Event review: the Croydon Youth Theatre’s ‘Dear Tim: Echoes of Death Row’, Saturday 17th October

By - Thursday 22nd October, 2015

Charles Barber reflects on a justice system in which another’s confession of guilt offers no protection for a young black man

Photo author’s own.

The week prior to going to see ‘Dear Tim: Echoes of Death Row’ I’d been suffering with a bad cold and sometimes feeling a bit sorry for myself. But if any performance or story had the power to put one’s own minor concerns in a bit of perspective, it was Swithin Fry’s one-man show about his relationship with Tim Coleman, an inmate of death row in an Ohio jail for the last eighteen years. Put on by Croydon Amnesty and the Croydon Youth Theatre at the charming and intimate Shoestring Theatre in South Norwood, this one-man play made one appreciate just how dangerous it could be commit the crime of being poor and black in the USA today.

Swithin Fry told us the touching and very human story of his developing relationship with a prisoner held on death row, even though evidence known since 2003 has shown him to probably be innocent. He also shone a disturbing light on the way that the current American penal system works, and how it seems to be inherently corrupt and racist.

Amnesty encourages its supporters to write to those in danger of being executed

After retirement Swithin Fry had a bit more time on his hands, and decided to take part in Amnesty International’s letter writing campaign. Amnesty International is an international human rights organisation that speaks out against the imprisonment of people for political reasons and campaigns against the death penalty. It encourages its supporters to write letters to political prisoners and to those in danger of being executed.

In November 2011 Swithin Fry started to write to inmate A328139 at Chillicothe Correctional Institution, Ohio, USA. In Tim Coleman’s first reply, he mentioned that he was innocent and how another prisoner had confessed to the murder in 2003. They continued to correspond regularly and most of the content of their letters concerned details about their prospective families and less sensitive topics than the justice or injustice of Tim’s case. It was not until Mr Fry, on a tour of the US with his wife in March 2014, went to meet his pen friend, inmate A328139, that he really became convinced of Tim’s innocence and began the campaign to use his last remaining appeal to get him a retrial.

At the point in the play when Swithin Fry took a long Greyhound coach journey to get to his friend’s prison, his skills as a storyteller came to the fore. Very short of sleep and anxious about his imminent meeting with ‘a convicted murderer’, he described the complex process of going through different locked rooms and being searched at least twice, before finally meeting with the chief warden, Mr Bentley. In spite of the inhuman conditions in which he worked, Mr Bentley seemed to be a nice guy, and there was something surreally amusing in his attempts to put the English visitor at ease by chatting about how his name was the same as a famous British make of car that he really liked, whilst the stressed and sleep-deprived Mr Fry attempted to psych himself up for one of the most important meetings of his life.

Swithin Fry became convinced that his friend was the victim of a terrible injustice

Croydon’s Deputy Mayor is also a supporter of Tim’s Justice Fund.
Photo author’s own.

Mr Bentley provided a human touch to an establishment, in which almost all structures and procedures seemed design to deny people’s humanity. It was good to know that instead of visitor and inmate being separated by a pane of glass, they were able to meet up in a large hall. At the end of this hall, a large shackled black man was standing, ready to meet his English pen friend. Swithin Fry walked nervously across the wide expanse of the hall to meet his American pen friend. They knew each other quite well from their weekly correspondence so they gave each other a hug.

I shall not tell the whole story of how Swithin Fry became convinced that his friend was the victim of a terrible injustice, as I hope that this review might persuade some readers to visit the King’s Head Theatre in Islington this November, where Swithin Fry is performing, to find out for themselves. Suffice it to say that most, if not all, in the audience were convinced that the evidence would lead in most other democratic countries to a retrial for Tim. His next appeal is his sixth and last; were it to fail, the state governor can give the order for his execution any time after that.

At the end of his story, we were asked to make a donation to Tim’s justice fund and, if we wanted to, to write messages of support for Tim. Mr Fry is hoping to find a pro bono lawyer or, if necessary and funds permit, hire a decent one to fight on Tim’s behalf at the sixth appeal hearing. There was then a question and answer session, and here the informed audience and Mr Fry helped to reveal the current failings and inadequacies of the American justice system.

This illuminating, inspiring and moving production

We learned of the estimated one in twenty-five people on death row in the US who are probably innocent, meaning that 130 innocent people currently face a death sentence. If this isn’t a strong enough argument against capital punishment, I don’t know what is.

I would like to thank the Croydon Youth Theatre for putting on such an illuminating, moving and inspiring production. I’m sure that it persuaded many in the audience to get involved in Tim’s Justice Campaign, or perhaps to even consider going along to one of Croydon Amnesty’s next meetings. A letter to someone in need can sometimes provide a beacon of hope when all around is darkness.

You can find details of the campaign and of future performances of ‘Dear Tim : Echoes of Death Row’ here.

Croydon Amnesty meets on the third Monday of every month (except August and December) at 8pm at the Mandela Room, Ruskin House, 23 Coombe Road, Croydon CR0 1BD. 

Charles Barber

Charles Barber

Adoptive Croydonian, currently trying to publish a book and find gainful employment within the Croydonian urban jungle. Environmental campaigner, Twitter@rainforestsaver, founder of the Croydon Rainforest Club and of the Friends of Whitehorse Park.

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  • Anne Giles

    What a sad story.

    • Swithin Fry

      Sad, but with plenty of hope too. Thanks for your comment, Anne. If you missed ‘Dear Tim’ at Croydon, I’m at the Kings Head Theatre, in Islington, in November. You can see via the link in Charles’ article. All best Swithin Fry

      • Anne Giles


  • Swithin Fry

    I would like to thank Charles Barber for such a thorough report on my show ‘Dear Tim: Echoes of Death Row – thorough and greatly encouraging. And I particularly like his comment about my penpal’s plight putting his cold into perspective! Any morning that I wake up under a cloud, all I have to do is think of Tim.

    By the way, though, I started writing to Tim through the UK-based group HumanWrites not the Amnesty International letter-writing campaign. http://www.humanwrites.org/

    Thank you, again, Charles – very much appreciated – sincerely Swithin Fry

    • Charles B.Wordsmith

      Thanks for the correction. I sort of made an assumption about Amnesty International, as you don’t mention the name of the organization on your web site. Good luck with all your work on Tim’s behalf and I live in hope that one day, both you and Tim will come back to Croydon and tell us a much happier tale.

      • Swithin Fry

        Thank you, Charles! That is my dream…that Tim comes with me next time. Dreams do come true! And miracles do happen! Would you be happy to let me have copies of your pictures? If so, would you email them via ? And good luck with your book – what’s it about? All best Swithin

        • Charles B.Wordsmith

          Will send you all the photos that I and my wife took. Working on setting up a small publishing business, and the first book would be a selection of my poems. However, in time I hope to publish other people’s work as well. I think Tim’s and your story would actually make a good book, as not only is it a heart-rending personal story but it also helps shine a light on the current American justice system.

          • Swithin Fry

            Very interesting! I was talking with Sarah Beer, who also is a poet, about setting up a haiku competition with the theme of prison and death row, and then publishing the collection to raise money for Tim’s Justice Fund. Sarah said after the show, that she felt inspired to write some poems. I know she has been busy since, but she’s promised to send them when they’re done. Should be interesting. And strange that you should mention writing a book about ‘Dear Tim’–I’ve been thinking the same myself recently; I think first of all I would like to work on it as a book for young people – my 14-year-old grandson was studying Rosa Parks and the American civil rights movement in school last year, when he was 13. Good luck with your publishing project – – and thank you very much for the photos. All the very best to you and your – sincerely Swithin