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Justice

Ninety Minutes To Live: An Encounter with a Death Row Survivor

July 21, 2017 by

Derrick Jamison

I was on my way to lunch when I met a few newcomers entering the communal dining hall. I was immediately drawn to Derrick Jamison. He’s almost six and a half feet tall, unassuming and gentle. What a shock, then, to hear that Derrick spent twenty years to the day in prison, seventeen of them on Ohio’s death row. In 2005, charges were dismissed after a federal judge found that as many as thirty-five pieces of evidence had been withheld by the prosecution. Derrick was released.

After the kids trotted and skipped to their chairs and the buzz of conversation subsided, someone started a folk song, and two hundred and fifty voices joined in. It was about the beauty of summer set to a pleasant melody lifted from a Mozart piano concerto. Was Derrick feeling out of place? With Cincinnati Reds cap brim angled low, he appeared to be relaxed and soaking in the happiness of the children around him.

Six times, Derrick was told the date and time of his death. Six times he was served his last meal.

We asked Derrick to share his story with us, but none of us were prepared to hear the shocking and graphic details of what it feels like to be sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit; what it’s like to witness most of his friends meet a scheduled death; what it’s like, to this day, to be denied any compensation upon release (he couldn’t have bought a bus ticket). And also what it’s like to be proved innocent and to walk out of death row a free man: “The day I was released from death row I felt like a kid the night before Christmas. If I could bottle up that feeling and sell it, I’d be a billionaire!”

Derrick talks at lunch

It turned out that Derrick and his friends from Death Penalty Action had stopped by for lunch with us on their way to face another trial, this time in DC. The charge: they had staged a peaceful protest on the marble steps of the Supreme Court, advocating life imprisonment as an alternative to the death penalty. Derrick and fellow protestors, including Shane Claiborne and John Dear, were locked up (shackled) for thirty hours. This week they were going to be tried.

I asked Derrick how he could intentionally allow himself to be jailed again. He explained:

I lost so much. So I got to do this. I’ve got to get this message out. I lost so many people. It destroyed my family, it destroyed all my friends. A lot of people in America don’t even know they’ve got a death row in their state. It’s 2017, and in my state of Ohio they’ve got executions scheduled out to 2022. Those are my friends. It’s just wrong. Nobody should have the right to say who should live and who should die. It ain’t right and it ain’t fair. You ain’t seen no rich person get the death penalty, only poor whites, poor blacks, and poor Hispanics.

Six times, Derrick was advised of the date and time of his death. Six times he was served his last meal and arrangements were made for his body. Six times there was a stay of execution, once with only 90 minutes of life left. Six times, and yet he does not harbor hate:

Everybody asks me, how come you’re not angry? You know, I’ve watched all my loved ones get murdered. I’ve heard grown men screaming for their moms, like little kids. On the day of my friend Lou’s execution, when they came to get him he was crying out that he was innocent. He grabbed the bars, and they broke his fingers to get them off. They beat him to death, then they strapped him to the gurney and killed him all over again. His mother had come to witness his execution; she’d walked in but they had to take her out in a wheelchair. It just breaks my heart.

It’s time for a new abolition movement, the kind that Jesus proclaimed in his first public statement.

So you know why I do what I do? The guards who killed my friends – they were acting in anger. Why would I want to act like them? I was taught by my mother’s example to love people, and that there’s only one way to treat people: to treat them good. When you treat people good, good things are going to happen. I’ve got peace of mind, you know, and that’s priceless. I’ve seen what anger and hatred does at the highest level.

That evening, my daughter asked me, “Did Derrick experience slavery?” If current trends continue, one in three African-American men born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime. If my eight-year-old can make the connection, so can we.

It’s time for a new abolition movement, the kind that Jesus proclaimed in his first public statement: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)


Jordanna Bazeley lives with her husband and four children at Spring Valley, a Bruderhof in Farmington, Pennsylvania. Comments

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Jordanna

Jordanna Bazeley

Jordanna Bazeley lives at Danthonia Bruderhof in Australia with her husband, Johann, and their four children.

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