Death Row Encounter
Emeritus Professor of Philosophy
Trinity College of Trinity International University
Deerfield, IL 60015
When I was sixteen I stumbled across the biblical admonition to "remember those who are in prison as though in prison with them." This injunction captured my imagination, and I decided to do more than just remember. On the first available Saturday I hurried to the local prison, Bible in hand, to give cheer and friendship to some lonely criminal.
The man at the desk asked if he could help me. "Yes," I replied. "I'd like to visit a prisoner."
"Which one?" he responded.
My enthusiasm suddenly waned, for I saw that I could not just walk up to someone I had never seen before, and say, "Here, let me give you some cheer."
"I don't know any personally," I rallied, "but I would like to."
The man at the desk must have noticed my Bible, for he said sympathetically, "Well, I could show you where they are."
I followed him to a heavy metal door, which he opened with ease. Barring the doorway was a grid of thick, steely rods. The man returned to his desk, leaving me alone in front of the grid.
Behind the barrier was a hallway, but no one was in sight. I stood there, staring stupidly through the bars, wondering what my next move should be. After a minute of embarrassed peering, I turned, thanked the man at the desk as I passed, and went home.
Twenty seven years later, I wrote to a prisoner whose name I had seen in a magazine. Remembering my first episode with some abashment, I little expected this second endeavor to fare much better. I was, therefore, astonished and delighted to receive a letter from him a week later.
His name was Samuel Johnson. He had been in prison since New Year's eve, 1981, when he, along with three others, had been charged with the murder of a Mississippi state highway patrol trooper. That was the last time he had seen any of his family, who lived in New York.
For the past week he had been low because a friend on death row had been executed. The very day he wrote to me he had suffered another blow to his spirits, for he had found out that the State's Supreme Court had set July 22 for the date of his execution.
July 22 was just seven weeks away. I wrote to him again, and he assured me that although he could not tell what would happen, he was trying to get a stay of execution. The week of the 22nd came, the day itself came, and I scarcely dared to think that my new friend was dead.
Then on the 24th a letter bearing his return address appeared in my mailbox. Trembling, I opened it. He had been granted a stay pending further court appeals. Some years later he mentioned that once he had come within three hours of execution. Perhaps this was that time.
We continued exchanging letters. "What do you do with your time?" I asked in one letter. He has no regular sleep schedule, he responded, because he cannot see the sky, and noise from other prisoners is nearly continuous. So he gets up when he wakes up, has breakfast ("if that is what you call it"), and reads his Bible. After exercising until he gets tired or bored, he answers any mail that he has gotten, and reads.
He reads—if he can get anything to read. "We don't get to go to the library but have to send out a book request slip and the library sends whatever they want to send. They send two books at a time and it's not uncommon to receive the same books three or four times in a row."
Death row inmates at the prison he was at are allowed to possess no more than six books and magazines in their cells. When I suggested that I could tear out the pages of books and send several pages at a time, he laughed (a smile-face at the end of a sentence) and said that the prison did not enforce this rule too strictly.
Do you ever get a chance to go outside? Yes, prisoners are allowed an hour a day outside in the "yard," and he used to go, but he got tired of the humiliating strip search each way, so he doesn't go out anymore. He stays in his cell 23 hours and 45 minutes a day (15 minutes for a shower).
"As far as furnishings are concerned," he wrote, "there's a slab of metal with a mattress that's called a bed, a sink-toilet combination, and storage locker in this cell. I tried to add a little life by putting up the few pictures and cards that I have. However, the prison authorities took them down on the grounds that they were fire hazards.
In the cell next to Samuel there was a man who has been on death row for thirteen years. "At any time of the day or night he will start barking like a dog, oinking like a pig, braying like a jackass, screaming like a crazy man. The guy that's on the other side of me imitates him and I'm trapped in the middle." I sent Samuel some news clippings of James Baldwin, which he gave to the barker, and "he has been quiet ever since. I wish you would've sent them to me months ago (smile)."
Samuel is six feet, two inches, weighs 217 pounds, and is coffee black. "More times than I can count I've been called 'that New York nigger' by the authorities here and in the places I've been taken to for court proceedings." I sent him a copy of Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and he wrote back: "The things he talks about still happen here today."
On January 12, 1988, Samuel learned that the U. S. Supreme Court would hear his case, which it did on April 25 of that year. The issue before the court was not Samuel's innocence, but his death sentence. According to an article in the February 8, 1988, issue of The National Law Journal, Mississippi used a 1963 felony conviction in New York as an aggravating factor in the decision to give Samuel the death sentence. That felony conviction was overturned in 1987 by a New York court, and an appeal was made to Mississippi to reconsider its death penalty. Mississippi refused, and, in an unusual move, New York's attorney general filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court.
Samuel was convicted and sentenced to death in 1982 in spite of the fact that testimony at his trial indicated that he neither stabbed nor shot the state highway patrol trooper. He was, in fact, the only one of the four men involved who was sentenced to death. One of them pled guilty to lesser charges in return for becoming state's witness against Samuel, the one whom Samuel maintained was the one who had wielded the fatal knife. Samuel's trial was the last of the four, and just before it began Mississippi's attorney general declared from the steps of the court house where the trial was held that this time there would be a death penalty.
After he was arrested, Samuel said, "I was beaten almost to death for eight straight days and held incommunicado for those eight days. I didn't see a lawyer, a judge, or anyone but the police and the rest of those who beat on me." Legal testimony indicated that one of the jurors at his trial had not been convinced of his guilt, but nevertheless had voted "Guilty" because her husband was a Klan member.
June 13, 1988, was a good day for Samuel. On that day the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Johnson v. Mississippi, 87-5468. The high court reversed Samuel's death sentence, and directed that Mississippi grant him a new sentencing hearing.
That hearing took place in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1992. I was able to be at it for the first day. Samuel's friends and family were on the left side of the stately, wood-paneled courtroom, and the widow of the slain state trooper was on the right, along with several tall, all-white, uniformed troopers. Their wide-brimmed hats added to their solemnity and severity. Those on the left, in contrast, were smiling and chattering. At one point the judge had to admonish the left-side group to be quiet or he would throw them out. I stopped smiling when he said that.
Samuel was led to the witness stand by two officers; he had chains around his wrists. The day before I had seen him in the Jackson county jail, seen him, that is, through a 10" by 12" thick window with chicken wire laced through it. When he caught sight of me, he jumped and laughed with glee, waving and gesticulating. It was like being on vacation, he declared, because he wasn't cooped up in his cell. All of the two dozen men in the 25' by 25' room were as black as Samuel.
Samuel was represented by a young, sharp lawyer who specialized in representing people who had been indicted or convicted of capital crimes. After a week of courtroom activity, the jury deliberated. It did not have enough votes for death, so Samuel got life with the possibility of parole. Samuel went back to his cell on death row and some months later was transferred to a large, dormitory room.
After several more years of exchanging letters, I invited Samuel to call us. The calls cost us $1.09 per minute, plus a $4.50 connection charge and tax. At first, he was allowed two five-minute phone calls a month. Then the time limit went to ten minutes and several years later, when he was transferred to a different prison, it went to fifteen minutes. A recording came on two minutes before the time was up, saying, "This call will be terminated in two minutes," then a minute later another recording said, "This call will be terminated in one minute." I started looking at the second hand on my watch then. Sometimes we finished talking several seconds ahead of time, but sometimes Samuel was cut off in mid-sentence. Often he was able to end our conversations with, "I love you, brother." When Linda, my wife, was also on the phone, he would add, "my sister."
Once when we were talking, Samuel exclaimed, "Oh, no. They've got somebody down." He groaned. I asked what that meant. It meant, Samuel responded, between further groans, that a group of inmates had nabbed an ill-favored inmate, had encircled him and was kicking and beating him. Some of the time the beaten inmate dies. This time, I later learned, the beaten inmate survived, though he was badly hurt. You can't inform the guards of who the beaters are, Samuel explained, because then you might be the next victim.
During many of our phone calls Samuel talked about the legal proceedings he was hoping would get him out of jail. The young, sharp lawyer who had represented him at the resentencing hearing entered a motion for a retrial in Mississippi's Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, but it was turned down. Twice Samuel was denied parole and set off four years each time. I wrote to his friends after the second denial asking them to write to the parole board on Samuel's behalf. Many wrote back saying that they had. Samuel died, though, before the next scheduled parole hearing.
He was not feeling well, so he went to the prison doctor. The doctor sent him back to the dormitory. Some weeks later, Samuel fainted and was taken to the prison hospital. After keeping him for nearly a month, the prison hospital transferred him to a hospital in Pascagoula, Mississippi, where he was diagnosed as having sarcoma, a cancer of the stomach. A surgeon at a hospital in nearby Biloxi opened him up, but found that the cancer was too massive to remove. Samuel succumbed three weeks later. The Valentine's Day card that I had sent to him came back marked, "Inmate deceased."
Before he died, Samuel called from the hospital and explained what was going on. Outsiders were able to call him at the hospital, he said, so I promised to call him there. He also received calls from numerous other friends he had gathered over the years, including people from England. The prison decided that he was getting too many calls, though, and had his room phone shut off.
"With God's help, I am going to lick this," he jubilantly, but sluggishly, proclaimed from the hospital. Years earlier he had expressed his ardent desire to get out of Mississippi alive or dead. He didn't make it either way. He was buried at the prison cemetery, with only the prison chaplain present at his burial.