By JASON REYNOLDS
Tennessee Christian News
Mitchell Rutledge, a convicted murderer who was once described as not worth killing, has been serving as an inspiration to people in prison and on the outside for more than three decades.
“To most people the life of a foolish punk like Rutledge does not count for much,” a reporter for Time magazine wrote in an article on Jan. 24, 1983. “He is defective. His death would not be unbearably sad. … There are guys not worth killing. Let Rutledge sit and stew in his 8-ft. by 5-ft. pen in Alabama. Forget him.”
The article also threw out for public consumption Rutledge’s IQ — 84. The story was written at the time the death penalty was being reinstated in the United States. Rutledge was the only death row inmate quoted in the article who expressed regret for his actions.
The reporter’s callous words prompted a disparate handful of evangelical and Catholic Christians around the country to take action and to befriend Rutledge and to advocate on his behalf. These disparate advocates included a college professor who was also an official with a local Republican party, as well as a school teacher and a housewife.
Rutledge’s story is told in a riveting book titled “Death on Hold: A Prisoner’s Desperate Prayer and the Unlikely Family Who Became God’s Answer.” Nelson Books is the publisher. More information is at thomasnelson.com.
Rutledge, who is black, has a life story that is all too common in the United States these days. He was born to a single mother who was only 13; he never knew his fat her. His mother then had three other children with three other fathers. He began spending more time on the streets. His mother died when he was only 16, and he became more enmeshed into a life of crime that took more and more turns into dangerous areas, ending with a botched, deadly robbery of a drug courier.
Burton Folsom Jr. and his wife Anita Folsom are credited as the authors (Burton is the Republican/college professor). The Folsoms put the book together, but Rutledge wrote a good chunk of it because the book is his story, a story of poverty, brokenness, loss, bad choices, crime and redemption. Rutledge was challenged in his writing because he could only mail four pages of paper at a time from prison, Burton Folsom said.
For much of his life, Rutledge would not have been able to do that writing, because he never learned reading and writing in school. Instead, he taught himself to read and write in prison, starting by watching commercials on television. He began praying to God for the first time in his life. The Bible was his reading material of choice. Sometimes he would ask people to read the Bible to him, and with his excellent memory, he would write the Bible’s words down for practice.
Burton Folsom said that he and his wife were drawn to Rutledge’s plight in part because he was the only inmate in the Time story who expressed remorse.
Burton Folsom wrote Rutledge a letter, saying he was glad Rutledge had apologized for his crime and laying out God’s plan for salvation. Rutledge wrote back (he barely knew how to read or write at that time), and the Folsoms began a 30-plus-year friendship.
The Folsoms, and other pen pals and their relatives, began visiting Rutledge as often as they could and testified at two hearings in which he attempted to have his death sentence commuted to life in prison — the second time worked.
Rutledge’s lawyer throughout his trials was provided free by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The lawyer was amazed that political conservatives were so interested in his client’s case.
“But it’s inherent in Christianity and for conservatives to take action,” Burton Folsom said. “We don’t look to the government to take action. We look to people to help people, not the government to help people.”
Anita Folsom said, “I think the picture of people on the left politically try to paint of conservatives is that we don’t care about the poor, we don’t care about the downtrodden. That’s the stereotype Mitch’s lawyer thought.” The Folsoms and the lawyer, Dennis Balske, are friends to this day.
The Folsoms said that Rutledge is thrilled that his book can reach other people and potentially help them. The convicted murderer who was once illeterate began teaching other inmates and leading them in an experimental prison honors dorm. He began speaking a message of life to his fellow prisoners. His prison allowed at-risk teens to visit the facility, where he did his best to set them straight. That led to him filming a public service announcement video that has been shown to countless youths in several states, which officials credited with lowering the truancy rate. In the book, Rutledge writes of his joy when he learned of a teen who said that the video turned his life around; the teen was interviewed on the local television news.
The Folsoms said that Rutledge continues to live in prison on a sentence of life without parole. They hope that one day the Alabama Legislature would issue him a pardon.
“He has indeed been rehabilitated,” Burton Folsom said.
Through their interactions with Rutledge, the Folsoms became experts on America’s prisons and the overcrowding problem. Anita Folsom blames government incentives “that destabilized so many families that were in poverty.”
Burton Folsom said, “Rehabilitation is a naturalistic concept. It believes man without God can help man change for the best. It’s true in some cases, maybe. But not if you put people in a negative environment and let them hang out with others. Mitch has made a serious effort to go against the tide and educate himself.”
His wife added that one purpose of the book is to remind people that it’s very easy to overlook inmates, but that Christians are called to visit prisoners and minister to them.
“For prisoners, it’s vital for them to think someone is interested in them,” she said.
Anita Folsom directs Hillsdale College’s Free Market Forum. Burt Folsom Jr. holds the Charles Kline Chair in History and Management at Hillsdale College in Michigan. They have a blog at BurtFolsom.com.