I was ten years old the day they sent my daddy to the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Today, sixteen years later I’m standing outside Angola, as the natives call it, waiting for him. It tries my patience but at least this time, he’s walking out and not walking in.
He went to prison for killing a man. I knew he hadn’t done it, my whole family knew but in the end his innocence hadn’t made a difference. The jury had rendered their verdict on circumstantial evidence. The judge said guilty as charged and my daddy had gone away. Every detail of that day is as clear to me as the heat of a Southern summer.
We sat entombed in the polished mahogany box they called a courtroom, surrounded by the family of the man my father was accused of killing. Their sidelong glances and whispers we were meant to hear sliced into my heart like a thousand paper cuts. The strength of my fear threatened to make me collapse but the strength of my fury kept me upright.
The public defender barely put up a fight. He sat at the defense table in his ill-fitting suit, tapping his pen on his leg. I’d seen him do it many times, usually at the end of the day, and thought it likely meant he was impatient. We found out after the trial, he thought my father was guilty so he was perfectly content with the verdict. Unfortunately, he was our only option. There were only two public defenders in our little corner of the world and the other one was a friend of the victim.
The last day of the trial was the shortest and the longest of a three month ordeal. Time wise it only took four hours. Nerve wise it took months. The only thing left to do at that point was closing arguments. The district attorney railed away about what a terrible man my father was because only a terrible man could murder his best friend. My father’s attorney made it sound as though my father had committed the crime but without the forethought required for first degree murder.
In less time than it takes for a judge to put his robe on, the jury came back with a verdict. When the head juror uttered those dreaded words, the family erupted in cheers. They were loud enough the judge had to order them to silence. I refused to spare them a glance. Eye contact wasn’t necessary to feel their hatred.
The handkerchief my mother had been white-knuckling every day of the trial slipped to the floor, followed quickly by my mother herself. My brother and I managed to hold her up long enough to hear the sentence passed. Twenty years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for manslaughter. I felt the bang of that gavel all the way to the soles of my feet.
The bailiff gave us a few brief moments to say goodbye. To this day I don’t know if it was my own tears or my daddy’s on my cheeks when I hugged him goodbye. They pulled his hands behind his back and cuffed him. That was the last time we touched him. The last time we saw him without glass between us for sixteen years.
If my father had been guilty, it would have been easier to deal with. But he wasn’t. The night of the murder, my mother burned dinner. It was the last straw for her in a stressful week and my father was dancing her around the kitchen telling her he didn’t care if she burned dinner every night. All three of us told the cops exactly where my father was but they made my mother out to be a liar, whose only interest was protecting her husband and us to be scared kids pressured into saying something we knew wasn’t true.
Thankfully that was then. Today I’m standing here with my mother and my brother, watching my father be escorted through the first gate to freedom. The blue jeans he has on are threadbare at the knees and frayed at the hem. His hair that was black as pitch when he went in, has gray streaks running through it now. His face shows the stress of prison life and he looks older than he is. None of that matters to me.
As the guard unlocks the second gate, giving my daddy his freedom once and for all, I can’t help myself and run straight into his arms. I wrap my arms around him with greed, reveling in this first touch. The shoulder of his blue chambray work shirt is soaked in my tears before I finally relent and let my mother and brother have a turn. I can’t let go completely though and keep my hand on his back. I’m happy in the knowledge that tonight he will sleep next to my mother.