Saturday, April 23
Stephen Jones, Esq.
Innocence X Headquarters
1111 Justice Road
Birmingham, Alabama 35005
Re: Death Penalty—Intake Department
Dear Mr. Jones,
My dad has precisely 275 days before his execution. You’re the only hope we have because every lawyer we’ve used has failed us. In the last appeal, Judge Williams didn’t take more than five minutes to consider.
We mailed a renewed application since it’s now been seven years.
Please look into James Beaumont’s application (#1756). We have all the court and trial files boxed up and ready to go.
Thank you for your time,
P.S. Jamal’s going to college. Can you believe it? All that running added up to something. If you have those letters where I say he was wasting his time, please destroy them.
P.S.S. Next Saturday at 10:00 a.m. Jamal’s doing an interview on The Susan Touric Show. You should check it out.
Ready. Set. Go.
Time runs my life. A constant measuring of what’s gone and what’s to come. Jamal’s hundred-meter dash is a blazing 10.06 seconds. That’s how my older brother got this monumental interview. I’m not thinking about Jamal’s record, though. I’m thinking about Daddy’s time. Seven years—two thousand five hundred and thirty-two days served, to be exact.
This running clock above my head’s been in place since his conviction. That moment branded me. Mama gripped the courtroom bench to keep from collapsing as each juror repeated guilty. I looked to Mama for an explanation. The empty look in her eye cried out the answer: death.
Since then, it’s tick-tock.
Here at the TV station, Jamal rocks steadily in the guest chair, watching highlights of his track career with the producer during a commercial break. He glides his hands over his fresh barber cut, his mind more likely on the camera angles that’ll best show his waves.
We’re true opposites, despite our one-year difference.
He’s everything on the outside I wish to be. Bringing people in, when nine out of ten, I’d rather push them out. That’s why I hate that my mission crosses paths with the biggest day of Jamal’s life.
Five minutes and thirty-seven seconds until showtime.
As the commercial nears its end, I don’t have to look up to know Mama’s leaving the makeup room. The click of her heels echoes past a crew of engineers and radiates as she circles around Jamal to the guest seating area on the side of the studio stage. She enters like only a proud Black mother can, hair all pressed and curled, with a sharp black skirt suit that fits her curvy figure.
Mama’s been name-dropping everywhere she can about the news anchor Susan Touric showcasing Jamal as a top athlete. I expected a live audience, but the set is a small studio and crew. I look out to Susan Touric’s interview desk with a backdrop image of Austin, the state capital. They’ve pulled out a white couch so there’s space for my family to join Jamal at the end.
Mama smiles at Jamal, then at my little sister, Corinne, but I swear she throws some silent shade my way. Her not-so-subtle warnings have been going on for the past month. She knows I want Daddy’s story to seep out, but Mama has made clear there is no room for Daddy on this occasion. Not because she don’t love Daddy, but because she wants Jamal to have a clean slate at college as Jamal, not “Jamal, the son of a murderer.”
If it was a few years ago, I’d understand, but Daddy’s got less than a year. No extensions. No money for more appeals. While time uncoils itself from Daddy’s lifeline, she’s forbidden Susan Touric from mentioning him, too. The show agreed not to talk about Daddy in exchange for Jamal showing up; and if Susan tries anything, Mama says we’ll straight up leave.
Mama stands by me and leans near my ear. “Tracy, ain’t it something to see your big brother’s hard work paying off?”
“Mmm-hmm,” I say, even though I’m still hoping the journalist in Susan can’t help but fling open Pandora’s box—on live television.
Mama won’t be able to stop it then.
Then our truth can breathe free.
The fight for Daddy’s appeal won’t be in vain. People will finally hear the truth. Wake up to the fact that Lady Liberty has failed us. Failed so many others.
Angela Herron floats into the room with a twinkle of excitement in her eye. Her long blond hair bounces with an unstoppable future. Angela’s a new production intern for The Susan Touric Show, even though she’s only a senior in high school, weeks away from graduating with Jamal’s class. It’s no coincidence that her dad owns Herron Media back in Galveston County, where Jamal’s worked the past two years. She’ll always have it easy. I’ve worked my ass off to be in the running for the school newspaper editor next year so just maybe I can get into college internships early. Meanwhile, she’s already advanced to a position most college grads can’t get.
“Nervous?” Angela asks Jamal.
“Nah.” Jamal’s foot taps as he tries to play cool.
“You got this.” Angela hands Jamal a sheet of paper. “Here are the questions Susan’s asked the other guests.”
All the other interviews have the common thread of compelling American stories: a boy who battled cancer; an almost career-ending torn ACL; a girl hiding her gender at football tryouts. Each story a tearjerker. I’m hard pressed to believe that they’d leave out what’s at the heart of Jamal’s dedication. What he’s had to overcome.
I glance over Jamal’s shoulder and skim the questions, looking for my window of opportunity.
“Tracy,” Mama says. “Give your brother space.”
Hater. I step closer to Mama.
Angela goes over a few pointers. Before I can ear hustle more, Angela’s boyfriend, Chris Brighton, enters with a large box of doughnuts that appear tiny in his hands. Chris is still built out from football season, his strawberry-blond hair tucked under a Texas A&M hat with his jersey number, 27, stitched on the side. He’ll be playing there next year. Just like at school, he barely acknowledges us.
“Excuse me.” Angela goes to meet Chris, and I catch her mouthing, What are you doing here?
Chris places the box of doughnuts on the table. Angela touches his arm, like she’s trying to be sweet, but by the way her mouth is turned down, it’s obvious that she’s irritated at him messing up her work flow.
“Can I have one?” Corinne asks, ogling the doughnuts.
Mama agrees, and Corinne tiptoes past Angela. When she reaches in, the box slips.
“Watch it,” Chris snaps, catching the box. His square jaw is tight, like he can flick Corinne away with a nasty glare.
Jamal jumps up. Chris’s ears get red as Angela shushes him, pointing to the red flashing on air sign.
Sorry, Corinne mouths, then takes a bite.
Jamal joins us, his arm now around Corinne, who’s dressed in a striped yellow church dress. I chose a simple black A-line dress. My hair in an updo, sleek edges, and curls all out like a crown was placed on top of my head.
The camera cuts away from Susan, and they play a video of the four athletes they’ve spotlighted in May.
“It’s starting.” Corinne nudges Jamal before clapping like there’s a live audience. Crumbs flying everywhere.
Jamal chuckles and joins in with Corinne. I can’t help but let a smile slip, and I clap softly because Jamal deserves this.
The last of the footage includes Jamal’s records rolling up the screen. He’s compared to competitive world athletes with Olympic gold medals. Then they show Jamal’s last track meet of the season, where he beat the boys’ high school track record, tying the long-standing 1996 college record. I feel like I’m there again. The crowd cheered so loud it shook the bleachers. You knew something special was about to happen. Jamal dropped to his knees when the scoreboard confirmed the new record.
“You know what you gonna say?” Corinne asks.
“Do I know what I’m gonna say?” Jamal bends down to Corinne so he can whisper. “You got advice for me, baby sis?”
“Don’t say ummm.”
I burst out a laugh, then cover my mouth when Mama nudges me.
“That all you got?”
“You say ummm a lot when you’re nervous.” Corinne shrugs and takes Mama’s hand.
“You hear her, Tracy?” Jamal elbows me. “I don’t say ummm a lot.”
“You kinda do.” I smirk.
“Yoooo. You wrong for saying that right before my interview. You know what’s gonna be stuck in my head now, right?”
“Yip,” I say. “Ummmm.”
“Ummmm,” Corinne joins in. We sound like a chorus at the side of the stage.
“Knock it off now, girls.” Mama wags her finger at us.
Angela cuts between us, gesturing for Jamal to follow her onto the studio’s stage while we take a seat offstage. Jamal gives her a wink when she wishes him good luck. Her cheeks go pink. He can always make someone feel special. Daddy says he’s got a heart of gold. I just wish he wouldn’t throw it around so easily.
I watch Chris in the shadows. White privilege at its finest. Today he’s exhibiting classic toxic masculinity. I can tell Angela doesn’t want him here, but he’s too arrogant to think different. He acts that way in school, too, like he could get away with anything, since his dad is sheriff.
Poised and ready, Susan Touric faces the camera marked nbs one. She looks like all the white newscasters they have at this station except the rotating weather girls of color. Susan’s dressed in a white blouse and a gaudy necklace of choice for the day. Her silky black hair is coiffed in a bob around her fake-tanned skin, and pink lipstick matches the color of her glasses.
The crew shifts into movement. The spotlight zooms in. The producer gives her a hand signal near the teleprompter. A green light blinks, and Susan plasters on a smile. On cue, the music begins. My heart now beats at a rapid pace.
“Reporting live here at NBS World News. If you’re just tuning in, we’ve been highlighting top scholar athletes across the country. I have the pleasure of introducing a local star: the number one track athlete in the state of Texas, soon to be high school grad, Jamal Beaumont.”
Jamal’s dark brown skin shines as he flashes a wide smile. He sits lean and tall in a closely tailored dark blue suit, white shirt, and red tie he saved up for so Mama wouldn’t worry about the cost.
The camera loves him. My stomach twists because I need the interview to bring attention to Daddy’s case, but it’ll take away from Jamal. I hope he’ll forgive me once he realizes what I’m trying to do.
Bring Daddy home.
“When did you first start running?” Susan leans forward and rests her hand on her chin. The same way she begins every interview.
“You’re going to have to ask my mama, because I swear I came out running.”
Mama laughs, nudging me, then mouths, It’s true. It’s true.
I chuckle. Mama’s loving every second of this.
“When you’re not running, you’re also working at a local radio station and have your own show Thursday evenings.”
“Yes. I love it. I’m planning to major in communications and media.”
“One day you could be interviewing me.”
“That’s my sister’s thing. I’m more behind the scenes. Audio engineering.”
“Brains and brawn, huh?”
He gives her a modest smile. Susan eats it up.
“Do track stars run in the family? There’s usually more than one. Am I right?”
Jamal swallows, stopping for a millisecond, but I’m sure only Mama and I notice.
“The men in the family have those genes for sure.”
Jamal’s talking about Daddy. Before we moved to Texas, Daddy had his own track glory days in New Orleans. His name kept his hometown business afloat in tough times, with customers wanting to help him out. After the flood, all that was lost. People left, and the local history was forgotten. Life was still hard a decade after Hurricane Katrina, so when Hurricane Veronica hit, we also left for good.
We evacuated to Texas, but Daddy never ran again. During his trial, they said it was his speed that got him all the way across town so quick. Daddy’s fast, but he’s not Superman fast.
I watch Jamal, nervous with how he’ll handle this.
“Well, they must be proud,” Susan says.
“He is.” Jamal hesitates after he says “he.” He looks directly into the camera, and I smile at his secret way of acknowledging Daddy, and his ability to sidestep additional questions is impressive. Jamal’s not going to let this interview go down like that.
I’m both proud and nervous. I bite my lip, regretting that I tried all week to persuade him to use this as an opportunity to talk about Daddy’s appeal. Now Jamal’s guarded, each word carefully crafted to avoid Daddy coming up.
“One thing I love about highlighting you, Jamal, is that you could have chosen to go anywhere in the country, but you chose Baylor. Everyone thought you were going to Track Town, Oregon, or North Carolina. Why Baylor?”
“I’m a mama’s boy. Plain and simple. Got my two sisters over there.” Jamal points to us. “And I can be home in about four hours if I need to. What can I say?”
“I’m sure your family loves that you’ll be close. Let’s bring them out now.”
Angela leads Mama to the stage, where she sits next to Jamal. Corinne squishes in, and I end up at the edge of the couch.
The hot lights beam down on me. I’m dizzy now, with one thing on my mind.
The thing everyone here is thinking about, the thing that hasn’t been said but that’s boiling near the surface.
“Let’s meet your sister Corinne.”
Corinne’s round face immediately goes blank; her eyes bulge, like they’re about to pop.
“How old are you, Corinne?”
“You love your brother?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m gonna be real sad when he goes off to college.”
“I bet you are. What’s special about your brother?”
“He’s fast. And . . . when he packs my lunch, he always leaves me notes. I’m gonna miss that.”
“What kind of notes?”
“Nice stuff.” Corinne pauses. “Like if he knows I’m worried about something or trying to be funny. Like, ‘Smile. I’m watching you, Bighead.’ ”
Susan laughs awkwardly.
“It’s okay if he says Bighead.” Corinne shoots me a warning. “Only he can say it, though.”
I chuckle, because she’s told the world her nickname from Jamal, and now he’ll have to triple his notes to her.
“Or on Mondays when I’m real sad, he always leaves me a note like, ‘I love you more than the sun.’ I keep all those.”
Her voice has a heaviness to it no seven-year-old’s should have. The thing that goes unsaid in our family. That missing piece of us that keeps us down because we only see Daddy an hour on Saturday or Monday.
“Tracy.” Susan tries to stay upbeat. “You’re a year behind Jamal. Are you also an athlete? College plans?”
“I used to do track.” I pause, looking at Corinne, and then go for it. “I’m a school journalist and organize Know Your Rights workshops in the community.”
Mama digs her finger into my side. I have to grind my jaws together to keep a smile.
Susan’s face is expressionless before she turns to Mama.
“Mrs. Beaumont, what do you think about your son?”
“I’m so proud of Jamal. Anyone would be lucky to have him. He’s respectful. Dedicated. Charming. There’s no one like him.”
“I’ve definitely picked that up.” Susan rests her hand on her chin again. “Bet your husband is real proud, too.”
“He is.” Mama gives a tight smile.
Three minutes left on the show clock. My chest floods like I’m being filled by water. Time’s almost up. Susan has opened the door to talk about Daddy. I know that what hurts Jamal will hurt Mama. But we all want Daddy home. I can’t let this opportunity pass us by. I speak before Susan asks Mama another question.
“College seems so distant because I’ve been focused on helping my father’s appeal.”
Mama parts her lips. A small gasp escapes.
Jamal flinches, and it’s like a wave has come crashing down over the entire interview.
“Jamal.” Susan turns to my brother. “Is this what influenced your decision to stay close to home?”
Jamal’s expression goes blank.
Susan keeps going when Jamal doesn’t answer. “Because your father is in the Polunsky Prison.”
I watch him. Hope this pushes him to speak up on Daddy’s innocence. But he’s staring past the camera like he wants this to be over.
“Three-hour drive from Baylor to see him or your family.” Susan uses her hands like there’s an actual map.
Jamal stays composed. “I couldn’t find a reason in the world to go somewhere else. I wouldn’t want to miss any time with Pops, Moms, Corinne.” Jamal gives me a once-over. “My dear sister Tracy.”
Shame runs through my veins when Jamal singles me out.
“I can imagine,” Susan says. “You don’t get that time back. Every week counts.”
She’s wrong; every second counts.
“Now, your father, how long has he been sitting on death row?”
Sitting? Why do people say sitting? Like he’s waiting patiently in line with a number in his hand.
“Yes. Ma’am. He’s . . . umm.” Jamal shoots a look at Mama. He’s starting to flounder.
The crew is buzzing, scrambling at the breach of contract.
“He’s been, umm . . . on death row nearly seven years since the conviction,” Jamal says.
Inside I scream out in joy that he doesn’t skirt the issue.
“Must be painful.”
“A lot of pain felt from him missing in our lives.” Jamal pauses when his gaze is caught on Mama. “I’m sure there’s a lot of hurt, of course, from the families who lost the Davidsons that night.”
Daddy’s innocent. Why did he say it like that?
“But I take all that and train. I run. I care for my family. I work. I live my life freely because my dad can’t. I don’t need to be at a big track school. Not when the thing that matters is putting in work to help take care of my family. That’s something I can control. No one can beat me.” Jamal gives a shy smile. Slows down his rapid pace of talking. “In my head, I mean. Everyone has to lose sometime. But in my head, I can’t lose. Because I’m growing with each race.”
“Your dedication’s a rare trait, Jamal.”
“Thank you, ma’am. I don’t let things get me down. That’s why I’m so glad you highlighted me, and we can focus on my accomplishments.” Jamal smiles, unaffected by her prodding questions. I almost believe him.
“Must be hard, though.” She puts her delicate hand on her chin again. “Your father’s death sentence, having to start over from New Orleans, and then . . . the challenges in Texas.”
“Texas is home now. I plan to keep it that way.” Jamal keeps his fake grin.
It aches to watch Jamal hold his composure. He’s avoiding the topic as best he can. Mama’s scowl says she’ll slam it shut if Susan tries her.
“How long does your father have on death row?” Susan’s voice goes low.
“Two hundred and sixty-seven days.” I say it because knowing how long Daddy has left is the air I breathe. Time to live. To appeal. To turn back time.
Mama whips her head at me. The camera follows.
“Two hundred and sixty-seven days,” Jamal repeats. “That’s why we want to keep our family together and focus on the good.”
“Yes.” Susan touches Jamal’s shoulder this time. “I can’t imagine how hard it must be having your father in prison. Convicted of a double murder. Unimaginable.”
“Our father is innocent,” I say. “He’s been trying to appeal. But we don’t have the financial resources to prove his innocence.”
I’ve been writing to Innocence X to take Daddy’s case. They represent people wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. Especially those in underserved communities. People who can’t afford their bail, let alone an attorney with a team of expert witnesses to prove their client’s innocence.
After seven years of letters and no response, I’m getting Innocence X’s attention. Today.
“If your father is innocent, I’m sure the system will work.”
“No,” I say. “The system has failed us. Continues to fail us.”
“I don’t know much about the details of his case, but we can talk after the show, since we’ve reached the end of the interview time. Jamal, what would you—”
She’s cutting me off. I can’t let her take this time away from me. I haven’t said enough. I stand so the camera is forced to focus on me.
“Do you know how many men have been put to death who were later exonerated postmortem?” I point to the camera. “What about conviction rates by race and class? The system works if you have the money to defend yourself.”
Backstage, the crew creeps to the edge of the stage. My legs are Jell-O underneath me. I’m close to collapsing right here, so I form a fist that fills me with courage.
“My father is innocent, and we have the evidence, but not the legal support to appeal his case. There are hundreds, thousands, of cases like his. Innocent people sentenced all the time.”
Susan’s spiderlike eyelashes blink rapidly. Her legs point toward Jamal because she knows this should be his interview, but the journalist in her focuses on me.
“What evidence do you have proving your father’s innocence?”
The producer throws his arms up in frustration.
“He was home all evening,” I say.
“You were young then. I’m sure it’s hard to remember. I barely remember what I had for lunch.”
“That’s not something you forget, ma’am. A small town with a double murder, everyone locked in the memories of where they were that day.”
“He was home,” Mama interjects, even though I know she’s angry at me. “This interview today is about Jamal, but I can’t sit here and not defend my husband. He. Is. Innocent.”
“Then who do you suspect killed the Galveston couple?”
“Mark and Cathy Davidson were murdered, but not by my father or his business partner, Jackson Ridges. Other suspects have been recently identified,” I say.
Mama’s and Jamal’s expressions turn hard.
I know Mama doesn’t like when I lie, but we need to catch Innocence X’s attention.
“Unfortunately, the Galveston Police Department refuses to look into them, but we will find a legal team to represent my father’s case. When they study what we have, we’ll prove his innocence and the real killer will be arrested.”
As soon as the interview is over, Jamal jumps out of his seat.
“Tracy.” Mama’s got her hand on her hip. Susan Touric steps between us. Along with the producer, she blocks my view of Mama, but not before I witness how upset she is.
“This is unacceptable,” Mama says. “We had an agreement.”
“I stayed within my parameters,” Susan says. “Your daughter—”
Mama puts her hand up to me as I draw in closer to join the conversation. Her gesture is instantly sobering. This won’t be the time or place to talk to Mama. She won’t listen to a word I say. I want this to be a moment to celebrate because I did what I’d planned, but to everyone else around me this isn’t a celebration. I’m standing in the rubble of a building I blew up.
I follow Jamal, who is now in the hallway with Angela. Jamal’s shaking his head, and Angela is tearing up. Her boyfriend, Chris, paces as he waits for Angela on the other side of the studio.
“Jamal.” I reach for his shoulder, but he brushes me away. My cheeks are hot. “Jamal, I’m sorry.”
“Forget it. Go to Ma.” His voice is expressionless.
“I mean it. I’m sorry.”
“I knew you’d make it go the way you wanted to. Just wish you wouldn’t have done it like that.”
His response isn’t what I expected. I wanted him to be upset with me. Shout. Yell. Anything to help me figure out how to approach him, but he doesn’t budge.
“Give me a second, please,” I start.
“I don’t wanna hear it.” Jamal walks back to the studio.
I turn my head to find Mama. Angela stands in my way.
“You’re so selfish. You think you know everything, but you don’t,” she says.
“My father’s innocent.” I turn away from her.
“It’s not just this. It’s the same thing with the school paper, always about you and what you want to do. Think about how Jamal must feel.” Angela shakes her head, then storms out the exit doors. The Texas heat sucks the air out of my lungs until the door shuts behind her.
Mama’s no longer on the stage. The only person left is Corinne. She hasn’t moved from the interview couch. She’s crying. Jamal gets to her first; a sob builds in my throat watching them. Jamal sinks down to his knees and wraps his arms around her waist. I stand awkwardly behind him, wanting to help but knowing I did this. Corinne puts her arms around Jamal’s neck, her tears wetting his collar. The hurt I’ve forced onto my family knocks me backward as I look down at Corinne’s searching eyes.
“Everyone is angry,” Corinne says.
Jamal brushes her hair back. “Sometimes people do things that hurt because they think they’re helping.”
I shut my eyes and hope it’s not a lie.
Copyright © 2020 by Kim Johnson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.