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Visualize only having one week to live … seven days to speak to loved ones… cherish fond memories… breathe the sweet breath of life…trying to make peace with your fate… thinking about all the opportunities you took for granted… mistakes you’ve made along the way… the harm you’ve caused to yourself and others.

Imagine waking up every day and counting down the hours… minutes… seconds… until your eyes will close for the last time. Envision yourself waking up on the final day, to what you know will be the last 24 hours of your life on this Earth, eating your final meal and knowing it will be the last food you ever taste.

Imagine being led into the death chamber and seeing the look of pain on the faces of those you have hurt, as well as your friends and family. Your heart beating faster by the minute, as if it also realizes that the beats will soon cease. Imagine spending hours pondering what your last words will be, and praying that God truly does have mercy on your soul for all of the wrongs you have done in your lifetime. My desire is to tap into the hearts of mankind to ensure that people fully grasp the agony that delivers a daily assault on the minds and souls of those on death row.

It’s been said that death by lethal injection is one of America’s most lethal and inhumane ways to die, so taking one life for another is not the solution; it only perpetuates that in which the law forbids. For the men and women across the country facing death row, no one knows their struggle – they only see the outcome of what they have been charged for.

Society has a way of removing humanity from the prison system and labeling the vast majority, if not all, of those who are incarcerated as monsters who are incapable of change. Despite the crimes we have been charged with, each one of us is still a human being and it is hard to carry on feeling as though no one loves you. If prison is supposed to be about corrections and rehabilitation, why is more time not spent trying to understand why those who are incarcerated have become the people that they are and why they commit these crimes in order to attempt to correct the thought processes? Even in the beginning stages of going through the judicial system, why is more effort not placed on psychological treatment for individuals?

It seems as if more focus is placed on getting a conviction than on truly trying to help those who go before the judge. Although it is man who has sentenced you to die, it’s God who provides eternal life. The following is my humbling experience being among just a few of those individuals who were on death row.

When I first arrived at Potosi Correctional Center in January of 1999, I did not know what to expect. Being surrounded by men on death row was somewhat confusing at first. The fact that I was 23,  serving life without parole was stressful enough in itself, but there was something about death row inmates that was different; their presence had a unique kind of energy. For the ones I remember dearly, I can still hear their names: DJ…SD…Stan…Rambo…Marlone…Big Moe… and Jarome Mallete. The one thing I quickly noticed about these men was that despite being sentenced to die, their hearts were filled with love; there was no sign of bitterness in them, only worry of what was to come.

For me, the precious moments I spent with these individuals were priceless; still remembered as if they were just yesterday, replaying over again on the movie reel in my mind.

I would watch how these men interacted with one another, as well as with new death row inmates; doing their best to spend their time in good spirits. If we weren’t all busy trading “war stories” there were debates about politics, religion, laws, entertainment, or whatever the hot topic of the day was. You never saw a death row inmate become violent or harm anyone. I would listen in humble silence as one by one they poured their hearts out to me in their stories as to what caused them to be on death row. Each one of them carried a deep sadness and expressed sincere regret and remorse for what they’d done.

One of the things that impacted me the most is that despite all coming from varying backgrounds and being on death row for different reasons, all of them told me something similar at the end of their stories…

“It may be too late for me, and I’m ok with that…

But for you, Antwann? You still have a fighting chance…”

I had grown close to one of the guys in there whose name was Moses Young, but we all called him “Big Moe”. We would have deep, meaningful conversations and he once told me,

“If just one of us on death row makes it back out alive, a part of all of us made it…”

I watched as the tears rolled down his face while he told me this, and the sincerity in his voice was heart-wrenching. I was so enveloped within the conversation we were having that reality took on a whole new meaning. Each one of those men that I was incarcerated with at that point in my bid made it very clear that they had lost trust and hope in this judicial system. It was their only desire to gain faith in their Maker, God. Living carefree and running wild was the life we had chosen, but many of us know that this lifestyle would prove to be short-lived. For those living on death row, the stress and anxiety of not knowing when your day, time and final hour will come to die creates an emptiness of fear deep inside.

I found this to be so true when we all found ourselves mourning the loss of “Rambo”, the first individual to be executed after I arrived. When Moses (Big Moe) was escorted off to be executed I was in tears because of the bond we had developed, and to watch him walk out that door; knowing that he would never return; filled me with a mixture of emotions that ranged from sadness to anger. But not long after he left, breaking news came across the TV screen; it was the St. Louis City Assistant Circuit Attorney D’Joyce Haynes. She gave a press statement to the media expressing that she was being threatened with the loss of her career if she revealed the truth that there was wrongdoings involved to secure the conviction against Big Moe. it was announced that he would be given a stay of execution, and everybody rejoiced; it was an emotional moment because there was a prosecutor speaking in his favor, which was a rare occurrence. Big Moe was given a 30 day stay, but the excitement was short-lived because the stay was revoked and Big Moe would indeed be executed. It was in the moment that we all received the bad news that someone in the wing placed their boom box radio at the foot of their cell door where there was a 2-inch gap at the bottom and turned their radio on; playing the song “Life Goes On” by 2Pac. It was a very painful time for everyone who knew him.

Even though all 7 men have been executed, I’ve managed to not focus so much on their deaths. What really counts is what I’ve learned and gained from them while they were here. It took me 47 years to finally realize and accept that death is inevitable. Everyone has a dash in between their birth date and the date of their death. Only God has the power to decide who goes and who stays, but it’s up to us to decide how we choose to live our lives and what to fill in that dash with; For me, being told by detectives during my arrest and interrogation that I was facing the death penalty was overwhelming in itself; but to actually experience being around those who were on death row helped me to understand how precious life truly is and to be grateful for the things in which I used to take for granted. Often times we don’t understand how truly blessed we are until we are placed in a situation in which the things that we should have been holding sacred are taken away. Especially if you end up making the unfortunate life decisions that leave you on death row…

With only one way out…

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