Admin Note: Bill Van Poyck was executed by the state of Florida on June 12, 2013
By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker
In my 75 months on death row, I have borne witness to over 100 executions. Some of these men were friends of mine. Some of them were people that I barely knew. A few I didn't particularly get along with, but I have always known in a less hellish locale, I would have been meeting a completely a different individual. All of them were loved by someone; they were someone's son, brother, father. Years ago I was told by the old-timers that I would eventually grow numb to all of this death, and that each killing would mean a little less. Eventually, I was told, I would learn of the death of a family member or close friend in the free world and that I would be unable to feel much of anything. That such things could happen to a man without his permission terrified me, and I have tried to find some way to honor each man's passing as a means of blocking this horrid progression. I used to make homemade candles, but the penalties for this sort of thing have gotten to be so ridiculous that I actually risk catching free-world arson charges if I light up anything in my cell. Now, I usually just meditate for the dead, and try to remember something good and positive that each taught me. I also do this out of guilt, I think: the old-timers may not have been correct about the extent of my numbness, but they weren't completely wrong, either. When I am completely candid with myself, I must admit that much of this vile place has become normal to me on some level. People get killed. The public yawns. Rinse and repeat.
I arrived on death row on the 23rd of March. It was a beautifully sunny day outside, which I recall irritated me for some reason. On my way from the diagnostics and intake process at the Byrd Unit I met Charles E Smith, better known to everyone on the Row as "Shadow." Shadow was in the chain-van with me because he had taken a day-trip to the Estelle Unit where he received dialysis treatment. He made the trip two or three times each week: I forget the exact number now. He had less than two months to live by this point, with an execution date set in mid-May. He claimed that he was ready to go, that he was "tired of this shit." When he climbed out of the van, he paused to look at a fat gray cat that was perched atop one of the huge industrial bins used by the TDCJ to store rubbish. The cat was sunning, and stretched luxuriously as we looked in its direction. Shadow smiled briefly at this scene, until one of the escort guards put his hand on his back and gave him a hefty shove. The memory of his face is so vivid to me still that I sometimes feel as if I could reach out and trace it with my finger. Many things about that time have long since faded into the gray mists of oblivion, but that look has remained etched into the bones of my memory. It is a sore that simply won’t go away, no matter hard I scrub it. In that moment his capacity to still find joy in something as tiny as a cat yawning, I realized that his claim of readiness was a lie, something he told himself to take the sting out of the reality of what was being done to him. In that moment, I realized the horror of what it meant to execute a healthy human being. His was my fifth execution. I had been at the Polunsky Unit for 54 days.
I have long tried to encapsulate this feeling into my writings. I think if I could somehow translate even a small percentage of the revulsion I feel on a daily basis over the things I have seen into a language recognizable to someone in the freeworld, they would have no choice but to attempt to tear these walls down. I am in my sixth year of writing for this site, and I still do not feel as if I have ever come close to doing this. Some things, I think, maybe cannot be told; they simply must be experienced, witnessed. George Orwell, one of my few heroes, also felt this. In his collected essays I came across one called "A Hanging" (which you can read here), which eerily echoes my experience with Shadow. I say "eerily," but perhaps it should not be surprising that we reached the same epiphany in the same way. Maybe this disgust is universal, and the only people who haven't felt it are people who have kept their comfortable distance. I hope so, because it would mean there is a beautiful wave of light and love that binds all of us together in our common humanity. Whatever the case, just read Orwell's essay. You won't regret it.
I remember that several people wrote to me during the publication of Kevin Varga's Death Watch Journal to tell me that they finally understood what I had been talking about for all of those years. I was proud of Kevin for breaking through that wall where I had so repeatedly failed. The cost was too high, though. He will have been dead for three years in three days, and I'd rather have my friend back than some generalized "understanding." I know that flies in the face of all of my Enlightenment values, but I miss that knucklehead.
Unfortunately, that reality is upon us again. I learned last night that the State of Florida has set a June 12 execution date for Bill Van Poyck. Texas prisons ban inmate-to-inmate correspondence so when I communicate with the other writers of the MB6 collective, I am forced to do so surreptitiously. This means that I do not know Bill nearly as well as I would like. I am not going to spend much time discussing Bill's case here. It is my understanding that he was involved in an attempt to rescue his best friend from a prison transport van in 1987. Another accomplice named Frank Valdes killed one of the transport officers, and both he and Bill were sent to death row. (Valdes was killed in his cell by a group of prison guards in 1999.) I think my stance on executing non-triggermen is well documented, so I won't belabor the point here. Historically, serving 26 years for being an accomplice to murder was seen as an appropriate sentence, but we seem to have entered a brave new world of disproportionate sentences where all definitions of "appropriateness" have been declared null and void.
All death penalty cases are mirrors. Sometimes the reflection shines upon the economic inequalities inherent in our hyper-capitalist fantasies, the conflict which has always been a class war even if we cannot call it that in polite company. Sometimes the mirror displays the racial bigotry that still exists in the judiciary, even as we pretend such specters of the past have been completely dispelled. In this case, I think the mirror asks us whether we truly believe in the capacity for human change. Well, do you? That wasn't a rhetorical question. Do you believe that a person can climb out of the hells that defined their younger selves and become a true human being, worthy of life? I would be hard- pressed to come up with a better example for this sort of figure than Bill. Half a lifetime has passed since he participated in his attempted rescue of his friend, a crime whose very nature speaks of a deep sense of compassion. In that time, Bill has published books and papers in legal journals. He has placed in the PEN contest numerous times. He has been a fearless reporter of corruption on Florida's death row, a truly brave act considering what was done to his co-defendant. If this man's penal existence has not earned him a second chance at life, then none of us here has earned that honor.
True remorse is not just regret over consequences, but regret over motive. I believe that Bill's writings stand as evidence that he understands the difference. I am writing this on the 9th of May. I do not think this will be published in time for you to reach out to the Governor of Florida and to appeal for executive clemency. If I am wrong, by all means, make your voice heard if you feel morally compelled to do so. If not, I ask you to take a few minutes on the 12th to read through some of Bill's writings. I want you to ask yourself whether or not this man's life has value. Because if it does, he needn't have died. He didn't die; he was killed - by us. If you do nothing else on that day, think about whether or not you feel as if you have blood on your hands. If you find that you do, what then do you intend to do about it?
In their conquest of Britain, the Romans fought a nasty battle against the Chaledonians in what is now Scotland. Gaius Cornelius Tacitus wrote of the battle in De vita et moribus faciunt pacem appellant. The chief of the Chaledonians was a man called Calgacus, who was reported to describe the behavior of Rome before the battle with these words:
ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant
Where they create a desolation they call it peace.
The thing is, there is no way that Tacitus could have heard Calgacus give this speech. This charge, therefore, was not a fiery arrow aimed at Rome from an enemy, but rather a bitter attempt at self- critique. The Roman peace came at too heavy a price; so, too, does our justice. George Bernard Shaw made a similar point in his Caesar and Cleopatra, when Caesar says:
Murder shall breed murder, always in the name of right and honor and peace,
until the gods are tired of blood and create a race that can understand.
The gods are busy being non-existent. The creation of this race is in your hands, not theirs. It all starts with empathy. If you can look at Bill and see a life worth saving, you have a debt to your conscience to take that knowledge to its logical conclusion. You will not regret it.
|Thomas Bartlett Whitaker|
Thomas Whitaker 999522
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston TX 77351