When I was in the seventh grade, I had a pen pal. Her name was Marie. She lived in Australia, somewhere around Melbourne, I think. We wrote back and forth for most of seventh grade, but eventually lost touch. I can’t remember what we wrote about or why we stopped. Perhaps we decided that writing to someone we would never meet was stupid, or we were just typical teenagers who had better things to do with their time.

Fast forward 20 years. I have a new pen pal. His name is Billy, and we’ve been corresponding for a little more than a year now. His current address is a state prison in Georgia. Now, I know some of you are thinking, “Beth, why in the world would you 1) be friends with someone in prison, and 2) be pen pals with someone in prison!!!”  Let me explain.

I “met” Billy six years ago when he was in my home town for a shooting competition, a world-class action pistol championship where competitors travel from all over to try their hand, or trigger finger, at winning one of the most prestigious titles in the shooting sports industry. Back then, I was a Range Officer, and very new to the sport. I didn’t know too many people, but soon would become friends with some of the top shooters in the industry, but not Billy, not right away at least. The RO’s were instructed not to talk to any of the competitors unless they spoke to us first. We did NOT want to be responsible for breaking their concentration. Billy never spoke to me, so I sure as heck wasn’t going to speak to him. He was always “in the zone”.  It wasn’t until 2011 when this would all change, and the man, who I assumed couldn’t be bothered, would soon depend on me. His life would depend on me.

In the fall of 2011, Billy was charged with 33 different crimes in the state of Georgia, crimes that I’ll get into another time. The shooting sports, like most industries, is a very close-knit family, so when these charges went public, most of Billy’s friends quickly assumed he was guilty, and turned their backs on him without taking the time to hear all the facts. Back then, Billy and I weren’t really friends, more like acquaintances, so I too, believed everything I heard from the victim to be true.  It wasn’t until Billy’s trial in January 2013 where I learned all the facts of his case, and I learned the true colors of several people in the industry—people I trusted, people I considered to be friends. By the end of his trial, Billy was found not guilty on 32 of the 33 original counts, and is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence for the one count, even though it was a crime he did not commit.

Since this all began, Billy has fought for his life in and out of prison. He’s been beaten up, criticized, neglected, humiliated, defamed and forced to sell everything he loved to pay for his legal fees. He’s missed family member’s birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and countless opportunities to take part in a sport that he loves, not just as a competitor, but as a teacher, too.

Billy’s appeal trial begins tomorrow morning. I hope and pray that he will win, because my friend deserves to win. He may not have any money, but he’s rich. He has his friends, which I am proud to consider myself one, his family and the love of God on his side. The truth will set him free today, and justice will be served.

One of the biggest lessons I learned from this situation – don’t be so quick to judge. Make sure you get all the facts before you pick sides. You’ll be glad you did.  For those of you who know me, you know that I’m not one to always keep my thoughts to myself. Sometimes, my mouth has gotten me into trouble. Other times, it has helped me help others and allowed me to stand up for what I believe in. Like Billy, I’ve lost some friends because I chose to support him, but that’s ok. I don’t think they were really my friends anyway.

Aunt Bubba