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Lessons I learned from a man on Death Row

On March 31, 2016, I watched a close friend of mine die at the hands of the state of Georgia for a crime he committed when he was just 19. I never imagined in a million years that I would ever witness an execution, but there I was in the cold and ugly witness room of Georgia’s “Death Chamber.” I had a second row seat to the execution of Joshua Daniel Bishop, an event that I had prayed relentlessly would never happen. As he lay dying on a gurney behind a glass wall, he locked eyes with each one of his loving friends sitting with me on the second row and mouthed “I love ya’ll, all shall be well.”

Joshua and I had been friends for almost 13 years. It all began in July of 2003 when his heartfelt letter found its way to my desk in the admissions office of The Art Institute of Atlanta. “My name is Joshua Daniel Bishop and I am on Georgia’s Death row,” he wrote. “I want to be honest and tell you that I am here for a crime that I do not deny.” He went on to talk about his love of art and he hoped to connect with one of our teachers to mentor him. I did not realize how much that first letter would profoundly impact the course of my life.

My husband Ryan and I began to exchange letters with him. The tone of the letters grew less formal and became more frequent as the summer turned into fall. I learned that he felt a tremendous amount of remorse for his actions and would have given anything to reverse them. Though his co-defendant was more culpable and managed to cut a deal during his sentencing, Josh blamed only himself and took full responsibility for his actions and for his past.

Eventually letters turned into phone calls and phone calls turned into visits to the prison and a true friendship began to flourish. I got to know Josh very well over the 13 years we corresponded, something I consider to be a true blessing. Those 13 years were a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows. Tears, hugs, laughter, anxiety, joy and fear. This roller coaster had it all.

The State of Georgia knew him as #000865709. Several misinformed members of the public knew him just as another executed murderer, an unredeemable scumbag who did not deserve to live. We just knew him as Josh, a flawed but kind soul, who had found and accepted God into his heart.

Over the years, I discovered my friend was indeed a talented and resourceful artist who taught himself to draw by reading old art books and watching Bob Ross reruns on PBS. He shared his gifts generously and once told me that he could look at a blank piece of paper and see the image that it held; all he had to do was bring it to life. When the prison took away his sparse collection of art materials, he would improvise by creating paint from common items found in the prison and utilized cardboard boxes and paper bags as his canvas.

He was an exceptional letter writer who brightened our days with uplifting cards and words of love and support. He was an intelligent man who indulged in hours of philosophical discussions with us. He sympathetically listened to us gripe and complain about our now seemingly trivial day-to-day troubles, even though he’d given anything to have the kind of problems we had.

Though Joshua loved many things, he loved nothing more than the outdoors. Yard call at the prison were his best days. He would soak in the sunlight on his face and breath the fresh air while watching the wildlife beyond the walls of the prison. He was once out in the yard as a torrential rainstorm broke out. Instead of running inside with the guards and the other prisoners, he chose to stay so he could lie on the pavement and savor the sensation of the rain hitting his face.

I watched him light up every time he spoke of the times he spent on the Oconee River in the woods near his home. In his younger days, he hunted and fished, not for sport, but out of necessity. Nature was the inspiration for much of his art, it was also Joshua’s playground throughout his youth and the place where he would find in his mind when his reality was too much to bear.

One the last day of his life, this man the state of Georgia decided was too violent to live, wrote to his niece and nephew expressing his deep love for them and told them to love one another and to be good to each other. He urged me to do the same with my own family. “Death is a part of life,” he told me. So how can it be bad?

I never realized how much Joshua had taught me about life until he was gone. During his 22 years in prison (more than half of his life), he had transformed from a scared and reckless 19 year old boy into a man who lived with purpose, love and meaning. Though he was permanently confined in an environment we would all consider to be hell, Josh did his very best to make something extraordinary of his life and leave a positive mark on our world. I watched him face the likelihood of an unnatural, horrific and untimely death with tremendous courage and grace. It was through his example where I overcame my own gripping fear of death and began to recognize what is truly important in this short life were given.

In the weeks before and even after his death, local reporters and bloggers had a field day coming up with sensational headlines that evoked disgust and hatred towards Josh, even though they had never met him. During this difficult time, Josh asked me to make something positive come from his death. I still have not figured out what that is, but there are lessons in humanity to be learned here. Aren’t we more than our past mistakes?

Joshua had very few choices he was able to make for himself during his 41 years of life. He didn’t choose for his mother to be an addict incapable of providing basic care, he didn’t choose poverty, he didn’t choose for reprehensible abuse to be inflicted on him as a small child, nor did he choose to be a homeless teenager.

Sadly, he did make terrible choices as a young man that would ultimately put him on that table with a lethal dose of poison pumping into his body on that terrible night. Joshua certainly would not have chosen to die that way, who would? But he managed to choose his state of being as he departed this earth. He chose grace over fear, he chose love over hate, he chose forgiveness over anger, he chose humor over sadness, and he chose gratitude over self pity. These are choices I could only hope I would have made had I been in his shoes.

As I witnessed the appalling events of March 31, I couldn’t help but feel like Georgia was putting on a show to demonstrate to the world how tough we are on crime by using Josh as an example. And yet, the decision makers, the very people who could have stopped this senseless act of vengeance, weren’t even there.

Where were the six members of the State Board of Pardons and Paroles who denied Joshua clemency earlier that day? Where were the lawmakers who helped pass Georgia’s lethal injection secrecy law? Where were the politicians who helped create an environment where its OK to murder our own in the name of justice? Where was our governor who could have stopped the slew of executions we have seen in 2016? Where was our state attorney general who seems to be in such a hurry to carry out these executions? What about the public who elects these people, why can’t they watch?

Instead of being there, they have others do their dirty work in a secret chamber behind the prison late at night so Joshua’s death would only be a short blip in the news the next morning. Perhaps they had hoped we’d could forget that he ever existed.

It doesn’t matter that nearly everyone involved with his sentencing, including the original prosecuting district attorney, nine jurors, law enforcement officers, and several members of the victims families were uncomfortable with Joshua’s death sentence and hoped it would somehow be overturned. The emotional toll inflicted on the guards was also telling as I watched several of them wipe away tears during our final visit. It didn’t seem to matter that there are thousands of cases in this state that are far worse than Joshua’s, and yet the defendants somehow manage to cut deals.

My anger, shock, horror and grief will not bring Josh back nor will it help him in any way now. But I take comfort knowing that the amount of love that was inside his heart when he left this world could probably cure the insanity that put him on that table in the first place. And that is something that no one can ever take away from him.

Amy Dunn is a resident of Smyrna.