Marvin Burnett Jones (1965-2020): a tribute
Updated: Apr 19, 2020
I want to tell you about Marvin.
He and I met in person for the first and only time in July 2005. I was staying with friends in Gainsville, Florida, during a summer spent roaming the country via Greyhound bus. I didn't have a driver's license at that point, so the guys drove me to Union Correctional Institution in Raiford and dropped me by the gate.
I vaguely remember the imposing fences around the prison, an elderly inmate mowing the lawn between fences, the smell of cut grass in high summer. A small room in which one of the female guards frisked me - and I mean, seriously ran her hands all over my body to make sure I wasn't smuggling in a weapon or contraband. Then a large, brightly lit room that reminded me of our school cafeteria, except that the metal tables and chairs were all bolted to the floor. Marvin was led in - a muscled mountain of a man, dwarfing my 5ft 0" with his 6ft 5" bulk. He was handcuffed behind his back, but once he'd entered, the handcuffs were removed, and he swept me up in a massive hug, after which we sat at one of the tables for five hours (out of the six allowed for extended visits from out of state), chatted about anything and everything, got up and strolled around, and occasionally wandered over to the vending machine so that I could buy Marvin some healthier food than the subpar fare that he was allocated on a daily basis.
By that point, I'd already visited three other pen pals in San Quentin, California, and could appreciate this relaxed and informal setting, compared to being locked inside one of ten small 'cages' in the visiting room. Or - worse - to only seeing your friend from behind plexiglass while they remained handcuffed and chained for the entire visit (while locked inside a visiting cubicle!) in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania.
Marvin and I had been corresponding for over a year by that point. I knew a fair bit about his case by then: he was on Florida's death row for murder and attempted murder according to official records, and manslaughter according to his own version of the story. He was a former U.S. Navy officer with an unblemished serving record who gave up his career in the navy because he had two young girls and wanted to spend more time with his family. In his letters, he told me about the incident that led to his incarceration and during the visit, he filled in the details.
A used car dealer sold his wife a dodgy car, so he took it back; they had an argument and got into an altercation. They both had guns; Marvin fired first and wounded the man. He'd never shot at anyone before; was freaking out, ran into the bathroom in the dark warehouse and was startled by someone inside. He still had his gun in his hand, and fired automatically. The other person was the car dealer's daughter, who later died in hospital from her wounds.
"I drove around all day, not knowing what to do", Marvin told me, his eyes glinting with barely contained emotion. "I didn't want to call my wife, because she would freak out...In the end, I turned myself in."
He was tried by an all-white jury rather than a jury of his peers. The car dealer testified that Marvin was trying to rob him and kill him and that the murder of his daughter was premeditated. It was his word against Marvin's. Some years later, I read the transcript of Marvin's trial and was appalled by the poor defence that his lawyer had put up. Marvin had no prior offences, no criminal record, and ample witnesses who would've testified to his good character, if only the lawyer had bothered to call witnesses. He didn't. Even with the shoddy defence, the jury was divided with regards to applying the death penalty, and in most states where capital punishment exists, the jury must be unanimous in their decision, or it's automatically the lesser of two evils (depending on how you look at it): life without possibility of parole. However, in Florida, the judge may decide if they jury isn't unanimous, and the judge opted for the death penalty.
When I met him, Marvin was distraught because his ex-wife was being difficult, and he wasn't able to see his daughters because they were under the age of 18 and couldn't visit him without her. He also hadn't seen his mother or sister for some time. He told me several times during my visit how grateful he was that I'd come all that way to visit him, and confessed shyly that he's been very nervous about meeting me, and washed his uniform by hand in anticipation of my visit. I was tickled by the fact that this huge man was more nervous about meeting me than vice versa.
Cleanliness and tidiness were very important to him. Years in the navy taught him how to keep his compact cell tidy, and he was naturally inclined towards cleanliness. My mother, a neatness freak herself, approved of Marvin on those grounds. "You've got another letter from one of your murderers", she'd tell me, and I'd perk up at seeing Marvin's familiar, rounded handwriting. A bit OCD about germs (I suspect), Marvin wrote to me at length about the trauma of being made to move cells from time to time, and finding that his new cell had previously been occupied by some slovenly type. He'd then spend days scrubbing the cell clean (even using an old toothbrush to clean the toilet) to his satisfaction, and washed his sheets and uniform by hand, since he was unsatisfied by the state of the prison laundry.
Like my other pen pals, Marvin was keen to hear about what was happening in the outside world, devoured the books I sent him and enjoyed seeing photos from my travels, since during his navy days, he'd seen a chunk of the world himself. His background wasn't typical for a death row inmate - most of my pen pals come from troubled, broken homes, and have engaged in petty crime at the very least from their teenage years. Not Marvin. He grew up in a middle-class, devoutly Christian household, with a loving mother and good relationships with his sister and one of his brothers. He was estranged from his older brother, because the latter refused to have anything to do with Marvin after his conviction. He had a difficult relationship with his father, too; his father was a womaniser, and Marvin lived his life according to a very strict code of conduct. He found himself trapped between the Bible teachings that tell you to respect your parents, and other teachings that condemn fornication and adultery as great sins. Unable to confront his father about his womanising (which hurt Marvin's mother, who invariably heard about the mistresses), and angry on his mother's behalf, Marvin took to confronting and blaming the mistresses instead.
He'd married young, in his early 20s, and was very much a one-woman guy. He lectured me on more than one occasion that marriage is for life, and that people who give up on their marriages are just insufficiently committed and showing weakness by not working out their problems. He didn't really appreciate that sometimes people just grow apart and that unlike in the olden days, the reason why people get divorced more these days is not because people are necessarily less 'moral' or committed but because there's less pressure on women to remain in unsatisfactory and/or abusive marriages than in the past. His own experience hurt him a great deal: once he was convicted, his wife served him with divorce papers and found another man. Marvin did find love, even in his incarcerated state; a pen pal called Kristen fell in love with him; she came to visit him several times, and he loved her back. But then her cancer returned and she passed away. "I wish I would die too," he wrote me. "Then Kristen and I would be together."
But he didn't die then, and he'd never ever contemplate taking his own life. He believed it to be a sin, a weakness, and was rather judgemental when he and I discussed euthanasia. I believe that a person should have the right to depart this world in the manner of their choosing, if life gets too much for them. Marvin's take was more black-and-white: "If I can survive in here, then why can't they find motivation to keep going, out there?" It just didn't compute that what makes life bearable or unbearable for one person may not be true for another.
We did argue sometimes, quite badly. He was vehemently anti gun control, even though gun ownership cost him his liberty and would cost him his life; if he and the car dealer hadn't had guns, they would've just had a fistfight, at most. No one would be dead, and Marvin wouldn't be behind bars. Also, Marvin was a devout Christian with a rather traditional set of values, and my freewheeling lifestyle filled him with some horror. And, being 16 years older, he was trying to impart his wisdom on a 'young lady', as he called me, and I bristled at some of his unsolicited advice and felt that he was being patronising. But I appreciate now, more than ever, that it all came from a good place; he was trying to be as good a friend to me as possible. He'd have liked to have seen me settle down with some nice man, buy a house, have some kids - to him, that was a formula for happiness. And he gave very perceptive advice at times; he patiently read about the problems I was having with a friend of mine and counselled me very early on that unless both sides want to rebuild a friendship, it just isn't going to work, and that my best bet is to cut my losses and move on. He was right.
Having spent almost half of his 55 years behind bars, Marvin neither lost sight of who he was nor of a greater purpose to his life than merely surviving, mentally intact. He wasn't bullied by others, being bigger and stronger than most fellow inmates, and he never abused his strength. He took it upon himself to provide guidance and counselling to young, new inmates, who'd never had that kind of stability in their lives before, and whose brief lives had been defined by abuse and violence up to that point. He became their big brother, their mentor and, a while back, I helped him to track down someone he'd helped years back, who'd managed to get his sentence commuted. Marvin also loved basketball and played as often as possible; he'd lose himself for hours in R'n'B and soul music.
I was quite idealistic when I started writing to my pen pals, believing that justice would win out, and that some would be able to prove their innocence. Marvin had a much more pragmatic view of his own situation, and accepted that he was destined to end his life behind bars. Even though the likeliest outcome was either lethal injection or the electric chair (inmate's choice!), he had resolved to live out the remainder of his life with as much dignity as possible. Even though he'd never intended to kill that young woman, he took full responsibility for her death, and was content to do penance.
He got very ill last year, diagnosed with cancer. The prison authorities waited until the last possible minute before getting him live-saving medical treatment (ironic, really, since the state of Florida only wanted to keep him alive in order to execute him later), and he was shackled to the hospital bed the whole time, as if he'd make a run for it while receiving blood transfusions and chemo.
Returning to prison after weeks in hospital, he was so weak he could barely walk, but clawed his way back to greater health for a while. After a turbulent few years, his daughters were back in his life, and he was receiving regular visits from them, and spoke at length to me of how proud he was of his girls and how they've turned out. Cancer treatment landed him back in hospital over Christmas and he didn't get to see his mother or sister, though he did manage to speak to him mum on the phone and tell her he loved her before she herself passed away from cancer in January.
"I can't believe I'm not going to see her again", he wrote to me. "I miss her so much." Otherwise, he was in good spirits and feeling better the last time he wrote to me, three weeks before he himself exited this world. There's no doubt that he's in a better place now than Union Correctional Institution (because pretty much anywhere would be better), and while I don't believe what he believed, I hope, for his sake, that there is an afterlife and a wise and all-powerful Creator who has judged Marvin on his merits and found him worthy.
I will miss him a great deal - his sense of humour, his no-nonsense attitude, his rather convoluted way of writing and how he spelled "probably": "proberly". And whenever I'm in a flap or distraught, I will draw strength from the quiet stoicism and dignified conduct that Marvin had displayed till the very end, and will carry it with me for the rest of my days. "The dead go on forever in the living."
Rest in peace, Marvin.