Letters from Purgatory is based on the true life experiences of California death row inmate Maureen “Miki” McDermott, a series of fantastical letters that are written to her while on death row, and Casey Cohen, the private investigator who believes in her innocence and tries to save her life.
In 1995, I founded InsideOUT Writers, a creative writing program for incarcerated youth. It was while teaching teenage girls facing life sentences for serious crimes that I met Casey. He was one of the foremost authorities on the death penalty phase. Over the course of the three years that I knew him, he became my dearest friend.
Shortly before his death in 2000, Casey sent me the letters and asked me to solve the mystery of who wrote them and why. His assessment of Miki’s conviction was that it had been a miscarriage of justice. By the time he became involved in her case, during the habeas appeal, it was too late to save her but he could not escape a haunting feeling that he had somehow failed. Perhaps he thought that by showing another side, the side of the letters, the story might come to a better conclusion. I can only guess at his motive, for he never explained it to me.
Casey’s real name was Kaddish, meaning “a prayer for the dying.” He considered his name to be a curse put on him by his father. Listening to the prayers of those facing the Death Penalty became the obsession that drove Casey. He was a master at discovering who a person really was beneath the horror of the crime for which they stood accused.
It took me ten years to finally fulfill my promise to Casey. By asking me to solve the mystery of the letters, he continued to live beyond the grave, forever entangled in my story and Miki’s. Watching over my shoulder, he sent me on a remarkable journey that lead from Death Row into the heart of a Turkish village, where hope and love overcame emptiness and despair. Along this path, I came to understand the truth of Miki’s, Casey’s and my own life, how the facts aren’t always what they seem to be, and how we are all connected through the stories that we tell ourselves in order to bring meaning and comfort to our lives.
I am forever grateful to Casey for giving me the gift of the letters and this story to tell. For it is in our stories that we have the greatest power to create our destinies. This is not a book about the crime, however horrific that crime was and is and will always be. It is about the other side of the story—faith, hope and love. These three are stronger than all the hatred and despair that hell can throw our way. But we must believe. That is the mystery of life—that we must create it or it does not exist. That is what the letters taught me.
Follow the link to read the story excerpt.