Profile of a Death Row Angel
SCOTT SIMON, host:
This summer families are making all kinds of road trips, but one woman and her granddaughter have an unusual destination. Each week Bonnie Caraway and 16-year-old Little Bonnie(ph), she's called, drive to Livingston, Texas, about 70 miles north of Houston. They visit prisoners on death row. Janet Heimlich has this report.
JANET HEIMLICH reporting:
It's early as Bonnie Caraway and Little Bonnie jump into their aging Pontiac Sunfire.
(Soundbite of doors shutting)
Ms. BONNIE CARAWAY: OK, let's go. The first thing I do is check to make sure I've got my coins, my driver's license.
HEIMLICH: The two are on their way to visit death row prisoners. After six years they have the ritual down pat, carrying in nothing but a picture ID and a clear bag of coins. The coins are to buy food for the inmates from vending machines in the visiting room. The Caraways live in Hardin, a small town outside of Houston. It's an hour's drive to the Polunsky Unit Prison, where the state houses its male prisoners on death row. Bonnie says today they plan to visit an inmate named Frank Moore.
Ms. CARAWAY: We got some things to discuss about his case so this is the main reason I'm going to see Frank today. I think everybody in this world would be surprised at what they would feel when they sit down with a death row inmate. You're actually looking at a human being. You are not looking at an animal.
HEIMLICH: The Caraways are neither lawyers or members of the clergy. They're regulars at the Polenski Prison to offer the inmates moral support and a kind of light social work. Bonnie, a 64-year-old former beauty shop owner, grew up in east Texas. Just over 5' tall, she seems tireless. In addition to visiting the prisoner she sets up Web sites to draw attention to their cases. She puts European supporters in touch with the men and she tells the prisoners about newly passed death penalty laws.
Ms. CARAWAY: Now maybe we don't do so much for them legally, but we do something for their hearts. I think we make it easier for them, I hope.
HEIMLICH: While some residents of Livingston and Hardin have reacted positively, many are offended by the Caraways' work. Little Bonnie was asked to leave her church.
Ms. CARAWAY: I've been spit on in Wal-Marts.
HEIMLICH: So far they have not had any encounters with victims' families.
Ms. CARAWAY: Nine, nine, nine, two, 10.
(Soundbite of banging)
Unidentified Woman: Moore?
Ms. CARAWAY: Yes, ma'am.
HEIMLICH: Inside the prison Bonnie tells a guard Frank Moore's inmate number and she and Little Bonnie are escorted to the visitor's room. The prisoners sit in concrete cubicles behind a thick pane of glass and talk to people on squawky telephone handsets. They're allowed two hours per visit and these conversations may not be recorded.
Forty-six-year-old Frank Moore was a gang leader and drug leader from San Antonio before he was convicted in 1996 of gunning down two members of an opposing gang. He says it was self defense. Moore met the Caraways nearly a year ago.
Mr. FRANK MOORE (Death Row Inmate): This is real valuable for me and any guy to get regular visits on death row, because you get out of the cell that you're in for 23 hours a day. You can come out, you can communicate with somebody, and you have something to look forward to besides the everyday routine.
Mr. LUIS RAMIREZ (Death Row Inmate): I mean, it's my two hours to be a normal person.
HEIMLICH: Luis Ramirez is another person who gets visits from the Caraways. He was convicted of killing a man in San Angelo in 1999, but says he had nothing to do with the crime. He's scheduled to die by lethal injection on October 20th. Ramirez says Bonnie helps him forget his troubles.
Mr. RAMIREZ: And sometimes in a place like this, you know, we're so stigmatized, you know. Everybody is supposed to be just this terrible, you know, monster, you know? And to have this person whom you never met before come in and treat you like a human being, it's just something you don't get a lot of here.
HEIMLICH: Before all this started, Bonnie supported the death penalty. Many of her relatives worked in law enforcement. But six years ago the death penalty entered her life in a most personal way.
Mr. CARAWAY: My son was wrongfully arrested for capital murder in Harris County and when they did arrest him I didn't really get all upset. You would think, you know, `Oh, my son has been arrested for capital murder.' Well I didn't because I knew he didn't do it. And so I thought, `Well, the police are just trying to find out who did it or it's some kind of thing to get to the truth.'
HEIMLICH: But instead prosecutors kept her son in jail for nearly a year, even though Bonnie says, there was no physical evidence tying him to the crime. Then days before it was time to go to trial, someone called in an anonymous tip to police identifying the real killers and Bonnie's son was let go.
Ms. CARAWAY: You feel so helpless. I mean, you know that the law and the system is out there for our own good, but what I was seeing I knew was all wrong, you know? I knew it was so wrong that it was almost like if you don't do something, who is?
HEIMLICH: Bonnie asked an anti-death penalty activist to give her the names of death row inmates who seemed innocent or mentally retarded. Then she and Little Bonnie went online to look at their mug shots, which was a bit scary.
Ms. CARAWAY: I would look them up on the Web site and I would go, `Oh, my God, look at him.'
HEIMLICH: But they ventured out to death row anyway.
LITTLE BONNIE: I was real nervous.
HEIMLICH: That's Little Bonnie. She first visited Death Row when she was 11 years old.
LITTLE BONNIE: I didn't really talk much the first visit and when we left I started crying, right? It was sad. I don't know, it was sad because they're like people and they were in small cages.
HEIMLICH: Little Bonnie was adopted by Bonnie and her husband when she was an infant. Neither Little Bonnie's father, the one who was arrested nor her mother, wanted to raise her. Now 16, Little Bonnie sits in a room playing video games and listening to rhythm and blues. She has long brown curly hair and a pretty smile. She says she got interested in visiting death row inmates after her father got out of jail.
LITTLE BONNIE: I seen like, you know, how they can so easily get the wrong guy.
HEIMLICH: While Bonnie says she sometimes gets concerned about exposing her granddaughter to death row, Little Bonnie insists on going. The teen-ager says she can talk to the prisoners about everything: rap, music, boy problems, what she should do after high school. And they give her advice on how to stay out of trouble and off drugs.
LITTLE BONNIE: I listen to them more than I probably would my parents because they're more my level, you know, like they don't nag at me about it. They just talk to me like, `Hey don't do it. It's not cool to do it. You might think it is, you know.' I've come to love them, really, like family members.
HEIMLICH: The Caraways say they care about crime victims, too, and believe that the guilty should be in prison, but they believe that many inmates have been unfairly sentenced to death row and forgotten. Still, their visits to the Polenski Unit take their toll. Gas and food for the inmates can cost up to $70 a trip and the emotional toll is even more costly. Seven of the men the Caraways have gotten to know have been executed and each time it's a blow. But the loss of one man two years ago was particularly devastating. Kia Johnson was convicted of robbing and killing a convenience store clerk in San Antonio in 1995. Over three years he and the Caraways had grown close. When inmates are three days from being put to death they're allowed extended visits. Johnson chose to spend most of that time with Little Bonnie.
LITTLE BONNIE: It was hard but during--like when I was seeing him I didn't too much think about it 'cause I was more, you know, concentrating on trying to make him not think about it. So we were just having fun talking about everything. Them were the best three visits I'd ever had with him. It didn't, like--OK, the last day it didn't--it hurt, but it didn't really hit me till like a week later and, you know, you realize, `He's not writing me anymore. We're not seeing him anymore.'
Ms. CARAWAY: He's still with us in a lot of ways. A lot of things have changed since Kia, and I think I'm more determined than ever to do what I can to make people see these people as humans.
HEIMLICH: No date has been set for Frank Moore's execution. He says for the time being knowing Bonnie Caraway brings him comfort.
Mr. MOORE: She says she's here to the end, you know what I'm saying? And I can only respect that, that she will stick with me till the end, because I know it's going to be painful for her. For me it'll be painful to leave her with this hurt, now knowing she cares so much.
Ms. CARAWAY: Most of those guys are put on the gurney with no family, no friends, no--you very seldom read it in the news. The main thing they need is to know someone's out there that cares that they're going to be put on that gurney.
HEIMLICH: The Caraways' work continues even after execution. Bonnie and Little Bonnie raise money for the bodies of the inmates to be buried anywhere but on prison grounds.
For NPR News, I'm Janet Heimlich.
SIMON: We're continuing to follow the story in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, today, where bombings overnight have killed at least 83 people and injured many more. This is the worst terrorist attack ever on Egyptian soil.
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