Last night I made the familiar journey to Georgia Diagnostics & Classifications Prison (a.k.a. Death Row) because the State was scheduled to execute Mr. John Hightower- in my name. It is the 16th time I have stood outside the prison and the 16th person they have executed since 2001. In 2001, a five year halt to the death penalty in Georgia came to an end when they abolished the electric chair (as a result of our litigation) and thus resumed executions.
Not that anything good can ever happen at death row, but some things happened last night that I know will stay with me for a long time.
When we arrived, we had a small sized group- about 15 people. Two carloads of interns from the Capital Defender came down plus the usual folks who are down at every execution, with two strong absences: Mary Ruth and Ed Weir. The Weirs ran New Hope House for years, offering a home to families visiting their loved ones on death row. Mary Ruth passed away from cancer last December, and Ed is now on the road as an activist. I really miss them, in particular last night.
We proceeded to do the usual, standing with signs, setting up candles, talking to reporters. A little while later, Mary Sinclair arrived followed by 5-6 cars filled with Mr. Hightower's family members. In total, 20 of members of Mr. Hightower's family stood witness with us during the time of his execution. All four of his sons were there. 5 of his grandchildren were present; the two teenagers were extremely distraught and were consoled by their parents while the three little ones ran around and played as any child would. His son, Alonzo, showed me a picture that had been taken the day before of Mr. Hightower in his death row uniform smiling and surrounded by all of these people that he loved and that loved him back. An aunt shared with me that prior to coming to the prison that evening they had had dinner at New Hope House and got to speak on the phone with Mr. Hightower for two hours; they passed the phone around. She told me that he told them to keep it together and be strong, and that he had made peace with this a long time ago.
The media was being very persistent in trying to get a family member to comment- even thought we made it clear repeatedly that they were not interested. When the execution was over, his son Chris told the media again that he didn't want to comment. He was dealing with the hearse at the time and they still wouldn't leave him alone. When they continued to push him, he said "Here's our statement- We forgive the state for this murder." I nearly lost it at that point.
While I hate the reason we had to go to Jackson last night, I feel really honored to stand witness and in solidarity with such a brave and loving family. I also remain in awe and gratitude of my co-worker, Mary Sinclair for all she does for the families of people on death row. Her compassion, patience, and anger about how wrong the death penalty is seem to be exactly the right combination of characteristics that comfort the people in this terrible position. I am so fortunate to work with her.
I look forward to when we won't have to make the trek to Jackson.
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