The Hope and Sorrow of Visiting My Son on Death Row
He's condemned to die in April, and the closer it gets, the more it weighs on me.
This story was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
In 2008, Marilyn Shankle-Grant's son, Paul Storey, was sentenced to death. He and an accomplice had been convicted of shooting and killing 28-year-old Jonas Cherry while robbing the putt-putt golf course where Cherry worked in Hurst, Texas.
This is Shankle-Grant's account of the experience and the years since.
I was on vacation, in New York, when I found out my son had been arrested. I became numb. This is not happening, I thought. This is not true. There is not a day since where I don't think about the victim's mother, the devastation she must be feeling knowing she's lost her only son.
When I visited Paul in jail before the trial, he was very depressed. He said, "I don't want to live if I have to go to prison. I would rather die." I kept trying to keep him strong, telling him that miracles happen every day.
I couldn't understand why Paul was sentenced to death. When you think of the death penalty, you think of serial killers. You don't think of a robbery-murder, like my son committed. For the first couple of years, I did nothing but cry. I remember our first visit at death row, a week after he'd arrived, he already looked a lot thinner. He seemed like he was starving himself. It broke my heart.
I decided I needed to see him as often as I possibly could. I took on extra hours at work just to get money to drive the four-and-a-half hours to the prison.
When I'd go to see him, the female prison guards would call me "Mama," and say, "Mama, he's been good this week." They say he gives them the utmost respect. I've always taught him, no matter where you are, you keep your dignity, so I can't tell you how proud I am when the guards say nice things about him. He gets letters from pen pals, and I think a lot of people assume Paul—a black man from a single mother in the inner city—is not that educated. But he surprises them, and then they write me to say, "Wow, he's such a good writer!" And that makes me proud, too.
Last year, I lost my job; I was going through so much emotionally that I couldn't work. Unemployment benefits were enough to pay the bills, but not to travel to see Paul. So I started baking cookies and selling them. I made a Facebook page for Marilyn's Old-Fashioned Tea Cakes. I went to car washes and beauty shops, anywhere they'd let me sell them.
Appeals take a long time, and we never talked about what might happen. Last fall, he got an execution date in April 2017. His younger brother and I went to see him. He told us, "You've got five minutes to cry, scream, yell, whatever you need to do. And then we're going to enjoy our visit."
We didn't talk about it again. We never talk about the execution, or the burial, or anything like that. I don't want him to give up hope. We're still holding on to our small piece of hope, so we don't reflect on what's coming. I have an enormous amount of faith in his lawyers, and I'm praying to God they find one thing in his case that gets a stay.
But the closer it gets, the more it weighs on me. I was always the life of the party, this fun-loving, outgoing person, but I've totally changed. I exclude myself from family and friends. I don't go anywhere.
I get asked all the time if I'm going to witness the execution. As a mother, how could I not? I cannot let my child die without me. It's unnatural for a kid to not outlive their parents. But this is not a long illness. It's not a sudden automobile accident. It's watching your healthy child be strapped to a gurney and pumped full of chemicals. And there's nothing you can do.
I try to live it in my head, I think, What will it be like? Am I going to survive it? I've had nightmares. I wake up screaming. I tell Paul all the time, "We're God-fearing people. God can do anything." But I worry that when he's on that gurney he'll look at me and ask, "Mom, did you lie to me?"
When I go to see him on death row, I can't touch him and comfort him. I've heard that after the execution, they'll send him to the funeral home. They allow you to come in while they're still warm. That will be the first time I've touched him in more than ten years.
A previous Life Inside column featured Sven Berger, one of the jurors who sentenced Storey to death.