By Lubica Kotevski
August 27th, 1998
It was blazing. Scorching, really.
“What is it this time?” asked a short, slightly overweight woman from the crowd. She wasn’t genuinely directing her question at anyone but rather just adding chatter to the already heavy crowd. The blockade of blue-lighted police cars lit up the night for blocks and faced every direction. Crowds gathered around and everybody was curious. What could it be this time? In the troubled town of Lanett, Alabama, it could be anything.
The noise suddenly stopped. People gasped and held their hands over their mouths. Shock reverberated throughout. Two average-sized men in dark uniforms with the word Coroner printed in bold yellow letters on the back of their shirts walked out of the house. With them was a gurney covered in a white sheet. The folds in the sheet matched those of a human body. Strands of thick dark brown hair poked through where a person’s head would be. A girl, no older than eighteen, ran out of the house. Three police officers struggled to hold her back. Her light pink shirt was covered in blood; the fluid trailed across her arms and legs. She was shaking and trying to fight the officers to let her go. Her legs mimicked running, but she wasn’t going anywhere. She screamed out for her friend who was in the back of a van about to undergo an autopsy.
People’s lives returned to normal. They had the privilege of forgetting the revolting night. It was just another case to them. For Aella, that night was imprinted in her memory. She would replay that night over and over again for the rest of her life.
“Right this way,” said one of the officers from the scene as he pointed to an open door. She took a seat on the cold metal chairs in the windowless room. She felt shaken. The room was hardly fit for a person, especially a person recovering from trauma. The officer followed her in and closed the door behind him. He flipped the light switch on and the fluorescent exposed lightbulb turned on instantly. Taking a seat across from Aella, he asked her to recall the other night’s events.
They spoke for what felt like days to Aella, but only a couple hours actually passed. She was still shaken and exhausted, but the relentless officer persisted. His whole team became agitated that they had not located a single suspect. They were trailing behind the normal time frame. Days slowly turned into weeks.
November 8th, 1998
A flashing police cruiser came to a screeching stop. The car jerked back. Two officers jumped out holding their guns.
“Get out of the vehicle!” shouted one of the officers.
“Put your hands up!” screamed another as they approach a busted red 1989 Ford.
Inside was a terrified and confused Oliver Thomas, a 27-year-old good-yet-troubled, tall and muscular man. After he turned off his car, he stepped outside with his hands up. He pleaded repeatedly about what was happening.
“Don’t play dumb. You’re under arrest for the murder of Luna Hartman,” shouted the arresting officer. He read Oliver his rights as he was hushed into the back seat of the car.
There were bars between the front and back seat. The hard handcuffs were way too tight. The smell of sweat and car fresheners merging together was too much for Oliver. He began to break down on his way to the precinct. He asked about that famous one phone call, but the officers ignored him.
“Mama, I didn’t do it. I swear I didn’t do it. Mama please you have to believe me. I didn’t do it. I know I didn’t,” Oliver pleaded with his mother once he was finally allowed to use the phone.
“All right, that’s enough. You’ve had your time,” quipped the officer. He tugged on Oliver’s arm, signaling him rather rudely, that his call had to come to an end.
“Mama, please help me. Please. I have to go now, but please help me.” Oliver hung up and wiped the single tear streaming down his face. He was alone in a hot unfriendly police station. Oliver had had run-ins in with the police before, but they were all petty charges. He had never spent a night in jail.
“We, the jury, have found the defendant, Oliver Thomas, guilty of murder in the first degree.” Oliver fell in his chair, panting. His mother shouted something, but it was unrecognizable due to her crying. His family was in shock and he was in shock.
“I didn’t…,” he whispered. Struggling to breathe, he tugged on the collar of his dress shirt and loosened it. “I didn’t do it!” He managed to let out, gasping for air.
He was sentenced to death.
After the Sentence
“How are you, baby? God, I miss you so much. How are you handling it in here?” his mother managed to ask. The pain in her face tore Oliver to shreds. He could see the tears she held back behind an unconvincing smile.
“I’m okay mama. I can handle it,” Oliver claimed, putting his hand on the thick glass separating the two. “I just want to go home.”
Years passed by. Oliver turned thirty-eight. He had been in prison for eleven years. Eleven Christmases missed, eleven Easters, eleven birthdays. Oliver had grown grey hair and was physically maturing along with his personality. After all, he was almost 40 years old. His mother had visited him from time to time, but she lived a couple hours from the prison. It was hard to see her regularly. Their relationship was strong, and Oliver was thankful for that, but they still had their days. She questioned him often about how she raised a murderer and why he still couldn’t admit to his actions. But a mother would always love her child, Oliver supposed, even when her child was behind glass an inch thick. Oliver knew she pained for a child she could not hold.
“Here you go, inmate,” a guard said as he handed Oliver his weekly mail.
Oliver figured that, as usual, the letter was from his mom. Then he saw the return address listed as his sister’s hometown. That was odd, Oliver thought, since they hadn’t spoken in years. She wouldn’t even look at him since the trial; why would she send him a letter?
I know we haven’t spoken, nor do I wish to change that. If it wasn’t for my husband, I wouldn’t even be writing you, so you have him to thank. Mom died last Tuesday. Everything was too hard for her heart. She died peacef…
Oliver stopped reading and crumbled up the paper.
“No!” he whispered to himself as he fell to the ground crying. His mom was everything to him. She was the only one who could bare to look at him, and the only one who seemed to miss him. She was all he had left, and the only person who loved him.
Oliver turned forty-four years old with a head full of gray hair. He had aged prematurely. He was a sensitive person, as always, but by forty-four he had more sophistication. He discovered the date for his execution. He stood to die in just a few months. He was aging into a quiet, reserved man. It was clear he did not belong in this prison. He was far too mature for it.
With only months left to live, Oliver was shocked to receive a letter in the mail from an innocence advocacy group. They wanted to meet with him, and he agreed. What do they want with me? he wondered.
The following week, a lawyer from the group drove down to the prison. He sat in the seat Oliver’s mother used to sit in. It had been years since Oliver had had a visitor. Oliver had been nervous to go into the visiting room after not seeing its walls for so long. He was a little late but the lawyer hadn’t been annoyed by the wait.
“No worries!” stated the cheerful lawyer. Ha! A cheerful lawyer, thought Oliver. Maybe something is finally gone right in my life.
They conversed for quite a while—almost the full four hours the prison allowed per visit. The lawyer came back the following week and again they spoke for hours.
“I’ve sent your appeals to be processed, and you will have to undergo a blood test in the near future. I’ll order it to be done in the following weeks. I think we can win this,” exclaimed the lawyer confidently.
“Win this? How long will it take? I’m going to be a dead man in a matter of months!” said Oliver. He did not want to be in jail a second longer!
The lawyer assured him everything would be fine, but Oliver was terrified. It was a tight schedule and too close for comfort.
Like clockwork, the lawyer waited for Oliver at the visitor room. And, like clockwork, Oliver showed up moments later. The lawyer displayed a stack of papers in front of the glass before Oliver; the topmost paper was his stay of execution. The lawyer explained that it didn’t mean he was off the hook just yet, but it would stall his execution. He reassured Oliver that at least one person in this world had his back. Finally, someone believed he was innocent, and something was being done about it. Oliver knew seventeen years in prison was far too long for an innocent man.
After the Stay of Execution
The lawyer fought his hardest to get Oliver released. He attended multiple hearings and appeals and filed countless court orders. Despite this, Oliver was still behind bars just weeks away from his execution. He was getting worried and barely eating. He wondered, am I really about to die for a crime I didn’t commit?
Four Days Before His Execution
On the final visitation day before his execution, Oliver got up as usual and took his morning shower in the grim, unsanitary stall that had been his only source of sanitation for years. By this point, he felt at home. He had practically forgotten his actual home. He brushed his teeth and sauntered to the cafeteria. He could barely eat. Not that his health mattered much to him at this point anyway. The cafeteria was as loud as Oliver’s thoughts. He threw his food in the trash and awaited the intercom. Daily he anticipated the announcement that advised all inmates with visitors to be strip-searched and moved into the visitation room. Soon enough he saw his lawyer and sat across from him. He was not sure why his lawyer had even bothered showing up.
“I asked the warden if I could tell you this myself. You are a free man as of tomorrow!” his lawyer practically yelled with excitement. Oliver smiled so wide that it almost hurts his cheeks. He was in shock.
“Are you…are you sure?” Oliver laughed. He hadn’t laughed like that in years. Tears of pure joy rolled down his face.
“I’m a free man,” he whispered to himself, smiling. “I like the sound of that. I’m a free man,” he repeated, almost unsure of himself.
It truly was unbelievable. Oliver was released from prison three days before his execution and now eighteen years after his sentence.
On the day Oliver was released, the lawyer waited for him in front of the prison. They had grown close to the point of almost being friends.
“I’m a free man!” Oliver shouted. He looked at the sky with his arms stretched out in his oversized grey prison hoodie.
“Where do you want to go first?” asked the lawyer. He offered to drive Oliver wherever he chose.
“I’ll tell you where I want to go. You just drive!” replied Oliver. He was still reeling from this new reality on the outside.
After Being Released
The car came to a stop in the small cemetery just outside the town where Oliver was raised. He held back tears.
He whispered, “Mama.”
Oliver walked toward the gate. He was uncertain where his mother was buried, so he started to look at all the tombstones. Oliver read each one closely as he scanned for his mom. The lawyer stayed in the car, though, since he said he didn’t feel right to intrude on this personal moment. Oliver finally found the grave after a long search. He sat next to his dead mother and held back tears.
“Mama, I didn’t do it.” He struggled to talk and covered his face. “I told you I didn’t do it. This lawyer here proved it. Mama, I miss you so much. You didn’t deserve to die because of me. I know I stressed you out so much with my charge. I’m so sorry. I promise I’ll do good. I’ll make you proud. I’d give anything to hug you like I did eighteen years ago. I love you, mama. I’ll come back again soon just like you came for me.”