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Condemned man’s obit gives rare glimpse of humanity on death row

jkovac@macon.com

Joshua Daniel Bishop is pictured around 1999. He’d already been on Georgia’s death row since February 1996, the month after he turned 21.
Joshua Daniel Bishop is pictured around 1999. He’d already been on Georgia’s death row since February 1996, the month after he turned 21.

The man is dead now, but he looks like a boy in the prison photograph. He has on inmate garb -- a short-sleeved white shirt with a stark navy collar -- the uniform of death row.

The picture is from about 1999. Joshua Daniel Bishop was a young man back then – 24 or so – with cropped, brownish hair and a round face. A hint of a closed-mouth smile makes him look younger. He’d already been on Georgia’s death row since February 1996, the month after he turned 21.

Bishop was there because in June 1994, after a night of drinking at the Hill Top Grill in Baldwin County, Ga., he and another man used a wooden closet rod to beat to death a 43-year-old carpenter named Leverette Morrison.

The slaying happened at a mobile home east of Milledgeville. Bishop’s accomplice, sentenced to life in prison with a chance for parole, was 36 at the time. Bishop was 19. In February 1996, five months before the Atlanta Olympics, Bishop was sentenced to die.

Last month, on the last night of March, after 20 years and 48 days in prison, Bishop apologized to Morrison’s kin and was executed at 9:27 p.m. He was 41.

As with most executions, news alerts from media outlets spread word that a convicted killer had been put to death. After that, the dead prisoner would typically be laid to rest with little if any ceremony. It is then, if they hadn’t already, that they disappear for good.

[When your father is the BTK serial killer, forgiveness is not tidy]

‘Dickensian childhood’

Bishop’s story didn’t end there.

It emerged again, on a regional level at least, 10 days later in the form of a full newspaper obituary. The obit was accompanied by that boyish photo of him with a half smile.

An obituary is an all-but-unheard-of rarity for any prisoner, much less one who’d faced lethal injection.

But Bishop’s, an eight-paragraph recap of his life, was printed in the local section of last Sunday’s Telegraph – next to obits for an Army veteran who died at 81 and a Baptist church secretary who lived to 94.

It was written by one of his lawyers, who as fate would have it had been a sixth-grade classmate of his at Tinsley Elementary School in Macon in the late 1980s.

The obituary notes Bishop’s “Dickensian childhood.” It mentions how as a boy he scrounged for food, for green tomatoes to fry – ones that had been “left out for trash by families who had more than they needed.”

The write-up also tells of Bishop’s drug use and drinking and the “horrible mistakes” they spawned: “His addiction, and what came of it, cost him his life, and he wanted youth growing up in similar circumstances to learn from his story.”

It goes on to mention how he “grew up under bridges in Milledgeville” and how in prison he was baptized as a Catholic and learned “no one is beyond the reach of forgiveness.”

It further notes how Bishop had become an accomplished artist and, perhaps most poignantly, it recalls his final moments:

“In his last hours, Josh comforted his friends, prayed with us, reminded us to take care of one another, and sang ‘Amazing Grace.’ He hoped that his death would ‘take away from the pain and add to the peace’ of those he had hurt. His continued concern for the suffering of others while he faced the ultimate penalty showed that the evil the State wanted to stamp out was not there, and all that was lost was the potential of a redeemed soul to do good. If there is justice in heaven, if not on earth, he is painting with Rembrandt and humming along with Merle Haggard.”

‘A lot of hope’

Attorney Sarah Gerwig-Moore, the obit’s author, said, “I wrote it while I was crying as a way to process my grief.”

It was, she added, the least she could do for a man who was not just a client, but someone who’d long been a friend.

“That’s what we do for people we love. We share remembrances of them,” Gerwig-Moore said. “I think people just thought I was just some liberal tilting at a windmill, and I am. But this is the most important work I’ve ever done.”

Gerwig-Moore had never seen an obituary for an executed killer. While she and Bishop discussed at length the plans for his funeral arrangements, he did not know she would pen an obituary for him.

“He did give me permission to tell his story in ways that would be helpful,” Gerwig-Moore said, “especially to kids who were in trouble.”

When one of Bishop’s lawyers moved to Arizona four years ago, Gerwig-Moore, a professor at Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law, joined Bishop’s legal team and took up the fight to save his life.

She had visited Bishop on death row while she was in law school in the late 1990s. They kept in touch.

“I had a lot of hope,” she said the other day. “I really let myself hope.”

‘He wasn’t fake’

On his last day, Bishop asked that people, in his name, contribute to “help the kids at the Methodist home” in Macon, where he had lived for a while as a boy.

On occasion as a child, his mother’s boyfriend forced him to sleep beneath their trailer.

For a time, Bishop lived with his mother under a bridge at the Oconee River in Milledgeville.

“It was kind of like camping,” Bishop once told Gerwig-Moore. “I could go fishing with my brother.”

The cruelties of his childhood had, in later life, become fond memories -- among them the thrown-out green tomatoes he’d hunted.

“They really did go wander around and see what was left out at the trash,” Gerwig-Moore said. “But he didn’t like to talk about the bad things that had happened to him, because he didn’t ever want to be seen as whining about it.”

Bishop once told Gerwig-Moore, “I’d give anything to push a lawn mower again.”

Another time he mentioned with pride that he had earned what he considered a plum prison job: cleaning death row showers.

When the prison cut back on art supplies, he made paints out of floor wax and ink from writing pens. He also took up reading.

“ ‘Anne Frank’ blowed my mind,” Bishop once told some of Gerwig-Moore’s law students who’d gone to visit.

“He wasn’t fake about it,” she said, “and he’s not a saint. I’m sure he had dark times too, but he was so grateful and positive despite what he was living in.”

Three times a year, prisoners are allowed to receive care packages. A friend sent Bishop one in March and in it included something that, for whatever reason, Bishop hung on to. Before his execution, he willed the item to another friend’s daughter: a chocolate candy bar.

“He wanted to be prepared,” Gerwig-Moore said. “And he was – much more prepared than the rest of us were.”

Bishop was buried Tuesday near an oak tree beside a stream at a monastery outside Conyers. He had visited the place on a grade-school field trip years ago.

“It was one of the best days of his life,” Gerwig-Moore said, “because 30 years later he could still remember what the bread tasted like and the fresh honey.”

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