I've wanted to write this for a long time. I've wanted to not write this for just as long. It was difficult to get out, but I believe there's great good to be learned from it. My next post will be much lighter- promise.
"My son is going to be a lawyer, " she told me proudly. "The first time I saw him after he was born, I saw how beautiful and smart he was, and I knew then that he was going to do great things! I tell him that everyday, that he's going to be somebody." She smiled a smile that was missing a few teeth and her eyes had a too-bright look, but there was no diminishing the pride she had in her youngest son, Johnny Joe. She was his only parent and loved to indulge him in whatever she could get him.
As a brand new teacher, I enjoyed getting to know not just my students, but their families as well. Johnny Joe was tall and filled out for his age, especially in comparison to his peers. He looked tough and most of the other boys gave him a wide berth.
I knew deep down he was his mama's boy. He wrote artful, well thought poetry about her and about the beauty he saw around him that he showed only to me. When she disappeared from his life, he was devastated. By the time he was in 8th grade, he'd become a full fledged fighter, landing in ISS often for throwing his fists around as much as he used to throw adjectives in my class. He still had a soft spot in his heart, though, for me and other women teachers, no doubt vainly looking for a replacement for his mama. He'd stop by to say hello every now and then and to update me on his life.
I lost track of Johnny Joe after high school until I saw his picture in the paper. Now 20, he was accused of entering a convenience store, pulling a pocket knife on the store clerk, also 20 and a college student named Clay, and demanding all the money. Clay gave Johnny Joe all there was in the register, $25.65. Johnny Joe stabbed Clay ten times and in a coup de grace, slit Clay's throat and ran. All was captured on video tape from the surveillance camera. The images show Clay still alive and struggling to call 911 when Johnny Joe fled. He bled out before help arrived.
Filled with remorse, Johnny Joe himself called police from a nearby motel to turn himself in almost immediately afterwards. Prior to calling police, he made another phone call; to 911 to request help for Clay.
Johnny Joe was arrested and made a full confession.
The video tape provided stark support to Johnny Joe's admission. The news carried interviews with Clay's parents, utterly shattered at the murder of their only child. A poignant moment with his mom included her telling the news reporter, "I'm so sad for us, because our family line ends here. We will never have the joy of knowing Clay as a full grown man. We'll never attend his wedding, never enjoy his children...," her voice trailed off. "But I'm so sad for the world, because I truly believe Clay would have made a difference in people's lives, had he lived." Clay's former teachers and pastor all told of what an upstanding young man he was and how deeply focused he was in his Christian faith.
Johnny Joe's trial ended with his guilty verdict and the sentence of death by lethal injection. In his appeals, he only fought against his death sentence. The case wound its way through the courts and his death sentence was upheld and an execution date set.
Three weeks before his scheduled execution, Clay's mother took the unprecedented step of requesting to meet with Johnny Joe. They spoke for four hours and Johnny Joe apologized profusely and asked forgiveness. In an amazing act, Clay's mother not only gave it, she also petitioned the parole board and governor for a commutation of Johnny Joe's sentence to life in prison. The mother who lost her son and the son who lost his mother found heartbroken peace with each other.
In a 9-8 vote, the commutation was denied and Johnny Joe was moved to the death chambers. Because of death row rules, the only human touch the condemned can have at this point is with the guards. Clay's mother was the last non-prison person to physically touch Johnny Joe when she stroked his hand at the end of their meeting.
On the morning of his death, Johnny Joe told his lawyer he found peace in Jesus although he was nervous. When they came to escort him to the gurney, Johnny Joe told them he wouldn't fight them, but he also wouldn't walk. They'd have to carry him, so they did.
His last words included a plea to the news media to be sensitive with his mother, who'd reappeared out of the shadows in the publicity of the case.
It took him longer to give his final statement than it did for him to die.
I grieved at Clay's gut wrenching murder. I cried almost the whole day Johnny Joe died, thinking of the boy with the poetic soul who chose to take such violent, irrevocable actions. My students every year hear of their stories.
Both families have sought peace in the wake of the horrible. Clay's parents started a foundation to help countless others in his name. The nephew who bears Johnny Joe's name does well in school and in life. His mom has found a better way and lives to bring good, as she can, now.
And stark lansdscapes laid bare by winter bring forth flowers again in the spring.