What does it feel like to be sentenced to death by the state — then spend the next two decades waiting for it to be carried out?
Members of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation will have the chance to learn during the April 21 event “A Death Row Conversation,” featuring Tessie Castillo and Terry Robinson, two of the co-authors of “Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row.”
“It is an opportunity to hear from someone who is currently serving on death row and has been in prison for 22 years,” said Sarah Gottlieb, a synagogue member who will moderate the event, in an email. “One of the most important things I have learned in my career is that there is so much more to the men and women in prison than their convictions.”
“This event is an opportunity for anyone interested to learn this lesson firsthand and recognize the humanity in every person, even those who have been sentenced to death,” continued Gottlieb, a resident of Baltimore City and a clinical teaching fellow with the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
Calling the evening a hybrid event, with attendees able to view it either in person or online, Gottlieb explained that both Robinson, who is on death row in Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C., and Castillo will be attending virtually.
In addition to her co-authoring “Crimson Letters,” Gottlieb noted that Castillo previously taught a writing class on the subject.
Gottlieb was unable to say what Robinson had been convicted of, or if there was currently a specific date when he is scheduled to be executed.
Gottlieb originally had the idea for the event after seeing Castillo, and another one of her co-authors, speaking at an online event, she said. At the time of the event, Castillo’s co-author was on death row, and he discussed his life experiences and his time while imprisoned.
“I was inspired by this new way to bring the experiences of those in prison out into the open and struck by the hope I heard in the discussion,” Gottlieb said. “In my work, I learn about the trauma of prison from my clients, but I realize that for most people it is not ever-present in their daily lives.”
After Castillo discusses how she and Robinson originally met and how they collaborated on their book, Gottlieb expects the event will shift to a conversation between Robinson and the audience. Attendees will be encouraged to ask Robinson about his experiences, including on death row, what gives his life purpose and how he is able to hope.
When asked for her own opinion on the death penalty, Gottlieb expressed gratitude that it has since been abolished in Maryland.
“I am against the death penalty for numerous reasons,” Gottlieb said. “It is filled with bias that targets the poor and most vulnerable in our society. It suffers from the same problems inherent in the larger criminal legal system, such as systemic racism and police misconduct. It is flawed, as evidenced by the 3,060 exonerations that have happened since 1989. I also believe that it is wrong to commit state-sanctioned murder.”
Gottlieb hopes the event will give attendees a broader understanding of the realities of those in prison, and strengthen the sense that every person deserves to be treated with dignity.
“I hope they will learn about the humanity that can be found in every person,” Gottlieb said. “I hope the event will show how the fate of those in prisons and on death row is connected to our own, no matter how disconnected someone might believe themselves to be.”