Ordered to Die, Saved by Christ
by Marc Hyden
Convicted of murder and sentenced to death, Mitch Rutledge thought his life was over. Without caring friends or family, he was barely a footnote to society, but his life began anew when he found hope and salvation on death row. His inspirational story is detailed in Burt and Anita Folsom’s recently released book Death on Hold: A Prisoner’s Desperate Prayer and the Unlikely Family Who Became God’s Answer.
Rutledge was born in 1959 in an underprivileged neighborhood in Columbus, GA, to a 13-year-old mother; his father abandoned them before his birth, and his mother died when he was only 15 years old. Alone, Rutledge moved near Columbus’ red light district but couldn’t get a decent job because he had never learned to read or write. He supported himself by stealing, dealing drugs, and becoming involved in prostitution.
On December 23, 1980, at the age of 21, Rutledge and three friends robbed a man named Gable Holloway. Rutledge, who was under the influence of drugs and alcohol at the time, was handed a gun and instructed to kill Holloway, which he did. Within two weeks, racked with unbearable guilt, Rutledge confessed to the crime.
While in jail awaiting his trial, Rutledge observed a young prisoner hiding under a table reading a Bible. Learning that the youth was being harassed by a jailhouse bully, Rutledge intervened on his behalf. Rutledge had never prayed before, but that night he prayed, “God, the little dude under the table said his mother said if you want to know if God is real, ask God to touch you. God, I’m asking You to touch me.” Rutledge later said, “Immediately, a beautiful, warm feeling came over me.”
During his trial, he expressed his sincere regret and accepted responsibility for his crime, but he was sentenced to die nonetheless. Asking himself, “Why did I not perish at birth?” he concluded, “Maybe I had things yet that God wanted me to accomplish.” He asked for a Bible and, unable to read it, set out to educate himself on death row by studying the Bible and reproducing words from commercials.
He continued his relationship with God and ministered to fellow death-row inmates, but his family and friends had deserted him. “God, I said I am alone,” Rutledge pleaded. “I don’t have anybody. I said please send someone in my life that will love me and care about me and be there for me.”
His prayers were answered when three strangers who, after reading a disparaging article about Rutledge, contacted him to say that his life still had value. His biggest fear was that his new friends would abandon him as others had, but two of them began regularly visiting him in prison.
“In my entire life,” Rutledge writes, “the only family member who ever used the word love toward me was Aunt Dewbell,” but now his new friends regularly told him that they loved him. “I was scheduled to be executed, but I wasn’t alone anymore,” and when he was granted a new sentencing hearing, his new friends came to his defense. In 1989 his death sentence was commuted to life-without-parole.
Now in general population, he promptly registered for the prison’s GED program. Studying diligently, he passed the GED exam on his second attempt and then enrolled in the prison college program. But when he was only 13 credits short of a bachelor’s degree, the program was canceled.
The prison’s warden noticed Rutledge’s example and recommended him for a leadership role in the Honor Dorm program, which teaches prisoners accountability. Rutledge worked hard in this new role, becoming one of the dorm’s community coordinators and eventually a community manager.
Today, Rutledge stays busy speaking to tours of troubled kids and counseling his fellow inmates. He teaches a popular weekly life skills class, instructing inmates how to survive with integrity in and out of prison. He has worked with the local district attorney on a video called “Make the Right Choice,” which teaches children about the consequences of their decisions. This effort was so successful that it was incorporated into the school curriculum in multiple states. The D.A. told Rutledge, “I just want you to know the difference you are making in lives.”
“When I think back on my life,” Rutledge writes, “I know that God is real and that He intervened in my life to turn things around. I hope my story will lead others to ask Jesus to come into their heart and change them.” If Rutledge can find redemption and a new start in prison, why not others on death row?
This inspiring book is a reminder to us all to ask our legislators for a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty.