Sarah was able to get the 2nd half of her day off so we arrived at the prison early. What do you do in this situation? I had got a letter a week ago from Carl asking me to show up and stand outside the prison while he is being executed, so here we were. In the same letter he expressed approval of the “first dance” song we had picked out for our wedding, advised that I get some dancing tips from his cousin Quince, my former roommate, and encouraged me with my work situations that I have shared with him. We got out of the car and started walking towards the ugly red brick wall of the prison. A guard on a corner tower about 30 feet up asked “Can I help you?” which sounded more like “What the heck are you doing?”
And so we walked along the walls. The weather was beautiful; perfect. The sun was shining in through a hole in the clouds, a ray of hope onto a hopeless situation. There was no one else around, except for the occasional people getting off work, and the armed guards on the corner towers. We walked around the old prison, which has held many Wild West outlaws and a Kiowa Chief who committed suicide. Now it housed Carl Henry Blue, his mom and dad, and the daughter of the woman he killed nearly two decades ago.
Carl Blue is first and foremost a man of living faith. Hope and joy shine through on every letter I receive. We have never met, but he cares so much about me. As an older brother in Christ he has given me careful, heartfelt advice on the struggles I have shared with him, and he has expressed so much joy with me over my forthcoming wedding. I don’t think I’ve ever met a more compassionate person.
He recently wrote a letter to the district attorney who got him the death penalty. In the letter, Carl wished the man good luck in retirement, and wrote “Don’t be anxious about tomorrow, God has plans for you.” The Eagle newspaper quoted Bill, the DA, as saying “It was a surprise because I never had received anything like that before. I believe it was sincere on his part.”
So we finished our walk, circling the entire prison. Sadly the walls did not topple down like Jericho, as I was holding out some small hope that they would. When we got back to where we started, the guards had put up some caution tape blocking our path, like you would see at a crime scene. We were told to stand at a corner across the street, cattycorner to the prison. Outside the walls, it’s easy to think maybe this human death is somehow different from others. Outside the tape, it’s easy to feel that what is being done inside is more of a procedure, and across the street on the corner, it’s easy to forget that anything is happening at all. Distance, that most subtle and deadly satanic force.
Carl’s mom and dad and uncle live on the west side of Bryan, Texas, out where rural meets urban, in a small trailer; worlds away from the homes of the people who make decisions about our justice system. They live right around the corner from the Druery family, whose son, Marcus, is also on death row. I have a friend and former roommate who had been an acquaintance of his, who told me a story about him. Marcus went joy riding on a motorcycle he had out for a test drive, and he crashed it into his girlfriend’s yard. Now he sits every day on death row, in a cell by himself. He eats the same cold food that gets pushed into his cell. He gets one hour of rec per day, spent in a cage by himself with a basketball hoop.
We stood outside the prison, and I waited for Carl to call me. On the day of your execution, you get a longer than normal visit at death row in Livingston at the Polunsky Unit, from eight to noon, and then they drive you over to Huntsville, and there you get to used the phone. I wondered what it would be like for Carl to use a phone for the first time in nearly 19 years, unless you count the phones on the visiting booths at the prison, where he is kept in a cage behind thick glass from his visitors. He never gets to touch anyone, that isn’t escorting him in shackles somewhere. On the day of your execution, you are not allowed to hug your family. They just watch you die, behind thick glass.
Carl never called, probably had a limited amount of time to talk on the phone and used it on his children. Only a certain amount of phone time, even though it’s your dying day. There is no physical contact with your family, even on your dying day. No more than one visit per week, with the exception of people coming from over 2000 miles, no matter what. A procedure that is unbendable, unbreakable, un-stretchable, like the shackles on your arms. Human beings do things like hug their children, say goodbye to their mothers, and would spend hours talking on the phone to their loved ones if they were about to die. Human beings have their loved ones gathered around them when they die, not on the other side of walls and caution tape, across the street. Are these necessary rules, or part of the distance that perpetuates dehumanization of those we call “criminals?”
Slowly people started showing up on our little corner. A criminology professor who looked like Joni Mitchell and two of her students from Kentucky were among the first to appear. The students from Kentucky were the only college students who showed up at the vigil, even though we were in a college town. Some Catholics were there, a couple professors, and a small woman named Gloria who resolutely set up her loud speaker and spoke of how Texas has executed nearly 500 people since we reinstated the death penalty, spoke the name of the man who was to be executed today, and just spoke out various truths loudly upon the scene. A tiny, ancient lady, extremely bent over in her back, shuffled by with a sign that said “Honk To End Executions” and posted up boldly in the street. We got some honks, almost exclusively from black people who drove by, except for one man who rolled down his window and told the small crowd of liberal protesters on the side of the road, “The death penalty is a satanic ritual, and everyone who participates in it will be condemned to hell!” No one quite knew how to respond to that one.
All of the people there to vigil or protest were white, except for a small crowd of young black people standing off behind us. Carl’s family. His brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews. Finally, a lady priest who was holding a candle, the only clergy who showed up, told his family that they should come stand with us, and they did. They were crying. And we all stood there and stared at the entrance of the prison, quietly praying and waiting.
Inside, Carl told his parents, “Hey Ma, Pa, all you people in there. I love y’all. Come together and love each other.” And then he saw the lady in the other viewing room. “Hi Teri. I love you, I never meant to hurt your momma. I hope you can forgive me.”
“Tell my babies Daddy will be looking down on them from heaven.”
“So y’all hang on, cowboy up, I’m fixin to ride, and Jesus is my vehicle.”
As he was dying, the last word he said was “Love” and then he took his last breath.
Outside, Sarah and I were holding each other, and she said “Look at the sky.” It was beautiful. The sun was setting, long streaks of deep oranges and pinks and purple came down and contrasted with the ugly, menacing façade of the building on the other side of us. It was as if to remind us that God is greater than the state of Texas and all structures and mechanisms of human power, violence, and hatred.
We received word that Carl was dead. One of his nephews said “Look there’s grandma!” and the family left, and we all got ready to leave.
His last letter to me ended: I close with love in my heart for the both and, I keep you all in my prayers daily ok and, I ask that you’ll continue to pray for me my brother and beautiful sister ok. May God always keep you’ll safe in His care all in the name of, Jesus Christ, Amen.!
Sincerely yours, Carl
Carl died, but I also believe he experienced victory. He expressed forgiveness and understanding, even compassion and a longing for conversion for those who killed him. On February 21st 2013 they executed his body, but couldn’t kill the spirit of God within him. Everything was taken from him, everything except for the only thing that matters: “Love.”