“Collect your belongings. You are free to go. When escorted outside, go directly to your car. Do not talk to reporters.”
My head is spinning, my heart is racing, I can’t get a breath. I just want out of there. When I get to my car, I throw everything on the back, and I just collapse into the driver’s seat. “I can’t do this. I can’t go home to my family that I haven’t seen in a week and pretend to be happy.” Not even their love and support could help me at this particular time.
We had just sentenced a man to death. Now what? Just go home and wash dishes?
You see, in Mississippi, the death penalty is like a part of our unspoken culture. The basic logic is, if you murder someone, then you’re going to receive the death penalty. So when the jury selection process took place, they asked me, “Could you, if the evidence presented justified the death penalty, could you deliver, rationally and without reservations, a penalty of death?” My answer was an astounding “yes,” and I was selected as Juror Number 2.
The trial started. From the evidence being presented and from the pictures of the victim, my first response was, “Yes, this man is a monster, and he deserves the death penalty.” For days, I sat and looked at his hands, the ones that yielded the knife, and against his pasty white skin, his eyes … Well, he spent endless days in his cell, no sunlight, so his eyes were as black as his hair and his mustache. He was very intimidating, and there was absolutely no doubt in his guilt.
But regardless of his guilt, as the days passed, I began to see this monster as a human being. Something inside of me was changing that I just didn’t understand. I was beginning to question myself as to whether or not I wanted to give this man the death penalty.
Jury deliberations began, and the judge gave us jury instructions and it was to be used as a tool in how to reach a verdict. Well, using this tool only led to one decision, and that was the death penalty. I felt backed into a corner. My head and my heart were in conflict with each other, and the thought of the death penalty made me sick. However, following the judge’s instructions, being a law-abiding person, I gave up. I gave up and voted along with the other 11 jurors. And there it was: our broken judicial system at work.
So here I am in my car, and I’m wondering: How is my life ever going to be the same? My life was kids, work, church, ball games — just your average, normal, everyday life. Now everything felt trivial. I was going down this rabbit hole. The anger, the anxiety, the guilt, the depression … it just clung to me. I knew that my life had to resume, so I sought counseling. The counselor diagnosed me with PTSD and told me that the best way to overcome the PTSD was to talk about the trauma. However, if I talked or tried to talk about the trauma outside her office, I was shut down. No one wanted to hear about it. He was just a murderer. Get over it. It was then that I decided to become a silent survivor.
Twelve years later, 2006, I learned that Bobby Wilcher had dropped all of his appeals, and his execution date was approaching. That was like a punch in the stomach. All of those buried feelings just started coming back. To try and find peace, I called Bobby’s attorney, and I said, “Can I see Bobby before he’s executed?”
Driving to the penitentiary on the day of his execution, in my mind, Bobby was going to be manic. But, surprisingly, he was very calm. And for two hours, he and I sat there and talked about life, and I got to ask him to forgive me for my hand in his death. His words to me were: “You don’t have to apologize. You didn’t put me here. I did this myself. But if it’ll make you feel better, I forgive you.”
On my way home, I stopped by a restaurant and bought a margarita.
I don’t think I could get one big enough —
to try and calm down. My phone rang. It was Bobby’s attorney. Within two minutes of his execution, they had given him a stay. This stay gave me time to reach out to Bobby. And as crazy as it may sound, we became friends. Three months later, he was executed by the State of Mississippi.
I’m here to tell you my story, because it was precisely 22 years later that I even wanted to open up enough to talk about it, when a friend encouraged me. “Hey, perhaps you need to talk to the other jurors. You’ve been through the same experience.”
Uncertain of what I was after, I did need to talk to them. So I set out on my quest, and I actually found most of them. The first juror I met thought that Bobby got what he deserved. Another juror — well, they just kind of regretted that it took so long to carry the sentence out. Then one juror, and I don’t know what was wrong with him, but he didn’t remember anything about the trial.
Well, I’m thinking in my mind, “Jeez, is this the response I’m gonna get from everybody else?”
Well, thank God for Allen. Allen was a gentle soul. And when I talked to him, he was genuinely upset about our decision. And he told me about the day that the devastation really set in on him and hit him. He was listening to the radio, and the radio had a list of names of men to be executed at Parchman Penitentiary. He heard Bobby’s name, and he then truly realized what he had done. And he said, “You know, I had a responsibility in that man’s death.” Now here it is, 20-something years later, and Allen is still dealing with that issue. And he’s never told anyone about it, not even his wife. He also told me that if the State of Mississippi wanted to keep the death penalty, then hey, they needed to provide counseling for the jurors.
Then the next juror I met was Jane. Jane is now totally against the death penalty, And there was Bill. Bill said he had this crushing depression for weeks, and when he went back to work, his colleagues would say things to him like, “Hey, did you fry him?” To them, it was just a joke. Then there was Jon. Jon said his decision weighed on him, and it burdened him daily.
The final juror that I spoke to was Ken. Ken was the foreman of the jury. When we sat down to talk, it was apparent that he was deeply saddened by what we were required to do. He relived the day that he left the courthouse and he drove home and he went to put his key in his door and unlock it, and he said he literally broke down. He said he knew that Bobby was guilty, but the decision he made, he did not know if it was the right decision. And he said that he played it over and over in his head. Did we do the right thing? Did we do the right thing? Did we do the right thing?
All those years, and I finally realized that I was not the only disillusioned juror. And we talked about sharing our experience with potential jurors to give them some insight into what to expect, and to tell them do not be complacent; to know what you believe; to know where you stand and be prepared, because you don’t want to walk in one morning as a juror and leave at the end of the trial feeling like a murderer.
Now, through this storm in my life, I did find some inspiration, and it came in the form of my granddaughters. My 14-year-old granddaughter, Maddie, was writing an essay on the death penalty for school, and she was asking me questions. Well, it dawned on me that this child was being raised in the same eye-for-an-eye culture as I was, or had been. And so I explained my experience to her this way: that I had sentenced someone to death as I served on a jury. And I asked her, “Did that make me a murderer?” She couldn’t answer.
I knew then that this topic needed to be open for discussion. And guess what happened? I got invited to speak, just recently, in an abolitionist community. While I was there, I got a T-shirt. It says, “Stop Executions.” Well, when I get home, my 16-year-old granddaughter was there, Anna, and she says, “Can I have that shirt?” Well, I looked at her dad — her dad is my son — and I knew that he is still dealing with this death penalty issue. So I turned around and I looked at her, and I said, “Are you gonna wear this?” So she turned and she looked at her dad, and she said, “Dad, I know how you feel, but I don’t believe in the death penalty.” My son looked at me, shook his head, and said, “Thanks, Mom.” And I knew it wasn’t a nice “Thanks, Mom.”
So I learned that life had taught me some lessons. It taught me, if I had not served on that jury, that I would still be of the same mindset. It also gave me confidence to be able to see through the eyes of my granddaughters, that this younger generation, they’re capable and they’re willing to tackle these difficult social issues. And because of my experience, my granddaughters, they’re now more equipped to stand on their own and to think for themselves than to rely on cultural beliefs.
So: being from a conservative, Christian family from a very conservative state in the United States, I am here to tell you that the death penalty has new opponents.
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