A note from our friend Preston Shipp. Thank you for your prayers for him as he mourns the death of his friend, and thank you for remembering, particularly during this week, how deeply flawed our attempts at justice are.
My friend Jerry Cammuse died yesterday. Not many people outside prison walls knew Jerry because he had been locked up since 1990.
Not long ago Mike Duncan and Jeff McInturff and I met with former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s legal counsel to ask for executive clemency. Jerry was a model inmate, a Bible scholar, a fine musician, a chaplain’s aide, and an excellent example to other men. He was also diagnosed with cancer, and he believed it was due to his exposure to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam. And for the entire seventeen years that I knew him, Jerry adamantly insisted that he was not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. There was no physical evidence, and witnesses had recanted their testimony. Despite all this, Haslam rejected our pleas for Jerry’s freedom.
Unlike my friend Cyntoia Brown, celebrities never took an interest in Jerry’s story or turned his name into a hashtag. Haslam refused to show mercy, and very few people knew or cared. But to those of us who knew and loved Jerry, it was heartbreaking. Given his failing health, we knew that Haslam had essentially condemned Jerry to die in prison, and that is what has happened.
Jerry was born on February 8, 1950. Ever since 2002, when I first started serving as a volunteer chaplain, Jerry has been our song leader. He loved the old hymns: “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” “Trust and Obey,” “Victory in Jesus.” When he led “Amazing Grace,” the last verse was always simply the words “Praise God” repeated over and over. I had never heard that before, and I always was moved by it. He always asked for prayers and for us to continue believing in his innocence. He knew that he was a helpless victim of a terribly unjust system.
Like so many people I have met in prisons, Jerry reflected Christ to me and changed my life for the better. We exchanged many letters, and I knew him well. He should have been released many years ago. But all the system was willing to do with this kind, gentle man was crush him until he died. And we call this justice.
My children prayed last night for Jerry, that he is finally free and in the presence of the God in whom he placed his trust for so long. There are many more people like Jerry suffering in our prisons, all but forgotten and with little hope. If you have never visited a prison before, you really should. People like Jerry have taught me more about God than I’ve ever learned sitting in the comfort of opulent steepled buildings or in years of studying at religious schools.