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"A 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 roots. 
 
     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 beliefs. 

     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 Capital Punishment. 

     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 resurfaced. 

     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 execution. 

     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. 


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