It reads: Suffused with grace
About two years ago, I was called for jury duty for the first time since moving to Orlando. The summons came right on the heels of having spent a summer dedicated to the study of nonviolence and peacemaking. I was just coming out of that mostly solitary endeavor, and standing to greet me when I emerged was the invitation to jury duty.
I remember driving around my town one afternoon shortly after those months of study ended, puzzling over what it would look like for me to practice a life of nonviolence and peacemaking where I actually live. What would it look like to bring light into dark places where I am, in this time and place in which I find myself? How might I begin to test in my own real life — on a much smaller scale than the experiments my heroes and mentors had done in their own times and places in history — the nonviolence philosophy that love is the only transforming force powerful enough to overcome violence in the world and in ourselves?
As I drove around town that afternoon, I recalled the jury summons I’d recently received in the mail. Suddenly, the next step in my journey seemed to unfold like ready-made steps before me on the path.
I considered the dark and hopeless place that a prison or jail really is. In fact, they exist because dark deeds happen. And those staying inside those walls live one dark fight after another each day: fights in the court for their lives and their freedom, fights inside the jail among the guards and other inmates, and fights with their families, friends, and loved ones as they seek to clear their names, speak their truth, or simply be a part of life as much as they can from behind metal bars and double-paned glass.
How often does light shine in a place like that? Does love even exist there? What would happen if it did? Could it overwhelm the fear, the shame, the guilt, and the hate that crawl those walls every day?
I drove home that day, opened up my laptop, and began a Google search on prison ministries and chaplaincy work. Then I began to get acquainted with the prison and jail ministry happening at my church. And I began to anticipate with greater enthusiasm the chance to perform my civic duty.
On the day I was called to jury duty in September 2009, I can’t tell you what book I brought with me to read, though I remember holding a book in my hand the entire day and turning page upon page. I can’t tell you anything about the people I met, even though I remember participating in several conversations with those seated around me.
What I can tell you, however, is what it was like to stare into the eyes of a young man who had been accused of four different counts of violence.
I was a member of the final group called into a jury panel that day, and it concerned a criminal case. After waiting a long time in the main juror’s room and then a while longer still just outside the courtroom, we were called inside to learn about the case and be questioned by the lawyers.
I sat on the right side of the courtroom, facing the judge. Seated in the center of the room, facing us, was a young African-American man in his early twenties. He appeared tall, with short-cropped hair, and clean-shaven.
At least three different times during the hour I spent in that room, I locked eyes with this young man. His eyes were dark and intelligent, but his face never registered any change in expression as we sat in the room being considered for his case.
Every time our eyes met, I felt his eyes boring into me.
I couldn’t help but wonder, What was this young man’s story? How did he end up here, being tried for such violent acts? Even if he was truly innocent, he was on the scene of the crime that night — which made me wonder, what sort of life did he lead that would land him in such a scenario?
And who, I wondered most of all, did he have to talk to? What was this young man’s story, and who, if anyone, cared to truly know it?
I wasn’t selected for the jury on the case, but as I drove away from the courthouse, I kept thinking about that young man. I’ve thought of him often, too, since then. What happened to him? Was he convicted? How does he spend his days right now?
Shortly after my jury summons, I began helping with a new initiative at my church as part of the prison and jail ministry team. We were beginning to coordinate with many churches in the area to effect a community-wide program that helps returning citizens from jail reintegrate into normal life upon release.
As part of this effort, I attended a training day at the Orange County correctional facility in Orlando in the fall of 2009. That was my first official time on the grounds of the Orange County jail and my first time entering a place with very high security measures: I was not allowed to bring any belongings with me beyond the gate — no purse, no cell phone, no wallet.
When our training for the day ended, our team stopped by the women’s dorm where they had been serving on a regular basis. This, too, was a new experience for me. I’d never been inside the actual walls of a jail before.
After signing in, we walked through a short, secured hallway with windows on either side. Through the window on our left, I saw a young woman in her twenties or thirties, dressed in a bright orange jumpsuit, laying on a bench behind one of the glass windows. She stared at us as we walked by, never taking her eyes away as we walked down the short hallway and through the next secured door. I wondered about her story, too — why she was there, what her life experiences have been, whether she’d served time there before, and what sorts of things run through her mind as she sits behind that window for who knows how long.
The next secured door led us into a large open area with a very high ceiling and doors leading into various offshoots around the large circular room. Each door led into a separate women’s dorm inside the building.
We turned to the right and entered one of the dorms. Inside, a group of women seated at several tables in a main gathering area were finishing an afternoon nutrition class. When we walked in, many jumped from their seats and walked over to embrace the women on our team. They were ecstatic to share stories and have a chance to be seen and heard by those who were visiting them.
As I stood with one of the women on our ministry team inside the dorm that day, she mentioned to me that Casey Anthony was being held on those same grounds.
“Casey Anthony?” I asked. “Here? Really?”
“Do you know where?” I asked. “Like, is she staying in a room like this, with a bunch of other women?” It was hard to imagine the woman from such a high-profile case staying in a dorm room like the one I was standing in.
My friend didn’t know any details.
I looked out the window of the dorm where we stood into the main open area just beyond us. My glance strayed to the high ceiling of that main room, then the exercise yard just outside one of the doors, and then to the buildings on the grounds across the parking lot.
Where on these grounds might Casey be staying? What were her conditions like? Did she interact with other inmates, or was she kept isolated? Did her family ever visit? What about her friends? Was she even allowed to receive visitors? Did she get lonely staying there?
These were just some of the questions that flashed through my mind as I stood inside the dorm room that day, taking in the news that Casey Anthony was staying somewhere in the vicinity of where I stood in that moment.
That night, I could hardly sleep. All I could think about was Casey Anthony. I hadn’t followed her case very closely, but you can hardly live in Orlando and escape hearing her name or seeing pictures of her daughter for very long.
I wasn’t very interested in the case or the media attention it got. No, what mattered to me, suddenly quite intensely that night, were the same questions that had haunted me about the young man I’d seen in the courtroom while serving jury duty. This time the questions sharpened their focus on the woman’s face that had become so familiar to all of us living in Orlando.
What was her story, really? And not just the story of what happened to her daughter, but the whole of Casey Anthony’s story? Who was she? What had she lived through? And did anyone really care?
I don’t drive by the Orange County correctional facility very often — maybe once a month, if that. But every time I pass by those grounds, I can feel its gravitational pull working on me. The soul of the place is bleak, and it stands as an ominous, soulless presence right in the middle of Orlando.
And somewhere within four of those walls sat Casey Anthony these past couple years.
Every time I have passed by that place in the last two years, I have prayed for her. Sometimes my heart has grown quite heavy for her in those moments and it has taken some time to shake off that heaviness.
I have prayed for her, and I have continued to wonder. What is her story? Who does she have to talk to? And who, if anyone, really cares to know? Who would listen to her soul and look into her eyes without squirming or recoiling in horror?
It must be the spiritual director in me, but these are the things I think about when I think about Casey Anthony. I realize it’s unusual, and I realize it’s also unpopular.
But last night, after the first day of jury deliberations began, I couldn’t sleep because she was on my mind for these very same reasons. I wondered about her fate, yes, and have felt the gravity of her life in the hands of her jury. I have wondered just like everyone else what really happened to her daughter, Caylee.
But more than anything, all these years she’s been in the media spotlight, I have wondered even more about her story. That, and whether she has anyone who truly can receive it — and to whom she would want it to be known.
Even today, as we received the verdict from the jury that acquitted her, it’s still the foremost question on my mind. The spiritual director in me believes that it is within the most sacred spaces between people that hold no judgment where true healing, forgiveness, and freedom can be found.
This is what I wish for Casey Anthony, more than anything. That she would find such sacred space and at least one soul who truly listens.