The Human Writes Conference 2011 in London certainly had a buzz in the air as friendships made at previous conferences were rekindled and members swapped penfriendship stories and happenings in their states.
Our main speaker was Bud Welch, whose daughter Julie died in the Oklahoma City bombing at the age of 23. One of Bud’s aims in speaking to us was to place a face on one of the 168 people who died. Bud spoke passionately about Julie’s upbringing and her love of languages following an encounter with a Mexican girl at school who quickly became bi-lingual. This led his daughter to study languages and get a job working in the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City as an interpreter for Social Security Administration where, on 19 April 1995, she died whist seeing two Mexican clients in the building.
Following Julie’s death Bud spoke of how he was enveloped with hatred and revenge and said he felt that Tim McVeigh should not be allowed a trial. Bud spoke frankly of his use of alcohol to self-medicate and how he went from smoking one to four packets of cigarettes a day. He spoke of feeling close to Julie by visiting the bombsite. After a year Bud realised that what he was doing was not working and that killing Tim McVeigh was not going to form part of his personal healing process. It was hatred that killed his daughter and, after reconciling things in his mind, he started speaking out against the death penalty. He made his feelings known to a reporter and calls from the media flooded in from around the world wanting to know his story and views. Bud was invited to events to speak about his story and it was from this realisation that he started to feel better.
Bud spoke of seeing Tim McVeigh’s father on TV and how, despite not wanting to watch, he did. In the answer to the final question put to Bill McVeigh, Bill looked directly down the lens of the camera and Bud saw that he was a man overcome with grief, recognising the pain in his eyes. It was at this moment that Bud knew he wanted to tell this man how he felt and that he did not blame him. A meeting was set up for Bud to meet Bill McVeigh at his home where Tim had grown up. Despite his reservations about going to his home he agreed. Bud, Bill and Tim’s sister Jennifer sat around the kitchen table talking. Bud recalled that there was a picture of Tim on the wall behind him that kept catching his eye and finally he felt he had to say something and he commented on what a good looking kid he was.
When Bud was ready to leave he shook Bill’s hand and extended it to Jennifer who grabbed him and the pair started to cry, which then turned to sobbing. Bud told her that he didn’t want her brother to die and would do everything he could to prevent it. Bud said as he walked out of Bill’s house he felt a weight lift from his shoulders as, while he is able to speak about Julie, Bill cannot speak about his son.
On 11 July 2001 Tim McVeigh was executed and Bud said it did not bring peace or make him feel good. Bud’s story was truly inspirational and showed us the power and control that forgiveness gave him. He showed us the compassion he had for Bill McVeigh and his family, and understood that in executing Tim McVeigh, his family too would be victimised.
In the morning session of our conference we were delighted to welcome back Pablo Stewart, a physician with a speciality in clinical and forensic psychiatry who, in his own words, ‘can’t be kept away’. Pablo was thankful of the support of Human Writes and its members and says he is back with new vigour following a challenging year.
Pablo spoke of the changes he had seen in the USA over the past year, with fewer trials now being seen due to the prohibitive cost. He stressed the importance of maintaining our friendships, emphasising how often Human Writes is warmly mentioned by the prisoners he sees.
He spoke about public opinion and that whilst the majority of the American people still support the death penalty, public opinion is actually shifting and the abolitionists continue to move forward, albeit there is still a long road ahead.
Another speaker was Sara Williams, a pupil at barristers' chambers in London who undertook a Summer internship with death row defence lawyers in Houston, Texas through Amicus, a charity organisation which assists in the provision of legal representation for those awaiting capital trial and punishment in the USA. Sara spoke of her first impression of Texas as a state proud of its approach to criminal justice, with prosecutors attracting an air of respect while defence lawyers were looked down upon. She described a prison visit to the Polunsky Unit, a ‘dungeon of a place’ where through the barbed wire, little can be seen but the greyness of the building. As a lawyer she was subjected to a vigorous search and placed in an attorney booth. Communication took place through thick bullet-proof panels, assisted by the use of telephones. Conversations via telephone were often difficult and there was no guarantee of privacy. Sara now occasionally writes to one of the clients she visited and whom she says had a profound effect on her as her eyes were opened to the real cost of the death penalty. When asked what helps penfriends when writing Sara spoke of the difference letters make as a connection to the outside world and while the content is not important, it is genuine sincere human contact that makes a difference.
The afternoon session saw the lighting of two candles with a one-minute's silence. This is our time for remembrance of death row friends who are no longer with us, those who are still on death row, and also to remember the victims of crime and their loved ones.
In the final session of the day Jackie, a long-time member and penfriend, spoke of her and her husband's visit to her penfriend Guy and read an extract from a letter that he wrote following her trip, expressing his gratitude towards her for caring. Maureen Dunn read an extract from her penfriend John's letter describing a trip to court and his observations of the world outside the prison. Mary Vaughan read pieces from Orlando, John and Darryl from the states she co-ordinates. The final contribution to this session was from Laura, who gave a moving account of her recent last visit to her penfriend Mark and witnessing his execution. She spoke about the day of the execution and the feelings she experienced, but also of the bravery and calmness of her penfriend and the peace that he had reached. Laura spoke of the deepness of their friendship and how Mark had touched her life.
The conference closed with words from Sue Fenwick, Founder of Human Writes. Sue thanked our speakers, co-ordinators and most importantly our members whose commitment to the organisation takes it from strength to strength.
Report by Caroline Hayward