Death Row Funeral

Mother’s Day has me reminiscing about my dear mother who passed away three years ago when I was in Vietnam. So even though this is a a few days late I feel like sharing this story of this amazing, strong woman who’s spirit reminds me each day to be my better self.

From What Would Bukowski Do? Volume One: Easter in Baltimore with Two Whores and other stories from the border of regret and consequences

Whenever I think of Michael Dukakis I remember Joseph Daugherty. The two are connected in my mind because on election day 1988 as I prepared to go out and work the polls for the Columbus, Ohio AFL-CIO I read in the USA Today that Joseph Daugherty was killed.

Daugherty was a convicted killer . He was innocent at least in the sense that his story sounded like so many others on death row. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and someone lost their life. Those who committed the crime were the perfect foils for an ambitious prosecutor and they turned on poor old Joe. It’s the way our system works; get the real bad guy to snitch on the poor sap and your campaign coffers are overflowing with blood money. Now I don’t know the truth and don’t wish to disrespect the victim and certainly don’t want to claim Joe was not a bad guy, but it seems to me that most criminals live by a higher code of ethics than most prosecutors.

Anyway, Daugherty was dead; electrocuted in Florida in Old Sparky; the chair whose next victim was Ted Bundy. So what does this all have to do with me? Well my mother wrote letters to inmates as an expression of her Christian faith. Its one of the few things Jesus said gets you a direct pass to Hell ‘I was in prison and you didn’t visit me, I was naked and you didn’t clothe me, I was hungry………..’ well you get the idea.

At the time I was living under the Reign of Darlene; Wife One and we lived under her parent’s roof. They didn’t understand me and, bless their hearts, I didn’t understand them. By the way ‘bless their hearts’ is a southern way of damning with faint praise. It’s the cruel pity wrapped in kindness.

I called my mother who told me his last phone call was to her. How many people can say that? It was chilling and somewhat moving. Abandoning my volunteer duties at the polls I went to find my wife who was shopping with her mother at Lazarus. That’s where she bought me the blue windbreaker I mentioned in a previous post about two Whores. I was pissed and sad and confused. Then I found out that he was from Michigan and my mother wanted to go to the funeral.

There was no rush. He was cremated. I mean he was already fried so it seemed a natural progression to finish the job and reduce him to ashes. My mother and brother arrived and stayed the night. Seeing my in-laws treat my family with such grace as we were to embark on this mission to pay our respects touched my heart. They must have thought we were crazy or at the very least seriously liberal.

Transporting my mother is a big job. She had a stroke when I was a teenager and had polio when she was a teenager. She’s always been frail. But get her on the phone with some killer Governor and the frailty isn’t apparent to that Governor to be sure. It was to be a one day trip, up early, memorialize poor old Joe Dougherty then back to the in-laws. We arrived at the church and were met by the pastor who let us in on his ruse. In order to keep the media away from the family; after all they did nothing wrong, the service was at a secret location.

We arrived at a tiny chapel to be greeted by Joe’s ex-wife and two kids. His estranged father was there and I’ll never see a sadder sight as long as I live. This man was the bitter tree the acorn didn’t fall far from. Yet it was the acorn that paid the price. My mother whispered to me to go comfort him but I was too young and shallow to know what to do. I’m ashamed I didn’t do as she asked and think of that conversation often. The person I am today would have offered him my flask and a smoke and led him on a short walk to let the poor fellow spill his guts.

The service was short and we returned to their home. Joe had a picture taken of himself in handcuffs as they led him to the chair. He wanted his son to know the price he paid and to learn from his fatal mistakes. The kids played, then mourned, then played again the way kids do at funerals. I can only imagine what that kid is doing today. I hope it isn’t twenty to life. I don’t want to know.

All I know is at that moment we were the only ones there out of love. When it was time to leave there wasn’t much to say. Sure you want to stay in touch and find some way to connect with his family. You know you won’t because you can’t. It’s just too great a burden and too complicated.

As I write this I recall the picture. A man determined to make a final expression of love to his son by exposing his shame. Jesus once said about the death penalty “Let you without sin throw the switch” or something to that effect. When you’ve quite literally got ‘skin in the game’ its no longer just a political issue. You may disagree with me and I readily admit I am not without sin. I will always believe that Joe’s children were without sin yet it left the Mark of Cain on their lives. When you’ve got that kind of rap sheet as a child where do you go for pardon? It makes me sad and angry. I know it’s early but I’m going to throw one back and think of Joseph Daugherty and his family. I’ve never been more proud of my family than on that day and I’m glad we made that journey.

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