My Buddy Ed

by Steven W. Hawkins, Esq.

I first met Edward Horsley in 1989 as a young attorney nearly fresh out of law school. I had been at my job for less than a month when I found myself on a plane to southern Alabama to represent my first client on death row. As I drove up to the prison and presented myself to the visitation officer, I had no idea what to expect. The local papers had described the person whom I was about to meet as a hideous fiend, someone beyond the reach of civilization. I knew that a sixteen-year-old white female had been killed and that two African American youths were involved. Both had received the death penalty and, after many years of litigation, were entering their last round of appeals in federal court. I had been asked to represent one of them.

When Ed first stepped through the door of the visiting room, it struck me that there must have been some kind of mistake. Standing there was someone who could have passed for my twin: a short little man with a youthful face. Ed certainly did not look like the villain he was portrayed as in the local press. And as we sat and began to talk, I realized that my newly found friend radiated a sense of warmth and caring. The hours flew by as we chatted about our lives, our families, our hopes and dreams. It seemed we had just started when it was time to leave. Heading to my car for the ride back to Mobile, I found myself fighting back the tears, wondering how someone like Ed could ever have ended up on death row in the first place. The answers came when I started my investigation.

Ed had been on death row for thirteen years, yet I was the first attorney to talk with his family in all that time. From his mother I learned that Ed had never known his father, who had died at the hands of his own brother when Ed was still in his mother?s womb. This led her to drink heavily, and she almost miscarried. The child was born but showed the developmental handicaps of a child born to an alcoholic. Shortly before he was to start kindergarten, Ed fell from the window of his family?s apartment, landing on the concrete pavement below. As he lay on the ground waiting for an ambulance, Ed had his first seizure. By the time he arrived at the hospital, Ed was in a coma and did not regain consciousness for several days.

Back then black families in the racially segregated South could not expect much in terms of treatment. The hospital did one frontal X-ray of Ed?s skull, found no fracture, and sent him home. There was never any post-traumatic care.

Ed suffered from seizures until his early twenties, and debilitating headaches would stay with him forever. There was also a noticeable change in his personality. Prior to the fall, Ed had been an enthusiastic and energetic child who liked to do things independently. Afterward, he was slow, lethargic, and easily led by others. He became timid and easily frightened by the violence that surrounded him in the housing project where his family lived, as well as the violence that he endured at home. He saw his mother beaten and cut by an abusive boyfriend; he witnessed friends die before his eyes. In order to cope, Ed turned to drugs and alcohol by the time he was thirteen. Five years later, he escaped from a boys? home at the urging of a childhood buddy. Their journey ended in Alabama with a tragic death. And while Ed had no prior history of violence and was too afraid of his partners to stop them from killing, he nevertheless was also sentenced to death.

The last time I saw Ed was when the curtain was pulled back and he was strapped into the electric chair in February ?96. He smiled at each and everyone of us, nodding his head and giving us assurance that he was at peace. When asked if he had any final words, he asked for forgiveness from the victim?s family. He then forgave his captors, turning to each of the guards at his side and telling them that he held no animosity in his heart against them. Lastly, he forgave the warden, who has visibly moved by Ed?s showing of complete grace. Then the curtain closed. When it reopened, Ed?s face was hidden by a mask. A lever was pulled, and two thousand volts of electricity surged through his body. Ed?s fingers twisted grotesquely into the air and a plume of smoke began to rise from his leg as his flesh burned. After what seemed like an eternity, it was over. And I had once again experienced the utter pain, the profound waste, and the senseless dehumanization that the death penalty exacts upon our society.

Ed?s death brought home for me, first, why I am committed to working for its abolition. Like many African-American youths growing up in my community, I could easily have succumbed to the drugs, crime, and violence that permeated my environment. I was saved from this personal destruction by a group of young black men who became my mentors. They were neither lawyers nor doctors, pastors nor businessmen - rather, they were prisoners serving life at Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York. These men helped me to appreciate the mistakes they had made at my age; they instilled in me the strength and courage to overcome the obstacles in my path. Because of their positive influence on my growth and development, I went from being a troubled teen who, like Ed, would become a statistic in the criminal justice system; instead, at eighteen I was among those in Harvard?s freshman class.

And Ed?s death reinforced the many reasons why I oppose the death penalty. For starters, it continues to be rooted in class and race discrimination. There simply are no rich people on death row.

As for race, affirmative action thrives on death row. While African Americans comprise only 14 percent of the population, they account for more than 40 percent of those awaiting execution. When you add Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans, the death row population swells to more than 50 percent who are racial minorities. To put these statistics in perspective, since the return of the death penalty to Alabama, ten of the fourteen executions have been of black men.

The other index of racial disparity is the race of the victim. The slave codes, enacted in the colonies in the 1700?s to govern the conduct and treatment of African Americans and other people of color, established race as a basis for settling matters of crime and punishment. The lingering effects of such laws are evident in the fact that while blacks and whites are victims of homicide in equal numbers, more than 80 percent of the victims of those persons who have been executed in the last twenty years have been white.

Recently I had the opportunity to visit two of the toughest high schools in the District of Columbia: Anacostia and McKinley. Listening to the children, it became obvious to me that arguments about race and class discrimination were not going to turn them into opponents of capital punishment, even though they were African American and poor. Why? Because they saw the death penalty enacted every day - on their streets, in their neighborhoods, right outside their doors. We as a society had taught them that the taking of a human life was perfectly legitimate means of addressing grievances. For these children, teaching them about alternatives to the death penalty was not about instruction on the merits of life without parole. The alternatives were peace, understanding, forgiveness, reconciliation, and learning to live in harmony with one another - very difficult lessons to learn when the government is teaching the opposite.

My friend Ed never learned these lessons as a child. Not until he was on death row, and after experiencing the power of redemption, did Ed finally have the chance. His life took on new value and meaning with his spiritual renewal. He earned his GED (general equivalency diploma) and tutored other prisoners to earn theirs. He received an Associate Degree from Jefferson-Davis Community College. He became a trusted counselor to several young people whose lives he helped to turn around, including his nieces and nephews. A particular testament to God?s love was the bond of friendship that grew between Ed and a former Klansman who was sentenced to death for lynching an African American teen. Indeed, both men became brothers in Christ, recognizing that they were better than - and would not judge each other by - their worst deed in life.