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She forgave her grandmother's murderer. She watched as Alabama killed him anyway.
Sarah Gregory spent days with Jimi Barber before witnessing his execution
In late July, as darkness slouched over the south Alabama pines outside Holman prison, the State of Alabama executed James “Jimi” Barber for the 2001 murder of Dorothy “Dottie” Epps. His time of death, according to prison officials, was 1:56 a.m.
In the days and hours before his execution, Barber was visited by Sarah Gregory, Epps’ granddaughter, who opposed his execution.
The following is a journal entry written by Sarah Gregory recounting her visits with Jimi Barber and his final moments, published for the first time by Tread.
In 2001, my grandmother was murdered by a friend of our family. I spent over 13 years in substance use trying to forget my anger and pain. I got clean in 2013 and began to work on myself, yet I could not let go of the pain from her loss or the rage I had toward the man who inflicted such violence. I had tried for years but could not allow myself to even say his name. On her birthday, July 29th of 2020, I wrote to her on Facebook. I wrote, in part, “My heart wants to rid myself of the weight of this feeling (hatred). You forgave everyone, believed in everyone, believed everyone could change, and saw the good in all. For me to hate is to disrespect the values you instilled in me. Lord, help me to forgive the unforgivable. Help me release him from the power he has had over me for almost two years.”
God answered my prayer only a few months later. I was sitting in my car listening to E-Street Radio and “Letter to You” came on. I broke down and cried the entire song. That night, I sat down and prayed for guidance. I did as Bruce sang, I took all my fears and doubts, all my happiness and pain and dug deep in my soul and signed my name true…I felt the pain ease.
I had no idea that that letter would lead to the most beautiful friendship. I had no idea God would take my pain and show me His grace. We continued writing, then speaking on the phone, until it turned into a weekly (sometime more) occurrence. Jimi became the person who supported me when I needed it the most. He helped me navigate my son who suffers from severe mental health, he prayed for me and with me, and he was (after my husband) the person who I could not wait to share things with. Jimi gathered all of Death Row at Holman prison to rally behind my son. Multiple times they would all pray for us while I was on the phone. It would bring me to tears. Prior to the execution, I received a beautiful handmade box made of tiny pebbles that all the men gathered as a way to say thank you.
I was able to visit Jimi and his family for almost seven hours on July 19th and 20th. This was one of the most meaningful, beautiful, and heartbreaking moments of my life. As I approached the prison, I felt sadness seeing the conditions he had lived in — yes, due to his own actions and consequences thereof — but still sadness. Cold, dark, isolated cells surrounded by multiple fences, barbed wire, and a sense of evil in the air. Once I entered the gates and was escorted to the visiting room, my eyes saw him for the first time in over 20 years. I saw the man that caused myself and my family the greatest pain one could endure. Yet, as I saw him my heart felt happy. I immediately looked into the eyes of my friend and saw regret, love, and admiration in return. It looked as though not a day had gone by. Yes, years have changed us both, but he was still the same man I remembered.
“It was complete forgiveness.”
Once the door opened to the visiting area, I was immediately greeted by the other visitors in the room. First, Jimi hugged my mother, who had managed to slip in without her ID being checked. She was denied her visit pass due to being a direct victim of his crime, but I was approved. Jimi said he had prayed that somehow God would allow one hug from her, and He did. Jimi then turned to me and the hug we shared was the deepest and most sincere embrace. It was absolute forgiveness. I looked around the room and everyone was in tears. However, within three minutes the guards had checked the IDs and quickly removed both my mother and myself from the prison. I was very upset because I had too much to say to him. Once again, God stepped in, and I was called by the warden to return without my mother.
Once I returned, we sat and talked. We remembered things from before the murder and spoke of my grandmother. I spoke to his family, who kept thanking me for forgiving him. One of his brothers told me that my forgiveness was the catalyst to his forgiveness. Many tears were shed, many hugs given, and a lot of healing happened in that cold, secure prison room. That night, my mother and I had dinner with Jimi’s brother, niece, and his spiritual advisor. We supported each other, healed some more, and encouraged each other for what we all knew would be a very sad next day.
The day of the 20th was the most beautiful and the most heartbreaking day. We all met outside the prison wall at 8:30 a.m. The hugs and the tears were ready before we even entered. Jimi was eagerly waiting as everyone went through the security process again. He was pacing back and forth and talking through the window slots every chance he could. After we all completed the security procedures, Jimi greeted each of us with a long, strong hug. The kind of hug one gives when you don’t want to ever let go.
After everyone received a “Jimi hug,” he asked to speak. At that time, he read his last words since he knew he would not be able in the chamber. Jimi made almost constant eye contact with me, as though looking for security, strength, and peace as he pushed through reading the hardest speech of his life. His brother Mark walked over and put his arm around me. We held each other the entire time. Mark had told me the night before that my forgiveness was what brought forth his forgiveness for his brother. He thanked me for bringing his family back together and for bringing some sense of peace and light to this whole situation. So, when he held me, I could feel everything he said. Everyone, including Jimi, cried and all our hearts broke in a way that was almost palpable. Then, Jimi said that was enough and made a joke and we all laughed.
His church member was permitted to bring a guitar, so after all tears we dried we began to sing. “Mary Did You Know” was sung by his niece — the most beautiful rendition of that song I have ever heard. Other hymns were sung, and Jimi sang Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” directly to me. Bruce’s song “Letter to You” was what had brought us back together, and Nebraska was stark reality he and I had discussed many times before. I cried as he sang, and he never broke eye contact.
“The guard cried, praised God, and sang.”
Many guards had stopped to witness what they later said was something they had never seen — not only a victim’s family member visiting with the convicted, but together singing, laughing, and hugging. One guard asked if we could sing “Amazing Grace,” to which we obliged. Every person in that room sang with all the emotions we had left. The guard cried, praised God, and sang. It was beautiful, absolutely beautiful. Then we sang “When the Saints Come Marching In,” and Jimi led us all in a train dance around the room for the entire song. We praised God, sang, and cheered, and we circled the room. I remember seeing all the guards and admin staff looking in complete amazement, many crying.
As time drew to an end, we stopped and took communion. Jimi handed each of us the Bread to represent the Body of Christ, we each hugged him, and stood there solemnly and cried. After a prayer was completed, we knew it was time to go. I hugged each of the people in the room, and with each person more tears came. Finally, when I got to Jimi I could barely speak. I was sobbing and could only hold him. He asked me to never stop sharing our story, and I promised him I would not. He asked that I tell of our visit, and I promised him I would. I placed my shaking hands on his face and thanked him for saving me. I thanked him for showing me the greatest gift God could bestow upon a person. I thanked him for being my best friend these last three years. He kissed my cheek, we hugged, and I had to leave.
Two of his attorneys were waiting to enter, and as I passed them, I hugged them, thanked them for trying to save my friend, and cried. When I returned to my car, all I could do was cry uncontrollably. Every part of my being wanted to run through those gates, hug him again, and not let go. My heart broke for Jimi, for his family, and for his best friend who stayed next to his side until he met God. May God give them all strength and comfort, and may they all be reunited in Heaven.
“I have now experienced two murders in my life. Both changed me, both shattered me, and I pray that together both will lead me to be the person I was always meant to be.”
I did not see my friend again until the curtain of the execution chamber was lifted. There he was, strapped to the gurney, IVs coming out of his arms, and his lower body wrapped in a cocoon of blankets. Yet, he smiled and even told jokes to the men who were in the room with him. He made a brief statement of remorse and love and forgave the Governor and State for what they were about to do. Then, as the medications began to enter his body, he turned to make eye contact one last time. I pray my face provided some sort of comfort to him. He then closed his eyes and met God a short time later. I have now experienced two murders in my life. Both changed me, both shattered me, and I pray that together both will lead me to be the person I was always meant to be.
Not only did God answer my prayer that July day in 2020, He used me as His vessel and showed me the most beautiful gift. I celebrate what God allowed Jimi and me to do together. I celebrate my grandmother and all she means to me. I celebrate and mourn the loss of her and of one of the best friends I have ever had. Just think of what God did for me to say, with all my heart…my friend.
You can read an additional eyewitness account of Barber’s execution by Tread’s Lee Hedgepeth here.
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