My friend the poet, writer, and undertaker Thomas Lynch likes to say that Christians are those people who show up. Show up, he doesn’t need to add, when shit gets real.
According to Tom’s measure, my good friend Brian Stolarz is one of the best Jesus people this side of the first dozen. Brian showed up for me in ways I can’t begin to convey when I learned I had this cancer, and, before me, Brian showed up Alfred Dewayne Brown, an inmate on Texas Death Row.
My oncologists kept my heart beating and my lungs breathing, but Brian is one of the people who kept me alive when I expected to die. Brian is also the one who showed up when Dewayne was scheduled to die for a crime hardly anyone even bothers anymore to argue he committed.
Brian tells the story of Dewayne’s unjust conviction and his own laborious journey to D’s exoneration in his forthcoming book, Grace and Justice on Death Row: The Race against Time and Texas to Free an Innocent Man.
I love Brian like a brother, and I’ve spent a weird amount of intimate time with Dewayne Brown. They’re both honest, and honest about their experience working together and then working towards a reversal of Dwayne’s connection.
Below is an excerpt from Brian’s book.
If you’d like to hear him speak, check him out this Thursday at the African American Hall of Fame Project.
I knew Alfred Dewayne Brown was stone-cold innocent the moment I met him. He was a 25-year-old, soft-spoken gentle giant with a 69 IQ living in the Polunsky Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Livingston, Texas, north of Houston. Polunsky is where Texas houses people before it kills them. In 2005 he had been sentenced to die for the murder of a police officer, and he had been living on death row pretty much ever since. I was working for K&L Gates, a high-powered mega-firm in Washington DC, longing for a case I could be passionate about. I had worked for a couple of years as a public defender for the Legal Aid Society in Brooklyn, New York. It was a steady parade of fallible, devious, and occasionally innocent people, most of whom were short on money and shorter on luck. I felt something at Legal Aid—passion for my work.
In and out of the precinct houses, holding cells and courtrooms I developed a more than functional “bullshit meter” about people accused of breaking the law. I can usually spot a lie or a liar better than a polygraph operator. I don’t mean to brag, but just this one time I’ll quote the late Muhammad Ali who said, “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.” I’m not bragging, I’m just saying after one look, I had absolutely no doubt—none—that Alfred Dewayne Brown had not committed the heinous crime for which he had been convicted and for which Texas was going to kill him.
When I left the Polunsky Unit an hour later, I promised Dewayne I would do my best to get him out of there. I also tried to both fight back tears and to keep from being sick to my stomach. I was grateful for the chance to save his life but scared it might be too late. The gravity of the situation set in instantly. I did not go to graduate school to save lives—that is what doctors do. But now I was given the opportunity to save one, and I was determined to do it. In fact, it became my legal, personal, and religious mission to do so.
But, I could not ward off the thought that I might one day travel to Texas, stand behind a glass window, and watch a group of my fellow citizens carry out a medical procedure to end his life against his will. I was sick thinking I might have to watch. I vowed to my wife that if I watched him die I would hang up the law license forever and go start a pizza parlor. I am from New Jersey, after all.
I had a lot of work to do. At the Houston airport a few hours later, I was waiting for my flight, lost in thought about just how much work it would be, when I was accosted by a friendly, toothpick-wielding woman offering free samples of her cuisine around the food court. Unable to resist, I ordered and devoured some of her best General Tso’s chicken. I cracked open my fortune cookie. “You love challenge,” it said. I laughed and looked up to a ceiling painted with fake clouds. Was this some kind of divine but sick joke? I put the fortune in my wallet, where it remains to this day next to a picture of my three kids.
I know your initial reaction to all of this is to say, “Yeah, sure, all the people in prison say they are innocent.” Hell, even members of my own family didn’t believe me when I came home from Texas and said he was innocent. Believe me, I would be the first one to tell you if he were guilty. Many of my current and former clients were, in fact, guilty of what they were charged with. But, in that one moment, that first time I met him, something rocketed through to the deepest part of me; he didn’t commit this crime. I understand your hesitation. Maybe you have your own BS meter. Come along with me on this ride and you too will see what I saw and felt, what I feel. This man is what I believed him to be from the very second I saw him—innocent. And he would have died if there was no one to stand up for him.
Excerpt from Chapter Called “Family, Faith and Growth”
And we went to church. A lot. I basically lived at my grandparents’ church, Blessed Sacrament in Paterson, New Jersey. If I sat through mass with my grandmother and behaved myself and said all the responsorial psalms correctly, I got one dollar. My grandparents’ house had religious artifacts all over the place, with a huge Virgin Mary statue in the backyard, and a large poster of Jesus over their bed. We went to bingo nights, tricky trays, fish frys, community service projects, and many special events at the church. I was too young to fully realize it, but that parish formed my religious foundation.
Once during the decade-long effort to exonerate Dewayne Brown, I left the prison where he was being held. A church group was passing out bibles to the public and fish platters to the prison staff. The prison staff was “Doing God’s Work,” proclaimed a banner draped over a table.
I asked if I could have a fish platter. They asked me if I was a prison guard. I said I was a defense attorney for one of the men on death row. They looked at me like I was Satan himself and pushed the fish platters back away from my hand. Instead of a platter, they handed me a bible. One woman recommended I read it to my client before he went to the Lord.
I didn’t want to say what I was thinking: that a benevolent and just God would probably not be cool with the execution of an innocent man, or anyone for that matter. I wished I had the right biblical passage I could throw back at her but I didn’t. I wish I had said that an eye for an eye makes everyone blind and that I believed in the Jesus who told us to turn the other cheek and love each other and seek redemption and forgiveness, and in Saint Francis who taught me that it is in pardoning that we are pardoned. I just took the bible and said thank you. That night I read some Psalms and some New Testament passages in my hotel room, and I went to sleep thinking about Dewayne (as I often do) and (as I also often do) my religious upbringing.
I loved growing up in the Catholic Church, first at my grandparents’ church and then my family’s church, St. Mary’s, a Franciscan parish in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey. At St. Mary’s, I met the men who shaped my spiritual life, Father Michael Carnevale and Father Kevin Downey. They taught me about life, love, tolerance, and how to serve others. When I got married many years later, Father Mike came to Dallas to officiate my wedding. He delivered a thoughtful sermon about love and perseverance, saying that “love is the fruit of the struggle,” and then, because he was a wiseass like me, he turned to the crowd and said, “I now present Mr. and Mrs. Anna Stolarz.”
Growing up in a Franciscan parish had a huge impact on who I became and what I value in life. The parish took the foundation I had from my grandparents’ church and formed my Christian spirit. I felt alive every time I was on the grounds of my church.
Saint Francis of Assisi is my favorite saint for his dedication to serving the poor. We have a sign in our home that is an excerpt from the Prayer of Saint Francis that says, simply, “for it is in giving that we receive.” And I make sure my kids try to live their lives that way in their daily actions and in church service projects.
Before we had kids, Anna and I went to Italy for two weeks and made sure that we stopped in Assisi just to see and feel the holy ground where he lived. And, of course, it is very cool that Pope Francis chose his name after Saint Francis. I was fortunate to get a ticket to the Papal Mass at Catholic University in September 2015, and I was five feet away from him when he processed in.
My time at Catholic University Law School in Washington DC in the 1990s clarified and solidified my desire to continue my religious mission to serve others while using my skills as a lawyer. It was why I became a public defender in Brooklyn, why I always did pro bono work when I was in private practice at the law firm of K&L Gates, and why I do pro bono work today. And I will always do it.
I received an award in 2007 for taking the most pro bono cases for indigent people from the Catholic Charities Legal Network, a division of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Washington that places cases for needy individuals with volunteer lawyers. In 2014 I received the Caritas award from Catholic Charities, the highest service award the organization gives in service to the poor. And I am very fortunate to have Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Washington as a trusted client. Father John Enzler is the CEO, and he is one of those unique, wonderful shepherds who is focused on service to the poor and needy and says that when it comes to service: “say yes every time you can and no only when you have to.”
But I didn’t, and don’t, do pro bono work for awards or recognition. I just think it is a duty of any lawyer to give their talents back to those who can’t afford a lawyer. It’s that simple to me. It is the perfect confluence of my legal training and my religious upbringing. And it makes me feel alive inside every time I do it. Pope Francis said that “we all have the duty to do good,” and my duty was to Dewayne. That duty was why I stayed with his case until I hugged him in 2015, why I love him like a member of my own family today, and why I thank God every chance I get that he is out of prison.