If you want to know what "the antis" write in their letters...

Friendship and penitence on death row

I have been visiting the US a lot in recent years, for one reason or another. This month I travelled to Boston to hear performances of my chamber opera Clemency at the Boston Lyric Opera. The starting point for the opera comes from a rather obscure and strange story from the book of Genesis, known as The Hospitality of Abraham. It is, essentially, about vengeance and mercy, and there is no sign that the world has finished fighting over those ideas. Sarah and Abraham are visited in their old age by three travellers. Their conversation becomes increasingly unsettling and the visitors make the unlikely claim that Sarah is to have a new child. As the couple wonder who the bearers of such news might be, talk turns to a mission of vengeance, and a horrifying plan that leaves them pleading for their neighbours’ lives.

I had been reflecting a lot on the concepts of mercy in the years preceding the composition of this opera. I began working on it late in 2009. Earlier that year I wrote this letter to Willie E Pondexter Jnr at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas. We had been in correspondence since the mid 1990s.

Glasgow, 22 Feb 09

Dear Willie,

As you can see I have learned to type! About time too – my handwriting is atrocious. I learned to do this because I spend so much time on my computer now, mainly typing email messages to people, but writing articles, lectures and so on too. I find it easier than using a pen which is pretty strange in a way, I suppose.

Many thanks for your last letter. I have been busy since I last wrote. I am in regular contact with Betty, who advised me to write to an Attorney in Austin, Mary Felps, who is preparing a submission on your behalf at a Texas Clemency Board. I wrote saying how much you have changed and developed in your adult life compared to the person you were when you were a teenager. I implored the committee that there would be no good in proceeding with execution since you were a very different kind of person to the one who entered Death Row all those years ago. Although I feel pretty helpless over here in Scotland, I nevertheless feel that I have been directed in the right direction in this matter. And I have great hope of a positive outcome.

I have also been in touch with David Dow in Houston, and he is still hopeful that he will do good things for you at this time. I am thinking about you all the time now, and the family are bombarding heaven with prayers and petitions on your behalf. They say that the Almighty never gets tired of those kind of messages, which is just as well. He is hearing a lot of them these days.

I hope you are remaining as serene and patient as you seemed to be when I met you a few years ago. I told the Clemency people that there was an impressive maturity and self-knowledge about you which pointed to a profound change in character over the years since your disasters in early life. No good would come of taking a life like yours, and if there is any justice and logic in the hearts and minds of those who matter, they will hear this message, loud and clear.

I would ask you not to give up hope, and especially not your hope in the Lord, and in the power of prayer, which will bring you closer to his loving heart day by day. I would not be surprised if you heard from Betty in these days. She thinks about you all the time and has great affection for you. She seems to suffer in her health these days, and does not have too much in the way of funds to get herself around in the way she was used to. Lynne sends all her love and best wishes, as do the kids, Catherine, Aidan and Clare.

Writing this letter on Sunday night, sending it tomorrow, you should receive it at the weekend, the end of February, beginning of March. I fully expect to hear from you again, and about the good news in your appeals. I look forward to hearing from you soon, my good friend, and blessed, beloved child of God, Willie Pondexter.

With all my love and best wishes,

Your friend,

I started writing to Willie after reading an article in the mid-1990s about a British organisation, Lifelines, which enabled people here to contact and comfort men and women on Death Row in the US. Willie was charged with the 1993 murder of an elderly woman during a burglary when he was 19. I travelled to see him twice in his Texas prison, although the first time the authorities refused to allow the meeting. Eventually I did meet him and was struck by how mature he had become, after so many years on the row. He had become serenely prayerful and devout, his remorse having given way to penitence and acceptance of his fate. I don’t know to this day if there was any point to my friendship with him, or if I did any good at all. I have unresolved and troubled feelings about the whole episode.

A few days after I sent the letter, on March 3, the last appeal was lost, and at 6pm Willie was strapped to a gurney in Huntsville and injected with a fatal dose of drugs; a barbiturate, a paralytic and a potassium solution. A few minutes later he was dead.