Talking with Ivan, I found a flame of life on death row

Ivan Cantu (Paul Adams)

I was finally about to meet the man I had been writing letters to for 11 years. Separated by glass, and unable to hug or shake hands, we would have to use phone receivers to talk to each other. To my right and left, others were doing the same, a line of tête-à-têtes happening in unison, separated by booth dividers. My friend Ivan Cantu is on death row in Texas.

I had left my harried life as a working mother in Washington, D.C., for two days this August to make the long-overdue trip. I considered it a pilgrimage of sorts.

Ivan and I started writing when I was 29 and he was 32. He was three years into a death sentence, convicted of killing his cousin and his cousin's fiancée over drug money. I was just married and working in international development. Right from the start, Ivan told me he was wrongfully convicted.

Back then, I didn't have an opinion about Ivan's guilt — it didn't matter to me one way or another. But I saw clearly that no one was listening to him. His trial attorney had refused to investigate anything. His appellate attorney never spoke or wrote to him before submitting the habeas corpus appeal. Maybe I could listen to him, I thought. Maybe that was the only thing I could do.

The Polunsky Unit where Ivan lives is an oppressive complex of barbed wire and low gray buildings, incongruously situated on a winding farm road one hour north of Houston. I had never been to a prison before and everything about it intimidated me.

"Washington, D.C., eh?" one guard said, eyeing my license. "Do y'all have many wildfires there?"

"Oh no, we don't. … Not many," I replied, trying to sound deferential.

The invitation to write to someone on death row came through my connection to the Community of Sant'Egidio, a Catholic lay association that -- among many other activities -- supports prisoners and advocates for the abolishment of the death penalty worldwide.

Pope Francis' recent words to Congress summarize the inspiration behind the community's work and the first reason why I don't believe in the death penalty (there are many). "Every life is sacred," the pope said. "Every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes." 

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