Memorial service for Richard Rossi

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About 20 people gathered on the afternoon of June 11, 2006, at the Quaker Meeting House in Tucson, Arizona to remember and celebrate the life of Richard Michael Rossi. From letters and email received, we know that even more of his pen-friends in Europe and the United States were also with us that day or hour in thought and prayer, lighting a candle or making a toast. Chairs were arranged in a circle along with a small table, adorned with a white Irish lace tablecloth sent to Jack and Felice Cohen-Joppa as a gift years ago by Richie's pen friend Mary McCloy of Ireland. On top of the cloth a white candle burned near a large, beautiful bouquet of flowers, a contribution of Else Bougie and friends from the Netherlands. A framed photo of Richie at work as a prison paralegal was placed in front of the flowers.

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The service began with a recording of John Lennon singing "Working Class Hero", one of Richie's favorite songs. Nancy Mairs read a piece by Mahatma Gandhi, followed by Felice sharing a few of Richie's journal entries. A recording of Richie's June 26, 2002 interview on National Public Radio was played. Jack delivered the eulogy (excerpts follow). Afterwards several people, including Richie's ex-wife Lena and two of his federal public defenders, Dale Baich and Michael Burke, shared their memories of Richie and his legal case, and Felice read a piece he had written called "Real Friends". In closing, everyone sang along with a recording of John Lennon's 'Imagine', another of Richie's favorites.

After the service, people stayed to have antipasto and cannoli - enjoying some of the Italian soul food that Richie missed so very much over his 22+ years in prison, especially salami! Jack and Felice's 19-year-old daughter Emma also brought some mandelbread cookies she baked from her Jewish nana's recipe. Years ago, when Emma was a small girl and before the prison prohibited holiday food packages, her family used to send some of their Hanukkah and Christmas cookie baking to Richie.

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Arranged on a couple of tables on the side of the room were some of the drawings, origami and other pieces of art Richie had created while in prison, along with some of the art supplies which had become contraband years ago and had been sitting in a box in Jack and Felice's storage shed.

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A very large collage displayed Richie's birth certificate along with childhood and more recent photos, surrounded by photos of dozens of family and friends from all over the world. Jack and Felice had taken these photos while sorting through the 32 boxes of Richie's property eventually released by the prison. It seemed a fitting way to honor those people who had sustained Richie through the years with the gift of their correspondence and friendship.

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Felice and Jack Cohen-Joppa

NPR Interview

Radio Interview played at memorial

Eulogy for Richie Rossi

Jack Cohen-Joppa

It was Richie's dream that, if it came to it, his execution would be followed by a New Orleans-style funeral, a jazzy, celebratory cortége that would carry his body from the prison, past the Blue Mist Motel, the Pinal County Courthouse, and that noose museum of the local historical society. I'm not sure how an atheist Italian guy from Brooklyn who persuaded the prison he qualified for a kosher diet fit into such a scene, but he thought it might liven up downtown Florence for a day. If you've ever been to Florence, you'd have to agree.

But since Richie robbed the executioner, perhaps we can be forgiven, gathering instead to remember him here, in a Quaker meeting house. Richie would at least appreciate the quiet part. And Quakers tell me that a key to their spiritual life is to look for the light in all people. As I slowly befriended Richie over the last 13 years, I watched his light shine for more and more people, simply because he took the time to know them, to see their light, and truly be a friend.

Richie was on death row because in the course of a robbery, during a psychotic period of cocaine addiction, he shot and killed Mr. Harold August in August, 1983, and wounded Mr. August's neighbor, Sherrill Nutter. We cannot honor Richie's memory today or ever without also acknowledging their suffering, and the pain of loss for the August family. I can only hope that in his time, Harold August knew the love of friends that Richie came to cherish, and that Harold August's family and friends are still blessed with good memories of his life, as we remember Richie today.

We read in Waiting to Die about Sherrill Nutter's forgiveness, perhaps the best gift Richie ever received. At the time of Richie's trial, the August family spoke in favor of his execution, but in time, their view changed.

I started corresponding with Richard Rossi in the fall of 1992, as part of my own activism against the death penalty. I did not begin the relationship expecting it to last over 13 years. Although I was part of an organization working to abolish executions, I didn't expect quick success, and certainly not in time for Richie. By the time I met Richie, his sentence had already been repeatedly affirmed. I went into the relationship with my eyes wide open. I knew there would be no good end to it. The state of Arizona would kill him, and I could not stop it.

When I met him, Richie was living in Cell Block 6. On CB6, the condemned prisoners had limited contact with one another, so long as they were well-behaved. They could take classes through Central Arizona College in Coolidge and they had a law library. Richie, always curious and dedicated to his continuing education, completed a paralegal course and several art courses. The condemned prisoners could have, and Richie did have, a memory typewriter, combo tape player/recorder, extensive hobbycraft including paints, brushes, a folding easel and instruction books, scissors, sewing needles, tweezers, hardback books, his own watch. Prisoners could receive food boxes from outside around the holidays.

But over the 13 years I visited, a succession of regulations diminished these accessories of humanity bit by bit, at a pace that only increased in 1996-1997, when condemned prisoners were moved from high-security CB6 into the new, ultra-punitive 'Special Management Unit II'. No more law library. No more typewriters. No more hobby craft, including a ban on colored pencils and pens. Hard cover books were sent back to the publisher. Correspondence tapes became a one-way affair when cassette recorders were confiscated and replaced with tape players. A shakedown just a few years ago finally uncovered Richie's last stashed sewing needle.

No accommodation was made as compact discs became the dominant music format. Now, new music is essentially unavailable on cassette. Minimum caloric intake per day and the number of hot meals per week were cut. Commissary choices, for prisoners like Richie who could afford extra food, were also cut for all but the junk food. And SMUII prisoners have even fewer choices than most. Over the holidays, their commissary spending limit goes up a bit. One year, Richie calculated that even if he purchased the maximum quantities of all of the items available on the death row holiday commissary list, he could not exceed his holiday spending limit.

As privileges were withdrawn over the years, Richie joined numerous administrative and court battles - to retain his memory typewriter; hobbycraft; the law library. He reproduced and filed multiple copies of the paper trial of these proceedings. Copies of documents about his own case and a mini-law library of his own contributed to fill box after box, material that he still used to assist other prisoners with legal research.

Despite this relentless turning of the screws, Richie retained his sense of humor. When underwear from an outside vendor became contraband, he sealed two pairs of the now banned item in a large manila envelope, and filed it in one of the protected legal boxes. He knew that sooner or later, his legal boxes would also be thoroughly searched for contraband, where the screws would in due time discover his 'legal briefs'.

Richie worked at his correspondence. It was no simple matter to sustain meaningful pen-pal relationships with several dozen people at a time. Richie's training as an accountant served him well in an environment that nurtures obsessive behavior. Because personal boxes are limited in number, he could not save all the letters. Each correspondent had a file pocket with recent letters and maybe a few others, each pocket annotated with birthdays and wedding dates and maybe brief details about the person as a reminder.

When he decided to write his book, I encouraged him but took no part in reviewing or editing his work. Writing was just one area - along with painting, drawing, and lettering, economics and paralegal research - that Richie seriously studied. He was not a skilled writer. His voice is not particularly profound, nor literary, nor even creative. But in its earnest, honest character, his simple voice makes Waiting to Die an unequaled primer, an instructive observation from the point of view of a resident of that peculiarly American corridor of hell. Because it is intimate, basic, and reproduces the macabre memos and documents that institutionalize our ultimate revenge, I am not surprised that Richie's book was first published in translation in French, then Dutch, English, Norwegian and most recently in Italian.

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And I was pleased, not surprised, by more than a score of testimonials I read among his letters, from people whose eyes and minds were truly opened by a chance encounter with Waiting to Die. Among them are even two or three letters from prisoners who found the book in a jail library, and reached out in respect and appreciation. A German publisher is ready to go as soon as a contract with Richie's estate can be arranged. An Arizona pen-friend has begun translating the book into her native Japanese, and we'll be approaching publishers there in due time.

By the time he died, Richie had truly accomplished his major goal - to get the inside view out.

While going through Richie's property, whenever we came across photos of his correspondents, we set one aside. They became this collage, which I assembled not so much as a memorial to Richie, but as an honor to this beautiful assortment of generous people who take the time to write letters and willingly share their lives as an affirmation of the humanity of the prisoner.

I want to share with you the perspective I shared with Felice a few weeks ago. Getting to know Richard Rossi, we have witnessed redemption. It is a beautiful thing, and it validates our collective project to acknowledge, affirm, and advocate for the humanity of those who have been condemned to die.


I desire neither earthly kingdom,
nor even freedom from birth and death.
I desire only the deliverance from grief
of all those afflicted by misery.
Oh Lord, lead us from the unreal to the real;
from darkness to light;
from death to immortality.
May there be peace in celestial regions.
May there be peace on earth.
May the waters be appeasing.
May herbs be wholesome and
may trees and plants bring peace to all.
May all beneficent beings bring peace to us.
May thy wisdom spread peace all through the world.
May all things be a source of peace to all and to me.
Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.
(Mahatma Gandhi)


August 14, 1999
The birds are gone from my neighborhood. How sad when all the leaves have fallen from the trees in the middle of spring time. How precious this thing called life is. No one ever owns life, we just know it for awhile. Then it is gone.

June 4, 2004
Today I was transported to St. Mary's Hospital in Tucson to have a liver biopsy because of my Hep C. How incredible to be in a vehicle on the highway once again. All those little foreign cars and SUVs. Coming into Tucson, the Catalina foothills were beautiful and some had a dusting of snow up on the tops. Some small orange wildflowers sprouted up along side the highway. Amazing how they survive, especially with the carbon dioxide all the time. People in the hospital were good to me. Kind of friendly. It was an all day affair. Lots of prep, an IV in my arm. Light anesthesia, but I didn't feel it. Four hours in the recovery room to make sure I didn't bleed internally. I got to drink 4 oz of real O.J. and cranberry juice. What a treat. The sky on the way down was incredible. The sun breaking through some dark clouds with these golden rays of sunlight as in photos. Drove down through Coolidge and saw the Grand Vista motel that Sabine stayed at when she came for a visit. Just seeing the outside world functioning was just about tear jerking. It made me realize the madness of locking someone away in these concrete tombs with no windows. How I long to be free once again.

June 24, 2004
Today the U.S. Supreme Court announced their denial in the Summerlin case. We lost. What a defeat. It is totally illogical, but we lost. I had this fantasy dream that I would be able to get out once they had to offer life sentences to all of us. To be able to touch the bodies of dear friends. More valuable than money. I still believe in hope. It is the only thing that has sustained me all these years, but it gets harder and harder to go on. I crave a kind human touch that never comes. Is that asking too much? How I crave the smallest of daily life in the free world. Sometimes I feel like such an outsider. I cry more than I care to acknowledge. I wonder if others can ever grasp the depths of loneliness and despair that this hell delivers daily. Non stop, day after day. It seems regardless of which corridor I travel down, it always winds up back at the start. It is like they are dangling a carrot in front of me and when I get close enough to reach out for it, they pull it away and laugh at me. Each time I tell myself I won't go for it the next time, but there I am once again in the front row, pushing and pulling. Am I truly the fool on the hill? It is like being in a dream and I travel in a time warp and I can never awaken from the nightmare.

If I have not paid my debt to society in these past 21 years, then I will never be able to atone for my deed. I must accept my fate. Modern society has no capacity to forgive and very little compassion or charity.

August 18, 2004
Today I was surprised to find the property guy at my door with a book in his hand. It turned out to be a copy of 'Waiting to Die'. I don't think he knew it was my book. It was wrapped in the copy of the property receipt. I found the book to be very well done and the photo section was on glossy paper. The cover came out well and they did not put 50337 after my name. I was pleased about that. I hate being referred to as a number.

December 27, 2004
An officer who had bought the book and read it, came to my cell and handed me his copy of the book and asked me to sign it. His comment on the book was that is was 'sincere'. I will have some future discussions with him over sections of the book.


June 2003

When I think of those who mean the most to me, I find it is often the people who cannot provide me with solutions, advice or remedies, but rather those who actually share the pain and reach out to touch my hand. The ones who can listen and can communicate without words.

Those that can accept that their love and caring can someday soon be suddenly snatched away without a blink of an eye. Those who can tolerate the powerlessness this situation involves and can bear being vulnerable for the pain of separation that one day will most surely come. These are real friends and I am honored to know them.



Last modified: June 14, 2006