Helen D. McCrimmon, my nana, was the glue that held my family together. She was a mighty woman of God who wanted everyone in her household to know Jesus, the Savior she loved and served (Joshua 24:15).
When Nana moved from where we grew up in Oklahoma to Tucson, Arizona, my mom packed up my two little sisters and me and followed. Our new neighborhood was notorious for gang violence and drugs; it was the local ground zero for the crack epidemic that ripped apart communities all over the country in the 1980s.
Most adults in my family struggled with addiction. My mom wasn’t a drug addict, but she had other issues. That left me, my sisters, and Nana, to navigate a war zone within our home and outside our door. Nana reminded me of my essential role on a regular basis. “Chris, no matter what happens, remember that you are the man of this house. I need you to stay out of trouble and protect your sisters.”
I was in elementary school when Mom went to prison. Nana stepped in to raise us and instilled godly values. “You’ve got to get trained in God’s Word, baby. Write it on your heart. And know this: the Lord will find and rescue you even if you wander from Him.” (See Proverbs 22:6; Deuteronomy 6:6–8.)
I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior while I lived with her. I learned about Bible heroes like Joseph, Moses, and David. But then Nana got sick and moved into a nursing home, so my sisters and I went to live with our aunt.
Everything changed. Away from church and Nana’s watchful eyes, I forgot all about God and my Bible heroes. The outside world looked more fun than church, anyway. So I quit playing sports, started smoking weed and drinking. Then I joined a gang.
None of us had jobs, so I wondered how my new friends owned lowriders, gold jewelry, and name-brand clothes and shoes. When my homeboy pulled a handful of little, white rocks from his pocket and asked, “You want in the game,” I no longer wondered how they made their money.
I didn’t hesitate. Just like that, I became a crack dealer. When I wasn’t dealing, I was blowing money on my own drugs or partying at motels with random girls. My new life brought consequences, but they didn’t do much to deter me.
At 16, I went to juvenile detention for two years for auto theft. Before I went in, I discovered I had a son, but I was too immature to care about being a dad. I shrugged off that responsibility.
In 1989, on my 18th birthday, I was released. Nana passed away soon after that, and I hit the streets, jumping headfirst into the drug game. When a friend inherited some money, we made investments that took our drug dealing operation to another level. The money rolled in for three years.
Soon, I had another son. This time, I manned up and stepped into my role as a father. I told myself I was doing right by my family because I provided nice things and paid the bills. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Ironically, caring for Nana had created a soft spot in my heart for older adults. I had an honest job as a certified nursing assistant. I enjoyed the work, but I wasn’t content, so I chose to continue selling drugs on the side.
I made a grip of money dealing drugs. Every Friday night, people from all over the city would visit my neighborhood looking for crack. They had cashed their paychecks, and I was waiting to take their money.
I knew there were heavy consequences in the game I was playing, but I didn’t think they would catch up to me—I told myself I was lucky. But it was only a matter of time before my luck ran out.
A friend needed some quick money, so I fronted him dope to sell. His troubles soon became mine, however, because I then owed money to my connection—and my source wasn’t about to take on my troubles.
My friend presented a plan to get my money back. “We’ll just hit this lick,” he said, “and we’ll be straight.” We? How did this become a we operation? His plan included armed robbery. How did I let it get to this point? I knew better than to trust this guy, but I couldn’t do anything about it now; I had to get that money. Paying my connection back was not optional.
I knew getting caught could send me to prison for over a decade, but I figured prison was a better alternative than owing money on the streets. So we mapped out our plan and put it into motion.
The robbery went sideways right from the start. Shots rang out. Chaos ensued. And by the end of that night, our robbery victim lay critically injured in the hospital. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t pulled the trigger. I was there and had helped plan it.
Someone came forward as a witness, offering alleged details in the case. The cops showed up at my day job. Coworkers and patients watched in disbelief as I was arrested and led to a police car in handcuffs.
I was charged with, among other things, attempted murder, armed robbery, and aggravated assault. I was 21, barely old enough to buy alcohol, when the court sentenced me to 36 years in the Arizona State Prison system. Talk about a reality check.
My first day on the yard, I watched a man’s head get split open with a baseball bat. A few days later, I saw someone else get stabbed. I was relieved when a friend got me a job with the paint crew.
I just wanted a routine to figure out the ins and outs of prison and a way to stay out of trouble while there. But before I had a chance, I was rearrested and transported back to the county jail to stand trial for another crime.
The police were determined to take me down. They had gathered evidence tying me to another armed robbery where people had died. The same witness who testified against me before now named me as the trigger man in this new case.
As the star witness for the prosecution, this man testified that I was responsible for the murders of three people. As a result, I was convicted of first-degree murder. I stood silently, holding back tears as the judge handed down my sentence: “Christopher McCrimmon, the court hereby sentences you to death.”
Officers escorted me to my new cell on death row. Words can’t describe my loneliness as memories of Nana flooded my mind. I could hear her voice as if she were beside me, “Trust God, Chris. God never abandons His children.”
Really? Then where is He now, Nana? I sure didn’t feel Him. Not at first.
Death row was like a dry, parched land, and my soul thirsted for water (Psalm 63:1). I was on lockdown for 23 hours a day, only allowed out a few times a week for a shower and recreation.
I had plenty of time now to talk with and listen to the Lord. I spent hours studying His Word. The isolation drew me into a relationship with God, and eventually I recommitted my life to Jesus. He became the friend I needed most.
It didn’t take long for the stories I had enjoyed as a child to come alive and revive my spirit, and I began to notice a common thread in the lives of my Bible heroes.
They were all deeply flawed people—just like me—yet they were never out of the reach of God’s love, grace, and mercy.
Moses killed an Egyptian and fled to the wilderness, but God still called him to lead the nation of Israel out of captivity. (See Exodus 2:11–3:15.) King David committed adultery and murder, but when he repented, God forgave him…and scripture calls him a man after God’s own heart. (See 2 Samuel 11:1–12:13; Acts 13:22.) Saul murdered Christians until he met Jesus on the Damascus Road and became the Apostle Paul, a great missionary for Christ. (See Acts chapters 9 through 28.)
The living water of God’s Word refreshed and revived my spirit in that arid land of death row. It also revealed my need for repentance and God’s forgiveness. I felt sorrow over my sin and repented to God in prayer (Psalm 51; 2 Corinthians 7:10).
“Lord, I know I’m a sinner,” I said. “Please forgive me. I deserve punishment, but I don’t believe You will let me die here, this way. My life is in Your hands; I look to You for justice and mercy.” (See Psalm 16:10; Isaiah 30:18.)
My attorney submitted an appeal for a new trial. We waited almost three years for my case to move through the courts. Then one day, as I came in from rec, a friend shouted, “Chris, you got a new trial, man! I just saw you on TV.” I thought he was joking until I saw my face flash across the evening news with the headline, “Death Row Inmate Granted New Trial.”
In 1997, my new trial was underway. My attorney tried to prepare me for the worst-case scenario, but I cut him off. “We’re not going to lose. No way, man. God’s Word says no weapon formed against me shall prosper” (Isaiah 54:17).
He nodded in agreement and stood up to defend my case with irrefutable new evidence. Evidence from police interview transcripts proved that I been convicted based on perjured testimony and that the detectives and prosecutor had allowed the testimony, even though they knew the witness was lying. It took the jury 45 minutes to return with a new verdict.
When I heard, “Not guilty,” I was like Lazarus when Jesus called him out of his grave (John 11:43–44). I left my graveclothes in that courtroom and returned to prison to finish my original 36-year sentence. I was one joyful, resurrected man.
It’s amazing how different the prison felt when I was no longer on death row. God had brought this dead man back to life twice! He had saved me from eternal damnation and from being put to death in prison. I was seeing my world with new eyes.
But Satan was still on the prowl, waiting to devour me (1 Peter 5:8). I tried hard not to fall prey to the enemy, but trouble was on every corner. While I did make some missteps, God was patient as I learned to listen to the Holy Spirit’s warnings and follow His lead. (See John 14:26, 16:13; Romans 8:14, 26.) The Spirit stayed busy, nudging me away from various things and people. Listening and obeying became the difference between life and death.
I avoided the chaos of prison politics by connecting with other Christian men and staying immersed in God’s Word. I grew bold in sharing my testimony and even led men to the Lord. I relied on God and the fellowship of my brothers in Christ to prepare me for life on the outside. These men and religious volunteers taught me the value of real friendship.
Through them, I also learned about Along Side Ministries’ discipleship program in Phoenix. The program paired me with a mentor who walked closely with me for the last two years of my sentence.
After serving almost 26 years, I was released on intense parole. I struggled to adjust to life on the outside, as many do, and soon violated my parole. I was sent back to prison for nearly two years.
But instead of being angry, I embraced the gift of time for God to heal more areas of my heart and mind so I could live successfully on the outside. I devoured God’s Word until my release in March 2020. By God’s grace, I was allowed to return to Along Side Ministries. This community of believers showed me the love of Jesus when I needed it most.
Since my release, the Lord has kept His promise to restore everything the enemy stole from me (Joel 2:25). He has given me a beautiful wife, a newborn son, and a healthy relationship with all my children. God has redeemed my time so I can leave a worthwhile inheritance through the example of my life as I live for Him (Proverbs 13:22).
Nana was right. Even though I wandered far from God, He chased me down—all the way to death row. He rescued me, and He’ll do the same for you, wherever you are (Psalm 107:20).
The truth is we’ve all been sentenced to death by sin (Romans 6:23). But God, who is forever rich in mercy, made a way for our salvation through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:4–6). He’s made a way for you, too.
Jesus conquered death so you could live eternally with Him (2 Timothy 1:10) and experience an abundant life on earth (John 10:10).
You don’t have to sit on death row any longer. Come out of the grave and live. Take off those graveclothes and embrace a new life in Christ.
CHRIS McCRIMMON is passionate about Jesus, his family, and his church community fellowship. He is grateful to spend the rest of His life serving God and others. Through his testimony and knowledge of God’s Word, Chris ministers to men returning to society from prison.