Freedom Behind Bars 1/2
(This is a transcript of Gene’s story.)
Obviously when God touches, it leaves a mark. And this incident that occurred, I was already incarcerated serving a life sentence. I had 30–32 years in on a life sentence. I had been denied by the governor through the Border Pardons, which was a plea of mercy. It wasn’t a legal matter. It was a plea of mercy. You present your resume, you present to the Board of Pardons home plans, job plans, letters of recommendation, which I had quite a resume over the years, and at 32 and a half years, I got denied. And I remember standing, actually sitting, at a table like this with five members of the institution who informed me that the governor, the Board of Pardons, had denied me. And with 32 years in and I was 50 some years old.
So I was like, feeling like a blow to my stomach. The wind came out of me and, I could barely breathe. But I knew I needed to do one thing–to look him in the eye and thank him, which I had learned through a verse in the Bible. Thessalonians 5:18 says, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning me, concerning you.” And I knew that. That was my practice. That was my, that was my, my character, I learned to say thank you. And so I looked him in the eye and said thank you to everybody, shook their hands.
I remember feeling like I’m going to fall apart because I’d just been denied. I had a lot of friends, a lot of family members, I had a lot of close, Christian friends supporting me for my release, and I have to figure out how to tell them after supporting me, I’ve been denied again for the fifth time. It was humbling, and it was kind of like, Oh, here we go.
But I knew I had to, so I reached across table thanked everybody shook their hand, looked them in the eye. They looked disappointed, you know, and I said, “Is there anything I can do to improve my lot, you know, to, for commutation of sentence – asking the governor to reduce it from life in prison to life on parole.” And he said, “Just maintain a good record. And we’ll see you in two years.”
So I’m walking out and I remember my mind was spinning, and I mean, it was running, it was like, Who do I call first? Larry, Larry Titus, the pastor had been visiting me for 25 years, committed to me since I’ve been born again? My sister, my friends? And I, as I was walking down the steps out the administration building, I was walking to my cell block, it was about less than a quarter mile, and I’m thinking, who do I tell first? Then literally the Holy Spirit is saying, “I want you get on your knees, and thank, and thank me.”
I’m thinking, okay, that’s what I’ve learned to do–is in good situations, in bad situations is to praise and worship God. Whether you had a visit or no visit, whether you got a letter today, no letter, whether you got denied, I learned to literally get on my knees and thank God for that moment, because I knew He had something better for me, you know, and it was hard. It was hard, but I still did it.
So I’m walking, and I walked into my cell block. past the officers, past all my friends, and they’re all waiting. Everybody seems to be waiting on someone else who’d been given a chance at hope. I remember walking into my cell–I had a single cell– and I shut the door and I’m struggling, I’m walking back and forth in this, you know, nine by seven cell and I’m thinking, who do I call first? How do I word it to them that I’ve been denied. They’re all waiting, you know, they’re all hoping and and I’m dealing with my own thing, you know? Okay, God, are you in this at all? Am I gonna die in prison? Am I gonna grow old. I saw other inmates die. I saw other inmates do 45 years, 50 years, and die. Am I going to, you know, so all those things running through my mind. But I can hear the Holy Spirit saying, “Get on your knees and thank me.” And I’m struggling. I mean, if a minute went by, seemed eternity, you know.
So I just stopped and I hit my knees on the side my bed and I bawled like a baby. I mean, I cried loud. I grabbed the pillow and put it on my face. And I just cried, and I, and just if I die–this reality was–if I die, I’ll die with dignity, serving the Lord in prison, leaving a legacy for other inmates. I had been a Christian about 24 years at the time. And I loved ministry. I loved church. I loved mentoring. We did Bible studies out in the yard. We prayed. We saw miracles, we saw people get healed. We saw salvations in my cell, outside my cell, and in the church on Sunday.
But I just got my wits about me, you know, I knew I needed to say thank you out loud. I needed to make it verbal. And so I kind of pulled the pillow away from my face and kind of got myself together. And I and I just said, I said, “God, thank you.” And when I said thank you, like three words came out of my mouth, “God, thank you for providing for me, God, thank you for protecting me and God for promoting me.” And as I said those three words, He literally showed me like snapshots of how as long as I gave, God provided for me. And as long as I trusted him for provision, I was never without.
But I remember looking back. I was probably about 25 years, 26 years in at that time, and I was reading this verse in Isaiah. I was reading through the book of Isaiah. And I was sitting there–it was in the morning, Sunday morning before church, and I was, I was very committed to the ministry and to the brothers. And it was just incredible ministry opportunities. So I was just reading and I came across this verse in Isaiah 54:17, it says, it just jumped off the page at me, like it just “… he that bows low will speedily be released, he will not die in a pit, neither will his bread be lacking.” And when I read that, I couldn’t get past it, you know, so I read it again. I always kept paper and pen you know, And I wrote that verse down. And as I was writing it down, the Lord said, “Bow low.”
So I got my stool, my wood stool, and I got on my, I knelt down on my floor, on my cell floor, and I just knelt there, and Lord said, “No, lower.”
So I knelt there, I put my head down, I kind of prostrated my, my myself, put my head down, and, and he said, “No, lower.” And so I laid out completely–my hands, kind of by my side, on the side, along side, he said, he said, “Lift your hands.” So when I lifted my hands off the floor, my whole body was resting on the floor. And I just felt that weight on my my chest. And he said, “That’s how I want you to live. totally dependent on me. If you support yourself, you have what you have. But if you allow me to support you, I’ll give you everything.”
And it was just like this. If If you walk with the Lord, he has to be everything. You can’t support, you can’t defend yourself. And I’ve gone through, you know, who doesn’t try to defend themselves when you’re when you’ve been accused of something that you didn’t do. You want to defend yourself when someone says something to you. And God says, “I want you to totally, completely depend on me.”
And so there I was on my knees, denied commutation for the fifth time, 32 and a half years in, and and God says, thank me. And when I started saying thank you for protecting me, he showed me that picture real quick. He said, “Gene, I protected you right then.” And it just blew me away and faith welled up in me. And so when I said, I said, finally said thank you. And I got quiet. I heard this, “I’m going to release you. But it’s not based on your effort, not who you know, and what you’ve accomplished.”
And all of a sudden my tears dried up, this peace came over my heart. Like it’s okay. Everything is okay. There’s there’s no problem here. That’s how it felt, it was like everything, I’m right where I’m supposed to be. And I knew I just encountered the Lord. I encountered the Lord because I opened my mouth and I and I spoke and he was, you know, he was already there. But I encountered God in such a way. And I knew that was His voice that said, “I’m going to release you.”
So I remember standing up in the cell. And I stood there I said, I’ll ask God, what do I do now. He said, “Go back to serving, go back to church, go back to getting up in the morning, praying, reading.” And I did.
And two months later, obviously, there was a court ruling that happened and it permitted me to go back into the courts, which took 20 months. I’ll fast track through this because, but it took 20 months to have my case reviewed. And along that way, when they were reviewing my case, my attorney got a hold of me and said, “Hey, what did your old attorney do for you?” And I said, “Well, he did this, this this.” He said, “No, what did you do for you?” And I told him, and he said, “No, he didn’t do anything for you. So what he did was he lied to you. And he pled you into an illegal sentence, an unconstitutional sentence. And there’s evidence of that right here before me.” And he said, “We have to get a judge and we have to get a DA to agree on those things, you know. So that started the process.
Someone yells across the courtroom, “Unshackle him. Release him from his chains. He’s a free man!”
When 20 months later, I find myself back in the courtroom. I walk back in with the orange jumpsuit on and I’m shackled. And I had handcuffs attached to a chain around my waist, and I had like 40, maybe 40 or so friends and family from the community there in support of my re-sentencing. They were going to re-sentence me. They agreed, the judge agreed and the DA agreed that I had been sentenced illegally. And that, something was definitely going to happen. I didn’t know whether I was going to be released or not. I knew something good was going to happen. And and so, when I went in, they started the proceedings and all the legal matters. And real quickly. Then the judge asked me if I had anything to say.
I remember again, here I was, I stood up and I began to thank everybody that ever invested in my life, through trying to breathe, because I was on the verge of just bawling my eyes out. So I kept trying to keep my words short and brief and short. I was saying, “Judge, thank you for this opportunity. A lot of people from officers, to inmates, to friends and family have invested in my life. And I just want to say thank you.”
So as I did that, I just apologized also for the crime. It was obvious that my cousin had committed this crime, I was with him. And so I apologized for my behavior that, that I made some bad decisions in being there. And so I apologized for that to the community. And my family. I remember my sister had two more years of school, high school, after I went to prison, and the talk of having–going to school with your brother and your cousin in prison for murder and doing life. And so I just apologized to my sister, and finally, trying to breathe, and I finished and the judge says, I’ve heard enough.” And and then he goes on and reads a verdict and saying, ‘Having…Gene McGuire has served 34 years, nine months, 15 days of his sentence, Gene has served his maximum sentence.” When I heard that I’m thinking, How much time do I have to do, you know, how much time?
I’m thinking because, you know, I don’t keep calendars. I wasn’t counting days and years and then he said, ” Having served 34 years, nine months, 15 days, the defendant is released effective this date.”
And when I heard that, the courtroom went nuts, I mean, it just exploded with this applause and clapping and people shouting Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! I mean it was this stuff. And I just bawled my eyes out on the table and, and my attorney was patting me on the back and I looked up to the judge and I’m saying thank you judge, thank you. And he walked off the bench, he cleared the court. He just he just walked off the bench, he never closed the court. And the stenographer, she had the machine and she was walking away and it was just, odd, you know.
And so next thing you know it got real quiet in the courtroom. Literally it just got for like a second it got quiet and someone yells across the courtroom, “Unshackle him, release him from his chains. He’s a free man!” The sheriff’s coming over and I can hear the sheriff telling my sister behind me. “Hold on, Mary, Hold on. Hold on.” And she goes, “No, I’ve waited 35 years for him. I’m not going to wait no more.” And so she’s hugging my neck and the sheriffs are unshackling me. And taking the chain off my waist and the cuffs. I’m crying like a baby and my sister’s crying, my niece and nephew and just the just overwhelming and I’m just in awe. I remember standing there and after a little bit we were talking and laughing and crying and hugging and and they came over and they hand me some clothes and he said, “Gene, go change. Mary, take your brother home.” I changed clothes, I came out and started my first day of freedom!
Three days later, I went back to the courthouse. I asked my sister, I said, “Can you make arrangements and see if they’ll let me come back. I want to thank everybody, you know, there’s so many people.” I said,”Can I just go and thank the people that had been involved 20 months in my case and all that?” So we did.
We sat at this big round table and drank coffee and he showed me all the paperwork that had been written before I even got to court. It was already a done deal. They already knew they were going to release me. I remember the guy, the probation guy said, “You know, the judge never closed the court.” So I was like, “Am I still free?” He said, “Yeah, you’re fine,” he said, “but it’s strange that he never said, like, all rise, you know, and did the court’s proceedings. He just walked off. And so I went into chambers a little bit later on I said, ‘Rusty, how come you never closed the court?’ And the judge says, ‘I didn’t want anybody see me crying,’ he said, ‘I just walked off the court.'”
So I thought, man, so some of the some of the stuff and I don’t usually get a chance to– I wrote about it and, you know, in the book, but to try to fit all those those signposts and all those things that went on that just blows me away just and the thought like thinking those things it’s just incredible how like you said heaven invaded that courtroom and orchestrated everything, God orchestrated everything. I had no clue, you know. Nobody promised me anything I just know, [all] I really did know was to walk in humility as a servant.
I had a friend of mine, he looked at me and he’s like shaking his head. He said, “You don’t get it.”
I was like, “I don’t get what?” He says, “You don’t get it.”
I’m like, “What?”
You know, like, he says, ‘You don’t spend 35 years in prison and get out and act like you.” He had been in the prison ministry a long time, and I’m like, and for me, it was just, it was my life I lived. I just I’m a servant, I’ve no rights, I’ve no entitlements, like I said, you know, earlier. I’ve never been in need, never been in need since I’ve been released.