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I am freaking right out.

The news is coming at me from so many directions, I can hardly absorb any of it. It’s like drinking water from a fire hose. As soon as one story runs, three more update, clarify, and supplement it.

And no, the subject is very likely not who you think it is.

It’s Christina Aguilera.

You see, she had too much to drink.

Becca, my girlfriend’s roommate, sprung it on me the day before I was going to drive back home to Texas.

I’ll pay your gas if you drive me to Alabama, she blurted out while me and her roommate got in some last minute canoodling.

My girlfriend knew what Becca was up to and she promptly filled in the blanks. Going to Alabama meant going to the state prison, to death row. How could I say no? When I asked her if she drove stick shift, Becca offered me the straightest face I’d ever see her make. Yes, she said emphatically, I can. Her bags were already packed. I knew a little about her Alabama death row pen pal, but the knowledge was stowed behind too many bottles of the Shiner Bock I’d been living off of back in Austin.

Becca found him in the back of some liberal-minded magazine, the part where they used to feature personal ads. A sense of commitment to the downtrodden and abused made her answer. But something else had sprouted. Bryan, the inmate, wrote wildly entertaining stories, then backed them up with wildly passionate odes, and so, his letters zoomed into Becca’s heart. It began to thump the familiar cadence of love whenever a letter from her prison baby arrived.

Austin was a different kind of Texas than I had previously gotten to know. It had a metropolitan sway, a verifiable scene to get caught up in. At night I parked the truck off of Sixth Street, mapped out my location so when I drunkenly readied for home, I’d be able to drive myself there. Ridiculously dangerous, and immature, but true.

Even still, loneliness, an increased alcohol intake and a new to me pickup collaborated, and like that, my first cross country road trip came to life. I needed the experience. So I drove the twenty-three hours to see the girl, through a snowstorm mostly, amped up on road coffee and white crosses. Before leaving, I’d even secured a few days off from the busboy job a friend of the family gave me.

Real experience had eluded me since I’d finished a get-your-shit-together summer working on my godfather’s ranch five years before. Now, Becca, offered it up in spades.

We split the next morning, after hugging my girlfriend goodbye, and chugging the home made fresh ground coffee, we tucked our bags behind the bench seat of the blue pickup, and hopped in. I’d stacked a bunch of wooden packaging pallets in the back, to keep the rear end heavy enough to travel through the storm. They banged around until we got to the highway.

Becca and I were pals before I ever met my girlfriend. Some days we’d sit on the bench outside of the gourmet goods store, and talk in strange accents. She was fun in ways I never dreamed of, completely unselfconscious in a sea of awkward puerility. And yet she also retained a total awareness of self. She studied dance. She listened to advanced classical music and silly Midwestern punk bands with the same concentration. Naturally I was drawn to her. Those very qualities were what made me say yes to the proposition in the first place. That, and her offer to pay for gas.

Once we hit the highway, the two of us kept talking, and the tapes I’d set aside for our trip never did make it to the deck.

We flicked our cigarettes out of the windows. We spilled Mountain Dew on each other, and laughed out loud until we couldn’t laugh anymore. Suddenly, we had driven eight hours. She said she’d take over once it got dark. In retrospect, neither of us had really clocked the trip, and I suspect she said that hoping I’d just keep going until we got to Alabama, because it turns out, Becca couldn’t drive stick shift at all. After gassing up I switched to the passenger seat. Becca grabbed the stick shift like she’d probably seen her Dad do. She never let on that she didn’t know how. But when she completely ignored the clutch, and the truck popped forward, and stalled out immediately, like a teenage boy in the hold of his first bedroom visitor, it was pretty obvious.

My Dad had refused to teach us to drive, correctly predicting my brother and I would make the bizarre requirement to learn on stick. Dad had long since given up on stick shift vehicles preferring the blissful ease of automatic transmission. An old classmate of his, down on his luck after years of boozing, turned out to be my driving teacher, and Dad would laugh at the prospect him teaching me. The blind leading the blind, he said. Becca exacted that driving instructor’s revenge upon me.

We were somewhere in Tennessee. Night was approaching. The gas station doubled as a truck stop, with the trucks parking at the north end and a long parking lot that angled downward, to the south.After about an hour of facing the truck downward, getting Becca back behind the wheel,delivering a rudimentary course in the five gear locations of the shift box, we were on our way. My stubbornness was showing. I wanted to watch the country go by. I’d never been to Alabama. And soon we would move deep into repressed poverty of the state. Thankfully, the State Prison of Alabama in Atmore wasn’t our first stop.

Becca arranged for accommodations, and gave me directions. I pictured a Motel 6, a Travelodge, a Best Western in the near future. Becca arranged something else.

I took over driving, knowing Becca’s concept of the gear ratios would splinter soon as we entered stop and go traffic. We were on the other side of the tracks, literally, having crossed an unmarked trestle as the neighborhood became a shambled mess of shanties and too small plots of grass.

I don’t think that Atmore had any neighborhoods that looked and felt and breathed with the warmth of a different, economically more structured South, but if it did, we did not see them. Beccabooked us a room through the inmate network. Here it is, she said, looking out the window at what looked to me like a shack to store old lawnmowers, a little bigger, but by not much.

Our host was named Amanda, or Brenda, or Linda. She was as big around as she was tall, freckled, strangely delicate, and kind. Her house was two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room. And everything on that street seemed like it had lived there since long before I’d been born. Paint chipped off of each house. Rusted cars sat on wood and cinder blocks in each yard, and the grass grew weedy and high.

Our host showed us to our room, and having been through the ritual enough times already, let us be.

I have never slept in a bed that drooped on springs as creaky as that before or since. Each time one of us squirmed the other let out a quick laugh, but we clung to our sides of the mattresses like our lives depended on it. Before we finally fell to sleep Becca whispered the particulars of Bryan’s case. They each were on the last of their appeals, she said quietly. Then she announced that Bryan was innocent. As she said it her head came up so she could see into my eyes, the springs barking like over active hound dogs underneath of us. Her eyes burned fiercely, having told too many other over privileged snot noses the story of her death row inmate. I read the fury of her eyes, and quickly stifled that same reaction. Yeah, right he’s innocent, I thought to myself. But I also noticed she did not mention Ed’s innocence, immediately understanding her stance on that situation. Ed and Bryan had befriended a white girl, who may or not have been a prostitute. They got loaded, hung out for a little bit, but when the girl got mouthy, Ed took her for a walk, and when he came back alone, Bryan let it go.

A week later, the two transient men were picked up for the woman’s murder. Neither had money for an attorney. At the end of the trial, both received guilty verdicts. Bryan was unwilling to rat out his best friend. Ed was unwilling to cop to a crime where there was no material evidence. The lack of material evidence, however, made much less difference than the color of their skin, versus that of the dead woman’s.

Good night, Becca said, exhausted from the drive, from the information she just outlined.

The Atmore prison had towers. The towers had gunmen. When I parked the truck in the lot, the gunmen watched us, their weapons ready. I kissed Becca goodbye and started to make my escape. She tugged my wrist. You can’t go, she said, you have to come in and visit with Ed so he can get out of his cell.

It was an irritating favor to ask at the last minute, but I couldn’t deny the urgency splashed across her face. I looked back at the closest tower guard, sunglasses hiding sharpshooter eyes. Do it for the experience, I told myself.

Death row inmates don’t get to have regular visitor hours with the rest of the crew. They spend most of their time in their cells. Their prison community consists solely of other death row inmates.

In Alabama, the inmates wore white. As we made our way to the visitor’s area- a large glass wall encased room that resembled a public school cafeteria – the inmates appeared from behind a sliding steel door. Under the harsh purple neon light, their uniform lack of pallor from having little to do with sunlight was grotesque. Bryan and Ed were black. The vampiric lighting didn’t give them that ghoulish glow.

Becca grabbed a corner table, and we crowded around it. When you meet killers it’s unnerving how natural they are. How regular. How absolutely normal and likable they seem. A few years later a drinking pal of mine, a man I sometimes turned to for advice, revealed he was, for all intents and purposes, a murderer on the lam. We were sitting at the bar when he became a little wistful and announced he hadn’t been back to Florida to see his family for many years. Why, I kept asking- two drinks, three drinks later. By the fourth round, he could contain himself no more, and shrugged. I killed a guy, he said. He looked at me the same way Becca had the night before. I knew it was true.

Bryan was affable, and I quickly found the same charm Becca swooned over. He regaled us with tales of what each inmate was in for. See that one, he said pointing to a guy who looked like a car salesman, or a chaplain. He killed his wife for the insurance money. That kid, he said pointing to a stringy teenager pockmarked by acne with a black shock of hair, he killed his ex girlfriend, strangled her in her sleep.

Ed was opposite of Bryan. Reserved, quiet. A do-er not a thinker. Lost in naivete ( or the knowledge that I could get out of there) I asked Ed was what he did for fun. He played along, and talked about basketball. He could shoot hoops an hour a day, followed the NBA religiously.

I hated basketball. But I didn’t tell that to Ed. Instead, I asked him about his teams, mentioned I came from Maryland, and we talked about Len Bias, the Celtics and Michael Jordan. I’d gone to a sports camp as a teenager at UNC, and I told Ed about Michael Jordan visiting his alma mater after being drafted by the Bulls. He didn’t exactly light up the way Bryan and Becca did at sight of each other, but the story made him easier to be around. He told me what his day to day life was like, and I, in turn, told him about bussing tables for assholes, and spending afternoons in bookstores dreaming of something better.

Yeah, he said, I know what you mean, man. I dream of something better every night.

Becca and Bryan’s ministrations could have disgusted me. And after a few hours, I’d run out of things to talk with Ed about, and I knew I was going to leave. They knew it, too. But they still went through a few more hand jives underneath the table.

Becca got up and hugged me. Have a safe trip, she said. I was stunned. I assumed she would leave with me. No, she was staying to the end of visitation, and was going to spend the night, and come back the next day, too.

Ed shook my hand. A guard led him away. Bryan spoke up then.

Ed can only hang out when he gets a visitor. No visitor- it’s back to his cell.

He was trying to guilt me into staying, but it didn’t work. I wanted out of there. Another guard escorted me to the gate, and then I was walking on the pavement of the lot staring at the armed tower guard staring back at me. In the truck I grabbed a warm beer and guzzled it.

Then I was out driving down highway 65, past Negro Lake, past Satsuma, Saraland, and Mobile, where I picked up the I-10 and headed west to Texas, where I still felt I belonged, where dining tables waited for me to bus them.

Eventually, I found out the truth. There’s no escape from death row. I was subject to my own demonic possession, in regards to drugs and crime and jail stays. Summer of 2000, I cleaned up. A year or so later, as the chemical fog lifted, I remembered that drive to Alabama, to death row. After a couple of months learning how to explore the internet, I discovered what happened to the two men who shared their lives with me for four hours one lonesome spring day in 1992.

After that last appeal was exhausted, Ed was executed in 1996. Bryan three years later. Every time I think about them, now, I realize, had they been white, they’d likely both still be alive. In prison probably, but alive.

I saw Becca again right after moving out to Los Angeles about seven years ago. We watched a movie projected on the side of a cemetery mausoleum, oddly enough. When I asked her about that trip she brushed it off, immediately changing the subject. I had only brought it up in order to thank her for giving me an indelible experience. Maybe a cemetery doubling as a movie theater was the wrong spot.

 

Recently I’ve been corresponding with a man on death row. I work for a newspaper which covers sports at the Ohio State University, the main focus being football and the continuing endeavors of the OSU Buckeyes. The condemned man who wrote to us is a self-described “displaced Buckeye” in a Florida prison. He wanted to know if he qualified for a subscription discount as his funds were “limited.”

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. She said before the strap-down team tied him to the gurney, he received a note from Keith Clark—the man he nearly killed—telling Feltus that he was forgiven.

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

Read Part 1 and Part 2

I visited Feltus a few days after he got his new execution date. He’d been through the death warrant announcement and waiting before—twice in 1997 and twice in 1998.

The death row inmates had been moved back into the building at the front of the Angola complex, several yards from the only prison entrance. Inside, huge box fans circulated warm air through the halls. I couldn’t imagine enduring that heat for too long. A female officer escorted me to an air-conditioned visiting room. She asked if I usually had contact visits, and I said I did. I added that he didn’t need to be shackled. During past visits, I had to ask the guards to take off the cuffs, something they were legally allowed to do. She alerted someone on the hall to get him out. She and I talked until he arrived.

The door opened. Feltus walked in without a guard or arm shackles—smiling. I laughed and told him I was shocked to see him come in that way. Every other visit included grumpy-faced guards who unlocked his hands in front of me. Each time, I’d watch him rub at his wrists for a few minutes afterward. That day, he put down a pile of paper and lightly hugged me. Along with a copy of his manuscript, he had a stack of letters he wanted me to mail for him. His goodbyes.

He told me he’d received the letter I sent him telling him how sorry I was about the turn of events. “My attitude is that we’d all rather remember each other smilin and laughin than all sad. You got time for sadness later,” he said.

Then he admitted he hadn’t worked on his book in a long time because he had writer’s block. He pushed a pad of paper and a pen toward me. “Write this down,” he said. For about five minutes, he dictated to me, starting where his manuscript left off. He stopped suddenly. His posture changed. “That’s enough. I can do the rest on my own now.”

“Are you ready to go, if this is it?” I asked after he told me about his concerns about dying. He was clearly more afraid of the actual events—the wrong dose of chemicals leaving him conscious—than the dying itself.

“Yeah.”

“Do you still want your lawyers to take it to the Supreme Court?” He had often considered giving up his appeals to stop his grandmother’s worry and give his victims peace.

“Yeah. I didn’t want to last time, but I do now.” He paused. “Will you be there my last day and go to my funeral?”

“I promise to do that if that’s what you want.”

“How do you do at funerals?”

“Okay.”

“Because you’ve been to a lot?”

“No, I’m just able to function through all of it. I save the grief for later.”

“I want to take pictures the last day. Group ones with everybody and just the two of us. You can put it in your photo album, and people will wonder who that black guy is.” He laughed.

We visited for two and a half hours. It still surprised me how quickly, and comfortably, time passed when I was with him. We never struggled to find a subject to talk about. Before I left, he said he was going to buy a pound of coffee from the store—the prison commissary—and pull a few all-nighters.

“Don’t work too hard. You need your rest,” I said.

“I’ll have plenty of time to sleep later.” He smiled.

I laughed.

Then he looked straight at me. “For whatever reason, I’m glad our paths crossed.”

“I am, too, Feltus.” And I meant it.

That was the last visit I had with him before the execution date. I never bothered to get on his regular visitors’ list because Cecile always managed to arrange special meetings for me. That was a mistake. Because I wasn’t on his list or part of his legal team, I had no rightful claim to see him. The warden, who was suspicious about what Feltus was writing and why, denied every other request for visits, and I had no recourse.

His book kept me focused during the day, every day. He in fact pulled those all-nighters because I received almost one hundred handwritten pages, back and front, within three weeks. I sent him questions through the mail every few days to have him elaborate on sections he’d already written. He sent those back quickly, too. Three student workers typed his manuscript, and they asked each other what happened in the parts they hadn’t typed. I didn’t care why they were interested, only that they were. It confirmed that Feltus’ story meant something to others.

But in my quiet moments, I was confused. I didn’t consider myself close to Feltus. I thought it was strange that I didn’t think about him all the time, considering what was about to happen. I felt guilty about my emotional distance and wondered if there was something wrong with me that I couldn’t bring myself to have a connection with him that his other friends did.

Also, I knew, but didn’t openly acknowledge, that I feared other people’s judgment. I grew up with the understanding that victims received sympathy and wrong-doers received punishment. Love the sinner, hate the sin was a concept, not a practice. I worried what others would think about my choice to work with him and, in doing so, show kindness to a criminal, a murderer. Our society’s outcast.

Sometimes, I felt callous, but I did care. Deep down, I believed Feltus needed and deserved compassion. I couldn’t articulate it then, but I was shifting in the ways I thought about capital punishment, imprisonment, and human fragility, even human dignity. I had vivid nightmares about executions—and Feltus was the one being executed. I wrote him several letters during those last two weeks. Whenever I had a good afternoon run or watched TV with my partner at night, I thought of him and what experiences he must have missed in his lifetime. I even wrote the governor a letter asking for his mercy, stating that if Feltus were executed, it would be justice served but not justice done.

On the scheduled execution date, September 9, 1999, I left work that afternoon and joined another one of Feltus’ social workers at his grandmother’s house. We had both been denied final visits. The book project banished me, and Jane’s outspokenness about the lack of mental health services at the prison had banished her. We were to wait at Miss Henretta’s for Feltus’ final call.

Within an hour, the five-room shotgun house filled with nine people. Jane and I were already there with his grandmother, Miss Henretta. Then his grandmother’s sister, her daughter, and her daughter’s adult son arrived at the house together. Behind them came the man who had located Feltus’ biological family and collected facts about Feltus’ life before he was adopted. Finally, two of Feltus’ pen friends from England joined us. Both women had written Feltus since the first year he was on Death Row, and each had traveled to see him several times since then. They had visited when he had his fourth execution date in May 1998. This time, they expected to go home after his funeral. Jane and I served them food and drinks and waited for the phone to ring. We all roamed the house, brushing each other in doorways and the one small hall off the bathroom.

When the phone rang, Jane answered. He asked to speak to me first. His voice was low and dark. He said he cared about me and wanted me to promise that I’d make sure his book got published. I said I cared about him, too, and assured him that I would honor his wish. By the tone in his voice, I could tell our brief conversation was over, so I handed the phone to Miss Henretta. I couldn’t keep the glass in my hand steady. He spoke to everyone in the house at least once and then I was called back. When I took the receiver from his cousin, I heard static. I said Feltus’ name twice, and then the phone went dead. I jiggled the cord. I felt my insides go quicksilver cold.

I sat on Miss Henretta’s bed next to his pen friend, Jan. “How far is he from the phone?”

“Just a few feet. He’ll call back soon.”

I couldn’t stop shaking. I went through the house to pick up dirty plates and glasses. I imagined that a guard had made him leave the phone to make preparations to take him to the death chamber. It was still early, though, not even five thirty. The execution was scheduled to occur around seven. Alone, I washed the dishes in the tiny kitchen where Miss Henretta had her clean plates face down on the table at each seat, a bowl of fresh fruit, and a saucepan of the boiled water she drank. I placed the last clean glass on the counter at the moment the phone rang. I walked through Feltus’ old bedroom to the narrow hall and stood there to see Jane—standing next to Miss Henretta who sat in a small chair—pull the phone from her face and shout, “We got a stay!”

No one cheered. A few of us muttered what might have been prayers. The tension in the house slipped through the cracks in the walls. A silent, reverent calm took its place.

Later, I learned that Feltus had been called away from the phone to begin his final meal. That moments after he began eating his gumbo, his lawyer walked toward his holding cell with her thumb in the air. That only the guards had heard the phone ring with the call from the U.S. Supreme Court giving Feltus a stay—an hour before he was to die.

*     *     *     *     *

After Feltus’ last minute stay, I felt like I got a second chance myself. As his writing coach and editor, I knew there were gaps in his story that only he could fill. Feltus had completed a first draft of his book three weeks before his execution date. All of the questions he answered to elaborate or clarify were meant for me to weave into his original text, but there were more questions lingering. He had additional work to do. I knew I had to be more consistent with him through visits and letters. Although his friends encouraged him to write his book, as his coach, it was my role to make sure that happened.

My role. During the days before and after Feltus’ execution date, I realized how I defined and justified my distance from him. In my head, I had constructed our relationship as one of teacher and student. I thought of myself as his instructor, giving him direction about how to write his story, where there should be more description, where he needed to share his thoughts. I had to care about him, and I did, but I didn’t have to be his close friend.

I kept my promise to be more attentive to him and his work for the first couple of months after his stay. We wrote and visited a little more often. I was placed on his regular visitors’ list. No more contact visits face-to-face at open tables in an air-conditioned room. We met in a visitors’ area where he was seated, shackled, in a tiny booth with a heavy door and had to speak through a mesh screen. I sat opposite him in a narrow room that connected to several tiny booths. The room was cold—cold air, cold light. His booth was dark, radiant with heat.

Then it happened again. My life—a bout with the flu, work, a writing class—got in the way. As for Feltus, a series of hostage situations and drug busts resulted in a security crackdown in the prison. That meant the conditions became harsher, often unnecessarily. Those who did art work in their cells, like Feltus, had their painting supplies taken away. Lawyers couldn’t have contact visits with their clients, which had been standard for years. Men suspected of having knowledge of what happened were moved to cells on different tiers, which disrupted friendships. This made Feltus depressed and unable to concentrate. He didn’t work on his book for months. He was angry at me for not giving more feedback on what to do next. I was annoyed with him because I had given him several suggestions for changes that he hadn’t made.

We were on cordial terms when the final decision came. Cecile called me into her office and said the U.S. Supreme Court had rejected Feltus’ case. The court would not hear his appeal. His fifth stay of execution was lifted. It was April 24, 2000. I sat across from her, stunned, knowing this was the end. No more eleventh hour miracles. While we tried to use words to express the unimaginable, he called to talk to us. Cecile barely managed not to cry. I felt my throat close. Feltus sounded resigned. And peaceful.

Fortunately for the book project, only days before the court’s decision, three dreaded projects I had on my calendar had been canceled or delayed indefinitely. I didn’t question such gruesome divine intervention. I read his entire book again. In the meantime, he finished the assignments I’d given him, and he began to write about the months after his 1999 stay.

We had a good visit on May 16. His spirits were bright, and his humor was dark. His remark, “You’re gonna think I’m paranoid, but there are people up in here tryin to kill me,” was a classic example of his resilience and strength. He seemed not only prepared to see to his autobiography’s last details but also to die, surreal as the circumstances were.

Several days after our meeting, I sent him more than 400 questions to answer, most of them asking for simple clarifications—a name, a color, a remembered thought or feeling in the moment. I knew when I was doing it, I was being unfair and selfish. I didn’t want him to die without drawing the last pieces of his story out of him. 

He retaliated. I didn’t want him to send mail to my home address, partially out of respect for my partner’s wishes. I also wanted my privacy. I figured out that he got my address from the form Charlie filled out with the names, addresses, and phone numbers of those people who would serve on the Feltus Taylor, Jr. Foundation board. I was working on his book at my office on a Saturday when my partner, Todd, called, furious, to say there was a packet from Feltus at home. In a note he enclosed, Feltus wrote that he was “sick and tired” of answering the questions. Only 10 had responses. The rest were blank.

I visited him again on May 30. Before that day, I’d sent a letter stating that I knew he was angry but he didn’t have the right to ignore my wishes. He told me face-to-face that he’d sent the packet to my house to piss me off as payback for expecting so much from him. It was a glimpse of a side of him I hadn’t seen before, but I couldn’t deny that some kind of reaction was inevitable. He kept a journal during his last days, which he read to me. He wrote that I was “a shrink, always trying to figure him out.” He went on to observe that it was like he was a project for me and that it was weird how much I knew about him when he knew so little of me. I couldn’t deny any of that, either. His honesty and insight startled me a little, although I wasn’t certain why. Now I realize I underestimated him. He was a far more perceptive person than I recognized. How much of my judgment about his textbook case past clouded my ability to see him for who he was?

Despite his initial anger, Feltus wasn’t a man who held grudges, at least not in the later years of his life. We had a brief but pleasant meeting. He thought it was funny when I pulled out a dollar bill covered in questions I had to ask him. No one was allowed to bring in anything from the outside except the clothes they were wearing and $20 or less in cash. I had tried to go in with a Bible with some secreted blank paper, but the visitor’s center guard told me I couldn’t because I wasn’t a spiritual advisor. No problem. I knew that I could use paper towels from the bathroom to write on and get a pencil from a guard by asking for a commissary order form. As it turned out, there was a pencil on the metal shelf which a guard had forgotten to pick up from the last visitor.  

When I left Death Row’s visiting room that afternoon, I knew I’d see Feltus alive only once more—on his execution day.

Read Part 4

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

I stood with my hand on the cold metal gurney-gray shelf under the screen separating us. For the third time, I tried to leave. He was in the closet-sized room opposite me. The bulb was out above his head. There was hardly any light coming through the tiny window in the door behind his back. He leaned forward and said in a mock whisper, “You’re gonna think I’m paranoid, but there are people up in here tryin to kill me.”

His familiar smile turned into a crescent moon. He widened his eyes until then gleamed. Then I laughed from my gut, where I felt it most. He joined in with that quiet, shoulder-shaking heh-heh-heh-heh he used when his humor was darkest. Between the two of us, we smothered out the noise behind him: box fans, clattering key rings, steel hitting steel.

I laughed to myself even after I left the visitors’ room, passed his name on the white board in the office downstairs, and walked along the flower-lined sidewalk distantly edged by chain link and razor wire. It was broiling outside compared to the air-conditioned sections inside the prison building. The car’s interior wouldn’t cool off until I was 10 miles from Louisiana State Penitentiary. The overgrowth along the hills defied the May drought. I listened to Marvin Gaye’s album Let’s Get It On. Part of me felt the need for symbolic gestures, that I should have chosen What’s Going On? instead. But I knew Feltus Taylor, Jr., the man who was alone in his cell by then, would want me to listen to whatever made me smile. Then I laughed quietly at his joke again.

Someone was trying to kill him—and would in 21 days.

He would die on June 6, 2000.

*     *     *     *     *

I worked for an office within a state university’s School of Social Work when I was asked if I would help Feltus with his autobiography. I’d been on the staff less than a year. The office had several on-going criminal justice projects, most of which involved program monitoring and evaluation. The director’s death penalty work didn’t fit neatly among them. An expert in criminology, Cecile was a social worker who gave mitigation testimony during the penalty phases of first-degree murder trials. Her role was not to save a defendant’s life, although that was implied intent. She gave a judge and jury information about a person’s life history, the facts and circumstances that might explain how one human being could kill another.

For months before each trial, she personally interviewed the defendant as well as his family, friends, teachers, doctors, and others who knew or treated him. Some staff members collected dozens of documents—records from schools, physicians, counselors, police, prisons, employers. All of this was synthesized into a defendant’s social history, a map of his life, a trail leading to the day he was arrested for murder. I compiled and created her court presentations, which meant I knew the details. After I saw those case files, the academic research I’d read was no longer theory. Risk and protective factors translated into real people, real life.

I didn’t support the death penalty, but my reasons were pragmatic. First, poor people, especially minorities, were most likely to get death sentences because they couldn’t afford private attorneys who could plea down charges or get them off. Second, taxpayers paid more to give a person years of appeals and execute him than to sentence him to life in prison in the first place. My opinion had little to do with morality or compassion. That would change, drastically.

Because my view was so logical, I couldn’t relate to Cecile’s approach to her work. I’m not sure she often believed that any of her clients were guilty unless the facts were indisputable. In the same conversation, she would talk about sad, awful abuses within families and then give some example about how they were “wonderful people.” She had empathy for the crime victims, but she seemed to have more for those accused of the crimes.

When she talked about Feltus Taylor, I figured he was no different from the rest. No better, no worse. He had been on Death Row five years before she got his case. It was in the post-conviction phase, which meant his case was moving into higher levels of the justice system and would reach its end at the U.S. Supreme Court.

I don’t know how long she had a copy of his autobiography before she asked me if I’d be interested in helping him. She’d read it and couldn’t believe how good it was for someone with so little formal education. I agreed to read what he’d written—because I was morbidly curious—but made no promises. I expected to turn down the request with ease. How good could it be? I read the entire manuscript in one sitting. When I got to the last page, which ended in the middle of an event, I wanted to read more. I searched our office files to try to find the rest of the book. When I found Cecile later that day, she said there wasn’t anymore because he hadn’t finished it. I thought it was remarkable, unexpectedly eloquent yet simple. He had the gift of a natural storyteller.

My enthusiasm was pure instinct. I knew that he had something to tell the world. Not as a prophet, martyr, or saint, just as a man who didn’t whine or make excuses about the wrongs he’d done. Although I knew I had to help him finish his autobiography, I also knew that I’d have to keep my distance somehow. I couldn’t deny two facts. He was a convicted criminal, and he was going to be executed one day. So from the first letter I sent him, which took me at least a week to carefully word, I had my guard up. I decided that my role was to be his coach and editor. I could offer no more.

*     *     *     *     *

Because Cecile was part of Feltus’ legal team, she was allowed to have contact visits with him. This meant she didn’t have to see him in a regular visitors’ room, where partitions gave little privacy and mesh screens distorted faces. She tried to arrange a contact visit for me because I was her employee. She apparently told the warden the real reason for the visit because he refused her several times, stating Feltus and I could work on his book using the telephone and mail. That’s exactly how we would work together, but I wanted to meet him in person. I didn’t fully trust the opinions of those who knew him, I wasn’t sure how much he’d written was true, and I had to let my gut tell me what I could believe.

Cecile managed to finally convince Warden Burl Cain to let me in. A visit was scheduled before Christmas in 1998. Until then, Feltus and I had communicated only through letters. I focused on what we had in common—writing. I had written fiction sporadically since I was old enough to print, and all of my jobs since high school had involved writing and editing on some level. He stated that he had a passion for writing that he didn’t discover until he went to Death Row. We were opposites—white woman, black man; middle-class, working class; free, imprisoned—but our appreciation for the power of words was a significant shared interest.

Our correspondence wasn’t particularly personal, but I began to get a sense of who Feltus was. I knew that I was at least dealing with someone who was sincere. In his response to my first letter to him, he wrote:

“My dream is to have my book published, and live to see it help kids and teens. Than [sic] I will know that my life wasn’t a total waste. I made a really bad mistake in my life. And I am paying for it now, and may pay for it with my life. But I don’t want teens to make the same mistake that I have. And a lot of them do. And are coming to prison younger and younger these days. Even to death row. And it really needs to stop, you know.”

Cecile joined me for the first visit. At the prison entrance, there were colored lights, wreaths, and holiday greeting signs. Beyond the checkpoint, I noticed a huge painted wooden Santa and his reindeer on top of the administrative building, which was connected to the first building a visitor sees to the right of the security gates—Death Row. However, at that time, Death Row prisoners had been moved to cells toward the back of Angola’s 18,000 acre complex, land that was once a plantation.

Once we approached the building, we had to walk through narrow fenced corridors blocked by gates with electric locks. All of the windows had bars. Not a single face peered out to enjoy a cool breeze. On the first floor, there were several guards on watch and prisoners pushing large laundry hampers on wheels. I found it strange that none of them acknowledged us, not even with  glances. They must have seen plenty of white women in civilian clothes—lawyers, social workers, nuns—standing in the open spaces under fluorescent lights. Cecile and I stood there at least 10 minutes before our escort put us in a room upstairs that was used as a doctor’s office. He locked the door behind him.

For half an hour, I watched guards and inmates talk to each other like co-workers. Then, two guards led Feltus into the room. He was as short as I expected—I knew from reading his case file that he was about five feet six—but he was much broader, like a bulldog through his arms and chest. His hair was cut close to his skull. He had bright, kind eyes. Cecile hugged him, but he couldn’t hug back because his wrists were shackled together. I offered my hand, which he shook, then he leaned a shoulder toward me, an armless hug. I patted his back lightly.

Cecile started the conversation. He was reserved, even though he’d seen her many times. Still, a dry sense of humor came through, a quality I hadn’t noticed in his letters. When he smiled, one dimple creased his right cheek. At age 37, he had a mischievous boyish innocence about him. He was a good listener. I noticed that he looked people in the eye when he spoke. His attention focused on what was said, and his responses didn’t fly off in tangents. Cecile talked nearly the entire time we were there. When she gave us a chance to chat, Feltus stressed how much he wanted to do something that could help kids and that was the reason he was writing his life story. I told him I would read his manuscript as he wrote it, give him suggestions on what to do, and edit it once he was done. That I agreed to help seemed to mean a lot to him, as if he didn’t deserve this gesture but would accept it. Our brief talk was direct and thoughtful. He impressed me with an intelligence that called into question the IQ score of 80 I saw in his case file.

I left knowing I’d made a commitment to a murderer, a man I genuinely liked.  

Read Part 2