Tommy Black

The cell Angelo occupied since his transfer from the E-block to the death house was devoid of personal belongings except for a letter, a lighter, a carton of cigarettes and a copy of the King James Bible. The official seal on the letter read Lawson, Lawson & Smith. The Bible, a gift from Momma Tate on her one and only visit to the prison 13 years earlier, was sheathed in the original plastic it arrived in. 

Angelo opened the letter, carefully removed the redolent document and became intoxicated by the fragrance of the outside world. The scent of a woman’s perfume tickled his nostrils. He closed his eyes and searched the dusty archives of his mind for a likeness of Joe Lawson’s assistant. What was her nameLindsey. No. It wasn’t Lindsey. Liza. Her name was Liza.

It was Liza who typed the words he read each month. They’d met only once, when she came in place of Joe who was unable to make his quarterly visit. She was a beautiful young woman, slim and delicately attractive, with long, brownish hair and a body that filled out all the necessary spots and curves just right. The kind of woman Angelo would marry if he wasn’t locked up in one of the country’s tightest maximum security prisons facing the needle in less than three days.

Julian stared at the calendar next to the desk in his small study. October 8th was circled in red. In two days his brother would die by lethal injection at the hands of the state. “My brother,” the words rolled off his tongue like giant stones of despair. He wept. Not just for Angelo, but for himself. A minister of the gospel, he’d brought many people to Christ but had failed his own flesh and blood. 

Two weeks after his sixteenth birthday, Angelo was sent away to the Lutheran Town Correctional Facility for boys. At the age of eighteen he was thrust back into the world, declared by the suits at Lutheran institution to be one hundred percent rehabilitated.

By the time he was twenty-five he was doing a dime on Rikers Island for a botched armed robbery in New York. Upon his release in 2003, Angelo returned to James County and vowed to never set foot in another prison as long as he lived. Four years later he was on the row in Lexington Prison for a liquor store robbery in Lutheran Township.

Angelo lit a butt, his hands were raw, the skin on his knuckles chapped from the dry climate. Cigarette hanging from his lips, he got down on the cold cell floor and pumped out one hundred push-ups, puffing on his cigarette as he heaved his 220 pounds up and down. He was in relatively good physical condition, not that it mattered to a man playing out the string in the final days of a death sentence.

The grey walls and steel bars of the death house matched Angelo’s carefully engraved features. Deep lines chronicled a lifetime lived just beyond the finely painted lines of right and wrong. His hair was short, shorn to the scalp; his eyes two black holes, haunting caverns that exposed a lost and lonely soul.

The letters from Lawson’s office offered a connection – his only connection – to the outside world. A world he’d spent very little time in. He often wondered if the only reason he continued with the bullshit appeals process for so long was so he could receive the perfumed letters typed by Liza.

Joe’s quarterly visits eventually turned into monthly updates via the kindly worded letters assuring Angelo he hadn’t forgotten about him, nor given up on his case. Angelo wasn’t sure what drove Lawson to continue working pro bono. If it was the feeling he and the other associates got from making a contribution to what they viewed as a badly decaying justice system, or simply ego. He didn’t care, as long as the letters from Liza kept coming. 

He lit another cigarette and read the letter slowly, taking in ever ounce of the sweet smell. With each word he savoured the delicious taste on the tip of his tongue and allowed himself the pleasure of dreaming about what it would be like to be a free man. To hold a woman again. To make love on long, cold nights. To watch her bare his children. 

Out of the twelve hundred or so prisoners housed at the Lexington Prison, around eleven hundred and ninety-nine claimed to be innocent. Angelo was no different. He was in the liquor store on the night of July 12, 2006. He broke his parol by purchasing a bottle of whiskey. He never denied these facts. But the robbery and murder of the store clerk he had nothing to do with. 

He bought the bottle, went back to his apartment, drank three quarters of it and passed out. The next afternoon a half dozen screaming police officers gave him a very unpleasant wake up call. His trial was short. The prosecution paraded witnesses who claimed they saw Angelo in the liquor store the night of the murder, which of course they had. 

A video from the store surveillance system showed Angelo pick out a bottle of Jack Daniels, take it to the counter, pay for it and then leave. An hour later a man in a ski mask, wearing a leather jacket similar to the one Angelo owned, entered the store and proceeded to rob and shoot the clerk. 

Joe Lawson argued that millions of people owned a leather jacket like the one his client wore. Why weren’t any of them suspects? The prosecutor claimed the man in the ski mask was Angelo Tate. The build was the same, the jacket was the same, the only difference between the two men were the pants. The perpetrator who shot the clerk wore grey dress pants in the surveillance video, Angelo was wearing jeans. 

According to the prosecutor – who thundered and wailed in overly dramatic fashion – the pants issue was easy to explain. Since Angelo only lived a twenty minute walk from the liquor store, he could have easily jogged home, changed his pants, grabbed his gun and returned to rob the store. 

“But why would he change his pants?” Lawson argued.

The prosecutor rested with these words: “ladies and gentlemen, please don’t let a pair of pants be the deciding factor that allows a murderer and known criminal to go free.”

The evidence was circumstantial. Lawson was confident the jury would never convict on it. How could they? All they had was a jacket and a man with roughly the same build. Nothing concrete. The fact that the gun, the dress pants and the money were never recovered would surely work in Angelo’s favour. The jury convicted after less than three hours of deliberating.

Judge Douglas Franklin III lashed out at Angelo during sentencing. “In all my years on the bench, I’ve never witnessed a man with such disregard for the rules of human decency and law. You took a man’s life for the rush it gave you to pull the trigger. Since you seemingly have no regret for your actions, and no fear of what this court can do to you, I must allow the outcome to rest in God’s hands. He alone shall be your judge.”

“Wake up Tate.” The badge banged his club against the cell bars. “Your Priest is here to see you.”

Angelo rolled over and stared out at the corpulent guard and the man standing next to him. “I never asked to see a Priest.”

The guard shrugged his shoulders and turned to Julian. “Let me know when you want to be let out, Father.”

“I’m not Catholic. Nor am I a priest”

“How do you mean?”

“Never mind.”

Angelo was mute as he eyeballed his brother. It was amazing, after so many years he still looked the same. It was almost like staring in a mirror, only Julian’s hair was much longer than Angelo’s, it swirled down around his ears and hung just above his eyes, which were covered by a pair of black horn-rimmed glasses. His hands were raw, his knuckles chapped from the dry climate. His face was sketched with a similar hardness as Angelo’s, only with a hint of contentment.

Angelo lit a cigarette. “How did you get in here?”

“I told them I was your minister.”

“They were instructed not to let anyone in.”

“I convinced them you would talk to me once you saw who I was. 

“They didn’t question the fact that you have the same last name?”

“I have been going by mother’s maiden name for years.”

“Since I was put on death row and it was in all the papers.” 

“Yes.”

“Well, if you’ve come to save my soul, Julian, you’re too late. I gave your God the opportunity years ago. I don’t believe in a deity that allows innocent men to die in prison.”

“Tomorrow night, when they strap you to that table and bring an end to your life, you will find out that the almighty does exist. Only then it will be too late. You need to confess your sins, accept Christ into your heart and ask his forgiveness.”

Angelo took a hard pull off his cigarette. “So you did come to save me.”

“I’m here to secure your place in eternity.”

“My place is secure. There is no such thing as life after death. I’m afraid this is all there is, brother.”

“You’re wrong.”

“Do you still believe I killed that man?”

“Angelo, what does it…”

“Do you still believe I killed that man? It’s a simple question.”

“You were in the liquor store that night. You were violent in the past. Can you look me in the eyes and tell me you didn’t kill that clerk?”

Angelo reached for Momma Tate’s Bible. “I’ll not only say it to you, I’ll swear it before your God and our long departed mother.” He rested his hand on the book.

“Angelo. Stop! You don’t lie to God almighty.”

“Lie to God almighty?” Angelo’s eyes welled up for the first time since Momma Tate passed. “It’s not a lie brother. It’s the truth.”

When Angelo and Julian were twelve, less than a year after their father died, Angelo was accused of stealing money from the Widow Callahan. Angelo swore he didn’t take any money from Ms. Callahan. He grabbed a Bible from the book shelf and – knowing how religious their mother was – proceeded to swear on it. Momma Tate slapped his face so hard it left a mark. “You don’t ever lie to God almighty, Tommy Black!” She screamed.

Tommy Black was a name Momma Tate and the other church ladies used when referring to boys they felt were wicked and beyond salvation. Later that night Julian asked Angelo why he would steal from Ms. Callahan and, worse, lie to Momma Tate and to God? Through red, puffy eyes Angelo swore he never took so much as a penny from the Widow Callahan. 

Julian knew in his heart then, like he knew now, his brother was telling the truth. “Oh my God, Angelo, I’m sorry. All these years.”

“Forget it. There’s nothing you could have done.”

“Maybe not. But there has to be something I can do now.” 

“It’s too late.”

“It’s never too late.” Julian felt the sting of tears on his cheeks. 

Angelo reached through the bars and grabbed his brother’s hand. “It’s okay. What’s done is done. Soon it will all be over, and none of this will matter.”

“I’ll come back tomorrow night and witness your execution.”

“Julian, I would rather we say our goodbyes tonight.”

“I want to be here for you. I need to do something.”

“It’s over. The cock has crowed thrice.”

“Please, Angelo, let me be here tomorrow night.”

“If it’s that important to you, you can see me before, but I won’t let you watch me die.”

The sky, overcast with heavy, black clouds, was about to bust open as the different rights groups took their place in front of the main gates of Lexington Prison. One group of anti-death penalty protestors raised signs, others cried and prayed and sang hymns.

Inside the prison Warden Carlson met with the family of the liquor store clerk. “I’m sorry for your loss.” Carlson was somber as he spoke. “I hope you’re able to find closure when this night is all over.” They were hollow words. He knew it. Still, he felt obligated to say something to the families of the victims before a prisoner was put to death. 

The short speech was always rehearsed and offered in an attempt to sooth the family’s discomfort. There would never be closure. Taking a prisoner’s life didn’t heal the wounds, it opened them up even wider. Carlson had witnessed too many executions in twenty-five years to believe any different. Tomorrow morning the family would wake up feeling empty and hate Angelo Tate even more than they did now.

Angelo was cracking open a fresh pack of cigarettes when Carlson pulled up a stool outside his cell. “Evening warden.”

“I have to tell you how this will be going down tonight, Angelo.”

“Let me have it.”

“You didn’t request a last meal with friends or family, but I hear you’ve requested to see a minister.”

“I want to see him before my execution, but I don’t want him in the viewing area when you murder me tonight.”

Carlson scratched something in a small note book. “I’ll see he has access to you. I’m going to go on record and say I wish you would change your mind about having a witness present, it’s your legal right to do so.” 

“No witnesses.”

“Ok, then. At eleven-fifteen the guards will take you down to the chamber and the doctors will prepare you for the injection, which will take place at approximately one minute after midnight. Any questions?”

“Do you believe in God, Warden?” Angelo rubbed his thumb against the filter of an unlit cigarette. 

“I think this is a conversation you should have with your minister.”

“Either you do or you don’t.”

“I suppose I do. But I don’t think we should…”

“Then you believe I could end up in a better place tonight?”

“If you’re sorry for what you’ve done and repented.”

“What if this is all there is?”

“I’m sorry, son. You need to confer with your minister.” 

It was almost showtime. The other convicts had been in lock-down for the past twenty four hours and would be until twenty four hours after the execution. The stage was set, the play in its final act.

Thirteen years on death row should prepare a man for the final moment, but nothing on earth can prepare someone to be the guest of honour at their own killing. Soon the state witnesses and the family of the murdered clerk would take their place in the viewing area, fulfilling a nearly decade and a half long wait for a window seat at Angelo’s execution.

Soon the saline intravenous lines would hang from Angelo’s veins; a stethoscope and cardiac monitor leads would be attached to his chest as Sodium Pentothal was injected into his body and, one minute later, Pavulon. Potassium Chloride would finish the job. His remains would be cremated and buried in the prison graveyard next to the other convicts who had no family, or none willing to claim them.

“Sorry I’m late Angelo. I had to argue with the guard to put me in your cell.”

“How did you pull that off? No one is allowed alone with a prisoner.” 

“Yes, I was told that. But I assured the guard I would be fine. He insisted on calling another guard to stand watch, but I told him there simply wasn’t enough time.” 

“And that worked?”

“Well, that and I told him if he refused me the opportunity to baptize you, the weight of your damnation would be on his soul and curse his entire bloodline.”

“And he bought that bullshit?”

“Most believers are very superstitious, Angelo.”

At fifteen minutes past eleven six heavily armed guards, lead by Warden Carlson, entered the death house. A numbing hum of electricity reverberated between the men. Angelo was shackled and offered one last cigarette. He declined. The feeling drained from his body as the badges directed him down the corridor; the final thirteen steps of his life he would have to be dragged. The silhouettes of the observers in the viewing area were motionless as the guards secured him to the Gurney. He closed his eyes and prayed. 

The older model Toyota coughed and sputtered to life as the dark clouds from earlier beat out a hard rhythm of rain across the parking lot and the vehicle. Car and driver slowly made their way through the mass of reporters and protestors. 

The prison was an hour in the rearview mirror before the car pulled to the side of the road. Inside the glove box was a bulky envelope containing three thousand dollars, a passport, I.D. and a photograph of Momma Tate with her twin sons. On the back of the photo was a printed quote from the Bible: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for another.” (John 15:13) 

Angelo tossed the photograph, the black wig and horn-rimmed glasses out the window. He thought about the gun, the dress pants and the money long ago burned to a crisp in his old apartment building’s incinerator. That no one ever thought to look there was a miracle. He laughed. Maybe there was a god after all.

(December 2020)