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UPDATE: Living With Murder

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Kempis Songster:

I think they opened my cell at about 4 in the morning and I walked out of the prison doors at 7 AM in the morning and so I walked across the parking lot. I was set free. And I remember one of the questions that I was asked by the reporter was, “How do I feel?” And I said “I don’t know how to feel because I’m shocked that I’m walking in a straight line for so long because usually I would have had to turn around by now because we only have a circle to walk in.” But the fact that I was still walking straight after about maybe a hundred yards or two hundred yards, and three hundred yards, was like, my body didn’t know how to take that, being able to walk straight without having to turn.

Sam Broun:

And what did that feel like?

Kempis Songster:

Vocabulary, English vocabulary just seems so inadequate to express these cellular feelings, you know. Because that’s how I felt it. I felt that on a cellular level, like, this great weight was just lifted off me. I felt new. I felt brand new, and it lifted a weight off me. The weight of inadequacy. Of course, the guilt never goes anywhere because the facts are the facts.

Sam Broun:

That makes sense to me. It’s like being seen differently and allowing yourself to see yourself differently, being given permission to be something more than what you had been for thirty years, or it’s acknowledging that you are more than what you were.

Kempis Songster:

Yeah, it’s, I like the word you use, permission. I will say that being given permission to see myself differently means a lot. You know, for the parole board and for people in society to say, “Hey man, it’s ok for you to begin to see yourself as a member of the human family again.” You know, for the people to give me license to do that. You know it makes me feel so renewed and blessed and grateful and humble.

Sam Broun:

Yeah

Kempis Songster:

One of the things I’m most happy to be experiencing out here in the wide, open world is the sense of astonishment at simple things and every little thing, like everything is just so amazing to me, the simplest things.

Sam Broun:

Like what? What’s an example?

Kempis Songster:

Like children going to school, coming from school with their book bags on. And just ramping and playing, and just the sounds of their voices. You know, traffic. People walking their dogs, the sound of trees when the wind blows and the leaves whisper. It’s just, all of these things I’m just so amazed at.

Sam Broun:

It’s been a huge year for you. You’re working, you’re married, you have a baby. I’m wondering, in the day to day, like how much is it on your mind about staying out of trouble, of being careful in the world.

Kempis Songster:

Every day it weighs on me. You know, every time I step out of the house. I’m not driving because I don’t want to be pulled over for any reason. The risk of driving while black and in some cases walking while black is, I’m very conscious of it. If I was driving and I got pulled over by an officer, I wonder if they was to see that I’m on lifetime parole. And lifetime parole is a big deal. If they want to just be hard on me and send me back. Or if I get in any kind of situation with anybody it’s going to be more consequential for me than the next person. So, I’m not really in any rush to drive. You know what I mean?

Sam Broun:

What are some of the things that you do to be careful?

Kempis Songster:

When I go out and I protest. I do go out. I protest, I rally. You know, engaging in my, you know, civic duties and social responsibilities. But when things get a little testy and people start getting arrested, I have to start like looking for ways to extricate myself, to like fade out of that situation. Because with me, I’m not going to get released in a couple of hours or later on that day. No, I’m going back. All the way back.

Sam Broun:

Hm, yeah. I know one of the most profound moments for me when we talked is when you shared a fear of yours about getting out of prison and that you might be walking down the street one day and someone would cry out murderer. That they would know who you were and what you had done. And I’m wondering if anything like that has happened. Or I guess something to a lesser degree which might be meeting people who tell you to your face that they don’t think you deserve a second chance, that juvenile lifers should be serving a life sentence.

Kempis Songster:

I don’t know if it was one of my fears that it would happen. I don’t know if I would use that word. Um, because I’m not really fearful that it would happen. In fact, I expect it to happen. I think in a lot of ways I deserve it to happen. But, I did experience something like that, a few weeks after I came out I was asked to testify before the city council, the Philadelphia city council. I was told that I would be testifying about trauma. How being victimized can lead to one victimizing others. When I got there, it was not what I thought it was. The room was filled with families of people who were murdered, families of victims. And I’d seen all these weeping people. And someone came up to me, someone I knew, and she said, “wow they have you on the list as a family of a victim.” What could I possibly say in this room full of people whose wounds, were gaping and fresh and gushing, and here I am, someone who committed an act like that, had committed a homicide, is sitting in this room full of people. What can I possibly say, you know? And I was, wanted to just shrink. I wanted to shrink and ease my way out of the room. I just got up there and then I testified about my life. And about what I had done and how much I want to contribute to changing things, and how I think we can change things.

Sam Broun:

Yeah. I know a lot of what you’re doing now is sharing your story and talking about what happened and what led you to do what you did and what being in prison for thirty years was like. And I’m wondering if it’s gotten any easier to tell your story.

Kempis Songster:

No. Every day it gets harder because every day I become more conscious, more sensitive, more mature. Can you imagine how hard it is for me to talk about it now that I have a son? You know, I’m a father. I’m a father. You think I want my son to know this about his father when he’s old enough to know it? And how do I have this conversation with my son? Because he’s going to find out. You know what I’m saying? And, you know, and I look at my child every day and I just marvel at this being, this pure little tiny being, he’s only 7 pounds. And the future, the infinite potential. The vast landscape of possibilities that exists for him. It’s the greatest blessing no doubt and gift, but the most tremendous responsibility. You know, and I can’t imagine that at any point in Karume’s growth, it being arrested, in some kind of way, you know before he has a chance to live out whatever his purpose on earth is.

Sam Broun:

Yeah, I have one last question Kempis Songster, which has to do with you and me. You know, we talked for a lot of hours when we were recording for Living With Murder, and I was in the position of being both a journalist and being the daughter of a victim of a violent crime. And that made me a lot more vulnerable in our conversations. And I found I had to walk a difficult line where I was asking you hard questions or I was sharing a lot of stuff with you that I wouldn’t have if my mother hadn’t been a victim of a violent crime. I’m wondering what that experience was like for you.

Kempis Songster:

What I’ve learned, Sam, from having that conversation with you, that I would think amounted to 35 hours of conversation, and that’s a lot, considering the 15 minute time restriction on the phone calls, even though you and I are on so far extremes on the spectrum of violence; Me as someone whose caused it in the most irreparable way, and you as someone who suffered it, and connected to someone whose suffered it, your mother. Your mother, the woman who gave you life, you know, for 35 hours, almost a whole year, you know that we talked. But what I’ve learned from that conversation is that there’s a lot of strength and power of vulnerability.

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