Friday, September 20, 2013

Set Me Free

The Right Way To Say Goodbye
By Jeff C.

"I saw a man who seemed mad simply because others could not hear his music."--William Van Poyck, "Death by Dominoes"

I wasn't emotionally prepared to speak. But I had to. Five years ago I spoke in front of a crowd I was beginning to loathe because I couldn't let people who didn't know my friend speak about him.

I didn't know what to say. How do you give a eulogy for a friend who wanted to die--who wanted the state to kill him? So I rambled.

I met Nate at work and even though he had OCD, personal tics, and social awkwardness issues to an almost debilitating degree, I took to him like a little brother I always wanted.

If you only ever saw him in large groups actively pacing the perimeter as if unable to step inwards to join the conversation or if you only ever saw his frail, wiry nerdiness accentuated by his aversion to group eye contact you missed out on who he was. Nate was smart, thoughtful, humorous, and extremely likeable.

But it's hard not to like a kid who would take 35 minutes to describe every detail of a 22-minute South Park episode with such excitement that it's contagious. It's hard not to like a guy whose favorite character was Butters--though I teased him that he was Tweak and could only aspire to be a Butters. (He would softly bump his knuckles together in front of his chest, even when no one was looking, and I never could figure out if it was an affectation in homage of Butters or just a happy coincidence.)

It's hard not to respect a kid who, after being manipulated into killing a person, couldn't handle the overwhelming guilt and turned himself in after a week, never mentioning to the police who it was that mentally screwed him into thinking it was the only way he could ever be loved. It's hard not to be in awe of a guy who, at his sentencing, told the judge that he wouldn't do the full 25 years because he'd kill himself first...and then, on the fifth anniversary of the murder, followed through with it. (This was after attempts with pills and once swallowing a razor no discernable result, he told me years later, wondering if it was still in him.)

Nate was my sounding board--our backs were to each other in our office and often, while composing a line, an idea, or a paper, I would swivel around and sort of brainstorm with him and he's sort of help me figure out what my intent was. I failed him as a sounding board--when he gave me a 75-page essay arguing that guys who have life sentences should be able to request that the state execute them, I could only make it through a few pages of it and gave it back to him because it was so depressing to read.

I failed him as a friend, too. I let some petty piss-ant prison argument fester and I stubbornly held out for an apology that I felt I deserved. It wasn't until after he hanged himself 20 feet from me outside of our office that his real friend told me that Nate had told him that he was the only one who never turned his back on him.

At Nate's memorial service--the first one I'd ever been to in my life--I was mad at myself for being such a pig-headed fool. And I was mad at the parade of fools speaking who admitted they didn't know him. This all contributed to making a fool out of myself by talking about Nate for what I was later told was an 18-minute ramble. But I simply couldn't have people who didn't know him talk about him in vague, meaningless ways. I had to talk even though I, myself, didn't know the right way to say goodbye.

A couple of months later, when going through the archive files in the warehouse where he killed himself, we found his glasses that he'd taken off, folded up, and put away in the boxes of old accounts payable. When I gave those glasses to the guard to (hopefully) give to his family I realized, as I got choked up about it that I was still fucked up because of Nate's suicide. Because he never gave himself a chance to feel different. Changed. Better.

I no longer felt like it was my fault--as I did that first day before I'd learned the significance of the date he chose. I mostly no longer cringed when seeing flashes of South Park. But I still missed him. I still regretted the smallness of my behavior towards him over being called a word and letting that heated word ruin a friendship. I still felt like I'd let my pathetic need to have the upper hand--the "power"--in that relationship destroy not only the friendship but damage a suffering young man's confidence.

Nate's suicide changed me. Certainly he was my closest, most intimate, experience with death. And he was my first friend who had died. But it took nearly five years for me to realize how much Nate's suicide fully affected me. How much it corrected that prison mentality of never showing your vulnerabilities. And needing power. But what made me realize I'd truly changed wasn't my friend's suicide five years ago, but the judicial murder of another friend five weeks ago.

"'As I've become older, and hopefully wiser, I've come to believe that our relationships are the most important things in life. Particularly friends and family. I mean real, true friends--the kind you'll die for."--William Van Poyck, "The Elephant's Tail"

I wasn't mentally prepared to write that letter. But I wanted to--I needed to--even though I didn't know what to say. How do you say goodbye to a friend who is about to be executed?

What's weird is that until I was told that Bill Van Poyck had had is death warrant signed I didn't even know he was on Death Row. I should have, I suppose. I'm aware that I'm in the minority on this website as a writer who has a tangible release date. But I can be incredibly naive sometimes.

I don't get to read every posting here on MB6, just whichever ones my sister prints off and mails in to me. But there have been two pieces that have moved me so deeply that I simply had to send word to the authors, telling them how much their writing touched me.

"The Ring," by Christi Buchanan, brought tears to my eyes when I first read it. Incredibly powerful, it is the story of her having to give up her newborn son for adoption after being arrested. Except it's so much more than that--my friend Steve Bartholomew and I mused about the dramatic difference between prison here and there, where there seems to be such a sense of community and caring; the only thing even remotely comparable is our educational University Beyond Bars, where we come together regardless of prison politics to help each other out. But not as dramatically as in "The Ring."

"Death by Dominoes" is the best piece of prison writing I have ever read ("The Ring" is the best non-fiction piece). And I tell this to all of my friends when I make them read it. So I simply had to also tell its author, Bill Van Poyck, as much. I sort of felt like I was writing a fan letter when I told him what I loved about the story, when I urged him to try to get it published in some magazine like Harper's or The New Yorker, and of course when I asked him how much of it was true.

He told me it was about 85 percent true, but also that it was a combination of a few different incidents. He told me about his attempts, to no avail (then), of getting it published. And he thanked me for my letter and for giving positive feedback and being "most effusive."

A few months later some fellow prisoners and I were talking and I was handed a submission request for a short story anthology on Prison Noir edited by Joyce Carol Oates. I asked for an extra copy, thinking of my fellow writers on MB6, and was met with reluctance. I was asked for who it was for, because the prisoner with the notice didn't want further competition. I mocked him, asking him if he'd like to run in a race with nobody else in it--"If there's a prize, sure." I, of course, sent the info to my fellow MB6ers anyway.

Then last month I got a message from MB6's editor saying that one of the three pieces Bill submitted had been chosen to be a part of the Prison Noir anthology. I was elated--hoping it was "Death by Dominoes" (it ended up being one I've not yet read).

But then, in the next paragraph, came the news that Florida's Governor Scott signed Bill's death warrant and that he would be executed on June 12th.

This was how I found out that Bill was on Death Row. I doubt that anyone, besides me, had ever had a conversation with him without knowing he was on Death Row, without having that fact loom oppressively over every sentence.

It's not easy, going from finding out that someone's on Death Row and due to be executed in a few weeks, to writing about it to him. I didn't know the right way to say goodbye.

Thankfully, I had the Prison Noir good news to talk about mostly. But I did manage to work up to talking about, as best as I could, his execution.

Mostly, though, I took the letter as a second chance--this time I was able to say goodbye to a friend. At Nate's eulogy even almost 20 minutes of trying to explain how quietly awesome he was wasn't enough for me; internally that eulogy came too late and not to the right person. With Bill I refused to make that same mistake.

My friend and editor, Dina, had encouraged me to write Bill and she answered my questions about how to write someone about to be executed. But much of my own need to write Bill stemmed from my regret regarding Nate. To be sure, Bill and I hadn't yet grown close and I had never shunned him because of some slight, but I saw something unique and admirable in Bill just like I saw in Nate.

This insight was confirmed after I read Bill's final letter to me, which he wrote 5 days before he was executed, but which I didn't get until 7 days after he'd said his last words. Which were, apparently, "Set me free."

It's hard not to respect a man who faced his own death with...well, with such courage and a positive attitude. It's hard not to like a man who thanked me for my friendship and for passing along the Prison Noir anthology info, who genuinely seemed to have spiritual (not religious) strength and peace, and it's hard not to be thankful to have known him--even only a little bit.

It's hard not to be changed by such an experience.

It's also hard not to be motivated by my friend Dina's advice to take this and use it as a fuel to fight the practice of judicial murder. I sort of feel like I'm a bit late to this fight--especially considering that I've been writing for a year for a Death Row site.

Or at least that's how it's publically perceived. A friend of mine was perusing the Internet, on a place called Morbid Reality, and she saw a posting there, as if in hushed tones, that spoke of a website written by Death Row prisoners. Which is the truly morbid part, though--that many of the writers on Minutes Before Six are on Death Row, or that we still have a Death Row?

"McFarlane did not answer for a long time. 'I had big dreams once. But it's been too many years since I was a kid. Enough long years can wear a man down to nothing, and burn your dreams down even more.'"--William Van Poyck, "The Elephant's Tail"

In preparation for this piece I didn't feel intellectually prepared to write about judicial murder--or the death penalty, if you prefer to sugar-coat it--so I dove into a plethora of academic research about it.

But all those intellectual debates rang out about as hollow as someone speaking at a eulogy who didn't even know the deceased. At least it feels that way right now, with the acrid taste of Bill's murder still so fresh.

In all that research I did, I came across arguments that the death penalty isn't a deterrent. I read that the media manipulates us into thinking evil monsters (and not a broken system) are to blame. But it was actually an argument for the death penalty that stuck with me the most. Ernest van den Haag argued that:

Life imprisonment also becomes undeserved over time. A person who committed a murder when twenty years old and is executed within five years--far too long and cruel a delay, in my opinion--is, when executed, still the same person who committed the murder for which he is punished. His identity changes little in five years. However, a person who committed a murder when he was twenty years old and is kept in prison when sixty years old is no longer the same person who committed the crime for which he is still being punished. The sexagenarian is unlikely to have much in common with the twenty-year-old for whose act he is being punished; his legal identity no longer reflects reality. Personality and actual identity are not that continuous. In effect, we punish an innocent sexagenarian who does not deserve punishment instead of a guilty twenty-year-old who did. This spectacle should offend our moral sensibilities more than the deserved execution of the twenty-year-old. Those who deserve the death penalty should be executed while they still deserve it, not kept in prison when they no longer deserve punishment. [Ernest van den Haag, "Refuting Reiman and Nathanson," Philosophy and Public Affairs 14 (Spring 1985), Princeton University Press]

What's odd to me is van den Haag's inability to see that by this very reasoning there shouldn't be any death penalty. Because if a person ages out of being the same, guilty person over time, they why should we want to avoid giving them the chance to become a new person?

Maybe this struck me so clearly not because of the speciousness of the argument, but because it reminded me of the correlation to Bill's letter which said, in part, "After 40+ years in adult prison (plus 3-4 in juvy) I'm weary of this existence & a big part of me is ready to move on."

In the Supreme Court case Gregg v. Georgia [428 U.S. 153 (1976)], the majority opinion, written by Mr. Justice Steward, with Justices Powell and Stevens concurring, wrote that, "[t]he death penalty is said to serve two principal purposes: retribution and deterrence of capital crimes by prospective offenders."

Jeffrey H. Reiman, in "Justice, Civilization, and the Death Penalty," [Philosophy and Public Affairs 14 (Spring 1985), Princeton University Press], states that "[t]he available research by no means clearly indicates that the death penalty reduces the incidence of homicide more than life imprisonment does."

So, if the death penalty isn't an actual deterrent, then is it really just about vengeance? Or rather, are we, as a society, just about vengeance?

I hope to have kids someday soon and I'm proud of the fact that our country seems to be moving in the direction of non-discrimination in regards to gay marriage. But what about the death penalty--what does it say about us that we still have this as part of our society? What does it say that presidential candidates like Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry gets applause when saying no, he's never lost any sleep over all the executions he presided over in his state? Why is America still aligned with countries like Iran, North Korea, and Russia and not Western Europe in this issue? What do I tell my kids when they ask about this? What should we tell ourselves--that we either want this, as a society, or accept it?

I, of course, don't have answers to these questions--just as I didn't know how to write Bill and apologize, on behalf of society, for this mess. But Bill, before thanking me again and encouraging me with my writing endeavors, said something that is a type of an answer to all this:

If I'm gone on the 12th [of June], as I expect will be the case, I'll be free literally & metaphorically. I am at peace with it. Given I've been a fighter & rebel all my life it seems odd for me to take that position, but my spiritual strength (not religious) allows me to have that peace. And, the idea of finally being free of chains & shackles and prison bars is very appealing.

From this I think it's doubtful that Bill is the same person who committed the crime for which he was executed. I know this spectacle doesn't offend everyone's moral sensibilities, but it does mine.

"Seventeen years inside is akin to a century elsewhere. They're long, bitter years that can dull the soul and anneal the spirit, sealing up your heart as sure and tight as the sewn-up lips of a carnival shrunken head. If you let it."--William Van Poyck, "Death by Dominoes"

Most people aren't empathetically prepared to imagine what it would be like to be on Death Row. I'm certainly not. But I have thought about it. Quite a bit. Likely more than most. But that's because I came inches away from being on Death Row.

But for the grace of bad aim, I would be the eighth man on Death Row in Washington State. Or maybe it'd still be seven because they might have executed me by now if I'd've hit that policeman.

Thankfully, though, there's not a scratch on him. Because if I had actually hurt or killed a person I'd have suicidal guilt like Nate or be ready to move on like Bill.

But that van den Haag line ("Personality and actual identity are not that continuous.") keeps echoing in my mind. I'm 40 now and I can't get into the mind of the 23-year-old I was. Not only can I not rework the (lack of) thinking that got me to rob a bank and then get in a reactionary shoot-out with the police, but I can't identify with the unthinking idiot that I was.

Yeah, by far, the stupidest person I ever met was the person that I once was. But it's more than maturity or an ability to think rationally that's changed. Everything's changed. I don't want the things I used to want and I don't care about all those petty things I used to care about.

I certainly wouldn't sacrifice a friendship over something as ridiculous as being called a bitch--no matter what the "convict code" says about being supposedly punked out. And that was just five years ago. The kid I was 17 years ago is entirely beyond my grasp.

Thankfully, though, I'm not overwhelmed with unending guilt that can only be assuaged by my suicide. Thankfully my aim was worse than my intent. I am no longer the me I used to be. But neither was Bill. Or Nate. Or many hundreds on Death Row who we're regularly murdering, not to deter immoral actions, but to perpetuate them.

After being so late to abolish chattel slavery compared to the rest of the world, you'd think that America would look to countries that have low incarceration rates, low recidivism rates, and low murder rates instead of blindly lynching along in our repugnant ways. But we don't. Yet I expect (and hope) my kids' generation will look at our flimsy reasons to justify judicial murder like we do towards the reasoning we once had for the three-fifths compromise.

I'm certainly not innocent in all this. During 9/11 I proclaimed that I was glad that the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, had been executed "so I don't have to hear his opinion about this." But think of how disturbing that thought really is: I'd rather a person that I've never actually heard a word from be killed for my convenience, than have to be bothered to roll my eyes at his presumed supportive comments about a national tragedy.

I don't think that way anymore. And I hope that we all grow out of that selfish mentality. That feeling that my feelings are more important than another person's life.

But maybe I can't logic anyone to be against judicial murder. Maybe they have to have an experience to change them. But I hope that the readers of Minutes Before Six gain that experience and, even if only slightly, become different. Changed. Better.

--July 2013

Admin note:  "Death By Dominoes" took second prize in the fiction division of the 2012-2013 PEN Prison Writing Awards. Unfortunately, Bill was executed before the news reached him.

Jeff C.

By Jeremiah Bourgeois

Recently, another MB6 writer, Jeff Conner, allowed me to read a letter sent to him by a death row prisoner, Bill Van Poyck. Bill had just lost his final appeal, and he felt that the last ditch legal maneuvers by his lawyer were nothing more than a Hail Mary; the odds of success so long that he considered them laughable. What struck me about the letter was the fact that he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the State of Florida was going to kill him. Very soon. And he had come to terms with his fate.

After I read his words, I exchanged a solemn look with Jeff, and then I walked away.

Over the years, I have said to people, I'm going to die in prison. Yet in retrospect, I cannot say with certainty that I truly believed that this was going to be my fate. Although a sentence of life without parole results in most prisoners dying behind bars, this other death penalty is not always meted out. Executive clemency, while extremely rare, can be granted in exceptional cases.

As one of the youngest people to receive a sentence of life without parole in this country, and the second youngest to receive this sentence in this State, I have always known that my case was, indeed, exceptional. After my appeals were exhausted, I knew, deep down, that I had a legitimate shot at receiving a sentence commutation. Yet after reading Bill's letter, I now wonder if my declarations about dying imprisoned were, if not hyperbole, then simply a way for me to psychologically prepare myself in case a future clemency petition was denied. I wonder.

As for Bill, I have no doubt about what he felt on the matter of his fate. Dismissing the last ditch efforts of his attorneys was not some sort of protective mind trickery. He did not say that he was at peace with being executed to have an affect. He was a clear eyed realist. He knew his days were, literally, numbered. There was little his lawyers could do. He had no options left.

The U.S. Supreme Court's invalidation of mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles has given me plenty of options. Looking at my own situation with clear eyes, I see that my days are probably numbered too. Six attorneys are doing everything in their power to ensure that I am ultimately freed. Relief could come from the courts, the legislature, or the Governor. I may get to, finally, say goodbye to this life. And I am ready to go home.

Bill Van Poyck was ready to say goodbye to this life too. He was executed on June 12, 2013.

Jeremiah Bourgeois 708897
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

Please visit the MB6 homepage for new art and poetry by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

No comments: