A lifeline on Death Row

The Guardian,, April 25 1992

Jane Officer did not think much of her driver. He was playing redneck country music on his radio, he had a big belly, untidy grey hair, a mouth full of chewing gum and he was determined to inflict his opinions on her.

“Ma’am, what you doing visiting with folks like this?”

She looked out of the van window at the rows of maize where the black men worked in gangs, their ankles hooked together with chains. In the distance, she could see the river. She’d been told that no-one ever escaped from this place: even if they got past the barbed wire and the shot guns, they were trapped by the curling Mississippi river on three sides and by the Tunica hills full of rattle snakes on the fourth. “They’re friends of mine,” she said.

The driver kept chewing. “Ma’am, how do y’all kill’em on Death Row over in England?”

“We don’t have a Death Row in England. We have better ways of dealing with our problems.”

“You don’t have a Death Row?” He shook his head. The chewing stopped. “Well, what do you do with all your trash?”

Jane Officer was a long way from Selly Oak. Fifteen months ago, she had never heard of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, she had never even been to the United States. Back then, she was quite busy enough working with difficult children in Birmingham’s schools, living peacefully in a neat little red-brick house with two cats and a car and a garden full of evergreen shrubs. Now here she was – pitchforked onto the other side of the world, a stranger in a strange land, armed with nothing more than her common sense and a cheery disposition, trying to save a man’s life.

The van stopped outside the Death House. She hopped out, slamming the door on the driver and his country music, and strode over to the low, squat building glaring white in the heat. It seemed odd, but she felt she ought to knock. Then, as the door opened and she stepped into the gleaming lobby, she took in a scene which was utterly strange and yet, at a glance, it reminded her of something which she had known since childhood.

One wall was almost filled with a window of reinforced glass. Framed on the other side of it, she could see a long table, covered with a white cloth and with people seated round its edge. On the far side, in the centre, was a man with a protective circle of women around him. “My God,” she thought. “It’s the Last Supper.”

But this man was no Christ. This was Andrew Lee Jones, aged 35, son of a black farm worker, now a convicted murderer. As soon as he saw the guards letting her into the room, he stood in his leg irons to welcome her. He tried to grin, but she could see that his eyes were bloodshot with fear. She felt the terrible tension in the room.

It was now nearly two o’clock in the afternoon. In two hours’ time, Jones’ lawyers would walk into the mansion of the Governor of Louisiana to make their final plea for his life. In three hours time, the lawyers would phone with his decision. Then, at six o’clock, Jones would be led away – either out into the bright sunlight to continue his life in the prison, or downstairs to the basement where the guards would shave his head and the inside of his left calf, and give him a Bible and his final meal before leading him at midnight to the room at the end of the corridor and strapping him tight into the giant wooden chair with the floor-bolts and the thick black cables and the leather face mask, charred a little at the edges by its former victims.

But, for now, Jane could only sit and wait for the Governor’s verdict. She looked at the faces around the room: the guards with their hip holsters and their tired indifference; Jones’ mother and sisters slowly drowning in the silence. She saw Jones slumping sideways in his chair, so that his head rested on the chest of his girlfriend, and she noticed how the girl quietly tugged her jacket back so that his face pressed on her bare skin.

Jane could not explain how she had ever come to feel so fond of this man. He had grown up on another planet, shuffling from one poor rented room to another in the endless sweat of the Louisiana slums. While she was driving her children to school, he had been hanging out in bars in Baton Rouge, smoking dope, raising hell, robbing strangers and finally sliding on to Death Row. But, in the last fifteen months, she had got close enough to learn the truth.

She had stumbled into his life in May 1990, when she read a newspaper story about the LifeLines organisation, which arranges penpals for people on Death Row. She contacted them. They sent her Jones’ name and address and, without a second thought or any inkling of where it would lead her, she wrote and introduced herself. A week later, Jones’ reply dropped through her letter box and, instantly, she was forced into another world.

“Let me start by telling you a li’l bit about myself. Like, I’m 34 years of age, bord August 24 1955. I been here on Death Row since November 15 1984. I have had seven execution dates. I don’t have any children and I don’t have any friends here on Death Row. It don’t pay to have one, because it’s no telling when he might get executed. Execution is a part of life here in Louisiana. The Governor, that’s what he stands for. Anyway, I’m a man that stays to himself.

“I like to watch sports, and I do a lot of exercise. I keep myself in good condition. If I ever let myself go, it would be the end. Like we are lock down for twenty three hour a day. We get to go outside three days a week for one hour. Everytime I’m out of my cell, I’m handcuff. I’m in a one-man cell. Even on the yard, I’m separate from the rest.

“The rules here is very hard. The cell that I’m in is right in front of the light and it stay on 24 hours a day. Like, since I been here, I have seen men lose their mind. I lost count on how many got executed. The guy in the next cell from me, he talks to his self and he answer his self. Like, it’s hard to hold on here, but I’ll make it. Anyway, like when you write back, feel free to ask any question.” He signed it “Peace, Andrew Lee”.

In her front room, with the cats dozing on the sofa, Jane Officer’s hands shook a little as she read. This was a little bit frightening. But she had offered this man friendship and she could not run away just because he took up her offer, so she wrote back that day and asked the most obvious question of all.

Eight days later, another letter dropped on to her doormat: “To answer your question of how I got here. In 1984, I broke out of the East Baton Rouge jail, and it took me two weeks to get out of that city and doing that time, my girl friend found out where I was and she brought the police with her. She was driving my car, and they were following. Like, I got away. But I still got stuck with her.

“Like me and my girlfriend, we left Louisiana and went to Texas. From there, we were going to California but my girlfriend decided she didn’t want to be on the run anymore. But she didn’t tell me. She told the police. It was on a Thursday the police walk down on me watching TV. I had change my name to Jesse Lee. I had ID card and everything. She told them that, too. So I was brought back to Baton Rouge.

“Three months after that, I was on the go again. And doing this time, they sayed that I killed my girlfriend daughter, for her putting the police on me, and that’s how I got here. And I have been coming close to getting executed. Like, I don’t let it get next to me. It’s like this – everybody has to die, but no-one really wants to die. If it come to my time, I’m ready for it. I don’t feel bad for being here something I didn’t do. I look at it this way. I’m here for something I did in the past.

“I left home when I was seventeen and no-one in my family knew if I was dead or alive. I left home because my father had die. And I didn’t see any point in staying there anymore. Right now, I don’t here from my family. They don’t write or come visit me. I don’t know them and they don’t know me. Jane, when it come to my family, they could just walk by me and I wouldn’t know them.”

The more she learned about Andrew Lee Jones, the more obvious was the gulf between them. And yet she was drawn to him. She was dumb-founded by the crime he was said to have committed. She had no doubt that if he had attacked her daughter, she would have tried to kill him herself. But that would be blood revenge, not justice. Anyway, he seemed to be saying that he was innocent. But there was something deeper than that. Maybe it was something maternal which moved her. Or perhaps it was more personal: his misery at the death of his father echoed in the death of her own husband. Whatever it was, she wrote again and within weeks, he had taken over her life.

He wrote with an obsessive honesty. “Everything is still the same here, lonesome as can be… I must say I’m going against my code telling you somethings about myself. Like I have had people to trick me, telling me that they wasn’t for the death penalty. And they were. I felt like a fool to think back that I had told them how I was suffering here… The only real problem I have is that if I do die here, would they come and get my body. I don’t want to be layed to rest in a prison grave yard. That would mean that in the after world, I’ll still be a prisoner…

“Anyway, about books, cowboy books is the only kind that I would read. To read a love story make my heart hurt. I much rather to lay here and look crazy than to read one. It’s the worse thing to do is get a woman on my mind… The guy in the next cell got executed. Me and him used to have some good conversations. Before he went, like on Christmas night, he tried to get away, but he couldn’t get the leg cuff off fast enough. His name was Wayne…

“I miss from doing the things I used to do. I wonder what it would be like to be with friends again. I don’t know if the people I know is still alive… I wish I could have just one day of freedom. Like, last week a guy went on a court order, and he is still talking about all he seen… A guy named Tyrone, he got a date for execution. Everyone is trying not to think about what might happen. It get worse when it get within the last few days because they start checking to see if the chair work, and sometime the lights go dim… What it all come down to is this. We are just here. We can’t make anything. We don’t have any needles. All we got is time. With nothing to do with it.”

Jane began to think about him more and more and soon she was consciously leading her life for Jones as well as for herself. She visited places or read books simply so that she could recall them in detail for him. She sent him regular bundles of photographs so that he could see the life she was leading.

By the end of the year, Andrew Jone’s meagre life started to change. “I feel like you are a very good friend,” he wrote. “Like I been found myself when I can’t wait to hear from you. I guess it come from being so lonely and listening to the same talk and doing the same thing everyday. Your letter always have something you did or are going to do. Your life is full of hope and fun. My life is hard and sad. Have fun for both of us and I’ll wait to hear from you.”

But their bond was not finally forged until the new year, when Jones’ life on Death Row was thrown into turmoil. First, he was given an execution date for February 24 1991. “It all makes life without meaning, life without purpose. In fact, no life at all. To be here on Death Row, a man needs something to keep the hope alive. I even tried to be happy here. But tell me, how can a man be happy with the thought of his life being ended with the push of a button?”

Then he had a row with another inmate and was hauled off to the punishment block, “the hole”. Far away in Selly Oak, the first Jane knew of this was when she got a brief hand-scrawled letter from Jones. The Hole was freezing cold and the guards had taken away his shoes, socks, underpants and shirt, leaving him shivering in a tracksuit. One of his neighbours was jibbering mad. Another he could hear screaming as the guards gave him a beating. The food was inedible. “This place is what it is – a hole. If you see this place, you will know why I don’t want to be in here. I been cold since I been here. Jane, this is one place I’ll never come back to.”

Jane was flooded with anger and worry. From Selly Oak, she called LifeLines, then she tried Amnesty International, but they were powerless. So she wrote to him each day, filling her letters with images of a different world. She sent him a book full of pictures of the Welsh hills and castles. She knew he would not be allowed to see any of this until he was released from the hole, but it was all she could do to help a friend.

To her relief, he wrote again a week later. He was back in his cell. He had got her letters and they had worked. “Like, yesterday, I was on the yard all by myself and I got to thinking about the book of Wales that you sent to me. I had a very good vision of myself running through those woods, trying to find one of those beautiful castles. Jane, I just love writing to you.” And he signed off “Your friend forever. Love, Andrew Lee.”

For a while, he was on a high. His lawyers won a stay of execution, and Jane dared to tackle the most sensitive issue, his estrangement from his family. He claimed not to care about it, but she told him that she now felt like a mother to him and that no mother could ever abandon her son and that if he gave his real mother a chance, she would surely take him back.

Andrew Jones, the hardened criminal convicted of child-murder, replied immediately. “Your letter arrived today, and it was very touching. Like I had tears in my eyes. For a long time, I was wondering if I would ever cry again. Now I know. Jane, you are no telling how many miles away from me. But it took you to open my eyes to the hurt I have caused my family. All these years, I been keeping to myself. For I wouldn’t let no-one get close to me. I could have been a better person, for I wasn’t bad looking. I kept a smile. I was a well-liked person. But I just didn’t care anymore after my father died.”

He told her he had now contacted his family. “Like I have told them that I was sorry for all the hard times – all the long nights for them, waiting and wondering if I was dead. Jane, I’ll give anything to turn back the hands of time, to be able to make up for the all the wrong I have done. A lot of nights I have awaken in a cold sweat. I still remember the looks on people’s faces when I used to hold a gun on them. I’d like to say I’m sorry to them. Jane, my eyes are open because of you.”

In Birmingham, Jane felt she had finally found him. She understood him and she understood why she had wanted to stand by him, despite his horrific crime. Now, when her friends prodded her about him and suggested that she must feel frightened of him, she told them with her whole heart that they were wrong. This Andrew Jones was not the same man that had been convicted of murder. She now cared very much about him and could not bear the thought of his life being cut off by the executioner.

Just as quickly as it came, the high was over. The prison guards ruled that no inmate could keep more than seven letters in his cell and confiscated almost everything that Jane had written to him. And they gave him another date to die, one minute after midnight in the morning of Monday July 22 1991.

“I’m getting kinder nervous,” he told her. “I definitely feel that my time is running out. I tried to picture myself being around for the summer, but I can’t… I can’t even have a good dream any more. Every dream that I have is about a prison… I don’t like the way that people be looking at me. Like everybody have the thought of death on their minds.” He sent her a magazine article full of grim details about electrocution.

Jane could not sit by and allow the death of a man who had become like a son to her. And so, on July 16, with only five days before his execution date, she flew to Louisiana to fight. The next morning, she presented herself at the doors of Death Row.

She managed to talk to Andrew. With a little luck, she even managed to get him out of the visiting room, where his face was hidden from her by a metal screen, into an office where she could talk to him face-to-face. And despite the guards’ stern orders that there was to be no physical contact, she managed to squeeze his arm and give him a conspiratorial smile. But these were little victories. She needed to save his life.

Andrew’s lawyers then gave her a chance. They said his best hope of life was the Board of Pardons, a committee of five citizens who have the power to recommend a stay of execution. The lawyers asked Jane to speak for him and so, two days later, the teacher from Selly Oak stood up in a crowded room on the banks of the Mississipi River, facing cops and guards, all staring her down, and nerve-racked relatives, all begging her to succeed, and she pleaded for Andrew’s life.

Other witnesses also spoke. Andrew’s sisters talked about their family and the old plantation where they had worked for a pittance until their father died and they were evicted from their home. Andrew’s trial lawyer made an extraordinary confession, admitting that he had failed to give Andrew a proper defence at his trial, explaining that there had never been any evidence to link Andrew to the attack on his then girl-friend’s daughter. Jane simply spoke about Andrew.

She talked about the bond that had grown between them, about the change that she had seen from an armed criminal whose life was shaped around greed and violence to a lonely human being who knew he had done wrong and who was now desperate to do right. She told them plainly that she believed that he should one day be released so that he would have the chance to make up for the pain he had caused. “If you allow them to kill him, he will never have that chance,” she told them.

The five board members spent an hour and a half considering their verdict and then voted by three to two to give Andrew a stay of execution. He would not die that weekend. Jane felt a bubble of elation swell up inside her.

The bubble soon burst. That evening, the Governor of Louisiana, Buddy Roemer, over-ruled the board. The lawyers said it was all political and that Roemer needed a quick execution to keep his white voters happy. Jane was desperate. She started making phone calls: to Amnesty International who put out an Urgent Action notice to their members round the world; to CBS television who sent a crew to her motel to interview her; to friends in England, whom she woke in the middle of the night urging them to call the White House, Downing Street, anyone who could help to save Andrew’s life. It made no difference. She was helpless.

That Sunday, the gum-chewing guard drove her out to the Death House, where she sat while Jones and his family tried desperately to fill the time with anything other than the image of a healthy young man being sheathed in flame. For four hours, they waited to hear whether the governor would change his mind. Their only remaining weapon was hope, and it was not enough.

It was early evening when one of Andrew’s lawyers walked quietly into the room, stepped over to Andrew, put her hand on his shoulder and told him: “I’m sorry. The governor’s turned you down.”

One by one Andrew’s family took him in their arms, hiding their tears from the guards. When her turn came, Jane hugged him deeply. “Whatever happens,” she said. “I want you to know it’s been such a privilege to have you as a friend.”

Then the guards took him and marched him down the stairs to the basement. As he walked away, alive and well, Jane waved and smiled and then collapsed in tears as soon as he was out of sight.

Andrew’s family held a church service and, most important, they got his burned body out of the prison to bury it in free soil, beyond the walls. Jane Officer flew home to Selly Oak, drained and haunted by a murder she had been helpless to prevent. On the doormat, she found a letter. It was dated Friday night, after the Governor had over-ruled the Board of Pardons.

“I’m sorry that it had to end this way. I told you before that I didn’t have anything against anyone and I will go to my grave that way. I want you to know always that your support kept me going. Jane, my friend, I want to write more but I want to lay down for a while to think.” He signed it “Your friend always. Peace, Andrew Lee.”