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Read Part 1

I can’t explain why I felt compelled to work with Feltus, other than to say I knew it was something I was supposed to do.

The possibility of a publishing credit, as an editor, was appealing but not paramount. I didn’t expect and wasn’t promised royalties if and when the book was sold. Feltus wanted proceeds evenly split among his elderly grandmother (who has since died), his surviving victim and both victims’ families, and a foundation in his name that would give grants to organizations that serve children.

There was no intent on my part to get the intrinsic warm-fuzzy feeling of helping someone. I could have chosen other means, certainly one less controversial and subject to judgment.

I did believe, then and now, in the power of his voice. I reflected on my own relationship with words and with those who read them. In college, I’d been politically active and wrote newspaper editorials on several touchy subjects. Whether people agreed with me, I didn’t particularly care. I wanted people to think. Or better, to question. I viewed Feltus as a catalyst to shift the way people thought about capital punishment. He wasn’t an attorney, a nun, or a criminologist. He had the most direct authority to talk about the death penalty. He had the right to tell the story because he lived it, like Frederick Douglass had the right to tell his.

What I struggled with then and couldn’t name until now is my flaw of arrogance. I thought I had the education and experience to nurture his voice, to prompt him into deeper self-realization. There I was, nearly 30, full of assumptions. The assumptions were different from the ones of the predominant culture, spewed forth in the media. That depiction cast Feltus as a predatory black man—like thousands of others—who lurked the streets with criminal intent.

Oh, but I was beyond that, wasn’t I, having seen the research about how society creates its own misfits through poverty, violence, delinquent peers, school failure, and substance abuse, to name a few. I thought I understood him. I knew the theories, the predictors of behavior, and I knew his facts. I had read his case file, and Feltus was a textbook case. The circumstances and themes were all familiar. Only the details of his story were unique.

He was abandoned by his birth mother and taken in by a couple when he was two. He could not talk, walk, or feed himself. He wasn’t potty trained until he was four or five. He was a poor student. In fifth grade, he was placed in special education and socially promoted every year after. His school records show that he went between two extremes: acting withdrawn or acting out. Until he was fourteen, he had a severe speech impediment, which stopped although he received little speech therapy as a child.

His adoptive father was an alcoholic, and his parents were physically abusive with each other. They divorced when he was 10 because of his father’s infidelity. He was closest to his mother and maternal grandmother. His friends were boys who committed petty crimes, and he joined in to be accepted. His grandfather died when Feltus was 13, the only male figure who seemed to take an interest in him when he was a child. When he was 14, his mother remarried, but she and her husband moved out of state. Feltus stayed with his elderly grandmother so she wouldn’t have to live alone. His stepfather died when Feltus was 18, and his mother moved back to Louisiana months after his death.

Feltus dropped out of school in the eleventh grade, three months before he turned 18. He worked two jobs at a time but still stole to get extra money. He dated a young woman from a poor family he felt sorry for. When he found out the girl and her family were going to be evicted, he committed an armed robbery to cover their rent and his own bills. He evaded the police for two weeks and was arrested on his nineteenth birthday.

In 1980, he was sentenced to 15 years at hard labor and sent to Wade Correctional Center in North Louisiana. His files state that he was sexually assaulted at least once at Wade. He had at least three prison relationships. He sold drugs to make money. In 1985, his mother died of a heart attack. Then in 1987, his father died. To keep a promise to his mother, Feltus earned his GED in 1988.

Like most prisons in the U.S., Wade offered few programs to help inmates to return to the world outside. Feltus was not taught skills to get a job that paid a living wage or how to deal with frustration and conflict without using violence, toward others and himself. 

After being in prison for 11 years, at the age of 29, Feltus left Wade Correctional Center in June 1990. He worked 80 hours a week at two fast-food jobs he got within a month of his release. He met a young woman at work with whom he fell in love almost immediately. The relationship was good for four months. They discussed moving in together and having a child. Although he wasn’t financially ready, Feltus moved out of his grandmother’s house when her Social Security benefits were threatened because he was living with her. For almost two months, Feltus lived with friends and in his car. By then, he and his girlfriend weren’t getting along. Feltus alleged that she was seeing her ex-boyfriend again. To deal with stress, Feltus used marijuana and crack. In February 1991, he rented an apartment after it seemed he and his girlfriend had reconciled. Within weeks, the relationship broke up for good, and Feltus was fired from his jobs.

Exactly nine months after he was released from prison, Feltus went to Cajun’s Fabulous Fried Chicken to ask for his job back. Keith Clark, the manager, said he wouldn’t hire Feltus again but would help him find a new job elsewhere. While they waited to call the manager at another restaurant, Feltus helped prepare for the day’s business. While cleaning up, he saw the safe was open. He thought the money was the answer to his problems. He went outside to his car, where he had a gun under the seat and handcuffs on the rearview mirror, and returned to the restaurant. He handcuffed the manager and a worker, Donna Ponsano, in a back room. Clark tried to reason with Feltus. After a brief argument, Feltus shot both of them and took the money. He was caught 15 hours after the shootings.

Ponsano died two days later. Clark is permanently disabled, confined to a wheelchair.

In 1992, Feltus was sentenced to death and sent to Louisiana State Penitentiary’s Death Row.

Feltus wrote about his life in terms of being on the outside and on the inside. He lived 19 years and nine months on the outside, free. He lived 19 years, five months, and 20 days on the inside, in prison.

*     *     *     *     *

Through the winter of 1998 and into the early summer of 1999, I had occasional visits with him and communicated through letters. I admit that that my contact wasn’t as regular as it could have been. The bustle of life and work occupied me.

Aside from that, I was careful about how close I got. I didn’t tell him much about myself. I kept the facts basic, things I would tell anyone who asked, like whether I was single, how many siblings I had, what jobs I had worked. I couldn’t forget that he was a man who once survived by conning people. Information was leverage. It revealed weak links, soft spots. I knew that he had friends outside of the prison who were far more open with him. I didn’t feel comfortable getting that close. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem fair that I withheld so much when I had his entire life before my eyes and he trusted me to see it all.

My distance was complicated by the fact that, as much as I was cautious, I actually enjoyed talking with him. Cecile and his lawyer scheduled contact visits for me, so I didn’t have the same psychological interference that I would have if we’d met through a screen.

We would discuss his book for the first few minutes. At the time, he was sending me several handwritten pages every couple of weeks. After the business part of our visit was over, we talked about all kinds of things. He read a newspaper and watched the TV news every day. He had more to say about current events than almost anyone I knew. I found it intriguing that Feltus considered movies, television, and music partially responsible for the rising violence among young people.

He would tell me stories about what went on inside the prison—from affairs among guards to the way contraband moved among people, even on the Row—and find humor in all of it. He often spoke frankly about what he missed about being on the outside, like long hot baths, good fried chicken, driving, and women. We had profound discussions about spirituality and death. He always mentioned how much he regretted what he’d done and how much he wanted to apologize to Keith Clark and the Ponsano family. His brown eyes deepened with tears, but he did not cry. Not in front of me.

If Feltus noticed how reserved I was during those first months we knew each other, he didn’t mention it. He seemed content with the direction I tried to give him about his writing and often took my advice. I could see his progress as a writer. I’d encouraged him to focus more on descriptions and reflection. He had definitely improved.

I saw the strongest proof of his growth as a writer in his essay about Dobie Gillis Williams, his friend who was executed in January 1999. Originally, Feltus had started it the day of Dobie’s scheduled execution in June 1998. It chronicled what Feltus thought every few hours and his reaction when Dobie returned to the Row after a last-minute stay. I encouraged him to finish it with his impressions about when Dobie was finally executed. A few weeks later, I received another couple of pages that were even better than I expected. Instead of simply stating that Dobie had arthritis, Feltus described how debilitating it was for him. Feltus gave details about what Dobie wore the day he walked off the Row and how his expression had changed from “the look of death” to one of peace. He also showed empathy through his imagination. In one part, he wrote that he pictured Dobie getting on the lethal injection table by himself, his life flashing before his eyes. “Then lying down must have felt really cold at that point,” Feltus wrote. “Then his body dancing around within him as the drug started working and shutting his system down. But the people watching couldn’t tell from just looking at him.”

Feltus grieved for Dobie. He didn’t write much of his autobiography in the months that followed. Then he set his book aside completely after the April 20, 1999 Columbine school shootings in Littleton, Colorado. The violence upset him so much that he wrote a series of essays that he wanted put into a workbook for young people. He was passionate and sincere in his wish to stop kids from leading the life he had. Much of his autobiography included frequent digressions in which he directly addressed—no, pleaded with—his young readers. “Don’t make the same mistakes I made,” he wrote over and over, telling them to listen to their parents and teachers, stay away from drugs, be kind to each other. . .  

*     *     *     *     *

Feltus was a thoughtful man. For birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays, he sent cards to his friends and family. I know this because I received some and because I was given two years worth of letters after he was executed, which he gave me permission to excerpt in his autobiography. People thanked him for remembering special days in their lives. They appreciated that he asked about the welfare of the people they loved. In copies of letters that he wrote which friends shared with me, I read for myself that Feltus included many others in his prayers. I still remember a brief letter he wrote to a close pen friend’s father who was elderly and suicidal. Feltus pleaded with him to realize how blessed he was to have family with him and that being old didn’t mean he could no longer enjoy his life.

He had a good sense of humor. Feltus liked to call himself “The Black Leprechaun” because his birthday was on St. Patrick’s Day. He joked about mooning the warden and witnesses at his execution just before he got on the table. He wondered if there was sex in heaven and what it would be like to make love on a cloud. The day he told me how a lethal injection kills a person, we spent twenty minutes debating the worst ways to die. He picked the guillotine: “It must be terrible knowin that blade’s comin but not when.” He chuckled through the imagined terror.

He didn’t find his self-worth until he was on Death Row. This was something I could’ve inferred from his case file, but he acknowledged the realization himself, later, in his autobiography. Because of his learning disabilities and speech impediment, he felt stupid throughout his childhood and adolescence. He admitted that he knew it was wrong to steal but felt he did those things because he was, at the core, “no good.” It wasn’t until he started writing his pen friends (what he called them) once on Death Row that he began to question why he had such beliefs about himself. He began to grow not only in his faith but also as a person when he met Charlie, an Episcopalian deacon. People who were close to Feltus credit Charlie, Feltus’ spiritual advisor, with nurturing a transformation that was complete on the day Feltus died.

Feltus was truly sorry for what he did. Every time I saw him, he spoke of Keith Clark, Donna Ponsano, and their families. I know that his letters to friends and conversations with them often included “the mess,” as he called it. But this wasn’t a jail cell conversion. From the day he committed the crime, he was remorseful. Even court testimony from the officers who dealt with him days after the murder includes Feltus’ expressions of remorse. His last words were an apology to his victims: “I want to tell you, Keith, and the Ponsano family, that I’ve always regretted what I’ve done. It was my own doing. After this is over with, I hope you can find the peace to move on.”[1]

I recognized those qualities and vulnerabilities about him and was still so removed. My guard remained up, and I was quite conscious of its presence. Although my caution may have been prudent in some ways, I felt guilty about how easily I kept my distance. Perhaps I considered it professional.

One of the most jarring moments was when the Fifth Circuit Court rejected Feltus’ appeal and scheduled a new execution date in 1999, his fifth date since his 1992 conviction. I had a moment of queasiness and panic. Only part of that was because he would die. The rest was because he hadn’t finished his autobiography. About an hour later, I began to wonder what the next few weeks would be like. I wondered what was going on at the prison, how people prepared for a rare, profound event like this. I wondered how a man who would die in 45 days and had written only half of his story could be motivated to finish it.   

[1]  Millhollon, Michelle. “Feltus Taylor , 39, executed for killing,” The Advocate 7 June 2000:1A and Millhollon, Michelle, “Taylor put to death – Killer apologizes: “It was always my own doing,” The Advocate 7 June 2000:1BS

Read Part 3

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Ronlyn Domingue Ronlyn Domingue is the author of The Mapmaker's War (Atria Books, 2013). Its sequel, The Chronicle of Secret Riven, is forthcoming in 2014. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, was published in ten languages. Her writing has appeared in The Beautiful Anthology (TNB Books), New England Review, Clackamas Literary Review, New Delta Review, The Independent (UK) , and Shambhala Sun, as well as on mindful.org, The Nervous Breakdown, and Salon.com. Born and raised in the Deep South, she lives there still with her partner, Todd Bourque, and their cats.

Connect online at ronlyndomingue.com, Facebook, and Twitter.

34 Responses to “What He Taught Me from Death Row (2 of 4)”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    Ronlyn,

    I am enjoying how you write this. I can put myself there with you.
    I feel sorry for his background, but I feel sorrier for the man he killed and the woman he crippled.
    He had the money.
    They were handcuffed.
    He chose to shoot them.
    I have no forgiveness in me for him, regardless of how bad he feels after the fact.
    Feeling guilt and remorse does nothing for the dead man or his family.
    It does nothing for the crippled woman and her family.
    Nothing.
    Maybe he can get into heaven and have sex on a cloud, if he is remorseful, but were I at the gates of heaven, I would not let him in.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      I appreciate the praise for the writing. This essay is indeed about my journey.
      You might be surprised to see what’s coming in the next installments regarding forgiveness.

      • Irene Zion says:

        Oh well, Ronlyn, your writing is always perfect, that’s a fact.

        I’m just not sure there is anything that he can do, no matter how wonderful, that can forgive his murdering a man and crippling a woman.
        I think I will be a hard nut to crack, for you.

        • Ronlyn Domingue says:

          That wasn’t the intent or expectation behind my comment. Something happens regarding forgiveness later in the story.

        • Irene Zion says:

          I’m sorry, Ronlyn,
          I’m making assumptions that I shouldn’t make.
          I will shut my trap until I have read all of the story.

        • Ronlyn Domingue says:

          No apologies necessary. I realize my original statement was vague, but I didn’t want to be too specific and give something away about the story. Keep that trap open. :)

        • Irene Zion says:

          I’m telling Victor that I have been instructed to keep my trap open.
          (Oh. Yeah.)

  2. Dana says:

    Still captivating. I’m looking forward to next weeks installment.

  3. jmblaine says:

    I’m glad you mentioned your own
    struggle with the role you should play
    in these conversations.
    I’ve spent a lot of years now
    having conversations with people
    who have crashed their lives
    past the point of repair.
    It’s good conversation.
    In fact, it has sort of spoiled me
    for regular talk.
    I like the depths.
    But sometimes I have to ponder why –
    Am I just a conversational voyeur?
    Is it because when I’ve had enough I
    can get in my car & go back to a peaceful life?

    If you wanted to make people
    think, you succeeded here.
    You presented the good and bad
    without the color of your own
    opinion.
    That’s good writing.

  4. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    The thing is, when the opportunity came to help him, no one told me how I should do it or how I should feel. I mean, that’s a good thing in the big picture, but it left me to struggle a lot in the process. Sometimes I felt like a “conversational voyeur,” too. I guess that was part of my role, as with yours.

    As for encouraging others to think, I hope so…

  5. Matt says:

    Wonderful work thus far, Ronlyn.

  6. Joe Daly says:

    I was looking forward to this next installment and you did not disappoint.

    Lots of emotions come up in a piece like this- at least I experienced a number. What I think you did effectively was present many of the social and criminal events prior to the murders, without offering them as any sort of excuse for his behavior. At least that’s how I read it.

    It must have been hard to dodge so many cliches that movies and other novels have presented in similar situations, but it’s clear that you avoided them quite deftly.

    Really enjoying it.

    • I appreicate that feedback, Joe. Perhaps because I’m speaking from a place of personal experience, I’m able to avoid the cliches.

      Feltus’ past is no excuse for his behavior, but what it does provide is context. In my case, through reading academic literature and clients’ files, I began to shift my thinking about people who committed crimes. I realized that social systems (family, education, health care) mattered far more than I originally thought. The people who don’t receive the love and support they need are at much greater risk to make poor decisions through life.

  7. Zara Potts says:

    Ronlyn! I have been desperate to read these pieces, but the long roads are conspiring against me!
    This is just to let you know, that I will be back. (much like Arnold) Can’t wait to see you, lovely lady.

  8. Richard Cox says:

    Your story continues to add new layers of intrigue and emotion and I’m looking forward even more to the next installment. Great, honest writing, Ronlyn!

  9. LitPark says:

    Love what you said about the flaw of arrogance and Feltus not finding his self-worth until he was on Death Row.

    • As to the first, I strive not to do that anymore. As for the second, it’s pretty remarkable he attained that, all things considered.

      • Susan Henderson says:

        It takes heart and wisdom to even notice something like that, and I love that you had the courage to include it. Speaking of All Things Considered, this story would be a great addition there, or at This American Life.

  10. Jordan Ancel says:

    I can’t read this without tears in my eyes, Ronlyn. Just describing the matter-of-fact events of his early life are moving.

    He seemed like he was the likeliest person to benefit from a reform program, had it existed at his prison, which makes his story even sadder. Did society fail him first and set him on a path of unfortunate events? Did the system fail him by not giving him the necessary skills, both trade and social, that lead him to acts of desperation?

    One could easily draw these conclusions. Especially in right of his remorse, right from the time he committed the crime.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Yes, I agree–if there had been some kind of comprehension program for him (with a long-term aftercare component), I believe his life would have taken a VERY different turn.

      I don’t write much about Feltus’ spiritual advisor in the essay, but I did get to know Charlie a little. He is a deeply compassionate, gentle, intelligent, sincere man. I often thought that if someone like Charlie had come into Feltus’ life when he was a child, even a teen, that relationship could have altered the path Feltus took. ((How many people can look back in their lives and say, “THAT person changed the course of my life for the better?” I know I have a list.)) In academic speak, that caring person would be a “protective factor.” You can surmise what the “risk factors” are.

      Until the next installment…

  11. Alexis says:

    wow! Love the whole piece, you really have a way of making the reader feel both your’s and Feltus’ experiences. I really love the ending though ” I wondered how a man who would die in 45 days and had written only half of his story could be motivated to finish it.” Besides keeping us readers intruiged, it is a question I have mulled over in my own individual way… Could I force myself to finish my favorite project, if theoretically, I knew I had little time to live? Perhaps all writers ponder this, maybe most humans, in each his own way. The question is a very powerful and thought-provoking ending and it really makes one feel empathy for Feltus.

    I so love how he wanted to help children, and was so emotionally affected by Columbine that he wrote essays in an effort to help other teens.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      I wonder, too, if I’d try to finish a project knowing I was going to die soon. Maybe it depends on the intent behind it. Feltus was clear that he wanted to leave a legacy for others to learn from his life.

      I read those essays. Raw, full of emotion. He really was upset for a long time after that event.

  12. [...] Read Part 1 and Part 2 [...]

  13. Jude says:

    I have only just got to your second installment, and am about to read the third. I just want to say at this point, this subject is gripping. The way you are writing, entwining your own experience with his, is equally gripping.

    “What I struggled with then and couldn’t name until now is my flaw of arrogance. I thought I had the education and experience to nurture his voice, to prompt him into deeper self-realization.” – I love this sentence – it says so much…

    However just going back to what Jordan said about instigating a reform program… I feel it’s too late at that point. It needs to happen before these kids get into the prison system. We have a mentoring program in NZ, which is set up for boys without fathers. The volunteers (obviously vetted) are men who spend at least one day a week with these boys – taking them out for excursions that they would probably never experience because of their circumstances, and providing them with a ‘father figure/male friend’ that I’m sure sets them up for their future lives.

  14. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Thanks, Jude. I’m glad you’ve found it compelling. Regarding that sentence you quoted, I think Part 4 reveals a twist.

    Funny you mention a mentoring program for kids. During the same time I worked with Feltus, I also wrote grants for an organization called The Young Leaders Academy. It provides tutoring, recreation, and mentoring for inner-city boys from single parent homes. (The mentoring component is very much like the one you describe in NZ.) I was acutely aware that many of the boys dealt with family and social circumstances much like Feltus’. I couldn’t help but think what a difference a program like that would have made for him. Through the years, I stayed in touch with the executive director and heard a number of success stories. It makes so much more sense to invest in a child’s future, but I think it’s important to consider what could be done to help adults.

    By the way, I ADORE your daughter!!! If ever you two venture to the States together, let me know. I’d love to meet you, too.

    • Jude says:

      “Give me a child….. until he is seven, and I will give you the man/woman”. I’m twisting that saying a little as it shouldn’t be gender exclusive.

      I absolutely agree with you about investing in a child’s future – it’s the biggest and best investment societies can make. In terms of helping out the adults – unfortunately I feel it’s only band-aiding, as the patterns of child-rearing have already been set in stone by the previous (and the previous and so forth..). Sounds hard but let’s concentrate on the children and try to change their feelings of worth about themselves as good human beings who may then be in a better position to be good parents themselves.

      And by the way, I think your feelings about Miss Zara are mutual. Glowing reports about you and your lovely Southern hospitality! She’s trying to talk me into visiting your beautiful country next year and no doubt, if it happens we will be visiting the South, as she really loved it there. And if it happens, you will most definitely be on our calling card…

  15. [...] Parts 1, 2, and [...]

  16. kristen says:

    “He admitted that he knew it was wrong to steal but felt he did those things because he was, at the core, ‘no good.’ It wasn’t until he started writing his pen friends (what he called them) once on Death Row that he began to question why he had such beliefs about himself.”

    Fascinating, powerful stuff.

    Also fascinating (and effective), Ronlyn, is your voice through these installments. It’s like, though we’re clearly being informed of your own personal journey (among other things), there’s a frankness that leads your readers to insert themselves, almost involuntarily I think. To imagine what our own response would’ve been. Which is pretty much the most a writer can hope for, I believe.

    Really enjoying.

  17. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    What a different life he might have had if he did NOT believe that about himself from the time he was a child.

    I assure you, giving space for the reader wasn’t a deliberate act. That’s the magic of writing. I’m glad it worked this time.

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