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By J. Michael Stanfield, Jr.
The recent parole of Tennessee prisoner John Brown has reminded me of the story of Jesus pardoning the adulteress. In the Bible narrative, Jesus spared a woman from execution, despite adamant protests from prominent citizens. In John Brown’s story, the man convicted in the 1973 murders of Grand Ole Opry star David “Stringbean” Akeman and his wife Estelle, was granted parole despite opposition of biblical proportions. Both stories, although worlds and millennia apart, deal with the profound question of redemption.
News that Brown was granted parole greatly upset Stringbean’s surviving friends, many of whom are prominent members of Nashville’s country music community. They point to the brutality of the crime. On November 10th, 1973, Brown and his cousin, Doug Marvin Brown, ambushed Stringbean and Estelle at their residence. John Brown shot Stringbean when he went into the house. Estelle ran and fell to her knees in the yard. Brown shot her in the head as she begged for her life.
Both cousins netted double life sentences for the murders. Doug Brown died in prison in 2003. The cold-blooded, high-profile crime rocked Music City. Over the decades, John Brown met the Parole Board six times, each hearing opposed by Opry performers and others.
That’s not to say Brown was without supporters. According to The Tennessean, the Parole Board had received 31 letters on Brown's behalf, and many current and former prison employees voiced their support, as well. Kate King, a professor of criminology at Western Kentucky University, spoke at Brown’s hearing and wrote a letter supporting his release. Brown was also backed by Maury Davis, pastor of Cornerstone Church. Davis, who had turned his own life around after spending over eight years in a Texas prison for murder, even offered Brown a custodial job at the Nashville mega-church.
But, as many state prisoners can attest, support rarely carries the weight of opposition. In Tennessee, convicted murderers with vocal, highly visible opposition never make parole, not even after 41 years. Until now, that is.
So, while Brown’s release was seen as a miscarriage of justice to his victims, to many lifers in prison it may be something else. It’s easy to understand the sentiment of Stringbean’s friends. All you have to do is imagine your own friend, brother, father or uncle in Stringbean’s place. If someone killed someone I loved, I wouldn’t want the killer out of prison after “just” 41 years, either.
But, at the same time, I of course understand that there’s another side to the justice coin. As a convicted murderer—and as someone who has known many convicted murderers—I know that people can change in dramatic ways. The person I am today has very little resemblance to the confused, mixed-up, drug-abusing 22-year-old I was over two decades ago. I don’t know John Brown, but I’m certain he’s not the same person he was in 1973.
Most “murderers” I know are actually normal, regular people who committed the ultimate crime in extreme or desperate circumstances. Alcohol, drugs, and youth are often contributors.
And then there’s remorse. Prosecutors and the media often portray people who have killed as evil, one-dimensional sociopaths whose only regret is getting caught, but, in my experience, that is an uninformed stereotype that has little resemblance to reality. Most people convicted of murder that I’ve known understand the gravity of their past actions, and they feel a profound regret for what they have done. This is surely one reason lifers are some of the best behaved, least violent offenders in prison: many have been sobered and transformed by very real and painful remorse.
But even remorseful offenders who have genuinely turned their lives around naturally want out of prison—or to at least have the hope to one day get out. Not just for selfish reasons, either. Prisoners who have served many years behind bars like John Brown often want out to help their family, to care for an aging parent, to reconnect with their children, even to do things to “make it up” to society.
And for those offenders—at least those with a realistic parole eligibility date—the parole of John Brown may be a source of hope. Yes, because it seems to suggest that the things we do and the way we live our lives in prison might actually make a difference.
The general consensus among Tennessee prisoners is that it doesn't matter how you behave or the number of program-completion certificates you earn. Most assume that the Parole Board is only concerned about your particular charges, how much time you have served, and that you have no protestors. Everything else—behavior, programs, personal growth–is thought to be irrelevant. If the Board is ready to give you parole, it does, regardless of anything else. If the Board doesn’t want to give you parole, it has excuses it can use, such as requiring another class or using the handy but arbitrary catch-all reason of “seriousness of offense.”
But, maybe, despite the politics and the watchful eyes of the ever-vigilant, opportunistic news media, if a man serves his time, completes all the available programs and changes himself and his behavior, maybe he can make parole—even when there are voices of opposition amplified by the local press.
Maybe Parole Board members, despite the pressure against them, understand that one desperate, despicable act committed decades ago does not exclusively define a person. That is, a man can commit a horrendous murder, but it doesn’t mean he hasn’t spent the past 41 years regretting it with every fiber of his being.
It’s the reason John Brown marks the anniversary of his victims’ murders every year with fasting and prayer: remorse.
There is of course more to the equation than remorse or an offender’s propensity to change into a better person. Most of us recognize that some actions, regardless of all the mitigating factors, deserve a penalty. Again, we only have to put ourselves in the shoes of victims to grasp this.
The $900 million-a-year (Tenn. Dept. of Correction budget) question is, how much of a penalty?
To some people, in regards to certain crimes, no punishment will ever be enough. And that’s understandable. How do you put a price—say, in years—on a loved one’s life? No amount of prison time, or even the death penalty, can undo past actions or satisfy the natural human desire for revenge.
But as an enlightened society, we should also hold onto the idea that people who do terrible things may be redeemable, that even those among us whose choices and paths lead them to make disastrous decisions—and regret it for the rest of their lives—may nonetheless be worthy of hope.
Maybe even those of us who have caused great harm can dare hope for redemption to, in the words of Jesus, “Go, and sin no more.”
|J. Michael Stanfield Jr. 209006|
1499 R. W. Moore Memorial Highway
Only, TN 37140-4050
I've been in prison serving a life sentence since 1993. I'm 45 and a staunch agnostic. I worked for The Only Voice, the prison newspaper of Turney Center Prison from 1995-2015. In that time I was a reporter, writer and editor.
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