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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Mercy For One Dog?

By Steve Bartholomew

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
Clemency Section
8610 Shoal Creek Boulevard
Austin, TX 78757
Phone:  512-406-5852
Fax: 512-467-0945

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 dina@minutesbeforesix.com 
Action matters right now.  Please send your letter today!

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


Steve Bartholomew 978300
MCC/MSU
P.O. Box 7001
Monroe, WA 98272

22 comments:

Barbara Grant said...

I will send my letter in support for Mr. Bartholomew. Thank you Minutes Before Six for being the voice for those that are incarcerated.

A Friend said...

I know you mean Mr. Whitaker and thank you so much for your support Barbara Grant xx The VA

Anonymous said...

I've already sent my letter, back on 12/21. I regularly converse with Thomas via mail and have gone to see him once at Polunsky. He's a really good guy, who made a very bad decision. He has ALWAYS been remorseful and his father, Kent, is also a great man and does not deserve to lose his only remaining son. I implore you all to send in those letters, Texas is a tough state, the more support we can rally the better our chances. Please, please take a few moments to send your letter in. You'd be amazed what a difference we can make, "it takes a village". Thanks so much, and have a blessed day. - Until next time, I wish you well - Ken

Anonymous said...

I feel compelled to write after many years of merely spectating here not least for the sake of preserving the last surviving member of Kent Whitaker's family.

Any suggestions for a tone or general content? My impression is that the average Texan connected to law enforcement is not likely to take kindly to any petition from a foreigner such as myself?

A Friend said...

We stand in solidarity with the victim in this case in asking that Thomas's sentence be commuted from death to life and we support this request for clemency. Your support is welcome, needed and appreciated - thank you!

Anonymous said...

Well said Steve. I will be writing to them. There has been enough killing already.

https://www.dailystrength.org/group/parents-of-prisoners/discussion/how-to-write-an-effective-clemency-lett_1

Anonymous said...

I have so many thoughts and feelings about this. How difficult is it in actuality to achieve this for thomas? I have so many things I'd like to ask him, and others who know him. Ken, you knew him for a while it seems, and you went to see him? What was it like? How many letters are needed to get his sentence switched? Thanks

urban ranger said...

Thank you Steve, for the heartfelt reminder that letters can make the difference.
After reading your piece, I just sat down and did it. Letter written and mailed today.


Anonymous said...

I don't know how many letters are needed to get his sentence switched. I do know one more is better than one less. I've written and sent mine. Peace.

Anonymous said...

There is no amount of letters that requires a sentence to be 'switched'. I encourage people to write letters to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles inasmuch as it couldn't hurt but it's not realistic to think letters from the public will sway the boards mind. The board doesn't have the power to grant clemency anyway; all they can do is decide to recommend clemency to the governor of Texas. Its ultimately the governor's decision.

Thomas's only real chance (and it's a slim one) at having the board recommend clemency and having the governor subsequently grant it is if they are moved by the fact that Thomas's father (a target of the murder plot) as well other surviving relatives of the victims are absolutely opposed to Thomas's execution.

Anonymous said...

Well written article about death, forgiveness, and reasons for clemency, on Thomas Whitaker's case. http://www.mystatesman.com/news/his-son-tried-kill-him-now-father-tries-halt-his-execution/e3uydj08VGJfIR9IWwZ0EK/

Anonymous said...

The Board's recommendation is required before the governor can commute the sentence. That's my understanding, so the Board's vote is actually a necessary step.

Anonymous said...

It's not legally necessary for the board to recommend clemency in order for the governor to grant it inasmuch as the governor can still commute the death sentence of his own accord even if the board does not recommend clemency.

Realistically however, it is essential that the board recommends clemency if there is to be any realistic hope of the governor commuting Thomas's death sentence.

I definitely encourage everyone to write the board stating support for Thomas. It can't hurt and it's all we as supporters of Thomas and opponents of the death penalty can do.

It's important not so much because there's a realistic chance it will convince the board to recommend clemency, but primarily because there will be a lot of people writing the board demanding they do not recommend clemency.

I am skeptical that the board actually reads many of these letters frankly, but if they do it's important that they see many letters of support for Thomas and not just letters condemning him.

So please, write the board in support of Thomas. It is very important, even if, as I have previously stated, in the final analysis Thomas's best chance of being granted clemency hinges i, whether the board is moved by the fact that Thomas's father (a victim in the case) and other relatives of the victims are adamantly opposed to Thomas's execution.

I urge you to stress the latter facts in you letters to the board, and to by all means be civil and respectful in tone.

Anonymous said...

Typo: "hinges i," was supposed to be "hinges on".

Jenneke said...

I don't know how much value they'll place on a letter from a foreigner such as myself but after all the thoughtful, provoking, insightful and wisdom Thomas'writings gave me I own him at least this one letter. I will write one and will hope with all that I have that his sentence will be commuted. To me, Thomas is the reason why the death penalty should be abolished, why a jury, without the proper knowledge, should not get to decide who lives or dies or who is redeemable or not. I truly hope that Thomas gets the chance to live long after the 22th of February and I wish him and his family strenght during these difficult times.

Anonymous said...

It also matters to Thomas that people care enough to write whether the board cares to spare him or not.

Emily M. said...

As I sit down to write my clemency letter, the following quotation echoes in my thoughts. It is from Shakespeare's play, The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings.
It is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

feministe said...

Could this website post the collection of clemency letters already sent on Thomas's behalf? I've seen the text of the clemency petition online but don't see the letter attachments and would like to see what those close to Thomas are saying.

A Friend said...

Feministe, I wouldn't publish the support letters on MB6 without the permission of the individuals who wrote the letters as well as permission from Thomas and his attorneys, so this is not something that will happen anytime soon, but if you have questions about content for your own letter, please feel free to email me and I'm happy to discuss with you dina@minutebforesix.com Thank you for your support

Anonymous said...

Quoted:
I have so many thoughts and feelings about this. How difficult is it in actuality to achieve this for thomas? I have so many things I'd like to ask him, and others who know him. Ken, you knew him for a while it seems, and you went to see him? What was it like? How many letters are needed to get his sentence switched? Thanks

Anonymous - Visiting Thomas at polunsky was an interesting experience. It's a fortress to say the least. You have to stop in the parking lot, they have you step out, they check the vehicle, look under the hood, etc. You then proceed to the "gate house" or "gate picket" where you pass thru a metal detector screening (similar to TSA) and then a guard of the same sex pats you down. You then go thru the gate sally port into the front of the prison and walk down a long sidewalk to the building. From there, you end up down a long hall way until you hit another gate. They buzz you into that area, and then they buzz you again into a door on your left into the visiting room. You then have to give the guard the information for who you are visiting and they assign you a window to sit at. After a moment, they are brought in but behind glass. You can only speak thru the phone and there is no contact at all. I visited him for about 2 hours. I could have qualified for a special visit (given I was driving from Ft Worth) but I wasn't sure what to expect and I wasn't sure we'd fill that amount of time. Turns out, I was wrong. I could have sat there and talked to Thomas all day. He's very personable. I've also had the opportunity to speak with his father Kent. There are no "set letters", the board will make its recommendation and then that's it. If the board doesn't recommend clemency, the Governor can only postphone the execution one time for 30 days. He does not have the power to commute the sentence without the board recommendation. I hope that helps clear some of that up. Be well, Ken

Anonymous said...

Thank you for responding...I'm guessing u came upon his story as I did, through the tv shows and books etc? I'm curious about what u talked about and what his demeanor was like...this case has fascinated me since I first heard about it, which was pretty recent. I saw a quick video of him on the stand on YouTube and was curious if there is any other more lengthy one out there. It does sound like a lot of work to go through the prison visit, and though I have no clue how many people o visit him, I'm sure he was appreciative you made the drive.
-Anonymous in Massachusetts

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification about the requirement of the board to recommend clemency in Texas. That's important info which makes it even more important to write the board.

I was kind of surprised by that; in most states with the death penalty the governor can commute a death sentence regardless of whether clemency is recommended.

I was misinformed.