A little more than a week ago I learned that the Parole Board denied Tyra a hearing on her clemency application. When I received the email from the Board with its decision, I was sitting in the parking lot of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility (SOCF) in Lucasville, Ohio. Getting this news at SOCF immediately transported me back to a day on June 5, 2012, when I received an email about my death row client Abdul Awkal, as I was driving to meet with him at SOCF.
Mr. Awkal was set to be executed the next day, June 6th, at 10:00a.m. My colleagues and I had been working nearly around the clock to save his life, arguing that he was too mentally ill to be put to death. We had a very strong claim. In fact, on June 4th, two days before the scheduled execution, the trial judge found probable cause to believe that Mr. Awkal was insane. But the judge also indicated that there was not enough time to hold a hearing because of the unavailability of our primary expert. We then filed a motion to stay the execution asking the Ohio Supreme Court to give us the time we needed to go back to the trial court. We were certain the Ohio Supreme Court would halt the execution under the circumstances. But on the morning of June 5th, the day before the execution, we received no word from the Court. We didn’t hear anything from the court by mid-afternoon, either.
Around 4p.m. I got in my car to make the drive to SOCF to let Mr. Awkal know that we were still awaiting a decision on our motion and to keep his head up. As I drove through the winding roads, I realized that I would have to make the same drive early the next morning to be with Mr. Awkal if we could not stop the execution.
As I drove I kept glancing anxiously at my smart phone to see if there was an email from the Ohio Supreme Court. As I was about twenty minutes from SOCF, there was still nothing from the Ohio Supreme Court. Then it came. My heart pounding, I pulled over to read the email. My eyes went straight to the word “DENIED.” I was in shock. The Court had denied our motion. If we were unable to convince the federal courts that the execution should be delayed, Mr. Awkal would die in sixteen hours. I was devastated.
As I pulled into the parking lot of SOCH that cloudy day, I was drained of all hope. I dreaded telling Mr. Awkal that we were just about at the end of our rope and that it was likely he would die the next morning. I walked into a waiting room where his family was gathered. I told them the bad news and saw the sadness in their faces. I told them not to give up hope – that we would keep fighting until the end.
But as I left the waiting room, the warden, who had been listening to me, pulled me aside and said: “Before you speak to your client, you need to know that Governor Kasich just granted a reprieve delaying the execution for two weeks to give you time to go back to court.” I couldn’t believe it. A moment before I felt hopeless; now I was hopeful. I then got to give Mr. Awkal the good news that his execution would be delayed and that we would have more time to fight for his life. And fight we did. The trial judge agreed with us that Mr. Awkal is insane and put off the execution indefinitely.
The lesson I draw from Mr. Awkal’s case is never to abandon hope even when circumstances look bleak. The fight for justice often feels like riding a roller coaster. There will be ups as we work to free Tyra, and there will be downs. But we must hold onto our faith and believe that justice and fairness will prevail.
Although disappointed in the Parole Board’s decision, the Board does not have final say on Tyra’s clemency application; Governor Kasich Does. We will never give up hope. We will never abandon Tyra. I am confident that we will walk her out.