The letter I can't answer

Justin FullerThe letter that I can’t answer is lying right here on my desk. It reached me through the efforts of a Dutch couple who sent me an e-mail in June 2006. I lent it no importance, and did not answer. At the end of that same month they wrote again, and again I paid no attention. And then came the warning phrased in more serious words:

“This is the last time we are asking you this favor. It is up to you to write to Justin or not. Or to put it better, it is up to your conscience. I got to know your books because he recommended them. Yours truly, Jacobus” (I shall omit his surname).

I read the text of the e-mail carefully: it says that Justin Fuller, prisoner #999266 at the Polunsky Unit, Livingston, Texas, will be executed exactly on my birthday, the 24th August. His lawyer, Don Bailey, has already been to all the appeal courts, and it looks like the cause is lost. They are not asking me to denounce the fact publicly, or to take some position on the case: they just want me to send this reader some comforting words.

I type Justin’s name in a search tool. I see his photo, then I discover that there is a page with the names of all those who are (or have been) in death row in Texas. I see his criminal record at

I write the letter. The week following my birthday, Jacobus writes to me once more: Justin received it, and answered me before he was executed. The letter is waiting for me in a hotel I usually stay at in a certain town, and that I used as the sender’s address.

Finally, at the end of October 2006, I stop at the hotel. I know that a letter from a man condemned to death awaits me. I know that he has already been executed. I collect the letter, enter a bar, and read the words from someone whom I will never be able to answer. Whom I will never be able to ask permission to publish extracts, but since we are talking about a true aberration of justice – death as an instrument of the State – I shall copy some parts:

“Dear Mr. Coelho:

“Death row is the arena where the policies of Power, Retribution and Violence are applied to a man using materials such as concrete and steel, until this man turns into steel and his heart becomes as hard as concrete. However, though steel can be hard, it can still be flexible, and though the heart can be transformed into concrete, it still beats. Beyond the concrete and the steel stands the man, his love of life, and the great principles that rule human beings.

“Your letter surprised me. And it is very strange that my transcendence (Justin always uses this term instead of “execution”) is to take place just on your birthday. Of course, I hope it does not take place, but we both know that life is always accompanied by death. In the USA they execute prisoners in the name of what they call “justice” without taking into account whether they can be well represented in court, the circumstances of their birth and their family environment.

“While I wait out the last appeal to the Supreme Court, I feel full of life and strong, and my spirit is completely free.

“If I transcend, I will finally be able to float in the wind and enjoy freedom. I have realized that although my body is imprisoned, my life has changed and my soul can still love, because all freedom is mental. Many people in this world, although they are on the outside of prison, are far more in bondage than I am.

“Only when these people come to understand that freedom is a state of the mind will they be able to really enjoy it.”
The letter that I couldn’t answer is much longer. It describes the relationship that we built through my books, and it wishes me and my family all the best. And now it sits on my desk.

The letter that I couldn’t answer, from a man condemned to death, arrested when he was 19 years old and executed when he was 27, contains not a word of lamentation: it speaks of freedom and life.