Eighteen months earlier, his mom, Kellie, was on her way to pick him up from day care. She didn't get there. Some time later they found her body. She'd been abducted, taken into the mountains off the Mulholland Highway, and shot to death.
Now, six-year-old Clifford was on the witness stand. Mark Scott Thornton had been convicted of the murder. Clifford knew what should happen. He told the jury.
All I think is that what the bad man did to my mom should happen to him.
The jurors agreed. They voted for death and Thornton went to death rown at San Quentin. Where he remains. 20 years later.
Let's pause for a minute to remember happier times. Here's Kellie with Clifford.
Here they are again.
She was, he told the jury, that day 20 years ago,
one of the greatest mothers I've met.
And you can just see that was true.
And for a boy without a mother, who's mother was ripped from him, brutally murdered.
Jessica Bliss in The Tennessean (I've turned a few of her passages into a set of bullet points here, but all quotes in this post are from her article.).
- At age 10, he experimented with drugs and alcohol. He burglarized. At 15 years old, he was caught with cocaine but never charged. Instead, he went to rehab in Northern Idaho.
- Alcohol, drugs, rehab. Estrangement from his father. Adoption of Buddhism.
- [R]ural India, where a yearlong vow of silence and self-induced starvation caused liver failure and nearly killed him.
One of the things he's learned.
You don't heal.
I need to show you another picture now.
In the Nashville emergency room where he works, O'Sullivan's primary responsibility is to resuscitate the dying.
The 26-year-old nurse must stabilize trauma victims, keeping them alive long enough to get them to the operating room or intensive care unit where lifesaving work can be done.
He calls it a privilege.
Resuscitating the dying. Which is where this is going.
Because Clifford, that's him on your left, arranged a visit to San Quentin. To see Mark Scott Thornton. (On your right.)
They spoke for 5 hours.
Oh, wait, I didn't tell you about the picture. Sorry. That's Clifford on your left.
They spoke of responsibility, and about the last time they saw each other, 20 years ago, sitting across a courtroom.
They spoke about the crime itself — and how they felt inescapably linked.
There were times during those hours, lots of them, when Clifford . . . . You know, this is tough.
There were a few seconds of every minute during that five hours when he questioned how to separate those emotions from his intellect.
. . .
"For now," O'Sullivan recalls Thornton saying, "let us focus on making sure that the next 20 years are not a reflection of the past 20 years."
"Let's find meaning in this, for your sake, for mine and for your mother's."
At six, if he'd been able, he'd have torn Thornton to pieces. That, he thinks, would have been justice.
He's not six any more. He's been through a lot. But it's damn hard.
Of course, California doesn't actually kill any of the hundreds and hundreds of people on death row. Still.
But right now he believes that one man, Mark Scott Thornton, should be saved.
"If they put him up for a date I would stop it, just like I started it," O'Sullivan says.
"It wouldn't happen. Over my dead body."
Which is of course, why I tell these stories.