Bhuiyan underwent years of surgery and had long needles inserted into his eye. portrait by Trevor Paulhus

Crime

Could You Forgive the Man Who Shot You in The Face?

In the days after 9/11, a Dallas man named Mark Stroman went on a revenge killing spree. Rais Bhuiyan survived and, a decade later, tried to stop Stroman’s execution.

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.

Bhuiyan sits in the Travis County Courthouse, minutes before Stroman’s execution. photo courtesy of AP Photo and the Dallas Morning News

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 the Dallas 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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