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Column: What a death row inmate had to teach Irish teens

When former Clare hurler and Soar youth foundation co-founder Tony Griffin brought four Irish teens to a leadership camp in Nova Scotia, he heard a life story that he can’t forget – and nor should we.

Tony Griffin

I WANT TO write this down while it is fresh – it is late at night but the rawness of the experience still rushing through my veins.

I am in Wolfville, Nova Scotia this week with the Soar Foundation, accompanying four Irish teenagers to a youth leadership experience called Camp Catapult. The purpose of this camp is for each of the young people to discover their inner leader. As part of this programme they receive talks from inspirational leaders as a well as a week long program of activities.

Tonight they heard from a man who has had to lead himself through the most daunting and nightmarish of life experiences. Kerry Max Cook spent 22 years of his life as a death-row inmate in a Texas jail for a crime he never committed. With searing honesty Kerry Max told us how he grew up as the son of an army officer who had been stationed in Germany. He told us the story of his turbulent relationship with his mother, his closeness to his brother and the low levels of self-esteem that marked his young life.

Upon his family’s return to Texas his life spiralled in to stealing cars to be accepted by the bullies that made his life a living misery each day of school. He quickly became known as a teenage trouble maker in the small conservative town in which he lived – a name that was about to bring him to a Death Row jail cell.

When 21-year-old Linda Jo Edwards was murdered in 1977, a local district attorney was running for state office and building his campaign on keeping the streets of small town Texas safe. Kerry Max became a quick target for conviction and, despite overwhelming evidence that pointed to his innocence, was convicted of the crime and sentenced to death.

“It made me feel there is more in all of us”

It is hard to describe the power of Kerry Max Cook. The way in which he survived the savagery of that prison cell, the fights, the rapes, the inner demons and his repeated commitment that he was never going to give up. He taught himself to understand law; he read voraciously, he became qualified as a paralegal.

It made me feel that there is more in all of us. We are capable of more than our minds can comprehend, often it takes great challenge to realise this.

His struggles against all odds were framed against a justice system that was as deeply flawed as it was punitive. Four times he attempted to force a re-trial, four times his prison cell welcomed him back into its arms, ready to test his will all over again. He cut himself to get out. On one occasion he ran a knife across his neck, blood flowing, wanting out, the pain too much. The footage of his limp body being rushed to the prison infirmary was shown to us, grainy as it was it portrayed the reality of Kerry Max’s situation. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

Kerry Max’s closest friend was his brother. When he was killed in a bar room disagreement it was almost the final blow. All hope was gone – why live? Instead he faced the challenge once more, renewed his efforts to prove his innocence and eventually after all the hurt and all the pain Kerry Max Cook walked free of the Texas Prison service after 22 years on death row.

This story was not one of hatred, of revenge or of total darkness. Told with the title of the ‘Anatomy of Dreams’, this now silver-haired man with a deep Texan accent spoke of love, of forgiveness, of never giving up on our dreams. He spoke of justice and the right of each of us to be all that we can be. He spoke of possibility.

As the talk ended Kerry Max spoke of how his fight was not over. His dark night not ended. While he is free, his conviction has not been officially overturned by the Texas State Department and he was still fighting for his innocence to be recognised on paper. He is still fighting for the simple right to be able to rent an apartment, or a car, rights stolen from him. This shadow is why he travels the world speaking to young people. He wants for them a life he did not have.

“Don’t tell me about yesterday – tell me what you are doing today to make your dreams a reality”

He wants his story of perseverance, courage and resiliency in the face of adversity to empower young people to love themselves, strive for the best and above all else never ever give up. This was why for over an hour after his powerful talk he stood and met teenager after teenager – many of them crying deep tears, born of feeling lost, or losing a parent, or simply wanting justice for Kerry Max.

He consoled them, he told them he believed in them and he told them to contact him. But “don’t tell me about yesterday, tell me what you are doing today to make your dreams a reality” he said to teenager after teenager.

It was as if he was offering advice to the teenager he once was, a teenager who was to meet with great adversity and come out with forgiveness and love in his heart, and a will to never ever give up.

The four Irish teenagers who sat and listened to every word Kerry Max Cook came away inspired, motivated, changed. They had seen a man who had overcome himself and the system that held him and was continuing to dedicate himself to being all he could be.

What a message for these four young Irish people to bring back to their country: a spark to start the fire.

From all at the Soar Team – Dream Big, Be Bold and Never Give Up.

Kerry Max Cook’s battle to clear his name continues with 76,000 signatories on his online petition. He wrote about his life and experiences on Death Row and in fighting the US justice system in his Chasing Justice book.

Tony Griffin is an athlete, charity activist, speaker and author. He is a former All-Star hurler with Clare and co-founded Soar, a not-for-profit outreach movement which assists peer-to-peer delivery of critical life skills in young people.

Previously: Jim Stynes inspired thousands to reach for the sky… including me>

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Tony Griffin

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