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.