It all started six months before X‑day when Oliver Stansted and Marlene Dixon visited the Pennsylvania Institute for Women in Muncy. Oliver trotted eagerly in first, like a wet surfer trying so desperately not to miss his second wave. He had thin brown hair that hung limply around the cherry contour of his face in a style that was probably at least a decade behind the times. (I know this because it was the hairstyle of choice when I was arrested.) A lone dimple nicked the center of his chin in a clean gunshot.
I was in the diminutive holding cell with the telephone receivers where they dragged me whenever I had a visitor. Visitors weren’t rare--a story for the local newspaper? a feature for a news magazine television series? a book deal?--but when Oliver Stansted came up for his first breath, firm but anxious, steady but nervous, twenty, maybe twenty-five, I realized that my expectations would quickly need readjustment.
“Noa, is it?” he said, speaking impossibly close to the receiver. “Noa Singleton?”
The aristocratic Noa is it? British phrasing of his greeting skipped upward at the end of the statement as if it were a posh question in one syllable. Confidence and naïveté burst in the same hyperenunciated greeting.
“My name is Oliver Stansted and I’m a lawyer in Philadelphia,” he said, looking down to his little script. His was handwritten in red ink. “I work for a nonprofit organization that represents inmates on death row and at various other points of the appeals process, and I’ve just recently been appointed to your case.”
“Okay,” I said, staring at him.
He was not the first wide-eyed advocate to use me as a bullet point on his climb to success. I was used to these unexpected visits: the local news reporters shortly after I was arrested, the national ones after my conviction, the appointed appellate lawyers year after begrudging year as I was drafted into the futile cycle of appeals without anyone truly listening to me explain that I had no interest in pursuing further legal action, that I just wanted to get to November 7 as quickly as possible. They, like this new one, had no concern for my choices.
“So what do you want with me?” I asked. “I’m out of appeals. They’re killing me in November. ‘First woman to fry in years.’ You read the news, don’t you?”
Mr. Oliver Stansted forced another smile to replicate the one that had deflated while I spoke. He ran his fingers through his hair, pulling it out of the clean part on the side, all in order to appear the very image of a public interest lawyer; a die-hard anti–death penalty advocate who chose to marry the alleged system of justice instead of entering a legal union of his own. And, like all the others who came to me before the middle-age conversion of Republicanism set in, even his voice was typecast to match his hairstyle and choice of wardrobe: docile as a prostrated ocean, as if he had slipped from his mother’s womb begging for a nonprofit position and studio apartment to match. I hated him instantly.
“Well, despite the fact that you’re out of appeals, I’ve been chatting with some of your lawyers, and--”
“--which ones?” I jumped. “Stewart Harris? Madison McCall?”
I’d been sitting in this cubicle for nearly a decade listening to a veritable rainbow of lawyers talk at me about the lowly little trial attorneys they thought screwed me over.
“Tell me this, Mr. Oliver Stansted. Why am I supposed to sit here and destroy their careers just so you can feel like you’re doing the right thing?”
He smiled again as if I had just complimented him.
“Well, I have spoken with Mr. Harris about some of the things that happened at your trial.”
“Harris is useless. What about McCall?”
He nodded and I could tell he’d prepared for this visit.
“Unfortunately, he’s since passed.”
“Passed?” I laughed. “No euphemisms here, Oliver. Ollie. Look around. I don’t think any one of us deserves a gentler explanation. What was it? Cancer? AIDS? I knew he slept around. Maybe it was syphilis.”
“There was a fire at his office,” he conceded. “He wasn’t able to get out in time. He died from smoke inhalation.”
My head nodded three short times. Things like this weren’t supposed to impact people like me.
“I see,” I finally said.
“I’ve also spoken to some of your appellate lawyers,” he added, moving on. “The habeas ones.”
“What did they tell you? That I was abused by my uncle? That I’m mentally unstable? That I didn’t mean to do it? That there’s something in my past that should give the court cause to spare me?”
I waited for a comeback. They always have one. It’s like law school trains these junkies to masticate language as if it’s gum. Stick a slice in your mouth, chew on it, blow it full of hot air, and then spit it on the ground when it no longer tastes good.
“No,” he said. “Not exactly.”
“So why are you here, then? I’ve come to terms. It’s over.” He followed my lips as I spoke, as if the Plexiglas between us stifled his voice. “And if I’m okay with it, you should be okay with it. You don’t even know me.”
“The thing is, we really do believe that you could be a good case for clemency.”
“We?” I asked.
“Yes, we think you’re in a remarkably unique position that could make a strong case for filing a clemency petition.”
And there we had it, the perennial reason for the visit. A deep-seated desire to right a wrong. Or wrong a right. Or right a wrong that was done rightly for someone who did something wrong. But there was nothing more to hear. He might as well have handed over another stack of appeals, new evidence on my behalf--all futile attempts of desperation that nearly every other person with a JD who’s met me has already tried.
“You think I’m wrongly convicted, don’t you?” I smiled. “You want to start your career off with a bowl of karma so big you’ll be set for all the nasty stuff you’ll do in the future when you work for a multinational bank or reinsurance company or something like that. Am I right?”
He didn’t reply at first.
“I’m right, right?”
Again, no reply.
I sighed. “Please.”
He looked around cautiously. “Innocence is always a factor to discuss, especially when dealing with executions.” He almost whispered, placing extra emphasis on the word innocence, as if it actually meant something to him alone.
The truth is, at one point, I did contemplate my innocence, but it was short lived, like adolescent lust or a craving for chocolate.
“Did you know, Ollie, that there are, like, five thousand lonely women in Europe who are dying to marry all the men in prison?” He didn’t respond. I don’t think he was amused. “You’re British, right?”
“Technically yes.” He nodded, not realizing I was barely listening. “I’m actually Welsh. I was born in Cardiff.”
“Well then. Guess how many Welsh Romeos we women have?”
Mute. He was mute.
I lifted my hand to my mouth as a whisper cone. “I’ll give you a clue. It’s the same amount as the Russian ones.”
Still nothing. His reticence wasn’t much of a surprise. Silence in retaliation did have its roots in proper places. After all, he walked in trying to act like Atticus Finch but didn’t realize that smug complacence on the body of a pale-skinned soccer player from Wales wasn’t exactly the most effective legal tactic.
“Ollie, you’ve got to be quick on your toes if you want to make it with the likes of these other defense attorneys,” I said, snapping my fingers. “They come in here semiannually, begging for my free hour a day, you know. Come on, you can do better.”
When he didn’t kick the ball back my way, I figured that was that for this umpteenth self-righteous solicitor.
“Fair enough,” I said, and then put the phone down. “Guard!”
“Noa, please listen,” he finally said, faintly. I could barely hear his words leaking from the receiver in my resting hand. “Please pick up the phone.”
He held out a hand to the division. Four of his fingers kissed the Plexiglas wall so that I could see their blueprints, little lines curved within the cushion of his surprisingly meaty fingertips. Their heat fogged the glass.
“We very much would like to talk to you.”
I waited for him to follow that statement with a name, but not one materialized. I almost turned away when he knocked again on the Plexiglas wall, imploring me to listen. A name drifted faintly through the noise. Hands pantomimed, beseeching me to pick up the receiver. Place it near your ear, I heard. Almost ten years after my incarceration, staring at that mismatched set of Welsh teeth, I could have sworn that Ollie Stansted was saying Sarah’s mother’s name.
“We?” I asked, eventually picking up the receiver.
He smiled, relieved.
“I’ve recently had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Marlene Dixon, and she believes that you should live. That is why we believe--the both of us--that you’re a viable candidate for clemency. It usually is a routine, dead-end last option, but because of her relationship with both . . .”
I stopped listening at “viable.” The last of his imprints had faded on the Plexiglas, and all that was left was a greasy translucent wall. It was the only thing I could focus on at that moment. The thick manufactured division between those who live and those who, well, live another way.
“Really,” I finally replied. “Marlene . . . ?”
The polysyllabic connection of letters that spelled out Mahrrrr-leeen Dihhhck-sunn brought me to nauseous self-flagellation every time I heard it, so for the last ten years, I’ve tried never to think of those sounds together. Ollie, clearly trying to think on his toes to compete no doubt with the likes of people just like Marlene Dixon, didn’t stop to listen to what I was saying, or not saying, or intimating, or, I don’t know, protesting in unrepentant silence. He was a quick learner--at least that’s one thing to admire about him on first impression.
“Mrs. Dixon has recently started a nonprofit organization called Mothers Against Death and doesn’t feel that even the cruelest of killers deserves to be murdered by the state. I’m one of the attorneys volunteering with MAD.”
The four syllables of her name continued reverberating in the telephone wire between us like a plucked string on a guitar.
“Mothers Against Death?” I said, forcing a laugh.
“Uh‑huh,” he said.
“Mothers Against Death?” I said again, this time, actually feeling the humor flush through my voice. “You’re kidding? MAD? Mad, like, you mean, like, angry?”
Oliver Stansted swallowed and looked back down to his lonely feet before pulling out a stack of papers. “Well, yes, M‑A‑D.” He spelled out the acronym, pausing between each letter with perfect diction. It must have been that trusty Oxbridgian education. Pygmalionesque right down to the pronunciation of the English language.
“Isn’t that a drunk driving group? Has she been sued yet for copyright infringement?” I laughed. “Oh, wouldn’t that be poetic.”
“That’s Mothers Against Drunk Driving. MADD,” he corrected, punctuating the extra D with discernible effort.
“MADD,” I recited, enunciating the monosyllabic word as clearly as possible. “MAD,” I tried again in the same inflection, as if articulating the difference between their and they’re. “They sound the same to me.”
“Please,” he said, rather impatiently.
“So what is it that the formidable Mrs. Dixon wants with me?” I finally asked. “Last I checked, I’m fairly certain she wanted to witness the execution. She testified at my penalty hearing, you know.”
I couldn’t tell if he already knew this or if he was still waiting on that memo to arrive at his desk.
“I believe she said that she thought the death penalty was the single most profound form of punishment to grace our nation’s system of justice, and one that should be reserved for only the most egregious of crimes and the most horrific of people who could be stopped by no other means than deactivating their path of terror.” I paused, flipping through the library of scenes in my mind. “And, if I remember correctly, she declared that, quote, ‘no person more suitably fit into the suit of a deserving body of that precious designer as did Noa P. Singleton.’ Closed quote,” I dictated.
Oliver Stansted pulled out a legal pad, clicked the top of a ballpoint pen, and placed them both on the table.
“Did she tell you that?” I asked.
“Well, things have changed for her since then.”
“Like I said, she formed this organization--”
“--right, you said. Mothers Against Drunk Driving--”
“--and she no longer believes, as you say, that the death penalty is the most profound form of punishment.”
Mr. Stansted, refusing to acknowledge me, continued as if he had planned this speech for days and would get through it no matter the cost.
“She now believes it to be archaic, barbaric, and contrary to any goal that can be found in your country’s history and purpose.” Oliver stopped speaking for a full fifteen seconds before he continued. “Are you following?”
“Oh yes. Perfectly. But what if I believe in the death penalty? What if I actually believe in ‘an eye for an eye’?”
He stared directly back at me as if he believed I was lying. As if his beliefs were superior to mine, merely because he had an accent and, once upon a time, I had a tan.
“You don’t really believe that, do you, Noa?” He folded his arms, the right on top of his left. “I know you don’t actually believe that.”
“Mr. Stansted, come on. I’m not looking for sympathy.”
“There are so few statistics from appeals for executions that have been turned down at this level--at the point of clemency, the absolute last moment to save a life,” he pleaded. “We have to do it. We need to do it. Whether it works or not, we need to know the pattern of the governor at this point in the process. If groups like MAD and others can’t see and document patterns--the patterns of the judges and juries for sending inmates to death row, the patterns for the appellate courts for affirming those sentences, and now this final pattern of governors who deny final requests for clemency--it will be harder to present a proper image to the public of how egregious this system is. Without those statistics, the government is never going to realize what sort of laws it perpetuates. This barbarism, this ancient form of punishment that offers no deterrence whatsoever to . . .”