It took the jury a little over four hours to determine my fate.
I sat in silence at the defendant’s hardwood table while twelve strangers filed into the courtroom to take their seats as my designated peers. I searched their faces for some clue of what they had decided, but their expressions were stoic.
Sitting with his fingers comfortably entwined on his desk, his brow creased with austerity, the judge issued his command in a voice seasoned with authority.
“Will the foreman please rise?”
Juror #8 stood with a sense of duty, summoned by an acknowledged superior. He was an older white man, perhaps in his early 60’s. Tall, with a casual polish, wearing a light-colored polo and tan slacks. He had the appearance of a man who might spend his spare time playing golf — a man I envisioned brushing shoulders with the social elite. Certainly no peer of mine, though an obvious choice for foreman. His presence seemed to demand deference.
He reminded me, in an odd sort of way, of Leslie Neilson, the bumbling and totally clueless detective who personified the satirical image of civic duty in the comedy classic, Naked Gun. I smirked within myself at the irony of what this charade evoked: a mocking comedy of justice where even the actors resemble the characters of a spoof.
“Has the jury reached a decision?” the judge asked the foreman.
“Yes, Your Honor, we have,” Leslie Neilson responded.
“Will the bailiff please convey the sealed decision to the clerk?”
The bailiff walked gracefully over to the foreman, received the decision and handed it to the clerk. My eyes were transfixed upon this scene as the clerk, remaining seated, accepted it with her right hand and passed it along to the judge with her left.
His Honor was a plump man of about fifty years, with rosy cheeks and a head absent of hair on the top. He carefully and deliberately opened the sealed decision and looked at its recommendation. Glancing at me with the same look of severity and condescension he had worn throughout my trial, he pushed the bridge of his reading glasses up the slope of his nose and returned his gaze to the decision before him. Lifting his pen, he began to write as the entire courtroom, including its audience of seven spectators, waited in anticipation for the outcome.
I glanced at the spectators. In the last row of the courtroom sat the Warden of Caledonia Prison Farm. He wore a smug look on his youthful, chubby face. He had the look of a white man who knew how to wield power. He could’ve easily passed for a plantation owner or a Southern politician with his good ole boy demeanor and sly and mischievous eyes.
Next to him sat his deputy, a taller, slimmer black man with a bit of a stoop in his posture. He had a bland, sullen face that looked to be worn down by years of servitude and posturing. His eyes carried heavy bags that spilled down onto his cheeks - eyes that hinted that they were filled with secrets that his sad and downward-turned lips would never utter.
Right behind me, in the second row, sat my mother and my sister, the only people in the world who cared enough about me to show up on this day when strangers would determine my fate. My mother, with her dignified head of gray hair and blue eyes that smiled while concealing a lifetime of pain, held tight to the hand of my sister.
Keisha and I had the same face. I could look into her eyes and see myself reflected in the best light. She was the only person in the world who saw me as a role model - someone she looked up to and took pride in calling her brother. Despite the accusations, despite my misdeeds, I was forever her hero, her protector, her guide.
Behind the prosecutor sat the aggrieved family of the victim. A grandmother and a mother who had both lost a man they called “Son.” The grandmother was graceful. Her light brown face still contained a youthful glow as she sat with dignity despite her grief. Her eyes, visible behind the large-framed glasses that covered almost a third of her face, had a quiet kindness to them. Her face showed mercy, compassion, and empathy for her daughter’s pain.
Her daughter, though an obvious younger version of the grandmother, had none of the kindness or mercy in her eyes. Instead, her eyes were like daggers of hatred that I could not bear to meet, lest they pierce my soul and further torment the guilt-ridden heart of my conscience.
Two rows behind them sat a reporter, who I was able to identify by his scribbling pen and miniature notepad. From his perspective across the room, he wrote the official story.
As I focused my attention on the judge, I felt my heart rising slowly up the insides of my chest. It reached the top of my throat and lodged itself there, holding me breathless as the judge finished whatever he had been writing and handed the jury’s recommendation back to the clerk.
Composing himself, he sat up erectly from the perch of his throne and with both arms fanned out the sides of his robe. He pulled it tightly around his shoulders as if it were the cape of some superhero who was about to impose justice on the evil villain.
“The jury, having found the defendant, Michael Jerome Braxton, guilty of murder in the first degree, sentences him to death,” the judge began.
His words continued on, but my heart sank from my throat down to the pit of my stomach as everything except my thoughts receded into the shadows around me. Words and sounds became nothing but background chatter in a movie that I now seemed to be watching from outside of myself.
I looked around at this drama unfolding and felt my soul hovering above me as if it were fleeing to seek refuge from the tsunami of emotion waiting to burst forth inside of me.
Amidst the chatter I heard a request for each member of the jury to stand individually and affirm their verdict. I watched in a clouded daze as the figures of men and women see-sawed up and down in succession to acknowledge their fateful decision.
Then, suddenly, there was a pause.
A black woman, perhaps in her thirties with a brown complexion and medium build, appeared overwhelmed by the burden of the occasion. She choked back heavy sobs and continued to sit after her name was called. Every eye in the courtroom was now on her.
I looked at her face and could see the difficulty etched in her features due to the battle waging inside of her. My heart raised barely a micron from its pit with a glimpse of hope. The juror sitting to her right, another black woman of similar age, gave her a tender stroke on the back, consoling her and perhaps empathizing with the difficulty of the task. Then the woman looked at me and a body-racking lament erupted from her throat. Gripping the arm of the chair, she struggled to pull herself to her feet and utter a weak “yes” before falling back to her seat and sobbing.
I almost wanted to console her myself, seeing the pain she had to endure to stand behind a decision that she ultimately believed right. It touched my heart that even though this woman had sentenced me to death, she recognized my humanity. It caused her great pain to participate in my execution.
For a moment I was lost in my thoughts, still numb to the reality of what was actually happening to me. Separated from the part of me that had feeling, everything became white noise again.
I could hear the drone of the caped crusader’s rote-voice from a distance in my mind. Words and phrases were being uttered about being handed over to the custody of the warden of Central Prison to be held until my death was carried out. I heard a date of February 8, 1998 being announced for execution. But in some weird way, none of this was happening to me. I was just another spectator observing the proceedings along with everyone else.
Until suddenly, I heard my name being called.
“Michael Jerome Braxton!” The sound roared like it was being shouted down from the expanse of heaven. It was like a jolt, and my soul collided violently with my body. Once again I was sitting at the defendant’s table.
I looked up to see the eyes of the judge peering down at me over the rim of his glasses. His gavel, like a mighty weapon held firmly in his right hand, seemed ready to smite the wicked. On his face was a look of frightening condemnation as he spoke the words that sent tremors through my bones and made my soul faint — words indicating that my judgment was no longer a concern of this world, for now I was to face the judgment of the Divine.
With a thundering boom of his gavel, his voice reverberated with a tone of finality: “MAY GOD HAVE MERCY ON YOUR SOUL!”
I looked back at my family. My sister’s face was a mask of torment. Never in my life had I seen a face so anguished and distraught. She wept until her cries became a wailing hiccup and her body convulsed in her seat.
My mother reached out to me, her hand pleading for one last touch of the son she had birthed into this world. But as the guards surrounded me, her beautiful eyes became puddles of the saddest pain. She mouthed the words “I love you” as they took me away.
by Michael Braxton