For most of us, it's embarrassingly easy to get swept away by the granular drama of daily life, no matter how trifling our troubles might seem from the distance of another’s vantage. Too often, my thoughts are more cluttered with situational debris than I'd care to admit. Take, for example, the shell-backed creep who lives down the tier and insists on peeking into my cell as he shuffles past. Because he is a known rat, I must figure out a way to get my objection across firmly but without earning myself a stint in the hole for being threatening. This leaves me feeling vulnerable, indignant and powerless. Then there are the young prisoners, on the tier above mine, who insist on tightening their beatbox and freestyle rapping game past the noise boundary of 10:00 pm. I am frustrated and annoyed by this but must proceed cautiously because it could evolve into a racial issue. I am due to transition to a lower custody prison in a few months, and with each passing day, uncertainty looms larger on my horizon.
Free world problems, like first world problems, are only compelling up close. (From here, they appear enviable.) Perhaps your boss is a sexist jerk, but you need the job too badly to quit. This might leave you feeling vulnerable, indignant and powerless. Say your car dies, and the mechanic says it will be “two grand or thereabouts”. You are frustrated and annoyed and must proceed cautiously because it could evolve into a serious financial issue. Maybe your girlfriend tells you she’s a couple of weeks late, and with each passing day, uncertainty looms larger on your horizon. These are all stressors, to be sure. Even taken individually, each could be a potential sleep-thief.
Allow me to share with you a healthy dose of perspective. Neither you nor I can expect to be strapped down and put to death by bureaucrats, our veins methodically flooded with a toxic cocktail in front of a roomful of spectators. Neither you nor I will know the exact date and time of our own death months in advance so that we may bear that crushing weight in solitude, cursing time itself along the way. Neither you nor I will have to grapple with the knowledge of our own imminent mortality, despite the fact that we are young and healthy.
This is the reality presently facing Thomas Whitaker.
As many of you already know, Minutes Before Six (MB6) was Thomas’s brainchild. He conceived of this project shortly after arriving on death row in Texas, ten years ago. Originally intended only as his personal blog, MB6 quickly attracted a growing readership hungry for the honest, firsthand, intellectual survey of death row that Thomas offered. As MB6’s expansion surpassed his expectations, Thomas felt compelled to open the site up to other imprisoned writers, such as myself, that we might have a platform, a voice in the conversation. Until Dina took over the administration of MB6 six years ago, Thomas managed the site from a solitary cell on death row, his communication with a small network of volunteers limited to snail mail and a few visits per month through glass.
Launching and maintaining MB6 was no small feat given the logistical hurdles alone: leasing server space and arranging technical support, finding someone to type and digitize handwritten pieces, building links, fielding comments, and so forth. And then there’s the writing. To date, Thomas has posted one hundred and fifty-four essays and stories on MB6. All of them were written while he was earning a Master’s Degree in solitary confinement. He remains, by far, the most prolific writer on MB6, and I would contend there is not another imprisoned writer anywhere who has contributed the sheer volume of literary thought that he has. The impact of his writing becomes particularly evident when you, the MB6 readers, respond to our requests for feedback. Many of you follow his writing devotedly, visiting MB6 for his work alone, or nearly so. To some of you, all other writers on MB6 are just filler, something to peruse while waiting for a new Whitaker essay or another chapter of No Mercy for Dogs. I can’t argue too hard with that. We writers also owe him a tremendous debt, one we’ll never be able to repay.
Thomas has been fighting his case for over a decade, seeking post-conviction relief throughout the entire court system. The appellate process is not unlike a demented elevator with no doors to open. You ascend slowly, glacially, from level to level, trundling yourself upward with each denial and appeal, only to find yourself back in the basement. With each ascension you feel the tug of gravity, which you might mistake for hope. Sometimes your gut tells you just before the floor drops; other times it catches you off balance. Thomas’s case was recently rejected by the second highest court in the land, the US Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit. Let me state this clearly: we are at the point where clemency is Thomas’s only hope of not being killed in the next few months. The Governor has already signed the Death Warrant setting Thomas Whitaker's execution date for February 22nd. In the State of Texas, a clemency process was instituted decades ago as an ostensible safety valve for an overburdened criminal justice system.
This is Thomas’s sole remaining chance to avoid death. The clemency process differs from trials and appeals in several important ways. In clemency proceedings, there is no retrying of the evidence, no arguing over technicalities. Rather, the matters presented are those on which the courts have not already ruled. In Thomas’s case, the petition being considered is simple and straightforward: to commute his sentence from death to life.
In Texas, a death row prisoner's petition for clemency is considered by the Board of Pardons and Paroles. As a rule, members do not meet in person to deliberate. Instead, they each render separately a decision based on their own individual criteria—their personal touchstones for deciding the fate of a human being which they need not disclose, so they do not. By relying on subjective and secret standards, such an opaque process presents an obvious barrier to success: any strategy is guesswork, no more and no less. In the words of U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, regarding the arbitrariness of the Board's practices, "A flip of the coin would be more merciful than these votes." Now you know what Thomas is up against.
The petition is either granted or denied by a majority vote of the Board, which then informs the governor's irrevocable decision either to sign off on commutation or allow the execution to proceed. Make no mistake, petitioning for clemency is a long shot. The statistical probability of being granted clemency in Texas is not high. However, Thomas’s execution becomes a certainty if we do not try.
Thomas 's attorney is presently composing a petition that outlines the reasons the Board ought to commute his death sentence. He will not be making a legal argument but rather presenting Thomas as a living human entity to the Board Members, drawing on his personal life and accomplishments to humanize him instead of citing evidence and conclusions of law to try to acquit him. The Board Members will not recommend his petition unless they find a preponderance of clear and cogent reasons to spare his life. They may define their threshold of persuasion in amorphous terms, such as “exceptional circumstances”, which means literally whatever they choose to recognize it as. Clemency hearings are outside the procedural methodology of the courtroom. Rules of admissibility do not apply, and no one really knows what sways the Board because there is no clemency precedent from which one could make inductions.
Members of the general public may submit written information for the Board's consideration. Here is where we come in, you and I. It's one thing for Board members to have in front of them clerical evidence of Thomas 's accomplishments—copies of his degree, literary awards, and so forth. It's another matter entirely for them to read firsthand accounts of Thomas’s effect on free-world citizens. Mind you, no one is asking that Thomas Whitaker be released but rather that he simply be allowed to continue breathing.
The District Attorney will be the one and only advocate for the death of Thomas. Throughout his case, the State—and no one else—has maintained that justice can only be served by the loss of more life.
The Clemency Board will also consider public sentiment. The Board’s only way to gauge the wishes and attitudes of the community is through letters of support written by anyone whose life Thomas has impacted—people like you, for example, whose knowledge and perception of prison have been vastly enriched by this man. They need to hear from folks like yourself: intelligent, free people who have lived vicariously through Thomas’s stories, literate citizens who have trusted him for a decade as a patient and honest guide through the experience of death row. You, dear readers, are his community. You may be thinking that you wouldn’t know what to say. However, I can assure you that how you express yourself means less than the fact that you are willing to write at all.
To that end, I would present a few suggestions as possible starting points. One of the things I always ask of free people after we’ve conversed for a time is whether their preconceptions about prison have changed. I can’t imagine anyone reading the works of Thomas and not fundamentally altering his or her notions of what prison and prisoners are made of, how death row feels, or what the purpose of the death penalty even is—and what that means. Some of you have felt compelled to become involved with social justice after reading his work. Some of you have found here a much-needed comprehension of what your own incarcerated loved ones have endured in silence. Others have become able to view us not as the bogeyman in the cage but rather as human beings who are willing to unpack our own flaws and mistakes, our authentic selves, for you. Some of you have come here as surviving victims, intending to face down the surrogate objects of your fear or loathing, and have instead walked away with the clarity and closure born of understanding. Some of you have been entertained and educated by stories you could not possibly find anywhere else. These things are worth mentioning to the Board. It would be impossible to quantify the value of the work Thomas has tirelessly offered you, holding the fiercest light to the most obscured microcosm of human infliction and deprivation. But a support letter would go a long way towards representing what the experience of MB6 has meant to you.
After nearly 15 years in prison, my faith in humanity isn’t what it once was. But I believe wholeheartedly that you would be willing to take ten minutes out of your cluttered day to write a letter that will increase the likelihood of Thomas’s life being spared.
I have to believe that you, of all people, realize the import and worth of this particular life— the effect his writing has had on your understandings of this world and the human condition in general, his potential for a long and productive literary future. I refuse to entertain the notion of an apathetic reader or one too preoccupied to respond—not here, and for mercy’s sake, not now. Our window of time is too small to admit complacency, procrastination, or inaction.
I imagine that you, our readers, are aligned with the rest of the civilized world outside America in believing the idea of judicial killing is morally bankrupt. I have faith in your moral compass, so I will not preach, dear choir.
Our sensibilities about the ethical status of the death penalty arise from the same aversion to physical violence en masse we feel when considering war. Our state governments have executed one thousand, four hundred, and forty-eight men and women since the resurrection of the death penalty in 1977—a grim doctrine, one carrying the stench of fossilized worldviews derived from pre-civilized mythos. Such barbarism under color of law suffuses most of us with societal shame. We are dismayed by how future historians will speak of us, contemptuous of the fact that in the land of free Wi-Fi and the home of the Angry Birds, people are still being killed by state actors. But we are no more capable of properly thinking about the legally orchestrated killing of one thousand, four hundred, and forty-eight human beings than we are able to say what it feels like to witness three thousand people being crushed and burned alive. We all watched that happen on 9/11, but unless we personally knew someone in one of the World Trade Center towers, what we felt was an abstract sort of dread, something akin to disbelief. To acknowledge this emotional shortcoming is merely to recognize the limits of what the human mind can construct from sensory input. Because of this handicap, the practice of state-sanctioned killing is rarely mentioned in the news, let alone protested in our liberal colleges. And yet students at UC Berkley recently rioted, attacking their own library, destroying cars, smashing windows and lighting fires simply because a wingnut from the online alt-right publication was scheduled to speak. Evidently, what we find most shocking is a lousy guide to what is most evil. The great progressive frontier of California is so liberal that there is talk of secession over the election of Donald Trump—a movement wistfully named “Calexit”—but this same blue state recently voted to preserve the death penalty. The pitiful truth is that we might be incapable of feeling what we must in order to change our own world.
But we are able to meaningfully think about what it means for the State of Texas to snuff out the life of one man: a vibrant person whom we’ve come to know and esteem highly through his words. Thomas has invited his fellow prisoners onto his site so that we, through our writing, might stand alongside him. He has invited you and me, his fellow human beings, into his inner world so that we might try to think alongside him. I have to believe that we, his community, are capable of feeling what we must in order to change the outcome of the one hearing that could allow Thomas to keep on living, breathing, and writing for us. I can only believe that we are capable of mustering what it takes to extricate ourselves from our daily frittering long enough to act. It isn’t too often we are faced with the opportunity to help avert the death of someone who matters to us with our actions. This is our chance to do so.
When I contemplate the reality of Thomas’s sentence, how the State of Texas will decide the exact time of his last heartbeat, I feel no small amount of compassion for him as a fellow human being. I feel sadness at the thought of the senseless loss of such a prominent intellect, someone I have grown fond of, and a familiar voice who often says things the way I wish I would have. I feel outrage that the most prosperous and diverse nation on the planet could still be so shamefully backward. I have to admit some selfish interest in this, as well. If there is one thing we all know about Thomas Whitaker, it’s that he has more to accomplish, more to teach us, and much more to say. I, for one, really want to know what that is. Don’t you?
Please send letters in support of the Clemency Petition of Thomas Whitaker to:
Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles
8610 Shoal Creek Boulevard
Austin, TX 78757
Note from Dina: Thanks to all of you for reading this and to those who have reached out to offer support. Now is the time to step up and make your voice heard. If you have any questions about writing a support letter for Thomas, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Action matters right now. Please send your letter today!
|Thomas Whitaker 999522|
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351
|Steve Bartholomew 978300|
P.O. Box 7001
Monroe, WA 98272