Reprieve

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I work with people on death row and this is a fictionalized account of a similar incident I had last year.

I vividly remember the afternoon I called Miguel to tell him his son Carlos would live — at least for now. It was an emotional call, yet a very small part of my job, albeit one I look forward to. More often it goes the other way and I have bad news. This time I wanted to let go and cry with Miguel, but I had my professional face on and knew it wouldn’t be appropriate. While I had grown close to this man, old enough to be my own father, he looked up to me, seeking answers, help, and support. Strength is what he needed, not tears.

The stay of execution came two days before his son would have been strapped to a gurney and a lethal dose of midazolam pumped into his vein. Miguel and his wife Clara would have watched, as would Carlos’s two nieces and myself. We would all be crowded into a small space along with a heavy man, wearing a dark suit, representing the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). On the the other side of a thin wall the victim’s family would sit, accompanied by the press and also TDCJ representatives. We weren’t sure if the victim’s family were going to show up or not because they, too, were relatives of Carlos.

Texas made no effort to separate Church and State. They allowed only one person into the execution chamber besides the actual executioner and that is the TDCJ Pastor. If you were Muslim, Jewish, Atheist or Pagan you were out of luck. Of course you could reject the company of the pastor and die without having the opportunity to have a person touch you with gentleness for the first, last and only time in the ten or twenty years you’ve been incarcerated on the Polunsky Unit. You could die alone. Or you could have the comforting hand of the Pastor, who all agreed, was a kind man and respected all religions, touch your leg gently as you passed (hopefully) gently into the good night. Fortunately this wasn’t an issue for 99.5% of those on Texas death row. They prayed often and read their bibles regularly. Often their last words included love and thanks for their family and friends, asking for for Jesus’s forgiveness and acceptance.

Carlos’s last words were going to be simple words, but ones he had spent months working on. Ever since he got his execution date he would send me drafts and I never had a problem with what he wanted to say. He had been judged all his life. It wasn’t up to me to judge his final words, so I simply told him that they were fine. But he continued to work on them, more committed than most writers. Finally he decided that short was better, and it was. “I love my family and friends and I thank them for their ongoing support. Twelve years ago I made a mistake. I was young and stupid. I acted without thinking. I’m so very sorry. Live in love, not hate.”

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