by B.R. Aronoff
August 5, 1997... The guards stood like tin soldiers. Each one
had different dents, different stances, different glances, different places
where the paint was scratched off to leave bare the base material, different
fears and different dreams... different differences! The righteous left were
there standing and moving their own tin soldier ways; with their own methods of
being different... and the same.
Up on the roof facing the stage stood the surveillance crew with yet another
set of rules for them to stand, Look, pretend not to look and listen for the
correct phrase or emphasis to support their distorted assumptions.
The miserably disrespectful right didn't get there in time. Their banners of
hate and revenge reflected upon us all. THe majority of those present were not
there to look at that side of themselves. It was to be a vigil in support of
Thomas Thompson who was to have died in six hours but a virtual miracle, by
California Judicial standards of clemency, occurred. He was given a reprieve at
least until October when the courts reconvened. It was better than nothing. The
guards snatched his last meal away from him and ate it themselves.
The media all had the look of disappointment on their heavily ready faces.
After all, with no execution there's no stories; no interviews with a teary-eyed
friend. All their equipment lining both sides of the street for a half mile
leading up to the prison looked like big out of place toys. The "No Parking"
signs stretched for miles. The authorities seemed to want to make it as
uninviting as possible to the vigilants. But Tom had countless friends who would
have crossed the Alps to be there.
For the few who visit and know the condemned, the involvement becomes a
lifestyle. Most of the time it is a jubilation to play a part. Other times it
becomes too real. Too many horrifying lessons are learned by naive people who
grow old overnight. The unexpected becomes the unknown. A loved one has lost the
fight. He is dead. You are not. But you can still feel his presence; smell his
prison smell; feel his strong arms. Rage! "BUT HE WAS SO ALIVE!"
For several weeks after an execution, the visiting room at San Quentin reacts
like one body; a body healing from a devastating operation. He isn't there
anymore. he'll never return.
There were countless friendships in that room from all possible walks of
life. They are gone. That chair over there; that's where they sat... his
girlfriend and him... right there. I wonder if that youngster realizes who used
to sit right there. they'd laugh a lot. She'd cry sometimes. It was a tough
struggle for both of them. But you knew by watching them they both thought it
was worth every second.
There were four of those tragic "operations" which killed so much more of us
than we care to admit. Hopefully, number five was canceled for good. There was
even a good chance Tom would soon go free. If only he would be granted a new
On August 7th, I was to go inside and visit a friend on Death Row. Tom called
him "Mr. Personality". Neither of them spoke to each other. In any other
location in the prison these two men might chance to meet bloodshed would be a
certainty. In the visiting rooms, however, there was one golden rule amongst the
prisoners. NO SHIT IN THE VISITING ROOM!!! In the last thirteen years there were
two incidents. One involved a lawyer being stabbed repeatedly with a sharpened
toothbrush by his disgruntled client. The other incident involved a prisoner and
his wife having a brawl. The inmate who would jeopardize visiting privileges for
the others would face an almost certain death.
As a result of Tom's utter disgust for the guy I'd visit, we'd exchange
pleasantries before "Mr. Personality" would enter the room. Some times it would
take almost an hour;; other times, five or ten minutes.
While standing in the sallyport by the plexi-glass and expanded steel
entryway I was able to look inside the visiting room and see who might be down
today. Being involved with the condemned all these years has afforded me many
friendships within the confines of the rules an regs of an oppressed and
oppressive system. There was no Bob D. with his girlfriend, Kim. Little JAy was
talking animatedly to Kitty. He was beginning to paint again. After his appeal
was denied, the brilliant art he was producing had no meaning for him. The Night
Stalker was sitting in his regular seat next to his wife, Doreen. He had just
been released from solitary confinement where he had spent the last eleven years
without any significant human contact. there were several new arrivals on the
row sitting and trying not to show their wide-eyedness. Some of the condemned
looked as if they were barely out of high school. It was over for them almost
before it began. It must be tough being a Judge sometimes. One prisoner was
sitting towards the back. Just as the lock on the door crashed open with a
hideous metallic sound to signal my entry, our eyes met. It was Tom. He was
already making body motions which signaled his happiness to see me and to come
The ecstasy of that moment shall remaining my heart forever. It was Tom. He
made it through. Although he looked as if he hadn't slept for two weeks, his
aura of relief was powerful. Rita had no problem smiling from ear to ear. She
was clutching onto her man as if he were the Christmas gift she'd always dreamed
of having. For the first time both Tom and I ignored the prejudice of me being a
"them" and he being an "us". We were two men glad to be in each others company.
We stared for a second or so and then embraced. It was Tom. The operation was
canceled. It was the hug of a lifetime. "Love is all there is..."
Note: On July 14, 1998, Tom Thompson was executed under grave suspicion of
being innocent. Crucial evidence was ignored. If that evidence can be proven
beyond a shadow of a doubt to be true, it will signal the beginning of the end
for the death camps throughout the land of the free.
Long live Tom Thompson...