My Struggle to Face the Pain and Shame of Being a Killer
Only my closest friends knew the real story of what I did—at least until I performed a poem about my crime and connected with a survivor of another kind of violence.
Illustration by Dola Sun
This story was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
"I seen you on the prison TV station last night," said a familiar voice from over my left shoulder. Knowing it was Bass, I turned my attention away from preparing the service line where most inmates would get their dinner that night.
"Oh yeah," I said, "that's cool, they must've aired the new 'Convicted Lyrics' spotlight." I tried to hide my pride.
In the midst of Bass talking about poetry, in came my friend Hilton, the jailhouse attorney.
"What's up fellas, what y'all talking about?" He was standing in the doorway of the kitchen with a straight back, hands on hips, squared shoulders. Hilt is friendly, but direct.
Hilt told us there was an upcoming event being held in the prison chapel to support a movement known as One Billion Rising. The event was being organized to bring awareness to the many forms of violence against women—and he suggested that I write something on the topic and perform it.
He handed me a single sheet of white paper with suggested topics.
The last bullet on the paper read: "What would you say to your victim, if you could talk to them?"
Suddenly, something shifted, as if a door had been opened.
Check out our documentary about a serial killer who targeted poor women of color in Cleveland.
Talking about a murder charge, or being known as a murderer, may seem like no big deal for a man in prison. It may seem like something we talk about like the food and the guards, as we shoot the shit waiting for dinner to come. Or it may even fit into some stereotypical view that such a man would wear his crime as a badge of honor.
But most of us aren't like that at all: We speak vaguely, act like it doesn't exist.
Only my closest friends knew the real story of what I did. There was so little knowledge about my case that a rumor hit for a short while that I might have done some weird sex crime. But I didn't care—an ugly lie was easier to defend than the truth.
As I set to work on my poem in the next few days, I felt a sense of duty to be authentic. I would catch myself drifting away from the truth of my crime, into semantics, and I would have to stop, go back, and start over again.
Then the day came.
Walking through the front double-doors of the chapel, I saw 50 or so prisoners milling around with a handful of male and female outside guests.
I was busting with nerves, now, literally, talking to myself: "You're a star." I was nervous about being onstage, but more so about what I would be saying.
Then it was my turn to walk out on the stage. The lights were too bright to see past the silhouetted faces in the first couple of rows. I wondered whether Bass and Hilton were out there watching—and for a moment wished I could just be back in the kitchen talking about bullshit.
I soon heard a strange voice echoing out of the speaker before realizing that it was my own.
"This is my first time hearing my voice through a microphone, and I have to say it sounds pretty good," I smiled. There was laughter. I relaxed.
"What most people don't know about me is why I've been in prison for 26 years now. At the age of 18, I committed an aggravated murder, and was given 105 to life. Ever since, I've been unable to answer two seemingly simple questions: Why, and how, could I have done what I did? So I wrote this poem."
Exhaling deeply, clasping my palms together in front of me, I started to perform. The poem is meant to be heard, not read, but here is an excerpt:
You see this here, this here's a knife, and what I'm about to tell you is a story about my life. If you'd cut me open, I'd be sure to bleed a sadness that had this, feel or sense of my own inner embarrassment. My own shame that I've kept hidden away, until right out here on this stage. Where I'm a release it, imma let you see this shit leaking out my veins is liquified pain…. Through teary eyes and a shaky voice, she pleaded with me to make a different choice….. But her tears fell on ears just too young for the circumstance. She said, you don't have to do this. I just told her to get down. One Shot. Pow. Now it's over with. Now It's Over With. I was so stupid. What the fuck was I thinking. What if someone killed my kid, took away my baby and destroyed my family. See, in one split second, I ended up wrecking not one but two lives. Tore apart not one but two family ties…. Melissa died for nothing, literally, and I feel like nothing, internally…. I can't go back in time to stop my younger self from committing that crime…. I can't forgive myself, so I don't expect you to…. From this day forward, I will no longer be coward. Imma face this pain, sew up this vein and live my life in proof that she didn't die in vain. Simple and plain, I'm sorry. But see, what I really want to say is.... I'M SORRY!!
Heading into that last and most important line of my poem, the reason why I was up there, I said it: "I'm sorry!"
After I came down off the stage, about halfway out into the audience, sitting in an aisle seat, a woman was crying uncontrollably.
"Are you OK, Elizabeth?" said a young man sitting next to her, with his arm around her shoulders.
Elizabeth continued sobbing in silence. Her hands covered her face.
Suddenly, she excused herself from her companion, hurrying out into the chapel hallway leading to the restrooms and the outside garden area.
Outside, unafraid and unapologetic, she turned to me and said in a direct tone, "I want to tell you something about what I've been through, so you can better understand why your poem affected me the way it did."
"When I was a young girl," she continued, "I was molested for years by my older brother. I hid the fact for some of the same reasons you talked about in your story, feelings of shame, embarrassment, thinking people wouldn't believe me. And they didn't! When I finally got up the courage to talk about it publicly, everyone believed his lies, that I was making the whole thing up for some attention, trying to sell a book."
"That's terrible," I said. "I don't know what's wrong with people."
"I don't know either. In the end, all I wanted from him was a sorry. I think that's what really got me about your poem. I need a sorry from a person who won't give it, and you need to give a sorry to a person who can't get it."
She put her hand on mine.
Jason Thompson, 42, is incarcerated at Marion Correctional Institution in Marion, Ohio, where he is serving 105 years to life for aggravated murder, robbery, and kidnapping.