7 Life Lessons from Death Row

What truly matters in life? What’s the last thing on your mind before you die? When you know the end is near, what would be your last statement to the world?

One of the ways to reduce life down to what really matters is to be on your deathbed. And one of the most dramatic ways to be on your deathbed is to be executed on death row. We’ve been reading through the final statements of hundreds of inmates, and we’ve boiled it down to seven life lessons from the minds of convicted criminals. Get back to basics; learn something about life from those who were put to death. Seven somethings, to be precise.

  1. You Define Yourself By What You Choose

    When expressing yourself verbally one last time to the cruel, cruel world, it’s completely up to you to craft how best you’ll be remembered. Some people ask for forgiveness, some acknowledge their guilt, and others bid sweet farewells to their loved ones and have nothing but gratitude for the life they’ve lived. Whether in your last moments or just starting out, be who you want, and communicate what you will to the world.

  2. Own It

    Everyone’s been falsely accused at some point. And several inmates had the guts to go to their deaths saying so. Standing up for what you know to be true until the bitter end could be the only thing that you have. The last words of Stephen K. Johns, executed in Missouri in October 2001 were, “I am innocent, but was not given the tools at trial, or on appeal, to make my innocence into a legal reality.” Additionally, when you are guilty of some wrongdoing (and especially if you get caught), it’s in your best interest to face the music. You never know — you might feel some personal absolution even if you’re, ahem, in the hot seat. Illinois inmate Charles Walker’s (executed in 1990) last words were those of acceptance. “I’m guilty. I can accept my punishment. I’m sorry I done it, yeah, but it’s done.”

  3. Be Good

    One of the most primary lessons to learn from death row is simply this: there are consequences for your actions. Acting ethically will rarely, if ever, steer you wrong, and you’re bound to have more positive consequences than these inmates. And whether or not you’re taking the moral high road, it’s always in your best interest not to break the law. “I would suggest that when a person has a thought of doing anything serious against the law,” William George Bonin, a prisoner executed in California in 1996 said in his final statement, “that before they did, that they should go to a quiet place and think about it seriously.”

  4. Forgive

    “Forgiveness: Giving up all hope for a better past.”— Robert Lee Massie, executed in California on March 27, 2001A supremely powerful practice, forgiveness (at any point in one’s life) can be a karma cleanser. And it doesn’t matter who you’re forgiving, either. Whether it’s yourself, someone who gravely wronged you, or even the guy who just cut you off in rush hour traffic, the artful practice of mindfully letting go of past hurts allows one to live in the present, and accept the inevitable future.

  5. Love

    As the ocean always returns to itself, love always returns to itself. So does consciousness, always returns to itself. And I do so with love on my lips. May God bless all mankind.” — James Ronald Meanes, executed in Texas on Dec. 15, 1998And if you don’t buy that his last statement generally translates to “love,” we can all at least agree that speaking like a Hindu mystic will always make one’s last words sound weighty and meaningful. Inmate James Ronald Meanes clearly grasped the ebbs and flows of life, and certainly realized some new-age sounding truths. But the prisoner, executed in 1998, also left this world speaking the plain truth of love: that it begets more love, awareness, and grace.

  6. Puns Are Always Funny

    Thinking too long about the phrase “New York electric chair, 1928″ conjures up scary-yet-cartoonish images of gloomy, Green Mile-style steel cages and lightning bolts to the head. But despite his grisly end, murderer George Appel was able to keep his wits about him. Literally. “Well, gentlemen,” his final words began, “you are about to see a baked Appel.”

  7. Be Happy

    Go home, have fun, smile. I’m happy. Why should I lie now? I have no anger. I have no fear.— Willie Shannon, executed in Texas on Nov. 8, 2006And this, the most important lesson of them all. Texas inmate Willie Shannon put it poignantly, especially knowing that a mere seven minutes later, he would be forever gone. If life sometimes feels like a prison, remember these words and their well-meaning call to action.