By Ricky Ortega
Facing the death penalty, my jury trial began with testimony from the mother of my victim. Unprepared for the impact her presence had on me, I stared intently at the ground beneath my feet in an effort to avoid the suffocating shame of looking her in the eyes. How could I ever breathe again with this guilt so heavily on my heart? Nevertheless, while every excruciating word she spoke was etched into my mind, the trauma of my discomfort could not compare to the pain I inflicted upon her and her family. I tried hopelessly to cover my face in a cowardly escape but my hands were bound tightly to the chains around my waist, leaving me exposed to face my truth in a tragic expression of poetic justice.
After her testimony that day, the judge ordered that I be placed in the Observation Housing Unit, better known as “suicide watch.” Stripped of my clothing and personal property, I spent the night in a dark, padded cell, listening to the screams coming from the cells next to me as they chanted obscenities to a nameless god, while their demons lurked behind shadows of terror. I found myself slipping into a world of darkness, where the light from the sun hides behind clouds of destruction and the colors of rainbows are various shades of black. I was on trial for murder, facing the mother of my victim, bringing reproach upon my family, friends and the name of my God. It felt like such a bitter end to a tragic life.
Sentenced to life without parole in 1983, I began my search for survival. Rehabilitation was a foreign word to me at that time; I was more interested in living to see tomorrow. But as the pages of my life began to turn, I felt a longing for inner-peace and healing. I wanted to be able to look in the mirror and see the person I used to be; the person who could face the mother of my victim through the eyes of empathy and the willingness to feel her pain.
The process of achieving empathy intrigued me. It’s defined as the ability to imagine what it must be like to be the other person; to walk in their shoes. But I questioned how I could “walk in her shoes” if I’ve never experienced a loved one who was the victim of a violent crime. The answer to this question came to me in the autumn of 1990.
I called home one evening and received the heartrending news that my best friend Paul had committed suicide. I immediately hung up the phone in disbelief, hoping it was some sort of mistake but I found myself looking into the perils of death, locked forevermore inside my cage of steel.
Paul and I shared a childhood together; exploring hidden caves in our backyard where we felt safe from the world around us, camping underneath the stars as they captured our young imaginations. It was us against the world, lords of the castle we had built with our own two hands, in our land of make-believe. We seemed to have it all figured out but then life happened; I came to prison, separating us from the fortress we once built together.
In the days prior to his death, his mother informed me that he had been trying to contact me at the prison but I never knew until it was too late. Perhaps he wanted to tell me what he was going through. Perhaps he knew I would talk him out of it. But now I have to live with the thought that maybe I could have been the one to stop my best friend from pulling the trigger that took him from us.
Paul gave me many gifts throughout his life; the gift of friendship that surpassed all my expectations and the gift of memories that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. But he also gave me an unexpected gift through his death; the gift of empathy. While sorting through the emotions of his loss, it occurred to me that I can now face the mother of my victim and begin to feel her loss; to feel the life I took from her and to take the responsibility for her pain. Through Paul’s death, I’ve come to understand that empathy is a critical part of rehabilitation and that it’s not something we learn; it’s something we feel. I look at life through a different lens now in memory of my friend; I look at life through the eyes of empathy.