It is a cold day here in Virginia.
Ricky Gray just paid for his crimes with his life.
Did you know that a “death penalty” article of mine was published when I was in the 6th grade?
It was the late 1970’s and I wrote about “being against” the death penalty. My short essay was featured in Buffalo. New York’s Our Best, thanks to Mr. Caldarelli. My classmate, Todd Scholl (?), had his essay published as well, our pieces offered contrast as he was “for” the death penalty. If I find my essay I will share it someday (I am not sure how I feel about the dp right now), but in the meantime, I want to fast forward to what just happened in Virginia.
Last night, on January 18th, 2017 at 9:42 p.m. – Ricky Jovan Gray was the 1,444th person executed in the US since 1976.
He was executed for his crimes.
Or should we say he paid for his crimes with his life….
Did you know that I met Ricky Gray? He was our trash collector for a few weeks back in 2005.
Last November, I applied for a pass to go and visit Ricky Gray. I wanted to ask him a few questions – and wanted to see if he remembered our family from 2005.
We never made it to visit him, partly because I did not know how to go about the process, but it was also such an uncomfortable situation (ya think?) – his crimes were so brutal – it still gives me a knot in my stomach.
Yet with that knot, and knowing that justice was served, I have tears for the loss of life here.
I feel for the loss of the seven people Ricky killed in 2006, and also feel for the loss of Ricky Gray’s life – such a sad, cold day – justice – yes, but still sad – to see a broken man – with abuse in his background – lack of character – lack of wisdom, and supposedly a big drug user – to see that his life amounted to this…..
How I knew Ricky Gray:
In the summer 2005, he showed up one day with the regular guys that collected our trash.
He had heard that we gave out drinks and sometimes lunch.
We talked for a few minutes.
Before I came out, I noticed he was rummaging through our waste bin.
You can tell a lot about a household from their trash.
I used to leave the snack bin on the side of the large trash bin.
I opened the door and started talking to the guys. Then just like that, they stopped digging walked away and Ricky was shaking his head, joking a bit with his colleague.
At the time I did not pay much attention to it, but later I realized that maybe the shaking of the head was to see “nah man, nothing we want to rob from this house.”
I think they were looking for someone wealthy to rob. And we recycle ♻️ ….
If this was the case, the opposite happened for the Harvey Family. There house was targeted, by Ricky and a friend, to be robbed on New Year’s Day 2006.
Was it because of their trash? I sometimes think so. The Harvey Family owned a trinket and collectible store in The Fan district (called World of Mirth) here in RVA and they were known to throw away various expensive items. Or did their trash have receipts or other items that just signaled wealth. Maybe it was not the trash at all – maybe Ricky followed them home one day and saw their after Christmas trash and thought it was a nice place to rob.
Either way, robbery turned into murder – and a horrid one at that. Many of the detectives and police officers interviewed said it was the worst crime scene they ever had to work through. The young children being hurt always make it harder, I know there is an extra knot in my gut for the two young children that were senselessly taken.
If I did get to interview Ricky Gray, I would have asked him what provoked him that day. I guess that the lawyers were arguing that he was “on drugs” and he had little recollection – but I always wondered if someone called him the N word or just said something else that led to such a horrid killing spree. Please don’t hate me for saying that, but criminals do get provoked – and sometimes a crime of opportunity unfolds for that very reason. Maybe not – maybe he was not provoked – maybe the drug influence made him panic and rather than leave a witness (which I heard is trendy these days) – all of that fueled his evil actions -?
But I did not get to visit Ricky Gray. And I think my dad looking down from heaven is shaking his head with approval that I stayed completely out of it. Seriously, I feel my dad doing that.
I also know that if God wanted me to go, I would have been there.
We were leaving my son’s basketball game on Monday night, the night before the execution date, and I had been thinking about Ricky. With a heavy heart, I told my husband that if Ricky Gray had an extension on his execution (they were waiting to see if the Supreme Court would delay the date), I vowed to make a visit to the Greensville Correctional facility to visit Ricky Gray. My spouse said he would go with me if that happened.
I did not really follow the news most of that next day, I had work to do – immersing myself to finish a project.
Then, around 9 p.m. – I was talking with M – she did not know the story at all – and for about 20 minutes I shared the back story about how we knew him and then I shared the crimes he committed: Over seven days, in January 2006 around Richmond, Virginia, Ricky Gray killed seven people. Four members of the Harvey family and three members of the Baskerville-Tucker family.
And the eery part is that later I found out it was 9 p.m. when Ricky was strapped in and the procedure had started.
Talking with M, I continued on about how Ricky was our trash collector for a few weeks in late summer 2005.
As noted, he was going through our trash one of the weeks (maybe all the weeks) – and later I pieced that he was likely looking for homes to rob.
On one day, we were talking a few extra minutes – not a long chat because these guys have work to do – but it was the week we brought home our doggies and the little pups were at the glass door.
Ricky Gray came over to see the pups – he liked them – lab puppies are the best, eh? I told Ricky that our dogs were free, from the Wagner family we knew from soccer, and he asked if I would check into seeing if they had any more. I think he gave me his number, scribbled on a piece of paper, and asked me to call him if they did. Ricky Gray said, “Let me know, because every time I try to get one of the dogs on the news, they’re always gone.”
I remember that like it was yesterday.
They continued on their way with the sound of the large refuse truck grinding its motor and running hydraulics. There were the usual drips left behind on the pavement – but there was such a nice vibe in the air because a little hospitality always leaves a sweet essence.
It was about six months later when we had a holiday guest staying with us and we all heard the news of the murders.
This person visiting us was very cynical at the time and she said something sardonic to me about it…. because earlier that day, at dinner, I had just prayed something like ‘dear lord, please keep our town safe and I pray that nobody will die tonight’ It was New Years Eve – and I was really thinking of DUIs – and that is something I still pray about on certain holidays – so many people still drink and drive – argh!
Anyhow, I forget her snarky comment, but there we were – a few hours later, when we heard the breaking news about the murders – she said something like “So much for your prayer…” with a certain look.
I am not sure all of what she was insinuating – and she has since had a softened outlook as God has really moved in her life with a very major answer to a desire of her heart, but at the time I think she was just a bit agnostic.
I only mention that incident with her now because once in a while when I recall the incident, I think about What if my prayer DID make a difference? Like, what if a few other people were praying that night too – and what if Ricky Gray was so far gone and he was about to kill even more people that night? For example, let’s say that after leaving the Harvey house, with blood on his hands, what if he just said, “Fuck it, I’m going off now. Might as well, I’m already in trouble.”
Seriously, the four murders that night were horrid, but what if that night – under the influence of drugs – and with all the depravity within him – he went to a few more houses…. in and out ….
Maybe intercessory prayer DID make a difference and led to him having other thoughts instead.
I do believe that sometimes God moves people to pray – but it is only by his power and through his leading that differences are made – and I also believe He knows the future as clear as we know the past – even with free will. One day, we will also know the answers to many questions and we will see more of the full picture. I once heard someone say that when we get to Heaven, we will wish we had prayed a lot more when living down here -because we will see even more how prayer really does make a difference.
I used to pray for Ricky Gray, but must admit that it waned.
I feel bad about that.
And even though I wanted to go and visit him a few times, and registered for a visit last November – it never happened.
Back in 2006, shortly after the murders happened, I called his lawyer – and I told him all about how Ricky Gray was our trash collector and how he was kind to my two small boys and kind to me – and how Ricky was super grateful for the lemonade and snacks.
The lawyer pretty much told me to stay out of it.
I am sure that the lawyer had knots too. I am sure most people did – because justice was served, but crime hurts everyone- and justice can be painful from some angles.
As I sit here, stunned, but neural and balanced, there is one thing I would like to do moving forward:
I want to make sure I speak up about ensuring that criminals feel more of the pain associated with their crimes.
In my experience, from a bit more than four decades of living on this earth, I have seen time and again that criminals are sometimes detached from the pain and rippling effect of the hurt associated with their crimes.
It is hard to explain – but you see, Ricky was so cocky and only recently apologized – and it might have been by rote to save his own life.
He was on death row for more than a decade, but I don’t think anything was done to really “connect his psyche” with the raw emotion and hurt people felt with his crimes.
Sure – he saw people crying – and sorta “got” that it was wrong – and you might say that he was too far gone to reach, but I think we need to try to make that connection for all offenders.
When the judicial system starts in the mode of punishment, which is a natural course and is rightly so, the harsh penal process usually moves solely into punishment mode and the criminal now has all their past baggage and the current charges for their crimes.
“You will pay for this,” and “Guilty – sentenced to death” were the words Ricky Gray heard. He likely heard impact statements from victims at his sentencing hearing, but I don’t think the real pain underlying these crimes reached the “person of the offender” – the human part of him that was deep inside the soul .
Punishment was heaped on top of his broken and depraved being – deserved consequence, but maybe this is an unbalanced equation.
One time on the news we heard that Ricky Gray was upset because he was not being allowed enough outdoor rec time – and of course I do not know all the details – but it reminded me of this disconnect. He likely adapted to prison life and the victim mentality was there along with whatever else he had from his dysfunctional upbringing.
An example of what I am talking about comes from parenting models. Parents that are too harsh with punishing their children might end up with a hurt child who does not even associate the punishment with their offense. Or the harshness might only have the child “learn” how to manipulate – then the child rigidly complies without really feeling the reason or human side of things. There is usually little behavior change with such overly authoritative punishment and isn’t that (behavior change) the goal? This is why we explain to kids “why” we have rules or policies in place. This is why we discuss and let them feel – and see – and UNDERSTAND the layered details. The human mind can grasp this quite well….
Do you see what I mean here?
Sometimes the penal process unfolds without “reaching” the offender in helpful ways.
Now you might say, just make sure the “crime is appropriate to the punishment” and as long as we “don’t hit a fly with a hammer” things are good…. but that is not my point here.
My point is that too often, our penal system moves into justice and punishment mode – making sure the criminal PAYS – without making sure they have really been schooled about the rippling effect and raw emotion attached to their crime.
One example of what I am getting at comes from when my son was jumped back in 2014 here in RVA. A kid with a BB Gun tried to steal my son’s iPhone and another kid set it up.
My son was jumped at dusk. A kid he knew set him up – that hurt. The teen was just someone my son had met earlier that summer – at a local rec center. We knew the kid was not from the “best” family, but sometimes a nice friendship can unfold and we thought he was nice. (Not.)
Thankfully there was a witness to the crime – this neighbor just happened to be getting gasoline in his car and saw it from start to finish. This neighbor was from many streets over, but he was someone who knew our family from when I had a big ol’ block party for the “National Night Out” neighborhood watch in 2007 (how ironic is that). This witness was the key part of getting confessions and convictions.
But the night it happened, when I heard “which” kid set him up – I was on my way to his house to wail and ask “Whyyyyy” – to let him feel my raw emotion and ask, “How could you do this…?” I wanted him see the very real human side of his crime.
The detective asked me not to go.
That is how they do their work – it is wise – they plan and go about it with proper procedures.
I respected his orders and did not go that night, and I regretted it for a while – because I wanted to ask WHY and let this kid see my tears and feel our pain. But it could have turned out very wrong. There could have been an altercation – like if the parents got upset – or who knows. So I am super glad I respected the detective’s request.
Anyhow, the case went to court, which happens very quick for juveniles, and the two kids were convicted and both did some time. The one who set things up only had to serve a few months in the detention place (his first time in trouble), and then he was on probation for a year – and he also was told he could not contact my son or our family.
Well one day – about seven months after the crime, my son walks up to me and with a perplexed look on his face said, “Mom, guess who just called me?”
It was the kid who set up the attempted robbery. And he wanted to let him know he just got his own iPhone and he was calling me on his ride home from school on the bus. (Something like that…)
“Are you kidding me? Give me his number.”
I called the kid right back and asked him why on earth he was calling my son.
He was dumbfounded.
He said he was just calling to see what was up.
He had no friggin clue that he was not supposed to call – and also – he had such a disconnect with the crime he committed against my son because to think that he would call so casually shows that he missed the terrible thing he did to my son. duh….
Call it whatever the heck you want – but I think there was also a hole here in the system.
There is a hole – or breach – between the offense and the punishment. In the middle of that needs to be “let the offender FEEL and SEE more of the pain they caused.”
If we want to reduce recidivism, we need the criminals to REALLY feel more of the raw emotion and seriousness associated with their crimes.
I am glad that we are using Cognitive Behavioral Therapies to reduce recidivism – because it helps the criminal explore their attitudes, values, and beliefs to hopefully lead to them to implement better future behavior.
I am glad that we are using positive reinforcement over sanctions….
I am glad Pell grants allow for educational opps and that some institutional ‘bootcamps’ help fortify character and help offenders grow.
BUT THERE HAS TO BE MORE PERSONAL CONNECTION TO THE CRIME THAT WAS COMMITTED.
The kids that jumped my son needed to see my son shaking as he was giving the story – again – to the police – as the police dog was catching scents. And wish they could be told about the mental trauma and the physical harm. And I wish I could show them photos from the hospital room – well maybe not because they were not bad and my son did not have surgery (even tho VCU billed for it…) but the traumatic experience seemed completely missed by the unsupervised and troublesome kids, and esp the one who set my son up. I actually advocated for that teen, maybe too much, but part of the reason was because the first phone call I had with someone from the court “assured” me that this kids “would pay.” She was so brutal about it that I already felt like there was disproportionate vibes for punishing them. The teens did need to have consequences – and We were pleased with how it all tuned out in that regard, but there was such coldness. Maybe this goes hand in hand with such work.
But my biggest regret is that I did not get to talk with the coordinating teen….and tell him about the very serious and painful side to his crime – things he does not even have an afterthought about.
And similarly, I think Ricky Gray needed to see more of the raw emotion and deep pain associated with the beauty he took from this world. I don’t think he ever saw it.
Instead – he was tried, found guilty, and then spent all this time on death row waiting. I am not sure what his days were like – and he obviously had plenty of food because he reached 350 pounds while in jail waiting – – but I just sense that he did NOT connect any raw emotion to his crimes.
They asked him if he had any last words before he died and he said, “Nope.”
Just like that.
More than ten years locked up and I seriously do not think a connection was made. He likely felt the victim, or just knew he “did wrong” – maybe he blamed it all on the drugs – and hey, not saying that did not play a part – but it is my hope that our judicial system will include more of the feelings and ‘victim pain’ into the offenders experience. I know victims read letters at the hearings, but it is not enough.
Offenders need to feel.
They need to “see” more of the HUMAN connection associated with their crimes.
Well that is all I have to say right now.
I know this is long, but a life was just taken – and the six minutes on the news last night did not nearly seem enough.
The death penalty is such a controversial topic and I want to keep talking about it as cases come up…
We need to make more time to talk about our response as a society – because we can correct offenders with more depth – we improve as we move along – and we can help the offenders SEE more of the rippling effect and layers behind their crimes.
Death is cold.
The Harvey family and Baskerville-Tucker family losses are still felt – precious lives taken way too soon.
And on January 18th, 2017 at 9:42 p.m. – Ricky Jovan Gray paid for those murders with his LIFE.
Death is cold, indeed.