criminal justice, faith, institutions, literary journalism, murder, prison, violence

My Brother’s Keeper

It is rare that I promote my work–I’m bad at that–but this one is more urgent. In fact, it is quite literally a matter of life and death.

I’d like to bring to your attention my February cover story for Pacific Standard Magazine, “My Brother’s Keeper: When her brother is sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit, one woman takes on the corrosive culture of capital punishment.”

The article describes Terri Been’s fight to save the life of her kid brother, Jeff Wood. A 44-year-old man with a learning disorder and mental health issues, Jeff has languished on death row in Texas for the past 22 years. During trial, Jeff, who drove the getaway car in a robbery, was allowed to basically represent himself. He received no mitigation, and the prosecutor, Lucy Wilke, used the notorious “psychiatrist” James Grigson, also known as Dr. Death, to prove to the jury that Jeff will “with absolute certainty kill again” (even though, as you will learn in the piece, everyone agrees that he never killed anyone in the first place). Grigson agreed to testify, even though he never even met Jeff, let alone examined him.

It is no exaggeration when I say that I have never written a more important, more traumatizing and more time-intensive piece.

Jeff’s execution–his second execution date, in fact–was stayed in 2016 because of the taint of Grigson’s testimony. (His first execution, in 2008, was stayed because of his mental health issues.) Jeff’s family is expecting the courts to respond to their Habeas Corpus petition in the coming weeks. There are two possible outcomes: Either he will be granted a new trial or he’ll receive a third execution date.

I hope you’ll consider my article about Jeff and his family’s struggle.

(Photos by Jérôme Sessini)

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Among Murderers, fantasies, gender, prison, writing

Your Love, Locked up

Shortly after receiving a letter from a prisoner I know asking me if I could find him “a wife, not a girlfriend” online, I came across Melody Wilson’s essay Love Behind Bars: Why did a nice girl like me date an inmate? on I have thought and written about the distorted fantasies prisoners conjure in their cells: the ways they imagine the free world, its women, jobs and daily life. I was never quite able to fully understand why some women seek out men behind bars. Why? Adam, one of the men I profiled in my book, said it quite fittingly: “Most women who come into prison with the idea of developing a relationship with a prisoner have problems developing a relationship with men on the outside,” he said. “And that cuts down on the kind of people you come in contact with.” (p.107) For this reason he had decided to stay single while serving three decades behind bars.

When I read Wilson’s essay, the following paragraphs offered additional insight from the perspective of a woman who had dated a prisoner:

The physical boundaries between me and Justin only served to release us from our inhibitions; nothing was off limits. Writing to him freed me. After all, who was he to judge?

Eventually, Wilson’s relationship with Justin fell apart. She explains,

Our relationship went wrong in much the same way other long-distance relationships do: We grew apart. Things that I had always known about him began to bother me more and more. Justin had never graduated high school, and he hoped to keep working in his dad’s tire shop when he was released. I still wanted more than that. I wanted more than he could give me, I realized.

It is interesting that Wilson understands this to have been a phase, and admirable that she outgrew it. She became a writer, and dating an inmate is only one of many interesting narratives that make up her life. Today she likes tigers, books, cooking and travelling, and is training to compete as a figure skater.