went on to explain that my oldest son Terrell had had a stroke but was doing better. She had waited until he was out of the woods with his health before she wrote to tell me about his situation. The letter went on to state that he had to be life-flighted to the hospital in Houston. A nurse kept working with him as he was slipping away. He ended up comatose for two weeks in ICU. The doctors talked to my family about pulling the plug on him because he was showing no signs of progress. They decided to give it from that Saturday to Monday to see if he would show some signs of change. Sunday morning my son came out of his coma. I learned all of this in a letter that I read from my cell. I was not a part of it, I was a spectator to my own son’s tragedy. It hurt.

I immediately asked an officer to let me make a phone call home to my mother. I told him about my mother’s letter and what had happened with my son. He showed the letter to the Major, and a few minutes later they brought me to the offices and allowed me to call her. My mom and I talked for a few minutes, and she reassured me that Terrell was doing much better. I was escorted back to my cell where I lay and fought back tears for not being able to be there for my oldest son. I had always been there for him. So much was being taken from me, the fundamentals of life were being denied to me, and it was an awful feeling to absorb that.

It’s every father’s dream to see his kids grow strong, but dads can always remember the times when their children were frail and weak. My son had been through a lot. His sickle cell condition made for some difficult days. Yet I’d watched him grow and thrive despite the challenges. I’d kept strong through most of the legal hurdles thrown my way. I’d watched stone-faced as a court sentenced me to death for a crime I didn’t commit. I’d even survived those first few days on death row, where loneliness and despair imprison men a second time. But when I learned that my son had been unconscious as a result of a stroke, I sobbed. It was a typical example of the pressures prison puts on families. Mom didn’t want to upset me and worried about my own emotional state. She’d kept the news from me until he was doing better. Maybe she was doing me a favor, but she had to play both sides against the middle. Perhaps she was right. I couldn’t do anything for my son. Inside the walls of my cage, I was a helpless voyeur to the struggles of the child I cared for deeply.

The trauma at home drove me to work harder on the case. Death row can turn a man into a makeshift investigator and amateur lawyer on his own case. I started researching the case law that was being cited in my appellate brief as well as the cases the state was using to keep me on confined in this cage. I began writing letters to pen pal banks that had been established by different organizations asking for pen friends to write. I wrote letters to the governor, to the president of the United States, and to the media. I created a non-profit organization called Join Hands for Justice with my very dear friend Isabelle Perin from France.