I stared out the window as the commercial jetliner banked into its final approach into Cleveland. A flash of lightning followed by stomach-twisting turbulence forced involuntary screams from a few passengers. I hoped the plane would crash. Even the continuous flow of alcohol no longer numbed the crushing guilt of the terrible secret I carried.
Forty minutes after touching down, I turned my car onto Priday Avenue. A light drizzle and the haze from the booze caused me to squint at the car parked on the corner across from the stop sign. A police car. I came to a complete stop then counted to three before continuing through the intersection. The police car followed me. When I pulled into my driveway, flashing lights erupted in my rearview mirror.
“I can’t believe it,” I said, pounding the steering wheel. “He’s gonna get me for a DUI, and I didn’t do anything wrong.”
I stepped out of the car and walked toward the cruiser, hoping to talk my way out of the ticket. When I got within a few feet of the vehicle, the door swung open. The barrel of a shotgun swung out of the dark and pressed against my forehead. The officer pumped the gun and shouted, “Freeze.”
I threw my hands up and staggered back.
Uniformed officers swarmed on me from behind parked cars and trees; they poured out of the front door of my house. What seemed like dozens of hands rumpled through my pockets and up and down my legs. Handcuffs cinched my wrists.
“You’re under arrest,” a voiced shouted in my ear.
Minutes later a scrum of police officers hustled me down a hallway, then into a small, sterile room reeking of stale cigarettes. A crisply uniformed detective partially stood from behind a simple table, and motioned toward the empty chair with his hand. As I sat down I noticed the closed-circuit camera above his head, suspended in the corner from the ceiling.
“I’m going to give you thirty seconds to make the most important decision of your life,” he said, his eyes locked on mine. “You can be a witness for us or a defendant with your brother.”
“You might as well save yourself,” he said, patting a closed manila folder on the table. “Your brother already confessed.”
“I’m not saying anything.”
In less than an hour I stepped into a cell for the first time in my life; my blue pin-striped suit replaced by a blaze-orange jumpsuit. When the cell door slammed behind me, the clanging shuttered my soul. I lay down on the plastic-covered mattress, pocked with cigarette burns, and prayed for the first time in years:
“God, if you even exist, let me die in my sleep tonight.”
God did not answer my prayer. A few days after arriving at the county jail, my indictment arrived: aggravated murder with death specifications. The jarring reality suffocated me: The State of Ohio planned to electrocute me.
At noon on Friday, June 17, 1988, my older brother had gotten into a fight with his college roommate and beat him to death. I helped him arrange the meeting, assisted him in fleeing the scene, helped cover up the crime, then repeatedly lied to the police throughout the investigation. As I lay on my bunk reliving that day, the chaplain walked onto our range and announced they were passing out free candy bars to anyone who came to the chapel service. Raised Catholic, I had never attended a Protestant service in my life. I did not want to begin now, but I did want a candy bar. So I decided to go to the chapel, get my candy bar, and then act like I was sick so I wouldn’t have to listen to some Bible-thumpin’ Jesus freak. I got in line with the rest of the men. We walked single file down the narrow hallway, then into the multipurpose room turned chapel. To my astonishment, the guard locked the door behind the last man. I couldn’t get out. To make matters worse, the only seats available were in the front row.
A box of Butterfingers sat on a small table behind a heavyset man with long, unkempt hair and a bushy beard. The buttons on his suit strained to stay fastened over his protruding belly.
“Don’t worry about them candy bars, boys,” he said in a heavy hillbilly accent. “We pass ’em out at the end.”
I got tricked to go to church.
He read a passage about Jesus and some woman at a well, and the next thing I knew he was pacing up and down right in front of me, pounding his Bible and telling us we were all a bunch of sinners who were going to hell. The more he preached, the madder I got. After all, I didn’t think I was a sinner, and I really didn’t think I was going to hell. I wanted to stand up and make a fool out of this guy, but I had never read the Bible, and I was afraid he might make a fool out of me. So I sat there stewing. When the service ended, I snatched my candy bar from his hand, then returned to my cellblock and found a Bible. I was determined to find the passage he preached on, study it, and then go back the following week to make a fool out of him. Not knowing how to find the story about the woman at the well, I decided to read straight through every book in the New Testament until I found it. By the time I reached the gospel of John (the fourth book of the New Testament, where the story I was looking for is told), I knew my life was a mess, and I needed forgiveness, God’s forgiveness. But I didn’t know how to find it or ask for it.
Long before my arrest, I had adopted a blame-shifting mentality in order to deal with my guilty feelings for what I had helped my brother do. The more I read the Bible, the more that strategy fell apart. The Bible says all wrongdoing is sin. And I could no longer deny that sin polluted my entire life. Worse still the Bible also says, “For the wages of sin is death” (romans 6:23). I knew I deserved to die because of my sins, and it appeared the State of Ohio intended to make that happen. I was lost, but I didn’t know what to do about it. So I went back to the chapel service the following week, and for the first time in my life I actually heard the gospel.
That night I knelt down on the cement floor beside my bunk in cell 42 and asked Jesus Christ to save me from my sins. I surrendered my whole life to him. It felt like a ten-thousand-pound weight rolled off my shoulders and an invisible, constricting chain snapped from around my heart.
During my tumultuous early days in jail, I read through the book of Psalms. I came across a verse that made a deep and lasting impact on my life: “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (psalm 119:71). I had never considered suffering to be a good thing. I lived my life seeking to avoid or minimize pain. However, the writer of this psalm looked past the temporary discomfort his body endured and expressed gratitude because of the incredible spiritual benefit he received from it. Was God doing the same thing for me now? Was God using my self-inflicted suffering to lead me to a relationship with Him? Was He using the horrendous consequences of my sin to get me to study and learn and live for Him?
Prior to my arrest I considered the Bible a book of fables, never opening it a single time in my life. I didn’t care about my eternal destiny—if there even was such a thing. But now in the middle of the most cataclysmic upheaval I had ever experienced, or perhaps because of it, God had my attention. The more I read the Bible, the more I wanted to discover who God was and what He wanted from me. With every page I turned, I learned more about God. I learned that what He wanted most was for me to love Him and to live by the principles and commandments in the Bible. If I had known this, loving God would have prevented me from shipwrecking my life.
A jail employee, John Wiseman, noticed me reading the Bible one day and began stopping by my cell after his shift ended. He started to teach me the first steps of following Jesus. He taught me things like how to use a concordance and a Bible dictionary. But more importantly, he answered my questions and prayed with me. This discipleship continued almost daily for the next eight months while I awaited trial.
A few weeks later my brother went to trial. The jury found him guilty of aggravated murder and the judge sentenced him to forty-three years in prison before his first eligibility for parole. While my heart broke for him and my parents, I thanked God for sparing him the death penalty. And now I wondered: What’s going to happen to me?