From Death Row to Life Row

 
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Life just wasn’t working out the way I thought it should. After two failed marriages, I was hurting and bitter. Other than visiting my daughter, I really didn’t feel that I had any purpose in life.

One day, after fishing in my favourite pond, I stopped off at a hardware store to buy some fishing gear. Straying to the back of the store, I came to a glass case that held handguns. Intrigued, my eyes settled on a 9 mm Ruger.

After several trips back to the store, I finally bought it. I soon bought two more handguns and purchased a membership at an indoor range. The owner got to know me and when the booths were full, he allowed me to shoot with police officers on a separate range.

Once the officers got to know me, we would sit together after closing, and they would talk about tactics they used during standoffs and such. I didn’t see it at the time, but all this was laying the groundwork for something terrible down the line.

Sunday, August 14, 1994, was much like any other Sunday. I had planned on going fishing, but it was raining heavily, so I went to the range instead. Upon returning home I tossed my weapons into the closet and poured a shot of bourbon into a tall glass. I can still see the liquid in the bottom of the glass, but I don’t remember drinking it.

I don’t know where I went for the next hour or so, but I do know that when I snapped back to reality, the bourbon bottle was lying empty on the kitchen table and I was sipping scotch out of another bottle. I also had my .44 Magnum holstered on my side, loaded with a speed loader as backup. The .22 Buckmark was loaded with an extra clip and my daughter’s small cooler was loaded with extra ammunition. The 9 mm was loaded with hollow point ammunition and holstered in the small of my back.

There was a battle raging inside me. One part of me said to put the weapons away and get ready for work in the morning, while another part said, “What do you have to lose—go for it!

Evil won out and when the smoke cleared, two people were dead. One was an African-American, who was returning from the grocery store, and the other was a police officer, who had answered a “man-down” call. Two other police officers were wounded but would live. All the suppressed evil of 42 years had come out. No-one truly knows the meaning of remorse until they’ve taken another person’s life. I’ve taken two!

After a short stay in the hospital for wounds I sustained in the gun battle, I was transferred to a jail. Because I had a broken left foot and my leg was in a cast from a gunshot wound, I was sent to the hospital floor. It contained 20 cells with steel doors, all of which were filled. Additionally, 20 more men were sprawled out on the floor.

Everyone was angry with me—even the other prisoners. Half were breathing threats at me because I’d killed a black man and the other half were yelling at me because I’d killed a police officer. Day in and day out, night after night, it was the same routine: yelling and screaming. I couldn’t get any rest.

There was nothing in my cell but a bunk, a toilet and a window. I watched window washers for entertainment. I felt angry and all alone. If there had been some way to kill myself, I think I would have done it to get rid of the pain inside.

I had put my own family through so much grief. What did my poor daughter think of me? How crushed she must have felt. And how the victims’ families must have hated me! I long ago lost count of the many times I closed my eyes and hoped that when I opened them, the nightmare would be gone. But it was real. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I was filled with anger and fear. It was overwhelming.

Just when I thought I couldn’t take any more of the torture, someone slipped a scrap of paper under my door. It read, “Jesus loves you, and so do I.”

I thought to myself, Oh no, now I have Jesus freaks coming at me too!

I tossed the note on top of my bunk and went back to looking out the window. A short time later, another note came under the door. This one said that Jesus forgave me.

I remember shouting that if God really did exist, He would never have allowed me to kill the people I did! To me, God was Someone I was going to have to deal with when I died and as for Jesus, He looked nice hanging on a cross at church, but He never meant anything more to me than that.

A day or so later, an envelope was slipped under the door and it was heavy. I thought, Finally, I have something to read. It held a five-page letter from someone who said that something had happened to him that was similar to what had happened to me. The only difference was that he hadn’t stepped over the edge like I had. Instead, he said that someone opened his eyes to God’s grace through the precious blood of Jesus.

He went on to explain how I could also be forgiven. He sent me tracts to read and while they were interesting, I really didn’t know what they were talking about. The tracts explained how sin would send me to hell, but I thought that if this prison cell wasn’t hell, I didn’t know what it was!

However, the man kept sending me letters of encouragement and more tracts, and I kept reading them. Every time I laid down to sleep, my thoughts alternated between the haunting memories of that night and the tracts I was reading about Jesus.

I don’t remember the exact moment, whether it was late at night or during the day, but I do remember that I was on my knees asking God to forgive me, to wash me clean of all my transgressions, to purge me of my wickedness. I remember clear as a bell that a life force, which I believe was God’s Holy Spirit, purged me of my wickedness. I felt an almost physical cleansing from the top of my head to the toes on my feet.

I believe that at that very moment, my name was written in the Lamb’s book of life and my life has never been the same since. No longer was it a void. The emptiness I had experienced all my life was now filled.

On November 21, 1994, a judge sentenced me to death. After I was sentenced and the guards walked me back to my cell, people along the way looked at me as if it was the last time they would see me. When I got back to my pod, two ministers were waiting for me and presented me with a gift-wrapped box. Inside was a family-sized Bible with my name—Don Mitts—written in gold in the lower right-hand corner. It was like the Bible I’d always dreamed of owning! Only my family and friends knew me as Don Mitts, so I figured it must have been given to me by my siblings or in-laws.

But when I opened the Bible and read the inside of the front cover, I nearly collapsed. It was from the mother and sister of the police officer I had killed! Tears of joy flowed, for this wonderful gift was a loving testimony of forgiveness!

This year will mark my eighteenth year on death row and the once pristine Bible is now battered and worn, but I still use it every day. I praise God for His loving-kindness, for pulling me out of darkness and for restoring me to Himself through the blood of Jesus shed for me on the cross of Calvary. The proof is the Holy Spirit who dwells within me.

This is not the end of the story, but only the beginning: I no longer live on death row but on life row, and that’s for eternity.

If you would like to experience a new life in Christ, here are some things you can consider.

  • We are all sinners: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
  • We deserve to pay for our sins: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
  • God loves us and sent his Son to pay the debt for our sins: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. for God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16, 17)
  • There is but one way to heaven, and that is through Jesus:  “I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the father except through me” (John 14:6).
  • Pray: “Lord Jesus, I admit that I am a sinner. I deserve to pay for my sins, but I believe that You came to earth and died on a cross to pay a debt that I couldn’t pay. Please come into my heart and take away my sin.”