Could You Forgive the Man Who Shot You in The Face?
Originally printed in D Magazine, Oct 2011
Rais Bhuiyan is blind in one eye. His left eye is strong, intense, with perfect vision. It will follow you through a conversation, registering even a subtle change in posture or facial expression. But his right eye, even after years of surgeries, will never be more than a sluggish ornament that he wears for the sake of symmetry. It’s a symbol of what was taken from him—of what he was left with. The eye sits off to the side a bit, picking up only shades of light. He has no depth perception or peripheral vision, making it difficult to walk across unfamiliar territory without bumping into things or to play soccer without embarrassing himself. He has had to train his mind to look through only his good eye. Now, though, he says he sees things he’s never seen before.
He used to have 20/10 vision in both eyes, and he was a pilot in the Bangladeshi air force. That was before he came to America—to Texas—in pursuit of higher learning. Before a white supremacist lifted a shotgun to his face and blasted searing-hot pellets through his right pupil. Before his wife left him, he lost his job, and he became homeless and terrified to talk to strangers. Before years of operations—dozens of long needles inserted into his eye—and a decade of piecing his life back together. It was only after all of this that Rais Bhuiyan, the 5-foot-6 immigrant with a soft voice and one very focused eye, sued the state of Texas to stop the execution of the man who shot him.
The first thing 27-year-old Rais Bhuiyan (pronounced Boo-yon) did when he got to the Texaco station every day was read the headlines in theDallas Morning News. On September 17, 2001, he read something terrifying: a convenience store clerk had been shot and killed a few blocks away. Bhuiyan begged his boss, the owner of the station, to reinstall the security cameras—he’d already received a few tense glares in the days after 9/11—but money was tight. Bhuiyan had dreams in which customers suddenly pulled out guns and started shooting at him. He had been working at the station in Mesquite for only a few months and he’d already been robbed once. At the time, he thought the man was trying to sell him a handgun.
“How much?” Bhuiyan asked when he saw the weapon.
The man pulled back the hammer with his thumb—click. “No, amigo.”
This wasn’t the America he’d hoped to find when he left his family, his new bride, and his promising career as an officer in the military. He came for the best education in the world. He’d moved to New York in 1999 and won a green card lottery the next year. In May 2001, he moved to Dallas, where a friend was opening a gas station. Everything seemed so much cheaper here than in New York, and the area had so many universities to choose from. He worked 13-hour days at the station, saving money for when he could bring his wife to America.
Bhuiyan wasn’t supposed to be working the morning shift on September 21, 2001, but the only other employee had quit a few days earlier. It was raining giant droplets all morning and business was slow. Around 12:30, a man from the barbershop next door came in to buy a bag of chips and a drink. Not two minutes after he left, Bhuiyan looked out the window to see a white man with his face covered and something shiny and black in his hand.
Mark Stroman was a 31-year-old meth addict and father of four. He had a web of neo-Nazi tattoos and a long criminal record that included a litany of robberies and assaults. His father raised him on hate, beating him anytime he refused a fight. His mother once told him she had been $50 short of aborting him.
Having learned from the previous robbery to avoid confrontation and to get the gunman out of the store as soon as possible, Bhuiyan was already taking the tray of money out of the register by the time Stroman came in. He put the tray on the counter and stepped back with his hands up, supplicating. He saw the weapon up close: a double-barrel shotgun with a handgun-style grip. He thought back to the dreams he’d been having. In a soft voice, he said, “Please don’t shoot me.”
Stroman, who in addition to his red bandana was also wearing black sunglasses and a black baseball cap, didn’t touch the money. Instead, he asked a question in his thick Texas accent.
“Where are you from?”
Bhuiyan felt a chill in his spine. He’s not here for the money, Bhuiyan thought. He’s here for something else. The only words he could muster were a squeaky, “Excuse me?”
All it took was hearing Rais Bhuiyan’s meek voice. The gun went off. At least 38 pellets hit Bhuiyan. One broke out a tooth. A few went through the bridge of his nose. Several pierced his cheek and forehead and his right ear. And one pellet went right through the center of his pitch-black pupil, stopping millimeters from his brain.
But at the time, Bhuiyan wasn’t at all sure what had happened. He felt like he’d been stung by a million bees, all at once. But he was still standing. And two and a half feet away, so was Stroman. Maybe he didn’t shoot me, Bhuiyan thought. The loud bang sounded distant, like maybe it had come from outside. He looked down and noticed what appeared to be a faucet of blood leaking onto the floor. Then he knew.
His mind flashed to his wife in Bangladesh—he had promised that he’d return for her, safe and sound, in no time. He thought about his mother and father, his siblings, the friends who had warned him not to move to Texas. Then he looked back up and realized Stroman was still there, staring at him. Fearing he’d be shot another time, he fell to his knees. He grasped his face, hoping his hands might keep his brain inside his head. Through the pain and fear, the blood and rain, Bhuiyan screamed one word: “Mom!”
Stroman ran out the door without taking a single dollar. He would later tell police that he was out “hunting A-rabs” as a personal revenge for the terrorist attacks. He was doing, he said, “what millions of Americans wanted to do.”
As he heard the front door swing closed, Bhuiyan was already pleading with God. Please! he thought. Don’t let me die. He stood up and ran to the barbershop next door. As he entered, the men looked like they’d seen a monster. They tripped over themselves to get away from him. In the barbershop mirror, he caught a glimpse of himself. He could see the blood running down his face, saturating his favorite olive t-shirt and his new tennis shoes—the clothes he’d purchased in an effort to look more like young people in America. Is that really me? He’d been one person only seconds earlier. Now it appeared he was someone else entirely.
He spoke aloud the words he had, until then, only been thinking. “Please!” he pleaded. “I’m dying! Please, don’t let me die.” Someone called 911.
Bhuiyan ran toward the ambulance in the parking lot. He took off his own t-shirt. “Please!” As they put him on the stretcher, he felt himself getting faint. At the hospital, he could feel his eyes forced shut by the swelling. He wondered if this is what it felt like to have life slowly escape. He could hear the voices of doctors and nurses and police officers. After the shooting, he stayed conscious for nearly four hours, mostly by sheer willpower. Then: he was gone.
When he awoke the next morning, he heard the warm, comforting voice of a woman. Bhuiyan couldn’t tell what she was saying, but hearing her made him feel safe. He wondered if she was an angel. Then the voice sounded closer.
“Good morning,” she said. “You’re in the hospital. You’re still with us.”
He couldn’t open his eyes or move his jaw. But he could feel his own tears begin to pour over his swollen cheeks. In that moment, life felt so precious. He was happy—more than happy, grateful—to be alive, to still be part of this world.
Within a few hours, he could open his left eye, and he asked for a mirror. What he saw horrified him. His cheek was twice its normal size, covered in dried blood, and peppered with pocks. His right eye popped out of his skull like a baked potato. This time when he wept, he did not cry tears of joy.
The nurses explained that none of the pellets had penetrated his brain. They called him “a lucky boy.” The first few hours, like the first few years, would be filled with a series of emotional crests and valleys. He was released a day later, but he’d soon learn his troubles were just beginning.
After getting shot, he couldn’t work. He had been living with his boss, who continued to host him for a month after the shooting. But soon the relationship grew strained. Bhuiyan, feeling he’d overstayed his welcome, started sleeping on a friend’s couch. Before long, he felt guilty there, too. He went from friend to friend, appreciating the hospitality but never wanting to be a burden.
It was around then that his wife back in Bangladesh decided she couldn’t take it anymore. Her parents had always preferred she marry another man, pressuring her day and night. Before he moved to the United States, Bhuiyan and his longtime love filed for a marriage certificate without telling their families. Now that he was gone and shot and unable to provide any kind of future, she couldn’t wait any longer. He couldn’t ask her to.
The police and the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office found Bhuiyan and took a number of statements. He remembers the prosecutor telling him not to have any contact at all with the defendant, Mark Stroman. Soon Stroman went to trial. It wasn’t for the attack on Bhuiyan. Nor was it for the shooting of Waqar Hasan, a 46-year-old Pakistani immigrant, the crime Bhuiyan had read about in the newspaper a few days before his own encounter. Stroman was tried for the murder of 49-year-old Vasudev Patel, another gas station attendant shot with a .44 caliber pistol, whose killing was caught on tape. In his hunt, Stroman shot exactly zero Arabs. Patel was an Indian Buddhist.
Stroman’s was the first case brought under the state’s new hate crime legislation—a reaction, in part, to the horrific dragging-death murder of James Byrd in Jasper. In court, Stroman was unrepentant, making obscene gestures at the victims’ families, claiming his rampage was revenge for a sister killed in the World Trade Center—though there is no evidence said sister ever existed. Stroman’s trial was over quickly. The prosecutor asked Bhuiyan to testify at the sentencing, to tell the harrowing tale of the attack he survived. That, too, was over quickly. After a short deliberation, the jury sentenced Mark Stroman to death.
Bhuiyan fell into a deep depression. alone, his life knocked from perfectly laid tracks, he felt a constant dread, a perpetual sinking in his chest. He was uncomfortable with strangers, uneasy in public, always concerned—however irrationally—that anyone might attack at anytime. He had recurring nightmares. He worried that anytime he went to sleep he’d spend another night staring at Mark Stroman’s eyes or that double-barrel shotgun. He’d wake up grabbing his face in a panic, convinced he’d been shot all over again.
One of the few public places he would go was his doctor’s office. Month after month he’d go back for new procedures, new tests, another giant syringe hovering over his eye. With no money to pay for the surgeries or expensive medication, he begged for drug samples. His doctor told him about the victim compensation fund, through which crime victims in Texas could have some medical bills and living expenses paid by the state.
He knew he wanted some semblance of a life again. He knew he needed to work, to interact with the outside world. A friend got him a job at Olive Garden. He thought he’d be washing dishes, but the manager—an older Pakistani man who felt bad for the wounded immigrant—thought Bhuiyan seemed smart enough to be a server. Bhuiyan agreed to try it for two weeks. He found that when he was memorizing orders and studying the way people interacted, he wasn’t nervous anymore. He felt like a student, comfortable with the knowledge he was once again building toward the future. Soon, he was getting compliments from customers. He quickly became one of the best waiters at the restaurant, always near the top in tips and alcohol sales, even though he doesn’t drink.
But one day he felt the panic return. There was a table full of people who looked like Mark Stroman. They had the same shaved heads and tattoos that looked like his. Some had piercings through their lips and noses. Bhuiyan couldn’t shake the notion that they could be Stroman’s friends or even his family. That they were there to finish him off. His manager found him hiding, crying in the kitchen.
“I can’t go out there,” Bhuiyan said, his face buried in his hands.
“Come with me,” his manager said.
The manager walked him over to the table. He introduced Bhuiyan and made a joke about them being twins. When Bhuiyan looked up, he didn’t see the sneers he expected. Instead, he saw smiles. After he took their drink order, they made small talk. He asked them about their tattoos. They weren’t racist scrawls, it turned out, and each had an interesting back story. They are people, he thought. Just like me. They needed to be fed. They needed to be cared for.
Slowly his life improved. He started taking college classes again. He got a degree, and, after three years at Olive Garden, a new job—making a six-figure salary working on global IT for a travel company. He felt blessed. But he didn’t feel peace. When he was first shot, with blood pouring from his face, praying to God, he promised that if he was allowed to live, he’d dedicate his life to helping people. He’d make his life on this planet meaningful. He worried he hadn’t kept his promise.
In November 2009, he took a trip to Mecca with his mother. It was a Hajj, a pilgrimage. They stayed for a month, praying almost all day every day, purifying. In the quiet time, he sat and thought about his life, the chance encounter all those years ago, and the man who had taken his eye. Rais Bhuiyan felt his heart soften; he felt the pouring forth of something warm, something invigorating. He felt something leaving his body. He felt forgiveness. What had been pure fear, pent up for years, was now compassion. He didn’t hate Mark Stroman. He pitied him. Thinking of this man sitting in a prison cell, counting down the days he has left on this planet, he wondered if he could help him in some way. He remembered what the prosecutor had told him, and he didn’t want to break the law, but Bhuiyan wanted to talk with the man. He wanted to tell the monster haunting his dreams that he had forgiven him.
Mark Stroman’s execution date was set in March. He would die at 6 pm, on July 20, 2011. If the state tried to contact Rais Bhuiyan, as it claims in legal documents, the attempts were unsuccessful. Bhuiyan didn’t hear about the execution date until he talked to a human rights professor at SMU in March. He wasn’t thrilled. It was now something he thought about a lot. The professor told him about “victim-offender mediation”—when the victims of violent crimes get to meet with their attackers in a safe, therapist-mediated setting. In Texas, Bhuiyan learned, this was his legislated right.
He contacted Mark Stroman’s attorney, Lydia Brandt, who was filing for clemency at the time. He said he wanted to set up a meeting with Stroman. She said she thought her client would consent and that she would look for a mediator. Three weeks later, she told Bhuiyan his best option was to go through the Victim Services Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which has an entire victim mediation program that includes weeks of preparatory counseling for both parties. He made a phone call to the TDCJ. Then another. Then another. He tried the District Attorney’s Office, too—he was told they couldn’t help him. Weeks went by, and he never got a straight answer. Until the first week of July, when he sent a fax to the TDCJ. He got a call, then an email. There wasn’t enough time to set up a victim mediation session, he was told. Once there’s an execution date set in Texas, that’s that.
Bhuiyan wanted to complain. And in this country, there is no better way to complain about something than a lawsuit. He asked Brandt to represent him. She explained the legal concept “conflict of interest.” So he started searching online. He decided he wanted someone with an Islamic background, someone who would immediately understand his desire to make his heart whole again. He found Khurrum Wahid. Something of a Muslim Johnnie Cochran, Wahid is calm, frank, and media friendly. He’s been involved in several high-profile terrorism-related cases in the United States over the last 10 years and has a lucrative practice based in Miami. Bhuiyan sent Wahid a message, asking for legal advice. Wahid replied right away. He’d take the case pro bono.
Wahid immediately enlisted the help of a Houston-based anti-death penalty group called GRACE. Its dedication to working on behalf of poor, mostly minority men convicted of heinous crimes had recently earned the group a profile in The New Yorker. (The executive director of GRACE, Danalynn Recer, is married to a longtime friend of Wahid’s from his time as a public defender.) One day later—with only a week to go until the scheduled execution—they filed a lawsuit against the State of Texas, against the state attorney general’s office, and against Governor Rick Perry, who had the power to postpone or commute the execution order at anytime.
“Rais Bhuiyan wants his opportunity to be heard,” Wahid told reporters at the time. “He wants his viewpoint represented because he believes it’s relevant. He doesn’t want this man to die before he has the chance to meet with him.”
Because the filing claimed, among other things, that the state was violating Bhuiyan’s civil rights, the case was bounced to federal court. The hearing to determine jurisdiction—whether the court could even decide if this rather special situation necessitated a stay—was set for 10 am in Austin on July 20, the day Stroman was scheduled to die two and a half hours away in Huntsville.
The night before, Bhuiyan and his legal team—both attorneys, an investigator brought in from London, and two legal interns—gathered at a Thai restaurant a few blocks from the University of Texas campus. Danalynn Recer, who speaks in a steep Texas twang, got her BA, her master’s, and her law degree from UT, and she was talking about how much Austin has changed in just the last few years: new buildings, expensive high-rises, that sort of thing.
“It’s remarkable,” she said, “how quickly a place can go from being one thing to being something else in the blink of an eye.”
Bhuiyan ordered shrimp fried rice and a Thai tea. When it came, someone noted that the drink was “death-row-jumpsuit orange,” and there was an uneasy laugh.
Wahid was discussing the case. “Texas has a very clearly defined statute outlining a victim’s rights,” he said. “Yes, this place has a reputation for executing a lot of people, but it’s one of the few states that cares enough about the victims of violent crimes to write their rights into the Constitution.” What this case does, he explained, is put in opposition the state’s desire to care for the needs of victims and its desire to kill people.
Just then, Bhuiyan noticed the lead editorial in the college newspaper. It was written by a fellow Bengali immigrant, a graduate student whose father was shot while working at a gas station. The editorial asked Governor Rick Perry to spare Mark Stroman’s life. “I don’t think Stroman’s evil deeds warrant seeing the light of a free sun again,” wrote Samian Quazi, a nursing student. “I hope Perry does the right thing and grants Stroman clemency. I also hope forgiveness and empathy are values that define Bengali culture’s influence on America.”
“This is wonderful,” Bhuiyan said. “This is the message we are trying to get out there.” In the last week, Bhuiyan had given interviews to the New York Times, Huffington Post, NPR, BBC, CBS, and at least a dozen other outlets, but this coverage seemed to delight him most. “The fact that the students are saying these things to each other, this is so incredible.”
The morning of July 20 was hectic. Bhuiyan woke up at 5 am—13 hours until the execution time. He had more interviews, including one with a reporter who came all the way from Japan. By 9:30, the group collected in the La Quinta lobby. In addition to the legal team, Bhuiyan was joined by a gray-haired woman with glasses and a prominent gold cross hanging from her neck. When she heard the story of the man suing to stop the execution of his shooter, Paula Kurland came in from Houston. Kurland’s 21-year-old daughter, Mitzi, and her roommate had been stabbed to death by Jonathan Nobles in 1986. Kurland met with Nobles on death row 12 years later; it was one of the cases that led to the passage of strong victim rights laws in Texas. She expected the meeting—she insists that it’s not a “confrontation,” that it’s a “mediation”—to consist of 30 seconds of her yelling, then her walking out the door. Instead, it turned into five hours of meaningful discourse about the crime, about the impact on her family, and about God. Two weeks later, Nobles was executed.
The mediation gave her a release. “I tell everyone I got my life back on death row,” Kurland explained on the way to the courthouse. “My children got their mother back after that meeting. ‘Liberating’ doesn’t begin to cover it. I could live my life again.” She’s writing a book about her experience. “I’m in favor of the death penalty, but I’m here to support Rais. He deserves the chance to talk to the man who did this to him.”
Also with Bhuiyan was Nadeem Akhtar, the brother-in-law of Waqar Hasan. Akhtar was living with Hasan in Dallas at the time of the murders. He got the call from police at 4 am and raced to their gas station, only to find it covered in blood. His sister, Hasan’s widow, couldn’t bear to be in public today, he explained. “But she stands behind Rais. If we save [Stroman’s] life and he stays in prison for life, he might be able to convince other prisoners.” He imagines Stroman preaching in prison one day. “ ‘These people saved my life after all I did. They are just as American, just as human as me. Don’t hurt them.’ ”
The courtroom walls were covered with paintings of previous federal judges. The state had four attorneys at its table, all calm and stern looking. U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel announced that he didn’t want to hear about the merits of the case, just the arguments about jurisdiction.
Wahid explained that Bhuiyan hadn’t been made aware of his right to meet with his attacker. He said his client had “moved mountains” to make this meeting happen.
“Tell me how this court gets the power to stay an execution,” Judge Yeakel said.
“Because it’s your job to protect Mr. Bhuiyan’s rights,” Wahid said. “But the issue will moot out at 6 pm today unless you grant an injunction, your honor.”
Cynthia Burton represented the Attorney General’s Office. She argued that Bhuiyan had years to set up his meeting if he wanted, that he’d made use of the victim compensation fund, and that this mediation claim was simply a clever way to try to stop an execution.
Within 15 minutes, the arguments were over. The judge said he’d think about it. “I’ll have the order out by early afternoon, so either side will have time to file an appeal.”
Wahid and Bhuiyan held an impromptu press conference on the courthouse steps. “I believe I need to meet with Mark Stroman,” Bhuiyan told cameras and microphones. “I’ve spent nine years trying to heal. Now, I hope this judge allows me to finally see him.”
The legal team hustled straight from the federal courthouse to the offices of a local law firm that had volunteered its space. Around a conference table overlooking the state Capitol, the group was frantic. There were phone calls, more legal filings, more copies needed. The interns hunched over their laptops as the lawyers dictated briefs that could be filed in state court, then more that might be filed in federal court. Someone ordered a few pizzas. The slices disappeared quickly.
Around 2 pm, word came that the federal court had denied the injunction. Wahid announced that they were already in the process of filing an appeal. “There may still be hope with the state court, too,” he added.
Not five minutes passed without Bhuiyan checking the time. There was more filing, more phone calls, more chasing relevant case history—of which there appeared very little.
In a moment of relative silence, Bhuiyan looked around the room. “It’s strange,” he said. “Just as hard as we are trying to save this man, there are others trying hard to make sure he dies.” The words hung in the air. For the first time, it appeared Bhuiyan was realizing he might not be successful.
At 4 pm, just two hours before execution time, Bhuiyan called Stroman’s prison to see if he might be able to have a brief conversation. He got a resounding “no.” Then he got an email from a filmmaker. Ilan Ziv, an Israeli documentarian, had been following the story of Mark Stroman for several years, filming interviews and helping the condemned inmate establish a blog. Ziv had also been keeping Bhuiyan apprised of Stroman’s state of mind. The prisoner had been changing as of late, Ziv told him, disavowing most of his racist beliefs, talking about the value of peace and love.
On the day of the scheduled execution, Ziv was in Huntsville, speaking on the phone to Stroman, and offered to facilitate an exchange between Stroman and Bhuiyan via speakerphone. At about 4:40, Bhuiyan got the call. Ziv recorded the loud, chaotic interaction. This is how it went:
Stroman: “To whom am I speaking?”
Ziv: “Mark, say hello to Rais.”
Stroman: “I think there is a cross connection.”
Ziv: “Mark, Rais is on speaker right now. Talk to him!”
Stroman: “Rais? How are you doing, Rais?”
Bhuiyan: “Hey, Mark. How are you, buddy?”
Stroman: “How are you doing, man? Hey man, thank you for everything you’ve been trying to do for me. You are inspiring. Thank you from
the heart, dude.”
Bhuiyan: “Mark, you should know that I am praying to God, the most compassionate and gracious. I forgive you and I do not hate you. I never hated you—”
Stroman: “You are inspiring, Rais!”
Bhuiyan: “—and I mean this from the bottom of my heart—”
Stroman: “You are a remarkable person. Thank you from my heart. I love you, bro. I mean it.”
Bhuiyan: “You will always be there—”
Stroman: “You touched my heart. I never would have expected this.”
Bhuiyan: “You touched mine, too.”
Stroman: “Hey, Rais, they are telling me to hang up now. I will try to call in a minute.”
He never did. Their second encounter, like their first, was brief and awkward. When he put the phone down, Bhuiyan looked stirred.
“I didn’t get to tell him why,” he said, his voice straining. “I never got the chance to tell him why I forgive him. That was the whole point, and I didn’t get to say it.” He looked out the window. “This is not what I wanted.”
He excused himself and went to the bathroom.
When he got back, Wahid had good news: the state court would have an emergency hearing on the case.
Carrying cardboard boxes full of binders and what were now thousands of pages of legal documents, the group set out on foot, cutting hurriedly through the heat of downtown Austin. By the time they got to the third floor of the Travis County Courthouse, everyone was sweating.
Unlike the wood-paneled federal court, this room, with its long rows of blue-seated pews, looked more like a modest church. The state seal hung behind the judge’s bench. Before the hearing, the air was tense. There was a brief exchange between Wahid and Edward Marshall, the lawyer handling the post-conviction part of the case for the office of the state attorney general. Wahid asked why, with a national spotlight looming, Rick Perry wasn’t delaying the execution, playing up the importance of the victim rights laws he supported. Marshall explained to him that executions are quite popular, politically, in Texas, and it turned out Perry was out of the state, anyway. That left the power to Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, who that very week had announced his run for the U.S. Senate.
At 5:50—10 minutes before the scheduled execution time—the proceedings still hadn’t started. Bhuiyan wondered aloud if Stroman might already be strapped to the table. By 5:58, the attorneys were meeting in the chambers of state District Judge Joe Hart. Bhuiyan was rocking back and forth, nervously crumbling a Styrofoam cup in his hand.
Six o’clock came and went with no word from the judge—and no news from Huntsville. Bhuiyan examined the battered white cup in his hands. “This is how easily lives are torn apart,” he said. “Just like this cup.”
Paula Kurland, who had been sitting next to Bhuiyan most of the day, put her arm around him. “We don’t always understand what happens,” she said, hoping just the strength of her voice might aid her new friend. “We’ll never understand what’s in someone else’s heart.”
Bhuiyan put his face into his hands, emitting nearly silent whimpers as he shook.
“Oh, honey,” Kurland said. “I’m so sorry.”
Then there was silence. Nobody in the room knew what was going on.
At 6:33, the judge came out of his chambers. He announced that he would hold a brief hearing to decide if his court did, in fact, have the jurisdiction. Both sides made the same arguments they’d made in federal court that morning. The judge stepped down to consider the jurisdiction issue. He returned moments later, at approximately 7:10. He said that he was passing the jurisdiction debate to the Court of Criminal Appeals, and that he would listen to arguments about whether he should stop the execution. Rais Bhuiyan would finally get the chance to tell the court how he felt.
Judge Hart also noted that there would be no recorders or cameras allowed in the room. Because of the extenuating circumstances, though, both attorneys would be allowed to have their phones on just in case someone from the Court of Criminal Appeals should call with a higher ruling. He also made it clear that the execution would not proceed until the hearing was over.
Wahid began his opening statement. The court needed to order the temporary injunction, he said, because it needed to protect the rights of the victim. “The Legislature has clearly made an attempt to establish real rights for people like Mr. Bhuiyan. But if those rights are not enforceable, then he has no rights.” Wahid added, “The state is trying to put the rights of the defendant over the rights of the victim. Rais Bhuiyan was made a victim in 2001 by Mark Stroman. If there is no injunction issued, he will inadvertently be made a victim again.”
Marshall’s statement was also brief. He said Bhuiyan knew his rights as a victim and chose not to exercise them. “He was notified of his victim rights in October 2001 and again in June 2002.” From the front row of the empty courtroom, Bhuiyan shook his head adamantly.
Then Wahid called Bhuiyan to the stand. He spelled his name into the microphone, his soft voice echoing across the room. Bhuiyan told the court that he didn’t remember receiving any victim impact information, that he was suffering from “a great amount of depression at that time.” Wahid asked what being shot did to his life.
“I never thought I’d be going through something like this in the United States,” he said, his voice cracking. “I was a pilot in my home country. I had perfect vision. I came for the American dream. I never thought I’d be shot in the face. I never thought I’d be homeless or calling, begging doctors for the medicine I needed.” Bhuiyan began to break down, sniffling, breathing heavily between sentences. “I have no idea how I survived.” He wiped a tear from his right eye. “Mark Stroman completely destroyed my life.”
At this point, Paula Kurland began to cry. So did the court clerk sitting closest to the judge, a young woman with pale skin and curly dark hair. So did the court reporter, sniffling as she typed.
“What would you get out of mediation?” Wahid asked him.
Bhuiyan’s voice wavered as he fought the tears. “I want to see him. I want to talk to him. I want to see that he is a human being. I need to show him that I am a human being, too.” The bailiff was now crying. So was a reporter sitting next to Paula Kurland, and a photographer from theDallas Morning News. Bhuiyan continued. “I want to ask him what he was thinking when he did this to me. What was going through his mind when he saw me bleeding on the floor? What was he thinking when he heard me scream ‘Mom’? Did he ever think about his kids? I’m somebody’s kid, too.”
The air was thick, still. When it came time for the state to question Bhuiyan, Marshall hesitated. He told Bhuiyan he was sorry for what was done to him.
Then Marshall’s phone rang, startling the room. He lifted it to his ear.
“Hello?…OK…OK…OK, great.” He lowered the phone. “That was the Court of Criminal Appeals,” he said. “They granted a writ of prohibition.”
Bhuiyan, still on the stand, looked around in confusion. The handful of people in the pews didn’t understand either. But Judge Hart understood.
“We can’t proceed with this hearing,” he said, his voice, too, now cracking.
Bhuiyan left the stand and sat down. Kurland put her arm around him again.
“Where does it go from here?” she asked Wahid.
“It doesn’t,” he said.
“Isn’t there anything we can do?” asked Bhuiyan.
“Not legally,” Wahid said.
There was silence. Bhuiyan cried gently into his hands. Nadeem Akhtar, who never got to tell the court that his family also wanted to stop the execution, put his hand on Bhuiyan’s shoulder. There was nothing to say.
A few minutes later, at 8:53 pm, Mark Stroman was executed by lethal injection.
Rais Bhuiyan went back to the life he’d built for himself. He went back to work, thanking his boss profusely for the freedom to pursue his case. He tried to answer each of the more than 2,000 emails and Facebook messages he received.
Two days after the execution, he made a phone call to set up another meeting. This time, it would be at a Starbucks in Arlington. He got there early, not sure she would show up. When she did, Bhuiyan noticed that Amber Stroman, one of the daughters Mark left when he went to prison, looked a little like her father around the eyes.
Bhuiyan, always observant—even with one eye—noticed how nervous she was. He suggested they start the meeting with a hug. He told her he wanted to help her. “Anytime you need something,” he said. “I don’t know what I can do, exactly, but I want you to know that you deserve help and that I am here.”
She told him she couldn’t believe she was actually sitting next to him right now. “All this time, we knew my father shot someone, someone who survived, and we never knew what happened to him,” she said. “I really can’t believe it.”
“Well,” Bhuiyan said, “I can’t believe a man tried to kill me and I’d be sitting here with one of his kids.” Neither ate much. They talked about her father, what kind of conversations she used to have with him. Bhuiyan asked about her mother and her brother.
“I can’t believe you’re so friendly,” she said.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” he asked. “Your father did something wrong. You guys didn’t do anything wrong.” He thought about it for a second. “You are another human being, just like me.”
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