“We, the jury in the entitled case, find Wesley Fletcher guilty of first degree murder.” The gangly white girl swallowed hard and refused to look him in the eye as she read the verdict.
Less than three months later, a doddering old coot in a judge’s robe three sizes too big sentenced Wes to die by lethal injection. Just another black man condemned to pay for a crime. Only one hour to live and no one seemed to care that he was innocent.
The sun’s rays streamed through the barred windows, creating geometric patterns on short stubby fingers and heavily callused palms. Those hands had sustained him in anything he had done. For sixty-four years he'd labored as a gravedigger, night watchman, janitor, and dishwasher, supporting a family, being a loving husband. Not murderer. How could anyone believe he could put those hands around that poor white woman’s neck and strangle her?
Pastor Johnson shifted position on the cot beside him and asked, “How are you doing, Wesley?”
“Pastor, I’ve made my peace with God. It’s my family I worry about. They endured the nightmare of a trial, stood by me for the appeal and retrial, kept courage through another appeal and suffered the devastation of the final sentence. If nothing else it’ll allow me some peace. I just pray my sons will be able to take care of my beautiful Sarah.” He had watched her fade from a vivacious, smiling lady to a frail and sad woman who could barely shuffle into the courtroom or visitation room.
“She will have a lot of help from your family and our congregation, Wes.”
“I know, Pastor, but she’s given up. No matter what I say to encourage her, she refuses to listen. And she’s not reading her Bible. That’s not Sarah.”
“I’ve talked to her about that and I intend to be there to encourage her.”
“Thank you. I appreciate that.”
Footsteps announced the arrival of Stan, the guard who had taken a liking to Wes. Four more guards accompanied his friend.
“Sorry, Wes. It’s time. You can walk with him, Pastor.” Pastor Johnson nodded and stood.
Wes rose and looked around his home of the past fourteen years. He picked up the crumpled photograph of his wife and carefully placed it in his shirt pocket. “Let’s go, gents.”
Footsteps echoed in the freshly scrubbed death-row hallway as the entourage shuffled along. Wes spotted the open room at the end of the hall and the white sheet covering the cot that would be his final conscious resting spot. Arthritic knees almost refused to function, but he was determined to go out dignified. As his daddy always said, “Be a man whatever you do. Live a good life and you hold your head up high.”
Warden Spooner stood at the doorway, looking sad.
Wes nodded, “Hello, Warden.”
“Waiting and praying for a call from the governor, Wes. Got ten minutes yet. Plenty of time for it to come through.”
“Whatever happens, Warden, I thank you for believing in me. I got no complaints. You folks are just doin’ your job. I’m ready.”
Wes, the warden, a doctor in a white smock, and Pastor Johnson entered the light-flooded room. Wes squinted against the brightness. His heart beat loudly in his chest and sweat dripped from his brow. He wished he had a handkerchief. What a relief when they sat him on the side of the cot. He couldn’t have remained standing any longer.
All eyes were focused on him. Was that a tear on Stan the guard’s face? Probably not. Numbness traveled down Wes’ right arm. It wouldn’t move. They gently laid him on the cot and began preparation for his final minutes. A roaring in his ears drowned out whatever the warden was saying. Who cares anyway? Just get it over with.
The phone rang and the warden rushed out and answered.
“Yes, sir. I see. I understand. Just a second, sir.” He hesitated and then looked over at Wes. “Wes, I’m afraid the Supreme Court has denied a motion to suspend the execution.”
Through the roaring noise, Wes heard his final verdict. No stay of execution.
“Yes, Governor. Yes, I understand. That’s great. Thank you, sir. Thank you.” The warden hung up the phone and raced into the room. “Wes, the Governor says that after reviewing your case he has issued a special order to stop the execution on the grounds of cruel and unusual punishment.”
Warden Spooner took Wesley Fletcher’s hand and smiled down at him. “We won, Wes.”
The convict stared back with dead, unseeing eyes, his heart a stalled and lifeless pump - his guilt, even his hope, no longer an issue.