THE WOMAN WHO WANTED TO DIE
By Ames K. Swartsfager
“I just want to die. If I did what they said I did, I deserve to die.”
Sheila was a pretty African American woman in her mid-twenties, with her hair neatly done in corn rows. Dark eyes, full of tears that were refusing to spill over, highlighted her round face. She was dressed in the prison uniform for women, checkered blouse and kaki pants all neat and pressed.
She reached out and touched the back of my hand. I held it out and she grabbed it as if her life was hanging by the thread I was holding.
“I’ve been waiting ten years for death, and they refuse to kill me,” she said. ‘No,’ they tell me, not until I have another appeal. I do not want another appeal. I want to die now!” The tears finally splashed over, some falling on my hand.
In a small voice she said, “Chaplain, help me die. “I don’t remember what I did, truly I don’t. I was sixteen and thought I knew everything. I wanted to be treated like an adult, but I was really stupid. I met a boy, Sam…no he wasn’t really a boy. He must have been five years older than me. Sam got me to drinking and I felt grown up…like a real woman.
“We went out for awhile, and then I moved in with him. For the first month or so it was like a fairytale. I loved him and he loved me—or at least I thought so.
“Then Sam started coming home late, sometimes not at all. My heart was broken so I drank all the time. One time he came home and told me he had just robbed a liquor store. He was looking for a place to hide and didn’t know where to go. I sent him to the house of a girl friend of mine so the police wouldn’t find him. A few days later a big man came to my door looking for Sam. Not the police. It turned out he was Jake, a loan shark. Sam owed him twenty thousand dollars and he wanted it paid now, or he would ‘cut his guts out.’
“I didn’t know what to do. I told him that we didn’t have that kind of money.
“He just laughed. ‘If he can’t pay up, you’ll have to.’
“I didn’t understand what he meant until…until he threw me on the ground …he raped me. ‘Now you are whoring for me until that money is paid back,’ he said as he shoved me out the door. For the next few months I did what he said, but I was never able to make enough money to satisfy him.
“One night I saw Sam. I had heard he was loven’ up my girlfriend. Some friend. Anyway he comes up to me and tells me he was sorry about the other girl and what had happened to me. Could we get back together?
“I thought anything to get out from under this pimp. I stupidly forgave him and moved in with him. I wasn’t there long before Jake caught me and turned me back into the streets. I started feeling sick and throwing up all the time. Then I missed my periods. I was pretty sure I was pregnant.
“I had…my baby…a boy.” Sheila was sobbing now. I handed her some tissues. She blew her nose. After a few minutes she regained some composure.
“Such a beautiful baby boy,” she continued, sniffling and wiping her eyes. “Jake wanted me back on the streets, but I was able to delay it by nursing the baby. Jake threatened to get rid of it if I didn’t get back on the job.
“Sam had disappeared, but I was sure he was the baby’s father. Then one night I heard on the streets that Sam had been killed in a shootout with the police.
“I went crazy. I took all the money I had made that night and bought several bottles of cheap whisky and went to my room where my baby was sleeping…so peacefully. I watched …I loved him…so much… sleep.” Sheila blew her nose again and took another tissue I offered. She seemed to be looking through me; her eyes streamed fresh tears. I imagined that she was reliving the scene.
“And I drank…and drank…and….” She was silent for a moment and then she said very loud, her voice full of frustration and anger. “I could not live this life anymore. I remember thinking how unfair it was for a little child like Sammy, which is what I named the little boy, to have to grow up in this filthy world.
“That’s the last thing I remember. They told me I murdered Sammy. I couldn’t have done it. To murder my own child, my little defenseless Sammy? But I must have. That’s what the prosecutor and the witnesses said.” She seemed to gather some strength, sat up upright in the chair. “That’s what they said,” she repeated in a low voice.
“The lady who lived downstairs said she heard me yelling and screaming—making a lot of noise. She called the police. They said I was passed out on the floor, and the room was splattered with blood.
“The patho…doctor said I had swung my baby by the heels and banged his head on the walls until he was dead.
“I could not have done that! I loved little Sammy.
“But they say I did, and I don’t remember. They say I deserve to die. I say if I did that, I do deserve to die!
“But they won’t let me die,” Sheila said in a whisper. She again slumped down in the chair and clasped her hands as if she was praying.
“I’ve been locked up for ten years praying for death to come soon. No one visits me. I’m ready to die!” Tears began running down her face again. “I deserve to die! How long do I have to wait?
“I’ve made my peace with God, Chaplain. God is taking good care of my Sammy, and I don’t care what happens to me.
“Can you help me, Chaplain?” She pleaded. “Get them to stop appeals and let me die?”
I held her hands and prayed with her, asking God to help her in a way that would be best for her. At the same time a suspicious thought came to me. What if she had not killed her baby? What if her pimp, Jake, did it as revenge?
There was not much I could do for her since she was housed here by a state and not the federal government.
I did not know the truth of the matter. I did not feel that the police, court or jury knew the truth either. Were we going to execute an innocent young woman?
A few months later the phone rang. It was the officer in charge of the Receiving and Discharge department. She informed me that someone wanted to talk to me.
I arrived at R&D to find Sheila going through the process of discharge. I was very excited, thinking she was going to be released. We had talked many times since I had first seen her.
“Chaplain,” she said with a great smile. “I’m going home.”
“That’s great. You won your appeal!”
Her smile turned more somber. “No, Chaplain,” she said with a sigh. “I’m finally going home to Jesus. My appeal failed and the date for my execution is set. I am being returned to the state for execution.”
My face must have shown my disappointment and sadness. She took a step toward me and put her arms around me, hugging me tightly. I probably was the only man she had hugged in ten years. Then she stepped away.
“It’s OK. I know Jesus now and I know for certain that He has forgiven me. I will miss you and our conversations.”
The officer, who had been watching us, came over to place the handcuffs, leg irons and body chains on. Tears brimmed in my eyes and I could hardly talk. After she was chained, I asked the officer if we could pray for a moment.
I took her chained hands in mine and asked Jesus to keep her safe and to receive her into his kingdom. I was surprised when the officer joined in the prayer with a quiet “Amen.”