"BORN IN St. Louis and raised in New Mexico," prize-winning poet
Stephen Wayne Anderson wrote to me four years ago, "I was passing through
California when I shot someone during an $80 bungled burglary and found myself
a permanent resident. That residency grows short; my lease is coming due."
Anderson's eviction, by lethal injection, is scheduled for one minute after
A national campaign has been under way to ask Gov. Gray Davis for clemency,
but the governor denied it on Saturday. Chances are now slim for any last-
Anderson's case is strong. He is a thoroughly rehabilitated man. Since the
reinstatement of the death penalty in California in 1977, there has not been
such strong support for clemency from a victim's family. Surviving relatives
of 81-year-old Elizabeth Lyman have said that they do not want or need his
The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco has overturned two other capital
convictions on the grounds that defense attorney S. Donald Ames, Anderson's
trial counsel, was incompetent. Ames failed to present to the jurors the
mitigating circumstances of Anderson's extraordinarily troubled childhood; his
parents were mentally disturbed and his father regularly beat him to within an
inch of his life.
Moreover, his murder occurred during a burglary of a house; Anderson heard
a sound and fired into the dark, instantly killing a woman. He did not flee.
Rather he opened the curtains, turned on all the house lights and waited three
hours for the police to arrive, according to his attorneys. Confessing his
crime to the police, he said that he hoped California has a death penalty.
At his trial, he said of his victim, "She didn't deserve that. I was very
Although Anderson confessed to two other murders, he was never convicted of
them. And according to his attorneys, he later retracted one and insisted that
the other was in self-defense. Relatives of the victim in the alleged self-
defense case have also argued against Anderson's execution.
My argument for Anderson's life springs from personal experience.
Like other writers on the prison committee of the PEN (Poets, Essayists and
Novelists) American Center, I know how dramatically many prisoners grow while
behind bars. From the hundreds of manuscripts submitted to our contest every
year, we get a privileged glimpse of some of the most serious writing in the
Editing a collection of the best work of 51 PEN prison-writing contest
winners, I asked the authors what motivates them.
Fiction writer Susan Rosenberg replied, "Writing forces me to remain
conscious of the suffering around me and to resist getting numb to it. I write
to keep my heart open, to keep pumping fresh red blood."
Anderson would say the same, although the threat of death puts the task of
remaining human to the harshest test. He wrote me about the more than 500 men
awaiting court decisions on California's Death Row: "We carry imminent
destruction with us constantly. We eat, sleep and breathe death."
But writing, he said another time, offers the experience of "coming out of
an emotional desert into an exciting whirlwind of expression and release." And, again, "A sentence of death made me realize the value of life, and of living."
After a period of despair, Anderson undertook to educate himself. He read
everything he could and even studied Latin. Now, he writes; his thirst to read
is so great that "I even dream of libraries."
He rises at midnight to read and write in relative quiet. The week before
his scheduled execution, he was trying to complete a novel.
"These are the graves of the executed ones." So begins "Conversations with
the Dead," which took first prize for poetry in the 1990 PEN contest.
Contemplating San Quentin's "phantom land," its "horizon of tombstones,"
Anderson writes with unflinching remorse of murder victims:
stolen from life
becoming but candles lit by children
who became adults before childhood lived. . .
Living on Death Row for 20 years, Anderson has seen some men released;
others walk to their death. He is a connoisseur of despair, the poet laureate
of America's damned. He longs for an anthology of condemned prisoners' writing.
His own gift of compassion may be the greatest reward for his personal
transformation. In a recent poem, he wrote:
Over these incarcerated years
I have heard men wail in the night,
mourning misplaced lives and lost souls . . .
The poem concludes:
Nothing seems as forlorn as the profound crying
of an unseen man weeping in solitude.
In a poem titled "Weapons against the Dark," Anderson wrote:
Over here above the sink
below the metal shelf is my homemade altar
holding all my weapons against darkness.
Satan's evil hasn't got a chance here.
Anderson goes on to describe his pictures of Buddha and Krishna, his
crucifix and images of Mary, his candles, which are:
wrapped by a well-used rosary
handed to me by a doomed man
as he walked one final time.
Anderson has had no disciplinary problems for 15 years. No victims'
relatives cry for his blood. The majority of Californians now support life
without parole instead of the death penalty. Nationally, the moratorium
movement is growing; this is an opportunity for the Golden State to join it.
Bell Gale Chevigny, a recipient of the Soros Justice Fellowship, edited "Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing, A PEN American Center Prize Anthology" (Arcade, 1999). She is professor emeritus of literature at Purchase College, State University of New York
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle