September 21, 2011 was a day straight from hell.
I was in California at the time, and although I had attended three of Troy’s previously scheduled execution dates in 2007 and 2008, I was too pathetically broke to afford the trip to Georgia. I think the truth be told, though, I was a bit relieved not to be there with the crowd of people outside the prison. I’m a loner when it comes to grief and I don’t like problems that can’t be fixed.
I called Troy that morning. Finding the right words was not easy. The guards kept interrupting, insisting Troy fill out some forms. Troy apologized for the distraction. I told him how sorry I was that I could not be there and he told me that he was grateful for all I tried to do for him since we first met in 2007. He said “I love you.” “Me too.”
When I picked up my 8-year-old daughter from school that afternoon, I explained “Mommy needs to be alone for a few hours.” The execution was scheduled for 4 p.m. PT (7 p.m. ET). So I barricaded myself in a bedroom at a friend’s house while my daughter played with my friend’s kids. I had CNN on the TV and Amy Goodman’s live feed from the prison grounds on my laptop. I was tweeting a bit, trying to find some way to be of service.
It was surreal. Time passed slowly, and when 4 p.m. came there was a jolt of frenzied confusion at the prison. The crowd misunderstood and thought the Court had issued a stay. They broke out in song and fell to their knees praising God. It was so heartbreaking to watch the crowd when moments later they were confronted with the truth. It was all a mistake. There was no stay. Nevertheless, Troy was still alive so there was still reason to hope.
My daughter started popping her head in around 5:30 p.m., looking for dinner. “In a minute!” I shouted. Clearly not a contender for Mother of the Year. Around 7 p.m., I could no longer ignore my daughter’s plea for some food. We ran out to a nearby Subway and returned in time to hear the announcement that the Supreme Court had denied the stay. Around 8:00 p.m., my daughter came in and laid on the bed next to me as I continued to watch in the dark. “What’s going to happen to Troy, Mommy?” “They’re going to kill him, sweetie.”
Moments later, they did just that. Troy’s last words.
The reason I was too poor to make the trip to Georgia last year was because I had invested what little I had to start Innocence Matters and then forgot to get paid.
When I left Atlanta in 2008, I promised Troy I would continue to help out in whatever way I could. When I arrived in California, I purchased the domain name Innocence Matters–a name I had been using since 2007–with plans to set up a nonprofit to help people like Troy.
I visited Troy a few times since the move, spoke to him on the phone regularly, and remained active in his case as an amicus attorney through 2010. Life, single-parenthood and trying to pay the bills delayed the start of the nonprofit, though.
In late December 2009, I received a call from John Smith. I remember my daughter was playing with her Christmas puppy, Rosey. That gave John and I a fair amount of time to speak without interruption.
There was something about John’s tone and manner that made me want to believe him. When I agreed to look into his case, though, it was solely to see if I could find enough selling points to pitch it to the California Innocence Project.
I explained Innocence Matters was not an established organization. We existed in theory only and had no means to make a significant investment in his case. As I began the research into his case, however, I was appalled to see how poorly John was represented. His case was actually dismissed in federal court because the lawyers forgot to file a brief. During those first three months, I spoke to John frequently and got attached to him and his case.
Innocence Matters was founded on March 29, 2010 and John Smith became our first official client. Around that time, an eager student materialized. Jessica Farris called from Pennsylvania and wanted to intern with us full time over the summer. Really? Damn, I’m going to have to get an office before then, I thought.
Throughout the summer, Jess and I investigated John’s case. Popping from one prison to the next tracking down gang members in the know. Later Valerie Rone and Kiley Schaumleffel joined the team, followed by many others, who would contribute to our petition, which we filed on October 29, 2010. So convinced of the compelling force of John’s innocence, we aimed for a December 2010 release.
Nearly two years later, we’re finally there. Today, on the one-year anniversary of Troy’s execution, the court will dismiss John’s case and he will be free to leave . . . as soon as he finishes the paperwork, of course.
As excruciatingly painful as it is to remember the heartache of Troy’s execution, it is fitting that John will get good news today. Were it not for Troy, John and I would have never crossed paths.