Reginald Clemons, a Missouri death row inmate, awaits a hearing on whether there is new evidence of his innocence. A recent news story, which can read at the link below, reveals that the Missouri Attorney General recently told the court handling Mr. Clemons’s appeal that physical evidence, some of which may contain DNA, has been discovered in law enforcement files. This evidence may not have been available to Mr. Clemons’s trial attorneys. Like most online news stories, this one drew many comments, some welcoming the inquiry into Mr. Clemons’s evidence, and some condemning it. One comment (not on the website listed below) was, “Why is this murderer breathing my air?”
A recent story on NPR concerned released prison inmate Felix Aponte, who donated his kidney to save the life of another man he met in prison. That link is below, too. Mr. Aponte explained, “I wanted to do something good in my life for the first time. All I've done is like, mischief.” This story generated a vigorous dialogue, with some people concluding that since the “hero” of the story was a convicted felon, his good deed should be discounted.
These news items and comments reminded me of a story in one of my favorite children’s books, Wayside School is Falling Down, by Louis Sachar. Myron, a student at Wayside School, feels trapped by school rules. After lunch, instead of going back to his classroom, he goes down to the dark, mysterious school basement. There, he meets a man who asks him, “Do you want to be free, or do you want to be safe?” He explains that if Myron wants to be safe, he’ll have to follow all the rules, go to school, brush his teeth. . . Or he can be free. “I want to be free,” says Myron. He signs a paper “written in some kind of foreign language.” Thereafter, Myron doesn’t have to do anything the teacher says, and there is nothing she can do about it.
Deciding to be free requires us to realize that the world actually does not revolve around us. The air we breathe doesn’t belong to me, or to Reggie Clemons, or to the man who commented on the story. Being free also requires us to realize that the world is uncertain, sometimes apparently written in a foreign language. It is easy to say, “Well, the jury convicted Reggie Clemons, or Felix Aponte, and the appeals court affirmed, so they must be guilty, and we can forget about them.” That is the safe way. But it is not the free way. Freedom requires us to let go of our prejudices and admit the possibility of uncertainty. Of course, even before Myron signed the paper, he didn’t have to sit in his seat and brush his teeth. He just had to accept the consequences if he didn’t. In the same way, if we let go of the notion that everyone convicted by a court is guilty and can never change, we will be faced with uncertainty. Sometimes the results will be good. Sometimes they will be bad. But that’s what freedom entails.
There are advantages to being safe. Life is predictable, not upsetting. Risks are avoided. And there are advantages to being free. Freedom brings adventure, expanded possibilities, new experiences. So, do you want to be free, or do you want to be safe?