When Judge Carl Fox told me two months ago that an inmate he’d sent up the river was offering to donate bone marrow to help save Fox’s life, I figured he was talking about some dude he’d sentenced to six months for getting a five-fingered discount at the five-and-dime or something similarly innocuous.
Oh hell naw. As Orange County prosecutor, Fox aggressively prosecuted Charles Alston, and the judge lowered the boom with a 25-year prison sentence, despite, Alston said, the pleas of his dying mother.
Alston, of Chapel Hill, was sentenced for an armed robbery. He is scheduled to get out in 2022.
“My mother was a praying woman, and all I could think about was the day they sentenced me to all of this time,” Alston told me Wednesday in an office at the Franklin Correctional Center in Bunn. “She went to Mr. Fox and asked him if he would go lenient on me” during the trial. “He said, ‘No.’”
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Alston’s mother, he said, had cancer at the time and died a year later. Because of “some kind of mix up,” he didn’t get to attend her funeral. “I found out my mother was dead through the newspaper,” he said.
“I had a lot of hatred in my heart for Mr. Fox,” Alston, a hale 62-year-old, said. “I mean a lot of hatred.”
So, naturally Alston gloated and danced a celebratory funky chicken when his sister called and told him “Guess what? Carl Fox has cancer and is ’bout to die,” right?
Nope. Alston got a pen and some paper and sat down and wrote Fox a letter. “I told him I’d be glad to donate. ... I couldn’t imagine what he must’ve been going through, to need a bone marrow and not be able to find one.”
What really touched his heart, Alston said, was seeing Fox on TV playing with a young girl. “I think it was his god-daughter,” he said.
Alston admitted – somewhat superfluously, considering the barbed wire fences and armed guards surrounding us – “I’m not perfect,” and acknowledged that part of his motivation for making the offer was selfish. That selfishness had nothing to do with getting a sentence reduction, he said, but rather, “I can’t get a blessing without trying to help somebody, carrying around all of that hate. Hating don’t do no good.”
Some of his fellow inmates disagree and were incredulous when they heard about his offer to help the man most responsible – other than Alston himself – for him being where he is today.
“They say, ‘Man, are you crazy?’” he recalled. “You offering to help him?’”
Most inmates are cool with his offer, even though it was refused because inmates are forbidden to donate tissue or organs because of the risk of infection. Two of his cousins who are not locked up did go to get swabbed to see whether they are a match for Fox and to be entered into the bone marrow registry, he said.
Alston seems fit and trim, a testament to what he said is his daily regimen of 100 pushups, some weightlifting and “a lot of walking” to control his high blood pressure.
Other than that, he said, his health is superb. “I want to walk out of here, not be pushed or carried” when he’s done doing his time in six years. He said he will either work in landscaping – “I can make anything grow” – or with his sister who runs a cleaning service or with a cousin on his farm.
Despite being in the same geographical area, Fox and Alston were in different orbits and probably would’ve never met had it not been for their courtroom encounter. Alston dropped out of school in the ninth grade but stayed in Orange County; Fox graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and received his law degree from there.
“We’re both Virgos,” Alston said with a smile, noting that Fox turned 62 last week, and he’ll turn 63 next week.
Another thing they have in common, Alston said, is that they both started out as law-abiding citizens. He said, “I didn’t catch my first charge until I was 30” – an age when many criminals are looking to straighten up – when he started using drugs. “I got into that in the late ’80s, and it just beat me up, destroyed me.”
That’s why, he said, going to prison may have saved his life.
Life, unlike the game of golf, doesn’t give mulligans, but I asked Alston if he could undo or redo one thing in his life, what would it be.
“I would’ve stayed with my wife,” he said quickly, gazing out the window and into, no doubt, a past that can’t be recaptured. “She was a beautiful woman, a schoolteacher, and I screwed it up.”
Asked what he thinks of Fox now and how he prosecuted his case, Alston smiled sardonically and said, “I’m tired of hating. He done his job. And he done it well.”
Alston was unable to donate marrow to Fox, but in six years, when he strolls out of prison, I want to be around to take those two dudes out to dinner so Fox can thank him for offering to save his life.
And he can thank Fox for saving his.