In 2012, attorney Nikki D. Pope asked her longtime friend Courtney B. Lance to co-write and edit a collection of stories from people who have survived wrongful conviction. Lance met men and women who, in some cases, spent half their life in prison. Their ordeal may have ended with freedom, but they could never regain lost time with family and friends. Lance knew their stories needed to be told and heard. The result is “Pruno, Ramen and a Side of Hope: Stories of Surviving Wrongful Conviction.”
In an excerpt from a chapter entitled “Death Row Be Gone,” Sabrina Butler recalls her time on death row. Butler was on death row in Mississippi for nearly three years for the murder of her son before medical evidence proved that he died from illness.
My son Walter, barely three months away from his first birthday, died on April 11, 1989. I was arrested the very next day and charged with capital murder for his death. I was eighteen years old when I was sentenced on March 14, 1990, to die by lethal injection on July 2, 1990. Yes, I was young and naive and immature, but I didn’t murder my son.
The state of Mississippi provided me with two defense attorneys. I spoke with one of my attorneys briefly. He mumbled something negative to me and left. That was the last I would hear from him until I met my complete defense team two days before my trial.
There was no preparation at all and that left me feeling intensely insecure about my trial. Although in hindsight, I’m not sure the preparation would have made a difference. One of my attorneys was drunk throughout the whole trial. I guess he thought the peppermints he constantly popped into his mouth would camouflage the alcohol I smelled on his breath.
Throughout the trial my lawyers kept telling me, “We don’t want you to take the stand. We got this thing nipped in the bud.” They had it nipped in the bud all right. The jury came back and said “We find you guilty and we sentence you to death.”
Resigned to my fate, I was anxious to leave the county jail and be on my way to Rankin County Correctional Facility. I had no idea what to expect and it was the scariest ride of my life. In my terror, I had completely given up. Why should I care any longer, after the way my attorneys performed, after the way everything played out in court? All my chances were gone and they were going to kill me anyway. …
By the time I got to maximum security check, I couldn’t even talk. I was out of breath because I was overcome with fear. Already it was hell, and I had just gotten there. I had never been to prison before and I didn’t know what to expect. When I got to the next security area, there was a lady there and she asked, “What’s wrong with you, girl? You okay?” I couldn’t even speak to answer her. She walked me down this long hall. In Rankin County they didn’t really have a place for death row inmates. We were housed with other inmates who had committed similar crimes, but they weren’t on death row. There was a piece of tape on the floor; a red piece of tape with the words, “You can’t go beyond this point,” and they put me in a cell behind the red tape.
It was a six-by-nine cell, no bigger than a bathroom. I sat in this cell for twenty-three hours of the day. I was allowed a one-hour yard call which I had to spend by myself. That was very hard and so lonely for me because I had no one during this whole tragedy that knew what I was going through. There was no one who talked with me or told me what to expect or what was actually going on, what I was supposed to do, or give me any legal advice. I cried for two weeks straight. I would sit on the floor in a corner of that tiny cell, rocking and crying. I didn’t eat. I hardly talked. I just cried and cried.
There was one other girl on death row with me. Her name was Susan Balfour. She had been sentenced in the same county that I’m from and had been in Rankin for some time. She was housed in the cell right next to mine. She took to me and kind of talked to me and helped me.
When my death day came, I was beside myself. I paced the floor. I was thinking that they were coming at any time to take my life. That’s truly what I thought. Every time I heard footsteps or the sound of keys I just knew that I would soon be dead. I was noticeably restless and Susan tried to calm me by speaking to me through the walls. Our toilets were connected through the wall and there was a vent under the toilet. It allowed us to talk as if we were in the same room. She kept telling me they couldn’t do anything to me. If they hadn’t exhausted all the state remedies, then they really couldn’t kill me. She helped me a lot with her words. Nobody had ever told me that the state had to exhaust all remedies before they could actually carry out the sentence of death until Susan did. The day passed and I was still alive. I still believed somewhere deep down inside that they could come and get me, but sometime later I realized that Susan was right and for now I was safe.
Susan helped me a lot that first day, but I continued to cry, every day. Some days later a guard came down because I guess I wasn’t making any progress; there was no relief. The guard opened my door. She walked in and she told me that if I kept on doing what … I was doing, not eating and sitting in the corner and crying as I was, they would send me for a psych evaluation. If a doctor came down I would have to take medication. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want them to medicate me, or put me on something. So it was at this point that I started trying to figure out what I could do to not go crazy.
Still distressed and upset, I didn’t want them giving me whatever drugs they give you.
When the guard finally got tired of talking to me, she closed my door and left. Since I had a pencil and paper, I decided to write about my surroundings. I had one little window where I could look out on the yard and see the other inmates walking around and stuff. I would just write. I would try to see what I could learn from whatever I saw, whatever I heard; and I would try to analyze it and see what I would do in their situation. I would watch for a while, then I would write more. This was partly how I managed the whole two years and nine months on death row.
Susan was a great help to me during my incarceration. She was much older than me and on death row, too. She knew a lot more about prison than I did. We were the only two on death row in Rankin. We’d spend a lot of time sitting on the floor by our toilets, talking through our vents. Sometimes I would be able to see her shadow in her cell. I wondered if she could see mine. There really was no human contact for death row inmates. We were considered too dangerous to interact with the regular population or one another, but sitting there on the floor talking with Susan was the next best thing. We would talk and talk. She told me about her life and I told her about mine. …
Eventually we were able to see each other when they finally allowed us to take our one-hour yard time together. The administrator required us to sign all these papers to ensure that we wouldn’t hurt one another. Once the paperwork was done we could do yard call.
It was the only time we had any actual contact with each other to talk, or with anyone else, other than prison guards. It was worth every minute, though. Having to live twenty-three hours a day without contact in those tiny prison cells was miserable.