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Read Parts 1, 2, and 3

May 30th was the last time I had a private, one-on-one visit with Feltus. After I exited the prison grounds, I decided to see the Angola Museum. It was on the opposite side of the prison’s security fence, only yards from Death Row. I had parked facing the museum to remind myself to go inside. At the counter, an African-American man in a white short sleeve shirt and blue jeans was folding T-shirts. He greeted me. I said I just wanted to look around. He said he recognized me because he’d seen me go back to my car with a Bible a few hours before. I told him I was there to visit the man who would be executed in a few days. He followed me into the museum’s back room and asked if I was Feltus’ spiritual advisor.

I explained how I got involved. He seemed intrigued by the autobiography. I asked him what he did at the museum, stopping short of asking if he was an inmate. He was outside of the security gates wearing street clothes. His glasses had a harsh chip on the top edge of the left lens. He had big, inquisitive, intelligent brown eyes and short-clipped, wavy hair.

“I collect things for the museum,” he said. “People call me. I call people.”

He was a bit of a curator who gathered old pictures and artifacts from the surrounding communities where families had been for generations. There was an old black-and-white striped uniform in a corner, a display of handmade weapons, and old letters. When I saw the pictures of chain gangs and field workers, some of them taken in the 20th century, I thought to myself, This is no different from slavery. I remembered seeing armed guards on horses watching prisoners at work on the grounds the first time I met Feltus.

“Did you see the back room?” he asked. “Well, maybe you don’t want to.”

“What’s there?”

“The execution exhibit.”

“I want to see it,” I said. “It would help me to know.”

A poster for Dead Man Walking was in a glass display case near the doorway.

“It’s strange how proud they seem about that movie,” he said.

I turned into the room. The first thing I saw was the electric chair in a glass booth. I muttered, “Oh my God.” I didn’t expect to see that. “Is that the actual one?”

“Yes. They don’t use it anymore.”

The high-backed chair, probably oak, was centered in the display. Leather straps lay on the seat. The arms were covered with carved initials and words. The man said guards did that. To the left was a stand with a leather hood. It was white, stitched with a tan leather string. Behind the chair were a clock and a painting of a vent. The man said a vent in the real chamber was turned on to blow out the smell of burning skin. On the right was another stand that had three old sponges connected some metal pieces. I asked him to explain how it worked.

“The sponges were dipped into a saline solution and placed on the man’s head. Then they’d put on this metal cap. The hood was dropped over his face, and a door behind the chair opened so clips—like the ones you use to jump a car—could be placed behind the man’s ears and on top of his head. They put a band around his leg, too.”

I turned to my right and saw a picture above his shoulder. “Is that the lethal injection gurney?” He said it was. It looked like a cross with black straps draped over the places where a man’s body would be tethered down. There were no needles and tubes present, the lines that would run chemicals to sedate a body, then freeze muscles, then stop a heart. The room looked as big as a walk-in closet. “Where is this?”

He motioned for me to follow him. In the room where the old uniform hung on a mannequin, he pointed to a spot on a map. “That’s Camp F.” We went back to the execution exhibit, and he showed me an article on the wall I should read.

“I didn’t catch your name,” I said, offering my hand.

“David,” he replied. He shook my hand.

“I’m Ronlyn. Thanks for your help.”

He left me alone to read about a Louisiana teenager, Willie Francis, who survived his first seat in the electric chair. The second time, he died. I overheard a woman speaking to David in a tone that made me think he wasn’t supposed to talk to me.

I stared into the cases full of odds and ends, shackles, and electric razors. On the wall above the shackles, I saw the front and side view mug shots of every man executed in Louisiana since the 1980s. Under each person’s photos were his name and execution date. I paused. The second framed set was full. Someone would have to create a whole new set or put Feltus’ pictures on their own. I knew that people would go into that room and imagine what he was like and get most of it wrong. I looked at the faces of the men who Feltus had known and talked about, the others whose names I’d never heard.

In that moment as I stared at the mug shots, I knew I looked at nothing more than masks. The men’s faces showed who they were when the pictures were taken, captured in the worst moments of their lives. I couldn’t judge any of them, ever again, the way I had once judged people. I knew too much. I realized that for all I believed I understood about Feltus, he constantly surprised me with sensitivity, depth, and intelligence. Such material was not part of my academic readings.

I thanked David before I left. For the first time since Feltus’ stay had been lifted, I cried on the way home.

*****

We didn’t get much time with Feltus on his last day, June 6, 2000. The East Baton Rouge Parish 19th Judicial Court granted a hearing, a last-ditch and procedural attempt to stop the execution. All of his friends and family, along with Keith Clark, his family, and Donna Ponsano’s family, watched as the request was denied. I watched Feltus’ face. It was still, without emotion. He looked like a cold-blooded criminal. Or maybe he looked like a man who had slipped deep inside himself. There was no legal intervention that day. A jury in 1992 and a legal system ending with the U.S. Supreme Court judged that he should die. That day, he would.

Cecile and I arrived at the penitentiary together hours later. Once we passed through security, we boarded a large passenger van. A guard drove us to Camp F—also called the Death House—a 10 minute ride from the entrance gates. It was a beautiful day, unseasonably cool for June. A perfect day to be outside. The fields were full of soybeans and corn. There were groves of young fig trees and pecan trees. In the distance, the forest blanketed the hills. An armed guard on horseback watched several men paint a long white picket fence. The weather and landscape were a balm, and a cruelty.

Two guards stood outside Camp F’s main door. Inside, there were three long tables with folding chairs, an ice chest full of soft drinks, a couple of trays of sandwiches, and a CD player softly playing gospel music. Feltus was sitting with two friends when we walked in. Cecile reached him first. As he stood up and raised his arms, I noticed that his hands weren’t chained. I felt an odd sense of relief. Then he hugged me, tight. He grabbed a notepad, a pen, and letters bound with string. He had me follow him to a table away from everyone else. There, he gave me the last letters people sent him and dictated the events of the prior twenty-four hours. I wrote quickly, knowing that he was doing it for himself, not for me. Charlie had to ask him to join the group again after more than a half hour.

Everyone mingled, drank soft drinks, and shared some nervous laughs. Those who smoked, did. We checked our watches. After a guard came to take Polaroids of everyone, Feltus called us to have a prayer. He stood with his back against a table and the rest of us gathered in an ellipse around him. Charlie was right by his side. Feltus asked for forgiveness and for peace for his victims. He gave thanks for the people who stood around him—his lawyers, spiritual advisor, cousins, friends. Then he asked Jean, the lawyer closest to him, to say a prayer. She did. Then he invited anyone else who wanted to, to say something.

Perhaps he didn’t expect it, but every person spoke. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I meant it when I told him he had changed my life, that I would never see other human beings the same way again, that he was courageous to tell his truth to the world. I ended with a promise. No matter what, I swore I’d see his book published.

I watched him as the others shared their thoughts. He leaned the small of his back against the end of the table. His eyes were fixed to the middle of the ellipse. He cried without noise. The tears dripped off his full cheeks to his blue button-up shirt with the frayed collar, over the left side of his chest were he’d written “Feltus” in indelible ink, marked so it wouldn’t get lost in the laundry. The light coming through the large windows was soft. The afternoon was fading. He looked muted and serene. I stared at that 39-year-old man who faced death with genuine dignity, with absolute peace, knowing he was loved despite all he’d done.

Even the prison officials had damp eyelashes after we finished. Then the warden approached the group and said it was time to go. Only Jean, Charlie, and Cecile stayed behind. Jean and Charlie were going to witness the execution. When I hugged him goodbye, I repeated my promise. He wasn’t crying anymore, but he wouldn’t look me in the eye. He wouldn’t look at anyone.

That night, I watched the clock on my VCR every minute between 8:20 and 8:40 p.m. His execution was supposed to happen at 8:30. When I knew it was over, I sat quietly. I couldn’t form thoughts. I was blank. Cecile called at ten o’ clock to say he went to the execution chamber under his own power and that he died peacefully. ***

The next day, the local paper printed a quote from Mr. Clark.

“I saw a man go to heaven tonight, I do believe.” [2]

*****

The morning after Feltus’ death, I awoke from a dream about him. I saw the back of his head as he made tea to keep himself calm. A peculiar peace lingered with me as I drank coffee on my back steps. The weather was, as the day before, unusually beautiful. I went to work late. By the afternoon, I returned to the words he left behind.

His funeral was well-attended. The gospel choir sang with sorrow and joy. Feltus liked music, and he would have appreciated the performance. As I sat through his service, I felt a sense of relief present, as if Feltus had been given an ultimate freedom and we were there to witness it.

During the next four months, I channeled grief into work. I had no other projects or distractions. Cecile arranged for Mary McMyne, a research assistant and my good friend, to help me with the edits. The rest of the staff left me alone to make sense out of his 350 page single-spaced, typed manuscript, several pages of notes, dozens of letters, his entire trial transcript, and his case file. I had a duty to him, but it was more than an obligation. It was an honor. Feltus died entrusting me to prepare his story for anyone who would read it. As a fellow writer, at the very least, that was a promise I could not break.

But I haven’t fulfilled the promise yet. The manuscript has been submitted to several publishers in the past. There were a couple of close calls. Agents have looked at it—and passed. I haven’t forgotten what Feltus wanted: “My dream is to have my book published, and live to see it help kids and teens.” He didn’t get the latter, but I intend to steward that dream, somehow, some way. The time will come when the world is ready for what he had to say.

Ten years later, when I read pages of his manuscript, I see more than the uniqueness of his personal story. My heart whispers, “There, but for the grace of God, and I reply, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” I follow no organized faith, but I honor those words. They speak the truth. Luck, randomness, karma—an undeterminable factor played into the circumstances of his life, and mine. Every choice we’ve ever made was grounded in those circumstances. Had I been Feltus, how can I be certain I would have made better, less destructive decisions? What made me think, then, that I didn’t have the same gradations of light and dark with my self, as he had in his?

What Feltus proved is that what’s on the outside of a person—the markers of race, class, culture, education, employment—does not hint at the depth and complexity on the inside. What I learned is that our differences were less important than the connection we forged, in spite of them. Then I glimpsed but now I see that Feltus was a richer person than his case file revealed and more profound than the worst choice he’d ever made in his life.

No matter what I think I shared with him, Feltus shared more. I learned lessons about compassion, judgment, kindness, and forgiveness that could not have come from articles and books. Feltus Taylor, Jr. was a human being and a wounded soul. Because of both, he was a teacher. My teacher. I thank him now, finally, for the honor of being his student.

Ft mural

 

Photo of Feltus Taylor, Jr. taken Sept. 7, 1999, two days before his fifth execution date.

[2] Millhollon, Michelle, “Taylor put to death – Killer apologizes: “It was always my own doing,” The Advocate 7 June 2000:1BS

***6/9/14 The last sentence of this paragraph was deleted after I received information from Mr. Keith Clark that the details were incorrect. I apologize for the error and appreciate that he contacted me.

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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.

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

  1. Mary McMyne says:

    What a beautiful ending. And that picture. It brought tears to my eyes.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Thanks, Mary. I don’t have many photos of him, and none showed him smiling with the brightness of which he was capable. But this one, as I looked more closely at it, is reserved, the grin held at bay. Apropos.

      Having you there to help with his manuscript before and after his death meant a lot to me. You took him and his story seriously, with sincerity, and I don’t know if I ever thanked you for that. So thank you.

  2. Zara Potts says:

    Ronlyn,
    As I said in your earlier piece, you capture this so incredibly well – and with such grace.
    The way you describe the last hours before the excution is chilling and poignant. How bizarre to have sandwiches and polaroids, like a birthday. That to me, is so horrifying – pieces of normal when the State is about to kill a man.
    You honour your promise to Feltus in such a gentle way with these pieces. You give us understanding and make us feel compassion for the man, rather than hatred for the crime. That is a gift. I understand exactly what you say when you say ‘there but for the grace of God, go I,’ There but for the grace of God go all of us. How many people born into that kind of existence would have the strength or even knowledge to not go down a wrong path? Of course it doesn’t excuse crimes, but it does help to explain them.
    You are a stunning writer and a wonderful human being and I am so glad to know you and your lovely, tireless heart.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      The last day is COMPLETELY SURREAL. Yes, the staging is like a birthday party, minus balloons. It’s almost…festive. Perhaps there’s another way to ritualize the final hours. Then, that’s the way it was done.

      I think I’ve begun to honor my promise. Somehow, he needs to be heard in his own words, too. What we expected may not be exactly what happens. That’s clear now.

      How many of us born into certain familial and societal circumstances have the ability not to repeat the damage done? Domestic violence, substance abuse, etc…. Feltus’ history is an extreme example. But right now I’m thinking of friends who have struggled to free themselves of patterns of abuse and addiction. They didn’t commit crimes or kill anyone. They just kept hurting themselves because they didn’t know or believe there was a healthier, more loving way to live.

      Thank you for the lovely compliment. The feeling is mutual.

  3. Jude says:

    If only there were more people in the world like you…

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      There’s more than we think. Most don’t feel safe showing that side of themselves. I include myself among them.

  4. Matt says:

    Then I glimpsed but now I see that Feltus was a richer person than his case file revealed and more profound than the worst choice he’d ever made in his life.

    That right there is the very reason Feltus’ book should be published. We seem to be living in a culture in which one mistake–albeit in his case a substantial one–becomes the demarcation of who we are in the public eye. That Feltus was a murderer–one who deserved punishment for his crime (though what form I leave to be debated another day)–is not in doubt, but that is not all he was.

    This mini-opus of yours is wonderfully rendered, and I think you’ve done Feltus the honor of displaying him here, warts and all, and allowed the reader to come to their own conclusions regarding his character. That’s incredibly brave, and so, so skillfully done.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      The tendency to reductionism is, in my opinion, connected to the skim-surface, sound-bite world we have now. There’s no time or space for complexity. It’s easy to make someone out to be a total villian or hero. But that’s not reality.

      Thank you for reading the piece, Matt. I appreciate the feedback that readers were given the opportunity to make up their own minds.

  5. Oh Ronlyn, you just made me cry.
    This was beautifully written and very moving.

    Maybe you could posts parts of his writing on TNB?

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Oh, wow, that’s an honest response. Thank you!

      Hmmm, I never thought about sharing some of his work on TNB. Perhaps a short excerpt or two. I’ll ponder this. Seems only right he gets to speak in his own voice.

  6. Jude says:

    I’ve come back now to comment on your superb and heart-wrenching writing. I couldn’t comment before as I wanted to, as I was too emotional. You have told Feltus’s life story in an extremely compassionate manner, allowing us to see this ‘cold-blooded and ruthless’ killer as he truly was – a human being who was failed by all of us. We continued to fail him by sending him to a brutal death – as brutal as the crimes he committed.
    I know there are many people in the world who say ‘ an eye for an eye’, but I think I prefer to live by what you have quoted above, ‘judge not, that ye be not judged’.

    It is only when manuscripts such as yours are brought out into the light, will there be any hope for change. Thank you Ronlyn, for such clear insight and amazing writing.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Years ago, if I ever talked about him, I’d sum it up by saying that every social system failed him, from his own family to the “correctional” system. He would say that he failed himself–which would be accurate, too.

      “An eye for an eye” is an Old Way. As a species, we must face the cycle of violence and revenge–in our own homes, communities and nations–and realize that there are other options. This choice obviously doesn’t work. Jude, your sensitivity and openness as one person makes the shift to peace possible.

      The response from you and other readers has encouraged me to think about Feltus’ work in a new way. Perhaps it’s almost time for his story to be told to a bigger audience.

  7. LitPark says:

    Just wow–the vent that blows out the smell of burning skin, the pictures of men taken in their worst moments, how he looked like he’d slipped deep inside himself, Camp F, finding he’s unchained, the Polaroids, knowing he was loved despite all he’d done, the newspaper quote from Mr. Clarke, and your beautiful ending. Ronlyn, have you been in touch with Naseem Rakha? She has a tremendous interest in capital punishment, and she may have some ideas about who would publish his manuscript.

  8. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    I’m glad that I kept a somewhat sketchy journal while working with Feltus. Apparently, I was paying attention to the details. The connections didn’t seem clear until recently.

    You interviewed Naseem not too long ago, right? I recall her name. Thanks for the suggestion!

  9. Joe Daly says:

    Ronlyn, this final installment is breathtaking. You’ve again managed to reveal tremendous depths of emotion without indulging in cliches or easy tugs of the heart string. As I read through the paragraphs of those final moments together, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it’s a blessing or a curse to know the precise moment of your death. Regardless, I can’t see myself doing anything differently than Feltus did with his final moments.

    I’m sure you’ll see your mission through and in the meantime, you’re passing on some very meaningful observations and experiences. Thanks.

    • One of my greatest fears has been that Feltus and his story would be exploited. There have been opportunities I didn’t explore because I knew he merited more than sensationalized, “true crime” attention.

      He had options about how to handle his last day. Some people refuse visitors altogether. I honestly don’t know what I’d do.

      Your response (and ones from other readers) encourages me. There ARE people who wish to hear his story. He’d be so grateful, Joe. Thank you!

  10. Richard Cox says:

    All four of these pieces has been written beautifully, drawing vivid pictures in my mind of both the setting and the man and you, but this last one is also chilling. As Zara said, the bits of normalcy in a day that is otherwise anything but normal…it’s just very odd and confusing.

    Without speaking to the crime committed or the punishment rendered, I will say that your experience with Feltus is (and was) an invaluable one for you both. He found himself (albeit among tragic circumstances) in the years following the crime, and you found some of yourself as well. Certainly the world would be a better place had he not committed murder in the first place, but once it had been done, at least something beneficial emerged from it.

    It’s hard to comment on this without sounding heartless or trite. I tried. You did far better writing it than I ever could. Nice job, Ronlyn.

  11. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    I believe ours was a reciprocal relationship. Ten years later, I see it–and how much more I got from him. A gift of time, I suppose.

    No doubt many lives would be better off had Feltus not done what he did. A challenge for us all is how to transform tragedy into something meaningful, perhaps even healing.

    Many thanks for the compliment and for reading the entire piece. It was a bit of a tome.

  12. angela says:

    ronlyn, to echo others, the picture at the end moved me to tears.

    have you thought of self-publishing? there seems to be less of a stigma around that these days.

    your stories about his story are so intriguing as well. of course they’re about Feltus, but they’re about you too obviously. i love stories that have multiple levels, that tell a tale about the teller.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      I so wish I had a photo of him SMILING….

      You know, I have thought about self-publishing. Right now, it’s not so much about stigma as funding and time. I need to finish and sell another book of my own before I could act on that. (If I self-publish, that includes the responsibility of publicity and marketing.)

      It would have been possible to share his story and keep myself out of it to a greater degree. But you’re right–it’s about me, too. And that’s okay. I guess I wanted to share my transition into deeper compassion with others.

      Thanks so much for reading, Angela! I look forward to your next piece!

  13. Irene Zion says:

    Ronlyn,

    I’m glad you included his picture.
    He looks so sweet, and yet he murdered a man and crippled a woman for no reason.
    I’m glad that he changed his heart and he changed yours.
    I’m sorry they executed him.
    I’m against execution.
    But I am for life in prison without possibility of parole.
    I’m sorry that that is not what he got.
    He could have helped people from the inside, had he been left to live.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      That’s the mystery of duality–of anyone. How many times have we met a person and thought, “Oh, he/she looks so kind….seems so nice…” only to find out later that the person beat their children, belittled his/her spouse, cheated, lied, etc. Murder is high on the horror list, but there’s so much other damage done by people who are otherwise wonderful. Strange, strange world we live in.

      Feltus would have made a good trustee if he’d had life in prison. At Angola, even lifers sometimes get to speak to groups of people, including teens. That kind of opportunity would have been perfect for him.

      Irene, thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts. Hugs. Big ones.

  14. Ronlyn, your writing is superb and you offer an even-handed look at an almost unfathomably complex subject.

    I’ll be honest w/ you: I used to work as a domestic violence victim advocate and volunteer at King County Crisis Clinic and, as such, I’m inclined to view circumstances from the victims’ points of view. I’ve never seen perpetrators as one dimensional ogres and, indeed, part of the reason I worked w/ victims and survivors was so that they themselves wouldn’t perpetuate a cycle of violence. That said, it’s not easy for me to read Feltus’ story w/out thinking, “What the fuck did you *think* would happen when you bound and shot two innocent people?” But Feltus seems to have reached the same conclusion, rendering the whole story that much more tragic. His introspection does beg the question, “What if he’d turned it around sooner? What if someone had believed in him and helped?”

    Thanks for addressing such churning and important questions. Looking forward to more of your work.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      In my early 20s, I was deep into feminist politics—Take Back the Night marches, etc. I wanted the violent men locked up and forgotten. What mercy did they deserve? As I got older, I realized that was no solution. The cycle continues regardless. The men suffer, too.

      You can infer that I struggled with Feltus’ actions often. I could never totally forget the choice he made that morning–which ended one life and changed the course of many others. Like you, though, I also wondered what might have happened if….if he’d had a better job…if he’d had more understanding of relationships and how to handle them peacefully…if someone really took him under wing and showed him a different way. *sigh*

      I look forward to more of your writing as well. Many thanks for visiting this piece.

  15. Dana says:

    Ronlyn,
    I was so choked up when I read this the other day. The photo of Feltus looking so calm and normal and YOUNG just floored me. The picture in my mind was so different. Despite the fact that I have never been a proponent of the death penalty and was already feeling quite sympathetic towards him, I just expected someone more cruel looking.

  16. Dana says:

    Shoot, I wasn’t finished. I wanted to convey that I was very moved by this whole piece and that I’m very pleased that you shared it here. It definitely deserves a wider audience though, so I’m very hopeful that Feltus’ story will one day soon find it’s publisher.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      As I mentioned to other commenters, I wish I had a good photo of him smiling. That would have shocked you even more. The warmth of it. And I’m 40 now, a year older than he was when he died. Now I recognize how young he really was.

      I’m emboldened to find a way to share his story because of the response I’ve received from you and other readers. Your sincere and compassionate response means a lot to me. Thank you for all of the lovely comments, Dana.

  17. JM Blaine says:

    I don’t hand out praise lightly
    but this was so powerful
    & well written.
    Within all of us lies the best & worst
    & when you tell a story true
    & reveal that truth
    it is Gospel.

    The execution museum
    part was spot-on and
    the note at the final hour
    just knocked me down.

    You keep putting it out there
    this story needs to be heard.
    Have you tried publishers like
    Zondervan or Thomas Nelson?

    Also: Look up Deborah Luster.
    She did a book of photos
    on Angola inmates that is a beautiful thing.

    • JM, I accept your kind words with a humble heart. Thank you, most sincerely.

      I appreciate the suggestions. I’m figuring out what to do next, and these potential leads help a great deal. I’ll be sure to keep my TNB friends updated…I hope sooner rather than later.

  18. Penelope says:

    Wow Ronlyn. This is powerful. And you were right, I did need some tissues. I’m so glad you put in that picture along with the story. It’s something I’ll be thinking about for a long time.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      I thought about putting various photos (of letters, Angola), but I felt it would ultimately distract from the narrative. I waited to show Feltus’ face until the last moment. By then, the reader had decided what s/he thinks.

      I’ll be thinking about this experience for a long time myself. Thanks for reading. Hope you found some good nibbles at the Market.

  19. Alexis says:

    I had to wait to read this, as I truly didn’t want it to end. This last installment nearly made me cry, especially with the added photo, which clearly displays the depth in Feltus’ eyes.

    It really makes me ponder the death penalty again. On one hand there are those who society cannot stop (mass murderers etc) and I recall being told that they created the death penalty due to a lack of ability to always stop these folks and lack of jail space.
    On the other hand, there are those like Feltus, who learn from their mistakes, like much of the human race. is it really right or fair to extinguish a man’s life, especially one who has made so much effort to use his negative past as a learning tool for others? Isn’t there a better way to evaluate and perhaps, save some of these death penalty cases? What of those who are not guilty at all, like in “The Wrong Men”? These are the thoughts I’m left with and I now think that the whole system needs to be re-thought. I can’t fathom being a guard and witnessing this scenario time and again, heartbreaking.

    I genuinely feel that Feltus will get his wish; eventually the book will find a publisher and through that, I am certain it will fall into the hands of youth who can benefit from Feltus’ story. I hope they allow teenagers to read it in high school. In my high school, we often read current events and books that would show us a reality, yet encourage us to follow a brighter path. I see feltus’ work not only as an important read for adults, but also as a tool for high schools, youth Centers and much more.. I truly hope it comes to fruition.

    I also hope that more stories like these will encourage others to rethink our Death Penalty laws.
    Have a Very Happy Fourth Of July!!

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Of course the laws need to be re-thought. Society changes. Consciousness changes. No one will ever stop the randomness of horrible events, but perhaps as human beings we can find away to deal with them with more compassion.

      Feltus will get his wish, even if I have to self-publish. I’m not dead yet—and the promise remains to be filled.

      Happy 4th to you, too!

  20. kristen says:

    Thanks, Ronlyn, for writing the words–humane and sensitive, endlessly thought-provoking–to start my week. The questions posed in this series you’ve generously and eloquently graced us w/ are so critical, eye-for-an-eye lying at the heart of so much in this world. Sad, the pervasiveness.

    Compassion doesn’t always come easy, of course–requires real dedication and investment of Self–but I think if given the chance to really thrive, we’d all be struck dumb by the resulting beauty.

    Someday, maybe.

    Love this question: “What made me think, then, that I didn’t have the same gradations of light and dark with my self, as he had in his?”

    We all do, of course; it’s just that Feltus’ shadow/darkness, not given adequate ‘exposure’ in his conscious life, won out in the end, in the worst way.

    Thanks again for sharing. As always, I look forward to your next piece.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      I’ve been pondering compassion a lot during the past few years. How is it that human beings are capable of it but seemed “trained” to ignore that as a first response?

      Wow, you said it about his shadow side. Had someone he trusted been there to help him process through his darker feelings, his life would likely have been much different.

      As always, thank you for reading. See you at your next post!

  21. kristen says:

    Ugh, yes, I hear ya re: “training.” And, when I act in a way towards x-person that is/feels less than compassionate, I’m generally aware of it before the fact. Can feel it rising up inside me such that there’d be time to counter it. To act otherwise. And yet still I’ll shrug it off in favor of a harder/colder response. I don’t know–awareness is at least a start.

  22. Judy Prince says:

    Ronlyn, all 4 parts of your piece are compelling, unsettling and solid. Exploring your changing attitude towards Feltus and yourself made me more receptive to his story and circumstances.

    I do feel that his story, his book, will cause many to question why we MUST kill killers in our prisons. Most other nations do not have capital punishment. I believe that we’re ready now to join them.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      It’s profound for me to learn that you were more open to his story because of my telling. For several weeks now, I’ve considered that the way Feltus and I thought his story would go out into the world isn’t what will actually happen. Despite my qualms, maybe I’m supposed to tell my story, too, with his. A weaving of narratives–beyond this essay. We’ll see.

      If only from an economic standpoint, capital punishment doesn’t make sense. Some would argue if there wasn’t such an extensive appeal process, the cost wouldn’t be so high. True. But then that skirts a bigger issue, one you’re touching one, I think. The ethics–and morality–of the death penalty itself.

      Thanks for following this piece, Judy. It’s such a pleasure to hear from you.

  23. Judy Prince says:

    I’m impressed by your perseverance and commitment to your writing, Ronlyn.

    The story seems richer with your story in it, and it puts most of us in the story through you.

    At uni I read John Howard Griffin’s _Black Like Me_, and it profoundly revolutionised my thinking about blacks. Griffin, a white, was reacting to treatment blacks regularly got, but which he’d never known until he, too, was “black’. It was impossible for me, a white person, not to identify with him in his reactions to treatment from both whites and blacks. It outraged me. The Wiki for the book: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Like_Me

    Your story, a deeply informed (voluntary and involuntary) “observer” story, is what most readers will “live” with you, and many will awaken to new stances, revising and evolving them as you have done throughout.

    There’re many issues in your piece besides the main one, and going your own way in the chronicling of Feltus’s story may produce a singular presentation and power that neither you nor Feltus had envisioned.

    But it will, for sure, accomplish the aims that both Feltus and you have continuously held to.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Oh, I have to read that book! Thanks for the link.

      I take your words as encouragement and do so gladly. If I take this route, it will certainly lead where Feltus and I couldn’t have imagined.

      • Judy Prince says:

        Perhaps the book will be a near co-story, Ronlyn.

        Of course Feltus is the “main character”, and we know him from his spoken and written words as well as your observations about him.

        We also get a deep understanding of him as you reveal his reactions to others. The most potent are how he reacts to you. Your descriptions of his anger at your “distance” and at your control were very powerful.

        Feltus was heroic in many ways, but he was not a saint. He struggled and played many roles, each one bringing its own frustrations, revelations and joys. Same with you. Same with us readers.

        Full steam ahead, Ronlyn! Keep us posted.

  24. Simon Smithson says:

    Ahhhhh, Ronlyn.

    At last I’ve found the time to go back and properly read all four of these pieces, and I’m almost in tears over this.

    The humanity here; in Feltus and in you, in the whole story from start to end.

    Noting the conversation between you and Zara – this is so much of the tragedy of people, that so much of our nature lends itself towards repeating cycles and patterns that we can’t get out of because the environment pulls us back in, and the environment teaches us, without our even really knowing it, that this is the only way to live. What a truly amazing perception you’d need to be gifted with to be lifted above that, unless someone was there to show you the way. And that is so much of the triumph of people, as well.

    I read this and thought that I wish I’d known this man.

    Thank you writing it.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      When I read that you wished you’d known him, I instantly thought, “Those two would have really liked each other.” I think you would have appreciated each other’s humor and intellectual curiosity.

      Regardless of what our backgrounds are, indeed, our environments matter. They shape us. Even our brains become wired to do the same thing over and over again–even when we’re presented with different ways of perceiving and reacting. (Were you the one who mentioned in an essay not too long ago about a book on this subject?)

      Thank you for keeping this piece on your radar and coming back to it!

      • Simon Smithson says:

        Ah well. Maybe we’ll catch each other on the other side.

        I may have mentioned it, I’m not sure – but if you’re interested in the field, look up ‘neuroplasticity’ on Wikipedia. I’m about to start a book called The Brain that Changes Itself on just that subject.

        I’m only sorry I didn’t get here sooner, Ronlyn.

        • Ronlyn Domingue says:

          Somewhere I heard about that book. Must put on to-read list.

          Um, no apologies necessary. I recall you had a rather full traveling schedule in June.

  25. Judy Prince says:

    Ronlyn, I just read your thoroughly excellent interview (Angie Ledbetter) in Gumbo Writer.

    This felt exactly right: “How do I explain this….I receive rather than imagine. Stories come in fragments of image, dialogue, ‘knowings.’ I’m tasked with making sense of all of this, piecing it together in a meaningful and understandable way.”

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      My secret’s out. This is really how I function as a fiction writer. Years ago, at a lunch with five other novelists, we went around the table to discuss our processes. I sheepishly shared mine (without the clarity I have now). NONE of them could relate–they have a more concrete approach. Whatever gets the words down!!!

      • Judy Prince says:

        HA! Well, it totally resonated with me, Ronlyn. And I’ve never read anything like it before. What a lovely feeling to know someone else experiences the same process.

  26. Susan says:

    I just met Keith Clark by happen-stance while on vacation. He is just one of those people who come into your life that you won’t forget What a forgiving man he is. Despite his injuries, he could be a bitter man, but because of his ability to forgive, he maintains a sense of humor and seems to enjoy life.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      I’ve never met Mr. Clark. What I know about him came through Feltus–who spoke highly of him and his kindness. When I learned what Mr. Clark said after the execution, I was deeply affected. I wasn’t sure then (and maybe I’m not sure even now) that I could have such peace in my heart.

      Thank you, Susan, for sharing this note. Sincerely.

  27. Amanda says:

    This was beautifully written but I have somewhat of a distaste. This man is held in high regard in your piece and I am unsure why. Everyone has the right and the capability to be forgiven upon death for every mistake. However, Feltus Taylor took two lives that night. Keith Clark was taken from his two sons at a very early age and has never been the same. His former wife lost the love of her life and had to raise those two boys as, basically, a single mother.
    Feltus Taylor should be forgiven for his mistakes but not honored for them or his death. His mistake of that one night are still reeping today. Mr. Clark’s sons will have to deal with that mistake for the rest of their lives. Mr. Clark’s grand-child will have to overcome Feltus Taylor’s mistake for the rest of her life. His family is still trying to overcome the things that Taylor overcame so easily in one year. As amazing of a man Clark is today, he is not the same man he was. As many people as Mr Clark touches everyday and gives hope to, its not with the same jolly, whole-hearted effect it might have been. I admit, it must have been the hardest year of Taylor’s life, but at least he saw and met an end in sight.
    I do not see such an easy ending in sight for the Clark family.
    Youre not an honorable author. I could write a book on the Devil and show him as a being in need for prayers and love. A man with dignity and courage to admit the true character of which he is. That would not be true success. Showing people that a single man can make ONE mistake and ruin the lives of so many people- that is what needs to be out in the world. A passionate piece encouraging the world to change and not to accept the cruelties in which you do not seem to condemn.

    • Amanda, I appreciate that you took the time to read this. I have never met Mr. Clark, and I don’t doubt that he, his family, and his friends continue to struggle because of Feltus’ failings. That is, without question, tragic.

      It’s not my place to forgive Feltus. It is, however, my experience as a human being that there is something to be learned from everyone, no matter their choices.

      The cruelties in the world come through a dire lack of compassion and awareness. Until people truly recognize the effect they have on each other–in word and deed, as individuals and nations–the cycles of violence and tragedy will continue. We may disagree on how this could happen, but we agree that it must.

  28. Tammy says:

    Wonderful article – looking for the book!
    I am glad he found an advocate in you.
    I have worked in child welfare for over 20 years.
    Many of our foster children follow this path.
    It is heart breaking.
    Thanks for telling the story.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Thanks, Tammy. Once I finish with my second novel, I’ll have more time to devote to Feltus’ story. What happened to him has a place in the world.

      You’ve seen it all, then. You know the odds.

      May the compassion you’ve given to the most vulnerable among us be showered upon you in return.

  29. Stacy Jones says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience. How could an experience like this NOT change or alter your life.
    I don’t see your articles as trying to raise Feltus to a higher level but try to let people see a side of him that is pure in what he felt, his faults, his accomplishments. I believe that it is not us to judge someone, although it is hard to do, but that he has his own maker that will answer this.
    I wish the Clark family some kind of peace and to find a way to endure his absence. He is being well taken care of indeed!
    Looking forward to the book and I have no doubt you will make this happen.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      How wonderful to receive this note today. It’s Feltus’ birthday.

      I did what I could to share my perspective on Feltus, but it’s also a perspective on myself. The judgmental part of my nature is far softer after my time with him. Like you, I wish the Clark family–and everyone–peace.

      Once I’m finished with my second novel, I’ll be glad to move on to new projects. His book is still on the list.

      Thanks for reading, Stacy.

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