Journey Toward Justice"
Speech Given by Jim Jenkins
March 27, 1996
National Commission on Capital Punishment
City Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Greetings ladies and gentleman and
respected panel members. It has been a long and arduous journey that has
brought me here before you today. One that is certainly far from over.
Before I bring you to this particular moment in time, let me take you back to my
I was raised as a child to always respect the value of human
life. I was taught by my grandmother that life was sacred and that I had the
responsibility to care for all of humanity. She was very firm in teaching me the value of
helping others and that you should always try to help those in need.
The death penalty was one of those issues that challenged a lot
of what I was taught as a child. Up until I was in college, I would sometimes
respond to certain acts of violence reported on the news by saying "Whoever did that
should be killed." To me, there were acts that beyond a shadow of a doubt
were punishable by death.
But that was before I studied criminology in college.
Once I read the statistical information, I realized that the justice system is unfair in
terms of the death penalty. I felt it was inherently wrong and I even felt ashamed
of myself for ever having thought "why not just kill them." My
grandmother's voice never rang truer in my heart. When I studied the racial and
economical inequalities of justice, I became outraged. I also devoured the Bill of
Rights and really tried to understand how capital punishment could NOT be considered
"cruel and unusual." And then I went to the Bible and re-acquainted myself
with the teachings of Jesus Christ.
I found the Bible to be filled with story after story of
Christ's compassion, which ultimately got him killed. I read passage after passage
and became quite appalled at how so many use that awful "eye for an eye"
argument from the Old Testament when Christ refuted it completely in Matthew 5:38:
"If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also."
It amazed me to think that we as a society take pride on how far we have come in this day
and age and yet we seem to have forgotten not only the teachings of Christ but the words
from many other religions that tell us a very simple truth: Killing, by any means, is
wrong. Up until last year, nothing ever prompted me to actively do anything about my
Last December I went to see the movie and read the book Dead Man
Walking. I must tell you that when I saw that film, I was so stunned by it that it
took me a day to stop the tears from escaping my eyes. As a former caregiver for an
AIDS clinic, I have seen a lot of death in my lifetime. I have actually held onto
one of my friends as he died. But the death I have seen seems nothing compared
to the premeditated horrors that Sister Helen Prejean saw. Sister Helen's story really
touched my life and filled me with not only this great sadness but also the desire to
learn more about a process that completely horrified me. So on January 31st, I was
innocently surfing the World Wide Web and found a site for the National Commission on
I found a page that advertised stories of inmates and how you
could help them and so I clicked on an essay called "Prayer of the Altar Boy"
about a man named Frank Chester. In 1987, he and a friend, Rick Laird, were out at a
local bar in Tullytown Pennsylvania, when they met Anthony Milano. Anthony and Frank
found they had a lot in common. They were both Italian, both raised Catholic, and
both were on the verge of getting their lives together and facing their futures as
adults. But that was to end when Rick, Frank, and Anthony left the bar.
A day later, Anthony Milano's body was found in a wooded area off
Route 13, his throat slashed open; his car torched and burned. A few months after
that, Rick Laird and Frank Chester would find themselves being tried together and
sentenced to death for the horrible demise of Anthony Milano. As I read the essay, I
felt this horrible feeling in my stomach because I was transported back in time to when
the trial actually happened.
The District Attorney created a media circus with this case
. The motive for the murder was that Anthony was killed because Frank Chester and
Rick Laird were sickened by Anthony's homosexuality. You see, I myself am a gay man
and this case took me back in time because the national and gay press really made an issue
of this trial. This case was the first time the death penalty was used in a gay hate
crime and I remembered at the time of the trial thinking "What a couple of frigging
monsters." As I continued to read Frank's story, all of the feelings of
revulsion and contempt that I had for the two men who had killed Anthony Milano
But as I was reading the essay, it said that Frank was actually
innocent and I thought "huh?" How could that be? I was in disbelief but I
felt that I should say something to Frank. So I wrote a very brief note to him saying
I was familiar with his case and that I remembered who he was. I even told him I was
gay and how I had never forgotten that case. I also told him it didn't matter to me
whether or not he was innocent, I thought he should not be killed. I sent the letter
thinking that the monster I had read about would see my letter and trash it since I am
sure he didn't need to hear from some "faggot scum," a term used by Rick Laird
to describe gay people in general.
A week later the first letter arrived from Frank. In it, he
not only affirmed my being gay with very positive words but he also told me he could
appreciate the oppression I have felt in my life. I told him that I was just
published in an anthology called Out at the Workplace and he requested that I send him a
copy of the book to read. He spent most of the letter telling me that he was truly
innocent and yet he didn't expect me to believe him. He was right, I didn't, but I
answered his letter and told him I was willing to listen.
Since that time, I have gotten to know Frank Chester better than
anybody I have ever known or cared for in my entire life. Because of his persistence
and very forthright manner in explaining himself, I decided to drive from DC to Waynesburg
Prison and allow him to walk me through the night of Dec. 14, 1987 and his subsequent
trial. Let me just say that had you told me I would walk down the long and sterile
corridors of Waynesburg Prison to possibly look into the eyes of a monster a few months
earlier, I would have thought you were completely crazy.
But I went. I had a six and a half hour visit with Frank
and as promised, he walked me into a night of utter darkness and terror as he recounted
Anthony Milano's grisly death. Yes, Frank was there and yes, Frank was a witness to the
murder. But the ONLY thing he is guilty of is being a stupid teenager who was at the
wrong place at the wrong time. From the transcripts, Frank showed me how he
cooperated with the police. He produced the clothes he was wearing the night of the
murder which did not have any of Anthony's blood on him but rather, his own. He gave
the police the names of all his friends who he ran to after the murder and supplied many
of the witnesses from the bar where Frank was seen talking to Anthony and having a good
time. He also submitted to a lie detector test which he passed with flying
colors. And to further help the police, he even agreed to a wire-tapped phone call
to help the police capture Rick Laird for the murder.
But a District Attorney with an election year ahead of him used
Anthony Milano's homosexuality and Frank's efforts to cooperate with the police
against Frank and the case became a judicial circus of errors to where Frank was sold down
the river by a system that was designed to protect him.
In the eight years that Frank has been on Death Row, he has
applied himself to studying the law and helping not only himself but also others who have
been forgotten by the
justice system. He is, in many respects, a model prisoner, having never committed a
violent act or been caught doing drugs while in prison. All he has done since 1988
is maintain his innocence while the courts have been slowly moving him toward
Once Frank finished his story and I looked into eyes. I
could see the 19 year old boy who was still lost in the woods and yet I also saw the eyes
of a 27 year old man whose life has been senselessly taken away from him. I walked
away from Frank believing him. If you had journeyed with me through the same hell
Frank described, you would understand today how innocent he is.. Because he was
young, naive, poor and ignorant of his rights, he was offered up by the District Attorney
as some sort of sacrificial lamb. And now he awaits his final appeal and could be
dead in a matter of days unless something is done.
I am here today to stand up for both the lives of both Frank
Chester and Rick Laird. Rick Laird is truly guilty of his crime and should
never walk among us again. But he doesn't deserve to die for what he did. Of
that I am certain. Rick Laird recently testified in court and that he was so strung
out on drugs and alcohol that night of Anthony's murder that he did not know what he was
doing. In his testimony, he also has exonerated Frank from any responsibility for
the murder. Frank is still on death row. I am now the only person actively
working with him to try and clear his name. We both have asked for help to save him
because if you read the transcripts, the proof is there: justice was not done and the
validity of the death penalty is erased once ONE innocent man is condemned to death.
Sadly, most lawyers want me to sign my life away before they will help Frank out.
I am here because I am against the Death Penalty. I think
it is wrong. I think we need to find more non-violent ways to counteract violent acts
and allow ourselves to heal. We need to understand the power of forgiveness as well.
I am here because in two months, I have come to understand and
love Frank Chester a great deal and I see him as a human being, not the monster I read
about in 1988. He is an innocent man and I am here to try and save him. As of
now I have no where else to turn and the clock slowly ticks toward Frank's eventual
execution. I would hope that as a result of my testimony today that someone would
listen to my story and offer to help. Frank is a living example that justice does
not always prevail and I pray that something is done to prevent not only his death but
also bring him his deserved freedom. Thank you.