My attorney talked me into waiving my right to a jury trial, in order to be tried by a panel of three judges. I took and passed a polygraph test conducted by the prosecutor’s office, and by the time I went to trial I felt confident that things would work out. When I walked into the courtroom for trial, instead of finding three judges as the law stated, only one judge sat behind the bench—the same judge who had just sentenced my brother to forty-three years in prison.
“Your honor, if there aren’t going to be any additional judges, I would like to withdraw my waiver and have a jury trial.”
My attorney stipulated to the prosecution’s entire case. This means he agreed with the evidence as it was presented at my brother’s trial and that the State did not have to present any witnesses or evidence against me. It also meant that my entire defense would be my testimony alone. By the time I stepped off the stand, my entire capital murder trial with death specifications lasted less than two hours.
Two days later I stood beside my lawyer in front of the judge to hear the verdict.
“To the charge of aggravated murder with death specifications,” she said, reading from a yellow legal pad, “I find the defendant not guilty.”
I expelled a sigh of relief.
“To the lesser included offense of murder, I find the defendant not guilty.”
I’m going home.
“To the lesser included offense of involuntary manslaughter, by complicity, I find the defendant guilty,” she said, “and I sentence you to ten to twenty-five years.”
My knees nearly buckled. “To the charge of kidnapping, I find the defendant guilty, and I hereby sentence you to eight to twenty-five years . . . consecutive.” I glanced at my lawyer. He stared stone-faced, straight ahead. “To the firearm specification, I find the defendant guilty, and I sentence you to an additional three years . . . consecutive.”
As an engineering student at Case Western Reserve University, mathematics always came easy, but these numbers seemed impossible. I couldn’t add them up in my head.
Ten … eight … three … what is that? Twenty-one to fifty years!
The deputy cuffed my hands behind my back and escorted me back to the jail. As I sat in the holding cell in stunned silence, John Wiseman appeared at my cell door.
“I have no idea why God allowed what happened to you today,” he said, compassion radiating from his eyes. “But God has a plan for your life.”
I nodded my head.
“That plan involves you going to the penitentiary, and maybe for a long time. When you get down there, find out what God would have you do, and do it. And He will give you peace.”
That was not what I wanted to hear; but it was exactly what I needed to hear. At five in the morning the following day, I awoke to the sound of a nightstick on my cell door.
“Swiger, pack your stuff,” the deputy said, tossing a brown paper bag through the bars. “You’re riding out.”
The cell door buzzed open. I hurriedly stuffed my personal items into the bag and then stepped out.
“Kneel on the floor,” he commanded, “facing the wall.”
He cinched a set of shackles on my ankles; the steel bit into my legs when I tried to stand. He fished a belly-chain around my waist, and then connected the shackles to my new steel belt with yet another chain. Finally, he looped a set of handcuffs through the belly-chain and then clamped them on my wrists.
“Don’t go anywhere,” he said, with a sarcastic smile.
I watched him repeat the same procedure with another inmate. However, before placing the handcuffs on him, he instructed the guy to shuffle over next to me. He linked us arm-in-arm before slapping the cuffs on him. Thus we were joined together for the next three hours awaiting our trip to prison. After a few minutes, I noticed my new friend sniffling back tears.
Give me a break, dude, I thought, I’m having a bad enough day on my own.
Before long tears were streaming down his cheeks. “I can’t do all this time Judge Spicer gave me,” he said.
Judge Spicer was my judge. And we both had the same prosecutor. I was officially curious.
“Okay, what happened?” I asked.
“Me and my partner went on a little crime spree. We robbed a bunch of jewelry stores in Akron. Then we went to a motel to split up the loot, and I accidently shot him in the head with a shotgun we stole from the last store.”
“Did he die?”
“Wow. You had my judge and my prosecutor. I guess we are going to be friends for a long time. How much time did Judge Spicer give you for that?”
“One to five.”
“Yeah, one to five.”
“Let me get this straight. You robbed a bunch of jewelry stores, stole a gun, and killed a guy, and she gave you one year.”
“One to five.”
“She gave me twenty-one to fifty years for not telling on my brother. If I were you I’d stop crying.”
I learned in that moment that the justice system is not fair.
During my first couple of months at Lorain Correctional, God brought a Prison Fellowship volunteer, Bill Wilder, into my life. I didn’t know it at the time, but this humble, faithful engineer would profoundly impact my life. Bill taught a weekly Bible study to a group of about six inmates. But more than teach the Bible, Bill modeled mature, godly manhood—a way of living that puts love for God and other people ahead of our own needs. Bill demonstrated what the Bible means when it says to treat others as more important than yourself (see philippians 2:3). He showed me what it means to be someone who is self-sacrificing and self-controlled and who follows the example of Christ. He took a liking to me and over the next several years helped me grow in every area of my spiritual life.
While studying the book of Ephesians in Bill’s class, I encountered a verse that shaped the way I did my time: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (ephesians 5:15–16).
No one needed to tell me I ought to be careful in prison; violence and mayhem were everywhere. Almost daily I witnessed serious fights that led to bloodshed. The days were evil. However, it hadn’t occurred to me that God expected me to make good use of the one commodity I had in abundance—time. I had the same twenty-four hours as people living on the other side of the fence, and I determined to use every hour to educate myself as much as possible in order to be a productive member of the kingdom of God. But how?
I decided I wouldn’t own a television. I saw men sit mesmerized for hours squandering their time. Instead, I spent all my spare time reading the Bible and listening to Christian radio. Through the interlibrary loan program at the prison library, I gained access to a world of classical literature and theology. The content of these timeless masterpieces did not change depending on where they were read, whether on Harvard Yard or in a prison cell.
I also took advantage of every educational opportunity offered. I enrolled in courses being offered through a local community college, and for the first time took academics seriously. In the first days of classes, I came across another verse that would alter the course of my life: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (colossians 3:23–24).
The word “whatever” jumped off the page at me; it was all-inclusive. It meant everything. God not only cared about the day-to-day activities of my life, but He expected me to accomplish them to the absolute best of my ability, whether cleaning toilets in the warden’s office or playing the piano at chapel services. While thinking about this verse, I could almost hear God saying to me: “Michael, work as hard as humanly possible on this philosophy class. And remember you are doing it for Me, not for the grade.”
From that point on I sought to put my complete heart, soul, and strength into whatever I was doing. It was a way of loving God. I earned two associates degrees and moved from being a clerk in the County Office to working directly for the warden. Obeying what I felt God telling me about working hard gave me the opportunity to share my faith with the warden who stopped me one day while I scrubbed the floor.
“Why are you always working so hard?” he asked. “We don’t pay you anything.”
“The Bible says to do everything as for the Lord,” I said with a smile. “And today it happens to be buffing the floors.”
In August of 1993—three-and-a-half years into my incarceration—my first opportunity for release arose. As a first-time offender convicted as an accomplice, my sentencing judge had the authority to suspend the remainder of my sentence. Before my attorney filed the motion, I made a deal with God.
“Lord, if you let me out of here, I will dedicate my life to prison ministry,” I prayed from my knees alongside my bunk. “I will be like Billy Graham for jail.”
I thought this was a pretty good deal for God.
My attorney filed the motion, and to my family’s utter amazement, the judge granted the request and issued an order for my release effective September 1. I praised God for His amazing answer to my prayer, fully determined to uphold my end of the bargain. I quietly mailed my property home, not even telling my closest friends—in prison good news for you does not mean good news for others. Some inmates, jealous that someone else is about to released, make it a point to cause that individual harm.
On August 31 I sat on my bunk, about to pick up my Bible and a daily devotional book, when I heard a knock on my cell door. The inmate in the cell next to me stuck his head into my cell.
“Hey, Mike, do you have something pending in court?”
“Yeah, how do you know?”
“I heard on the radio; your judge denied it.”
“That’s impossible,” I said, opening my locker box. “I have the court order right here.”
With my heartbeat thundering in my ears, I hurried down the steps to the bank of phones lining the wall by the guard’s desk and dialed my lawyer’s number.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “But the judge overturned her own decision, and the prosecutor did not even oppose our motion.”
My heart sank.
“In the thirty years I’ve been practicing law,” he said. “I have never seen anything like this.”
The room seemed to spin as I shuffled back toward my cell. I couldn’t believe it. I thought God and I had a deal. I tried to focus on what I should do next, and then it hit me. I had to call my mom and say: “Don’t come get me tomorrow. It will be another decade.”
After speaking with my mom I staggered back into my cell and saw my Bible and devotional book, Our Daily Bread, lying on my bed. I was mad at God and felt sorry for myself. The last thing I wanted to do was read the Bible. I plopped down on my bed and picked up the devotional. The reading for the day began:
Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one (james 1:12–13)
That wasn’t even fair. Right then I didn’t want a crown of life, I just wanted to go home. As I wallowed in self-pity and struggled to make sense of this crushing disappointment, the words from this passage kept looping through my mind. God was not tempting me to fail or walk away from my faith; the Bible clearly said God tempts no one. God did not need this trial to learn how I would react; He already knew. This test was meant to show me about me. Would I blow up, express immature anger, or accuse God of being fickle or unfair? Would I use this as an excuse to fail and forget about living for God? I realized in that moment that in life we do not get to pick the tragedies we face, just how we react to them.
I could choose to get angry and walk away from God because of my perceived injustice in this situation, or I could continue trusting God, even though I did not understand why He allowed this to happen. The more I mulled these things over, a profound truth took hold of me: I had surrendered my life to Jesus Christ not to get out of prison but to change my life and my eternal destiny. This disappointment did not change the fact that Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins, and as my Lord He had the absolute right to my trust and obedience. When I reread the verse again, I zeroed in on the positives—a promised blessing now and a crown later in heaven. Through this trial God presented me with both the opportunity to do the right thing now and to receive a reward as well.
As I continued to think about this passage further, I could almost hear the Holy Spirit speak to my soul—not audibly, but spiritually: “You say that you trust me,” the Holy Spirit impressed upon my heart, “then trust me. If you want to get involved in prison ministry, why not be a prison missionary? You are already on your mission field.”
That day I quit my job in the warden’s office and took a position as janitor in the chapel. I just wanted to be where God’s work was happening, in whatever capacity I could.