John T. Thorngren is 76 years old, and has had three heart attacks and two open heart surgeries. But he had one last item on his “bucket list”: to finish a book he started seven years ago about convicted murderer, Pamela Perillo, who spent 20 years on death row in Texas before her sentence was commuted to life in prison.
He succeeded; “Salvation on Death Row” will be released in January.
“I was just driven,” he says. “I had a passionate desire to get this book out there.” Thorngren’s goal was two-fold; for people to see the person Perillo is now, and to see, by hearing her story, that redemption is possible, even for those who have committed terrible acts. “I want them to know she’s repentant, she’s mature, and she’s a born-again Christian,” he says. To that end, the book is written in the first-person; they are Perillo’s words, written by Thorngren.
Perillo was sentenced to death, along with an accomplice, for the robbery and murder of two men in Houston in 1980. She was sent to death row, scheduled to be the first woman executed in Texas since the mid-1800s. “Two primary states of waiting occur on death row; waiting for the state to finalize the appointed day of your execution, and waiting for that day, once known, to come,” Perillo says.
The number of women on death row grew to four from two after Perillo’s arrival; among them, Karla Faye Tucker, who became Perillo’s closest friend — “a woman who had obviously waded through the same sewers I had” – and, like Perillo, became a Christian while in prison. The two friends soon swapped execution dates. Perillo’s conviction was overturned on appeal, and Tucker, who, despite worldwide publicity and a massive letter-writing campaign urging then-Gov. George W. Bush to commute her sentence, became the first woman executed in Texas in 150 years. “I don’t know how many lakes of tears I filled in her passing. I would have gladly gone in her place,” Perillo says of Tucker.
In 1984, Perillo was retried, and again sentenced to death, but when the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that conviction, and ordered a retrial or release in 1999, the state offered a deal of a life sentence, and she accepted.
Once in the general prison population, Perillo joined the Faith-Based Dorm Program, started by Tucker, in which Christian women live in a special dorm for 18 months, spending their days in Bible-study classes, meditation, and prayer.
Four women have been executed in Texas since Perillo was first sent to death row in 1980. Perillo knew them all, and says that, after the execution of Kimberly McCarthy in June 2013, “went largely unnoticed in our dorm… in Texas… in the world,” she knew “the glass ceiling for killing women had been broken.” And the lack of public outcry didn’t really surprise her. “It is easy to kill a monster, but very hard to kill a human being,” she says.
Thorngren agrees, and he hopes that by writing this book people will come to realize that no one is beyond redemption. “Scripture is full of God’s mercy. Every person has a purpose, a God-given purpose, and I just don’t think it’s right to take someone else’s’ life,” he says.
It could be argued that Perillo has finally found her purpose. She has her faith, and her passion, the Patriot PAWS Service Dogs Program, where she and other inmates train service dogs for those on the outside who have physical or emotional disabilities. She reflects often on the choices she made. “With reflection comes the quest for reason,” she says. She looks at the facts of her life; a mother who abandoned her, a father who molested her, and drug abuse. “Collateral causes for sure, but no, the problems were internal,” Perillo says. “Me, a child of God, given free will, and most regretfully, I chose drugs. I committed a brutal crime. During 36 years of incarceration, I pray daily for forgiveness from the families I hurt.”
In January 2016, Perillo’s appeal to be released was denied, and she will have to wait until January 2019 to appeal again.
“Salvation on Death Row” by John T. Thorngren will be released January 9, 2018. It can be pre-ordered on kicamprojects.com or on Amazon. The author is donating the entirety of his profits, and KiCam Projects a portion of its profits, to Patriot PAWS service dogs.