Every so often, there is an article of such beauty that one has to draw attention to it. Here we have a long-time resident of Georgia’s Death Row whose obituary ended up being sent around the country. (I first spotted it in the Bellingham, Wash. Herald). I am guessing that a reporter was reading ordinary obits in the Macon Telegraph (the printed version of macon.com) when he saw a heart-rending eight paragraphs written by the condemned man’s lawyer.
And so he wrote a story. Usually people don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for those on Death Row, but this story injected some humanity a 41-year-old man who was executed this past March 31. It didn’t excuse the murder he had committed at age 19, but it explained how someone who was treated like an animal since birth might have acted like one at one point, then spent the next 20 years seeking redemption.
The man is dead now, but he looks like a boy in the prison photograph. He has on inmate garb -- a short-sleeved white shirt with a stark navy collar -- the uniform of death row.
The picture is from about 1999. Joshua Daniel Bishop was a young man back then – 24 or so – with cropped, brownish hair and a round face. A hint of a closed-mouth smile makes him look younger. He’d already been on Georgia’s death row since February 1996, the month after he turned 21.
Bishop was there because in June 1994, after a night of drinking at the Hill Top Grill in Baldwin County, Ga., he and another man used a wooden closet rod to beat to death a 43-year-old carpenter named Leverette Morrison.
Then it mentions that his obituary appeared 10 days later as a tale of a boy brought up hungry and afraid in group homes and foster care.
The obituary notes Bishop’s “Dickensian childhood.” It mentions how as a boy he scrounged for food, for green tomatoes to fry – ones that had been “left out for trash by families who had more than they needed.”
The write-up also tells of Bishop’s drug use and drinking and the “horrible mistakes” they spawned: “His addiction, and what came of it, cost him his life, and he wanted youth growing up in similar circumstances to learn from his story.”
It goes on to mention how he “grew up under bridges in Milledgeville” and how in prison he was baptized as a Catholic and learned “no one is beyond the reach of forgiveness.”
It further notes how Bishop had become an accomplished artist and, perhaps most poignantly, it recalls his final moments:
“In his last hours, Josh comforted his friends, prayed with us, reminded us to take care of one another, and sang ‘Amazing Grace.’ He hoped that his death would ‘take away from the pain and add to the peace’ of those he had hurt. His continued concern for the suffering of others while he faced the ultimate penalty showed that the evil the State wanted to stamp out was not there, and all that was lost was the potential of a redeemed soul to do good. If there is justice in heaven, if not on earth, he is painting with Rembrandt and humming along with Merle Haggard.”
If you read the actual obituary, it has even more overt religious references. Not that the article stinted on the faith stuff. The reporter did what he could to summarize what a pathetic upbringing this man had and how prison ended up being his salvation. He did the job of a journalist: taking the time to research and explain the story behind a man who society would ordinarily despise and forget.
The little details are so telling: How he loved the outdoors, yet was penned up inside prison like an animal and was reduced to washing prison showers. And how he learned that life is what you take out of it, even if you were given very little to begin with. And that even convicted murderers are human. It's a Les Miserables tale of a convict who is redeemed by the kindness of others. There is such power to these stories.
The reporter interviewed the attorney who wrote the obit, learning more sad details about a man who asked to be buried near a monastery because he had once visited the place on a school trip decades before. It is so sad. Here was someone who had so little joy in his life, the high point in his existence was somewhere he visited in grade school.
Very rarely do many of us get to write a piece that makes people stop and think deeply. This article is one such piece. The article never excuses the fact that Joshua Bishop murdered someone. But many such people never learn from such a mistake, much less repent, much less work to steer others away from his fate. Joshua Bishop did it all.
Photo courtesy of Georgia Dept. of Corrections