John T. Thorngren’s life has been one of varied experiences that have taken him from Paris, France, to the oil fields of Texas. He’s manufactured car-wash soap, owned a retail store, operated a chemical plant, and programmed computers. He’s the author of a book about probability and statistics and a songwriter of Southern Gospel.
So maybe it’s only fitting that an unexpected path led him to tell the story of a woman condemned to die on Texas’s Death Row, now hoping for parole in 2019. The twists and turns of his life have led Thorngren to find the value in every human soul, regardless of the journey that soul has taken.
This is the background behind Salvation on Death Row: The Pamela Perillo Story.
How did you come to know Pamela Perillo’s story, and what made you decide hers was a story you wanted to write?
I discovered an old friend was on Death Row in another state. Drugs were the root cause. As an effort to bring attention to his case, I decided to write a fiction novel about a woman falsely accused and condemned in Texas. Needing realism, by chance, I contacted Pamela Perillo, currently incarcerated in Gainesville. Pamela is a private person and had never allowed anyone to tell her story. We found we had a spiritual match and so began this effort.
Tell us about the process. How long did it take you to research the many documents and legal proceedings you cite, and how did you work with Pamela to bring her voice to the project?
Pamela and I worked on this project from 2010 through 2017. This involved over fifty telephone conversations, 150 letters, and countless hours of research.
Did you ever find yourself surprised or challenged by what you learned as you wrote the book?
Yes, very much surprised. I was surprised about how political the causes for and against the death penalty have become. I was extremely surprised about the Frances Newman case. She personified the worst fear of those against the death penalty—the execution of the innocent. I and many others believe she was unjustly convicted and condemned.
How did this project change or affect your beliefs about the criminal justice system and, specifically, capital punishment?
I once believed that the criminal justice system and capital punishment were fair and equitable—a sort of Pollyanna viewpoint. Now, I believe that there are dark undercurrents to the contrary, and that once you are convicted and condemned, the justice system behaves like the proverbial snapping turtle that will not let loose till it thunders, regardless of evidence to the contrary. Slowly, I see our country becoming more compassionate regarding the death penalty, and I am encouraged.
Can you tell us about Patriot PAWS and why you chose that organization to benefit from the proceeds of Salvation on Death Row?
Patriot Paws was chosen on behalf of Pamela’s efforts to train service dogs. As noted in the book, Pamela’s encounters with animals throughout a difficult childhood shaped her talent in what she is doing now. She and her fellow trainers have made many service dogs available without cost to disabled American veterans and others with mobile disabilities and post-traumatic stress symptoms. Pamela plans to continue this effort after she is released. Certainly, any monies from my involvement should go to Patriot Paws, as neither Pamela nor I began this effort for profit. There’s a beautiful video describing Patriot Paws through the eyes of Texas Country Reporter; Pamela is in several scenes.
How does your own experience, as the survivor of three heart attacks and two heart surgeries, influence your thinking about the value of all people’s lives?
I am sure everyone who has had their chest cracked open like a crab will tell you how much bluer the sky looks. But I believe everyone, if they look back on their life with discerning eyes, regardless of their health, prosperity, or misery, must conclude that they were put here for a purpose, that every life is precious and none worth taking.
What do you hope readers take away from learning Pamela’s story?
I would answer this with a short story from a personal experience. Years past, I used to write my own Christmas cards, a poem or a two-paragraph vignette. These went out not only to family and friends but to business contacts, many of whom I had never met. For several years there were no comments—good or bad. One afternoon, one of these business contacts, whom I did not know, telephoned and said the card had made his Christmas. One rarely knows what we do that benefits others, but when we do—even for just one—we leap with joy. So if the story of Pamela’s life helps but one soul, then our effort was well worth the undertaking.