You would think that you wouldn’t be able to sleep the night before an event like this. I mean, the rest of your life is being determined tomorrow by people that you have never met before, that only know the things about you that they have read. Also, I didn’t really have an idea of what this day would look like. My lawyer and I had determined that I would go with an “open plea”, which was basically saying that I was 100% guilty and that I would leave it up to the judge to decide what would be best for everybody involved. To tell you the truth, I’m still not certain what the difference between an open plea and “guilty” is.
My folks had bought a suit for me to wear from the local Wal-mart that fit my lawyer’s instructions. Originally he had wanted me to wear the orange jumpsuit that we all wore in jail because it looked more pathetic and he thought that might garner some sympathy from the judge, but then the jail changed their wardrobes to two-piece outfits that were orange and white horizontal stripes. They didn’t make you look pathetic so much as they made you look guilty. So, the day of the trial it was decided that I would wear a blue blazer, white shirt, khaki pants, a non-descript tie… wanting to keep something of myself in this outfit, I had asked my folks if I could wear suspenders instead of a belt, but they were afraid to do anything different than what Rick had instructed. I wore a belt.
Amazingly, I slept pretty well the night before. I think that a lot of this had to do with the fact that I had been in jail for so long, and nothing really seemed to change much from one day to the next. So, while my whole life was do to change drastically, it certainly didn’t feel like it. I skipped out on the red-pod evening circle up and pray. I just wanted to be alone, to read a little bit, to listen to my radio, and to think for a while.
There are a lot of resources available for free to guys who are locked up. If you want a bible, or a Qur’an you can always get one for free. There are organizations that offer bible courses and even offer “degrees” through the mail if you are incarcerated. I had sent off for a couple of things while I was in jail. One of my favorites was the story of “Peace Pilgrim”, a woman who walked continuously across the country carrying nothing but a comb, preaching nuclear disarmament to the masses. I loved her. I loved her organization a lot too, but there was something about her simplicity that truly moved me. I had torn her black and white picture out of the book that her organization sent me and had folded it up and put it in my Gideon’s bible. Other inmates told me that I was allowed to have a Gideon’s bible with me, and truly I had grown quite attached to my little bible if for no other reason than its cultural familiarity, but if I was going to be raked over the proverbial coals in the morning then I wanted Peace Pilgrim there with me, to comfort me.
I woke up early.
I woke up and was wide-awake and couldn’t sleep anymore, early in the morning, before they unlocked the cells or turned on the lights. I sat in the cell in the early morning darkness- nervous? Apprehensive? Fearful? Maybe even a little excited that I would finally find out what was going to happen next. It was too dark to read in the cell. I sat up, leaned the weight of my body against the wall, wrapped my blanket around my shoulders, put the headphones in my ears and turned on my radio.
I had developed this odd habit of listening to whatever I could find on the radio that was the most mundane, the most inconsequential. I liked to listen to evening traffic reports, or farm futures. There was something so life affirming in this. It was so very different than any part of my existence. It sounded so easy. These little things mattered so much to someone out there. It mattered whether or not it rained that morning to someone. It was really important to someone if traffic happened to be moving slowly on 40 east right now. There was something really innocent about these things that I loved and missed dearly. I wanted the things in my life to be so easily governable. I wanted the frustration of a traffic jam, the concern of weather. Nobody has ever been stabbed by weather.
So, I turned on the morning radio, an AM station. They were belting out the morning news as usual; only this morning the bright staccato voice was saying my name, something about “Sentencing will take place today for Larry Veeder…” I listened distractedly with a grim fascination. It felt so otherworldly; the name wasn’t right- I go by my middle name Robert, not my first name, Larry, which is what my father, whom I was named after, goes by. It was a distinction that would be altogether lost in my years in prison.
I wasn’t even allowed my own name.
Finally, the cell doors were opened, breakfast was served, and immediately afterwards many of the guys in the block went back to sleep. I showered. I waited. Charmed was playing on the television, back to back episodes, a show that I had never actually watched, but somehow it seemed perfect for this morning. It was easy to tune in and out of at will. Somewhere, people were bustling, moving frantically, worried over what this day would look like. My parents and close friends were filtering into a courtroom somewhere. My lawyer would be having coffee, talking strategies to his partners, and other caseworkers who had assisted him over the months. The victim’s families would be gathering somewhere hoping for…what? Vengeance? God, I hope not. Reconciliation? I had no idea. Outside of the eighth floor red pod, people were gathering with quiet and not so quiet anticipation, worry, anger, fear, and sorrow. But in here it was quiet. In here it was oddly still for the first time in over half a year. In here, I sat quietly on a stainless steel bench at a stainless steel table watching Charmed.
Waiting, which is an action that I had grown profoundly skilled at doing.
You would think that I would remember every detail, but honestly I don’t. I don’t remember what time they came to get me. I don’t remember the elevator ride down, or the long series of underground cinder block tunnels that led to the courthouse. There are a few things that I do remember: I remember that the guard that had escorted me upstairs to all of the jailhouse classes I took was working that morning. He was really nice to me, and had decided somewhere along the line that I was a good enough person that he hoped that I wouldn’t be locked up forever. He told me this that morning. I remember that once I was in the actual courthouse building, the wood looked dark, soft, and inviting, a stark contrast to my many months in jail. I also remember that they didn’t have a cell ready for me yet to be alone with my lawyer; they handcuffed me to a bench so that we could talk alone in the hallway for a few moments. He had a partner with him, someone that I didn’t know, but at this point it didn’t seem to matter. I had my little bible with Peace Pilgrim’s photo inside. He asked if I was nervous. I told him not really. The worst part, the night of the accident, was already behind me. This was just some odd formality. He nodded to his partner, who gave a knowing nod back. Later this would be what they told the local press. Then he told me to expect twenty-five years, but at this point, I just didn’t care anymore. What did it matter? My life was already over. What’s twenty-five years? I couldn’t even fathom who I would be in twenty-five years. It was inconceivable, just a number.
There was a guard in the cell with us most of the time. When we were alone, while I changed clothes, he offered me a cigarette. I simply couldn’t resist. I hated taking it from him. I had been so proud of the fact that I was finally nicotine free, but there seemed to be something so comforting, and familiar about it, even traditional- one last cigarette. Also, after so many months of guards being either angry or indifferent, it seemed rude to turn down this guy’s attempt at civility- I missed compassion.
My attorneys returned. We went over what I had hoped to say. I explained that if the families were there then I wanted to at least look at them and apologize, but my lawyers adamantly told me not to, I’m still not sure why. They said that I could say that I was sorry, but that I would have to face the judge while I did it, under no circumstances was I to face the families. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know…it still doesn’t seem right to me, but that’s what I did. I did whatever they told me to. This was their ballgame; I was just the ball.
Eventually we went into the courtroom to face the music. My parents were there, lots of friends were there and lots of people that I didn’t know at all. Again, it was different than anything I had seen on television. The judge asked me a bunch of questions regarding my competency to stand trial- “Do you understand the charges?” “Are you under the influence of any medications?” That sort of thing. Then the lawyers had some talking to do to the judge. Then anyone who had any relation to one of the victims that felt like saying something was allowed to get up and speak. Parents of one young man whom had been killed got up to talk about how admirable their son was, what a great kid he was, how proud of him they were; then I watched a video of him growing up, playing his drum-set on the back porch, riding his bicycle into a backyard pool. After that his girlfriend got up to say a few words about what a gentle person he had been. Then a victim’s mother got up to speak. Her son hadn’t been killed, thankfully, but he had been severely hurt, and while I was sleeping away my time in the county jail, lazily, he had been undergoing physical therapy. She hoped that I would spend whatever time I was given working on my relationship with Jesus. Another woman spoke about how her husband had been killed leaving her alone to raise her six-month old son. She expressed exhaustion, said that she had been too busy, and too tired to really grieve. It went on like this for a few thousand years it felt like. If I could have been granted one wish at that moment, it would have been to lay on the floor in the front of the courtroom, and to have any and everybody in the world come up and just kick the shit out of me as much and for as long as they wanted to; that would have been easier.
Eventually, everyone seemed to be finished, and it was my turn. They asked me if I had anything that I wanted to say. So, I stood up, and not facing the families, but instead facing the judge, a man that had nothing to do with this whatsoever, I said, “I am so, so sorry. These were good people just trying to help. I am so sorry that this has happened.” The judge declared a recess and I ran crying into my cell. The guard offered me another cigarette. I took it, and smoked gladly, a river of tears streaming down my face.
They brought me a tray of jail food, but I couldn’t eat it. So instead, I sat, waiting for the rest of the world to eat lunch. Then it was back on my feet, back into the courtroom, for the grand finale- sentencing.
Both my lawyer and the DA made some opposing remarks about what caused the accident, how sentencing should be handled, at one point the DA burst into tears and spoke of his own new-born child, and how he could only imagine the plights that these families faced.
Finally, the judge offered a few words, spoke of “a heinous confluence of events” mentioning that my “grief was real” and handed down his sentence. I was charged with 6 counts of involuntary manslaughter and 2 counts of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious bodily injury, and given 8.5 to 11 years at a state correctional facility.
I was wisped away to my cell, told to change clothes, and I was taken back upstairs to my cell. I was given no further instruction. Eventually, they would come to take me to prison, but I wasn’t told when. I made phone calls, called my aunt, my parents, a few friends, my sister, to tell them the good news. People were excited for me. I would still be young when I was released. That’s what people said. They said with relief, “Thank God, you’ll still be young when you get out.”
After that, I went up to my cell and fell sound asleep. The friends of mine who were still waiting for a court date started asking for my stuff before I shipped out. I had a pair of jailhouse tennis shoes. They cost about eight dollars in jail, but you could pick them up for a buck or two at the dollar store outside. Red wanted to know if he could have those. He said, “In prison, they’ll give you work boots.” I couldn’t wait for work boots. I gave him my shoes. Other guys wanted my collection of books, any extra batteries or stamps, extra toilet paper.
The next morning I overslept, missed breakfast. I was oddly happy, at least relieved. An inmate that I didn’t know showed up at my cell with a large orange garbage bag. “You headin’ out today, huh? Whaddya get?”
I said, “Eight and a half to eleven.”
He said, “Whew, that’s tight. You gonna hav’ ta stay busy; you wanna do eight and a half. What you takin’ wit you? Can I have some of this stuff?”
I said, “The shoes and batteries are taken. So are the stamps. You can have whatever’s left when I leave I guess.”
About that time they called my name over the intercom telling me to report downstairs with my belongings.
From there I was taken down to a holding cell that looked almost exactly like the suicide watch booth that I had first been admitted to. A few cells down from me I could hear the familiar scream of a heroin addict going cold turkey. This is how they handled withdrawal in jail, lock them in a cage and let them go at it. He was screaming, crying, and begging these pathetic cries. I really felt bad for him. There was graffiti around the window pane- mostly names with the amount of time they had gotten. I saw my friend Suki’s name scribbled in ink. He was from Uganda, had stabbed his roommate to death, when he caught her cheating on him. He had thought they were romantic partners. She had not. Suki, was a pretty nice guy to me. We would talk about Africa, Uganda specifically, and about the differences between the cultures there and here. I remember the funniest story he had told me. He said that he had come from Uganda to New York City and had flown in pretty late at night. He went to a bar that was filled to the brim with sparkling, bedazzled, attractive women. Not believing his luck, he called his friend that he was supposed to be meeting in the U.S. and insisted that he come meet Suki at the bar. Suki couldn’t believe so many attractive women could be in one place at the same time, with almost no men to compete with in chatting them up. An hour or so later Suki’s friend showed up and explained to Suki what a transvestite is. Suki couldn’t believe such a thing existed, and yet, here he was, surrounded by them. We laughed hysterically together over that one. Suki was a decent guy, and here was his name scratched out in blue ink…”Suki- 19 years 4 months”.
Eventually a sheriff showed up to take me to prison. He was gruff, sick, kept coughing and snorting a lot, and obviously didn’t feel well. I stood there as he instructed me in getting my shackles on. Shackles are different than handcuffs. These involved a special set of handcuffs, and then some kind of ankle restraints too. Once those were on a long series of chain was looped through a black box on the handcuffs, which went down to the ankles and back up, and a separate lock was put on the box. Now it was impossible to do much more than shuffle ridiculously down the hall. I couldn’t raise my hands more than a couple of inches because they were tied to my ankles. We made it to the door. He unlocked the keypad and then said to me, “Go ahead and get the door for me.” I thought he was kidding.
He wasn’t kidding.
I awkwardly twisted my body up so that I could open the door for him. We went out to the parking deck. Finally- Outside! The sky! Wind!
“The car is over there I’ll meet you there. You can go ahead and get in the back seat.” but I had no idea how I was going to accomplish any of this in these shackles.
Shackles! I couldn’t believe this. Is this who I was considered to be? Is this who I had become? I couldn’t believe it. I dreaded anyone seeing me at all. I dreaded anyone seeing me in the parking lot thinking that I was the kind of person dangerous enough to need to be restrained by shackles. It was amazingly humiliating.
To his credit, the officer opened the car door for me and instructed me in how to get into the car. He didn’t say much of anything, just coughed and hacked his way to Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C. where I would go for processing about a ten-minute drive from where we were. We pulled up to one giant fence. It opened. We drove through, and then the fence closed behind us, so we were entirely boxed in by fences and razor wire. Some guards came and did a complete search of his vehicle, including telescopic mirrors for looking under the car. I remember thinking, “Has this been a problem? People trying to break into prison?” I didn’t say a word. No one around here seemed to have much of a sense of humor.
Eventually, they decided we were all right and they let us in. Everything seemed gigantic. The fences were huge and sprawling. The buildings were ominous, foreboding, unwelcoming, and dark.
I remember very specifically feeling like I was being eaten, ravenously devoured, and swallowed whole, which, of course, I was.