Remembering Bob Redd

Remembering Bob Redd
By Steve Clemens 2/29/04

What would lead my wife and me to take our 3-year old toddler and our infant son to Death Row? Why did my wife go to the Goodwill store to buy bracelets to wear to the prison? What led us to drive 2 ½ hours several times a year for nearly 10 years and to do research in an Atlanta library for hours on an old murder case from the 1970’s? The answer to all the above is Bob Redd.

After attending a Fellowship of Reconciliation conference at Berea College in 1980 and being convicted by Will Campbell to follow “one of the few direct commands by Jesus in the Bible” (to visit those in prison), I sat with Murphy Davis and her infant daughter, Hannah, on the long bus ride back to Georgia. I asked Murphy how I should go about this new challenge. She told me that when she got back to Atlanta, she’d send me the name of someone on Death Row to whom I could write. The name she sent to me at my Koinonia address was Bob Redd. So I began to write and received letters in return. After a few months, I was told Bob was being moved to a newly constructed prison in Jackson where all Death Row prisoners would now be [ware]housed.

I discovered that as the result of a lawsuit, prisoners who had not received a visit from a family member over a period of time could add other non-relatives to their visiting list. Bob had written and asked if I was willing to drive up to Jackson on a Saturday to meet and visit with him. It must be said that I was more than a little nervous and apprehensive as I walked down the long corridor, climbed the stairs, emptied my pockets, and walked through the metal detector after signing in and handing over my car keys, driver’s license, and license plate number. I was even more nervous after they called Bob’s name and proceeded to lock me in a long narrow room divided with a metal screen down the center, lengthwise. I supposed Bob would be brought to the other side and we’d talk through the protective barrier. But the door was unlocked on my side and a short white man dressed in white pants and a white denim shirt entered before the door was relocked with just the two of us inside. Hopefully, this was the man who had written those friendly letters - the same man I discovered later who had brutally beaten another man to death with a tire iron!

That first visit lasted about an hour. I learned that Bob had married and had fathered five sons. Tearfully, Bob told me that they had never come to visit him at the prison. His ex-wife was also now in jail and his mother was in poor health and was rarely able to visit because of the stress the visits caused her weak heart. I discovered that the flowerily handwriting on the letters I had received was not Bob’s. Bob had never learned to read or write. (His trial records included the fact that his IQ was in the range that classified him as “mentally retarded” but that fact was never brought up in his trial by his defense lawyer.). Bob told me that the inmate in the adjoining cell read him my letters and then wrote what Bob had asked him to write in response.

After visiting with Bob over several years, he asked if I would bring my wife, Christine, with me to visit him. She came along and we saw how pleased Bob was that she had made the effort. After our son Micah was born in 1983, Bob pleaded with me to bring him as well so he could meet him. After all, Bob’s sons had never come to see him and that really hurt him. It was not an easy decision to bring one’s only child for a visit on Death Row. But we saw how much it would mean to Bob and we hesitantly decided to take a chance. On our way home after the visit, Christine and I both cried, overwhelmed at the love and joy Bob bestowed on that infant. Needless to say, when Zach was born, both boys had to travel with us on our journeys to the prison at Jackson.

The prison didn’t make visits with children very easy. We were not allowed to take any food or toys into the visiting room. Even cloth diapers couldn’t come in because of the sharp metal diaper pins so we purchased disposable diapers just for our visits. Fortunately Christine was breastfeeding the infant so food didn’t become an issue. It was Bob who asked Christine to wear bracelets when she came and told us to bring kerchiefs as well. Both were somehow allowed into the visiting room and Bob twirled and knotted the kerchiefs into a ball to play “catch” with the boys. The bracelets quickly became spinning tops or were rolled the length of the room for the boys to chase- to their, and Bob’s, delight. Bob taught us that a person capable of a drunken, murderous attack was also the same person capable of love and tenderness. It was a humbling lesson I’ll never forget.

Bob was scared on Death Row. He told me he was afraid of others on his cell block, especially the “black inmates”. [It took me several years before I found out who wrote his letters to me for him. It was Marcus, an African-American who was his “best friend”. In Bob’s mind, Marcus wasn’t a “threat”, he was just Marcus!] To cope with his fears, Bob developed a habit of swallowing metal objects – Coke cans, bed springs, needles … in order to be sent to the hospital, thus “escaping” Death Row. With his limited mental capacity, it was his way of trying to deal with the pressures of his confinement. In the winter of 1990, I received word from Marcus that Bob was once again in the hospital and it “didn’t look good.” After a few days, I was told that Bob’s infection had taken his life.

Christine and I had met Bob’s mother, Louise, several times at her trailer home. I joined her, a few family members, and a volunteer lawyer from New Jersey who had kept Bob alive over the years with appeals as we laid Bob to rest. Ironically, the State of Georgia passed legislation within six months of Bob’s death which would have spared his life: no more would the state execute prisoners who were “mentally retarded”.

Visiting Bob was a blessing to me. He challenged my stereotypes and forced me to see his humanity and dignity. My sons remember Bob as a gentle man who played with them and exuded joy at their existence. Thank you, Bob, for being Christ to me and my family. May you rest in God’s peace.

Conscientious Objection and Jury Duty.

Conscientious Objection and Jury Duty
By Steve Clemens 2/29/04

When I registered for the military draft in 1968, the US war on the people of Vietnam was approaching its most brutal phase. Although my college (Wheaton College) had mandated that all male students be enrolled in ROTC, it wasn’t until I stared over the barrel of my rifle on the target range that I realized the target I was aiming at was not as it appeared: the circular target in front of me morphed in my mind to the figure of the “Viet Cong”. My father’s voice echoed in the back of my mind, “Never point your gun at anything you don’t intend to kill.” Setting the gun down, I knew that Jesus’ call to “love my enemies” required me to register as a conscientious objector.

In the 1980’s, I received a summons to report for jury duty in Sumter County, GA. This was somewhat surprising as the practice for many years in that county was to automatically disqualify members of the Koinonia community from serving as jurors. The judicial officials routinely decided that Koinonia folk weren’t the kind of people they wanted to decide the fate of those accused of violating the law. Having experienced city and county jails and federal prison as a result of nonviolent witness against the Vietnam War and our manufacture of nuclear weapons, I knew first-hand that our penal system was racist and dehumanizing. I had experienced that the “corrections” system not only did not “correct”, it was a dysfunctional place that had created more embittered alumni once someone graduated from those concertina-wired warehouses we call jail or prison.

Recalling my Mennonite-Anabaptist heritage as well as the history of the Early Church, I was skeptical of participating in a system which could condemn others to a place I knew to be alienating and inhumane. I decided that my desire to follow the way of Jesus had led me to be a “conscientious objector” to jury duty. When I was included in the jury pool for my first potential trial, the Judge asked if there was anyone who could not serve in an impartial manner. I raised my hand and stood in the midst of 40 or so other potential jurors. “Unless I am given assurance that a jail or prison sentence will not be considered as a result of this case, I will not find the defendant guilty. I have served time in our prison system and have found it to be profoundly dehumanizing and as a Christian I cannot agree to convict anyone to jail until or unless the systems of jails and prisons are changed and prisoners are treated in a way that respects their humanity,” I stated.

Needless to say, I was not chosen for that jury. I assumed that the prosecutor would excuse me from service for the balance of the week but he did not want to let me “off the hook”. So, I was able to confess my convictions before my fellow citizens twice more that week. Hopefully my testimony to the call of Christ did not fall on hard soil. Hopefully some of the other potential jurors were able to reflect on our responsibility to withdraw consent from this wicked system.

I have not been called again to serve on a jury but I have continued to find myself hauled before judges and juries and into jail because of my desire to follow the call of Jesus to be a peacemaker. Relating to new-found friends “inside” has been easier knowing that I’ve refused to send others there.