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