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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Anatomy of a Wrongful Conviction – Day Three

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

To read Day Two click here

The murders of Steve Herrera, Nilda Tirado, and their three children were discovered shortly after 6 a.m. on the 24th of April 1999.  By 2 p.m., the police had invited Jeff Prible in for a “chat,” though in reality they had already determined that he was the killer.  This conclusion was reached, it should be noted, in a total absence of forensic evidence and amidst an entire neighborhood of suspects.  If Jeff had possessed any doubts about their suspicions, they were obliterated shortly after volunteering a DNA sample and posing for full-body photographs.

The police told Jeff that they needed him to make a formal statement, and tried to place him at ease by telling him that they knew about the fight Steve had had a month before with Pete. They also admitted that given Steve’s participation in the world of narcotics, they had a list of suspects a mile long.  Jeff agreed to give them a statement, and proceeded to tell them about the previous evening’s festivities.  A detective named Tabor typed this statement up as Jeff spoke.  Once finished, they presented it to him to sign, and alarm bells started going off as soon as he read it.  Quite simply, the statement bore little resemblance to Jeff’s actual comments.  He refused to sign it, and, of course, “Prible refused to sign statement” has been logged into the report attached to the interview.  After revisions were made, the statement was still not anywhere close to being accurate, so Jeff made them continually edit it until he was satisfied with the final product.  He knew that the detectives were trying to twist his words, but he still hadn’t clued in to why exactly they wanted to accomplish this.

Immediately after signing, the detectives began to ask questions about the rumored relationship Jeff was having with Nilda. How they knew about it is an interestingly open question, so forgive me a brief tangent. The police investigated a frighteningly small pool of people for a quintuple homicide, yet at least one of them knew about an affair, which, by definition, was secret.  The police did speak to Nilda’s sister-in-law – with whom she was very close – as well as to two of Nilda’s friends, Angela Serna Alvarez and Cynthia Garcia Flores.  At trial, these last two gave eerily identical testimony, even using the same diction and turns of phrases.  Both claimed, for instance, to be Nilda’s best friend, and both claimed to have known nothing about the affair between Nilda and Jeff.  Mrs. Serna Alvarez went so far as to claim that Nilda had once confessed to her that she did not like Jeff, and that he gave her the “creeps”.  Mrs. Flores would mirror this statement word for word, despite the fact that these supposed conversations took place at totally different times.  Neither was able to explain why Nilda was seen to hang out with and accept gifts from a man she seemed to think was “creepy.” My suspicion is that the two did in fact know about the relationship, and agreed to testify in order to neutralize testimony sponsored by the defense from the sister-in-law that Nilda really liked Jeff because he was kind and dependable.  Why would these two commit perjury, you ask?  Though this was most decidedly not told to the jury, both Mike Serna (Angela’s husband) and Vincent Flores (Cynthia’s husband) were heavily involved in Steve’s drug business.  Mike Serna was, as it happens, Steve’s chief enforcer and someone Steve would have definitely used in the sale of six stolen kilos of cocaine.  Despite these connections having been known to the police (but not to defense counsel, obviously), neither Mike Serna nor Vincent Flores were questioned, and I suspect that this was due to a quid pro quo arranged between the state and the two wives to give testimony that took the sister-in-law out of the picture.  There would be plenty of wheeling and dealing behind the scenes, as you will see, as well as outright fabrication of testimony, so such would be par for the course.  At this point the HCSD still did not know about the bank robberies, but once the full details of the intended sale of six kilos of cocaine was brought to light, everyone involved in Steve’s narcotics activities should have been questioned.  This was never done simply because the tunnel vision of the HCSD had already selected its target.

Enough speculation.  However the police knew about the relationship between Jeff and Nilda, it is sufficient to say that they did know about it within eight hours of the murders.  After signing the first statement, the detectives took out a second and began asking questions about their relationship, with the focus on why Jeff had “lied” about it in the first statement.  Jeff tried to point out that they had never asked about it and believed it to be irrelevant, but it was far too late for all that.  In the second statement Jeff spoke about his brief encounter with Nilda the night before.  When he was asked if his semen would be found on her body, he said he doubted it because the act was so brief.  Though the results had not come back from the lab and would not for many months, trace amounts of his semen were detected in Nilda’s mouth, while Steve’s was detected in her anus and vagina.

After signing this second statement, Detective Tabor told Jeff he could leave, but he first needed to go into another room and answer a few more questions.  I believe that this second room was wired for video (otherwise, why move at all?), but if so, these tapes were not made available to the defense and I can find no record of their existence in the police files.  Once inside this new room, Detective Tabor took off his mask and began shouting that he was “tired of the bullshit” and that he knew Jeff had committed the crime.  He screamed for a few minutes, telling Jeff that they had a melted gasoline container at the scene with his fingerprints all over it.  This would turn out to be utter fabrication, but the police can basically say whatever they want during an interrogation.  The law is actually very clear on this matter, so you may as well keep that in mind should you ever find yourself in police custody:  they can and will lie to you in order to procure a confession.  By this point, Jeff had had enough and said he was leaving.  As soon as he stood up, Tabor’s eyes flicked to Jeff’s shoes and he screamed: “We got him! There’s nowhere else to look!  We got him! He has a bloodstain on his shoe.  We got him!”  He ordered Jeff to remove his shoes, and told him that he was under arrest for capital murder.  At this point Jeff clammed up and didn’t tell them about the ketchup stain, as the writing was pretty clear on the wall.  I can only imagine the faces of the various detectives when the lab report came back showing trace amounts of tomato sauce.  Needless to say, this “damning” proof never made it into the evidence at trial.

Jeff was formally arrested and taken to the Harris County Jail.  He was placed in a cell and told that “shit gets tough right here, boy” and then taunted by needle jokes.  While there, he overheard two jailers talking about how “someone was going to get their ass in big trouble” for something.  That something turned out to be him: Jeff Prible had actually not been charged with anything, and he wasn’t even officially booked into the jail.  You should think about what that means for a second because illegal, chargeless detentions are not supposed to take place in the first world.  How often this happens I do not know, but even once is chilling.

Jeff’s family eventually found out what had happened and hired an attorney.  This lawyer threatened everyone he could find, and eventually Jeff was released without charge.  Over the course of the next month, he and his family would be continually hounded by the police.  Several months prior to the murders, Jeff had attended a social event at a friend’s house.  During the party, one of the other guests got violent and began smashing to pieces some outdoor furniture.  Jeff, in possession of both a concealed handgun license and a pistol, drew the latter and pointed it at the ground while ordering the man to leave.  He did.  The police were called by the homeowner to report the damaged property, and statements were given.  After hearing witnesses, Jeff was clapped on the back by one of the officers and told that he was a “good citizen and Marine.”  Despite this, Jeff was charged with “deadly aggravated assault with a firearm” several weeks after the murders, months after the event in question.  What the police really wanted was a search warrant for Jeff’s room, which they were unable to get for the murders due to a complete and total lack of evidence against him.  Deadly aggravated assault with a firearm is a very serious charge, the sort of thing that in Texas will get you locked up for most of the rest of your life.  Despite this, after he posted bond, the charges were mysteriously dropped.

As it happened, he met his father in jail.  When the police had gone to search Jeff’s room at his father’s residence using the bogus deadly assault charge, Jeff’s father asked to see the warrant.  When he raised his arm, the police noticed a “bulge” in his pants, and asked what it was.  The elder Prible also had a concealed handgun license, and regularly carried a pistol with him about his own neighborhood.  When asked, he handed the gun over for inspection.  He was then arrested for “brandishing a firearm to a law enforcement agent” as a pretext to expand the search warrant from Jeff’s room to the entire home.  The elder Prible’s charge was also soon dropped, equally mysteriously.  These instances of manipulating the grand jury to return indictments solely for the purpose of obtaining search warrants unavailable to the police otherwise never made it into the media.  I can only wonder how many wrongful convictions might have been averted if Houston was monitored by a newspaper with a real journalistic mission instead of the pathetic and docile Houston Chronicle.  I won’t even comment on the local television news sources, because they make the Chronicle look like the New York Times by comparison.  

While all of this was going on, the FBI was quietly investigating the bank robberies attributed to the still as yet unidentified “15 Minute Bandit”.  The break came when Sheriff Shane McCoy received a phone call at his office at the multi-agency Houston Area Bank Robbery Task Force.  One of the detectives involved in the Herrera murders had come across a woman named Jamie Lyons, who was having an affair with Steve.  Ms. Lyons claimed that there were rumors floating about that one of Herrera’s buddies had been robbing banks.  That friend turned out to be Jeff Prible.  The investigation was short and swift.  Once the FBI had a photograph to compare to the surveillance video recorded in the banks, the match was hard to miss.  On 21 May, nearly a month after the murders, a SWAT team arrested Jeff while he was in the house with his girlfriend Charlotte.  His daughter Kathleen and son Jeff were home also.  In less than an hour a confession had been signed.

There was no trial, but many of Jeff’s family members showed up at his sentencing hearing to offer support.  “Jeff has always been affectionate, loving, hugging, kissing all kin,” said his grandmother at the hearing.  “I know he has been a troubled boy for awhile. I begged him to go to the VA hospital, but he told me he was not crazy.”  By September of that same year, he was off to the federal prison complex in Beaumont, TX, set to serve a 64 month sentence for the robberies.  Initially placed in the medium security prison, he became a model prisoner and was sent to the low security unit after 18 months.  His cellie at the low knew that Jeff had been interviewed by the FBI several times, and he asked if Jeff could give him the name and phone number of one of the agents.  Based off of the information his neighbor provided to the FBI, a federal prosecutor was so pleased with Jeff for facilitating the connection that his sentence was reduced by nearly 36 months. Jeff’s cellie, Cliff Gardner, told one of the FBI agents that visited with Jeff about a ranch where he (Gardner) had cooked meth.  The result was a sixty-nine pound bust (the biggest of that FBI agent’s career at the time).  Gardner told Jeff he needed to talk with the FBI personally because the owner of the ranch was his attorney on the federal case he was serving time for.  This attorney never told Gardner he was offered a plea bargain for a short amount of time because he did not want Gardner talking to the FBI. Gardner therefore went to trial and ended up with a much longer sentence. When Gardner found out he had not been told about the plea bargain and the attorney was no longer sending his mom money, he sought vengence.

These periodic investigations by the FBI are rather interesting.  The head investigator was a man named Efrain Gutierrez, and we know from his notes that the FBI was not interested in Jeff as a suspect in the Herrera killings.  Instead, they were investigating the jacker responsible for the stolen cocaine.  Their reasoning was that if someone was willing to rob a cartel for six kilos of product, they might also be willing to rob and kill the sucker wanting to buy the stolen goods.  That the jacker is of Mexican nationality is the one piece of information that they were certain of.  When Jeff wanted to subpoena these agents to help him at trial, his attorneys specifically selected veniremen who would respond to the authoritative, professional presence of federal law enforcement agents.  When Gutierrez failed to show at trial, this awful trial decision left him with a jury open only to the prosecutor’s authority.  The results were not pretty.

Shortly before Jeff was released to a halfway house to complete his sentence, the Houston Chronicle published an article on 15 April 2001 regarding the Herrera murders.  The article explained the facts of the cold case and stated that the police had no leads.  Shortly after this article was published, Jeff received a visit by two people.  The first identified himself as an HPD detective named Johnny Bonds.  Part of that story was true – his name.  Although he had once been a police officer, Mr. Bonds had for the past 17 years been an investigator for the Harris County DA’s office.  With him was a female prosecutor by the name of Kelly Siegler.  If there was ever an instance of a man not knowing with whom he was messing, this was it.  The memory of this meeting haunts Jeff still, plagued by the idea that had he handled himself differently, thirteen years of misery might have been avoided.  I disagree.  I doubt that even a superhuman display of tact could have derailed the train heading his way, but we will never really know.

Almost from the start, their chat was drenched in acrimony.  Much like his experience with Detective Tabor (who would mysteriously vanish from the HCSD before this case went to trial), Siegler kept twisting Jeff’s comments for the audiocassette recorder she brought with her; these tapes, naturally, were not made available to the defense and have since disappeared.  Siegler knew nothing about the visits paid to Jeff by the FBI, but seemed skeptical about even the existence of the stolen cocaine and the jacker connected to it.  At one point, she openly mocked one of Jeff’s references to Agent Gutierrez, and Jeff decided that he didn’t owe this woman anything, that he had already cooperated with the feds, and that he hadn’t called this woman to talk anyways.  When she immediately threatened to charge him with the murders unless he changed his attitude, he was shocked.  He lost his cool, got angry, and started to walk off, and the meeting ended with her shouting that she promised to convict him and “push the plunger on him” herself.

Jeff went several months without hearing from the state, and he began to believe that her threat had been an empty one.  Had he known Siegler better, he would not have made this mistake.  To say that Kelly Siegler is the apotheosis of the ultra-conservative, hang-em-high spirit of Texas-style justice is to understate the reality by miles.  She is a throwback to an earlier era, a retrograde, antediluvian tyrant dressed in a short skirt and stilettos. Her father was a Justice of the Peace in Blessing, Texas, and he still operates a barbershop-cum-liquor store there.  Her cold case file is labeled the “waiting on God” file, a title I hope you will recall two days from now when her tactics will be laid bare to you.  Though you might not know her name, you might have heard or even seen some of her courtroom tactics on the news.  The examples I could give are numerous, but the one that sticks in my mind most concretely involves the case of Susan Wright.

Wright murdered her husband by tying him up in bed and then stabbing him 193 times.  If I recall correctly, he had been abusive and she finally snapped.  At trial, Siegler had the bed assembled in court.  While the jury looked on, she had a colleague named Paul Doyle lie down on the bloody mattress.  Hitching her skirt up, she straddled him and then proceeded to reenact the murder, all 193 stabs.  This may seem like a calculated risk to you.  After all, 193 thrusts of a knife is one attack per second for more than three minutes.  A reasonable juror might perceive this degree of overkill to be reminiscent of a human being no longer mentally present.  This in turn might have bolstered the defense’s claims that Wright was pushed to her breaking point by physical abuse.  Siegler knows her craft well, however, and she knew that this simple act of theater was enough to wipe logical thought from the minds of the jury, leaving only their emotional brains active. These sorts of manipulations are one of the reasons why a “jury of one’s peers” was a bad idea at conception and an even worse idea today, but try selling the idea of professional jurors to this state and see how far you get.  Trials are supposed to be about facts, but when objective truth is missing or runs contrary to the government’s narrative, prosecutors happily supply enough drama and folksy wisdom to emotionally sandblast jurors; this is such a common tactic it’s now taken for granted.  Still, few do it to the degree of Kelly Siegler.  She has, by my count, sent 19 men to death row.  For this grisly record, deeply Republican Texas has showered her with honors.

For instance, Siegler ran for and nearly won the head DA’s office in Harris County in 2008.  Had it not been for the massive dissatisfaction felt by the electorate for all things ultra-conservative which resulted from eight years of George W. Bush’s Reign of Error, she probably would have won easily.  Had that taken place, had she won, this article would never have been written because the truth about Jeff’s case would have been buried.  As it was, when the moderate Republican Pat Lycos bested Siegler at the polls, the friction which developed between their personalities and styles of seeking justice made it necessary for Siegler and her cadre of loyalists to leave the office.  This allowed certain facts to come to light, which will be discussed shortly.  In the intervening years, Siegler has passed the time in private practice, apparently suing “criminals” on the behalf of victims in civil court.  She occasionally comes out of retirement every blue moon to act as a hitman for underfunded counties in need of special prosecutors to handle death penalty cases.  For instance, several years back Wharton County had an iffy capital case, and they weren’t sure that they had the money or the experience to push a death sentence across the goal line.  Siegler stepped in and secured the conviction.  She simply cannot keep her hands off of the medicalized gibbet.  You can currently witness her smug superiority on the TNT program Cold Justice, a title, which, I think, conveys a bit more information than Siegler intended.  The entire show is a public relations blitz designed to insulate her from the huge number of rotten cases that have sailed through the reliably pro-prosecution Texas state courts but which are now cracking open under the scrutiny of federal judges.  She is immensely clever.  I will grant the woman that.

Jeff was scheduled to be released to a halfway house on 30 August 2001.  On 5 July, the state charged him with capital murder for the deaths of Steve Herrera and Nilda Tirado (the children were left off of the indictment; in case the state lost, this would give them a second bite at the apple without violating the principle of double jeopardy).  The probable cause warrant prepared by Detective Brown makes for some very interesting reading.  Prible’s sexual relationship with Nilda is mentioned, as is the fact that he was the last person seen with the victims prior to their murders.  Entirely fictitious ballistics “evidence” was submitted claiming that the slug recovered next to Nilda’s body was “consistent with a .38 caliber pistol.”  I say that this data is a fabrication because it is clear from documents later submitted at trial that the weapon used was actually a 9 mm.  In addition, by 11 October 2002 – two days before trial – the State was still claiming that its firearms examiner had not completed his report.  If the report was incomplete, how did they use the report a year before to indict?  (It should also be noted that it is a common tactic down here in Yee-Haw Land to delay final submission of reports to the defense, as it prevents them from being able to complete preparations until the day of the trial.)  The State’s reason for conjuring up fake ballistics evidence is very simple:  Jeff had once purchased a .38 caliber pistol from Carter’s Country gun store which the police could not locate when they searched his residence.  Therefore, according to their narrative, he simply must have used it to kill his friend and lover and then ditched it, right?  Right.  The simple truth is that the State never once asked Jeff or his father about the whereabouts of the pistol. In any case, Jeff had sold the gun to a friend named Christine Bartola, who later told defense counsel that she had bought the gun legally because she had been repeatedly threatened by a stalker.  Jeff had documentation of this sale, and thus the State was forced to switch its story at trial regarding the very evidence it had used to convince a judge to arraign him.

Upon being arraigned, Jeff was placed in isolation at FCI Beaumont Low for approximately three weeks, upon which he was transferred to population at the Beaumont Medium facility.  This was a very odd turn of events.  He should have been taken to the Harris County Jail to await trial.  If for some odd reason the feds desired to hold him, he should have been kept in solitary confinement at the very least, being the suspected killer of five people.  The fact that he instead ended up in a regular tank with full privileges should have been a warning sign to Jeff, but he didn’t know better.  Had he known that Kelly Siegler had placed him exactly where she wanted him, he probably would have been more careful.  Instead, he was a sitting duck.

To read Day Four, click here

Ronald Jeffrey Prible 999433
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

Thomas Whitaker 999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

Friday, May 30, 2014

Anatomy of a Wrongful Conviction – Day Two

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

To read Day One, click here

The night before the murders of Steve Herrera, Nilda Tirano and their three children was not atypical in any appreciable way.  Steve’s occupation on the tax records was as a tile setter, an activity he actually did on occasion perform.  His primary source of funds, however, came from the sale of cocaine.  His marketing techniques were rather primitive, it must be said.  Steve was a talented pool shark, often participating in amateur billiards competitions.  To set up his narcotics sales center, he simply bought a pool table and installed it in his garage.  If the door was open, so was he for business.  Whenever a customer would pop in, Steve simply shut the door, handled the transaction, and then promptly went back to playing 9-ball.

One might imagine that such a set-up could prove problematic for the safety of the other four human beings sharing the residence with Steve, but one would be wrong, at least until the night of the murders. Steve was a feared man and simply had few disputes on his home turf.  That is not to say that altercations never occurred.  Just one month prior to his death, Steve drove to a buyer’s house to collect money owed to him from the sale of narcotics and guns.  The debtor’s was named Pete, and when he saw Steve come charging onto his lawn he immediately pulled a pistol on him – one of the very batch for which Steve came to collect his due.  He wasn’t quick enough on the draw, apparently, as Steve was able to knock the weapon out of his hands.  The two then fought, and spent a considerable amount of time rolling around on the ground.  Police files show that the HCSD were aware of this incident, but for reasons that are unfathomable to me, this altercation was never formally investigated by the homicide detectives.

I say unfathomable, but perhaps the reason is not really so complex. No murder takes place in a vacuum, and in this case, the context matters.  When the final chapter on this crime is written, it may prove to be that the context mattered far more than is currently thought.

If you live in Houston you have probably heard of the Woodgate neighborhood, to the city’s north.  It’s pretty infamous.  For many years in a row, it ranked as the number one neighborhood in the city for the highest rate of car thefts.  For one stretch of four months back in the late ‘90s, it averaged .9 cars stolen per city block per day.  That’s about a car a day, on every block, four months in a row – and those were just the reported thefts.  There are at least seven men currently on death row in Texas from this area, though I freely admit that my research on these statistics was more of an afterthought and therefore not comprehensive; there could easily be some that I missed.  When Jeff was in elementary school, a friend of his mother’s was murdered two streets over.  When he arrived on death row in 2002, one of his first neighbors was a man named Steve Moody, since executed.  During a previous stint in population, Moody had celled with the man responsible for the murder of Jeff’s mother’s friend, a weird six degrees of separation style link with Woodgate as the epicenter.  On that note, one of my first neighbors upon arrival on the Row was a guy nicknamed Scooter, who was responsible for the murder of an elderly woman, if I remember correctly.  His case also took place in this neighborhood.

Woodgate is an uneasy mixture of Caucasian and Hispanic residents, heavily trending towards the latter.  Gang fights were daily occurrences, domestic abuse so common as to become sociological cliché.  In a perfect world, locations like these would be heavily concentrated upon by the police.  In the real world, however, the police are seldom seen in Woodgate, which is perhaps why Steve Herrera never needed to develop subtler business methods.  It is surely true that when presented with the crime scene at the Herrera household on that morning in April of 1999, Detective Curtis Brown and company must have first thought: crap, the entire neighborhood is a suspect.  That would be a convenient and perhaps understandable excuse for the corners they cut in their investigation, but it would also be too easy of a critique.  I shall not condemn Brown for being an incompetent and corrupt police officer.  I think, rather, I shall simply let him condemn himself.

Jeff’s upbringing in this caustic social brew was not easy.  Fighting and crime were the ways of life in Woodgate, but he somehow managed to graduate high school without a criminal record.  By his own admission, he was not a stellar student, but he kept himself out of trouble and made it through.  After high school, Jeff joined the Marines, earning a specialty as a machine gunner.  He also manned one of the front gates at Camp Pendleton in California, where he couldn’t seem to get the bigger picture that you do not arrest Colonels for drunk driving.  His time as an MP was therefore understandably short.

Upon returning to Houston after being honorably discharged, Jeff’s specialty seemed to be snorting cocaine and frequenting strip clubs, not to mention fighting with his two ex-wives.  He found work as a manager of a World’s Gym, and later as a paving contractor.  Steve Herrera was a friend from Jeff’s elementary school days, and upon Jeff’s return from the service they began hanging around together again.  Jeff does tend to gravitate towards friends with oversized personalities, and based off of everything I know about him and have read about Herrera, I can see this mechanism at work in their friendship.  The two shared the dream of owning a dance club and would speak of this often.  Steve’s cocaine business provided them with disposable income and the connections to make mountains of money very quickly, the only version of a crowd-sourcing campaign available in their world.  All they needed was one big score, they reasoned, and they would be set.

That score came about when Steve met a “jacker” who was about to put six kilograms of nearly pure cocaine back on the market.  Jackers are the cowboys of the drug underworld, the pure psychos.  Jackers don’t bother to build fabrication facilities or distribution networks.  No, instead, they simply find other drug dealers, destroy them, and resell their product.  It’s a 100% pure profit move, obviously.  And just as obviously, dealing with a jacker is also 100% pure craziness. The identity of Steve’s jacker is one of the largest holes in my research, a gap which somewhat haunts me.  I know that the FBI agents who were later brought in on this case were convinced of his existence; whether or not they ever identified him is knowledge that Uncle Sam has deemed to be off-limits to we poor mortals:  My repeated FOIA requests on this matter were all rejected on purely administrative grounds.  I also know that the HCSD never bothered to investigate this facet of the case, meaning that crucial leads available immediately after the killings were lost.  As to why they neglected to follow this investigative pathway, I think the answer will become obvious in short order.

In order to purchase the cocaine, Steve told Jeff that they needed to amass $96,000 as quickly as possible.  He reasoned that they could easily double their money by cutting the cocaine, putting the dream of their nightclub within reach.  The 96K was a problem, of course, as neither of them had anywhere close to that sort of disposable income. After some thought, Jeff ended up going where most potential small business owners go when hoping to get a loan: the bank.  Only when he showed up, he didn’t bring a business plan and paycheck stubs, and he didn’t speak with a loan officer.

Over the next three weeks, Jeff robbed six banks.  The ease with which these robberies were accomplished seems almost comical to me, and it is a wonder that this sort of crime is not more widespread. Since Jeff had given his Chevrolet Blazer to his girlfriend, he borrowed his mother’s car, put on a baseball cap he had purchased from the Treasure Island Casino in Las Vegas, and simply strolled into the banks and waited in line.  When it was his turn in front of a teller, he handed them a note that read: “This is a robbery.” He never carried a weapon. As the teller filled envelopes with cash, Jeff would tell them not to report the robbery for fifteen minutes; the police and media quickly and breathlessly gave him the rather obvious title of the “15 Minute Bandit.” On that first day, he netted $9,690 of Bank One’s cash. All told, Jeff took in over $48,000 from his six robberies, easily fulfilling his obligations for his half of the drug money.

I think it is important to pause for a moment in order to reflect on a very common component of wrongful convictions.  Yesterday, I tried to stress the role that our visceral reactions play when an innocent person is sent to prison.  Of nearly equal importance is this:  the vast majority of such wrongfully convicted persons really are guilty of having committed a criminal offense at some point in their lives. Given this, there are those who would remark, hell, who cares if this defendant isn’t good for this particular crime; they did other stuff so you might as well string ‘em up.  (Indeed, in the present case ADA Siegler would tell one of Jeff’s attorneys that “if he didn’t kill Herrera and Tirado, he must have killed someone else,” so it “all comes out in the wash.”)  Aside from the lazy and repugnant qualities of this view, it also allows the real perpetrator to remain on the streets, potentially creating more misery. Who could possibly even begin to calculate how much pain has been allowed to come to pass due to such justifications on the part of law-enforcement?  Even a rough estimate qualifies this as a tragedy.

It is easy enough to see why it is common for criminals and former criminals to be wrongly convicted at far higher rates than individuals with no such history.  When we know that Joe has convictions for shoplifting, we watch him carefully when he comes into our bodega.  If something comes up missing, he becomes the instant suspect.  Past behavior is usually indicative of present and future behavior, so we feel justified in our suspicions.  Prosecutors are people too, and I truly believe that many wrongful convictions stem from honest ADAs being blinded by this sort of thinking.  They start from a presumption of guilt and work backwards to interpret the facts through this analytical lens. As you will see, however, that is absolutely not the situation in Jeff’s case.  In this situation and many like it, the prosecutor used this bias in the jurors to send an innocent man to death row, and she did it knowing full well that her evidence was fabricated.  The fact that Jeff robbed six banks was one of the two nails that the prosecutor used to pin Jeff to the wall, and I ask that you keep it in mind.  It is important, as his connection to these robberies is the source from which everything follows.

The evening before the murders was a busy one for Jeff and Steve Herrera.  They spent the first few hours of the night drinking and snorting cocaine.  Customers would occasionally drop by, lured by the “open for business” sign that was the open garage door.  Several runs to the nearest gas station were made in order to purchase beer.  At around 10 p.m., Steve’s brother-in-law, Victor Martinez, came by the house in his white Ford Escort.  Already drunk, Steve bragged to him that he had $84,000 in cash and kept talking about the dope deal which was imminent.  Jeff was concerned about this, and also worried that they were still $12,000 short of the sum required by the jacker.  Steve confidently told Jeff that “this was taken care of.”  I can find no reason for why the police didn't take Victor Martinez in for questioning, or for not investigating the party or parties that were to supply the additional 12 grand.  This last question is potentially important, because if Steve had asked someone else to be a minor investor in his scheme, this third party might have known about the rest of the money and the timetable for the purchase of the cocaine.  Because the drug connection was not properly investigated, we will probably never have answers to these questions.

After drinking for a spell, the three revelers decided to go to Rick’s Cabaret, where they continued to drink and snort cocaine until around 2 a.m. On the way to the strip joint, they stopped at a Jack-in-the-Box restaurant for some food.  Jeff was pretty wasted by this point, and he ended up shooting ketchup from the counter dispenser onto his shoes. He wiped this off with a napkin, but some residue would remain. There is really nothing funny about this case, but for those who tend to search for the comedic elements of life within the tragic, this ketchup stain is probably your best option. For me, it would come to symbolize the gross ineptitude of the detectives in this case. At any rate, after the trio left the strip club, they drove back to Steve’s place (somehow) and continued to party.  At around 3:30 a.m. the three smoked a joint and Martinez left.  Nilda began to get irritated with Steve and his behavior at around 4 a.m., so she asked him to leave.

Their relationship was a stormy one, and this was not the first time that Nilda had asked Steve to get lost.  She had threatened to call the police on many occasions, and had just had him arrested for domestic violence the week before the murders.  She was something of a pro at giving him the boot, so her threats were not idle ones.  Steve was too inebriated to see how this might be problematic for their deal, so Jeff offered to go in and calm her down.  Steve contented himself with taking some shots of liquor, shooting pool, and calling his brother on the telephone.  His brother would testify that Steve had run out of cocaine and bothered him incessantly during the morning hours to bring him an additional supply.  It is not currently known to anyone if he ever complied with this request.

That Jeff had the sort of relationship with Nilda that he could calm her down from the ledge of calling the police on Steve was the second major nail the prosecutor would use to pin the crime on him.  The two had become very close, having many “deep talks” which bothered Steve.  Jeff had even brought her an expensive housecoat from Las Vegas, which she was wearing that evening.  The relationship had only recently turned sexual.  I will have more to say on this subject when I describe what took place at the trial, but for the moment it is sufficient to say that after Jeff had convinced Nilda not to call the police she performed oral sex on him.  He was too inebriated to participate, and in any case their tryst was interrupted by a sound that they believed to be the connecting door to the garage being closed.  Jeff returned to the garage, deciding to call it a night.  Having no vehicle, Steve agreed to drive Jeff home.  Through they lived only a few miles apart, I have no idea how they managed to make the drive without killing themselves.

When they arrived at Jeff’s parents’ house, the two made a ton of racket, laughing and joking around.  They were so loud that they woke a neighbor’s daughter, Christina Garrusquita.  Being the eldest daughter of a large Mexican Family, she was rewarded with her own room right at the front of the house that happened to look out immediately upon the Pribles’ driveway.  She knew who Steve was, and was able to identify his vehicle.  She was rather insistent about this fact, because a few months prior to the murders some of the neighborhood kids had hit Steve’s car while playing kickball.  He subsequently cussed them all out, and she had not forgotten him since.

And it is here that I may as well begin the sorry cavalcade of shoddy detective work in this case.  During their investigation, Homicide Detectives Brown and Hernandez spoke to this neighbor.  Given that her information a) placed Jeff at his place of residence at a very late hour, b) established that his behavior was consistent with a deeply inebriated man, and c) showed that Jeff and Steve had had a non-acrimonious parting, young Christina was considered to be what is called an “alibi witness” in legal circles.  Despite these facts (or because of them), Detectives Brown and Hernandez did not ask Christina to sign a formal statement at the Homicide substation at Lockwood and Navigation, as they did with a few other witnesses. Worse, they did not turn over even a notification of this interview to Jeff’s trial attorneys – a violation of the discovery order filed in the 351st State District Court.  Worse still, the only reason the defense knew of this alibi witness’s existence at all is because defense attorneys Wentz and Gaiser happened to go to Jeff’s parents’ home and noticed that the window at the adjacent house provided a perfect view.  At trial, these two seasoned detectives would give what amounted to “keystone cop” explanations for this omission from the record.  Brown claimed that he couldn’t find his notes, and Hernandez stated that he “didn’t make any supplements or notes” because he “felt Detective Brown was going to be making the notes for both” of them.  In fact, conveniently, they could not even recall where this witness lived or even her gender.  On 11 October 2001 – the Friday before the trial began the following Monday – the lead prosecutor was still claiming that she did not have identifying information regarding this witness.

It’s really not hard to speculate why Detectives Brown and Hernandez acted in this fashion, and why the prosecutor played along.  Within hours, the two had already decided Jeff was guilty, and everything done after that point was completed in such a manner as to construct this narrative.  That they did this is reprehensible.  That they did this without actually bothering to do any investigation on anyone else is beyond reproach.

After Jeff parted ways with Steve for what would be the final time, he went upstairs to his room.  He made himself a bath, dunked his head in the water to clean the cocaine from his nasal passages, and went to bed.  All of the clothing he wore that night was laid out on the floor next to his bed.  After he woke up the next afternoon at around 2 p.m., he dressed and went downstairs.  As his son was opening up the front door to go outside and play, Jeff saw detectives Brown and Hernandez coming up the walkway.  They identified themselves as detectives and asked him if he would accompany them to a substation for a chat. Believing that Steve must have told someone about the bank robberies, he agreed to go with them, not wanting to cause a scene in front of his son.

Knowing what I know now, the die was pretty much cast at this point. I’ve been deliberately fair in my recounting of the facts in this case to the state, attempting to paint a picture for you that showed that Jeff Prible could have been a viable suspect.  I did this because I knew there would be a point in the story where all pretense of an honest investigation would end, and I didn’t want to leave the impression that I am “anti-cop” or anything like that.  Unfortunately, from this point forward, all I have to show you is a justice system so perverted that no defense or justification can be proffered.

When Jeff arrived at the Lockwood homicide substation, he was informed that Steve, Nilda and the children were dead.  He was asked about the evening before, and about the time he and Steve parted ways.  He was specifically asked about the clothing he was wearing, and when he told them that they were on the floor of his bedroom next to the bed they asked if they could send someone to collect them.  He gave his consent instantly.  When they asked for a DNA sample, he gave them three: blood, hair and saliva.  When they asked him to remove his clothes so that they could take detailed photographs of his body, he consented.  At trial, Detective Brown would somehow claim that he had not known about and had never seen these full-body photographs.  They would turn out to be important for two reasons. First, in photographs of the crime scene, there are bloodstains on the wall near to where Steve was shot that indicated that he had fought with and wounded his assailant.  The sort of wounds consistent with this degree of blood loss would certainly not have healed for many weeks, let alone in less than twelve hours, yet Jeff’s body bore no wounds.  Additionally, the primary accelerant used in the fire was Kutzit,, an agent used to dissolve tile glue.  It has a tendency to stain the skin, so anyone tossing it about a room in an attempt to start a conflagration would have splotches on their skin and clothes.  Neither Jeff’s skin nor his clothing bore even microscopic traces of this liquid. Worst off, even though the blood stains on the wall were highly suggestive of an altercation, no forensic samples were ever taken from this source. When asked at trial about this horrendous oversight, Detective Brown’s answer pretty much said it all: he simply smirked and said “poor detective work”.

I should reiterate at this point that none of the above consisted of speculation or even a “friendly” reading of the facts.  All of this is in court documents that any one of you can obtain on your own (though I will provide many of these for you at the end of this series).  I just thought that I should point that out because if you think the story is bad now, just wait.  We haven’t even touched on bad yet.

To read Day Three click here

Ronald Jeffrey Prible 999433
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351


Thomas Whitaker 999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Anatomy of a Wrongful Conviction – Day One

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker


Muneer Deeb.  Anthony Graves.  Michael Toney.  Robert Springstein. These names probably mean nothing to most of you.  Who among us, after all, could possibly even begin to keep track of all of the countless happenings in our modern hyperactive news cycle?  We tune in, get blitzkrieged into sensory overload for half an hour or so by events the world over, and then numbly stumble back to the relatively minor disasters of our own lives.  For most people, life presents us with more than enough problems to deal with, thank you very much, without wandering about in search of more.  Only rarely do catastrophes shock us into collective action, and even when we are roused we do little because our attention spans are short and our political process easy to forestall.  What happened in Newtown was a wound on the body of our collective selves, but instead of cleaning it and properly binding it, we allowed it to become infected.  We Americans know about these sorts of injuries – we are, after all, masters at both giving and receiving them.  We always seem to find the excuses or the distractions necessary to usher in a period of skilled procrastination.  Surely, we think, this pain in my belly is just indigestion.  Or maybe I pulled a muscle?  The party must go on!  It’s only after the discomfort becomes an agony that we see the doctor, and, lo, find the tumors.  Those names above?  You don’t know them, but they were the hot flashes, the warning fevers, the dull aches.  They were the initial blood tests that we chose to ignore, afraid of what we might find.  And all the while, the cancer grows.

It is no longer really “news” when the press issues details about an exoneration.  Twenty-seven years, fifteen years, nine years; we think: how awful, and then go about packing the kids’ lunch.  To be honest, when I was still a citizen, I can’t remember ever caring about such things.  I had no connection to them, no code of ethics that would have compelled me to forge that connection.  I was full of justifications: What can any single man or woman do in the face of government inefficiency and error?  You know the ones – you’ve used them yourself often enough.  I had no concept of what social movements were about, what my vote actually meant.  And I had enough of a mess to deal with on my own plate without looking to add someone else’s portion as well.  It took me coming to death row to truly understand what the horror of a wrongful conviction really means in social, cultural, and human terms.  And now that this thing is in my head, I can’t seem to get it out again.

It bears mentioning that when an exoneration takes place, the public is really only witnessing the final, labored paces of a marathon which often stretches backwards in time for decades.  You see only the glorious denouement, never the tragedy of a gavel slamming one life into another, the tears, the impending madness, the suicidal thoughts, the loss of family and friends.  I have to believe that if you saw but a tiny percentage of the full course of the race, if you were forced out of your comfortable cocoons and made to see yourself as the participants that you surely are, this system would crumble under the weight of your ire.  I think that if you understood the Herculean effort required to pull an innocent human being out of these pits, it would cause you to see groups like the ACLU, the NAACP’s LDF, and the Innocence Project as the heroes that they truly are.  Most of the frequent readers of this site are aware that when a man or woman walks free from prison as a legally innocent and restored citizen, the judicial system was not responsible.  There are no roving bands of oversight attorneys working for the state court systems that peruse legal files and occasionally say, “Well, gee, this one here just doesn’t look right.”  No, this process always begins with a newly convicted person crying out in the wilderness that the social contract has betrayed him.  We see his chains, we see his crime, and then we turn our backs and we walk quickly away.  From this point forward, he is mostly going to be toiling against his fate alone.  He might have a few friends and family members who stick by his side for a season or two, but even these will fade away over time.  Put yourself in this person’s cheap canvas prison-issued shoes for a moment.  You have little to no money.  You are sharing a cell (sometimes as small as 6X9 feet) with a criminal, working long hours for little to no pay - if you are lucky, that is; you could be simply and arbitrarily placed into solitary confinement for decades.  Every facet of your life is controlled, every created and natural desire denied and forbidden.  After a few years of fighting against this tide, most people simply give up and are taken by the undertow.  It takes a remarkably strong-willed person to keep his head above water, to organize and marshal what few resources he possesses towards finding the sort of help he is going to need to prove to the world that he is not the man they think him to be.

The sorts of organizations that exist to provide this assistance are few and far between, always overworked, perpetually underfunded.  They receive so many requests from the innocent and faux-innocent that they can only begin to evaluate a microscopically minute portion of the cases forwarded to them.  Usually, cases without clean and convincing exculpatory DNA evidence are routinely ignored.  Even when a case does appear to perfectly fit these strenuous requirements, the people doing the investigatory work are law students and professors, working on their own time and funds.  And from the very first filing to the final steps outside the courtroom doors, the state is going to fight them tooth and nail for every last inch.  It’s amazing that the Innocence Project has freed more than 300 innocent human beings from prison.  Change the register a little, and it’s equally amazing that they even managed to free a single one.

There have been many excellent articles written over the years explaining how a wrongful conviction came about (see <HERE>  for a superlative example).  Such articles are needed as educational tools, but it is important to note that these are always written only after the battle has been won, only after the convict has been formally transformed back into someone for whom society permits itself to empathize with.  Articles making declaratory statements of innocence prior to formal exoneration are few and far between, especially ones written by reputable news organizations. This is journalistic cowardice to be sure, a direct result of the capitalization of news outlets, where the truth is only the truth if it sells well.  Asking random people to take a chance on innocence, to believe in someone that may have once done something terrible, is not easy.  It’s going to offend people.  It’s certainly not going to sell ads.  And, on a deeper level, the resistance one finds in the embedded media outlets on this matter highlights the single most powerful driver of wrongful convictions, one that no one ever writes about: When an innocent man goes to prison, we are all participants in the process.  We contribute by voting in politicians who care more for the stern soundbite than honesty on human rights, and we participate in our silence and absence of anger when we see a man freed from his chains.  Very simply, we become complicit when we routinely view this sorry spectacle and neglect to contemplate the social and cultural mechanisms that allowed a wrongful conviction to have happened in the first place.  And all the while, the cancer continues to spread.

Over the course of the next six days, I am going to walk you through such a case.  The facts are horrible, and nearly everything you will find on the internet about Ronald Jeffery Prible, Jr. will lead you to believe that he is human scum.  If you have a sensitive stomach, perhaps this series is not for you.  I will not be including crime scene photographs, but it is impossible to convey the necessary facts without discussing in detail some very horrible realities, and I tell you in all kindness that this is not going to be a pretty journey.  I simply don’t know how else to show you what needs to be seen.  I hope, in the end, to have given you the clearest view possible of the broken appellate process which currently operates in Texas, and what this says about the politicians who designed it and allowed it to continually process corpses so that they could get re-elected. By extension, I hope to also point a mirror back at the rest of us who do nothing to stop them.  I have managed to procure pretty much everything relevant to the Prible case file, including some items which are only now being made public and some others which are simply too wispy to serve any objective other than engendering speculation.  I am including a few examples of the latter because Jeff’s innocence is not proven at this point and the state continues to obfuscate and withhold evidence, making some theoretical connecting of the dots necessary.  Even without such leaps of logic, this is, without a doubt, the most blatant example of prosecutorial misconduct that I have ever witnessed.  A man was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death based on fabricated and blatantly perjured “expert” testimony combined with an organized ring of jailhouse informers.  All of this testimony has recently been proven to have been concocted with the assistance of the lead prosecutor trying the case.  Despite this, the all-Republican Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence nine votes to zero, and the odds of Jeff ever escaping the needle are slim.  As I said, this is not going to be a pretty journey, but this is who we are.  If innocent men are to be carted off to Huntsville to be intentionally overdosed on shadily-procured barbiturates, we should at least have the decency not to blink. I think we owe our fellow citizens at least that much.

Jeff’s case involved the deaths of five people, three of them little girls. At around 6 a.m. on the date of 24 April 1999, a man named Gregory Francisco noticed that smoke was pouring from a neighbor’s home across the street.  This house belonged to Esteban “Steve” Herrera and his fiancée, Nilda Tirado.  Also living in the home were Tirado’s seven-year-old daughter Rachel, Herrera’s seven-year-old daughter Valerie, and the couple’s 22-month-old daughter Jade.  When Francisco approached the smoking residence with his wife, they heard loud music emanating from within.  The doorknob was warm to the touch, but Francisco kicked it open anyway and immediately saw Steve’s partially burned body lying in a pool of blood.  When he tried to turn him over, the movement pulled chunks of skin off the dead man’s face.

Nilda was found in the living room, “charred from the exterior.” When the autopsies were completed, Steve was found to have died from a penetrating gunshot wound to the back of the neck that severed the spinal cord.  The stippling around the wound indicated that the assailant had fired the gun from a distance of less than eighteen inches from the back of his neck.  Nilda died from a perforating gunshot wound to her neck that also severed her spinal cord.  The children all died from inhaling toxic levels of soot and carbon monoxide.  The fire was intentionally set, obviously, and a burned red plastic gasoline container, an aerosol can, and a roll of paper towels soaked in a flammable liquid were found in the living room.  A burned one-gallon metal can was also found on the counter near Nilda’s body; this liquid was later determined to be Kutzit, an extremely flammable liquid used by construction workers to dissolve tiling glue.

The basic facts are these: Jeff was the last person to see Steve and Nilda alive. He would admit to having a sexual relationship with Nilda. He is a former Marine, the kind of person capable of hitting a spinal cord on a moving target.  He was a criminal – a bank robber, as it would be revealed – and Steve’s partner in crime.  He knew that Steve had amassed more than $84,000 in cash for the purpose of buying and then flipping six stolen kilograms of cocaine, and he knew that this money was in the house on the night of the murders.  He would be taken in for questioning the following day, and, eventually, years later, would be sentenced to death for the crime.

I want you to pause for a second.  Analyze your feelings in this exact moment.  Imagine that you had heard the previous paragraph not from this site, but rather from the melodious voice of your favorite local evening news reporter.  It’s okay if what you are feeling sounds something like “hang the bastard.”  It is right to feel aversion, disgust for crimes like these.  It is natural to want justice or those three little girls.  But before I write anything else about this crime, I want you to recognize one thing: that anger, that desire for vengeance, justice, a reckoning – that is the single most important variable in the equation of a wrongful conviction.  Honest prosecutors can use that emotional complex to drive home what they believe to be true.  Crooked prosecutors, on the other hand, can use it to sugar-coat their fabricated “truths” so that they go down easier.  In the hands of an able prosecutor, your rage is a cudgel; in the hands of a crooked prosecutor, it is a grenade.  In the hands of Kelly Siegler, it’s an atom bomb.  Above everything else, recognize this:  When an innocent man is sent to death row, the prosecutor played the tune, but it was you who were dancing to the beat.

To read day two click here

Ronald Jeffrey Prible 999433
Polunsky Unit 
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351


Thomas Whitaker 999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South 
Livingston, TX 77351

Thursday, May 22, 2014

From The Hood To The Prison Pipeline

By LSD Gonzalez

"Suave!"

"Suave!"

"Suave!"

"Mira aqui!"

"Tell us why you committed that crime!“

"Are you sorry you're going to prison for life?"

"Suave!"

The reporters' voices still reverberate in my head. Although it has been twenty-eight years, it seemed like it was only yesterday.

Standing at my cell door for count, I looked up at the raindrops creeping into my prison cell through the concrete walls. This was supposed to be the end of the road for me, but it was more like the beginning of a new start on life. I stared into the metal plate on the wall, which served as a mirror, and noticed a few gray hairs. Damn! I'm getting old up in this place.

It was June 25, 2012, and I did what I had been doing for the past twenty-eight years after the 4:00 p.m. count. I took six steps and sat back on my bed, immediately feeling the metal as it seeped through the thin mattress, causing a pain in my ass. The mattress might as well not have been there. I shook my head as I stared at the T.V., listening to CNN News. 

        The United States Supreme Court today ruled that juveniles
        who committed a crime before the age of eighteen can 
        no longer be sentenced to life in prison. In doing so, it
        would be considered cruel and unusual punishment, 
        an Eighth Amendment violation. This is Don Lemon, 
        reporting  for CNN News.

Upon hearing the news that would change my life forever, I did something I had never done before. For the first time, I sat down in front of my word processor and began writing my life story.

******

The social worker behind the desk wasn’t a friendly person. My mother knew this, but what choice did she have? One way or another, she was going to feed her six babies.

My mother swallowed her pride as she approached the desk. I stood by her side, watching the river of pain flow through my mother's veins, and I blamed my father for deserting his family.  He decided his life would be better if he turned his back on us. As 1 stood beside my mother, I could see tears forming in her dark brown eyes.

"Son, don't worry, things will get better one day," my mother whispered into my ear. Those words blared in my ears like the sound of a trumpet blast as I tried to grasp the concept of being poor, fatherless, and getting ready to watch my beloved mother beg for some assistance from the welfare system that's skillfully designed to tear families apart. 

When the social worker behind the desk decided to attend to my mother, she gave her a what-do-you-want look. My mother, not knowing enough English, had me interpret for her. That was the day my hatred towards the system blossomed. That was the day I understood that a person didn't have to use racial slurs to call me a spic. Action speaks louder than words.

The social worker didn't have to say a word for me to understand her hatred towards my mother.

I couldn't come to a rational understanding as to why this lady, who was fluent in Spanish, wanted to make my mother feel inferior. After an hour of me trying to explain to her what my mother was telling me to explain to her, she decided to speak Spanish directly to my mother. Now the process began over again, and a whole new round of personal questions in front of the other people began.

"Ms. Beggar, why are you here today?"

"Because I need help. I don't have any money to feed my babies," my mother responded in a calm voice.

"Where is their father?"

"In jail, probably dead. I don't know. His ass hasn't been around for a long time." My mother tried to speak softly and answer the question in a civilized fashion, but the social worker loudly repeated what my mother was telling her - with a grin from ear to ear as if it was funny - in what appeared to be an effort to embarrass my mother. She wanted to know everything about my mother, not just her address, social security number, or date of birth. She even wanted to know the last time my mother had sex or if she had a boyfriend. The social worker was acting as if she was the supreme ruler of the welfare system. She became more indignant when my mother started asking questions about benefits that my mother thought she was eligible to receive.

"Ms. Beggar, if I were you, I would stop having babies. I really hate to see my tax dollars go to waste. Your babies probably are going to end up like their father, in jail or dead," the social worker said with distain in her eyes.

"You have no right to speak to me in such fashion," my mother said.

"Listen here, Ms. Beggar, you better be happy I'm doing this much for you. Normally I would turn you down for any kind of assistance. Beggars can't be choosy," the social worker said loudly as she pushed a piece of paper in front of my mother to sign.

"What am I signing here?" my mother asked in Spanish.

"Can't you read?" the social worker responded with an attitude, placing her hands on her hips. 

"No, I don't know how to read," my mother replied with shame in her voice.

"Ms. Beggar, I hate to be the one to tell you; this is America! So I suggest you learn the English language and fast. The next time you show up here, you better know English, because if you don't, you will not receive any more assistance."

After my mother signed the piece of paper that was put in front of her, the social worker pushed a white envelope towards my mother

Gracia Dios Mio!

My mother picked the envelope up in a quick motion and ripped it open like fresh meat in a lion's den. Her eyes grew large when she saw what was inside.

"I'm supposed to feed six kids with a hundred and sixty-five dollars?" my mother yelled in Spanish, walking out of the welfare office, feeling as if she had been raped of her dignity for a hundred and sixty-five dollars of emergency food stamps.

"Son, look at me! Never again would I degrade myself to these people. Never! I want you to understand one thing. In life you gonna have to learn how to survive on your own. You better never beg these people for shit! Always remember that. Your no-good daddy left us broke, and now it's up to me to take care of you and your sisters. From now on, I'm your father and mother. Do you understand me?"

"Si, Mami."

Even at the age of eight, I understood every word my mother was injecting into my head. I felt her motherly love and the pain she was feeling because she wasn't able to take care of her kids the way she wanted to.

Two weeks later, the welfare agency sent an investigator to our four-bedroom South Bronx apartment to see if my mother had a man in the house. The pale-faced lady roamed freely through our apartment as if she owned the place. Her job was to report any findings of child abuse, and she was authorized to remove us from the house if she found such evidence. She tried to interrogate and coerce my sisters and me into lying about our mother.

"Listen! My name is Diana Hicks, and I'm here to ensure you and your sisters are safe. So tell me, does you mother abuse you? Does she feed you? Does she bathe you? Does she do drugs? Trust me, whatever you tell me will remain a secret. I just want to make sure you and your sisters are being properly treated. I'm a good person."

"My mother is a good person, too," I replied in a childlike voice.

"But does she abuse you?"

"No!"

"Has her boyfriend ever touched you in your private parts?"

"No."

“Be honest with me, you little nappy-hair spic!" the pale-faced lady whispered into my ear, turning red in the face.

I just stared at her without blinking an eye. I felt like I had been betrayed by the system that was supposed to help families in need.

Shame!

For a mother that swallowed her pride so that her seed could have a better chance at life...

Hurt!

Even at the age of eight, I was becoming accustomed to suffering with clenched teeth.

Everything about the welfare system was organized to make clear that as the government, they were in charge of every aspect of one's life once you accepted their assistance.

My mother came from a town in Puerto Rico called Santurce. She was the product of a rape, which automatically made her the "Black Sheep" of her family. Her mother was a white-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde-haired woman with an undisputed hatred for black men. Every time my grandmother stared at my mother, memories of her rapist would inflame her mind to the point where she would beat my mother until she would choke on her own blood. She was called many things: stupid, retarded, trash, a fat savage bastard-until one day my grandmother couldn't stomach her own daughter anymore. She took my mother to a Catholic Church and left her on the steps with a sign attached to her neck that read:

                         This child is the scum of the earth. 
                         The product of a rapist. 
                         I did what I could for ten years. 
                        Now I'm forfeiting parental rights.

At the age of ten, my mother became a product of the foster-care system, where she endured countless rapes at the hands of her caretakers. The streets of the South Bronx became her safe haven. 

With no education or family members to care for her, my mother survived by selling her innocence on the streets.

At the age of 16, history repeated itself. My mother was brutally raped by a police officer in the Bronx.

"You dirty, little hooker. You'll either chew me up or I will take you to jail."

Dios Mios! Please don't let this man rape me. "Please stop!" she pleaded.

"Don't act like you're scared. I been watching for a while now. You just can't hustle out on these mean streets and not pay any taxes. Consider me sexing you your taxes. Now, get in the car on your own before I beat your dumb ass into the car."

"Officer, please stop!"

He smiled.

Who was this man? This was supposed to be an officer of the law who had sworn to protect and serve. Instead, he was in the process of raping her.

"Please, officer, don't rape me," she sobbed as tears escaped her eyes.

"You little slut, I'm gonna mold you into a money~making machine. You gonna be my bread-and-butter. Let me remind you, your photo is everywhere! You can either let me get a taste of your sweet innocence, or I can arrest you and take you back to foster care. I know you don't want that."

"Officer! Are you outta yo mind?"

The officer got out the car and bent her over the car. He lifted her leather miniskirt all the way up as he helped her slip out of her panties.

"You naughty girl," the officer said as he stood behind her, positioning himself to enter her sweet innocence.

“AHHHHHH!" She screamed when she felt him enter her wound.

By every sense of the word, my mother was nothing society at large should care about. She was just another statistic; another dark-skinned Latina with six children from six different baby's daddies; another uneducated woman lost in the Promised Land. But to me, she was a heroic woman, and like her mother she courageously gave birth to the product of a rape, when she could've easily aborted, sparing the child a similar fate. 

Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man and is held as a historic figure of the civil rights movement.

Harriet Tubman provided a path through the underground railroad for runaway slaves and is viewed as a historic figure.

Lolita Lebron spent twenty-five years in prison because of her beliefs and she fought for the independence of Puerto Rico, and she is viewed as a historic figure in Puerto Rico.

Throughout history, women have been the backbone of some of the major struggles in America. Yet, we don't acknowledge the everyday, single, struggling mother with the same respect we give historic women.

There's no difference between Rosa Parks, Lolita Lebron, Harriet Tubman, and the average Latina or black woman in the 'hood who must assume all the responsibilities of a father.

There's no difference between single mothers who must protect their sons from the evil grips of America-such as the justice system, police brutality, or the George Zimmermans of America and those heroic women who fought for social justice.

My mother was the product of a rape, an uneducated Latina woman, and a single mother of six children; moreover, she struggled against the injustice of one of America's racist institutions: the welfare system. She made sure her babies were well fed, well-clothed, well taken care of, and well-educated on a street level. My mother ventured across the landscape of New York City and buried her teeth into the throats of those who viewed her as a social outcast.

Being raised in the South Bronx gave my mother lessons on how to survive. Realizing the monthly check the welfare system provided wasn't enough to take care of her family, she decided to hook up with a few corrupt city officials in the public housing department.

Around this time, New York City was beginning to develop Section Eight housing apartments for low-income families. The waiting list was long, but for the right price, you name could be bumped up on the list. These corrupt officials were selling the applications, and my mother was their direct link to the streets and the families who desperately were seeking a better place to live.

I remember times when my mother's apartment used to be filled with people from all over New York City. Some we knew. Others were just there for the first time, dropping off their payment, hoping to improve their living conditions. After every apartment my mother sold, she celebrated with a bottle of American champagne. Selling Section Eight apartments had paid off for my mother, with unintended results.

After a few years of living ghetto fabulous, my mother learned the FBI had our apartment under surveillance. Someone alerted the FBI that my mother was selling Section Eight apartments. Since jail was not an option, my mother went on the run, forced to do what she vowed never to do, turn her back on her seeds.

"Son, Mami must go away for a little while. Now you're the man of the house. It's your responsibility to look after your sisters. The streets love no one; always remember that. Only the strong will survive in these jungles. You could either be the victim or the victimizer. Always know there's a bitter with the sweet."

******

My mother's words still resonate in my mind today, twenty-eight years after they were whispered into my ear. After the 4:00 p.m. count, guards rushed onto C-Block, responding to a cell fire.

"Mr. Dees, don't do this! Put the bottle down, now!" Sergeant Evilsky commanded.

"Get the fuck away from my cell if you don t want to get burnt, Mr. Dees replied.

"Why go out like a nut now when the Supreme Court said today you can get out?"

"I don't want to go out! You motherfuckers took sixty-two years of my life, now you want to kick me out. Nah, I’m a ward of the state till the day I die," Mr. Dees said as he spread the gasoline that he had in his shampoo bottle on his cell door, preventing the guards from entering his cell.

"All inmates open your cell windows. You will not be let out of your cell," an officer yelled over a loudspeaker.

I silently took all this in. I kept typing.

"Suave! I guess that's one less convict we have to worry about releasing back into society. Your old head burnt and hung himself," correctional officer Lucifer said with a smile as he pushed Peter Dees body on a gurney off the cell block.

"Son, there's always a bitter with the sweet. Now isn't the time to lose focus. Some people can't handle reality. Their situation can be so harsh at a particular moment that giving up all hope may be the best thing. If they want to lay down and die in prison, leave them laying where they at."

Hearing my mother's voice in my head brought a smile to my face. I turned my word processor off and lay back on my bed, listening to the radio, when suddenly my favorite song came on, "I'll Always Love My Mama" by The Intruders.

    Sometimes I feel so bad when I think of all the things I used to do 
    My mama used to clean somebody else's house 
    just to buy me a new pair of shoes
    I never understood how mama made it through the week 
   When she never, ever got a good night's sleep 
    I'll always love my mama...



From the Hood To The Prison Pipeline is a series, so stay tuned for the next installment.



LSD (Luis Suave) Gonzales is a Juvenile Lifer, incarcerated for over 27 years.  He attends Villanova University and is two classes away from a Bachelors Degree. He is president of the Latin American Culture Exchange Organization (L.A.C.E.O.), a member of the United Community Action Network (U-CAN) and one of the founders of the Education Over Incarceration (E.O.I.) scholarship.  He is the author of five critically acclaimed novels and is an artist and poet.

Luis S. Gonzales #AS-0834
SCI Graterford
P.O. 244
Graterford, PA 19426

LSD's artwork can be viewed here