I Survived Death Row, But I’ll Never Escape It

Oklahoma plans to take the life of Bigler Jobe “Bud” Stouffer II next week, and four more lives in coming months. Executions are also plannedAlabama and Texas. Like many people, I’m physically repulsed by the thought of the government killing — murdering — anyone. I feel more afraid of my execution than most. 13 years of hellish imprisonment in Illinois was what I had to endure. During that time, I witnessed 12 people — sons, fathers, brothers — executed at the hands of the state. Each of us were told that our lives were beyond repair and the world was a better spot without us.

2003 was the year that then-Gov. George Ryan granted a blanket commutation for all Illinois death row prisoners. I escaped the death penalty — my sentence was commuted to life without parole. But the terror, the nightmares and the despair will haunt me forever.

Next week’s planned killing in Oklahoma is the latest in a long history of executions carried out in the name of “justice.” But the death penalty is far from just. Capital punishment is a racist relic which violates our most basic civil liberties, and stands in stark opposition to the purported foundational values of our country. It’s time for this barbaric practice to end.

I can’t describe the horror I felt during each execution while I was on death row. Twelve times, I saw correctional officers silently and indifferently march a condemned person to his death. Each execution I witnessed marked the death of a friend — a friend with whom I prayed, shared my fears, and supported as we weathered abuse from cruel and callous prison guards.

My death sentence didn’t end when I walked off death row. Like some 200,000 peopleI was sentenced to death by incarceration or a life sentence with no parole possibility, and this was nationwide.

1972: The U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penaltyBecause its application was arbitrary, discriminatory. But it allowed the practice to resume four years later, after states adopted new rules intended make the death penalty “fairer.” Yet, like many criminal legal reforms, those changes did little to fix a system rife with inequity. A 2020 reportIt was found that over 40% of execution-ready people in the U.S. were Black. Despite the fact that Black people account for only about 40%. 13 percent of the U.S. population. The report also showed that death penalty cases were more likely to be pursued by prosecutors. victimIt was white.

State-sanctioned executions are advocated by those who believe it is reserved only for the most severe of crimes. In reality, those condemned to die are often the most vulnerable members of our communities — roughly one-fifthMany of those on death row suffer from severe mental illnesses. I was 19 years of age, illiterate, and suffering from mental illness when the state attempted to end my life. I was still a child but I had been through years of neglect, abuse and sex trafficking. My only escape was drugs and alcohol. Delusional and desperate, I killed a man for money he didn’t have.

Like most people on death row I needed a tireless advocate to fight my corner every step of this process. But lawyers who are charged with representing people at risk of death at the hands the state are not always up to the task. Too often, the most serious cases are handled only by appointed lawyers who are not qualified. plainly ineffective. Many are unprepared to navigate the maze of legal procedures from final appeal through conviction.

The frailty and inability to judge human behavior is perhaps the most striking evidence against the death penalty. Given the stakes — a human life — there is no room for error, factual or moral. However, error is all around: Since the 1970s executions have been reinstated. 185 peopleThose sentenced to death were exonerated.

Worse, a person sentenced to death will likely continue to develop, grow, and mature well after their death sentence has been passed. I learned to read, attended college, and found my faith during the 13 years that I spent on death row. One of the most important projects I ever started was one that I still love. successful programsThere is one Illinois prison that is entirely run by incarcerated people. I survived and thrived despite the oppression of our prison system.

My humanity was considered “irrelevant” by the state when I was on death row, my existence reduced to my worst act. The complex life experiences leading up to that act — abuse, trauma, addiction, poverty — were brushed over and ignored.

I survived death row, but I still have not made sense of this country’s hypocrisy. To emphasize the wrongness of killing, we kill people. We value personal growth, responsibility, but there is no room in our legal system for transformation.

We kill in the name justice. A racist system that kills vulnerable people, regardless of their status, is nothing but a racist system.