George White, the guest speaker sponsored by the Montana Abolition Coalition to End the Death Penalty at Rocky Mountain College’s Fortin Auditorium, greeted the crowd this week as if he were addressing a jury: “Ladies and gentleman of the jury, I am not a lawyer. I am just a man … .”
Charlene and George White, or “Char” as he called her, had two children and were living their piece of the American dream in a town called Enterprise, Ala., in 1985. One night an unexpected phone call interrupted his planned dinner and movie date night, and White begrudgingly agreed to meet a customer at his store to get him a breaker part for a supposed emergency. His wife suggested she go with him to convince the customer they were in a hurry so they could make the movie.
After waiting some five minutes at the store, there was a knock on the door. “We were expecting a grateful customer; instead we were confronted by a man with a gun,” White said.
He and his wife cooperated with the ski mask-wearing gunman, giving him the money in the safe and his wallet. The gunman motioned for them to go to the cash registers up front.
“We were all moving, and Char stumbled,” White said. “And the first shot was fired. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again.”
Bleeding from three shots to his arm, leg and stomach, White struggled to his feet before seeing his wife face down in a large pool of blood. When he tried to raise her head, he witnessed a sight that is forever sealed into his memory as her life slipped away.
“I looked into the face, into the aftermath of the insanity and horror of murder: I looked into the shattered remains of my wife’s face, and I screamed,” White said, pausing for a moment to collect his thoughts. He continued, “I don’t know if I screamed out loud or not, and I can’t remember if I said goodbye.”
This was only the beginning of a nightmare for George White and his son and daughter, Tom and Christie, who were 12 and 5. Sixteen months later White was arrested, charged and held without bond for the murder of his wife. With his assets frozen - which wasn’t legal - he was only able to conjure up one dollar to pay his hired lawyer, Paul Young.
Fourteen months later he went to trial. Mr. White said, “I was brought up to believe that once we got to trial, truth and justice - whatever that is - would prevail. I knew it couldn’t be made right, but I thought it would be brought back into some kind of balance. I was wrong.”
After a two-week trial, he was convicted and given a life sentence. White still considered himself “lucky,” he said with a scoff, because the prosecution had been pushing for a death sentence. One juror later confided to White that they gave him life instead of the death sentence because he was white.
“If my skin had been a little darker, I’d be on death row or be a dead man today and that’s a fact, and that ain’t right,” White said. “Please understand that I’m grateful, but I benefited from reverse discrimination.”
He spent the next two years and 103 days in an Alabama prison. “And by the way folks, it wasn’t a country club,” he said.
White’s first appeal was granted after it was decided he had an unfair trial because he was convicted solely on circumstantial evidence, and the judge exercised no control over the court proceedings. He was released after his court case was ruled as “a mockery and a sham, a circus.”
After three years and 16 sessions of continuances, a long list of evidence that wasn’t presented in the first trial was brought to light, including a statement from a store owner across the street who had given police the same description of a man in a mask that White had.
On April 8, 1992, White and his lawyer presented a box of evidence that contained 108 pieces of evidence that proved his innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. A judge quickly said the murder charges were “forevermore dismissed with prejudice.”
It was the end of White’s hell. “Where was George White during all of this in my heart and in my head?” he asked.
White had always considered himself an intelligent man, but he’d never had any discussion that he could recall about the death penalty. Now he opposes it for every circumstance and for every reason.
“However, folks, from the night Char and I were shot, and for a long time afterwards, I absolutely supported it,” White said. “I didn’t know what hatred was before that night. Not every murder victim’s family members go to hatred, but I did. I hated that man.”
Along with the murderer and a long list of people that had convicted him, he also hated God. He said, “That night I cursed my God. I wasn’t screaming though from my head, I was screaming from a broken heart. Do I understand the feelings of anger, rage, desire for retribution and revenge? Absolutely.”
He doesn’t disown his initial feelings of hatred. He said that those are normal and valid human responses people have gets when they are grieving, and people are entitled to their feelings, whatever they are.
But White said that it wasn’t the hatred that kept him going for seven years, but love. Hating was easy to do, but the love of his children kept him going.
“See, throughout it all, no matter how bad it got for me, I couldn’t comprehend how bad it was for my babies - for my children, Tom and Christie,” White said. “They’d lost their mother, and they had the state of Alabama say, ‘Your daddy did it!’ and their response was - and this in no way to minimize their pain, their anger, their outrage - their response was to keep on loving me.”
White said he came to understand that God still loved him all through those bitter years as well, and that love manifested through those loyal people, who included his lawyer as well as his children. He still held onto his anger, however, and likened the anger to a clenched fist, the fist eventually cramping the arm into that position until all the feeling was lost in it.
“I was permitting that man and others to rob me of whatever quality of life that I might have remaining,” White said. “The anger controls you. It harms you. And you forever remember your loved one as ‘a murder victim.’”
After White was eventually was able to “release his fist,” he tried to validate his support and reasoning for the death penalty in every way he could.
First, he did it from a faith perspective, but if he professed to be a Christian, Jesus had said in the New Testament, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies, and pray for those that persecute you … .”
White had a degree in economics, and when he added up the costs for the death penalty, it was far too expensive. Getting a death sentence is like a whole new trial in itself. He said, “As a good fiscal conservative, there’s no way I can support the death penalty.”
The death penalty is not a deterrent, either. After having talked to numerous people convicted of murder, White said most people simply assumed they wouldn’t get caught, or they weren’t in their right mind in the first place. In fact, there was a highly publicized execution 10 days in nearby Georgia before White’s wife was murdered. So it certainly didn’t deter that killer.
Another issue he said that hit close to home was “what if an innocent man was convicted?” If he had gotten the death penalty, he wouldn’t be telling his story today. He said, “Now folks, I don’t know a whole lot of things absolutely, but I do know that an innocent man can be convicted of something he didn’t do in this country. It happened to me.”
There was no reason he could fathom to support the death penalty, except for vengeance. “I believe in accountability, I believe in responsibility, but that’s not the question,” White said. “The question is: what do we do with that individual? And as a society, how do we respond?”
White talked about his children briefly, the ones that had loved him unconditionally when others had abandoned the “convicted murderer.” His son Tom went to college on a basketball scholarship. Tom and his wife gave him George, his first granddaughter, 27 months ago.
His daughter went to college on a volleyball scholarship, and got a degree in criminology. “Wonder where that came from?” White asked with a grin. She married in November, and he learned three weeks ago that she was expecting a child.
White still has angry days, and says that only makes him a normal human being. For years, White said he couldn’t remember his wife except through the last image of her death.
“And no one should ever have to live like that,” White said. “But today, by the grace of God, I can look into the faces of my children, Tom and Christie – and into my grandbaby now – and I can see it reflected there, the legacy of Charlene White: life, and love. And most days, I can smile.”