Monday, December 3, 2012

"I'm The Miracle": The Story of Exoneree Derrick Jamison

From our friends at Resurrection After Exoneration:
“I’m number 119,” proclaims the man sitting beside my desk. His smile is broad and sincere, gold teeth glistening in the artificial light of the office. “Damon Thibodeaux is number 141, you know, the one who got out of Angola a couple weeks ago. Joe Ambrosia is number 140; we was together on death row in Ohio.” He seems so comfortable with these numbers, actually proud of them. Proud to be number 119!

If I were not aware of what he refers to, I might be shocked by his proud announcement, but it isn’t that way for us. Derrick Jamison is here to share his story with me, the story of how he landed on death row for a crime he did not commit, the story of a young man who spent over seventeen years fighting for his life as he awaited execution, and the story of a man who was finally exonerated, the 119th such person in the United States.

Derrick Jamison, from Cincinnati, Ohio, was twenty-four years old when he was convicted of aggravated murder and robbery on October 16, 1985. He was represented by a public defender in a case where the prosecutor and homicide detective withheld thirty-five pieces of evidence. They knew he was not guilty from the start, but getting the conviction was their goal. Apparently, it did not matter who their “victim” was!

Derrick entered death row at Southern Ohio Correctional Facility on October 25, the very day he was sentenced, and was placed into solitary confinement, behind bars, in a 6’x9’ cell, with no physical human contact for seventeen years. At times the prison would be locked down, and he would not be allowed visits or mail from anyone, even from his lawyer, for extended periods of time. For many years of his confinement, Derrick was allowed only two five-minute phone calls per year, one on Christmas Day.

While on death row, Derrick was granted six stays of execution. One was while he was in lockdown, so he did not even receive the notification. Another stay was granted on the actual scheduled date of his execution. He waited until the last minute, with crowds of protesters and supporters gathered outside the prison. When asked what he wanted for his last meal, he replied ,”A cake with a saw in it! I’m not thinking about no food. I’m thinking about dying.” Six times he went through various stages of this harrowing process, and six times it was halted by an official stay by the governor of Ohio.

For the first fourteen years, until 1999, Ohio had the death penalty as part of its system, and there were many inmates on death row awaiting execution, but the state did not use it. Since 1999, they have executed forty-seven inmates and exonerated six. These statistics do not include the even larger number of death row inmates whose sentences were reduced to life imprisonment during the past thirteen years. At one point, the governor, Richard Celeste, upon leaving office, reduced the sentences of all eight women on death row and of several men who were on their final appeals. One of the women whose sentence he reduced had been sentenced to at least eight death penalties for serial murders. Derrick says that he would not have accepted this condition had it been offered. He knew he was innocent and sought exoneration, not a reduced sentence.

At one point, Derrick was offered the opportunity to go free on time served, if he would admit guilt and stop his appeals. He refused. “People thought I lost my mind. I couldn’t admit to something I didn’t do. I’d rather die.”

“Death Row is the same as Schindler’s List,” Derrick continues. “You’re just watching your friends be murdered time and again.” Derrick watched healthy young men come in “like babies – 18 and 19 years old. I watched them grow into men and then they just killed ‘em. It’s like somebody pointing a gun at you and there ain’t nothin’ you can do. They had nobody to fight for them.” Ohio is second in the nation behind Texas in executions.

In 2002, John Byrd was executed. Another man came forward and admitted to the crime for which John had been convicted, but they still killed him. John and Derrick had become close friends on death row. “I curled up on my bunk watching TV, trying not to deal with it, but when they rolled John out on the gurney to his execution….” He paused and cleared his throat, attempting to regain his composure. “It still haunts me. A healthy young man, my buddy, but he was rebellious on the row.” Derrick, on the other hand, never had any write ups on death row. He was not a rebel. “If I had given in to anger and hostility, I would’ve lost my mind. I seen what it did to those other guys. I’m a miracle. All them men, all them babies were in there, some innocent like me, and I walked out. I’m the miracle.”

On May 23, 2002, Federal Judge Arthur Spiegel granted Derrick a new trial. He was moved to general population for three years while the justice system plodded along the path to his ultimate exoneration and release on October 25, 2005, exactly twenty years to the day from the day he first entered death row. His nephew came to pick him up, and the entire family was waiting for him when he got home…everyone except his two closest and most active supporters. “I didn’t die on death row, but my death penalty killed my parents.”

There were events of celebration for a month straight. It was a busy time, and it was good. “If I could bottle up that feeling and sell it, I’d be a millionaire!” He was enjoying life. “When I first came home, I went to the casinos. I won a lot of money; I lost a lot of money. That’s why they call it gambling. I had been a gambler before I went to prison.” There were parties, media events, and Derrick was in demand to speak at area events, “but my biggest supporters weren’t there. My mom was smiling from heaven.”

Asked about his current situation, Derrick reveals that he is on disability due to post traumatic stress disorder. “We ain’t been to jail; we been to hell and back,” he says. The disability compensation permits him to have a part-time job with limited pay, but he remains unemployed.

He spends a significant amount of time speaking to others, sharing his story. He remembers that he went to Catholic schools as a child and says that God gives him the power to go out and share his message with others. “When I speak to a large crowd, something comes over me. That’s God. God has made me into a teacher. I’m a teacher now.”

Derrick tells kids that he thinks that they are all at risk in today’s society. He urges them to remember him and others like him when they experience bad times. “We need to get rid of the death penalty,” he says. “What are we teaching our young people, when our government says it’s alright to kill?” He compares the death penalty to modernized lynchings, remembering what he learned in history class about families coming out with picnic baskets to watch the hangings in the town square. “That might have been a deterrent then, but this, what we have, doesn’t work!”

Our system will always make mistakes. “To err is human, right? We have to stop executing entirely so we won’t be killing innocent people on those mistakes.”

Derrick tells his audiences that he was never involved in drugs in his life, because he was always against them. “I seen what it did to people in my neighborhood.” He assures them that death row is populated by many different types of people. “A lot of guys on death row were pure evil and dangerous, but that doesn’t give somebody the right to kill them. Some were good guys that made mistakes.”

What does his future look like? “I’ll never heal; none of these guys will ever heal. We can’t be compensated for what’s been done to us. My life will get better, but I’ll never get over it. It will always be there…the nightmares. It’s something no human being should have to experience.”

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