I am writing this with an outrageous request.
Next Tuesday, December 11, my friend of 12 years, Byron Parker, will be executed by the state of Georgia. I am engaged in a last minute search for allies to try to save his life. What follows is an attempt to tell you why I believe that life is worth saving.
This is not a case of “innocence.” Byron is guilty of the crime he committed, and the victim was an 11 year old girl. There are many questions about how the cops and the court system treated him–for instance, he was sentenced to death on the basis of a rape that never occurred, which the courts acknowledge, without releasing him from the death sentence. But he did kill her and he deserved jail time for it.
I tell you that, in those terms, because that is how Byron tells it. He is deeply ashamed of what he did and for the past 16 years, while he has been imprisoned, he’s worked to understand why he did it. In the course of that, he’s earned a GED (no death row prisoner in Georgia has ever done that; Byron had an 8th grade education), taken college level psychology and writing courses, and undertaken a great deal of introspective discussion with prison counselors, ministers, attorneys, the few of his fellow inmates with an interest in such things, and friends, including me.
Early on, Byron’s writing talent was noticed when he wrote a letter to Bettie Sellers, Georgia’s poet lauerate. (I have a copy of an essay Bettie’s just written about Byron, and I will be happy to share it, if you want to read it.) Later, television writer and novelist Karen Hall discovered the same thing, and it was through Karen that I met him. I believe Byron is so talented that, if he had had half a chance as a kid growing up, he could very easily be famous today as a writer. But such chances are slim if you grew up poor, and like everyone else on death row, Byron is poor.
It never occurred to me to ask Byron why he pursued his education, why he poured heart and soul into writing, but a couple weeks ago, he told one of his attorneys: “I came in here and I saw everyone just wasting their time away,” he said. “I thought, ‘Each of these guys killed somebody. And now their lives are going to waste, too.’ And I decided, right then, that the life of the little girl I killed was not going to be lost for nothing.”
I don’t know what greater evidence of rehabilitation could be offered than these things. I *do* know that there is virtually no chance that the Georgia pardons and paroles board will offer Byron clemency. There will be a hearing on Monday the 10th and I will testify at it, but the process is a sham. Since the death penalty was reinstituted almost thirty years ago, not one person has received clemency in Georgia. The chairman of the clemency committee says there never will be–but he hasn’t the guts to say it in public.
Not only is the clemency procedure in Georgia phony, it is corrupt. Two members, including the chairman, are under investigation for kickbacks from prison contractors. The person who will decide whether they are indicted, perhaps imprisoned, for these crimes is the state attorney general–the very person who the board would have to defy in order to issue a clemency order, for Byron or anybody else. A third member of the five member panel is being sued for sexual harassment–he is represented by the attorney general’s office.
Byron and I will never realize our dream of hitting the streets and listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd records together. (Capital prisoners in Georgia are not allowed to listen to music except on a very limited number of radio stations; I did play Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” over the phone to Byron one night.) The most clemency will mean is life without possibility of parole.
I would settle for that for my old friend, not only because I know that all lives are worth sparing, that two wrongs never make a right and that it is obscene to pretend that one death can compensate in any way for another. Not to mention that, I would be terrified if someone wanted to judge the rest of my existence on the basis of the worst single act I ever committed.
There is another reason to want Byron to live. Byron’s path has been the right way to deal with murder–to achieve a real emotional and psychological and intellectual understanding of what cannot be undone, to make atonement by living a life of worth and value and inwardly dedicating that effort and that life to his victim. Were he to be granted clemency, it would serve as an example to future prisoners.
So I will testify to the clemency board on Monday, hoping against hope that they will prove me wrong about them.
It would help me–it would help Byron–immensely if I had some support, if I could read off some names of people of respect and renown who have heard Byron’s story, at least this much of it, and share my principles. If you could see your way clear to trusting my judgment on this, I would not only be eternally grateful, we might just save a life–if not Byron’s, maybe the next guy’s, because one thing a crooked system must fear is people like yourselves paying open attention to it.
Holler if ya hear me.