Susan van de Ven

Liberal Democrat County Councillor for Bassingbourn, Melbourn, Meldreth and Whaddon Learn more

Remember to Smile: A Pen Pal on Death Row

by Susan van de Ven on 19 August, 2019

Several years ago, a planning application was lodged for a commercial greenhouse in a field between Meldreth and Shepreth. This aroused much interest and controversy, in part because of concerns about commercial traffic along the small, winding road that connects the two villages.- well used by walkers and cyclists in spite of the absence of an off-road path.

Naturally it was thought that if the application were to succeed, there should at least be some community benefit, including an off-road path. To make the case, it was necessary to conduct a count of walkers and cyclists to demonstrate demand. A few local residents volunteered to help with this task one summer’s day.

One of the volunteers was Ann Barnes from Meldreth. She took her folding chair and sat against a beautiful field while tallying passers by.

When she dropped by later to give me her results, she mentioned that she’d enjoyed her stint so much that she’d taken a picture of the field and had sent it, along with an account of the quest to connect Meldreth and Shepreth, to her pen pal Larry Swearingen. Larry lived in Texas, Ann explained, in a prison where he had been on Death Row for nearly 20 years. He had been convicted of murder but had always maintained his innocence.

It wasn’t long before Ann received a letter back from Larry, who took an immediate interest in our project and was full of questions about local decision making, how much such a project would cost, and so on. Ann liaised between Larry and me with his questions and my answers. After a few months, at Christmas time, I thought I ought to write to Larry directly. Ann guided me to the on-line JPay service for people wishing to correspond with inmates in US prisons.

Finding the first words to say directly to Larry was not easy. But I took his cue, knowing from seeing his letters to Ann that his signature always included the message, ‘SMILE’ (in capital letters). I answered all of his questions and told him all about our project to connect villages with walking and cycle paths.

He soon wrote back with suggestions for lowering the estimated cost, and rerouting the path around the proposed greenhouse development, which he explained would bring the commercial business closer to the community. He recollected cycling as boy, and talked about what he read in the papers about current cycling trends in Texas.

He also described his life in prison, the very limited amount of time spent outside of his cell and out of doors, told me about his family, and expressed some regrets. But mostly he projected a sense of forward looking, and of interest in the outside world, in a manner devoid of bitterness or negativity. I knew that he had survived four stays of execution, and was due to be executed that coming November. Drawing and painting helped him to cope with confinement, he explained, and later I would see with my own eyes how art freed his imagination to take him to the world outside.

Indeed, placing himself in another world, even putting himself in someone else’s shoes, helped him to maintain his sanity, and maybe also his sense of humanity. He as good as joined the A10 Corridor Cycling Campaign and soon became acquainted with the broad quest to join Cambridge and Royston and the villages in between, of which the Meldreth-Shepreth link was one component. Yes, he knew all about the bridge to Royston, too.

What bothered him (as it does everyone) is how much it would cost to build just one kilometre of cycle path. Notwithstanding the fact that one kilometre of road would cost about 12 times as much, still he seized the importance of getting costs down and demonstrating community support, including the symbolic act of community fundraising.

Thus began his quest to contribute in a practical way. ‘I can provide a drawing or a painting,’ he said, ‘and this can be used to make cards to sell on behalf of the campaign, and the proceeds can be added to your community fundraising.’

In the meantime, the greenhouse development fell through, and when November came Larry was granted a last-minute stay of execution – his fifth. The aftermath was very difficult but he continued his quest to prove his innocence to the courts.

When asked what he might like to receive through the post, he said he would like a book about how to use pencil for shading technique. He was pleased to receive what I sent him (along with a book about cycling, of course), but not long thereafter he wrote to say that he’d just experienced a lockdown, meaning that his cell had been stripped of all its contents, including his books and the paint brushes which he had created, using human hair. And then characteristically he climbed back and restored order and productivity to life in his cell.

Out of the blue, one day this spring, I received a large parcel in the post, hand-addressed and wrapped in brown paper. It was from Larry, mailed to the UK at some expense, courtesy of a friend who had collected it on a visit to Larry in prison and taken it to a post office. My postie in Meldreth then delivered it to my front door. The painting contained within the package was of an enormous butterfly perched upon a rose in full bloom, projecting a powerful sense of nature in all its glory, and of hope. Larry had fulfilled his promise.

The image has now been used to make cards, and initial proceeds have gone to the A10 Corridor Cycling Campaign, as Larry had envisaged.

But events have moved on. Ann has taken the liberty of producing some more cards and is selling them to help raise funds for Larry’s legal support. He is due to be executed this Wednesday, in spite of a deeply flawed case by the prosecution. The story is told today in the Washington Post and it is hoped that the exposé will somehow help Larry’s chances of winning another stay of execution.…/did-faulty-science-bad-te…/

Please contact me if you’d like some cards. They are available for whatever people would like to contribute.

And meanwhile, as Larry has insisted for many years, in quite adverse circumstances, please remember to SMILE.


2 Responses

  1. Jude Collins says:

    I’ve read the article on the bbc today about Larry Swearingen’s painting of the butterfly and rose – it’s such a beautiful image, can you please let me know how I could order cards? I’d really appreciate it (had a look around on google but couldn’t find any order forms so found you on Twitter!). Many thanks, Jude

  2. Richard perry says:

    Trying to find out where to buy swearingen “butterfly” cards. Saw the story on Bbc. I’m a cyclist in Barnet.

Leave a Reply

You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>