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My Mother and the Prisoner

By
November 8, 2011

A son recalls his mother’s advocacy for a framed man.

Sayrafiezadeh-575.jpgPhotograph via Flickr by David Kent

“May the Almighty have mercy on your soul.”

—Judge Samuel Strauss, after sentencing Stanton Story to the electric chair in 1976

“In my cell I have a plastic soda bottle that I use to make my green tea. I purchase the tea bags from the prison store and I steep them in the plastic bottle for three days. It’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted.”

—Stanton Story, in conversation, 2010

When I was nine years old, my mother, for reasons that have always been unclear, took me with her one afternoon to meet a prisoner serving a life sentence.

His name was Stanton Story, and he—young, poor, black—had, three years earlier, been tried and found guilty of killing a Pittsburgh police officer. Death by the electric chair had been the original sentence, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had commuted all capital punishment sentences and so his life had been spared.

“He was framed,” my mother told me. “He was railroaded.”

Indeed, on the day of the officer’s shooting, he had apparently been four hundred miles away in Charlotte, North Carolina.

And there had been other improprieties and distortions at his trial—so many, in fact, that he had been granted a second trial, one which held great promise, and which, at the time of our visit in 1978 was quickly approaching.

Often when I was out walking somewhere with my mother, she would stop abruptly, stoop and unzip her knapsack, remove a leaflet, and using the stapler she always carried with her, pound the leaflet hard into the wooden telephone pole. Free Stanton Story! the headline read. Beneath it was a photograph of a frightened black man staring out at the camera, alongside a paragraph explaining the inherent injustice of American capitalism, not the least of which was condemning the media that had crafted public sentiment against him, the police officers who had beat him, the underpaid and inexperienced lawyer that had defended him, and the all-white jury that had convicted him. This grave and unhappy inventory was followed by the encouraging counterweight of the many organizations that had come together to demand justice, a list that included churches, community groups, student associations, The Pittsburgh Courier, the NAACP, and finally, the lone white organization in Pittsburgh that was lending its support, the Socialist Workers Party, of which my mother was a dedicated member.

And in this capacity, whether alone or with others, my mother advocated persuasively, tirelessly, for Stanton Story, not just by posting leaflets, but by visiting him, by sending him letters and money, by attending meetings and events. Everyday there was something more to be done, something new, something that had not been thought of before but that now would become the very thing that would guarantee a verdict of innocence in his second trial.

Do you dream about freedom? my mother had written in one of her many letters to him, staying late at her secretarial job so she could use the electric typewriter without interruption. Later that evening, she related to me how it had occurred to her upon rereading the letter that this simple question—Do you dream about freedom?—could be interpreted by the prison guards, who no doubt scrutinized all correspondence, as coded encouragement for him to try to escape. She then described in detail how she had blotted out the incriminating sentence with Wite-Out and typed something innocuous over it. Once done, though, she was horrified to discover that she could still make out, just faintly, the words dream and freedom. Again she used the Wite-Out, this time more generously, until she was satisfied that it had been so thickly applied that nothing could be discerned beneath. But now, staring at the sheet of paper in her hands, she saw how the eye was immediately drawn to the obvious elevated area in the center of the page where the many coats had hardened. And so she retyped the whole letter from the beginning, omitting, of course, the burning and unanswered question, Do you dream about freedom?

This was why she had gotten home late for supper.

Once a week, or sometimes twice, my mother would leave home in the early evening to navigate her way conspicuously through the poor black communities of Pittsburgh so she could participate in the various community events. She was a small Jewish woman, my mother, barely over five feet tall with graying hair and oversized eyeglasses and a bewildered aspect, who did not own a car, did not know even how to drive, and who would have to rely on the bus, doing in one hour what could have been done in ten minutes.

“What’s this honky doing here?” a group of teenage girls had called out to her late one night as she waited alone at a bus stop to come back home.

“What are you doing here, honky?”

My mother had trembled but not responded, pretending she had not heard. She understood the nature of the girls’ discontent, and hoped that if they were to knock her to the ground, her knapsack might open and out would spill the leaflets, and the girls would realize that my mother was an ally. But the girls had only wanted to taunt, and soon they grew bored and walked off, and not too long after that my mother’s bus arrived.

Nevertheless, these community events were important occasions intended to bring attention, not only to the wrong done to Stanton Story, but to the wrong done to all black people, including those many men and women who had been affected by the intense and prolonged police manhunt that lasted two months and which had resulted in shootings, beatings, chokings, and ransacked homes. Four years had passed since Stanton Story had been captured, but no one had forgotten their doors that had been kicked down, their television sets that had been smashed, their money that had been stolen, their food that had been eaten, and the unfulfilled promise by the mayor to investigate all claims of police misconduct. Nor had anyone forgotten the posters prominently displayed throughout the city that had proclaimed, as if it were a return to the days of the Wild West, Wanted Dead or Alive: Stanton Story, and offering $25,000 for information leading to his arrest and/or conviction. And sure enough, in the end it had been an old friend who had led the police to the house where he was found hiding upstairs in a closet.

My mother would answer, “He’s waiting for the new trial,” with enough melancholy to suggest how great the chances really were that he would be found guilty and spend his life in prison.

Out of all the strategies that were conceived to aid Stanton Story, there was one which stood paramount, and which seemed to hold the most chance for ensuring a fair second trial: a car wash. It was this that my mother spoke of most frequently, most enthusiastically, apparently requiring considerable planning and coordination between the Socialist Workers Party and all the other organizations. The plan was to hold the car wash on a weekend, not too far in the future, in the middle of the Hill District, that famous Pittsburgh neighborhood where Stanton Story had been born, and which in the 1950s had been a center of black American culture, but was now blighted and impoverished. And since much of what was needed for this car wash had to be either donated or given at little cost, I would often hear my mother on the phone inquiring about whether someone she didn’t know could make a sign, and someone else could bring a bucket, and someone else could bring a hose. It was expected that the money raised would be substantial, and that it would go directly to the private attorney who had agreed to take the case pro bono, and who was operating without the means to conduct any sort of independent investigation.

On those evenings at supper when my mother had nothing new to report, I would be the one to broach the subject.

“What’s going on with Stanton Story?” I would ask.

And my mother would answer, “He’s waiting for the new trial,” with enough melancholy to suggest what exactly he was up against, and how great the chances really were that he would be found guilty once again and spend the rest of his life in prison.

Not knowing what to say, I would sit and wait for her optimism to kick in. But generally it would not, and I would begin to feel a blanket of gloom descend over our meal, enveloping me until, unable to bear it any longer, I would blurt out, “What’s going on with the car wash, Ma?”

“It’s being planned,” she’d say.

And this would make me feel hopeful.

So one Saturday afternoon in late winter when I was nine years old, my mother, myself, and another member of the Socialist Workers Party, a woman named Bonnie, drove to Western Penitentiary, just forty minutes away on the other side of the river.

The guard was a white man and we had come here for the purpose of helping a black man who had been found guilty of murdering a white man.

In the backseat, I looked out of the window and listened to the discussion that was at first composed, then animated, then outraged. The truth, blatant and indisputable, was that the police officer had not been killed by Stanton Story, nor by any black man, but rather by his own partner who had mistakenly shot him in the crossfire of an arrest gone wrong, and then attempted to cover it up by placing the blame elsewhere. This was what Stanton Story’s lawyer had argued at the first trial, but to no avail. An all-white jury from the suburbs, many of whom acknowledged having friends and family who were police officers, had easily accepted the district attorney’s version of events. No gun had ever been recovered at the scene. And no bullet. It was only the police officer’s testimony and Stanton Story’s beaten confession that had convinced the jury of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It was expected that Stanton Story’s new attorney, who was far more experienced than the first, would put forward the same argument at the trial, as he would the fact that Stanton Story had been in Charlotte, North Carolina on the day of the shooting.

“Why don’t they just look his name up in the phone book?” I asked from the backseat.

“What?” my mother turned and peered at me.

And I explained how it could easily be proven where Stanton Story had been living when the officer was killed by finding his name in the Charlotte phone book. It made complete sense to me.

Soon, we arrived at our destination: a clean, modern building, that could easily have been a new school if it weren’t for the fact that it was surrounded by a massive concrete wall with barbed wire. Bonnie didn’t stop at the entrance, but instead pulled around to the side where “inmate visitors” were supposed to park. And as we moved along the edge of the building I realized with dismay that this new building was not new at all, did not in anyway resemble a school, and that the front of it, which had seemed so freshly built, was a facade disguising a structure that was many years old, maybe a hundred years, constructed out of enormous blocks of stone, yellow and pitted, that looked as if they had been dragged from a quarry and stacked on top of each other. Facing out of the back of the prison were a dozen windows, tall and majestic, like windows in a castle except that they were crisscrossed densely with bars so that nothing could be seen through them except for a foggy round glow of light from what could have been a ceiling lamp. A narrow patch of grass ran beneath these windows, sort of like a backyard, and the grass was ringed with barbed wire and enclosed by a high black fence crowned with spikes.

In other words, there was no chance of escape.

The line of people waiting to be checked in was long. Most of the visitors were black, and the conversations were surprisingly good-natured, like families on their way to a picnic. When it was our turn, the guard could only locate my mother’s and my name on the list of approved visitors. Bonnie’s name could not be found anywhere.

Perhaps Stanton Story had forgotten to submit it, the guard suggested.

No, Bonnie said. She had just spoken to him.

And the guard checked again, running his finger down one list and then another list, but her name still could not be found.

My mother, who in any other similar circumstance would have grown first irritated and then infuriated, remained courteous and patient. Her demeanor was an indication to me of how she understood that this missing name was no accident, and that she would most likely be able to find it there on the list, right there, if she were given the opportunity to see the list for herself. The guard was a white man, after all, and while we three might also be white, we had come here today for the sole purpose of helping a black man who had been found guilty of murdering a white man whose occupation was not unlike the occupation of this white man who now blocked our way. Nigger-lover is what Stanton Story’s first lawyer had been called when he would come meet his client. There were forces in this prison that could make things happen if they wanted to make them happen, make names appear and disappear, and make men disappear. Nothing was an accident, but rather the result of careful consideration whose outcome had already been determined. And it was our responsibility, the three of ours, to do everything we could to resist this fate on the behalf of a man who was somewhere behind these walls. Yet here my mother was smiling, nodding, standing like a supplicant, unable to pass by even this first guard.

So it was the second guard that my mother and Bonnie respectfully asked to see. And presently he arrived, where he led us to a room off to the side and asked us to wait while he went to confer with a third guard about this matter. In the privacy of this small room my mother and Bonnie didn’t say a word. I waited for their indignation to emerge, and since it didn’t emerge I assumed that we were being observed and that we were supposed to demonstrate how agreeable we were. And when the second guard finally returned, it was to tell us what we already knew, that Bonnie’s name had not been found anywhere and there was nothing more to be done. Bonnie accepted this, and she offered to stay and wait for my mother and me since we had no way of getting back home.

And after that, my mother and I returned to the guard, the first guard, who waved us past with ease. We emptied our pockets, putting everything into a locker, and then we walked through a metal detector that did not beep, and out into a noisy room, as big as a school cafeteria, filled with families who were surrounding men dressed in what looked like pajamas. Here my mother and I were once again asked to take a seat and wait, this time for the prisoner to be brought to us.

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sayrafiezadeh.2-100.jpgSaïd Sayrafiezadeh’s short stories and nonfiction have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Granta, The New York Times, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of a 2010 Whiting Writers’ Award, and the author of the critically acclaimed memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free, selected as one of the ten best books of 2009 by Dwight Garner of The New York Times.

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