The last walk from Death Row in Texas

Read my friend and ex BBC colleague, Mark Dowd’s extraordinarily powerful account of the last efforts of campaigners to save Mark Stroman from being executed this summer, and of his final moments. Stroman murdered two men in a ‘patriotic rage’ after 9/11. In the ten years he spent on death row he became a very different man, and Mark’s friend. His execution in July had nothing to do with justice and everything to do with politics and Governor Rick Perry’s campaign for the Presidency.

Move off the sidewalk,” the security guard yelled at the thirty or so anti-death penalty protestors, “you’re killing the grass.” These comments were delivered, without a hint of irony, outside Huntsville Prison, the Texas State Penitentiary, just minutes before the execution of Mark Stroman on July 20. A man who had murdered two people in a fit of “patriotic rage” after 9/11 had, almost inexplicably become a friend and I had come to Texas from my base in Madrid to spend the last days with him.

 It all started in 2003 when I presented a British TV series called, Children of Abraham. Stroman’s killing of two Asian gas station attendants in the aftermath of the attack on the twin towers had filled me with curiosity and I wanted to ask him some questions. He agreed to see me and in our twenty minute interview he’d appeared to be a strange hybrid of remorse and burning anger.

 “Do you believe in God, Mr Stroman?,” I’d asked him directly.”Yes Sir, I do,” he replied. “Then, how do you feel about facing God knowing that you have the blood of two innocent creatures on your hands?”  At this point there was a noticeable lump in his throat. “Well I kind of haven’t got round to thinking about that just yet,” he said. My answer was direct and to the point. “Well, can I suggest you make it high priority.”

That exchange formed the basis of more than thirty letters between us during the next eight years. My deep hope for Mark was that he could come to feel and undergo true repentance and remorse for what he had done. I repeated ad nauseum from Ezekiel 36:26

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

For two years I declined to give him my home address, but his letters came faithfully to the offices of the TV company I was working with. I don’t know where it came from, but early on in these exchanges I pledged to Mark that, if and when the day came, I would return to Texas to visit him. After endless appeals, delays and legal wrangling ,his hour was approaching, and so it was that I made the sixteen hour trip to Texas and passed through the rigorous security at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston just forty eight hours before his planned execution.

 Death Row inmates are allowed special privileges in the two days before D Day which meant extended visits and a total of five hours with him. What immediately struck me during our first few minutes was how much calmer and serene he had become. You could put all this down to resignation, yet in those few days I managed to talk to a number of chaplains and all commented on how there had been a significant change within him in the last couple of years or so. What also struck me were two further things.  First, for a man staring down the barrel of a gun, he seemed genuinely at peace with himself. He was aware of being part of a grander scheme of grace that surpassed his comprehension. For what had happened to Mark is that he had largely lost the support of his immediate family who had disowned him, but had come to have real encounters with individuals, a number of whom would have been very unlikely choices as close friends. This is a man who had hardly even left the confines of his home city of Dallas, never mind the state of Texas. He mixed with his own stock, was involved with drugs, burglaries, credit card fraud and the press dubbed him a “white supremacist,” even trying to link him (with no proof as far as I could make out) to the Aryan Brotherhood, one of the nastier looking ultra right groups.

 Of the six people who visited him non-stop in those last 72 hours, one was a Jewish filmmaker, Ilan Ziv, who had first met Mark in 2004. Another, the author of this present article was an openly gay Catholic. “It’s all part of the plan,” said Mark when we chatted in the first of our three sessions. 

 One man who was not allowed to visit Mark and who dearly wanted to, was Rais Bhuyian. This quiet and dedicated IT programmer from Bangladesh had almost been Stroman’s third victim back in 2001, but the armed weapon had partially backfired, meaning that Rais lost the sight of one eye, but survived. The closer the date of the execution came, the more Rais began to cite the primacy of forgiveness laid out in the Qu’ran. With the help of the UK based charity, Reprieve, he began a PR and legal campaign for a stay of execution based on the assertion that his own rights as a victim had been transgressed because he had not been sanctioned to go to Livingston and see his aggressor and make his peace with him face to face.

 This highly unusual manoeuvre was not some bolt out of the blue from a headline-seeking opportunist. I had interviewed Bhuyian back in September 2003 and even then, with images of his facial injuries still fresh in his mind, he was showing the kind of unconditional forgiveness that has moved so many people in recent weeks. “One death cannot amend and correct another death,” he had told me. “We have to break the cycle of revenge and destruction. Forgiveness is the only way.”

 Was the process of knowing this and internalising the almost saintly gesture of his victim a key part in Mark Stroman’s transformation? Certainly it became increasingly embarrassing for the state of Texas when Rais Bhuyian’s face appeared on all the TV stations from late June onwards. Even worse, neither of the families of Mark Stroman’s shooting fatalities,  Waqar Hasan and Vasudev Patel, wanted the man who had murdered their loved ones put to death, landing a major blow in the Lone Star State’s case that the Death Penalty offered victims justice and retribution. Mark Stroman knew all this. He felt humbled. On the morning of his death, he wrote in his final blog:

    This nightmare has turned into something of great power and beauty. To each and every one of you….friends, loved ones and the many unknowns who have just started looking at these blogs…remember these wise words, from all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world but only these two, the race of the decent man and the race of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society.”

 On July 20th, visiting time was at a premium as he was to be transferred from Livingston to Huntsville at midday, a journey of just under one hour in a heavily guarded maximum security vehicle. Our small group of six supporters each managed just under an hour with him and I know I speak for all of them when I say that the final words of farewell and walking away will be one of the hardest things that any human being will have to undergo.

But it wasn’t our final communication with him. Just a few hundred meters away from his death chamber, we gathered that afternoon in a hospitality centre run by a group of dedicated Baptists in Huntsville. We were linked directly over a speakerphone to him as he finished his final meal ofbattered chicken, fried steak with gravy, 12 crispy pieces of bacon, a ham and cheese omelette, fried potatoes, squash and fried okra. He was on his third cigarette, his first inhalations since 2001, and sounding as high as a kite. He joked heartily with us:

 “you know that too many of these things can kill you,” he quipped.

Alongside myself and Ilan were Ben and Liz Low, life long friends from way back when in Dallas, Connie Wright whose husband, Greg, a firm friend of Mark’s, had been controversially executed in 2008 and perhaps closest of all to Mark, a young, quiet and deeply profound British pen pal and frequent visitor to Texas since 2005, Laura Sheehan. As a  group, we had spent hours together; sometimes talking, sometimes in revered silence. At times I wondered whether this was what it was like in the upper room prior to Pentecost….the waiting, the tension, the fear of the reaction from the people outside. 

Time was running out. Rais was in Austin, the Texas state capital, with his lawyers, still endeavouring to get a stay of execution with his legal case running right up to the wire. He desperately wanted his first conversation with the man who had almost terminated his life and, to that end, we had given him the direct telephone number where he could reach Mark in the death chamber. At 4.30, just 90 minutes before his scheduled execution, Mark came on the phone again. “I have spoken to Linny and Madge from Europe, but where is Rais?” Good question. The answer is that Rais could not get through on the number because he was being told by the state authorities he had no right to talk to the man who had nearly killed him. At this point, technology became our salvation. With Mark on one speakerphoneand Rais on the other, we brought the two handsets within two centimeters of one another and for three gloriously emotional minutes, the two men, who had last exchanged words prior to near fatal gunfire, were connected. It was too charged a moment to expect a detailed and coherent exchange.

“I love you brother,” (said the ex white supremacist to his Muslim interlocutor)…”thank you for all you are doing for me…” Rais responded in kind. All was recorded on the camera of a third  mobile phone for Ilan’s documentary. Chaplains and Baptist volunteers looked on. There was not a dry eye in the house.

Six o clock came and went. Most of our group were acting as Mark’s witnesses and were being prepared to be led into the death chamber to witness his final statement and the lethal injection. I was outside with the media and the protestors. Phone calls. Snippets of info. Rais’ case had been referred to the fifth circuit. And then even later, to the US Supreme Court. Two and a half hours after the six o’ clock crunch hour of reckoning. “It won’t happen tonight,” said one protestor who had been to dozens of these macabre gatherings. “It’s getting too late. He’s gonna get a stay.” I knew in my bones that Mark was never going to get a full pardon. Not when Texas Governor Rick Perry was deciding whether to run for the US presidency as the Republican candidate. Death in Texas is, above all else, about the drama of politics being literally executed on the wider stage. But thirty days would have been worth it. A few more visits, a few more letters. Hope took root inside me. And then it was cruelly smashed to pieces in a few seconds. At precisely 8.26 pm, the tell tale sign that all anti-Death penalty protestors will tell you is the unambiguous sign of the denouement. A small gaggle of media folk followed by Ilan, Laura, Connie, Ben and Liz….walking the walk across a few paving stones up those steps and along the winding corridors and into the death chamber. It is a blasphemy of choreography. In life, your friends should walk with you…their walking should never be the sign, to the outside world, that your death is now a matter of pure clinical inevitability.

Mark used his final words to tell us all that the hate had to stop. He remained a proud patriot to the end, but his understanding of what true patriotism meant had been utterly transformed in the pressure cooker of Death Row, through adversity, through self acceptance and  through grace. He had been remade by a power and force way beyond human comprehension. Ezekiel had come good. At 8.53pm, Mark’s totally renewed heart of flesh came to a halt. It was all over.

In the painful hours that followed, our “upper room” group asked many questions, but the one that stays in my mind is this one. What would have happened if Rais had been allowed into that prison and if the post 9/11 opponents had made an Abrahamic peace? Why was his request simply ignored despite repeated attempts? The answer is not rocket science. A machine which has now killed in excess of 450 felons since 1982 could not have tolerated a reconciliation of such extraordianary power. The Muslim forgiving the Christian is a bitter pill to swallow for many in Texas and in states beyond. The human encounter of the  “Arab Slayer” and “victim”may have given rise to a whole new drive towards reconcilation…a corrosively virtuous canker that would have eroded the raison d’etre of capital punishment and destabilised the very foundations of the Texas penal system. So it had to be crushed before it was too late.

Mark Stroman and I prayed the Our Father during the last minutes of my final visit with him. I never touched him while he was alive.  We prayed with our hands outstretched across the glass panes that separated us. As we finished, he opened his eyes. He had tears streaming down his cheeks. “You know Sparky, “ he said to me,

“maybe this isn’t the end of my story, but just the begininng.”

Maybe so. But all that depends on those who are now the witnesses to this story.

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