Once in a Blue Moon
What's in a life?
In 2002, the day before Valentine's day one of my oldest and dearest friends died, unexpectedly from a systemic infection, probably pneumonia. She had just turned sixty. Just after noon on the twelfth, her neighbor called me, said I should go to the hospital because they had taken Susan Lee there in an ambulance.
They had taped her eyes, said they had "blasted." I didn’t know what that meant, her fingers curled around one finger of my hand, held on. They said it was an automatic response, that she wouldn’t regain consciousness, but I felt her presence in the room.
Eventually we learned that Susan's heart had stopped in the ambulance. They resuscitated her but she had lost too much oxygen. She had complained for several months of congestion, "the worst sinus infection I've ever had" she wrote in one of the letters I later found. That week she had gone to the doctor three times to get medicine. Twice they said she didn't need it. The third time they gave her a prescription but failed to call it in. By morning she was blue and when her neighbor came by to get the prescription to take it to the pharmacy, he called an ambulance instead.
Later someone told me they had been testing designer viruses at Huntsville and she'd probably gotten sick there. Who knows. Whatever it was didn't register with the doctors she consulted.
What she'd been doing in Huntsville was research for a book about the death penalty in Texas. She ran for Governor on the Green Party Ticket against George Bush. She started the book after he announced that no innocent person had been executed on his watch. "We'll see about that," she said. And began a two year project interviewing death row inmates and their families, doing research, studying, reading, traveling to vigils, staging them. She met with families of murder victims who worked against the death penalty and was overwhelmed with their courage in the face of devastation, the healing wisdom they found when they were able to let go of the cycle of revenge. She found a corrupt, inept legal system wildly stacked against persons of color and the poor.
In the midst of this work she met Anthony Graves. She was impressed by his story and looked up his family. She read court documents, foot after foot of them, carton after carton. She was able to see past the heinous, horrific crime -- six people, two adults and four small children, murdered in their beds, fire set to the house -- to the reality of a man on death row, one who was innocent. She wasn't the first person to think so. Almost everyone who had worked on the defense side of the case thought Anthony was innocent. There wasn't any evidence against him, for one thing.
But that doesn't matter particularly in Texas. Once a trial gets blotched in the early stages as a result of prosecutorial misconduct or bad, or no, research on the part of poorly paid public defenders with no budgets for discovery, or incompetent representation, sleeping lawyers, etc -- the bars slam shut. Appeals courts take as fact what comes up to them from the lower courts. No new evidence gets in. In the end it's often habeas attorneys whose job is to prove that the defendants constitutional rights have been violated in ways that are so technical and convoluted they make a regular person's head spin. Once in a blue moon, someone on death row gets a new trial.
Anthony Graves just got one. The judgement said there was good reason to believe the District Attorney who prosecuted the case against Anthony knew before he went to trial that the only witness against Graves had recanted, had just fingered Graves to protect his own wife, had made a deal to say Graves was there, but then recanted. Recanted before the Graves trial. And the District Attorney didn't tell the defense, didn't tell anyone. Tried the case as if the testimony that had been recanted, was fact.
What was fact was that this witness, Robert Carter, recanted 22 times, including just before he was executed. The reason there was a good reason to believe the prosecutor knew before Anthony's trial that Carter had recanted is that he said so on tape during one of the many times Susan Lee interviewed him. Those tapes have been in my safety deposit box since the summer of 2003, when her attorney Roy Greenwood listened to the Graves interviews, made copies of the relevant ones, and set about getting copies certified by the Attorney General.
With enormous support from friends and family I edited Susan Lee's chapter drafts and finished the book she began in 2000. We published it in the fall of 2004 and then sent all her notes to Houston, to Nicole Cezarez whose class at St. Thomas University was working on the Graves case in conjunction with the Texas Innocence Project. The class tracked down evidence about Carter's wife.
It was tapes, research by the St. Thomas University class based to some extent on Susan Lee's research, and brilliant, unrelenting work by death penalty attorneys Jay Burnet and Roy Greenwood, that several weeks ago got Anthony Graves a new trial. The state can contest it still. We'll see. Maybe I'll get to meet Anthony Graves sometime -- free.
Anthony Graves has spent 14 years on Death Row, in Texas.
His brother Arthur Cury told me, "Having to live your life as a family member of someone on death row is like being there yourself. Every pain they feel, you feel. In the case of an innocent man serving time, not only does it destroy the life of the accused, it also wipes out the hopes and dreams of a whole family, and in the end, everyone loses -- no justice, no victory.
That's the title of Susan Lee Campbell Solar's book, "No Justice, No Victory -- The Death Penalty in Texas."
See Susan Lee Memorial for information about Susan Lee Solar. To order the book email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Being Susan Lee's friend was to be pulled in new directions of activism every minute. But she was also a dear friend, great listener, hilarious story teller and brilliantly creative force. Last week I met her grandson for the first time.
who is 7 months old,
sat on my lap tonight,
coming to me right away and staying put as a party
to welcome him gathered around a table
in the middle room of Susan's sister's house.
He held on to the index finger of my left hand the way
Susan Lee held on to one finger of my hand the last hours
of her life, while we waited for the family to arrive.
I held this small child, who looks like his mother looked,
rocking him, kissing his tiny head every now and then,
being his chair while people came to welcome him,
the way she would have done, exhalting the wholeness
of the moment, a sweet circle on a large blue planet.
Susan Bright is the author of nineteen books of poetry. She is the editor of Plain View Press which since 1975 has published one-hundred-and-fifty books. Her work as a poet, publisher, activist and educator has taken her all over the United States and abroad. Her most recent book, The Layers of Our Seeing, is a collection of poetry, photographs and essays about peace done in collaboration with photographer Alan Pogue and Middle Eastern journalist, Muna Hamzeh.
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* art courtesy of Lisa Eastman