Of all the troubling events from my childhood, one of the most enduring remains the afternoon I visited a prisoner serving a life sentence for murder. It was 1978 and I was 9 years old, escorted to Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh by my mother, who, compelled by a lifelong objective of raising her son’s awareness of injustice in the world, no doubt considered this to be a well-suited occasion.
The injustice, in this particular instance, was the framing of a 21-year-old black man named Stanton Story for the killing of a white Pittsburgh police officer. At the time of our visit, three years had passed since Mr. Story’s trial, in which, despite having apparently been in North Carolina on the day of the shooting, he was found guilty by an all-white jury and sentenced to die in the electric chair. Almost three years later, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted Mr. Story a new trial (on the grounds that prejudicial evidence had been introduced at the first one) and, having recently declared the death penalty unconstitutional, set aside his death sentence. It was during the run-up to this second trial that the Socialist Workers Party, of which my mother was a dedicated member, began advocating on Mr. Story’s behalf.
My mother’s substantial commitment, bordering on mania, had made Mr. Story the predominant subject of our household for months. I was acutely aware of the effort she had been expending, at all hours, on meetings, rallies, protests. “Do you dream of freedom?” she had written in one of her many letters to Mr. Story. Then, for fear that the guards would suspect this question to be a coded invitation to attempt escape, she had frantically whited it out.
What I recall about that afternoon visit, several hours long, is mostly a feeling of dismay. Mr. Story was so pleasant, so courteous, diffident even, that the prospect of his spending the rest of his life in prison was not something I could fathom. I was also bored. The conversation between my mother and Mr. Story, which I was expected to sit through silently, revolved mainly around the particulars of a forthcoming carwash that would raise funds for his legal team. The visit ended abruptly with his being led away, but before the door closed behind him, he turned to wave a melancholy goodbye to my mother, who, standing beside me, gripping my hand, was cursing the guards under her breath and sobbing uncontrollably.
At the new trial, Mr. Story was again found guilty by an all-white jury, and since the death penalty had been reinstated, sentenced a second time to the electric chair — a sentence that on appeal would once more be reduced to life in prison. My mother, mercifully, spared me the details, informing me only that he had “lost.” What are we going to do now, I remember asking, because surely, given Mr. Story’s innocence, and given my mother’s unflagging determination, there was always something more to be done. But no, my mother said, this was it, there was nothing else we could do. So after that, we never mentioned his name again.
But I never forgot him. Over the years, that final image of Mr. Story, looking back at us, would pop into my head at the most inopportune moments. Here I am playing basketball, I would think, and Stanton Story is still in prison. Here I am sitting on my new couch from Crate and Barrel, and Stanton Story is still in prison. Thus my mother’s goal to raise my awareness of injustice in the world had been achieved. Achieved so effectively, in fact, that 30 years after that visit it occurred to me that I could contact Mr. Story, perhaps hear his account of the injustice done to him and, as with other wrongful convictions, help free him. If this sounds like a childish thought, that’s because it is.
After a series of unsuccessful phone calls and Internet searches, I finally learned that Mr. Story was now incarcerated at a supermax prison 50 miles south of Pittsburgh. In addition, I found a Twitter account, ostensibly set up for Mr. Story, listing a few unsettling tweets, including “HELP HELP HELP HELP PLEASE HELP.”
“Dear Mr. Story,” I wrote, “I’m not sure if you’ll remember me, but years ago I came to visit you one afternoon with my mother …”
One week later came a reply. No, he did not remember me. He remembered my mother, though, “a very good and dear friend,” whom he thought of often. He still had a photograph in his cell of the two of them, taken at one of her many visits. His grammar was occasionally off, but all things considered he wrote with elegance and optimism. “I guess you can say that I’m constantly trying to make the best out of a bad situation” was a refrain he would repeat in nearly every letter to me. He was still hoping for a new trial. He thought the prospects were good. We made plans for me to visit. He was excited to get started, to tell me his story. “I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself,” he wrote.
In the meantime, I began to research his case. One of the first websites that I came across, though, was a memorial for slain police officers, which had dedicated a page to Patrick Wallace, the officer who had allegedly been killed by Mr. Story. Up to this point, I had never given much thought to Mr. Wallace. In fact, I had never given any thought to him. It occurred to me as I read that not only did I know very little about Mr. Wallace, but I also knew very little about any of the details of the case.
I soon discovered some troubling things. I learned, for instance, that at his second trial, Mr. Story admitted he had lied about his alibi of being in North Carolina. He had been in Pittsburgh, at the scene of the shooting, but he insisted that it was his companion, a man named Richard Davis, who had fired the fatal shot. Moreover, I found that he had a long history with crime, beginning as a teenager. When he was 21, he was convicted on multiple counts of armed robbery and sent to Western Penitentiary. In prison, his behavior was so exemplary that he was granted a three-day furlough, but during those three days he robbed two banks and fled to North Carolina. A month later he returned to Pittsburgh, where he may or may not have shot and killed Patrick Wallace.
All of this I was just beginning to process as I made my way from New York City to Waynesburg, Penn., to visit Mr. Story.
I had made the mistake of skipping breakfast, partly out of poor planning, but mostly out of anxiety, so that by the time I arrived I was famished. He was waiting for me when I walked in, sitting patiently at a table in the visitor’s room. He had gray in his beard. He was 57 years old now.
We broke the ice by having a good laugh at the expense of the Socialist Workers Party, whose members, Mr. Story said, had disapproved when he told them that when he got out of prison he would buy a house. “We don’t believe in private property,” they had counseled. He spoke highly of my mother, however, and seemed to bear no ill will that she had fallen out of touch. For the next six hours we talked about his childhood, his life in prison, the improprieties in his two trials, the details of the crime.
I was plagued by a sinking feeling that even if he were innocent — which he might very well be — there would be no way to prove it. His conviction appeared to hinge largely on the testimony of Mr. Wallace’s partner, whose identifications of the two men at the scene were somewhat marred by ambiguities. No bullets had been found, which meant no gun could be connected to the crime. There seemed to be no hard evidence to prove either innocence or guilt. Still, he had been sentenced twice to the electric chair.
Unable to feed myself, I fed Mr. Story. Fish sandwiches and green tea from the vending machine. I was surprised at how high his spirits remained. He described how years ago he had been shackled and transferred across the country by bus. “I looked out the window the entire time,” he said. “It was the best week of my life.”
When our visit was over, we promised to keep in touch. We parted with hopes and expectations. I was aware that he was smiling at me when he went back to his cell.
But the hopes and expectations were soon replaced by the monumental task that lay before me, as it had once lain before my mother. I visited with members of his family, who offered little in the way of assistance. I contacted his old lawyers, who never returned my calls. I spoke with legal experts who agreed that Mr. Story had some legitimate arguments in his favor but said that countless men and women suffered from inadequate counsel and an unfair trial.
Meanwhile, Mr. Story and I wrote letters back and forth, going over the same thin material. I thought of letting my mother know that I had reconnected with Mr. Story, but as she was nearing 80 years old, I did not want her to have to contemplate those grave and ponderous issues of hopelessness and the passage of time.
A year passed. Our letters became shorter. We began to write mostly about the Steelers. The space between sending and receiving letters grew longer. How long can a correspondence like this go on? Not long. Eventually I took so many months to respond that he never wrote back. Or perhaps it was the other way around. Either way, it came as a relief.
Recently, while helping to organize some of my mother’s things, I found a large envelope that was labeled “Stanton Story Letters.” The envelope was thick, and I had the urge to open it and read what she had written to him — but I refrained. My mother had not been able to figure out how to keep up a correspondence with a man imprisoned for life. Thirty years later, neither could I.
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh is the author of the short-story collection “Brief Encounters With the Enemy” and the memoir “When Skateboards Will Be Free.”