That was the title of an essay which arrived in my office at the Folio Society in the Spring of 1992. The address was that of the Jackson Diagnostic and Classification Centre in Georgia, and the essay was accompanied by a letter from a prisoner in Cell Block G – Death Row. His name was Victor Roberts: he had been condemned to death for the shooting of a young white woman during a burglary on 1 January 1983, and over the next nine years had had two stays of execution. In one, he came within 48 hours of being ‘fried’ – at that point the method of execution in Georgia was the electric chair – and though he was hopeful that the second stay would result in a review of his case, he soon realised that it would probably do not more than prolong the inevitable.
It was then that he started to write to people, because, as he said in his letter to me: ‘there is no one here to listen, to even try to understand. [Death Row] is a place of endless routine, where Time itself is a dreadful task.’
I wrote back. I offered to send him books and to befriend him. I said I hadn’t time for campaigning. He replied. Shortly afterwards I made my first visit to him. I remember it so vividly – driving alone from Atlanta to Jackson, the highway cutting a swathe through thick woodland and an even thicker forest of signs advertising Comfort Inns, Super 8s, Travelodges, Brittany Inns (‘American owned and extra clean’), Best Westerns, Waffle Houses and Burger Kings with free fries and a shake. I stopped for coffee: the waitress was as warm as Dolly Parton and totally incomprehensible: it crossed my mind for the first time that I might not understand a word Victor said, and the thought was very strange: he was so articulate on paper.
The drive up to the prison wound luxuriously between lakes and parkland. Then I saw the building. A sheer, light-grey square mass of concrete, faced with barbed wire, its four watchtowers standing proud from the walls. Getting in involved running the gauntlet of the man in the watchtower who couldn’t get my name – ‘Spell it, ma’am, for Chris’sakes’ – and endless gates which clanged or whispered – I don’t know which was worse. On the far side of all this stood Victor, looking smaller than I expected, smiling and serene.
We spent six hours talking: his story was only too common – abused and badly beaten by his father, he was driven onto the streets to fend for himself at an early age. An essentially gentle man, he took love where he could find it. He says himself that he doesn’t know at what point stealing stopped being a matter of survival and became a pattern of ignorance and self-destruction. By the time I left, I couldn’t imagine why I had thought it might be difficult to spend six hours locked up with a black stranger, being watched through the window by warders. A fellow inmate took our photograph before I left – four polaroids – he chose two to keep, I have the other two.
Over the next three years, a wonderful Pro Bono lawyer based in New York fought for a retrial. Victor has never pretended he did not commit the crime, but argues that the gun going off was an accident, and indeed a good defence lawyer could – and later did – make that case successfully. Victor’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment with parole – a period in Georgia of twenty years from the point at which it is agreed. Since then we have met in many different prisons – from Fayette Country Jail where he was held during his hearing for a retrial and where (for the one and only time) I faced him through bullet proof glass and had to have a male friend in attendance, to maximum security prisons all over the State. We would meet in a large hanger-like room, sitting round plastic tables on kindergarten-sized chairs, and eat popcorn and jalapeno burgers from the vending machines.
Victor was due to be paroled in May 2015. By February I had heard nothing from him and when I finally got an answer to my many calls and letters, it was to hear that he had undergone a brain operation that had left him physically and mentally damaged. I was granted a special visit last September: he could not walk and his concentration came and went, but it was my chance to give him a last hug and kiss. His mother and I have been in touch ever since and it was she who telephoned to tell me that he had died.
This Christmas our tree will be decorated, as it always is, with the fifty crocheted angels that Victor made for me when he was on Death Row and we shall remember him with a special toast to his freedom: it may not be quite what he had anticipated, but, with God’s grace, it will be something beyond his wildest dreams.
Sue Whitley. 18 November 2016