The Juror and the Convict
Lynne Harriton was the jury foreman at Andre Smith’s trial in the Carnegie Deli murder case. Now she’s his closest friend.
The Village Voice | June 28, 2005
IN THE DAYS AFTER THE TRIAL ENDED, Lynne Harriton could not stop thinking about the man she’d convicted of murder. Her cheeks had been wet with tears when she announced the verdict in court on June 18, 2002. Afterward, she had returned to her job teaching English at a New York City public high school, but in her mind the trial would not end. She kept replaying scenes from it, and worrying about the fate of the young man she had found guilty.
One year earlier, the crime had been front-page news, dubbed the “Carnegie Deli Massacre” by the tabloids. On the evening of May 10, 2001, two men had visited Jennifer Stahl, a former actress who sold marijuana from her apartment above the Carnegie Deli. By the time they walked out, Jennifer had a bullet hole in her forehead. Four friends of hers lay on the living room carpet, facedown, wrists and ankles bound with duct tape, each shot once in the back of the head. Two survived; Jennifer and two others did not.
The police named Andre Smith, 31, and Sean Salley, 29, as suspects in this triple homicide. Andre walked into the Midtown North station house 10 days later and denied any involvement. After cops grilled him for hours, he changed his story, admitting he’d gone to Jennifer’s apartment to steal marijuana. He insisted that Sean Salley—whom he’d met a few days earlier—had shot all five people. It took cops nine weeks to track down Sean, who was hiding out in a homeless shelter in Miami.
Andre and Sean went on trial together with two juries; Lynne was the foreman of Andre’s jury. She believed Andre had told the truth about not firing the gun. Indeed, even the prosecutor had stated during his closing statement that Sean had shot all five people. But Andre’s jurors were not supposed to determine whether he’d shot anyone—only if he’d committed (or tried to commit) a robbery that caused a death. If the answer was yes, then he was guilty of murder. That is how the law works.
Lynne had no doubt that Andre was technically guilty; her concern was with the punishment he was about to receive. She thought he deserved 25 or 30 years in prison—a substantial amount of time, but fewer years than Sean. Reading the news coverage after the verdict, she began to worry that Andre would have to spend the rest of his life behind bars.
She sat down in front of her computer.
Dear Judge Berkman,
I write to beg you to show leniency in your sentencing of Mr. Smith. . . . Mr. Smith was not the gunman. He is not himself a killer. Information revealed by the state during the trial indicates that he was shocked and horrified by the actions of the gunman, that he felt remorse, sadness and shame. Please, Judge Berkman, you consistently showed such kindness and warmth to us. Could you afford this person some years of light at the end of his life?
Lynne sent the letter to the judge, the prosecutors, Andre’s lawyers, and Andre. Then she went to Austria to take summer courses.
On July 29, 2002, Judge Berkman sentenced both Andre and Sean to the same amount of prison time: 120 years to life. This included 25 to life for each murder, plus additional years for robbery and gun possession. The judge gave them the maximum punishment by stipulating that the sentences run one after another rather than concurrently.
Lynne was still in Austria when she opened an e-mail from one of Andre’s lawyers and learned about his sentence. Immediately her stomach began to hurt and her hands felt clammy. The next day she found herself leaning over the toilet bowl, her body racked by dry heaves.
Soon a sense of rage started to take over—rage at the judge and the prosecutors. “There’s a difference between pulling a trigger five times and not pulling a trigger even once,” she says. “I had the feeling that I had participated in something that was wrong. Can you imagine walking out of there after five weeks and feeling like there’s a stain on your soul? I felt like, how could I rectify this? How was I going to help?”
After she got home in mid August, she received an envelope from one of Andre’s lawyers, with a letter from Andre, who was still at the Queens House of Detention. At the time, Lynne had no way of knowing what sort of role the man she had convicted of murder would come to play in her life—and what sort of role she would play in his. Back then, three years ago, she never could have imagined that someday she would become Andre Smith’s closest friend.
ANDRE’S TWO LAWYERS, both from Legal Aid, had employed a mistaken-identity defense during the trial, claiming the police had arrested the wrong guy. It was a tough argument to make since the prosecutors had a signed confession from Andre, his fingerprint on a piece of duct tape, a surveillance video, and eyewitness testimony from the two surviving victims.
Despite his conviction, Andre insisted in his first letter to Lynne that he was an “innocent man.” He complained that even if the judge had given him just 25 years, he’d still be stuck behind bars for the rest of his life. Lynne disagreed.
Dear Mr. Smith—or may I call you Andre?
I’ve worked with many troubled and/or disadvantaged young people and I always saw you as someone who could have passed through my classroom a few years ago—and as someone I would have tried to “reach” . . .
I don’t see you as completely innocent in this situation, but I don’t see you as a murderer either. It was easy to see that it was you on the video. You have to remember that I sat there and looked at you all day long 3 days a week for 5 weeks. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at anyone that much in my life. I was familiar with the indents in your forehead, the size of your ears, the width of your neck, the slope of your shoulders, the way you move. There’s more. The shape of your hairline, the far-apartness of your eyes. . . . I knew it was you. But I also knew you weren’t the killer.
You said in your letter that even a concurrent sentence would have put you in jail for 25 years. It is true, it would have. And I think if I was 31, that 25 years would seem the same as 120. But I’m not 31—and I can see perhaps more clearly than you what a difference that would have made. I’m 50—I’ll be 51 in November. And in no way do I feel that my life is over. Even in 5 years when I’m 56, I will still have 25-30 years ahead of me full of plans and ideas and passions and travel and sunshine and laziness and mud between my toes . . . (or sand, or grass . . . )
So, this is what I was hoping for you. I know it doesn’t seem like much, compared to what no jail would be, but I don’t know what to say about that. I wish my contribution would have helped you get those 25 years. I think you deserved at least that. I feel that I was used by the political system. I wish there was something I had done differently that would have changed the outcome. Logically I know this was not my fault, but I still feel very sad. And I want to offer you some friendship.
I’d like to know about your childhood, your children, your life & your previous dreams for it, about where you are now, what it’s like—your thoughts about anything, I guess. . . . I want to encourage you to write. Reach for the right words—try to describe your world. I don’t know why, but writing helps. It always helps. I will send a dictionary and a thesaurus if you would like. . . . Again, I look forward to hearing from you. I really do.
A few weeks later, Lynne received a letter from Downstate Correctional Facility, the first stop for men entering the New York State prison system.
Care to take a journey into my world—August 27, ‘02. The day I depart from NYC to prison, 4:30 a.m. I was awoken by the sounds of keys singing and an officer opening up my cell bars telling me, “Pack it up, you’re headed upstate.” 5 o’clock. A captain escorts me downstairs. I go into a holding pen where I am fed breakfast, four slices of bread, one milk and oatmeal cereal. 5:30 a.m. Finger printed, mugshot, handcuffed, and put on a city correction shuttle bus to Rikers Island to be put on another bus. This time it so happens to be [with] a tribe of individuals cuffed and shackled going to the same location as me, the lost world.
While traveling through the interstate, I gazed out the window, soaking up the magnificent view of cars passing by, trees looking so beautiful and calm grass freshly green, animals attending to everyday nature activities. A sight I will no longer [be] able to enjoy unless I view it from a television screen. . . .
One hour has lapsed, the gate finally starts to open, the bus pulls into its loading dock, the sound of the engine shuts off and the gates slowly shut. One by one the cuffs and shackles are removed and we are told to step into a huge holding cell occupied with a toilet and sink. Numerous officers approach. “Turn around, place your hands on the walls, and spread your legs out open.” All your clothing has to go either in the trash or [be] sent home, however, you are allowed to keep all legal work and religious articles.
A doctor/nurse comes and asks you questions about your medical history. After questioning, you step back into the holding cell. You are fed, given a shower, haircut, and shave, issued state greens with boots and tennis shoes, assigned a housing unit along with a cell, locked in until the next day.
7:00 AM the next day begins with a stand-up count, fully dressed standing by your cell, served breakfast in the mess hall, off for more testing, medical, TB, chest X-rays, eye examination, shots, etc. Back to your housing area, locked in til chow, the same thing continues, more testing education this time, talk to a counselor who tells you your classification level, back to your cell.
There you have it—some insight on what happens when you enter prison reception. . . .
Lynne: You write beautifully. Your descriptions are completely involving—I can see through your pen. I have been teaching for 10 years; few of my students have that sense of writing, that ability to enable me to see—and to hear their voices as I could hear yours. Your descriptions are really vivid—you move from observations to thoughts and back to observations again really skillfully. You use sound descriptions as well as visual. . . . You can’t teach this! I hope you are writing every day.
LYNNE HAD NEVER BEEN ONE to believe in fate, but there were so many coincidences with this case that she imagined they were signs telling her to stay involved. The crime had occurred in her neighborhood, just two blocks from her home; she’d been the very first person picked for Andre’s jury; after the trial, she’d discovered that the mother of one of her students was a close friend of Jennifer Stahl; and she had learned that one of her neighbors used to buy pot from Jennifer.
Throughout the fall and into the winter, letters traveled back and forth between Lynne and Andre.
Lynne: Let me tell you a little bit about myself. Oddly, I live on West 55th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, not far from the Carnegie Deli. I have lived here for 26 years. I have a 2-bedroom apartment. . . . I’m an identical twin and my sister is an assistant principal at a high school in Brooklyn. We grew up in Pennsylvania—near Delaware Water Gap, and our parents still live out there. I am very lucky that they are still alive and still together.
Andre: My childhood was basically normal besides both my parents were not actually there. My brother and I were raised by our grandmother. She was a wonderful lady, who didn’t tolerate no mess from us or others. She was strict as hell. . . . I don’t care if you were someone else’s child, she’ll chastise you as well, so children in our neighborhood who knew Ms. Freida did not give her back talk.
Fifty years before Andre was incarcerated for the Carnegie Deli murders, his own mother was born in a New Jersey prison. That was in 1952, when his grandmother Freida was 17 and serving time for “incorrigibility.” Two decades later, Freida took custody of Andre and his brother Tyrone, raising them in an apartment in Newark. She never talked about her time in prison, but she always preached the importance of staying out of trouble. She attended classes at Essex County College and paid the rent by doing maintenance work at the local courthouse.
Andre occasionally saw his mother, but he didn’t call her Mom or Ma. Instead, he called her Sharon or sometimes just Sha. She seemed more like a sister than a mother. He never saw her shoot heroin, but he knew she was an addict. He also knew she supported herself by shoplifting; her favorite loot was $100 dresses from department stores in Manhattan. “Why are you doing that?” he asked one day, when they went to Macy’s and she started shoving clothes into bags.
His childhood memories include spending time with her in a jail visiting room on Rikers Island and tagging along when she went to her methadone clinic in the Village. When Andre was a teenager, she began showing the symptoms of AIDS; he started bringing her to emergency rooms whenever her condition worsened. By the end of 1989, Freida was sick, too. She’d suffered a stroke and a heart attack. Andre spent his days shuttling between two hospitals—one in Newark, the other in Union City—to visit his mother and grandmother.
His mother died at the end of 1989 at age 37. Six weeks later, his grandmother died too. She was 55. For both of them, Andre helped make the funeral arrangements and pick out the caskets. At the time, he was 19.
By then Andre already had a rap sheet. He’d been selling marijuana and cocaine for a few years, even though he knew his grandmother did not approve. At one point, she’d even refused to give him and his brother Christmas presents. “Since y’all are going to sell that poison, buy your own gifts,” she’d said.
In 1990, five months after Freida’s death, Andre was arrested and charged with cocaine possession. While this case was pending, he got arrested again; this time police said he had 140 vials of crack. He pleaded guilty in both cases and spent a total of 20 months in a New Jersey prison. He was released on parole in the spring of 1993.
Two months later, he stuck up a coke dealer in Washington Heights with a .38-caliber semiautomatic pistol. Nobody was injured. Andre spent three years in a New York prison, then four more years in a New Jersey prison for violating his parole.
At one point, he and his brother were in the same medium-security facility in Camden. (Tyrone was serving time for manslaughter.) According to Andre, the two shared a prison cell for seven or eight months.
Lynne: You write with such sensitivity about your grandmother, this woman who worked so hard to raise you right. And she produced a young man who respects her values and appreciates her efforts totally (you). Yet something went wrong. Can you put your finger on it—when, where, what happened? What was going on that you dropped out of school in the eleventh grade? Something must have been appealing to you, tugging you toward another direction.
Andre: The fast money I made went to my head. Stopped listening to my grandmother. Eventually I went to live with my aunt, went back to school, but Newark kept calling me back (the block). Needed money to keep up with the others. We wanted to be like the other kids in our neighborhood—sneakers, jeans, leather hip-hop coats.
Andre left prison in the beginning of 2000, and this time he decided to go straight. By now he was 28 and had four children—ages 13, 12, 12, and eight—with three different women. He moved in with his girlfriend Keasha and their eight-year-old son in Irvington, New Jersey. He’d earned his high school equivalency diploma in prison, and now he enrolled in a technical school, where he took classes in accounting, business math, and spreadsheet management.
Over the next year, he held several low-wage jobs: security guard in a Newark homeless shelter, dishwasher in a Maplewood retirement home, forklift operator in a warehouse. To make extra money, he worked weekends selling hot dogs from a cart he parked in front of a barbershop. He also tried to be a good father and spent a lot of time with his children, taking them roller-skating and to the movies.
Despite his good intentions, Andre continued to find trouble. He hung out with friends he’d met in prison. He got arrested twice for drug possession. He got shot in the leg. Then, on January 1, 2001, he slipped on an icy sidewalk and broke his femur. He had to have a rod inserted in his leg and could no longer push his hot dog cart around. Making a living suddenly became much more difficult.
In February 2001, Keasha gave birth to his fifth child, DéAndre. Andre continued to go to school and was on track to graduate in June. In May, he applied for a job with a hazmat cleanup crew. He doubted he would get the job because he heard another applicant had more experience. While he was waiting to find out if he’d been hired, he agreed to participate in one more robbery.
His decision would ultimately end three people’s lives and destroy many more, including his own.
ANDRE [NOW IN CLINTON PRISON]: Hold up. I see a roach crawling on the wall. Gotta get it outta my cell. Those things give me the creeps. Birds are incarcerated here also. They fly back and forth. A lot of people feed the birds. You can see them zooming by. They’re probably playing, but if they had realized they are in prison, off they would be. Right now I wish I had wings. Fly right up out of this hell hole.
Lynne: I am sitting in Central Park on a bench in a little enclosure (where the free concerts are in the summer). It is the first beautiful day in a long time. Light breeze, golden sunlight, maybe 70 degrees. Young men throwing footballs, dogs padding about, clumps of people everywhere with their grateful faces to the sun. The earth is still brown, no buds on the trees, but it’s the kind of day where you know, finally, that all of this will change. There’s a little toddler, arms open, stumbling towards a dog laughing. Like your little boy, I bet.
IT HAD BEEN SEAN SALLEY’S IDEA to rob Jennifer Stahl. Sean, who had once been a roadie for George Clinton, met Jennifer a few years earlier through contacts in the music industry. A mutual friend introduced Andre to Sean, and Sean told him about Jennifer’s pot operation. On the evening of May 9, Andre and Sean checked out their target, paying a visit to Jennifer’s apartment. The next night, Andre picked up Sean, and they returned to the apartment once again.
The plan was to get in and out quickly—and to make some easy money. Andre pulled a .38-caliber revolver out of his pants and ordered everyone onto the floor. While Sean duct-taped Jennifer’s friends, Andre went into a side room with Jennifer and ordered her to hand over her marijuana and money. She filled a backpack with $1,000 and three ounces of marijuana.
Andre returned to the living room and took over the taping from Sean. Soon Sean got possession of the gun. (Andre says he put the revolver on the floor and Sean picked it up; the prosecutor said Andre handed it to Sean.) Revolver in hand, Sean returned with Jennifer to the side room. Moments later, he pulled the trigger.
“What the **** you do that for?” Andre shouted. He grabbed the backpack and hurried to the door. As he fumbled with the locks, he heard more shots. Looking back, he watched Sean fire again. Sean had shot each person once in the back of the head. Andre yanked the door open and they fled down five flights of stairs. A surveillance camera in the stairwell captured their escape—and showed that they’d been in the apartment for only six minutes.
When Lynne thinks about these minutes—and about Andre’s role in the homicides—she often thinks about Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
I want to tell you a little about the Holocaust. . . .
What happened in the Holocaust did not happen as much because of the evil of the Nazis as people would like to believe. The Holocaust happened because for years the German people did nothing to stop them. Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 and started making laws—laws that fired Jewish university professors, postal workers, lawyers, pharmacists. Laws that said Jews couldn’t go to parks, go swimming, attend public schools, on and on.
By 1939, the Nazis were a monstrous machine—and the Jews were being shipped to slave labor camps (that by 1941 had become death camps) in Poland. Later on, when the war was over in 1945, the German people had to look back and see what they had done. Here was all this proof—gas chambers, crematoria, camps piled high with bodies of starved people. “What had they done?” the German people asked themselves. “But we didn’t do anything! We did nothing. Why are you blaming us?”
When bad things happen, there are 4 categories people can fall into. They can be victims. They can be perpetrators, they can be bystanders—or they can be rescuers. The role of the bystander is what the Germans in WWII forced everyone to think about.
When bad things happen, simply not participating is not enough. Bystanding is not a neutral position. By going about their daily business, they let the Nazis take over.
In a wrenching process of recognition, they looked at their reasons for looking the other way. Certainly not every German person, but many went over what they didn’t do, what they could have done. And they said, “We, the German people, accept responsibility for the Holocaust. If we had acted otherwise, there is no way this would have happened.” And they paid. They are still paying.
So the question of guilt becomes more complicated.
Andre, can you make any correlations between this situation and your own?
I think it is terribly important. Put yourself in the role of the German people, Sean Salley in the role of the Nazis and the 5 young people in that apartment as the Jews.
What do you come up with? Match the people to those roles—perpetrator, victim, bystander, rescuer. Where does everyone fit?
What does this make you think about? Write to me as you do this.
Andre often wrote to Lynne about his crime, but he did not immediately follow her instructions. Lynne, meanwhile, continued to use the Holocaust to try to prod him into taking more responsibility.
Andre: I never ever wanted to be a part of a heinous cowardly crime. I am not an angel nor a bad guy. I know I don’t deserve 120 years just as well as those people didn’t deserve to die . . .
Lynne: I think you are totally right when you say you are neither an angel nor a bad guy—you are like all of us. But at that crucial moment, only an angel would do. . . . To wrestle the gun from Sean’s hand, or to stay and help the victims as Sean fled down the stairs, or to run straight to the police station. This and only this would have made the difference. And this and nothing less is what the judge seems to have been asking for.
Lynne’s mother grew up in Düsseldorf, Germany, then fled from the Nazis and came to New York in 1938. In 1997, Lynne discovered that her mother’s family is related to Peter van Pels, the teenager whom Anne Frank fell in love with (and wrote about) while she was in hiding. He died at a concentration camp in Austria in 1945. Learning of her family’s connection to van Pels fueled Lynne’s interest in the Holocaust. She read dozens of books on the topic and visited Majdanek, Auschwitz, and Treblinka. In recent years, she has used the Holocaust in her classroom to teach 10th-graders about morality and ethics.
The Holocaust was the prism through which she saw not only Andre’s crime, but also her own involvement in his life. A “bystander” might have felt badly about how long his sentence was, then moved on; a “rescuer” would stay involved, trying to do what she could to remedy the situation.
WHEN ANDRE FINALLY DID ADDRESS the concept of the “bystander,” it seemed Lynne’s Holocaust paradigm made little sense to him. I reread it several times, trying to put myself in their shoes (the Germans) but I can’t. My situation is totally opposite. What happened was done because one wanted it to. That’s the way I see it.
The “one” was Sean Salley. More than two years after the crime, Andre was still obsessed with Sean, still enraged about how Sean’s actions had affected his life.
I had a dream about that piece of **** (S.S.) who ruins lives. In my dream, he was wearing a clown outfit, laughing at me, saying, “I took you down with me.” Instantly I reacted by grabbing that nigga around his mutha ****ing neck and choking him. He continued to laugh at me and repeat the above words over and over again. Next thing I know he vanished. I awoke to find myself angry, in a cage. It was difficult for me to go back to sleep, so I just sat up on the bed and started to rock back and forth. After damn near rocking for half an hour in rage, I rocked myself back to sleep.
Lynne: Listen. You’re wasting your time with all that fury at Sean Salley. . . . Why do you do this? Just hate Sean? It’s like you are allowing your hatred of him to act as a shield from the more complicated realities of the case. . . . If Sean had gone alone, would he have been able to have accomplished this armed robbery? Would those three people be dead?
In the fall of 2003, 15 months after their correspondence began, Lynne saw her work start to pay off.
Andre: Every single god damn day in my prayers I sincerely ask the creator of the heaven and earth to please forgive me for being with a stupid ass nigga who killed people. I also take responsibility because if I would’ve never went, regardless of why, those people would probably still be alive. I blame myself for going with someone I knew nothing about.
NOBODY CAME TO VISIT Andre at Clinton prison, which is in Dannemora, a few miles from the Canadian border. At first, he received letters from many people: Lynne, Keasha, the other two mothers of his children, an aunt, a cousin, a few friends, his brother, and the social worker from Legal Aid who’d worked on his case. To stay in touch with his children, he used the mail and the phone. One day, DéAndre, now two and a half, recited his ABC’s and the numbers one through 20. Andre shared the news with Lynne: I gave him plenty of kisses, Y-e-a-h-s through the receiver.
Andre likened his predicament to the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray lives the same day over and over again.
Today is just another beautiful day for me to be stuck inside a cage. I’m actually debating on what I should do with myself, either do my laundry, read a book, practice on my crochet, flick through my photo album, clean up the cage again, brush my teeth for the third time today, play the yard, run somebody’s phone bill up, or just relax and go to sleep . . .
Andre’s prison routine also included visiting the law library, playing cards, studying the Koran, and praying five times a day. With money from two ex-girlfriends, he got a black-and-white television for his cell. Lynne sent him books: Black Boy, Native Son, The Color of Water, Push, Crime and Punishment. Andre read all of them, except Crime and Punishment.
Andre did not have his freedom, of course, but he had one thing that Lynne did not: time. He sent her a letter every week or two, trying to write slowly in order to postpone the inevitable realization that he didn’t have much else to do. Lynne was the opposite, scribbling as fast as she could. She carried a half-written letter in her bag at all times, pulling it out to add a paragraph or two whenever she had a few minutes. Finishing one letter could take her four or five weeks.
While Lynne often wrote about the future—about holiday plans, an upcoming trip—for Andre the past was a much more pleasant subject. It was the everyday activities he missed the most, like shopping at Pathmark with his girlfriend. The store would be packed with people, [the] lines to reach the cashier long. Keasha used to be in a different aisle, searching for a particular item. I used to yell real loud across the floor, “Babe I love you, will you marry me?” Everyone in the store would stop [and] look in her direction.
On Saturday mornings at the laundromat: I enjoyed doing it, removing clothes from this machine to that machine, folding my newborn’s clothing as well as his brother’s. The females would come up to me, saying, “Damn, I know your girl is proud to have you,” as they watched me fold some woman’s panties and bra, putting them on a pile with the others. I laugh and cry inside now because I wash my clothing out of a dishpan I bought off commissary.
Andre got a job in the prison tailor shop, sewing green uniform shirts for other inmates. Lynne, meanwhile, was still teaching English at an alternative high school in Queens. She confided in Andre about her frustrations—inadequate computers, tensions with her boss, $150 stolen from her by her students.
Lynne: It’s been a tough couple of weeks. Somehow, magically, I lost ALL my good students and they put in these jokers who had probably been in the hallways and therefore hadn’t chosen an elective. Class now dominated by these out-of-control infantile basket cases. The few kids who were properly placed in the class took one look at the parade of jokers entering the room and were insulted, demanding to be taken out.
Andre: Hey, unfortunately it’s too damn bad that you cannot save the world. I thought you knew that by now, silly. Select those who are willing to be taught and sprinkle knowledge in their surrendering minds. Never know—the others might tend to participate.
EVENTUALLY ANDRE FOUND a new way to start his letters. In the beginning, he’d written “Dear Ms. Harriton,” then changed to “Dear Ms. Lynne.” Now he wrote “Dear Ma.” Lynne, who is single and doesn’t have children, loved the title—and embraced the role. She sent Andre a pair of winter boots, corrected his grammar, praised his best sentences, and sent him Christmas and birthday cards that he could mail to his kids. She gave him parenting advice, telling him to read the same books his children read in school, then discuss the books with them over the phone. And she sent him chocolate bars she’d picked up on a trip to Germany.
I was thinking that good chocolate is so heavenly that if you got some of the best chocolates in the world every month, you’d have seconds, minutes of pure bliss, pure freedom—like Lindt or Godiva or Belgian chocolate. When I eat good chocolate (not Hershey’s) I shut my eyes and little balloons of delight go off in my head.
On February 9, 2004, Andre transferred to Green Haven prison in Dutchess County, a 90-minute drive from midtown Manhattan. Shortly after, on Memorial Day weekend, Lynne visited. It was the first time she’d ever stepped inside a prison. They talked nonstop for four hours.
Ma, when I had approached the visiting room at first, I had butterflies all inside my stomach not knowing what to expect from a lady who seems to envision hope for me better than I do. Well, once we started kickin’ it (talking), the butterflies had disappeared and I instantly felt relaxed. . . . I must say this before I go any further and that is you’re a WONDERFUL lady.
Lynne: How grateful I am that you see and appreciate who I am. . . . Listen. I am NEVER giving up on you. Never. Do you understand? And I don’t want to have to explain it. That’s it. That’s the way it is. And anyone who wants to be part of my life is going to have to understand. How? When I don’t want to explain? Ha. I don’t know. Til later, then, my dear friend. I have to rejoin the land of the brittle.
ANDRE TURNED 34 YEARS OLD in February 2005. Despite his young age, the prospect of dying never drifts far from his mind. He worries about losing contact with his friends—and about being buried on prison grounds someday with all the other inmates who have nobody to claim their body. He told Lynne that if he died before her, he wanted her to make sure he had a proper Islamic burial.
Andre: It’s better knowing you’ll die in jail sooner than later. I’m actually prepared to die now. The only reason I’m not dead now is because a person who kills themselves without a cause is surely doomed to go straight to hell.
Lynne: Please don’t do anything stupid—like put your life in danger in unnecessary confrontations or committing suicide.
In early 2005, Andre put in a request to transfer to a prison north of Albany. It was a trade-off: He’d get fewer visits if he moved farther away, but he would be able to have a television in his cell—which he wasn’t permitted at Green Haven. Lynne saw this as a sign that he was giving up; she worried he’d retreat into his cell and cut himself off from the outside world.
Lynne thought she had a better idea. She’d read a story in The New York Times Magazine about a college program for inmates at Eastern prison, run by Bard College. She clipped the story and mailed it to Andre. You cannot leave Green Haven unless it is to switch to Eastern where you can pursue a college education. Period. Rescind your move request.
Andre is not eligible for parole until 2112. He will only get out of prison if some sort of miracle occurs—if his appeals lawyer wins a substantial sentence reduction, or the law about felony murder changes. Despite the seemingly impossible odds, Lynne remains hopeful that maybe the law will be changed and Andre will be released in 25 or 30 years. A few months ago, she decided to try to track down the rest of his jurors in the hopes of perhaps enlisting their support. So far she’s spoken with four, but has not convinced them to join her cause.
WHEN LYNNE GOES TO COSTCO nowadays, she shops for two, buying extra food for Andre—cans of boneless salmon, sardines, tuna, chicken, plus trail mix and whatever else she thinks the prison guards might allow in. Andre receives less mail from friends and relatives than he did when he was first locked up; Lynne is now his strongest connection to the outside world. Every month, he calls her on the phone and sends her a few letters. If he doesn’t hear from her for a month or two, he pleads with her to hurry. I know you have a life to live but try to squeeze me in there somewhere p-l-e-a-s-e, letter wise. I miss reading your thoughts.
On Sunday, May 22, 2005—three years after she was picked to be the foreman of his jury—Lynne made her fifth trip to Green Haven. She brought a bag of canned goods plus several chocolate bars she’d picked up on a recent trip to Spain. In the visiting room, the two spoke for nearly two hours, covering all the usual topics: his children, her job, his request for a transfer. She tried to convince him to apply to Eastern’s college program, but he didn’t make any promises.
The visit ended with a long embrace, and as they parted, she looked even more upset than he did. “Please be happy,” he said. “If you’re sad it’s even harder on me.”
TWO DAYS LATER, Lynne sat down in front of her computer once again.
I know you think my optimism is unrealistic. It may be, but what else do we have? It keeps me working and as yet I’ve seen no reason to give up. . . . Please start to imagine what going to college would be like, what you’d learn, how you’d grow as a person who is still alive in this life, how your interests would expand, and how your kids would see this and expect it for themselves . . .
I promise to have more fun and to live life more joyfully if you will promise to keep the idea of a real, top-notch college education (which Bard would provide) alive in your mind, alive like a flower, alive like the sunlight, alive like all the memories of all the places your children will one day go and where you will accompany them through the power of language . . . and maybe in actuality, as the law that put you away could, should, be changed. . . .
See you next week.
My love to you,
Ma (aka Lynne)