article (forward)

Courtney Siceloff csiceloff at
Fri Jul 10 22:05:00 JEST 1998


Jodie English agreed to share this article about an experience of defending
an individual accused of killing a police official.  Jodie, and her husband
Lonnie Valentine and their two children, live in Richmond, IN, but retain
their membership in the Atlanta Meeting.  Jodie has been a defence attorney
for 20 years, and was law professor at the Georgia State University College
of Law.
This article appeared in the July/August issue of Quaker Life Magazine, of
Friends United Meeting.
courtney siceloff

>Date: Tue, 09 Jun 1998 16:04:02 -0500
>To: Courtney Siceloff <csiceloff at>
>From: Jodie English <jodiee at>
>Subject: article (forward)
>>	by Jodie English
>>	"For these are all our children. We will all profit by, or pay for,
>whatever they become." 
>>	James Baldwin
>>We drove the five hours to Indiana's death row wrapped in the web of
>friendship. Gray skies over the hollow hulls of the cornfields. As the
>walls and razor wire loomed large, we steeled ourselves. I could feel the
>air between us go dry. Jan Dowling, one of several lawyers representing
>Gary Burris; myself, lead counsel for Bill Spranger. Both of us hoping that
>neither would suffer the agony of execution, condemnation to that hell
>where lawyers wake in the night to revisit what might have been done
>>Two clients. Two lawyers. Two impending executions.
>>A little over a year later, both men are off death row. One executed. The
>other serving a sentence of sixty years. One, his ashes spread on the
>grounds of the Bloomington, Indiana Friends Meeting. The other, eking out
>his existence in the thin hard soil of a maximum security prison. But alive.
>>Bill Spranger was eighteen when he and a man ten years his senior set in
>motion the events that would place Bill on death row. It was an evening
>fueled by alcohol, an evening that accelerated so unintentionally from a
>simple prank to deadly violence.  They'd been out drinking almost until
>morning when, less than a mile from home, they saw a car parked beside the
>road. The older man wanted to break in. Bill was too drunk to disagree.
>When the town marshal pulled up, Bill just stood there, waiting to be taken
>away to spend his first night ever in jail. But the man Bill was with felt
>>Unbeknownst to Bill, this man had been convicted of robbery, and faced
>serious prison time if he was caught. The man started to fight with the
>marshal, a fight that very quickly turned ugly. As Bill watched in a
>drunken stupor, the two men rolled over and over each other all the way
>across the highway. Finally, the officer got the best of his assailant. But
> the marshal didn't just put on the handcuffs and finish the arrest. The
>marshal started beating the man who had fought him. The man lost
>consciousness, but the beating continued. Days later, his body bore
>nightstick shaped bruises. 
>>Bill just wanted the beating to stop. He looked around and saw that the
>marshal's gun had come  unholstered during the rolling tussle across the
>highway. Bill had never held a gun before, but he picked it up and yelled
>for the marshal to stop the beating. The marshal ignored him. Then Bill
>cocked the gun, to show the marshal that he really meant for the beating to
>stop. A split second later, the gun exploded in Bill's hand. The two fled -
>Bill to the arms of the girl he was engaged to marry, the girl whom he
>told, within an hour of the shooting,  his voice shaking, "I shot him, but
>I didn't shoot him - the gun just went off." 
>>In 1983, when Bill was sentenced to die for the murder of the officer, the
>jury never heard what he had told his girlfriend. They never heard that
>there was something profoundly wrong with the officer's gun - that
>ballistics testing of the gun confirmed the explosive, hair trigger
>condition of the firearm. They sentenced him to die based on the testimony
>of his codefendant, who received a sentence of four years.
>>Part of representing someone in a capital case is to unearth their past,
>for the past always bears witness to the reasons the murder took place. As
>death row inmate Michael Lee Lockhart said on the eve of his own execution,
>"One thing is certain: God did not create a murderer."
>>For months, Bill refused to open up. Both his parents had died while he
>was on death row. What was the point of maligning their memory? It wasn't
>until I told him something of my own past that I got him to understand that
>it wasn't a question of blame, it was just a question of telling the jury
>the truth of who we are.
>>I told him of one of my parents' drunken arguments when I was nine. At
>three in the morning, I  woke to the alarm of their anger. I huddled close
>to the heat grate on the floor of my room through which I could see into
>the room below where they fought. I watched as my father mangled my mother
>in his strong hands, ripping a clump of hair from her head as she screamed,
>the ball of her hair moving along the floor in the air from the heat run.
>The bald spot. How she would comb her hair so carefully to try and hide
>what had happened.
>>My past was redeemed by the trust that came to exist between Bill and me.
>The horrible memories that used to haunt me whenever someone cracked their
>knuckles or I saw hair cleaned from a brush have less of a hold on me, for
>without them, I could never have told Bill's story so fully.
>>Bill was the tenth child, born in as many years. With his father either
>absent working two jobs or drunk, and his mother gone for months at a time
>caring for one of Bill's brothers who spent most of his childhood in
>hospitals due to kidney failure, Bill got very little. There was grinding
>poverty. There were times they ate popcorn for dinner. Times the family of
>twelve drove to church at the rescue mission all packed into a rusting VW
>bug. The only thing there seemed to be enough of was alcohol. Bill's father
>thought nothing of letting Bill have sips of his liquor as a child, openly
>shared his booze with Bill as a teenager. In the Spranger household,
>intoxication was manly. And intoxication was the catalyst for violence.
>Sometimes as a teenager, Bill would try to intervene - try to stop the
>beatings with whatever was at hand. It was a pattern that was repeated the
>night of the marshal's death.
>>Gary was tall, rail thin, black; with musing, caring, questioning eyes.
>Abandoned as a baby in a trash dumpster, Gary would never know the identity
>of his parents. He was raised by the pimp who rescued him from the refuse,
>by prostitutes and thieves. At six he brought clean wash cloths to the
>girls to wipe themselves for the next trick. At seven he helped sell liquor
>to the clientele of the whorehouse that was his home. Even though there
>were several police raids at the brothel, the law never cared that a
>nameless little black boy was living in squalor.
>>When the state finally placed him in foster care, Gary was described as
>quiet and good. Always appreciative. His only request for Christmas each
>year was for a birth certificate. He wanted to find out who he was, to have
>a birth date, some day of his own to celebrate.
>>For a man denied the knowledge of the date he was born, Gary came to know
>several dates by which he was to die for his crime of killing a cab driver.
>In the decade and a half over which these appointments were set, scrubbed
>and rescheduled, he became something of a philosopher, reading constantly.
>His gentle manner disarmed those who guarded him. He was made a trustee on
>the row. When others lost their self control, his was a voice of reason.
>Around him, some peace was possible. 
>>Two years ago, when he came very close to being executed, some guards came
>to Jan, and with tears in their eyes, asked her to tell him goodbye for
>them. Faced with the possibility of imminent execution, Gary thought mostly
>of other's feelings - telling Jan that perhaps he should take his last
>words from the old Mr. Wizard, Tutor Turtle cartoon. Tutor would find
>himself in some awful jam and yell for help to his wise friend Mr. Wizard,
>who, waving his magic wand, would quietly intone: "Drizzle, drazzle,
>dradle, drone. Time for this one to come home." Then Tutor would be
>spirited back to safety. Gary hoped to bring some sanity to the prison's
>superintendent, who though a strong supporter of the death penalty, did not
>believe Gary deserved to die.  
>>The prosecution chartered a bus to ensure that the courtroom would be
>packed with law enforcement officers. By closing arguments, the courtroom
>was bursting with police. Standing room only. Wall to wall, an ocean of
>uniforms in navy blue and brown.
>>I hadn't foreseen this. A modern day Roman coliseum, the roar of the
>crowd, thumbs down. I hadn't anticipated that I would be able to count the
>friendly faces in the courtroom on less than the fingers of one hand. But
>my fear dissipated in the face of the overriding need to tell Bill's story.
>Against their weapons, their anger, and the popular public hue and cry for
>vengeance, I armed myself with Bill's story.  The story of the accidental
>shooting, the defective weapon. The story of how his father had started
>Bill drinking at age eight, and helped to make Bill a full blown alcoholic
>by age sixteen. The story of his efforts to make the best of himself on
>death row - including testimony from his GED tutor, who though her daughter
>was married to our chief of police, nevertheless described Bill's
>determination and hard work as greater than any other prisoner she had
>tutored. I felt the unmistakable sense of calling that comes when the
>Spirit moves me to speak in Meeting, but I didn't know if Bill's story
>would be enough.
>>The witnesses are confined to the chapel. The wait is interminable, much
>longer than officials had represented. Instead of it being thirty minutes
>before the end of his world, it has been over an hour. Schedules adjust,
>but only as to the moment of his ending, not the fact of his extermination.
>Death - that much, is certain.
>>The witnesses are ushered to their seats. The curtains open. The body
>strapped, almost strait jacketed. The long fingers that decades ago
>caressed a woman's cheek, that once grasped a gun as a man was left to die,
>now lift slowly and flutter his goodbye. The head turns. These are the last
>minutes of the world for him. And for the witnesses, who will never be as
>innocent and free again, who will order the events of their lives by the
>bookmark of his execution. No one speaks. No one moves. It is so absolutely
>quiet that each witness can hear the heartbeat of the person beside.
>>Then he vomits. Over and over. Purging himself of their last supper. The
>witnesses, forewarned that they will be banished if they speak out, barred
>from honoring his last wish for their presence, struggle to silence
>themselves, struggle not to gag. Tears fall, knuckles tighten, some fight
>to not throw themselves like birds against the plate glass of the execution
>chamber. In his mind's eye, one witness sees himself grabbing a weapon,
>freeing the man bound to the gurney, the poison poised on the brink of
>coursing through his veins, ripping out the IV lines, running... free. 
>>With the vomit cleaned from his face, the ship of death rights  itself.
>This is the final act. The final curtain. All is as clinical and sanitary
>as the showers at Auschwitz. His eyelashes, so long they brush his ashen
>cheeks, flutter, then still. The moth's wings shudder from the camphor. The
>specimen is pinned. That of God that existed in him is dead.
>>The ashes are spread by a tree. Those who knew him, who fought with the
>simple hope of knowing him still, stand beneath the branches. Some feel his
>presence, some are even sure he is there.  For a decade and a half he'd
>longed to see a tree. None ever grew in the yard on death row. By spring,
>he will be part of the greening.
>>Not all of the lawyers who knew him were able to go on. One left the
>practice of law, left the state that murdered him. When the idea of writing
>this article was first raised,  her reaction  brought back the words of the
>Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova,  who like so many thousands of others had
>lost her loved ones to executioners:
>>	"I spent seventeen months in prison queues in Leningrad.... Beside me, in
>the queue, there was a woman with blue lips....she suddenly came out of
>that trance so common to us all and whispered in my ear (everybody spoke in
>whispers there): 'Can you describe this?' And I said: 'Yes, I can'. And
>then something like the shadow of a smile crossed what had once been her
>>But even she has begun to move on. She hears his voice some times while
>walking in the mountains. After years of stooping to pick up the five
>smooth stones to slay Goliath, she bends to no one. She wakes early,
>follows the sun rise, and at times, carries him with her. And through her,
>freedom and love call in answer to the shrouded heart.
>>When the judge uttered the words the words that meant he would live, the
>man just broke down and cried. His face was lit from deep within, he looked
>as innocent as a child, aglow with joy and he became new. The man who had
>struggled to breathe in the iron lung of a death sentence year after
>brutal, lonely year, was reborn. There is a childlike awe in his gaze as he
>whispers, over and over, the tears falling, "I'm alive. Oh my God, I'm alive."
>>His lawyer knew then, for the first time, what he had endured. How he had
>held his breath all those years in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. And
>she knew what she had lived under,  not knowing all that past year whether
>she had been working on a cadaver, dictating an autopsy report, or whether
>her patient would survive.
>>"To have saved one life, it is as though you have saved the entire world."
>The Talmud.
>>I  wrote this article without telling you which of our clients lived and
>which was executed because I  didn't want this to be merely a piece about
>just my success or failure in saving Bill's life. I didn't want Quakers to
>conclude that a hard working lawyer, or a Quaker lawyer, could solve the
>problems inherent in the death penalty's profoundly arbitrary calculus of
>determining who should live or die.
>>It is easy to be against war when there is no war. And even easier to
>believe in forgiveness when there is no great horror to forgive. As
>Quakers, much more is required. Our faith challenges us to practice
>nonviolence even during war,  reconciliation even for the condemned, and,
>to love rather than kill our enemies.
>>Of course, Jesus was once asked to support the death penalty, the stoning
>of an adulteress. His answer was unequivocal: "Let him who is without sin
>among you cast the first stone." John, 8: 7. Would you have stoned both men
>to death? Probably not, as Quakers. But would you have read of the
>imminence of their stoning in the newspapers and done nothing, offered no
>protest, spoken no truth to this lethal power?
>>Over three thousand men and women await execution in America. "I should
>like to call you all by name...." Some have no lawyers, and their fate is
>assured. Others are represented by hard fighting, but soul weary teams of
>lawyers and investigators, some of whom I know and care for deeply.
>Everywhere around me, eyes I love are closing on this final horror.
>>I don't know how to stop the bloodbath, the killing of our, not God's
>mistakes. Those of us with any sense know we can't hunt murderers to
>extinction when every day society's indifference breeds murderers anew.
>>But this essay  is meant to be more than a voyeur's glimpse at the
>profanity of the death penalty. It is a call to action. We are one hundred
>thousand strong. We stopped a war once. In the Quaker stronghold of
>Pennsylvania, the ranks of death row grew last year at the highest rate of
>any state in America. I implore you, make a strong stand for life. These
>cases are being tried in your cities and towns. Your county prosecutors are
>pursuing these death sentences, sentences that are the vote of your
>neighbors. The death penalty is the greatest act of domestic violence, the
>ultimate example of our society modeling violence as a solution to
>violence. As Quakers, is it not our sacred calling to see this societally
>sanctioned slaughter abolished?
>Jodie English
>707 South A Street
>Richmond, IN 47374
>(765) 962-2567
>Fax: (765) 962-2560

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