Thursday, January 2, 2020

Months Before Six - Part Four

By Billy Tracy

To read Part Three click here

Larry Swearingen: August 21st, 2019
“In the end, everything is a gag.” – Charlie Chaplin
Larry: “Billy, think you can write a farewell for me like you did for Thomas Whitaker?”
Me:         “You want me to clown you – to make fun of you?”
Larry: “Absolutely!”
Me:         “You got it.”

Larry was a big, burly, pale white man, with a shiny, bald head and a hairy body like a bear; a very heavy body. He wore wire-framed glasses on his small pug nose, had bright, ever-curious dark eyes, a small, usually smiling mouth, straight, off-white teeth, and a very chubby, perpetually clean-shaven face. 

He spoke with a deep, resonate, commanding voice and had a presence of reliable competence. Larry walked on his tiptoes, with his butt sticking out behind him, like a toddler in a diaper just learning to walk. 

Larry had a big personality that was even bigger than his enormous hairy belly. People gravitated towards him, they sought him out – especially for food; especially for Larry to cook them food. He was a well-known cook, known for sharing what he made with food bought from the commissary and cooked in his small coffeepot (hot water heater). Unfortunately, he didn't share enough – a testament to his very large stomach. Some people just love to cook, and some people just love to eat. Larry loved to cook and eat A LOT. I felt sorry for his poor feet – especially his (tip)toes; that was a lot of weight to carry. When he stood on his tiptoes to walk, I marveled at the sheer, brute strength his toes and calves possessed to be able to not just bare such a load, but not to explode outward – or collapse into the concrete (or through the concrete).

In the same way I marveled at the ability of Thomas Whitaker's neck to support the enormous weight of his head, I was similarly impressed with the strength of Larry's toes and calves and their ability to withstand the elephantine weight placed upon them. I often asked Larry if he was a ballerina in his youth, or if he thought maybe he'd been one in his past life. He promised me that ‘no’, he was most definitely not a ballerina in his youth and doubted he was one in his past life either. He also assured me he'd like to shove his ALMIGHTY toes up some place dark…

I countered that barbaric – much like his feet – threat by promising to buy him some “How to Be a Hefty Ballerina” books, so he could harness the natural talent in his toes and calves. He became so angry, he began stomping his feet against the concrete floor in his cell. My cell was next to Larry's, and the force of his feet slamming into the concrete shook my cell, knocking me to the floor. Or, at least, that is what I feared occurring if he continued his stomping.

Larry and I had many good times living next door to each other and shared a common sense of humor, as well as a common sense of fun. Thankfully, we didn't share the same common sense of taste, or I'd be as heavy as him. My feet could never hold up to that strain. I wasn't a ballerina in my youth like Larry…

Larry and I spent many hours talking (thankfully, Larry was polite enough not to talk with his mouth full of food) and teasing each other. Since Larry was often busy chewing, I was able to tease him more. Much more. Maybe “toe” much, I mean, “too” much. Sometimes I “calve”, I mean, “can't” stop myself. Thankfully, Larry's feet could stop him. What a “feat”. 

What I found even more impressive than Larry's ability to unhinge his jaw, like a python, and swallow a sandwich whole, was his love and commitment to his freeworld friends. In all of my long years in prison, I've never seen anyone seek out so many ways to show his loved ones how much he loved them. He would draw beautiful sailboats – boats he could never actually sail in without capsizing – to send to those he loved. He would use the prison library to research topics his loved ones were interested in, just so he could understand them and relate to them. Larry genuinely loved them: Amazingly, even more than he loved to eat.

Here in the prison, Larry would help anyone who needed help. He wasn't the type to help others just when it was convenient for him: On two separate occasions, I saw Larry give away, without any hesitation, the last food he had. Knowing how much he liked to eat, that really drove home to me his genuine giving nature. Although I was afraid his body – particularly his enormous belly – would revolt and attack him; maybe wrap around his body and constrict him, like a python!

Larry was particularly kind to me. During his last couple of days alive he asked his best friend, who he considered to be his brother, to befriend me after his death. I cannot express how much that simple act of kindness meant to me. To worry about me, and to send a fantastic person my way, only a special person would do that: an especially well-fed person.

Watching Larry leave on his last day, big butt sticking up in the air as he marched away on his powerful feet, was soul squashing.

“If you can't make it better, you can laugh at it” - Erma Bombeck

You are missed, my friend. Now it's time to rest (your poor feet) in peace.


Death Watch Update: August 27th, 2019
“Even in the desolate wilderness, stars can still shine.” – Aoi Jiyuu Shiroi Nozomi
I have been on Death Row just a tick south of twenty-two months: twenty-two emotionally charged months. For those twenty-two months, I have been housed on Death Watch, where Death Row men are warehoused once they receive their execution dates: kept until they receive relief, or are pumped full of poison and killed. As I write this update today, August 27th, 2019, I have witnessed seventeen men be led, in gleaming steel restraints, from this section to be culled from the head of humanity. Currently, there are ten more scheduled killings over the next three and a half months. (To learn more about why I am housed on Death Watch, without an execution date, please read Months Before Six – Part One.)

Over the first eighteen months of my being on Death Watch, there were sixteen executions. Then there was a four-month break before a dusty Texas cowboy boot kick-started the ever ravenous death machine again. During that four-month period, numerous execution dates were given out and all fourteen cells on Death Watch were filled. Since I have been here, there are usually four to six men with execution dates at any given time. With Dexter Johnson receiving a stay with less than twenty-four hours to live, Larry Swearingen's unsettling execution, and Patrick Murphy just receiving an execution date, we now have one open cell. Though, I worry it will be filled again soon.

With so many execution dates handed out over the past four months, there has been a noticeable difference amongst the guys on Death Watch. They don't seem as optimistic about getting relief as I am used to seeing – of getting a stay of execution or clemency. It seems, because of the sheer number of execution dates given out over such a short time, this is seen as a signal to expect even less mercy from the courts than is usual.

Something else that is much different about Death Watch now that it has been filled with people, is there is now more of a sense of community amongst us. Whereas before it was as silent as a graveyard, mostly all day and night, this section is now continually filled with lively conversation, banter, music, pranks and laughter. There are now regularly, big shared meals and connections with one another. The entire atmosphere is different. Yes, the pessimism about not getting a stay has grown, but peoples’ spirits are much higher. Gone are the gloomy, oppressive, suffocating feelings that often permeate this place. These feelings, the taste of despair, have been dispersed. I think it is easier to face death when you don't feel alone; that it is easier to interact as a group and share fears, worries and offer others support. It seems like having more people around has made everyone open up and feel bonds with one another, like they are facing death together instead of alone. All of the current guys have outside support too, and that has a huge impact on their emotional health, but I think having inside support matters also. Over the past few months, I have seen what a big effect having strong social interaction on Death Watch has had on these guys, and on me as well.

The day after Larry Swearingen's execution, the majority of the men on Death Watch were discussing how they felt about it. A big topic was consternation about the myriad dysfunction uncovered regarding how the criminal case was originally built against him and how he couldn't get relief from the courts. Many voiced their concerns about the freeworld people who loved Larry and how they were handling their grief. One spontaneous moment in particular touched me…

Commissary happened to be that day. Randy Halprin was in the dayroom, which is a cage directly in front of the cells and is used for recreation. When commissary arrived with our purchases, the commissary employee handed Randy the pint of ice cream he had ordered. He set it on the stainless-steel table bolted to the bare concrete floor and stared at it a moment as if thinking about something. He then picked it back up, pulled off the lid, leaned his pale, shiny bald head back and looked upwards – seemingly past the concrete ceiling and said loudly in his twangy voice, “This pint is for you, Larry. This pint is for you.” 

Then, little Steve Barbee – who has to walk with the aid of a walker – chimed in from inside his cell, “We love you, Larry.”

We do.
“Death ends a life, not a relationship.” – Jack Lemmon

Billy Jack Crutsinger: September 4th, 2019
“You can outdistance that which is running after you, but not what is running inside you.” – Rwandan Proverb
Billy Jack was the epitome of the ‘silent type’. A man of few – very few – words. The kind of guy who spoke little, but always listened. The sort who kept himself to himself, allowing few close enough to know him well. He lived two cells from me, two cells away, for several months, yet he rarely spoke or came out of his cell. He never once went to recreation. He hibernated from the daily socializing most of us desperately need, in varying degrees, to help combat the effects of living confined to a tiny bare space day-in-day-out, year after year. Billy Jack disengaged from others almost utterly. On the rare occasion when he spoke, it was because someone else engaged him. During these infrequent exchanges, he was always polite and kind. He was also brief and closed off. He was a master at politely dead-ending a conversation from anything personal being revealed. 

Billy Jack appeared to carry a burden deep within himself: a titanic hurt; a megalithic guilt; an all-consuming something that bubbled close to the surface of his heart and mind. He didn't give off a depressed or gloomy air. He wasn't pessimistic or negative. He was the opposite of that. He was upbeat and positive. You could feel the smile in his soft, twangy, country voice. Still, he seemed haunted in some way I cannot articulate. He seemed to be living with a shadow hovering over him, over his heart.

Billy Jack was a man, who in the short time I knew him, did not appear to fit in in prison. No “criminal element” radiated from him. Usually, the reformed criminal still has a demeanor which belies his past to the knowing eyes of other seasoned and reformed criminals. As a drug user always quickly recognizes the like-minded upon meeting, so does a criminal. It is in the cast of the eyes, in the body language, in the way they respond, or don't respond, to people. There is simply a ‘vibe’. You know it when you see it. Billy Jack exuded not a hint of a criminal mentality. Not present. Not former.

On Billy Jack's last day alive, two standard-issued Texas prison guards, in their crisp, pressed gray uniforms adorned with flags, escorted the almost-65-year-old to the dayroom, handcuffed, at about 6am. This was the first time he'd been in the dayroom in all the months he'd been on Death Watch.

When he went into the dayroom, which is right in front of my cell, I came to my cell door and said, “Hey, Billy Jack.” He was walking around the small barred cage wearing white commissary-bought gym shorts, T-shirt and shoes. 

He replied, “Hey,” back and kept on walking, making it clear he wasn't in the mood for conversation. I watched him for a little bit and could see he was wound up tight. I stepped away from my door to relieve him of one additional set of prying eyes upon him. Not many others on Death Watch were awake yet, and I think only Patrick Murphy and Justen Hall called to him to say “hello” at first. Billy Jack didn't engage them in conversation either. He said “hey” and kept on pacing about the dayroom.

Shortly after Billy Jack was in the dayroom, the Death Row property officer arrived with her trustee (inmate worker) pushing a big, noisy, wooden handcart. He stopped in front of Billy Jack's former home. They couldn't wait to evict him. Famous Texas Tact. As the cell door was opened, the property officer began explaining to Billy Jack how his personal property would be handled and assured him that if he got a stay, he'd get everything back.

It took some time for the property officer and her trustee to get everything packed into small plastic, red mesh bags and loaded onto the rickety old cart. When the trustee pushed that cart, loaded with all of Billy Jack's personal possession, off the Death Watch section, it seemed to signify something final and permanent to Billy Jack. He stood in the center of the dayroom as his property slowly rolled by him. His body language changed. His body seemed to clench, to stiffen. His head dropped, chin to chest. Then he seemed to relax again, body loosening up, and his head lifted back up. He began to walk about the dayroom, but now slower and calmer, his stride steadier.

A few months prior, Patrick made the same trip to the Death House – where executions are carried out in Huntsville – that Billy Jack was about to embark on. Patrick received a stay by the United States Supreme Court around 8pm, two hours after his 6pm scheduled execution. He was the perfect person to ask questions about what to expect once you get to the Death House.

Billy Jack asked Patrick if he knew whether or not the guards at the Death House, in charge of his last phone calls, would help him look up the phone number for his aunt in Dallas.

Patrick, clueless that Billy Jack was struggling emotionally, talked to him like it was just any old regular day.

“Billy Jack – why didn't you take care of this months ago when you first got your date?” Patrick asked.

Billy Jack walked away from the bars without a word.

Patrick realized his blunder and called Billy Jack a few times until he reluctantly responded, “I just want a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

Patrick said ‘yes’, then explained how to go about getting the number.

I was standing at my door during this exchange. When Billy Jack finished speaking with Patrick, he turned his head and looked right at me. He was only about fifteen-feet away and I could see his big, pale hands through the flaky, black painted bars; one white, brand new Reebox running shoe up on a bar. His thinning, white hair seeming to glow in the fluorescent light. 

Billy Jack and I just started talking like we'd been friends for years. He was from Haltom City, a place I knew very well. I lived there as a kid, and next to it in Summer Fields, for years. We talked about the areas in Haltom City we liked best, and when I brought up a dirt track, called The Green Goat, where I raced my bicycle in the early 90s out by the city dump, he told me the history of the people who owned it. It was something I'd always wondered about because it was abandoned all the years that my friends and I raced on it.

At one point, I asked him how he was feeling. I expected him to sidestep, telling me anything personal. Instead he shocked me.

“Wooooooooo,” he exclaimed, as he puffed out his plump, slightly wrinkled cheeks and widened his eyes. “I'm up and down and all over the place right now, Billy. I'm nervous and just trying to get through this.”

Stunned at this uncharacteristic openness, I was momentarily speechless before rebounding and asking him “How ready are you for today, Billy Jack?”

With a brief shake of his head, which seemed like an internal shake – a shake to dissipate some unwanted thought or fear – he replied, “I've been on Death Row for fifteen years. I'm ready to get away from here. I'm as close to at peace about dying as I can get. It would be harder if I knew I was leaving a lot of family behind hurting, but the ones I love are all gone, except my aunt.”

(I'm paraphrasing, I know. I don't recall his words correctly. At the time he told me this, I was overwhelmed by sadness for this man opening up to me to try and find comfort. I was touched deeply.)

This is where our conversation ended. At this point, he was taken to the shower and then almost immediately afterwards was led away to his last visit around 9am.

All day I pondered that conversation, trying to work it into my mind so I could better understand a man I barely knew but had shared such an intimate moment with. 

At 6pm that night on 90.1KPFT, the radio show “Execution Watch” came on. This show comes on from 6pm to 7pm to cover every Texas execution. During this show, Larry Douglas and Mike Gillespie did a strong job of not only discussing the crime but what was going on in Billy Jack's life prior to it. It was because of this show that the pieces finally aligned, and I began to feel I understood Billy Jack...

He was in his late 40s at the time of the crime he was on Death Row for committing. Up until then he had no criminal past – no violent history, not even adolescent chicanery. He'd been a hard-working family man his whole life. Shortly before his crime, exactly how long I do not know, he'd lost nearly all of his family, one-by-one, to one tragedy after another. I believe they said his son drowned, then another loved one died in a car accident where Billy Jack was the driver (the unhurt driver), and a third loved one died in a manner I don't recall. After these three events occurred, he began drinking heavily. So badly he lost his job. With no job, he lost his home and was homeless: jobless, homeless, penniless, and without family – without his son, without his wife – alone with his grief and pain. Lost.

Sometimes life breaks us. Sometimes human beings can't take the pain and the tragedy that life demands. When we crack, we do horrible things. It is not a justification. No, never that. Just an explanation some will be able to understand and others won't.

When I learned of the tragic events preceding Billy Jack's crime, I felt I finally understood him. I finally understood my feeling that he wasn't a criminal – didn't have and never had a criminal mentality. I finally understood the shadow that seemed wrapped around him, the shadow was grief and guilt.

A critic of mine recently said, “There are no good people on Death Row.”

But, yes, there are.

Rest in Peace.


Mark Soliz (a.k.a. “Kilo”): September 10th, 2019

Mark Soliz was a five-feet-four-inch tall, handsome, stocky, Hispanic man. He was raised in state-run institutions from the age of seven on. His family became the gangs he joined in these places, and those from his hometown of Fort Worth, as much as his biological family was, most of his life.

Being raised in state-managed facilities and choosing to run with gangs, Mark emulated the older gang members he looked up to. He kept his hair cut in a bald fade, he sagged his baggy pants and walked with exaggerated swagger. He was fly. He had a street mentality – a ‘thug’ persona. The way he walked, talked and looked told you immediately that he was rough-raised and had been incarcerated a long time.

What his appearance and mannerisms didn't tell you was how Mark ended up where he was in life, and who he'd become after a lifetime of incarceration. And I do mean a lifetime of incarceration. In his 37.5 years alive he was free roughly nine years; 28 out of his 37.5 years were spent incarcerated. Try to wrap your mind around that…

What you'll find below are conversations Mark and I had that, to me, best show who Mark was and who he was becoming before the State of Texas took his life.

Mark: “Billy!”
Me: “Yeah. Who's that?”
Mark: “This is “Kilo.” I just got moved over here last night. I'm above you in 10-Cell.”
Me: “Sorry to hear you got a (execution) date.”
Mark: “Yeah, it is what it is. I just wanted to introduce myself. I heard you playing chess, I like to play chess too. If you want to play a game or two, holler at me?”
Me: “Alright. How long have you been on Death Row?”
Mark: “About seven years.”
Me: “Damn. That is quick to get a date. Since I've been stuck on Death Watch, everyone executed has had at least nine years on Death Row. The two guys who had dates with less than nine years on Death Row both got stays. Hopefully that trend will continue with you.”
Mark: “I hope so.”
Me: “Is this your first time locked up?”
Mark: “Nah. I did ten years in prison before this, but I've been locked up basically my whole life.”
Me: “How do you mean? You state-raised?”
Mark: “[Following a long deep breath] Yeah. My Mom was an alcoholic and drug addict. When I was seven, Child Protective Services took me from her. From ages seven to sixteen, I was in one state-run placement after another. At sixteen, I was in Juvenile until I was seventeen. Then, at eighteen, I went to prison for a decade. Most of those ten years, I was in administrative segregation. Then I was briefly free before coming to Death Row.”
Me: “Your story is similar to mine. The main difference is that my dad was the alcoholic and drug user. My mom wasn't interested in keeping my sister and I when she got remarried, and we became a hazard to her marriage. From eleven on, I was in-and-out of psych hospitals and boys’ homes, until I went to prison right after I was seventeen. Then I was in-and-out of prison until I was twenty. I've been back here since I was twenty, almost twenty-two years now.”
Mark: “You a white guy, ain't ya?”
Me: “Yeah.”
Mark: I didn't think ya'll had to deal with that sort of thing.
Billy: [laughing] Man. Poverty, drugs, alcohol and dysfunction know no racial boundaries.
Mark:  I know, I was messing with you.
Billy: Alright then. Take it easy, we'll play a game of chess later.
Mark: Alright.

Mark lived confined in 10-Cell, which was directly above my cell. Due to this, we shared the same dusty, state air-blowing vents. This meant we could stand on our stainless-steel box sinks and speak through the top vent easily. The above conversation took place the day after Mark received his execution date and moved to Death Watch.

I really appreciated Mark calling out to me and introducing himself. It’s been rare for Death Row men to get their execution date, come to this dreaded section, and introduce themselves to me. The few times it’s happened has meant a lot to me. To think about someone you don't know after getting the date you're to die? That is rare. Since I've been on Death Row, I've been on the Death Watch section, isolated from everyone without execution dates. Nobody knows me until they receive their date. Usually, it is me breaking the ice with others and introducing myself to them. That gets tiring and is why Mark reaching out to me first meant a lot to me.

Learning the similarities of our unfortunate lives also gave me the ability to better understand his life’s journey. There's no better way to understand what abandonment, neglect and indifference from your parents does to someone then having lived that life too. I understood the anger that raged in him when he was young. We both knew the other “got it” and this allowed us to connect, even though we had very little else in common.

Me: “Kilo?!”
Mark: “Yeah?”
Me: “Were you selling a lot of coke in the world?”
Mark: “Nah. Why you ask?”
Me: “I was wondering why you go by “Kilo”. I assumed it's short for ‘Kilogram’. Every “Kilo” I've met in prison sold dope.”
Mark: “I got that name when I was a kid. My friends and I were all smokin' weed. One of them decided we should all have street names and we started trying to come up with names for each other. One friend came up with “Kilo” because of my last name.”
Me: “[Confusion in my voice] Say what? Your last name is Soliz. How the hell can you get “Kilo” out of that? Even if you're very high –  sky high.”
Mark: “Uh. Well, if you take ‘Soliz’ and spell it backwards and put a “K” in place of the “Z” and drop the “S”… then you get ‘Kilo’.”
Me: “That has to be the strangest nickname origin story I ever heard in my life. Ya'll must have been smokin' some great weed.”
Mark: “[A smile in his voice] Yeah.”

That conversation needs no further explanation from me!

Me: “What happened, Kilo?”
Mark: “The new Death Row major was in his office watching the cameras and saw me climbing on the bars in the dayroom. He told the sergeant to come down here and take all my property. When they were taking my stuff, they found the hooch [homemade prison wine] I was brewing.”
Me: “So, you're in that cell with nothing?”
Mark: “Yeah. When they change shifts my neighbor will send me a sheet so I'm not freezing.”
Me: “I'd send you one too, if I could. Every time we get new rank, these clowns abuse their authority to “show” everyone they are to be taken seriously. What a joke. I'm sorry you got caught up in that dude’s ego.”
Mark: “It’s alright. Part of the game.”
Me: “Ever since you got to Death Watch you've been a Level II. Potentially, you're living out your last days… I'm impressed that you're not causing more problems every day, all day, since you have nothing to lose.”
Mark: “All of these other guys over here on Death Watch want to do their last days in peace. If I act all crazy every day, it'll make their time harder. I don't want to do that to them and I'm hoping to see my family for my last visits. If I'm acting crazy, the prison officials won't let me have my last visits.”
Me: “It sounds like you've grown up a lot since you've been on Death Row.”
Mark: “[A forlorn sigh] Yeah.”

Shortly after this incident Mark was explaining to me what had occurred through our vent.

Mark was already a Level II at this time (which means he was not allowed to have any electrical appliances or food bought from the prison store – only Level I's are allowed these privileges), with less than a month to get his Level I back. Climbing on the bars is a minor offense and by no stretch of the imagination does prison policy allow the major to order all of Mark’s property taken, or to leave him in a cell with only a mattress. This was an abuse of power, which is all too typical with Texas prison ranking guards. Even having homemade wine doesn't justify prison officials to leave him with no property in that manner. 

Despite the fact that he was facing execution and being treated cruelly, I was impressed that Mark did not lose control and begin causing problems. Instead, he thought of how his behavior would affect the other men on Death Watch and his family, and he swallowed his ego. This was not something he was capable of doing prior to coming to Death Row. I encouraged him to continue his present positive and mature thinking, but I do not believe he needed my – or anyone's – encouragement. He was secure in who he'd become.

Mark: “Billy, I don't think I'm going to make it. It’s been nice knowing you. I wish ya the best.”
Me: “I know it's not looking good for you, but I hope you make it. If not, I want you to know my heart goes out to you. I mean, not just today, but for your life. From the very start of your life, the deck was stacked against you.”
Mark: “[Nodding his head] Last night, I prayed to God and asked Him to forgive my sins. I told Him what I wanted and I told Him I would be at peace with whatever He determined. If today is my last day, I'm ready.”
Me: “You said you told God what you wanted. What do you want?”
Mark: “I want Him to save my mom and watch over my family. I want my kids to stay free and be happy.”
Me: “What about you? Do you want to live?”
Mark: “Yeah, I do. I just think my time is up. So, I focused my prayers on my people.”
Me: “If I somehow become a believer and go to Heaven, have your chess game ready.”
Mark: “Bet that. (okay)”

On Mark’s last day alive, he was brought to the Death Watch dayroom, which is right in front of my cell, about 6am. He remained in the dayroom about one and a half hours before going to the shower and then to his last visit. He appeared preternaturally relaxed. No nervous sweat beaded his brow or shiny bald head. His voice remained even and never took on the forced strained tone I've heard many times on men’s last days when they are naturally scared and nervous, when they are doing all they can to contain their stress from searching, ever probing eyes like mine. 

He walked casually around the dayroom, not rushed, tense or strained. He exchanged goodbyes and a few good-natured and hopeful “I'll see you tomorrows” with most of the men on Death Watch and two other men in two other dayrooms. At one point, we had the above exchange. This was the first time Mark had ever mentioned a belief in God. If he had a prior belief or found God in the darkness of his last night, I do not know. I only know I had never once seen Mark relaxed and calm since I'd known him. He'd always carried himself with an undercurrent of suppressed tension – life on edge. On his last day that edge – that tension – was entirely gone. He seemed peaceful.
“The childhood shows the man, as morning shows the day.” – John Milton
I am ever hopeful that Mark really is… Resting in Peace.


Robert Sparks (a.k.a. “Deuce”): September 25th, 2019

Part I

“Deuce”, as he was called, was a short, 250-pound, 45-year-old, black man. His hairline had receded several inches, making his dark eyes seem even bigger than they were. His nose was big and had been broken several times. His large, wide mouth was prone to frown and smile in equal measure. His lightly wrinkled caramel colored face was average looking… but…

One quick look at Deuce and you knew he had intellectual and psychological issues. Anyone who has spent time around people with such issues becomes an expert at noticing that specific, spaced-out look common to people battling serious mental illness. Deuce had that look. He shuffled when he walked, his face lax. His eyes seemed glazed and dull. In prison, we have our own term for people with these traits: “throwed-off”.

When Deuce spoke, it was slow and deliberate, with a southern accent. He was raised in the ghetto and spoke using street vernacular. He was slow intellectually, but not dumb by any stretch.

My interactions with Deuce were positive, and I had a lot of fun talking to him. We both came to prison as kids in the 90s, so we both knew the other had been through the wars of that time period. We knew what the other had endured and how it had shaped us and altered our life paths. That established a commonality between us that allowed two strangers to find a quick affinity for each other.

Deuce was raised in the streets to be a predator. Then, in prison, he was taught to be a super-predator. He became a callous criminal due to the influences of his environment, his mental illness, and his decisions.

However, at the end of his life, I saw a man whose innate goodness had begun to re-emerge. His hard life and bad choices hadn't obliterated the goodness in him. It remained inside him, struggling to surface through the layers of pain, confusion and heartache – but still there and managing to shine on. 

I saw Deuce be cunning and deceitful. However, I saw Deuce be kind and generous much more often. I saw Deuce fight to overcome his environment and allow his nature to prevail; I witnessed him fight to be someone better than he felt he was. 

Part II

I'm going to take you on a journey through Deuce's first and last days in prison.

The heavy iron gate slammed loudly behind Robert as he entered the dayroom for the very first time on Ferguson Unit, one of the most violent and dangerous prisons in all of Texas in 1991. Robert stopped just inside the dayroom and assessed things. The dayroom was narrow – roughly fifty feet wide by fifty feet long. The “wall” at his back being iron bars that were painted green in some bygone era. The bars were now mostly bare from hordes of restless, often angry hands and feet slowly eroding the paint as the years crawled by. Across from Robert was a twenty-foot high red brick wall with white mortar. Six-foot-tall dirty windows stretched the length of the wall starting about four feet up the wall. Murky sunlight from an overcast day streamed into the dayroom mixing with the white light cast by rows of fluorescent lights overhead to create a well-lighted room. Cigarette smoke lazily drifted upwards to disappear in the glare of the lights.

In the middle of the smoky tobacco-scented dayroom were four metal tables that seated four people each. They were positioned in two rows of two.  The tables were filled with rowdy domino players boisterously slamming their dominoes on the table as they yelled out their score.  To the right of the dayroom, in the righthand corner, a small, black color TV sat on a metal stand bolted eight feet high on the wall.  Three ten-foot-long metal benches were in rows in front of the TV.  Also, on the right of the dayroom, but in the left corner, was a second TV bolted to the wall with three benches in front of it.  The benches were half-full of inmates watching daytime talk shows.  Each was also discreetly watching the new guy.

On the left side of the dayroom where the restroom was, were several enormous, shirtless black men wearing scuffed black boots and white pants, blasting out pushup after pushup.  Across the dayroom, against the rough red brick wall, were numerous Hispanics bunched together, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.  Their dark hair was slicked back and gleaning with grease.  They all stood alert like soldiers. Further down the wall were a few white men with shiny shaved heads, dark black prison tattoos covered their muscular arms. They stood together, nonchalantly, passing a steaming white plastic cup of coffee from one pale, scared convict hand to the next. As the men took sips of the coffee, they glanced at Robert with what appeared to be sympathy in their otherwise-stoic eyes.

Robert sensed anticipation and excitement radiating off the majority of the convicts and assumed that they were waiting to see what happened to him; the new guy, a kid among grown men. From growing up on the tough streets of South Dallas, and sitting in the Dallas County Jail waiting to go to prison, he'd spoken to many ex-cons. He'd heard the stories. He knew what to expect when he first got to prison. He knew people wanted to break him, rape him, use and abuse him. He knew…

Before determining where he should sit, or stand, one of the black men doing push-ups in the back peeled away from the group and approached Robert. The muscle-bound man was well over six-feet-tall and an easy 230-pounds of ripped muscle. Sweat glistened off his bulging chest and arms as he swaggered over. As he neared, he smiled, showing off a mouth full of shiny gold teeth.

“Say, lookout youngsta, what they call ya?” asked the stranger in a loud aggressive voice.

“Deuce,” Robert replied, while looking directly into the giant’s malice-filled eyes. 

“How old you be?” asked the stranger.

“Seventeen,” was Robert’s simple answer.

“Oh yeah? You gonna love it here, homeboy. Or, I should say, dem niggas ova' there are gonna love you bein' here,” the big convict said with a predatory smile.

“What's yo' play, nigga? You wanna test my boxin' game or summin'?” Robert calmly, but forcefully, replied.

“Yeah youngsta, we gonna get to all dat. You gonna fight, fuck, or bust a sixty?” the muscle-bound man demanded.

Robert looked at him with pure hate and stated with rage emanating in each word: “Yeah, bitch ass nigga, I'll fight you and fuck you for sixty dollars.”

The convict blinked back his surprise at the ferocious response from this small kid before rebounding with his institutional response. “You know what it be now, youngsta. Catch the square. Let's see if you be holdin' shit.” He then walked to the back of the dayroom, out of sight of the guard watching through the wall of bars.

Robert, all five-feet-six-inches and 160-pounds of him, marched up to the gleaming mountain of a man and began to fight him. He's knocked down repeatedly but gets up each time ready for more. His face a bloody mask of determination, Robert did not quit. This was the first of countless battles in store for Robert over the next twelve years...

Robert, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic with an IQ of 75, went to prison in 1991 with a twelve year, non-aggravated sentence. At that time, Texas had the ‘one quarter law’, meaning you would do one quarter of your sentence to come up for parole. Most with non-aggravated sentences made their first or second parole, and with a twelve year sentence you could expect to be free in around three to five years.

Robert wasn’t sentenced to aggravated time (meaning he didn't have to do at least half of his sentence to get out), but the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) decided they were also judges and treated his sentence as aggravated: a practice TDCJ still does to this day.

Robert was given a “serve-all” at his first parole hearing. This meant he'd only go home when his actual time served and his “good time” equaled his twelve year sentence. To earn good time, you have to stay out of trouble, a task almost impossible for teenagers to accomplish when they are targeted by predators and have to choose to fight or be fucked, or bust a sixty (meaning to pay someone for protection). When Robert received the serve-all, he figured to hell with trying to side-step trouble and began acting without restraint.

He did the entire sentence; something almost unheard of. He did about nine of those twelve years on close custody in various maximum-security prisons in Texas. Close custody is where the hardest, most brutal men are sent, and was hell on earth in the 90s. Coming in as a 17-year-old, Robert then spent twelve years learning only violence and how to survive amongst brutality. He turned into the only thing you could expect after twelve years of that life: a super-predator.

As a 29-year-old man-child, he was released into society. Five years later, he was back with three counts of Capital Murder. It was never about if Robert would return to prison, but when (and for how long).

Part III

On an inmate’s last day alive on Texas's notorious Death Watch, the routine has been, in my almost two years here, that the condemned man is removed from his cell by 8am. Sometimes earlier, but never later.

On Robert’s final day, rank decided they'd leave him in his cell until his last visitors showed up. When nobody showed up to visit him, rank determined they'd leave him in the cell until noon, when they transport all inmates from Polunsky Unit to the Death House at Walls Unit in Huntsville.

Around 11am, the following conversation took place between Robert and Travis Runnels.

Travis: “I don't agree with what you're doing.”
Robert: “What? Not comin' out of my cell? Puttin' up a fight?”
Travis: “Yeah. I think it's selfish. Think about your family. They'll have to see your body with gas all over it and maybe you hurt.”
Robert: “My people know. That's why they didn't come today. They'll be at Huntsville for the execution, and TDCJ will have cleaned my body up.”
Travis: “How do you know that?”
Robert: “Ray Ray fought too. His body wasn't full of gas.”
Travis: “You can't guarantee what condition you'll be in, Deuce. Don't put your family through this.”
Robert: “My mind be made up. I'm fightin'. I'm not givin’ up like that. It's not happenin'.”
[Talking to all of Death Watch] Look out, everyone. Ya'll get ready for the gas. I'm not coming out, so they gonna have to gas me.”

A few people say, “Thanks for the warning,” and then there's silence.

A few minutes before noon – while the Death Row captain was in with the five-man riot team, as they put on their armor to participate in escorting Robert out – a skinny, white sergeant with dark plastic glasses went to Robert's cell to check on him. He found Robert had his door covered, blocking the view into his cell. During a condemned man's last week alive, TDCJ demands constant visual surveillance. If the cell door and camera inside the cell are both covered, as Robert’s were, the response is immediate.

Sergeant: “[Yelling] Sparks! Uncover your cell door now!”
Robert: “No. You know what it is.”
Sergeant [talking into his radio]: “Sergeant Steel to Captain Smith.” [No reply]
Sergeant: “[Yelling] Sparks! Uncover your cell door now!”
Sergeant [talking into his radio]: “Sergeant Steel to Captain Smith.” [No reply]
Sergeant [talking into his radio]: “All available staff to 12-Building A-Pod 2-Cell. I have inmate Sparks with his door covered.”

In less than sixty seconds, the Death Row captain and one or two other guards came barreling onto the section. A few seconds behind them the five-man riot team arrived suited up but without their masks and helmets on. As soon as the Death Row captain arrived on scene, he began screaming for the picket officer to open Robert's cell door.

The five-man riot team was scrambling to put on their gas masks and helmets as the cell door was opened and the captain was screaming for them to run in and restrain Sparks.

The immediacy of the captain’s order to open the cell door and run in had everyone discombobulated. To rush an offender’s cell with a five-man riot team is actually a long, time-consuming process. Orders for the inmate to submit to a strip search and peacefully exit the cell are repeated three times. If these orders are ignored, chemical agents (i.e. gases) are utilized. If the inmate still does not come out of the cell, the process is repeated, at least once more, before the riot team runs into the cell to forcefully extract the inmate.

However, the Death Row captain bypassed normal cell extraction procedure because he was concerned Robert was attempting suicide (due to him having a suicidal history); a protracted cell extraction would allow Robert too much time to potentially harm himself and the captain was determined to keep Robert alive.

Once the guards ran into Robert’s cell, he was quickly restrained, handcuffed behind his back and removed from the section on a gurney. The last I saw Robert he was breathing heavy, laying on his side, unharmed and silent. The captain's determination to keep him unharmed and alive worked… Well, until 6pm that evening.
“Growth is the only evidence of life.” – John Henry Newman
Rest in Peace.


Death Watch Update: October 6th, 2019

Did you hear that? No? You should have. That was me releasing a big, long-held breath of stuffy prison air. Vile stuff, by the way. I don't recommend prison air to anyone. Air laced with freedom is much better. Believe it.

My BIG released breath of incarcerated air was because we have had the last three men who were scheduled to die, Steve Barbee, Randall Mays and Randy Halprin, receive stays of execution with under ten days left to live. It is always a huge relief when one of these men I have come to know gets to walk off this section without walking to their death. And with three men in a row living, a mighty tension inside me is gone.

However, three more men have recently received execution dates: John Gardner, January 15th, 2020; Abel Ochoa, February 11th, 2020; and, Carlos Trevino, March 11th, 2020. May these men receive stays as well.


Recently, a story in the news interested me, and I want to share it with you.

Many of you will have heard the story of Amber Guyger: a white Dallas Police Officer who shot and killed an unarmed black man, named Botham Jean, in his own apartment. Amber Guyger had just gotten off-duty after completing a fifteen-hour double shift. She’d driven to the wrong floor of the parking garage for her apartment building and entered Botham Jean's apartment, thinking it her own. She thought he was an intruder in her home, pulled her service weapon and shot him dead.

Botham Jean happened to be a man enjoying a bowl of ice cream in his own home.

Amber Guyger was found guilty of murder and faced a five- to ninety-nine-year sentence (basically, life in prison). She received a ten-year sentence, which outraged many.


After Amber Guyger was sentenced, Botham Jean's brother was allowed to take the stand and give a victim's impact statement. He is an 18-year-old, who stated in an eloquent, emotionally-charged voice that he forgave Amber, loved her even. He did not want her to go to prison. He wanted only good things for her and he hoped she'd give her life to Jesus Christ. He then asked the judge to allow him to hug Amber. The judge allowed it.

As he approached, Amber rushed into his arms, hugged him fiercely, put her head on his shoulder and sobbed. This 18-year-old consoled his brother’s killer. He held her and showed love and understanding to the person who took his brother’s life. That is a stunning display of strength and forgiveness.

I listened to this on my radio and was covered in goosebumps. I felt awe for this man who showed us true compassion. 

Outside the courtroom, those thirsting for revenge were outraged that Amber only received ten years.

While, inside the courtroom, an 18-year-old was showing the world the power of forgiveness… and love. That is real power.

Remember the power of forgiveness.


Justen Hall: November 6th, 2019

Dear Justen,

When I first saw you walking past my cell, escorted by two prison guards, I immediately noticed your six-feet-six-inch, 260-plus-pound size. You dwarfed the two ‘Texas Tough’ guards on either side of you. I thought to myself Damn, he is a big boy! I expected you to be a cocky, conceited, ridiculously arrogant ass like the vast majority of super-sized men in prison are. However, you were nothing like that.

In fact, you were the total opposite. You were a giant of a man who seemed to want to make yourself as small as possible: unnoticeable; invisible. You didn't walk so much as shuffle, slowly. Big, broad shoulders slumped and dark eyes down cast. One huge sneaker-clad foot after the other, dragging across the rough concrete. When you spoke, it was in a soft, unassuming voice that conveyed a resigned kindness. 

I pondered your demeanor before we ever spoke; trying to put my finger on what manner of man I was seeing. Finally, it hit me: someone humbled; someone vulnerable; spirit mostly broken; someone who felt utterly alone. So intense was the cloud of vulnerability surrounding you, that I hesitated to talk to you. I feared somehow upsetting the precarious balance you seemed to have managed that allowed you to take one step at a time leading you from one seemingly unwanted day to the next. Yet, I felt compelled to talk to you.

It is unremembered how our first conversation started, except that we ended up talking about a radio commercial for National Forests that dripped with sexual innuendo and we both found it hilarious. In our unexpected laughter and shared sense of humor, we formed an affinity for each other. From there the conversation grew deeper.

“Billy,” you told me, “My Mom sent me a letter and said that she feels alone and that she thinks I must feel alone now. I thought about that deeply and realized I'd felt alone since I was a kid. That that aloneness was what pushed me to join a prison gang. I longed for a bond and connection with a group of people. I can't put my finger on why I felt so excluded from my family and general society – only that I did, and that is what pushed me to needing a prison gang.”

When I asked you why you got out of the gang, you shocked me with your honesty. You said because you didn't like the way you'd been behaving; that you were ashamed of who you'd become and you wanted to step back and re-find yourself. You told me, “Billy, I realized I was a piece of shit. I felt ashamed. Deeply ashamed. When I realized that, I could no longer tolerate myself and wanted to be alone.” 

I do not know what made me ask you this; it just came out before I could think, “Do you want to die, Justen?”

You looked at me from your great slumping height, your face slack, eyes dulled by years of regret, and stated simply in your soft humbled voice, “Yes.”

From there I learned you'd been fighting for years to end your appeals. When you received your execution date, you begged your attorneys not to file any further appeals, a request your appeal attorneys grudgingly honored. 

Justen, since I've been on Death Watch, two years now, I've seen guys come through who wanted to die because living inside these small cells day-in-day-out, without any escape or physical connection with anyone, became too much. They sought escape from this soul squashing, suffocating environment. While I know this environment affected you as well, it wasn't your main motivation in wanting to die. You sought to escape yourself.

I believe somehow you'd re-found your true nature, your true goodness, and were incapable of living with yourself knowing the bad things you'd done. You were broken inside because you were truly remorseful.

I believe for years you'd fooled yourself into believing you were a true gangster, without any feelings – without any compassion for anyone but yourself and your fellow gang members.

I believe that your need to find a bond, a connection with others pushed you into turning yourself into a cinema version of a gangster: hardcore and ruthless. You felt you needed to be this way to fit into the gang world. To be a part of a group you could feel a bond with – a connection to… Yet, eventually, that facade crumbled away as the years dragged by. Eventually you were left to deal with who you really were, and, most importantly, your conscience. And it consumed you.

I believe that ending was much worse for you than any punishment a government could impose on you: to realize you'd lived a lie and harmed innocents while play-acting at being something you never were. To realize feeling alone pushed you into joining a gang, a gang you eventually withdrew from to be… alone? Devastating.

At 4am on November 7th, the day of your death, I was sitting on my cold, hard bunk, inside my cold, dark cell, looking upward to where I knew your cell was, wondering about what was going through your mind at that instant. Were you relieved your painful journey was almost over with? Were you regretting instructing your attorneys to not file any last appeals for you? Were you afraid of what may come after death, Justen? Or was your inner-misery so intense you could not comprehend a worse existence than your current one?

At 8am on your last day, I was standing at my cell door as a group of rowdy inmates came through the section to clean. They were laughing, cutting up, totally unaware of you in your cell living out your last few hours. I wondered if you heard them laughing and felt even more alone, more cut off from society? Did you feel slighted by their laughter, or were you happy they'd found a way to laugh through the emotional darkness of prison?

I looked at my clock at 11:53am and realized your last visit with your mom was almost over. At any moment, you two were going to have to say goodbye. I was wondering what in the world she must be feeling right then. Was she crying? Or was she trying to hold it together to make things easier on you? Was she distraught at having to visit you through a glass window? To not get to touch her baby boy one last time while he still lived? What were you feeling Justen, looking into your mom's anguished eyes knowing you'd caused her pain? How did you cope with that?

At 4:55pm, I asked Patrick Murphy – who'd made the trip to the Death House in Huntsville, Texas, before getting a stay – what you were likely dealing with at that moment. He said, “Well, they just took the phone and food away from him. The Chaplains are probably going to talk to him, until they take him to the Death Chamber about 6pm.”

I was thinking about you, Justen, trying to will you to feel my presence and have you feel less alone.

At 6pm, I turned my radio to 90.1KPFT to listen to the “Execution Watch” show until they reported you were gone.

For the rest of that night, I wondered if you were in a better place. For the rest of that long dark night, I wondered what your family, particularly your mother, was enduring. I wished they were not suffering.

Your journey through Death Watch was one of the hardest for me to witness. It brought home my own fears of being unable to find a balance with my own conscience and being consumed by it. Or, of one day losing my fighting spirit and giving up. More than anything it was emotionally painful to see you in such pain; to see you literally radiating unhappiness and inner-misery.

The last couple of months of your life you rarely came out of your cell to go to recreation. The very few times you did, it was obvious you didn't want to talk to anyone. I could tell you were sinking further and further inward – further and further away from everyone. You had to feel so alone. I struggled with knowing what to do to help. I realized that you just wanted to be left alone, so I did not intrude. And I left you alone. Alone, where you'd always felt you'd been.

Rest in Peace.


Travis Runnels: December 11th, 2019

Dear Travis,

I can’t write this. I can’t write this. I can’t write this. I can’t write this is all that is going through my mind, over and over, as I sit here with tears clouding my vision, drip-drip-dripping onto the page as I try to write your farewell. As I try this exhausting task, this impossible task, of rooting out the emotions our friendship created and try to put words to them. As I try using meager words to express such complex feelings that hurt my soul to capture; each emotion caught with words placed onto a sheet of paper feeling like a thousand cuts to my heart. I don’t want to look so deep into myself and feel what a loss it is to lose such a rare person as you were. I don’t want to say goodbye. I don’t want to feel thousands of cuts to my heart. I don’t want to finalize your existence. 

I’m afraid to write your farewell because I know the emotional pain I face… You were like my friend, Juan Castillo, who was also executed by Texas. You were not a dime a dozen person. You shined. You cast a big shadow. Losing a friend of your worth and uniqueness is brutal.

You cast such a big shadow that I considered you my friend long before we ever met. One of the best people I’ve ever met in prison, a little guy named MacGyver, told me a lot about you. He spoke so highly of your character and morality that I promised myself to seek you out if we were ever near each other. If someone I respected as much as MacGyver spoke so well of you, then you were my friend too – even if you didn’t know it yet. You were such a rare person, you made friends with people you didn’t know, simply because others who crossed your path came to love and respect you.

When I learned about you, I was headed to Death Row myself. As fate would have it, you ended up living out your last months in the cell right next to mine. Over those last months, I came to know you well. Everything MacGyver told me about you was true: you personified loyalty, honor, integrity and compassion; qualities not always easy to find, qualities I value above all, qualities you had in abundance. You really did shine, my friend.

Our life paths were similar: in prison at 17, then briefly free before returning to prison with so much time we’d go out as ancients, then coming to Death Row for crimes committed in prison; both struggling to conquer our anger and enormous pride. Yet you found a way to defeat your anger and face prison life’s unending injustices, slights and cruelties with your pride intact while not resorting to violence.

Not reacting with violence is a vow I made, but it is often a bitter vow I hold full of anger and feeling a loss of pride. What you learned – what I’m learning – is maturity. You were one of the most mature people I’ve ever met. 

Before you died, you gave me the last letter from your friend who you’d asked to write me if you didn’t make it. This was another act of kindness by you. You wanted her to have someone you trusted once you were gone. You wanted me to enjoy a friendship with someone you loved. To the end, you worried about those who you loved and cared about.

In her beautifully written letter, she wrote, “I will never forget you. Your footprint on my life is far too big to not remember you… I’m proud of you for always keeping an open-mind and concern for other people. You’ve done the best you could to be a good person. I’m sure you are a great example to a lot of people.”

What your friend said is true: you were a great example to a lot of people. I am one of them. I am a better person for having known you. I will use your example of maturity to continue my own quest to face prison life’s unending injustices, slights and cruelties with my pride intact and without anger or violence. You showed me it could be done. I’ll never forget it or you. Your footprint on my life is far too big to forget you…

Shortly before your death, an example of your maturity and inner-growth stunned me. You were only days away from your possible death, obviously a very stressful time for you, when an oversized, white, bully-boy prison guard came walking by and stopped his bulky body in front of your cell. I was standing at my door, looking right in his face as he stared into your cell. An ugly look of hatred crossed his plain, pale face and he growled out in a rough drawl, full of contempt, “We’re goin’ to get you, nigger.” He then stood there, aggressively staring at you, waiting for a response.

I was about to cuss him out in defense of you but, before I could, you spoke. Calmness was in your voice, kindness too. No anger, no rage. You said, “Life is too good to be so bitter and angry. I hope you learn this.”

You spoke these words with such sincerity. It was that sincerity, more than anything, that crushed him. At those calmly spoken, unexpected words, this big man seemed to deflate. A look of shame crossed his face. When I saw that look on his face, as he slinked away from your door, my own anger went up in smoke. I, too, felt ashamed at the curse words unspoken on my lips, at the bitterness in my heart.

To deal with that situation, in that way, at that time in your life when death was crouching in the near distance, was a testament to the deep change you’d made within yourself during your 14-years on Death Row. Reacting that way, at that time, was only possible because you’d changed, utterly and sincerely. Had your change been a superficial mirage, you would have cracked right then and reacted wildly. Instead, you reacted like a real man should.

You told me a lot about the many close friends you’d made over the past decade. ‘Pen-pals’ some would say, ‘family’ you would say; family who you felt were more true and loyal than your blood family, people you loved, truly and deeply.

Three of these people were among several of your last visitors: two sisters, one of whom has an 18-month-old baby girl. I was in the visitation room on December 6th, waiting to be taken back to my cell, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a black-clad woman walk by going into the attorney booth. As I looked over, another woman walked by, holding an adorable baby on her hip. Somehow, I knew I’d seen the baby before, but I couldn’t quite place how I could possibly recognize a baby. Then I realized, I’d seen her in the pictures you had shown me of the two sisters. I looked over at the younger sister, who was still in my line of sight, to see if I recognized her from the photos too. As soon as I did, she looked over at me, saw me looking at her and, like a shot, she ducked behind a wall so I could no longer see her. Her shyness cracked me up. I immediately liked her.

When I told you about her hiding from me, you also thought it was hilarious and had a good laugh about it. Then you told me about the baby girl doing the Baby Shark dance for you. The love in your voice for her was thick as you told me how she’d sing, “Baby Shark” and bop around in a circle; happy, innocent and beautiful. The joy she brought you was intense. If she, her aunt, or her mother ever read this: he loved you all more than you’ll ever realize.

One of your last actions showed your innate goodness, your compassion, and your true love for others: you created a package for that baby girl for when she is old enough to understand it. A package containing letters you’d written her, telling her about yourself, showing her who you were. There were also final letters from your many friends, expressing to you what you meant to them. You wanted her to know who you really were. You wanted her to know you loved her. You wanted her to know it; you showed people you loved them.

On the day of your execution, it was reported that hundreds of prison guards turned up at Walls Unit (where executions are carried out) and celebrated when your death was announced. I’m sure you would have told them, if you could: “Life is too good to be so bitter and angry. I hope you learn this.”  

Rest in Peace.


P.S. “Baby shark, doo doo doo doo doo doo…”

Follow Up

Joseph Christopher Garcia
Born: November 6th, 1971
Executed: December 4th, 2018 by his Texas captors
Buried: June 17th, 2019 by his friends and family

“Hey Arleene, come over here and check this out with me?” called Joseph Garcia.

“What is it, Joey?” asked Arleene Negron, as she skipped lightly through the billowing, white clouds on her strong brown legs.

“Look down through the clouds to the Silver Mount Cemetery on Staten Island, where you are buried,” Joseph said, as he parted the clouds for his little sister so she could see better.

“Who are those people at my grave, Joey?” little, beautiful Arleene wondered.

“On the left, in the rose dress, is my wonderful friend Carolina, and next to her is my friend and attorney, Miridula. Next to her is my friend and Carolina's sister, Cristina. The older guy is our Uncle Ramon. Do you remember him?” asked Joey.

“A little. Why are they all at my grave?” Arleene asked.

“Because they’re honoring my last wish before I was executed by Texas. Those good, beautiful people love me. They came together to see my ashes buried with you, my beloved little sister.” Joey said.

As tears formed in Arleene's eyes, Joey asked her, “Why are you sad?”

“I am not sad,” she said. “I am filled with happiness that in your life on earth you found the loyal, true, friends you always wanted. I am happy you had them after I left. And it makes me feel so happy that you love me so much, to think of me for your last request. I love you, Joey,” Arleene said.

“I love you too, Arleene,” Joey said as they stood arm in arm, watching through the luminous clouds as Joey's ashes were buried at the foot of Arleene's grave. After watching Carolina, Miridula, Cristina and Ramon say their goodbyes to him, cry, laugh, hug, and cry some more, before departing the beautiful tree-filled cemetery, Joey asked Arleene. “Hey, do you want to go eat some tacos?”

“Oh, Joey!” Arleene exclaimed, “Ever since you got here you want to eat tacos every day!”

Laughing, Joey replied, “They are just so heavenly!”


On June 17th, 2019, four wonderful people came together to bury Joseph Christopher Garcia's ashes in the Silver Mount Cemetery on Staten Island in New York City, with his beloved sister, Arleene Negron. Arleene died after a horrible battle with cancer when she and Joseph were children. Arleene was Joseph's world. He was taught by his parents to care for her every day, and to be with her as her constant companion and friend. This cemented an unbreakable bond between them.

When Joseph was awaiting his execution by the revenge-crazed State of Texas, his Federal Appeal attorney, Miridula, asked him if he had any last requests. He told her he would like to be cremated and buried with his sister, Arleene. Not only did Miridula arrange this, but she also invited those she knew who loved Joey.

Carolina and her sister Cristina traveled all the way from San Antonio, Texas, to New York City so they could lie their friend to rest. The siblings’ Uncle Ramon, who lives in New York City, came to show the family’s love and support.

(To learn more about Joseph and his sister Arleene, see Months Before Six – Part Two.)

Save some tacos for me, Joey!


Death House  – A piece inspired by the writing of James Rollins.

Poison pumped into his veins. Relentlessly, it invaded him.
Unable to make a sound, he screamed silently.
He didn't cry with puny lungs, or the vibration of vocal cords. He howled out of the core of his soul. Silently.
He could not escape the agony. His mind attuned to life, continued its struggle to breathe and pump his heart. 
Forbidden from oblivion, by the poison coursing through him, his being recorded every detail: the sear of his lungs, the fire in his veins, the burning of his core. He burned from the inside out, propelling his silent cry to the heavens.
As he expelled himself upward, he finally found his release.
His head fell back to the gurney.
His heart clenched one last time, squeezing out the last of him.
Then nothing.


Billy Tracy 999607
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351


urban ranger said...

Great insight and fine writing is the
very least I can say
to describe this totally amazing piece.

Keep up the good work, Billy Joel,
but take good care of yourself in the process.

Blackrose said...

I write to you from afar .... today I heard your story, which is repulsive and at the same time very close to me .... man does not consist only of what is beautiful and it worries the most. be wise in all this. be strong and wise.

Carolina Escobar said...

Oh, Billy, Billy, Billy,

You never cease to amaze me. Your writings are such a wonderful tribute to the men whom have lost their lives in such a dreadful way. Each story is unique and interesting, as each man was his own person. It's like reading a different novel each time. You write like a novelist, with experience, like an expert.

On a personal basis, thank you for the piece about Joseph Christopher Garcia. It is creative and original. I will treasure it forever.


Sabrina Miller said...

I’ve read all of the “Months Before Six” pieces published here and I am once again in awe of your writing Billy. The way you write about these men and their last days on Earth is so heartbreaking but yet so important. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and giving us readers a chance to know what these men are like and giving us a sense of who they are, outside of what the media tells us about them. Keep doing what you do and we will keep reading :) I am praying for you all.

Laura Dixon said...

Thank you for writing another piece in this series Billy. The content is gut wrenching, but you write with such beautiful prose. What you are doing is nothing short of inspiring. Take care.