The Strength of His Spine

Billy spent his last weeks out of hospice in the place he knew best: his bedroom. It had seen every phase of his decline. The room was made of cancer: one brick for chemo, a second for remission, and a third for its quick return. In those final days, he probably spent hours sedentary in his familiar position, back against the wall, hunched so only the sharpest part of his spine grazed the hard plaster. Sitting there, he might have re-read all his birthday messages (this year, he received more than ever). His email inbox was like a pile of wrapped gifts on Christmas morning, signed off with love: Love, the grandkids. Love, your son. Love, from the whole family. He wrote them all letters in return. Letters of gratitude for having experienced life with them.

When his goodbyes were finished, hospice was the only future he could look towards. Everything else, every scene of his life, was but an object of reminiscence. He was used to this; he could only anticipate those homogeneous white sheets, plastic-wrapped muffins, and curtains to sequester his death. He may have even looked forward to them. 

Because for now, in these final weeks, he would have woken up to prison sounds. His 3:30 a.m. alarm would be sharp voices and the sound of a breakfast tray against the concrete floor of his bedroom. He would, instinctually, rise quickly. That would hurt. As uniformed officers peered into his cell, he would spend the morning skimming his favorite John Grisham novel, reading his birthday cards, and thinking of hospice. If he had the energy, he might stretch or pace. After 34 years, he knew exactly how many steps it took to get from one wall to the other. He might have felt the sickness eating at him, the colon cancer spreading quickly to his liver and then his pancreas. 

It would have been one of those mornings where I’d feel my phone vibrate and the name “Billy Kuenzel” would stretch across the screen. Billy had been my grandfather’s client before he died, and he’d become part of the family. Receiving his messages always lifted my spirits.

Hey want to send you a big old smile and a hug. I hope everythings going all right thinking about you all the time wish you all the best.

In 1988, Billy was convicted of shooting and killing convenience-store clerk Linda Offord as she sat behind the counter in Sylacauga, Alabama. He was accused by his roommate, Harvey Venn, who testified against Billy in court in exchange for a shortened prison sentence. Venn’s story was corroborated by only one witness, who, changing her story, had only thought she saw Billy; she was driving by the store in rainy weather at the time of the crime. Nevertheless, at 25, Billy was sentenced to be killed by electric shock. 

As the years went on, new evidence emerged: blood-stains on Venn’s pants, a clear match between the murder weapon and Venn’s personal gun, and confirmation that Billy was home at the time of the crime. In 1993, Billy tried to file an appeal with a plethora of new evidence that could not be reasonably denied, but he missed the deadline. For the next 25 years he spent in prison, the state of Alabama would use this clerical error as a pretext to bar him from a new trial.

Hi there please know that every day i say a prayer of thanks for all of you. i am blessed and send hugs love and warm thoughts to you all

In 1993, my grandfather, Papa, began to fight for Billy as his pro bono attorney. By the time my Papa died in 2006, Billy had become close to the entire family. I grew up with his name floating through nightly dinners, in letters piling in the mailbox, and on the other end of the phone. On the 10th anniversary of my grandfather’s death, Billy wrote to my family, “His passing has and will leave a void in my life… he shared his family with me. He was the first person in the system I believed in.” 

The fight to bring Billy freedom was like shouting for help in the middle of the deep ocean. He was unreachable, locked away by a dehumanizing system that would not even dignify him with an hour to plead his case. For any man, this would be enough to die hopeless, angry, and alone. Whether it was by cancer or the electric shock, Venn, the state, and the people who feared and vilified him would get what they wanted if Billy died hating them.

This is not the way Billy died.

Too ill to be up. been one of those days of no rest. And am always thinking of all of you and how much joy i get from you.

I was eight when my parents told me about Billy’s incarceration. Afterwards, he and I began to exchange texts and letters. Every so often we would call, and, through static white noise and muffled words, I would hear his weathered voice sing sentiments of hope and forgiveness. But each story he told horrified me more. Sunday, he went in for chemo and came back to the prison in horrible pain. Monday, the correctional officers did a shakedown, and took his phone away. Tuesday, he watched as they escorted his friend to his execution. 

Billy was angry that people suffered. But he was not angry that he did. He maintained an interest in books, movies, religion, and passed his GED exams. He led prayer services and helped his friends in hospice. His marriage before prison gave him a son and then two grandchildren, and he always maintained contact with my family. Billy tried to build a full life in a 5×8 foot prison cell.

What could Billy do? His years were spent with his back against the wall, imagining the feeling of a final shock up his spine. And what could he do about the cancer? He was being consumed by another invisible, undeserved darkness. What could I do? Or my grandfather? Or the lawyers? 

Every week before his death, I sent Billy pictures of my family around the dinner table. He would respond with a picture of himself smiling, or his grandkids. Or maybe a book recommendation (he liked mystery novels). I often thought of his face, rough and wrinkled, his short hair, and his slightly-sunken eyes. If I didn’t know him, maybe I’d be afraid of him. 

But Billy was far from scary. He deeply influenced us all. His correspondence with my grandmother, whose old age had left her lethargic and in need of purpose, sparked her interest in volunteer work and reminded her how to engage with life. To my other grandmother, Billy was a thread to her late husband and a close friend. My cousin developed a deep bond with Billy and visited him in Alabama. Their relationship pushed my cousin to take responsibility for much of Billy’s health matters. Their closeness also fostered her involvement in criminal justice reform.

For me, in my most formative years, Billy molded my perceptions. Not just in the injustices he exposed or the cruelties his experience represented, but as a human being who brought urgency to qualities I’d only lazily aspired to: resilience, kindness, and strength. Billy gave form to these abstractions. As I began to pick classes at Tufts, I kept Billy in mind. I signed up for a course on incarceration and another on ethics, seeking to comprehend how a person like Billy could have been so irrevocably wronged. The more I learned, the more I understood that Billy was never seen as a person at all. This system negates its victims’ complexities, emotions, and—most insidiously—their humanity. 

But to us who knew Billy, no one could be more human. I remember calling him once on a particularly stressful week. He reminded me that I was doing the best I could, and maybe I should take a break and spend some time with my family. His words brought me clarity: if I just stopped moving for one moment, I would realize that everything I needed was in front of me. Only he could really know that. He was essential, grounded into the Earth like a compass, perpetually oriented towards good. 

The state of Alabama does not know how much we all loved Billy. And the state of Alabama need not know that every breath he took was a rebellion against them. Everyone who knew Billy knows. We know now that every man with his spine against a cold prison wall is fighting a silent war against his oppressors. We know now that if we were to have turned on the news in 1988 and had seen that mugshot, those sunken eyes, we might have said “lock him up” and we would have all been wrong.

Wanted to say hi and hope all is well. sending smiles, hugs, and love. I am so proud of all of you.

Billy died of cancer after deciding to end treatment. In this final act of resistance, he deprived the state of the power they so hungered for. They would never get to send the shock through his spine. They would never get to cast a shadow over the final moments of a life that they thought was doomed, but to Billy, had never lost its light.