Just for Youth... Advice From Death Row

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"Morning. I awake to the bright sunshine streaming through my window. I get up and brush my teeth, then wash my face and get dressed. I gaze out the window at a beautiful view: a rolling field with thick woods beyond. In the evening I watch the deer, so graceful, so peaceful, so beautiful.

"I'm waiting on my breakfast to be brought to me. I have someone cook all my meals; I also have someone do all my laundry; when I get groceries they are brought to me as well. Some people say that I have it made.

"However, my life and home are not all that glamorous. My beautiful view is obscured by two eight-foot chain-link fences, each with three rows of razor wire at the top and bottom. My bedroom is also my bathroom and my living room, and it's called a prison cell. I am a death row inmate, and my physical life will be over in a matter of months . . ."

So began a letter I received.

What's behind the headlines

We've all been shocked by headlines such as: "Drive-By Shooting Leaves Three Dead," "Crime, Drugs Arrests, Violence All Increase," "City Sets Record for Number of Murders, Up 10 Percent in First Six Months."

News of crime is all too familiar. Even more sad than crime itself is that so many crimes involve young people.

One story is of two children, 10 and 11, who dropped a 5-year-old from a high-rise building because he refused to steal candy. In recent months even 6-year-olds have been suspected of murder or attempted murder.

Many youngsters are barely into their teens before they're challenged by their peers to do wrong. Numerous teenagers end up shattering the lives of family and friends. Some who commit murder grow old in prison, leaving only at death.

The consequences of these wrongheaded ways have come home to me through knowing Ron (not his real name). Before a recent job transfer to another state, once a month I drove almost four hours to a maximum-security prison to visit him. . I want to tell you about my visits and the rest of the letter he wrote me—the first part of which is quoted earlier in this article—to help anyone who could learn from his mistakes.

Simply visiting Ron is an experience in itself. When I arrive at the prison I park my car in the visitors' designated area. At the entrance I sign in, hand over my driver's license and receive a key to a locker in which I place most of the personal possessions I'm carrying. I'm allowed to keep only my handkerchief and some small change should I want to buy a soda or snack from a vending machine.

Then I walk through the first doorway; the steel door is promptly locked behind me. A guard stamps my hand with ink, showing that I'm a visitor. I remove my shoes and walk through a metal detector similar to those at airports. I retrieve my shoes and enter a small side room in which I am thoroughly searched by a guard. He searches even my shoes.

The guard scans me with a hand-held metal detector. I put my shoes back on and leave the room by way of another steel door, which he locks behind me. Another guard allows me into the visiting section.

I await Ron's arrival. He eventually shuffles in, after being escorted from his cell by an officer who has cuffed his hands behind his back and fastened shackles around his ankles. Ron steps into the opposite side of our cubicle, and the door locks behind him. The officer reaches into the cubicle through a flap in the door and unlocks Ron's handcuffs.

Bulletproof glass and several feet of space separate us. We pick up telephone receivers and begin talking to each other. For the next two hours, our conversation can cover anything and everything. We talk about crime, how lax the law is, teens and parents, what Ron did that sent him to prison, the Bible, his fears and thoughts, fishing, television, the weather, prison food, other prisoners in adjacent cubicles.

I try to inspire Ron to seek God daily, including maintaining his relationship with Him through regular prayer.

Ron admitted to murder

Ron's case is going through its first official appeal. The details of the trial, including all the evidence, have to be examined to ensure that he received a fair trial in the eyes of the law. If the court decides that his trial was fair, then he has the choice of continuing his appeals or awaiting his punishment-death by lethal injection.

Ron admits he is a murderer, and he is prepared to die. He can't explain why he killed. At the time of the crime he hadn't eaten properly for 20 hours, and he had been drinking and taking drugs.

The temptation to rob and kill presented itself, and, egged on by an acquaintance, he drew a gun and blew away several innocent people.

The murder and its related events have tortured the lives of the victims' families and loved ones. Ron's own family is distraught, and he faces the probability of execution within a few months.

What a waste of human life wrought by 10 minutes of madness. The suffering and hurt will never go away in this life.

How could this tragedy happen? What went wrong? How could it have been avoided?

Ron and I have talked at length about his life of crime. I asked him to write a letter to help young people avoid such a life. I'll share with you a condensed version of Ron's written thoughts:

Ron played a game with God

"If I were to talk with a group of teenagers, my first question would be: What is the top priority in your life, and why? Then I would ask them who are their role models, if they have any. I would then go into my circumstances.

"I've always believed in God, but I never really took my beliefs too seriously. I played a game, just believing and leaving it at that. I started smoking pot at age 12 and started drinking at about the same time. During this time, from age 12 to 18, I got in with the wrong crowd-stealing, lying, cheating and hurting people. We got away with a lot of things, too many to list here.

"I got caught for breaking into a drug dealer's apartment and spent five weeks in a detention home. With the amount of drugs that I was doing during this time I was lucky to be alive. I went into the service but never gave up drugs or drinking, and from age 18 until age 24 I had a couple of run-ins with the law-drinking in public, driving under the influence of alcohol and possession of marijuana.

"Then I committed burglary and got three years of suspended time and three year's probation, which I violated with another charge of receiving stolen property and grand larceny auto. I got a total of eight years and did three and one half years and made parole.

"During my time in prison I began to do Bible courses and really study the Bible and apply its teachings to my life. I paroled to a Christian halfway house, but it wasn't long before I was back to the drugs and drinking. I was told to leave the house. I moved in with an older woman and kept smoking pot and drinking. I had forgotten God. I had turned away from His Word.

Arrested before he could kill himself

"On the night of this crime, at around 10:30, my friend mentioned we could rob the bar by the house. When the evening was over, several people were dead, and I would not realize what I had done until around 9 in the morning. At that point I was shocked. I never dreamed in a million years that I could have killed anyone. (No one who knew me could believe it, either.)

"The people who were murdered were friends of mine, and I couldn't find it in me to want to live with what I had done. After about 15 or so mixed drinks, I left my partner in crime sitting at a bar. I planned to go to the apartment and shoot myself.

"While walking home I ran into a friend and drank a little more and smoked some pot. Now I was really ready to end it. But, as I left to walk home, I got about a block and a half from my apartment and couldn't go any farther. I was emotionally and physically beat. So I sat down beside the building and passed out. The police woke me up an hour later and arrested me.

"After the trial I was sentenced to death and sent to prison. With a lot of encouragement I soon confessed my sins and admitted that I was powerless to change my life. Now that I have truly repented and turned my life over to God, I am no longer scared of death. I know God has forgiven me, and I know that I will have eternal life.

"What I am trying to say is that, no matter what you have done, no matter how bad you think you are, you can be saved with belief and true repentance. If you are willing to let God control your life, you will have the promise of eternal life, the Kingdom of God and total peace. Can you grasp that? Probably not, because in the crime-infested world you can't grasp what true peace is.

Ron's best advice

"As far as a role model, look to Jesus Christ. He is the perfect role model. As a matter of fact, if you would ask yourself what would Jesus do in every situation that you find yourself in, no matter what the cost, you would notice a giant change in the way you do things. The bottom line is: Put God first in your life."

That is Ron's conclusion. I don't doubt that this prisoner on death row is a changed and different man, but what a price he is having to pay. Yes, he is remorseful, he is sorry for what he did, but no matter how deep his regret and sorrow he cannot change the past and bring innocent people back to life.

In a recent article, "Kids Need to Know the Truth About Violence," Philadelphia Inquirer writer Claude Lewis tried to pinpoint the causes of violence among young people:

"Certainly, the disintegration of the family plays a major role. Far too many youth grow up without the basic training from their parents necessary to help steer them away from violence and murder. Instead, uncaring, overworked parents too often park their kids in front of TV sets where they receive the worst sort of training-frequent exposure on programs (including news programs) to heinous crimes, including murder, rape and armed robberies. Is it any wonder that many of our youth believe they can solve their disagreements with guns, knives or baseball bats?"

Had Ron listened as a youngster to good advice, or refused that first illegal drink or marijuana cigarette, perhaps this story would never have been told. Several people would be alive and with their families now rather than lying in their graves.

Will Ron's experience help you make right choices? The wrong way of life begins with small decisions. That's the way Ron's began, but his led him along the wrong road until he committed an act he never would have thought possible.

When I asked Ron about writing this article for young people and quoting his letter, he readily agreed, adding that he would do "anything to stop them opening the door to drugs, because once the door is open it's almost impossible to go back."

Advice from 300 young people

The book of Proverbs is full of priceless instructions for young people. I once asked a group of some 300 youths to select what they thought was the most helpful Proverb. The consensus was Proverbs 12:1 Proverbs 12:1Whoever loves instruction loves knowledge: but he that hates reproof is brutish.
American King James Version×
: "Whoever loves instruction loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid."

This is plain-spoken advice for children and adolescents to keep in mind as they grow up and mature.

Your parents and other adults you know don't want you to be hurt or end up living a life of crime. No mother wants her son on death row. Another Proverb tells us that "a wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is the grief of his mother" (Proverbs 10:1 Proverbs 10:1The proverbs of Solomon. A wise son makes a glad father: but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother.
American King James Version×
). It's not easy being the parent of a hardened criminal. Imagine the grief of parents realizing that their child, their flesh and blood, is under a death sentence for taking the life of another human being.

We can all save ourselves and our families much heartache if we decide to follow the guidance of the great God when He inspired these words: "Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil" (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 [13] Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. [14] For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.
American King James Version×
, New International Version).

When I visit Ron, I watch other families visiting other inmates in the same prison, including about 50 on death row. The prisoners can have physical contact with close family members once every three months. These visits take place in a special room, but the rules are strictly enforced that state: "Visitors and inmates may kiss and embrace upon entering and exiting the visiting area. Any other contact will result in the visit being terminated."

Once I watched a boy of about 12 trying to measure his hand against his imprisoned father's through the glass in the cubicle section where regular visiting takes place. The boy wanted just to have some sort of close contact with his father. His mother later told me that she and her son had been coming to see her husband for 10 years.

I thought then how sad that this lad had grown up knowing his father only this way-a few hugs every three months and a weekly telephone conversation while gazing at his dad through reinforced glass. The boy's father is awaiting the result of his last appeal for his death sentence for murder. One day not long from now that boy will likely pay his last visit to his father.

Will Ron's letter, and this account of life in prison, prevent one young person from ending up on death row? Society continues to suffer the awful consequences of choosing its own violent way-broken families, broken lives, broken hearts. Will you be any different?

Be happy while you're young

One of the wisest men who ever lived penned some wonderful words for youths when he wrote: "Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment" (Ecclesiastes 11:9 Ecclesiastes 11:9Rejoice, O young man, in your youth; and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth, and walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes: but know you, that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.
American King James Version×
, New International Version).

The same man added: "So, remove vexation from your heart and put away pain from your body, because childhood and the prime of life are fleeting . . . Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth" (Ecclesiastes 11:10 Ecclesiastes 11:10Therefore remove sorrow from your heart, and put away evil from your flesh: for childhood and youth are vanity.
American King James Version×
; 12:1, New American Standard Bible).

Neither you nor I alone have the power to change the social conditions around us very much. The real changes will come only when Jesus Christ returns and establishes God's Kingdom. However, in the meantime we can decide to make a difference by living our lives the way God shows us in His Word. GN