Andre [now in Clinton prison]: Hold up. I see a roach crawling on the wall. Gotta get it outta my cell. Those things give me the creeps. Birds are incarcerated here also. They fly back and forth. A lot of people feed the birds. You can see them zooming by. They’re probably playing, but if they had realized they are in prison, off they would be. Right now I wish I had wings. Fly right up out of this hell hole.
Lynne: I am sitting in Central Park on a bench in a little enclosure (where the free concerts are in the summer). It is the first beautiful day in a long time. Light breeze, golden sunlight, maybe 70 degrees. Young men throwing footballs, dogs padding about, clumps of people everywhere with their grateful faces to the sun. The earth is still brown, no buds on the trees, but it’s the kind of day where you know, finally, that all of this will change. There’s a little toddler, arms open, stumbling towards a dog laughing. Like your little boy, I bet.
It had been Sean Salley’s idea to rob Jennifer Stahl. Sean, who had once been a roadie for George Clinton, met Jennifer a few years earlier through contacts in the music industry. A mutual friend introduced Andre to Sean, and Sean told him about Jennifer’s pot operation. On the evening of May 9, Andre and Sean checked out their target, paying a visit to Jennifer’s apartment. The next night, Andre picked up Sean, and they returned to the apartment once again.
The plan was to get in and out quickly—and to make some easy money. Andre pulled a .38-caliber revolver out of his pants and ordered everyone onto the floor. While Sean duct-taped Jennifer’s friends, Andre went into a side room with Jennifer and ordered her to hand over her marijuana and money. She filled a backpack with $1,000 and three ounces of marijuana.
Andre returned to the living room and took over the taping from Sean. Soon Sean got possession of the gun. (Andre says he put the revolver on the floor and Sean picked it up; the prosecutor said Andre handed it to Sean.) Revolver in hand, Sean returned with Jennifer to the side room. Moments later, he pulled the trigger.
“What the fuck you do that for?” Andre shouted. He grabbed the backpack and hurried to the door. As he fumbled with the locks, he heard more shots. Looking back, he watched Sean fire again. Sean had shot each person once in the back of the head. Andre yanked the door open and they fled down five flights of stairs. A surveillance camera in the stairwell captured their escape—and showed that they’d been in the apartment for only six minutes.
When Lynne thinks about these minutes—and about Andre’s role in the homicides—she often thinks about Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
I want to tell you a little about the Holocaust. . . .
What happened in the Holocaust did not happen as much because of the evil of the Nazis as people would like to believe. The Holocaust happened because for years the German people did nothing to stop them. Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 and started making laws—laws that fired Jewish university professors, postal workers, lawyers, pharmacists. Laws that said Jews couldn’t go to parks, go swimming, attend public schools, on and on.
By 1939, the Nazis were a monstrous machine—and the Jews were being shipped to slave labor camps (that by 1941 had become death camps) in Poland. Later on, when the war was over in 1945, the German people had to look back and see what they had done. Here was all this proof—gas chambers, crematoria, camps piled high with bodies of starved people. “What had they done?” the German people asked themselves. “But we didn’t do anything! We did nothing. Why are you blaming us?”
When bad things happen, there are 4 categories people can fall into. They can be victims. They can be perpetrators, they can be bystanders—or they can be rescuers. The role of the bystander is what the Germans in WWII forced everyone to think about.
When bad things happen, simply not participating is not enough. Bystanding is not a neutral position. By going about their daily business, they let the Nazis take over.
In a wrenching process of recognition, they looked at their reasons for looking the other way. Certainly not every German person, but many went over what they didn’t do, what they could have done. And they said, “We, the German people, accept responsibility for the Holocaust. If we had acted otherwise, there is no way this would have happened.” And they paid. They are still paying.
So the question of guilt becomes more complicated.
Andre, can you make any correlations between this situation and your own?
I think it is terribly important. Put yourself in the role of the German people, Sean Salley in the role of the Nazis and the 5 young people in that apartment as the Jews.
What do you come up with? Match the people to those roles—perpetrator, victim, bystander, rescuer. Where does everyone fit?
What does this make you think about? Write to me as you do this.
Andre often wrote to Lynne about his crime, but he did not immediately follow her instructions. Lynne, meanwhile, continued to use the Holocaust to try to prod him into taking more responsibility.
Andre: I never ever wanted to be a part of a heinous cowardly crime. I am not an angel nor a bad guy. I know I don’t deserve 120 years just as well as those people didn’t deserve to die . . .
Lynne: I think you are totally right when you say you are neither an angel nor a bad guy—you are like all of us. But at that crucial moment, only an angel would do. . . . To wrestle the gun from Sean’s hand, or to stay and help the victims as Sean fled down the stairs, or to run straight to the police station. This and only this would have made the difference. And this and nothing less is what the judge seems to have been asking for.
Lynne’s mother grew up in Düsseldorf, Germany, then fled from the Nazis and came to New York in 1938. In 1997, Lynne discovered that her mother’s family is related to Peter van Pels, the teenager whom Anne Frank fell in love with (and wrote about) while she was in hiding. He died at a concentration camp in Austria in 1945. Learning of her family’s connection to van Pels fueled Lynne’s interest in the Holocaust. She read dozens of books on the topic and visited Majdanek, Auschwitz, and Treblinka. In recent years, she has used the Holocaust in her classroom to teach 10th-graders about morality and ethics.
The Holocaust was the prism through which she saw not only Andre’s crime, but also her own involvement in his life. A “bystander” might have felt badly about how long his sentence was, then moved on; a “rescuer” would stay involved, trying to do what she could to remedy the situation.
When Andre finally did address the concept of the “bystander,” it seemed Lynne’s Holocaust paradigm made little sense to him. I reread it several times, trying to put myself in their shoes (the Germans) but I can’t. My situation is totally opposite. What happened was done because one wanted it to. That’s the way I see it.
The “one” was Sean Salley. More than two years after the crime, Andre was still obsessed with Sean, still enraged about how Sean’s actions had affected his life.
I had a dream about that piece of shit (S.S.) who ruins lives. In my dream, he was wearing a clown outfit, laughing at me, saying, “I took you down with me.” Instantly I reacted by grabbing that nigga around his mutha fucking neck and choking him. He continued to laugh at me and repeat the above words over and over again. Next thing I know he vanished. I awoke to find myself angry, in a cage. It was difficult for me to go back to sleep, so I just sat up on the bed and started to rock back and forth. After damn near rocking for half an hour in rage, I rocked myself back to sleep.
Lynne: Listen. You’re wasting your time with all that fury at Sean Salley. . . . Why do you do this? Just hate Sean? It’s like you are allowing your hatred of him to act as a shield from the more complicated realities of the case. . . . If Sean had gone alone, would he have been able to have accomplished this armed robbery? Would those three people be dead?
In the fall of 2003, 15 months after their correspondence began, Lynne saw her work start to pay off.
Andre: Every single god damn day in my prayers I sincerely ask the creator of the heaven and earth to please forgive me for being with a stupid ass nigga who killed people. I also take responsibility because if I would’ve never went, regardless of why, those people would probably still be alive. I blame myself for going with someone I knew nothing about.
Nobody came to visit Andre at Clinton prison, which is in Dannemora, a few miles from the Canadian border. At first, he received letters from many people: Lynne, Keasha, the other two mothers of his children, an aunt, a cousin, a few friends, his brother, and the social worker from Legal Aid who’d worked on his case. To stay in touch with his children, he used the mail and the phone. One day, DéAndre, now two and a half, recited his ABC’s and the numbers one through 20. Andre shared the news with Lynne: I gave him plenty of kisses, Y-e-a-h-s through the receiver.
Andre likened his predicament to the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray lives the same day over and over again.
Today is just another beautiful day for me to be stuck inside a cage. I’m actually debating on what I should do with myself, either do my laundry, read a book, practice on my crochet, flick through my photo album, clean up the cage again, brush my teeth for the third time today, play the yard, run somebody’s phone bill up, or just relax and go to sleep . . .
Andre’s prison routine also included visiting the law library, playing cards, studying the Koran, and praying five times a day. With money from two ex-girlfriends, he got a black-and-white television for his cell. Lynne sent him books: Black Boy, Native Son, The Color of Water, Push, Crime and Punishment. Andre read all of them, except Crime and Punishment.
Andre did not have his freedom, of course, but he had one thing that Lynne did not: time. He sent her a letter every week or two, trying to write slowly in order to postpone the inevitable realization that he didn’t have much else to do. Lynne was the opposite, scribbling as fast as she could. She carried a half-written letter in her bag at all times, pulling it out to add a paragraph or two whenever she had a few minutes. Finishing one letter could take her four or five weeks.
While Lynne often wrote about the future—about holiday plans, an upcoming trip—for Andre the past was a much more pleasant subject. It was the everyday activities he missed the most, like shopping at Pathmark with his girlfriend. The store would be packed with people, [the] lines to reach the cashier long. Keasha used to be in a different aisle, searching for a particular item. I used to yell real loud across the floor, “Babe I love you, will you marry me?” Everyone in the store would stop [and] look in her direction.
On Saturday mornings at the laundromat: I enjoyed doing it, removing clothes from this machine to that machine, folding my newborn’s clothing as well as his brother’s. The females would come up to me, saying, “Damn, I know your girl is proud to have you,” as they watched me fold some woman’s panties and bra, putting them on a pile with the others. I laugh and cry inside now because I wash my clothing out of a dishpan I bought off commissary.
Andre got a job in the prison tailor shop, sewing green uniform shirts for other inmates. Lynne, meanwhile, was still teaching English at an alternative high school in Queens. She confided in Andre about her frustrations—inadequate computers, tensions with her boss, $150 stolen from her by her students.
Lynne: It’s been a tough couple of weeks. Somehow, magically, I lost ALL my good students and they put in these jokers who had probably been in the hallways and therefore hadn’t chosen an elective. Class now dominated by these out-of-control infantile basket cases. The few kids who were properly placed in the class took one look at the parade of jokers entering the room and were insulted, demanding to be taken out.
Andre: Hey, unfortunately it’s too damn bad that you cannot save the world. I thought you knew that by now, silly. Select those who are willing to be taught and sprinkle knowledge in their surrendering minds. Never know—the others might tend to participate.
Eventually Andre found a new way to start his letters. In the beginning, he’d written “Dear Ms. Harriton,” then changed to “Dear Ms. Lynne.” Now he wrote “Dear Ma.” Lynne, who is single and doesn’t have children, loved the title—and embraced the role. She sent Andre a pair of winter boots, corrected his grammar, praised his best sentences, and sent him Christmas and birthday cards that he could mail to his kids. She gave him parenting advice, telling him to read the same books his children read in school, then discuss the books with them over the phone. And she sent him chocolate bars she’d picked up on a trip to Germany.
I was thinking that good chocolate is so heavenly that if you got some of the best chocolates in the world every month, you’d have seconds, minutes of pure bliss, pure freedom—like Lindt or Godiva or Belgian chocolate. When I eat good chocolate (not Hershey’s) I shut my eyes and little balloons of delight go off in my head.
On February 9, 2004, Andre transferred to Green Haven prison in Dutchess County, a 90-minute drive from midtown Manhattan. Shortly after, on Memorial Day weekend, Lynne visited. It was the first time she’d ever stepped inside a prison. They talked nonstop for four hours.
Ma, when I had approached the visiting room at first, I had butterflies all inside my stomach not knowing what to expect from a lady who seems to envision hope for me better than I do. Well, once we started kickin’ it (talking), the butterflies had disappeared and I instantly felt relaxed. . . . I must say this before I go any further and that is you’re a WONDERFUL lady.
Lynne: How grateful I am that you see and appreciate who I am. . . . Listen. I am NEVER giving up on you. Never. Do you understand? And I don’t want to have to explain it. That’s it. That’s the way it is. And anyone who wants to be part of my life is going to have to understand. How? When I don’t want to explain? Ha. I don’t know. Til later, then, my dear friend. I have to rejoin the land of the brittle.
Andre turned 34 years old in February 2005. Despite his young age, the prospect of dying never drifts far from his mind. He worries about losing contact with his friends—and about being buried on prison grounds someday with all the other inmates who have nobody to claim their body. He told Lynne that if he died before her, he wanted her to make sure he had a proper Islamic burial.
Andre: It’s better knowing you’ll die in jail sooner than later. I’m actually prepared to die now. The only reason I’m not dead now is because a person who kills themselves without a cause is surely doomed to go straight to hell.
Lynne: Please don’t do anything stupid—like put your life in danger in unnecessary confrontations or committing suicide.
In early 2005, Andre put in a request to transfer to a prison north of Albany. It was a trade-off: He’d get fewer visits if he moved farther away, but he would be able to have a television in his cell—which he wasn’t permitted at Green Haven. Lynne saw this as a sign that he was giving up; she worried he’d retreat into his cell and cut himself off from the outside world.
Lynne thought she had a better idea. She’d read a story in The New York Times Magazine about a college program for inmates at Eastern prison, run by Bard College. She clipped the story and mailed it to Andre. You cannot leave Green Haven unless it is to switch to Eastern where you can pursue a college education. Period. Rescind your move request.
Andre is not eligible for parole until 2112. He will only get out of prison if some sort of miracle occurs—if his appeals lawyer wins a substantial sentence reduction, or the law about felony murder changes. Despite the seemingly impossible odds, Lynne remains hopeful that maybe the law will be changed and Andre will be released in 25 or 30 years. A few months ago, she decided to try to track down the rest of his jurors in the hopes of perhaps enlisting their support. So far she’s spoken with four, but has not convinced them to join her cause.
When Lynne goes to Costco nowadays, she shops for two, buying extra food for Andre—cans of boneless salmon, sardines, tuna, chicken, plus trail mix and whatever else she thinks the prison guards might allow in. Andre receives less mail from friends and relatives than he did when he was first locked up; Lynne is now his strongest connection to the outside world. Every month, he calls her on the phone and sends her a few letters. If he doesn’t hear from her for a month or two, he pleads with her to hurry. I know you have a life to live but try to squeeze me in there somewhere p-l-e-a-s-e, letter wise. I miss reading your thoughts.
On Sunday, May 22, 2005—three years after she was picked to be the foreman of his jury—Lynne made her fifth trip to Green Haven. She brought a bag of canned goods plus several chocolate bars she’d picked up on a recent trip to Spain. In the visiting room, the two spoke for nearly two hours, covering all the usual topics: his children, her job, his request for a transfer. She tried to convince him to apply to Eastern’s college program, but he didn’t make any promises.
The visit ended with a long embrace, and as they parted, she looked even more upset than he did. “Please be happy,” he said. “If you’re sad it’s even harder on me.”
Two days later, Lynne sat down in front of her computer once again.
I know you think my optimism is unrealistic. It may be, but what else do we have? It keeps me working and as yet I’ve seen no reason to give up. . . . Please start to imagine what going to college would be like, what you’d learn, how you’d grow as a person who is still alive in this life, how your interests would expand, and how your kids would see this and expect it for themselves . . .
I promise to have more fun and to live life more joyfully if you will promise to keep the idea of a real, top-notch college education (which Bard would provide) alive in your mind, alive like a flower, alive like the sunlight, alive like all the memories of all the places your children will one day go and where you will accompany them through the power of language . . . and maybe in actuality, as the law that put you away could, should, be changed. . . .
See you next week.
My love to you,
Ma (aka Lynne)