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He did a monstrous thing, but Exzavious is not a monster


I’m sitting in front of a computer in the library, and tears are streaming down my face. I feel like I might get sick and I’m acutely aware that the person at the next computer is staring at me. My face is hot, and I wish she would stop looking at me.

I’ve just found an article from the Fulton County Reporter providing the brutal details of how an elderly man in Eastman, Ga., was killed by a 17-year-old crack addict named Exzavious Gibson.

Exzavious is my pen pal and my friend.

This is the first time I’ve known the particulars of his crime. It took place almost nine years ago. He was robbing a convenience store and he stabbed the man behind the counter with such force that the knife broke off inside the victim’s body.

I’ve been writing Exzavious for almost two years now, having met him through a pen pal program while I was an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame. How do I feel, knowing the full truth of what he did? I’m scared. Horrified. Nauseated. But I guess I knew what I was getting myself into. I knew he was a convicted murderer when I started writing to him. I know it more now as I visualize the scene in my head once, twice, three times.

Exzavious doesn’t talk about his life in prison all that much in his letters. He doesn’t talk about his appeals or a date being set for his execution. He doesn’t talk about being treated poorly by guards.

The closest he ever came to getting personal is when he told me about nearly chopping his finger off in the work station. He was worried because the new rules in Georgia say that prisoners must cover the expenses of their injuries unless the wound is life-threatening. Fortunately, the prison doctor took a liking to him and wrote in his report that it was possible Exzavious might have bled to death. The state picked up the tab.

But mostly he expresses his solitude in subtle ways, like what he wouldn’t do for a cheeseburger and fries or a good ice cream cone.

For the first year and a half, neither of us knew what the other looked like. When I graduated from college, I sent him my senior picture. A couple of weeks later, I received a picture he had had copied for me. It was of him with three of his little nieces and nephews that had come to visit. He wore glasses and a bright smile. It wasn’t what I expected to see. It wasn’t how I pictured him. “But why not?” I thought.

Exzavious has been on death row for eight years now. He has no money, and because Georgia is one of the few states in the union that does not provide post-conviction representation for indigent death row prisoners, he has handled his first three appeals on his own.

Those appeals will soon be exhausted and then -- well, I don’t want to think about that.

He did a horrible, disgusting, monstrous thing. I know that. But he is not a monster. He is a human being -- capable of love, capable of friendship, capable of redemption. He was once a tiny, innocent baby just like me and just like you. Then he was a child with dreams and goals. Just like me. Just like you.

Unlike me, and I hope unlike you, he was a child with no father to speak of. His mother was murdered. Then he was sent to live with an aunt who severely abused him.

He turned to drugs. And then he did that wretched, wretched thing.

He took the life of another, and now he must pay the consequences. He seems to realize the gravity of his actions and feels that he deserves to be in jail, deserves the ill-treatment and the solitude.

But he does not deserve death, for his debts must be paid with the respect due every human, because he is human. Regardless of what he did, he is human. A life. A sacred, always sacred, life.

My relationship with Exzavious has been, and will continue to be, one of the defining experiences of my life. Soon the State of Georgia will probably murder Exzavious Gibson, and we will not be any safer, will not be better off. We will instead have to live with the sorrowful knowledge that on that day people acting in our name destroyed a sacred life; we ourselves became killers.

We will have done a wretched, wretched thing.

Tara Dix writes from her home in St. Charles, Ill. She can be reached at taradix@hotmail.com

National Catholic Reporter, January 22, 1999