Folsom, as we see here, was a man who had to choose his exercises of executive mercy very carefully due to the fraught racial politics of his state.
“I admit that we have got the worst penal system in the world, including Dark Africa,” Folsom said two years later* in the course of commuting the death sentence of a man whose crime was stealing $1.95.
What made Folsom most vulnerable to abandonment by even those deeply committed to his social programs was his demonstrative concern about the plight of Alabama’s blacks. He freely pardoned and paroled black convicts, believing they had been wrongly jailed or punished excessively because of their race. He harbored deep misgivings about the death penalty, especially in Alabama because use of the electric chair seemed reserved almost exclusively for blacks. In 1956, at a time of growing racial tension in the state, two black men were scheduled to die in Kilby Prison’s electric chair on the same night, one for murdering his wife and the other for raping a white woman. Folsom commuted the murderer’s sentence to life in prison, but he allowed the young rapist (who had been nineteen at the time of the crime) to die and said that he “just couldn’t” commute the sentence of a black man convicted of raping a white woman. “I’d never get anything done for the rest of my term if I did that,” he said. “Hell, things are getting so bad, they’re even trying to take Black & White Scotch off the shelves.” (It was true. The government of Alabama, which controlled the sale of liquor in the state, seriously considered barring that brand of Scotch whisky because of the name and because its label showed two Scottish terriers — one white and one black — joyfully playing together.)
The miscegenating spirit urges you to get in the holiday spirit.
* Folsom said that in 1958, the same year he let Jeremiah Reeves go to the electric chair.
Art was merely imitating life for by the time that film dropped in 1995, Louisiana had long since mothballed Gertie in favor of the the needle.**
As is usually the case, the the criminal himself was only an accidental distinction for the milestone. Andrew Lee Jones in 1984 had abducted eleven-year old Tumekica Jackson, the daughter of his on-again, off-again girlfriend. He raped and strangled to death the little girl — while drunk, he said. In the days after the crime, Jones had hinted to a friend that recently “he did something he didn’t want to do” and he “done fucked up.” But he seems to have had an inkling from death row that he was marked, telling a British pen-friend — more on her in a bit — “I’m definitely hoping that I won’t be the last one to set in that chair. I got the feeling that they are trying to get one more before they put an end to it.
Several of us sat with Andrew throughout the evening in a large room directly outside the execution chamber. In addition to Andrew and me, Debra Voelker (our investigator), Neal Walker, and Michelle Fournet were there. We sat around a table talking. There were guards in the room as well, but they kept their distance. Andrew was handcuffed and shackled at the waist throughout the evening. His feet were also shackled. We would talk for a while, then Andrew would get up and shuffle away to go call his family, and the rest of us would pull ourselves together. We tried as much as possible to take our cues from Andrew. More than anything he seemed to want distraction, and we took turns providing it. Surreal is the only word that comes to mind when I think about that evening. Yet it was real.
One of the most difficult times for Andrew in the long wait came at 9:30 p.m. when we received word that his last appeal had been denied by the Supreme Court. Andrew refused to talk to Nick, who had called from the office to give him the news, because Nick was crying. Andrew had forbidden any tears. He came back from the phone to the waiting room and sat down quietly. Then he looked straight into my eyes and asked, “Why can’t they just do it now? How am I going to get through the next few hours?” I had no answer. I tried to imagine that in a few hours his life would be over while mine would be beginning a new day. i tried to imagine what it was like for him to look at me, knowing this. We stared at each other, and I shook my head. Someone suggested that Andrew purchase something else from the vending machine, and we all laughed thankfully. For Andrew, one of the great thrills of the last day of his life was his ability to put coins in a vending machine, punch a button, and receive food or drink. It had been over seven years since he had come in contact with coins or a vending machine.
Forty-five minutes before Andrew was executed, guards removed him from the visiting room, saying he would return soon. Fifteen minutes later, he walked back in with that smile of his, but awkward and blinking ferociously. In preparation for attaching the electrodes, the guards had shaved his head, one leg, and, as Andrew pointed out, “even my eyebrows.” He was embarrassed. He wondered how he looked. Of course there were no mirrors. Andrew kept blinking. He explained that there were tiny bits of hair from his shaved eyebrows that were getting in his eyes. He was shackled at the waist and couldn’t reach his eyes. Neal pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and asked if it would be okay to wipe Andrew’s eyes for him.
One of the many silences crept over the table where we sat. Andrew laughed. “At least,” he said, “they let me keep my Air Jordans. I thought they’d take those too, but they didn’t. I’ve spent my whole life running and I want to hit the other side running.” Michelle reminded Andrew that he’d always dreamed a plane would crash at Angola, setting him free. Andrew said it wasn’t too late. We all laughed.
The worst moment came when Andrew was led into the execution chamber. It stays with me. Andrew had passed by us in the hall on the way to the door to the chamber. He gave a strained smile and flapped his shackled hands at us. I watched his back after he passed. At the door to the execution chamber, the guards stopped and made Andrew take off his Air Jordans. As he bent to do so, he looked back, directly into my eyes. I will never forget the raw fear in his eyes. There were tears in mine. All pretenses were gone.
After the execution, that British penpal we mentioned, Jane Officer,† co-founded an NGO to support capital appeals in Jones’s memory. Formerly called the Andrew Lee Jones Fund, it’s now known as Amicus. Officer’s book If I Should Die … (review) describes her correspondence and relationship with Jones.
* Artistic license: director Tim Robbins wanted to keep the focus on capital punishment as such instead of permitting the audience to get away with revulsion only at a “less humane” method.