Friday, March 8, 2013

The Other Side of the Stay

By Christi Buchanan

I got started on this endeavor – writing about that march – after reading Michael Lambrix’s story, “The Day that God Died”.  He recounts what would’ve been his last days had he not been granted a stay of execution.  It was hard to read because I am intensely emotional about this subject.  It reminded me so much of my husband’s experience with a stay that I became plagued by the idea of writing about the other side of it.  The problem is that it’s full of holes…blank spots that obscure the whole picture.  Enough stands out to try, though.

You’d think I would remember every detail about that particular week, but I don’t.  I don’t even remember the date - just that it was March of ’97.  What I do remember is the contrast between the hard truth of the situation and the way folks looked after me because of it.  A friend of mine recently told me: “Hell, Christi – we were more involved in it than you were because you were so out of it.”  She’s right.  I suppose that’s why I don’t remember the date.

The week started out like any other week.  I got up and got ready for work.  Usually we would goof around or talk about whatever was on TV the night before while we waited to get picked up.  But not that Monday morning.  Mostly everyone just stood there smoking, silently waiting on the van.  Even the officer was subdued.  I knew it was because of me…that if I were to leave, people could breathe again.  I hated that they all seemed so stifled, and there was nothing I could do to change it.  I tried to relax and give off good vibes and focus on the pretty frosty trees.  Ground security finally pulled up to collect us for work so everyone moved toward the van.

“Hey, Buchanan.  Hold up a sec.”  I turned to face the officer who’d spoken and took a deep breath.  “What now?” I thought.  I didn’t think there could be any more bad news, but when the D.O.C. is involved, is there ever really any good news?

“What’s up?”

“Captain Bryant wants to see you,” Mitch said.

“Great”, I thought, turning to go back into the building.

“Uh, Christi? He wants you up top.”  He seemed almost apologetic and he stood there waiting for me.

This was new.  I was a C-Custody, which meant I had the highest security level available.  I didn’t go anywhere without shackles, a waist chain, and handcuffs.  Actually, most C-Custodies didn’t go anywhere at all.  They brought everything to us – food, meds, canteen, school – everything.  I was one of a handful of C’s chosen to work in the machine-operated embroidery plant there on the grounds.  It was the one exception to the rule – we actually got to go to work.  So the fact that I was wanted up at administration was totally out of the ordinary.

“Up top? Why? I can’t go up there.”

“He just said bring you up.  Come on.  Get in the car.”

Panic settled over me as I got into the front seat and I wore it like a seatbelt.  The van pulled out around us and I could see my friends looking at me as they drove by.

“Is it bad?” I asked quietly.

“Don’t know. But you’ll be okay.”

The ride took all of 45 seconds.  Not enough time for me to take a deep breath, say a prayer, or get a grip.  When I climbed out of the car, Mitch was beside me so fast I jumped.

“You can’t be doin’ that shit, Christi! You gotta let me get you out and tote you around.  You can’t just go jumpin’ outta cars and wandering off.  You gotta wait.”

“Oh, sorry.”  I couldn’t help smiling a little at the chagrin in his southern accent.  He took hold of my elbow and steered me up the walkway toward the staff house.  This was a large, red brick building with a white columned porch that looked like every other building on the grounds.  The only difference was instead of housing inmates, this building housed officers.

“Why are we going in here?”

“Because this is where the major is.”

“The major? You said Captain Bryant wanted me.”

“He does and he’s with the major.”

“Oh hell,” I mumbled and slowed my stroll a little.  Mitch tightened his grip a little.  Neither of us spoke as we shuffled up the walk.

I assumed all of those officers were in the administration building across the road.  Turns out the major’s office was in the basement of the staff house.  It was brightly lit, modestly decorated, and warm, too warm.  He was at his desk and Captain Bryant was on the couch against the far wall.  Mitch steered me into the center of the room and left.  I wasn’t sure what was expected of me, so I just stood there looking at them.

Major Diggs was a tall, middle-aged man with gray at the temples and a very serious demeanor.  He had a way of looking at you that was both fatherly and “major-ly”.  All at the same time.  Captain Bryant, on the other hand, was a short, rather round, older man who always looked slightly amused.  Both of these guys were respected and even a little beloved, because of the way they dealt with us.  Fair, but strict.  Strict, but merciful.

“Why don’t you have a seat,” Major Diggs suggested, “and we’ll get started.”

Over the next few hours, he and Captain Bryant explained to me that because of the seriousness of the situation (my co-defendant who also happened to be my husband, was going to be executed in 3 days) and the sudden interest in me from the press, they had to tread carefully.  They were considering locking me down in isolation until after it was all over.  They just couldn’t take any chances because they weren’t sure how I was going to behave.

You see, the prison didn’t look like a prison.  The tree-lined roads covered in black top, meandered through manicured lawns that surrounded the red brick buildings. The entire property was nestled against the picturesque James River and bordered on both sides by woods and…there was no fence – at all.  It was not uncommon for people to just pull in and drive around, like it was some kind of private school or something.  Major Diggs’ concern about what I may or may not do was not entirely uncalled for.  My situation was rare.  Most guys, if not all of them, on death row had wives who were at home, or co-defendants who were men, not wives who were their co-defendants.  There was no specific policy on what to do with me so he was “flying by the seat of his pants,” (as he put it).

I was surprised at how calm I was listening to them map out the impending week of doom they had in store for me.  I was just hot.  I asked if I could take my coat off.  So captain Bryant unhooked my cuffs and lit a cigarette for me.

Both of them had been working at this institution the entire time I’d been there.  They were well aware of my record and my behavior.  I thought I might have a chance here to talk my way out of isolation.  I figured they were giving me that chance because they knew I wouldn’t do anything stupid.  So I talked – begged, actually.  My argument was emotional, but sound (maybe even a little bit “guilt trippy”).  I said that locking me up all by myself in the hole during one of the darkest periods of my life was just cruel – unbelievably cruel – and that it would cause irreparable damage on so many levels.  I pointed out that I’d never given them any reason to believe I would try to harm myself or get away and reminded them that I got my job because of my behavior.  I also expounded on how the very nature of a woman doing life is to see out those who are like-minded, to cultivate friendships that can endure the tests of time, and to look after each other, ‘cause no one else is going to do it.  I assured him I had good people around me on the hall that I could lean on.  I promised that if they would just leave me be to try to deal with it all on the hall, with my friends, they wouldn’t hear a peep out of me and I swore I would follow whatever rules they saw fit to lay on me…if they would just not lock me down.

When I was done, they just sat there.  Major Diggs wouldn’t even look at me.  That’s when the panic rolled back in.  I said please a million times and then said it some more.

“Please, Major Diggs, please.  You can’t lock me up while they kill Doug – you can’t.  How am I supposed to get through it in that damn dungeon by myself? Please don’t do it – it’s Doug! It’s Doug!”

At that moment, he got on the phone.  I couldn’t hear his side of the conversation because I was crying, pretty hard.  Captain Bryant lit another cigarette for me and as I hot boxed it, it dawned on me that Major Diggs didn’t smoke.

“Okay, Christi”, he said hanging up the phone.  “Here’s what we’re going to do.  You are now on work restriction for the rest of the week.  Confined to the hall, but not your cell.  If I say “jump,” you better ask “how high”.  Agreed?

The relief was so overwhelming I just nodded.

And just like that, it was over.  I was back in the car with Mitch.  The odd giddiness I felt over narrowly escaping a week in hell momentarily suspended all thought of Doug.  Momentarily.

It didn’t take long for the wave to crash back down on me.  Like I said, C-Custodies couldn’t go anywhere or do anything so most of them slept – a lot.  The hall was a ghost town when I got up there.  All the room doors were closed and in spite of the TV blazing away, the rec room was empty.  I found it ironic that I’d just begged the Major not to lock me down on the strength of having good people around me, but not a soul was in sight.  I trudged to my room, thinking maybe I could sleep through the week.

Sometime after ten, Sgt. Bush woke me up and asked me to join her in the office.  She was another officer who’d worked there long before I showed up and knew me fairly well.  I respected her tremendously and was glad she’d come to see me.  Standing over six feet, she cut an imposing figure.  Her steel-blue eyes could melt metal.  I think.  But she cared.

“How you holding up?”

“ ‘Kay,” I mumbled.  I could feel the sting of tears through the burn of smoke through my ever-present stogie.  The office was dimly lit and I couldn’t read her expression.

“Did Major Diggs tell you what he’s doin’ to me?”

“Yes,” she said a little too slowly.

“You think he should’ve locked me down?”

“No.  But you’re very despondent.”

“What?  What do you expect? How am I supposed to be? Chipper?”

“No.  No one expects that. I’m just checking in, okay?”

She let me vent and cry and bitch and moan for a while.  It was good to get it off my chest.  She told me she’d be back about 7:30 Thursday night (his execution was scheduled for 9:00) to get me, and that we would stay in the office as long as I needed to.  I appreciated what she was trying to do even though I knew the bottom line was security to keep a close eye on me.  I agreed and went back to bed.

Thursday showed up all too soon and I spent most of it smoking and staring off into space.  My roommate sat with me and I was grateful she didn’t try to make me talk. I had one hell of a headache and nothing seemed to help.  Back then the officers passed out Tylenol every four hours.  I couldn’t wait for 6 o’clock to roll around so I could get some.

As the hours dragged by, people took turns sitting with me in the rec room or at my door.  Some people brought bowls of food or hot coffee.  Others brought packs of cigarettes.  It was like a wake and even though I knew they meant well, I couldn’t wait for Sgt. Bush to come pull me off the hall and tuck me away in that office.

Six o’clock finally arrived, and what I am about to write is put together from what those who were there with me have told me.  I went to the officer’s desk to sign for two Tylenol.  Driver was pretty cool and she knew the deal with me so I didn’t even have to ask for them.  As she shook the pills out of the bottle and into my hand, someone behind me asked if I wanted theirs, too.  I nodded and stepped to the side with my hand still held out.  Two more pills popped into my palm.  I muttered my thanks as two more plunked onto the little pile.  And then two more.  It seemed like everyone on the hall was in line for Tylenol and they were giving them to me.  What’s so amazing to me about this seemingly small gesture is that it was not legal.  We were not allowed to swap meds – and while we did it all the time anyway, we didn’t do it so blatantly in front of the police.  And Driver…Officer Driver was letting them do it.

Here’s the thing.  Anyone who knew me knew about Doug.  Not just that he was on death row, but that I loved him beyond reason.  My friends have often said they felt like they knew him too.  I guess Driver figured I was going to need all the help I could get in the next few days.  Nobody said a word to me either.  They just kept signing for the pills and she kept plunkin’ them into my palm.

A ruckus broke out down the hall and everyone turned to see what was going on.  The noise spread quickly up the line, all the while getting louder and more urgent.  Out of nowhere Kelly literally popped up in my face, grabbed me by the shoulders and started jumping up and down – screaming.

“He got a stay! He! Got! A! Stay!!”

It only took a split second for it to register and another for me to react.  For some reason I thought she was joking.  I shoved her away from me so hard that she, and the Tylenol, went flying backwards into the phone on the other side of the hall.

“Shut the hell up!” I screamed back as I started to jerk my way toward my room and Dorian’s TV.  Dorian was there beside me saying, “It’s true, it’s true,” over and over.  Could I hope? Dare I hope that he was spared?  This was not the first time he'd been given a death date, but it was the first time he’d been moved off death row in Mecklenburg to the death house in Greensville.  Everyone – staff, shrinks, lawyers – tried to prepare me.  He had exhausted all his appeals.  There wasn’t much left to work with.  Even Doug figured this was it.  Most guys on the Row only waited 7 or 8 years (in Virginia) before their time was up.  He was well beyond that mark.  So to think otherwise – to think this was not it was like something out of a movie.

I hit the door to my room running with Dorian hot on my heels.  I couldn’t seem to remember how to turn on the TV so she did it for me.  They we just stood there holding hands, and our breath, waiting for the picture to come in.  When it finally did, the screen filled up with Doug’s mug shot taken ten years earlier and one word written in all capital letters in white across the bottom of the screen.


I didn’t need to hear the sound.  That word said it all.  But before I could react they blew the whistle for count.  Dorian and I stepped out into the electrified air of the whistle.  Count is a very serious affair, not to be taken lightly.  Everyone was practically vibrating with excitement as the officers took count, but the only sound you could hear was me sobbing.  Dorian held my hair away from the end of my cigarette and Dinky held my hand.  As soon as they finished counting I was mobbed.  It was great and I still grin foolishly at the thought of it.  People were laughing and crying and the whole load of us was jumping up and down like a major league baseball team that just won the World Series.

The rest of the evening is a blur of faces.  Sgt. Bush stopped in at 7:30 as promised, but only for a minute.  I stayed up all night writing Doug.  I was thrilled about this most unexpected turn of events, and assumed he would be too.  I couldn’t wait to hear from him.  We were allowed to write and got 3 short phone calls a year.  Our Easter call was right around the corner.  But it seemed like it would never get there.

Doug’s reaction to the stay was nothing at all like mine.  He told me he was eating his last meal with his priest when word came down that he would be going back to Mecklenburg.  They had to get him out of there pretty quick so he was expected to leave his meal.  He refused.  He told them it’d been ten years since he’d had a Pizza Hut Deep Dish and he wasn’t about to abandon it.  He’d also requested a two liter bottle of Pepsi and a homemade apple pie.  They compromised.  He took the pizza with him and left the pie and Pepsi.

By the time me and my crowd were hoopin’ and hollerin’ he’d already been back on the row for a couple hours.  He said they got him out of there so fast he was back in his cell before any of his friends knew about the stay.  While he was eating, Doug had set his watch for 9 o’clock, the killing hour, as he called it.  But because of all the upheaval he forgot about it so when it went off, it broke him.  He told me about that over the phone.  His voice so thick with emotion he didn’t sound like himself at all.  He said he cried – hard – for hours.

It was nearly a year to the day later when they actually did execute him.  Those were difficult moments for us.  I was over the moon that he was still alive.  He was not so happy.  For him, it was simply a delay of the inevitable.

“Just more time in a cage, Chris,” he wrote in one of his last letters. “I can’t imagine never walking barefoot through the grass again and that’s what life without parole is. That’s all that is waiting for me, if I get off death row, I just move next door to a different cage.”

I thought he would rather be alive than not; that life was worth living no matter where you did it.  I couldn’t understand the defeat and hopelessness I read or the dull sorrow I heard in his voice.  Those last moments were strained and awkward.  My hope and enthusiasm annoyed the hell out of him.  His despondency just pissed me off.  When March began that year, I didn’t realize how ready he was for it to be over, that he was running full tilt toward the end.

It’s almost 15 years later now.  I am finally coming to understand what he meant, and why he just wanted it to be over.  My time in prison has been a far cry from what his was like.   I do not feel caged.  But as I have to face my family again with yet another parole turn down, just days before Christmas, I hear that same dull sorrow in my own voice.  I’ve been in prison now longer than I was free – six years longer.  I know what he meant about walking barefoot in the grass and I’m ready for it to be over, too.  But so many people genuinely shared not only my grief, but my joy as well.  I wrote about that very thing several years ago when I lost my ring.  I suppose that’s why I keep going, why I keep writing.

Dec. 2012

Christi Buchanan 1003054
Fluvanna Correctional Center 8D
Box 1000
Troy, VA 22974

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