Monday, April 25, 2011

A Wilderness of Mirrors

"You ever feel like un ratoncito on one of those little wheels, doing this everyday?"

"Trust me, cabron, this is not the only time I ever feel like a mouse during an average day," I replied, trying to conserve my breath. My friend Prieto, currently running laps in the adjoining rec cage, was panting heavily. The humid air was having its way with both of us, so thick it felt like we were trying to choke down glue. He certainly wasn’t wrong about the mouse bit, though: running in tiny circles has often reminded me of bug-eyed rodentia and brightly colored plastic wheels. Save, whenever I would pass the pet store in the mall and pause to watch the little critters at play, they always seemed to be abandoning themselves to a singular pleasure. Pounding the cement in the stultifying humidity of a Texas Spring seemed far more akin to self-castigation. I wanted to ask him if it was supposed to be 90 freaking degrees this early in the year, but the effort seemed too great for rhetorical questions, so I choked down my words and tried to simply lose track of myself for sixty minutes.

THE COURT: Sheriff, I understand that we've received word from I the jury that they've reached a verdict.

BAILIFF: Yes, sir, they have announced a verdict.

THE COURT: Okay. Bring them in.

(Jury in)

THE COURT: Be seated, please. Ladies and gentlemen, have you reached a verdict?

PRESIDING JUROR: Yes, Your Honor, we have.

BAILIFF: Defendant, please rise.

The sound of the rec yard doors popping open caused me to crack my eyes. Two gray-clad officers quickly stepped outside, smirking at me where I lay prostrate on the concrete in the shade, visibly spent.

"Hey, Whitaker, you gots an attorney visit."

Perfect. I was stripped down to my boxer shorts, soaking in sweat, and thanks to the ridiculous new razor policy I had not been allowed to shave in four days. In short, I looked like I had just crawled out from underneath a bridge, and now I was going to have to sit across from the man who's job it was to save my life. Anyone who tells you that personal appearances don't matter in this game is living in a fantasy world.

"Alright, alright, I’m coming," I grumbled as I stripped naked for the customary and mandatory search when exiting the yards.

"I have to go to my cell first, though, for my legal stuff."

And a quick bird bath, I thought, though I kept this part to myself, lest they change their minds about allowing me the detour.

Some inmates here seem to enjoy taking forever to prepare for a visit. They think it empowers them somehow, to make two officers wait on them while they comb their hair excessively or brush their teeth. They have to know that other inmates are waiting on this same pair of lawmen to take them to or from visitation or medical, but this does not seem to matter much. I keep hoping to see some form of unit cohesion amongst the men here, but this hope is forever being sold 80 dollar bags of oregano in dark alleys. As quickly as I could manage, I wiped myself clean with my towel, put on a fresh t-shirt, rubbed on some deodorant, and brushed my teeth. I gathered my "jump-kit" of legal supplies that I keep ready for surprise visits, and on the way to the door rubbed one of those cologne samples that come attached to advertisements in magazines. Your guest can’t smell you through the glass, of course, but I have always felt it vital to maintain certain levels of personal hygiene, even if no one can notice. It's silly, I know. But you become an animal back here much quicker than you realize.

THE COURT: Let the record reflect that we're here in Cause No. 42,969, the State of Texas versus Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. The jury is present. The State is present. The Defendant is present in person and with counsel. I've received the Court's charge on punishments from the jury. I will read the jury's answers.

Issue No.1, "Do you find from the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that there is a probability that the Defendant would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing threat to society?"

Answer: "Yes."

BAM! BAM! The back entrance into the visitation wing of 1-Building is like all the rest of the doors here in the Chateau D'If, err, Polunsky Unit - solid steel. In order to get the attention of the officer working within, one must formally announce oneself by banging on the door politely or forcefully, depending upon the attitudes and mood of the day. Today was obviously one of the latter sort for this escort team. Eventually, one will be granted access, though it can take awhile on busy days. The solid wall of frigid air that assaults you upon entering 1-Building is one of the best moments of my month; it almost feels like someone is running their fingers lightly over your cheek. A Penal Categorical Imperative: Wheresoever one finds the offices of thy warden, so too ye shall find one kickass AC system.

Issue No.2: "Do you find from the evidence beyond a reasonable I doubt that the Defendant actually caused the death of the deceased, or did not actually cause the death of the deceased, but intended to kill the deceased or another, or, anticipated that a human life would be taken? You are instructed that in answering this issue, only the conduct of the Defendant can be considered, and that the instructions pertaining to the law of parties heretofore given you cannot now be considered in answering this issue."

Answer: "Yes."

Attorney visits are conducted in a separate series of cages from regular visits, (supposedly) designed with phones which cannot be monitored by the Authorities. I was happy to finally be able to have a chit-chat with my attorney, as the filing deadline for my final appeal was fast approaching and we had yet to have a substantial conversation about anything. As the penultimate doorway parted before me, I steeled myself for the experience.

Instead, I found two young adults staring at me through the glass. I turned quickly to the officers. "Uh, I'm Whitaker. Are you sure you are putting me in the right, place?"

The gendarme quickly checked the paperwork and confirmed that I was meeting the right· people, so I simply shrugged and entered the cubicle. As the door was sealed behind me and my cuffs removed, I studied the pair sitting across from me.

The two were in their mid-20's, with the male appearing to be slightly younger than the female. He looked crisp and clean and polite, wearing a nice button-down shirt and jeans; she was pretty and blonde, a combination which would have probably caused her no small amount of hassle had I met her in a bar before all of this. A feeling of vertigo assailed me as I pondered the gap that separated us now, but I was able to quickly brush this aside, regaining control. I smiled as I picked up the phone and wiped it clean with my hand towel.

Issue No.3: Do you find from the evidence, taking into consideration all of the evidence, including the circumstances of the offense, the Defendant's character and background, and the personal moral culpability of the Defendant, that there is a sufficient mitigating circumstance or circumstances to warrant that a life ... that is, that a sentence of life imprisonment, rather than a death sentence be imposed? You are instructed that in answering this issue, you shall answer the issue yes or no. You may not answer the issue no unless the jury unanimously agrees, and you may not answer yes unless ten or more jurors agree. The jury need not agree on what particular evidence supports an affirmative finding on this issue. The jury shall consider mitigating evidence to be evidence that a juror might regard as reducing the Defendant's moral blameworthiness."

Answer: "No."

He spoke first.

"Mr. Whitaker, my name is Michael and this is Christine, and we are law students with the TDS." (Names altered to protect real identities.)

Ah. I had heard that on occasion, students in Dr Dow's classes at the University of Houston would come up here to Livingston to get their first Death Row Experience. Hearing this made me feel suddenly very old. These two were law students? They didn’t look old enough to be allowed to see an R-rated movie without parental consent. Just looking at them felt like taking a swan dive into a pure mountain spring, like they had never in all their lives wanted to punch someone in the face or have sex in the cramped back seat of someone's SUV. I felt ... parental. Protective. Gods help me, but I felt like a tour guide.

"We, the jury, having answered the foregoing issues, return the same into the court as our verdict," and it's signed Presiding Juror.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is this a unanimous verdict?


THE COURT: If so, I would like to see each of you raise your right hands to indicate that this is your verdict.

(all hands raised)

THE COURT: Let the record reflect that all hands have been raised.

It became pretty obvious that Dr Dow suffered no fools in his program. These two were bright, intuitive. They had never been to Death Row before, and this was likely to be their only trip. They were to see me and one other inmate, a man I knew to be a bit of a troublemaker. It occurred to me that the mental snapshots they took of me today would likely stand in as a template for all future thought of Death Row prisoners, and this made me sit up straighter, correcting my posture. I tried very hard to put them at ease, and in the process, I found an ease that usually eludes me. They were contagious; they smiled, and I smiled. How quickly one forgets what real human interaction feels like!

THE COURT: Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, before I formally pronounce any sentence as required by law in this case, let me inform you that under Texas law, specifically under the provisions of Article 37.07(1) of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, the judgment of conviction and the sentence of death that is mandated by the verdict of the jury shall be subject to automatic review by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Under the provisions of law, that automatic review and appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals shall be in accordance with their mandate as far as the transcript, the statement of facts being prepared, assembled and certified by the Court and to them for their attention, the brief submitted by counsel, and any argument that they may wish to entertain in connection with their determination as to the propriety of the proceedings that have transpired here during this trial. Such review by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is mandated by Texas law, and that appeal has priority over other cases that are heard in accordance with the local rules prescribed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. You need to be informed of that right to appeal, that mandatory right of appeal.

Christine made the mistake of referring to some pattern of thinking as "Tolstoyan," and the conversation took a very large detour. It is not an average day for me, when I can talk about Doestoevsky or Bonhoeffer or Jorge Luis Borges and have the other person actually participate in the conversation, rather than looking at me as if I had just crawled up out of a hole in the ground. When Michael bridged a logical gap and referred to the Oresteia, I nearly cried. I don’t guess one really needs intellectual sustenance in order to survive, but the gap between survival and really living spans a distance beyond my ability with words to describe.

THE COURT: Let me also tell you that you are entitled to court appointed counsel to represent you during the mandatory appeal process. You may hire your own attorney - in other words, you may retain a lawyer to represent you, if you wish to do so. If, however, you wish for a court-appointed counsel, or if you do not retain a lawyer to represent you, then I will appoint an attorney to represent you for this appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on the judgment and sentence of this court. You do not have to make that decision right now. I'll explain to you later on the manner, and method for giving me notice of request for court-appointed counsel, if you wish to do that.

Do you understand the rights that I've explained to you as far as your mandatory appeal?


We talked about my blog, of course, and I admitted that I was mostly embarrassed by the things that I have written. I always felt I had good intentions for the thing, but somehow it never seemed to produce the effects that I had hoped for. Christine correctly surmised that it helped me to meet a need to try to change the world for the better. She was more right that she knew: so much of what I do these days can be described as me attempting not to go quietly into that good night.

I am not normally a big talker. I prefer to sit back and listen to people, to see how they think. But somehow the desire to help them relax melded with my intention to be the best example I could be of a positive-thinking Death Row offender. Topping that confused jumble of emotions was some sort of sophomoric high I got from intellectual overstimulation, and suddenly I had a very nearly chronic case of verbal diarrhea. I talked about my schooling, and how I had found a university willing to allow me to work on my Masters degree there next year, and maybe even my PhD, if my grades were exemplary. I talked about ethics and crime and life in hell. I talked and talked and talked, and then I shifted in my seat and caught sight of my reflection in the window, and instantly the rug was pulled out from beneath my feet.

THE COURT: Understanding that there's a mandatory appeal and understanding that any formal pronouncing of sentence by this Court today will not include a date set for execution, the Court will, however, inquire so that I can enter a judgment and sentence that will be subject to appeal and be the subject of their review and should be a part of the record in this case, if, on behalf of the State of Texas, is there anything you wish to say before this Court proceeds with the pronouncement of sentence?

MR FELCMAN: No, sir.

What was this? I was acting like a puppy, eager to please, dying to engage, reaching, reaching, grasping for their light. Their approval. Their acceptance. It only took a second to reach this conclusion, but once I got there I settled back into my chair, and let them guide the conversation. I think they noticed this, but I can’t be certain. If it is true what the novelists write about, then I imagine that a certain light had left my eyes. I was present, cordial, but I couldn’t really take my eyes off of my reflection in the glass, superimposed on top of the two of them, so alike, so eternally divided.

Is it true? Is that what all of this is about? The six to eight hours a day I spend on my classes? The articles I slave over, the letters, the §1983's; is it all just a misguided attempt to climb my way back into the world that these two inhabit? I once looked like them, and now I do not. They speak kindly to me, but surely they are not under any illusions about the distance between us. Surely, I must be a joke to them, a simulacra wanting to be real, the dream of every puppet. That glass is less than an inch thick, but it represents a divide I can never cross.

THE COURT: Mr. Whitaker, before I pronounce any sentence, is there anything that you wish to say to this Court before I pronounce sentence?


How many times have I said it? In letters, in articles: I do not believe in the redemption of prisoners in the eyes of American society. It doesn't happen. We are not a people who believe in forgiveness, no matter what the tired priests say. Me: "There is no reviction in the skies, only in the human heart." More Me: “… if you attempt to express in a public forum your regret and shame and sorrow over the choices that put you back here, make sure that you understand up front that you are going to convince and please precisely no one." I say these things all the time. "Hope is the product of a weak mind." "There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn." Ooh, look at me, look at how post-modern I am, how smug, how comfortable in my blanket of ennui, my grimness. How fucking existentialist of me! I can quote Camus as he was talking about Sisyphus; aren’t I marvelous? Now give me a gold star, please.

Look how I got tired of saying "guard” and "officer” and so tossed “'gendarme" in to the mix for the hell of it; see how I used "categorical imperative” there to prove that I've read Kant? Now, please, pat me on the head, notice me, tell me things are going to be ok, that the twistedacidpollutedwreck of my world is not truly fatal, that I am not really just a ghost floating over my mangled body being looked at by EMT's. Please. Anybody. Redeem me. Please.

THE COURT: All right. Then, understanding that there will be a mandatory appeal, and understanding that, although the Court formally pronounces sentence today, that I will not set a specific date for execution until such time as the appeal is determined and reviewed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the appropriate directive has been returned back to this court with any directive that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals may have, do you have any legal reason you wish to offer as to why the Court should not formally pronounce sentence?


Michael was talking about IAC claims and I was nodding, but what I wanted to do - what I needed to do - was stop him midsentence and retract every single self-glorifying thing I ever said about myself, yank it all back onto my side of the divide and dump it all in a pit and pour acid on it and then bury it, both in physicality and in memory. I wanted to tell them that I had been looking at Death Row in the same way I had once been advised about bear attacks: you don’t have to be faster than the bear, my guide told me, you just have to be faster than the guy running next to you. I'm faster than most here, but I suddenly, truly realized that there were twenty bears for each of us, a hundred, a million. In that minute, I realized for the first time in my life that there really is no redemption anywhere, and there never has been any.

THE COURT: All right. Then, in Cause No. 42,969, the State of Texas versus Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, upon the verdicts received by the Court from the jury, rendered unanimously by the jury in this cause, that is the verdict of the jury unanimously finding that you are guilty of the offense of capital murder, as charged by the State in the indictment in this case, and their verdicts answering Special Issue no. 1 unanimously yes, answering Special issue No. 2 unanimously yes, and answering Special Issue No. 3 unanimously no, in accordance with the provisions of law as promulgated by the Texas legislature and signed into law by the Governor of the State of Texas, the Court does at this time, upon these verdicts, determine, as a matter of law, the judgment of this Court-to be that you are and the judgment is that you are guilty of the offense of capital murder; as charged by the State of Texas in the indictment in this cause, and that you be punished in accordance with the rules of Texas law; that is, that you be sentenced to death.

I wanted to tell them about the worst parts of me, the parts I do not show to anyone. I wanted to describe the walls that I put up between myself and other people, because in my heart I am terrified of ·anyone seeing who I· am, how stupid, how ignoble, how utterly petty I can be. About how when family and friends write "I love you" at the end of their letters, the thought that comes quickest to my mind is not “ I love you, too," but rather, "why?" I wanted to confess that the entire edifice of erudition I had so proudly constructed before them was really just cardboard, and the rain clouds were gathering. It's all just a defense mechanism, and it defends me from having to see myself in a wilderness of mirrors that wont leave me be. About how when I wake up at 4:30AM every morning to meditate, sometimes I don’t concentrate on my breathing, but rather on my heartbeat. How I follow it around my body, pulsing, throbbing, sustaining me. Beat. Beat. Beat. How sometimes I focus every ounce of my energy on just one thought: stop. Stop. Stop. Stop. You. Son. Of. A. Bitch. Damn. You. Stop. Wasting. My. Fucking. Time. And. Just. Quit. Already. STOP. But it never does, and I am left feeling very, very alone and unsure about where I am supposed to go from here.

THE COURT: Under the provisions of Texas law, the sentence of death in Texas at this time is execution by means of lethal injection. You will at this time be remanded to the custody of the Sheriff of Fort Bend County to be transported to the appropriate Texas Department of Criminal Justice division, to be held in accordance with the law until the appeal is determined by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and sent back to this Court, and, if the mandate and judgment and sentence is affirmed, for the Court to set a date for execution to execute the sentence of death as pronounced by this Court. Sentence is in this matter formally pronounced. I am supposed to state that it is this Courts wish that God might have mercy on your soul, but it is my personal wish that I sincerely hope that He does not.

Sheriff, you may take him away.

(Defendant taken out of courtroom in chains)

I am good at picking up the pieces. I can admit that without immodesty. Michael and Christine were saying their goodbyes, off to meet their next client. I was thanking them for coming, for believing in us, for dedicating their lives to trying to push this backwards-ass nation towards a more balanced concept of justice, but what I was really thinking was that they needed to get as far from here as possible, before the poison of this place could find a way inside their good natures and turn them into the same jaded assholes I see every day in the attorney booths.

They will probably never think of me again, but I would have died for them in that instant, if it meant they did not have to become infected with the Death Penalty Blues. As they walked out of the cubicle, I wondered if there would be anything left of me worth saving by the time they got around to putting a needle in my arm.

THE COURT: You all may be seated. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, at this time, your duty as jurors is complete. At the beginning of this trial, I placed you under a number of instructions; that is, that you were not to discuss this case with anyone, even amongst yourselves, unless all 12 of you were in the jury room and deliberating on this case. I'm now going to release you from those instructions and obligations. You are now free to discuss this case with anyone that you wish. I’m now going to release you; however, I’m going to ask you to step back into the jury room for just a few minutes while I come back there and thank each of you individually. There will also be pastries and punch for all comers. This court is adjourned.

So, what now? Is an epiphany really a revelation if it changes nothing? The universe is the same today as it was yesterday. The same logic applies, the same conclusions hold true. The same lies continue being lies. Only a very minor Thomas-centric escape clause is missing, and in the grand scheme of things that is a pretty microscopic thing: the concept of a personal redemption through hard work and dedication. I cant kick myself too hard for taking this long to put this idea to rest; the idea of needing a redeemer (kinsman or otherwise) is a very old one, and was quite nailed into my head since my early days of Sunday school. It shouldn’t be such a tough thing to lose, but I think on some level most people want to be saved from how they suspect the universe really works.

I will still do the same things I did yesterday, still look at the world through the same relentless lenses. Only a little less ego will be involved, a little less deus ex whatever. When you truly give up on yourself, other people seem far more important, and that is a good thing. I have said for years that life really was all about helping each other get through this thing, and I guess I believed it, but there was always a little clause in there that went unstated: sure, but take of yourself first. I am sure my neighbors wont mind it if I paid a little more attention to them. I doubt any of you will mind me being a little less arrogant, even if that arrogance was mostly a sham. I will always wish that I could undo or fix the wrongs I have caused. Or even better, to explain what happened without hurting too many other people. I guess I am just finally coming to terms with the fact that this is a feat I will never be able to manage.

Some light reading: Sometimes I wish I were a LIZARD.

© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved


jesusfollower3 said...

Thomas outdid himself this time and I was enriched to see his humanity (painful as it must have been for him) be so revealed. I did disagree though with this comment: "In that minute, I realized for the first time in my life that there really is no redemption anywhere, and there never has been any."

All one has to do is look at the Prodigal in Luke 15. Thomas should have known better with his background. There is always hope, even if in this lifetime, it's a non event. Moses never did enter the Promised Land, but he did see it.

There are those of us who know we are redeemed for all eternity. Nicky Cruz was a man who was labled "unredeemable" by the psychiatrists assigned to his case. Today, he is a success in every imaginable way, but it wasn't due to anything of his own self value.

Even Jim Morrison understood that "no one here gets out alive", but that doesn't mean there is no redeemer. There is, if we only would. John. 1:12-13.

One thing everyone here has in common....we're all competing for that next heartbeat. One day, we will all lose that battle because sin won this world. However, we don't need to let THAT fact, rule us. There is hope. There is redemption. Some don't enter this time around....just make sure you're ready for when it really counts. The one thief on the cross understood................

Peace to all.......

Winston said...

I just wanted Thomas to know that I have been reading his posts and I have asked the Lord to use me in order to help stop the revenge mureders in the name of justice. I had been reading Thomas and Mark Stroman's blogs for sometime now and some how in between them I happen on Richard Cartwright's "Uncensored" from 1994-2005... and after reading it in two days I finally understood the great injustice that is happening in Texas and all over the USA. Although I have very little to give... I have a lot of time and I would like to help.

Nick said...

The last French DP prisoner had killed 2 policemen, and even badloy wounded a third one during an attempted escape following his conviction. His dzath sentence was later transformed to life in prison following abolition of DP in France (1981) - life meaning you may get out after some years if you rehabilitate.

Today, Philippe Maurice, after nearly 20 years in jail, is one of our most brilliant scholar in Medieval History, in one of our most prestigious research institute (EHESS).

People can change. Jail can be a usefull time, provided it is conceived to punish BUT ALSO to rehabilitate. Proovided there is hope at the end.

There is no hope with DP. Whatever the number of years you spent into it before the final day. What a waste of human life. But after all,judical and prison system always reflect the violent nature of a society. The US is a violent society.


PS: I am surprised you deleted a previous post that, contrary to mine, was negative and probably for that reason. You should not. Let ideas confront.