Photo: Cheri Herrboldt, left; her husband, Joe; Carl; and Cheri and Joe’s daughter, Anjali. Photo provided by Cheri Herrboldt.
We’ve traveled 2,500 miles by air and another 125 miles by car to see a man my family and I have been writing to for the past two years. His name is Carl, and he is on death row. As we approach former military buildings behind a chain-linked fence with razor wire at the top, the wind is bone chilling and my 17-year-old daughter, Anjali, and I walk briskly as Joe, my husband, follows. Inside, a stoic clerk decides Anjali’s pants are too tight-fitting; she’s not allowed in unless she has loose pants. Joe and Anjali leave to search for something oversized and meet up with me later. I walk through a metal detector, a second check point and then outdoors to get to a third one. Finally, I’m face to face with Carl.
Carl is not guiltless; he has committed murder and robbery. Yet his friendly eyes and tranquil face no longer resemble a man who has lived a hard life. When he was 8, his alcoholic parents dropped their six children off at his grandparents’ house and abandoned their parenting responsibilities forever. Carl bounced from one set of grandparents to the other, unloved and unwanted. As we talk, Carl’s face lights up as he recalls a memory of the one time his mother showed him love. He was 6 years old and had a bad toothache. He was crying from the pain and crawled into bed with his parents one night to be comforted. The next day his mother stayed sober while the two of them took the bus to the dentist’s office. That’s his only memory of his mother’s love. Eventually, Carl dropped out of high school, sported a $300-a-day drug habit and entered the dark side of humanity. In 1997, Carl’s crime sent him to prison to die.
While letter writing, petitions, consumer boycotts and civil disobedience have been my modus operandi for many justice issues, I sadly realized I did not have intentional relationships with the people I was fighting for. I jumped at the opportunity to teach yoga at a juvenile hall each week. I assumed these teenagers would be hardened and intimidating, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead, they were delightful kids who smiled, laughed and shared their thoughts and feelings. Each week they seemed to hunger for my attention, wanting to be seen and cared for. Although the program was brief and ended abruptly, I felt like a larger heart was put in my chest. That’s when I sought out the Church of the Brethren Death Penalty Project to set up a pen-pal relationship with a death row inmate. I hoped I could learn compassion at a higher level.
For Carl, landing on death row was a crushing nightmare. Like a beautiful piece of pottery fallen from the mantle, Carl said he felt broken and devastated beyond repair. “When I was charged with murder and sentenced to death,” Carl wrote in a letter, “I was at the lowest I’d ever been in my life. I felt my life was over and I even planned suicide.” He said he wanted to die, yet something deep inside him still wanted to live. “I struggled because I didn’t really know how to live,” he wrote. “I only knew how to medicate myself with alcohol and drugs. I knew it was up to me to change, but how? What do I do? What will be different this time? I was confused and scared. And I wasn’t fully convinced that life on death row would be worth living.”
In Japan is a 15th-century art form called Kintsugi, which is the repair of broken pottery using seams of gold or silver. Kintsugi repairs the brokenness not by treating the break as something to hide but seeing the piece as even more beautiful for having been broken. Carl said he felt like that traumatized and ruined piece of pottery. He sought repair. Later, a Christian group visited the prison and gave him hope. A spiritual director taught him about meditation. He started painting and discovered he was a gifted artist. Playing his guitar again helped him remember the joy of music. Slowly, he saw transformation and restoration taking place in his life. Embracing his brokenness and the trail of gold where the breaks once were, Carl gradually emerged into a new creation that held a profound appreciation for the sacredness of every human being, including himself.
After 14 years on death row, an unexpected and daunting opportunity occurred. The victim’s daughter and sister requested a visit with Carl. He reluctantly agreed but confided to me: “I thought I was ready to answer the hard questions, but it became clear that over the years I had sugarcoated a lot of what had happened. I had changed the story just enough that I could deal with it mentally. I don’t think I could have dealt with the truth in the beginning.”
Preparation with a victim services worker took a year and a half. “Speaking to the daughter was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Carl told me, “but I realize now that it was the best thing I’ve done. It helped me get my life back. And more importantly, I was able to answer the questions the family [asked] and not leave them in limbo about the truth of what happened.” Carl was able to practice empathy, take responsibility for an undeserved death, express remorse and apologize.
As I’ve gotten to know Carl, I realize death row is made up of traumatized humans who made damaging mistakes and harmful choices. We live in a throwaway society where we discard what is broken and no longer useful. This includes people and objects. People view those on death row as unrecoverable and beyond redemption. While many portray death-row prisoners as the worst of the worst, that’s not my experience. Carl’s not evil or a monster, crazy or demented. Truthfully, I wish every prisoner was like Carl.
Family, music, food, politics, religion, jobs, books and life in prison are just a few of the topics our letter exchanges have included over the past two years. Carl’s typical 12-page, handwritten letters are priceless. We read them out loud during our family dinner time. Writing and visiting a man on death row has humbled me and given me perspective. In prison, movement is limited, and possessions are few. Carl has managed to let go of attachments and control and see the beauty of simple things through his barred window, like trees draped with fresh-fallen snow, a fluttering bird or the exquisite beauty of the dark sky and bright stars. “I wake up each day feeling blessed to have received another chance to be a better person before I leave this world,” Carl told me.
I am viscerally horrified by the death penalty. Our world suffers from a dearth of compassion. When I look into Carl’s eyes, I see a human being, not a perfect one but one unconditionally worthy of life. I see an artist who has earnestly mended his life with gold seams. It’s a privilege to listen to his healing journey, and I’m humbled that he calls me his friend. Learning mercy and forgiveness can only help me become a more deeply rooted activist and human being.
“I miss you already,” Carl said as we stood up to say our goodbyes. Our two days together had zipped by. Making our way back to the parking lot, we turn into the wind and look back at the prison. “Bye, Carl,” we yell and wave, hoping he can see us and feel our joy.
Cheri Herrboldt lives in Altadena, California, and attends Peace Mennonite Fellowship, Claremont, California.
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