In the earthquake cottage I shared with my husband, on the night of July 13th 1998, the phone rang. It was about 10:00pm. The summer fog would have rolled through the Alemany gap several hours before. It would have been a cold damp night and though bed was the reasonable place to be on a night like that, I was up waiting. My husband and his colleagues were awake too, trying not just to wait, trying to stave off the helplessness they were feeling. They were at the office working to bring as much media attention to the night as they could, legal options having been exhausted.
Thomas Thompson had been within hours of his execution a year before when a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had spared him. This stay was now permanently vacated and once again he was scheduled to die within hours.
My husband had been with him at the prison. Thompson’s mother had been there too in the private visiting room, where state procedure allows for a shackled last few hours. Trays of cold cuts and cheeses lay on a table bringing to mind working lunches, staff meetings and birthday parties. Was anyone hungry?
At six o’clock, the visitors including the lawyers were required to leave. A member of Thompson’s legal team would come later to be a witness, while the rest worked on.
That is how my husband came to be at the office while the collect call from San Quentin came to our house. Upon accepting the charges I heard for the first time the voice of the man who had occupied so much of my married life, the man who my husband was fiercely trying to protect from the ultimate punishment.
In the summer of 1981, I was a skinny kid in a red and white bathing suit playing in the waves and collecting shells washed up on the sand in Laguna Beach, California. That same summer in that very vacation town an awful situation or plot, depending on how you look at it, was brewing for Ginger Fleishli and Thomas Thompson. By early September of that year, Ginger’s body was found wrapped in a sleeping bag in a field.
The man convicted of this crime was now asking me whether my husband was home. No he was not, he was at the office. Did he have the number I asked? He did, and that was all there was to say. What does one say to someone who is keeping a stiff upper lip and who for the second time in a year is staring into the face of death by injection? I stumbled and bumbled, almost saying “good luck” before I said the only thing there was to say, “Goodbye.”
I hung up the phone feeling as though the wing of death had brushed overhead, through the fog that blanketed my husband’s office, our home and the prison.
Last night, my husband listened to the radio quietly to hear the fate of Troy Davis while I put the kids to bed. This morning I woke to find him going through his morning chores, heavy hearted. The U.S. Supreme Court had cleared the way for Troy Davis’ execution and he had been put to death.
A reporter had called my husband in Troy Davis’ final hours to ask whether my husband saw any connection between the Thompson and the Davis case. There was so much doubt raised upon appeal about the defendant’s guilt. Each man faced a breathtaking stutter-stop journey of temporary defense victories on the way to the death chamber. My husband pointed out these things.
But it is the second thing, common to all cases, this bumpy road of hope and despair while fate hangs in the hands of others that is the final, impossible obscenity of the death penalty and the creepy thing that made our hearts heavy this morning as we got the kids ready for school.
These cases are subjected to level upon level of review in an attempt to ensure that the death penalty is administered properly; states search for ways to kill people that do not set their hair on fire or suffocate them while the are too tightly strapped to writhe; as we do all this, the one thing we cannot do anything about, is the forcing of an otherwise healthy person to stare for years at their untimely death, as they swing between hope and despair.
It is impossible to imagine what this is like, as impossible as finding the right words to say, when a man in this position, in his last hours, calls on the phone.