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13 November 2014

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You are in: Birmingham > People > Stories > Dying to meet you

Jane Officer

Jane Officer reads Feltus's letter

Dying to meet you

Grandmother Jane Officer, 74, spends her retirement gardening, visiting her family and writing to her American pen friends - men who have murdered.

It started with a letter written in a Selly Oak living room and ended with a journey to America’s Deep South on the eve of a man’s execution.

Jane Officer was keeping a promise she’d made to her pen friend Feltus Taylor as he prepared to die for his crimes.

Feltus Taylor

Feltus Taylor always wore leg chains

The last time she’d journeyed to Louisiana he’d eaten his last meal and was 20 minutes away from death when his lawyers had new grounds for appeal accepted by the Supreme Court.

There was to be no reprieve this time and no return to his 6ft by 9ft cell in Angola state penitentiary, America’s largest maximum security prison and home to 5,000 inmates.

After five desperate ‘stays’ of execution, Feltus, 38, was finally killed by lethal injection for the murder of a restaurant worker.

Shot four times

According to the Associated Press, Feltus (or Taylor if using crime reporter parlance) killed Donna Ponsano during a robbery at a fried chicken restaurant in Baton Rouge on March 27, 1991.

A letter from Feltus Taylor

One of Feltus's pencil-written letters

Manager Keith Clark was shot four times in the head and left partially paralyzed.

Prior to his execution on June 6, 2000, Feltus apologized to the slain woman's family and to the wounded restaurant manager.

"I want to tell you, Keith, and the Ponsano family that I always regretted what I've done," he said.

"It was my own doing. After this is over with, I hope you can find the peace to move on."

Guns and money

“Feltus was 30 going on 15 and very immature," adds Jane.

Jane Officer with Feltus Taylor

Jane Officer with Feltus Taylor

"His girlfriend started putting pressure on him for money and a lot of people in that area carry guns.

“Just before he was killed, Keith got a message through to him to say he forgave him."

The hundreds of letters she'd received from him in nine years of corresponding are stored in date-marked cardboard crates at her home but the memory of his death still haunts her.

Feltus was one of nine men retired teacher Jane has written to who have been imprisoned for murder.

Terrible crimes

She has been writing to men in prison and on death row in America for 20 years and all but one of her pen friends have now been executed.

Fred Tucker

Fred Tucker

The last, Fred Tucker, is a ‘lifer’ and has been told he will die in prison.

They have been corresponding for 18 years and Jane has visited him several times and has vowed to continue until it’s no longer possible.

It could be a long time.

Fred is 53 and while Jane is nearly twenty years his senior, she looks much younger.

Jane believes the terrible upbringings of the people she encounters, and their problems with substance abuse, are often at the heart of their terrible crimes and that given the right circumstances "we are all capable of terrible things”.

Armed robbery

She says Fred was repeatedly sexually abused by his mother’s boyfriend as a child and when he was put into a children’s home he killed an older boy who did the same.

Jane Officer

Jane opposes the death penalty

He was 17 and in custody when he was given the chance of serving two years in the Army in return for his sentence being rescinded.

On being discharged he turned to crime and committed an armed robbery in New Orleans, taking just $20. He has been in prison ever since.

 “He’s murdered and intimated he’s also killed someone inside the prison," she remarks.

Thinking about him

"Once your past’s out you’re seen as fair game. We don’t know a fraction of what goes on.

“He’s a very bright man but he’s life has been completely ruined."

Capital punishment facts

About 50 women and 3,500 men are on Death Row in USA.

Two thirds of countries have abolished death penalty.

China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and USA carry out 93% of executions.

Nearly 9,000 people were sentenced to death in 52 countries in 2008.

37 executions were carried out in USA in 2008.

Death penalty abolished in Britain for murder in 1965.

She dutifully writes to him once a fortnight but still worries for his state of mind.

“He’s depressed and absolutely terrified that I will die before him," she says.

“I know it sounds cynical but I can write more or less the same letter every two weeks.

“What's important, though, is that he knows that I’m here and still thinking about him.”

When talking to Jane about her work writing to death row inmates and ‘lifers’ she does not mention the victims of their crimes.

There’s also no mention of the ‘m’ word either and instead she focuses on her belief in extending kindness to all, regardless of what they have done.

 “It’s not saying anyone’s condoning what’s happened but you cannot undo what you’ve done,” she pleads.

Horrendous thing

“It’s about coming to terms with it. It’s an horrendous thing to live with.”

Andrew Lee Jones

Andrew Lee Jones

Jane started writing letters after seeing the award-winning BBC documentary 14 Days in May, which followed events in the final days of a death row inmate's life.

She responded to an appeal for writers from charity Life Lines in May 1990 and was given her first pen-friend – Andrew Lee Jones.

'Old Sparky'

He had been convicted of murdering and raping his estranged girlfriend’s 11-year-old daughter in a trial Jane strongly believes was weighted against him.

He was the last inmate at Angola prison to die in “Old Sparky” – Louisiana’s electric chair - in July 1991 – which was also shown in the film The Green Mile.

Electric chair

A saline-soaked sponge is used

After his death she set up the Andrew Lee Jones Fund to train UK lawyers and students to go and work in the US alongside attorneys, under the umbrella of charity Amicus.

 “No-one will ever know if Andrew committed the crime," she says.

"You cannot say sorry to someone when you’ve executed them.

“You only have to look at the number of miscarriages of justice in this country to know the death penalty is wrong.”

last updated: 10/07/2009 at 14:20
created: 02/07/2009

Have Your Say

Do people who commit terrible crimes deserve compassion?

The BBC reserves the right to edit comments submitted.

I say 'never judge a man until you've walked a mile in their shoes'. If we can say another person is bad, that makes us feel good about ourselves. The truth is, there's good and bad in all of us and all of us deserve compassion.

They should all rot in hell. She well messed up writing to them. Some people are just pure evil so why show them compassion ever? Let them die a painful long death I say!

Theresa Heine
I found this a very moving interview. I have also started writing through Lifelines to two prisoners on death row. It is a life changing experience. These are desperate people and a letter to show that someone cares means the world. Yes they deserve our compassion - there but for fortune, go you or I.....

'Speak as you find'. That's how I like to form an opinion of someone. I, like Jane, have 2 penfriends on death row. They are both intelligent, caring men, who have become firm friends. They offer me as much support and encouragement as I offer them - which, surely, is the mark of a true friendship. Their past does not come into it.

Jane Macdonald
Of course they deserve compassion. Most of these men who have killed (I write to two) have had horrendous upbringings. I came from a stable family which gave me the tools to cope with frustration and my own anger. Not everyone is so lucky.

There was a teacher at my secondary school who did exactly the same. She wrote frequently to an inmate on death row and she used to tell us often how he was doing and about her yearly visits to Texas to see him. I personally would not have the dedication to keep writing to these people as soon as you had asked the obvious questions such as ‘why did you do it’, ‘did you do it’ and, if so, ‘do you regret it’? Once incarcerated do you not forego your right to contact with the outside world? These people have been placed in the penal system for punishment, shouldn’t having a penpal be classed as a luxury? These people are kept on ‘the row’ for far too long. It would seem America's system mirrors our own sumptuous, nonsensical sham!

Andrew Trinick
Whilst I am not a big fan of the death penalty for some of the reasons listed in this article I think that we have to remember that 99 percent of these people are in jail because they failed to show any compasion to their victims! I feel that if we should show any compassion it should be to those people left hurt and scarred by the actions of these people. Frankly in the main they do not deserve any sypmathy or thought. They are off the streets and cannot hurt anyone else. Plenty of people have a poor life and background but do not commit terrible, violent crimes. They chose the path they now walk and they only have their choices in life to blame for it.

In a Christian sense perhaps they do deserve compassion and forgiveness. If they have only ever committed one such crime and if there were mitigating circumstances this may be the right way to treat them. But if they are repeat offenders who obviously show no remorse and who gain perverse pleasure from such things then.... Death with no possibility of expensive appeals would be another option, but is justice always carried out fairly? I’m sure that we have all wrongly accused a person of something, later realising that we are wrong. I suppose the question is: If we don’t show compassion, then what do we do, bully and abuse the guilty?

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