Death Row Diaries: Bregtje van den Berg

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*In this new series, we publish blogs from people with a personal or professional connection to the field of capital punishment. Today’s blog is by Bregtje van den Berg.*

Code Red and coffee

It’s August 28, 2014, 9:00 PM in the evening. With a cup of hot coffee, stretched out on the couch, I watched a documentary by Jessica Villerius. It was called ‘Code Red: The Death Penalty’. It was just me and the tv. All it took were just a few minutes before Clinton Lee Young took a hold of me and from that moment on a special relationship developed between us. The documentary grabbed me by the throat, I was glued to the tube for the whole 45 minutes and I sucked everything up breathlessly. I can’t explain it, but within a second of seeing Clinton I just knew for sure he was an innocent man staying on death row, I never doubted that for one second. That same evening, I emailed Jessica Villerius, asking her: “How can I help, what can I do?” The following day, she immediately sent his address to me and she encouraged me to write to Clinton. “He yearns for contact with the outside world.”

About two weeks later, an envelope lay on the doormat, with an extravagant curly handwriting on the front, which I did not recognize at all. But when I read on the back the name of the sender, my hands began to shake because I realized I was actually holding a handwritten letter from someone far away on death row. Still trembling, I opened the envelope, in which Clinton had put a very friendly but fairly distant thank-you note, thanking me heartily for my interest in his person and asking about my motivation to write to him. Later I learned that he was hesitant with new writing friends because some people seem to have rather dubious motivations.

I will forever remember the feeling I had when I saw that first envelope. There was a serious prisoner in America who had taken the trouble to send a letter to me, a ‘simple housewife’ and mother in the Netherlands. The letter really made it all real. On television you see things with a kind of distance, but now I had something touchable of him in my hands, in my house, on my doormat. This person Clinton really existed. I think I have read that letter at least a dozen times.

There was also a brown circle on the letter almost like some kind of stamp, with an arrow next to it, “I’m so sorry, I spilled coffee on the letter.” … It is difficult to explain how those ‘homely details’ still affect me deeply. Clinton always asks me in his letters about my family, my opinion on social affairs, past memories of television and wants me to describe my village, my sons and husband, my garden and so on. He is really interested in me as a person.

He really don’t want to talk about his own awful situation at all, he don’t want to talk about his case, his cell, his misery, his hopeless existence. He just want to get a taste of the outside world. “Describe to me your vacation please, tell me what it looked like”, “tell me what you look like, what’s on your mind these days”. Clinton turned out to be a very ‘normal’ person, an ordinary young man, just like my own sons, not a prisoner at all, not a criminal who belongs in death row. He just wants friendship, not compassion, he just wants love not pity.

Now, six years later, we still write each other. He lives in the same timeline as we all do, also gets to deal with corona and everything that goes with it. Everything we deal with, he has to deal with too, but in a much harder way on another level, in a different environment.

I was given the privilege to participate in the typing of his life-story (which has not been published yet) and so I got to know him better and better, from the little guy at his mother’s house, the rebellious schoolboy, the far too precocious adolescent, to the captivated and fascinating man we know now. Clinton Young was no angel, neatly living the American Dream.

Bregtje van den Berg

Over the years, he has become a friend and kind of my ‘personal coach’. At least he thinks he is – he’d wish, lol! He thinks I should exercise much more, eat healthier, get up early in the mornings and read a lot more books than I already do. “You have to get the most out of your life”, he says. He’s my personal ‘drill instructor’ lol. So no, he is not a sweetheart 🙂

I honestly think I’ve become a better person through him. If he can forgive people in his miserable situation, how could I not. When he does push-ups and Jumping Jacks in the morning, how do I get so hard about sports. If he keeps on fighting back and forth, why don’t I fight harder. For so many years, this man has been in a ten-by-seven-foot cell, and still motivates me to enjoy life. How can a person be so forgiving, so sincere, so eager to learn and so kind-hearted. I have no idea, but I feel very privileged that I got to know him. Maybe we will never meet, but that is not important to me, through our letters I have already met this beautiful person, and I guard that treasure with love.

In his words: “Take care, smile, & strive for all that you desire.” (CLY)