Two years ago this week, Thomas Whitaker was granted clemency. To mark this significant occasion, it was our plan to share a new essay written by Thomas. However, unfortunately, that plan went sideways. Instead, in its place, we are re-sharing a portion of Billy Tracy's series, Months Before Six, that describes Thomas's time on Death Watch.
I also thought I would take this opportunity to share some of my personal reflections of this time with you all…
I was at the Walls Unit, waiting to be escorted to the execution, literally minutes before six, when we received the news that Thomas's life would be spared. I have been asked whether we knew ahead of time that clemency would be granted: We did not.
The days leading up to February 22, 2018 were fraught and exhausting. When the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted to recommend clemency for Thomas, we felt hope. But as the days and hours continued to pass with no word from the Governor's office, it seemed less and less likely the outcome would go our way. Finally receiving the news was stunning and momentous.
Enormous amounts of time and energy go into fighting the executions of the men and women on Death Row. Most of the time the executions are carried out anyway, especially in Texas. But this time, this particular battle was won, and a life was saved. This victory belongs to everyone who fights against the death penalty.
To the attorneys, the activists, and the loved ones of those on Death Row, you are heroes to me. You and your good works are what this world needs more of – hope, inspiration and kindness. My heart overflows with gratitude for all the good work you do.
For those who have continued to follow Thomas’s case and writing, he is in administrative segregation at the McConnell Unit. He continues to write and to look for ways to further his education. And he is grateful for his life, and for your ongoing support.
With thanks and love - Dina
By Billy Tracy
Have you seen the old TV show “The Wonder Years” with Fred Savage and Danica McKellar? If you have seen this show you will remember the science teacher just as well as the main characters, because of how this teacher spoke. He spoke in the driest monotone you can imagine. His face was a blank, emotionless, slab of European drabness, his voice was a pitchless drone, and multi-syllable words rattled out of his mouth with ease.
He was the Hollywood creation of the extreme stereotypical science teacher: very dry, very dull. Utterly emotionless and monotonous. The actor played the role so well he ended up doing commercials as that science teacher on multiple other TV shows.
I think Thomas is related to that guy. Like that fictional character, Thomas has mastered the art of removing all emotion from his voice and face.
I heard Thomas speaking long before I ever saw him when he was in the dayroom for his two hours of recreation, and his flat monotone immediately struck me as different, and then the extremely precise way he annunciated each word made me think he ironed his underwear. You just do not hear people in prison speak like that. Ever. How he structured his sentences and expressed his thoughts and ideas was like he was reading from a prepared script. That’s how organized and well thought out everything I heard him saying sounded.
He sounded like the whitest person in the history of the world, and also, extremely intelligent. My mind created an image of what I thought Thomas would look like, from listening to him speak and that was someone about thirty years old, five foot five inches tall very thin – maybe a hundred and forty pounds and balding ... And of course lily-white. I was curious to see what this uniquely-voiced individual actually looked like, but I had just arrived on Death Row the day before and my glasses were confiscated by the Major of Death, as a way to harass me, and there was no way I could see Thomas without my glasses. I had to wait until my third day on Death Row to receive my personal property, which had my spare pair of glasses.
On that day, Thomas was escorted to the dayroom, which is directly in front of my cell, but he did not speak to anyone on his way to the dayroom or when he got inside the barred cage. Without hearing his voice, I had no way to know whether he was the guy I was curious about, but when I walked to my cell door I saw a very pale-skinned, bald-headed, tallish, semi-thin guy jogging from one side of the small triangular-shaped dayroom to the other side. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth...
He was jogging with his back straight and his head up and slightly tilted back, and he ran with a slow steady stride. Even though he was much bigger than my imagination had conjured up, I immediately knew this was the science teacher I had heard the day before.
What struck me the most about Thomas was the enormous size of his head. I had the idea that he wasn’t really jogging in the dayroom, but was instead a pendulum, and his head the weighted end swinging his body back and forth .... back and forth .... with his feet pitter-patting to keep up. When he’d reach the end of the dayroom he’d just lean his head backward more and the massive weight of it caused his body to spin around and follow the new direction. As I watched him jog I was intrigued by how he would be able to stop himself. Surely his skinny legs were not strong enough to produce enough power to decelerate safely, so I watched him jog just to see how he’d come to a stop and after over an hour and a half he was still going and I was becoming convinced that I was not on Death Row at all, but in purgatory and I was watching a man trapped in a cage as some bizarre form of spiritual restitution. He would never stop, in fact couldn’t, and his head had been intentionally enlarged to such an extreme to force him to be a human pendulum.
But eventually Thomas did manage to come to a complete stop, and when he did, his back was to me and I clearly saw his neck bones compress so severely, I thought his head was going to cause his spine to collapse. But somehow the bones withstood that cosmic force and left me wondering if enough pressure had been generated in the compression between his neck bones to create a diamond.
Thomas then grabbed the thin, blue, plastic covered, foam exercise mattress and positioned it beside the sink, a stainless steel box that’s attached to the concrete wall about six inches off the ground, and is roughly three and a half feet tall. I knew he was about to sit on the matt and put his feet underneath the box frame of the sink and do sit-ups. And I became very alarmed. Sit-ups with a head that massive? If he was strong enough to lift his head up and forward surely he’d smash it into the stainless steel sink like a wrecking ball and obliterate the sink. He couldn’t possibly be able to stop his forward momentum, could he? With fascination I watched his planet-sized head rise off of the concrete (it didn’t fit entirely on the matt) and then swing forward towards the sink and then, a miracle occurred and his forward momentum actually stopped without his wrecking ball of a head smashing into the sink. Most surprising of all, when his torso stopped his head did not fly right off of his body. How the hell could his body be strong enough to endure that weight and that strain?
In my mind I had named Thomas “Bobby” from that cartoon “Bobby’s World,” about a baby with a gigantic head and who was a super genius.
I didn’t speak to Bobby, I mean Thomas, until a week or two after my arrival and as expected, he was polite but very reserved, standoffish without being rude. The first few times we spoke were brief, but there was an immediate click between us and we slowly began to thaw towards each other. Bobby – damn it – Thomas, had been on Death Row over a decade when we met and had recently received his “Date of Death” and was fighting with the aid of his father, friends, lawyers and the media for clemency, meaning his sentence would be commuted to Life without Parole. He was highly involved with this endeavor and stayed busy on one project or another in an effort to save himself.
Knowing he was a busy man fighting for his life, I did not want to bother him, but at the same time I was new to Death Row and had a ton (the weight of Thomas’s head) of questions about how things went appeal-wise, what to expect, and how to navigate all things legal. Thomas always took the time to answer in a thorough manner, covering everything I needed to know. Now and then, as the work he was doing to save himself would hit a lull, he would have more time to discuss deeper topics and we’d run through there discussing politics, religion, philosophy, science and psychology. I couldn’t miss this big-headed dude on any topic, and usually he was more well-versed on whatever subject we would be on. I would throw out questions to get him talking, but he quickly caught on to my strategy and would deflect my questions with his own questions, or, switch topics. What I got a kick out of ol’ Big Head the most was how slick he was at dispensing little bits and pieces of a story at a time and leaving you thinking you knew the whole story only to later learn you really didn’t know shit at all. With his super-dry monotonous style of talking you wouldn’t think he’d be a good storyteller – but he was. How the hell he pulled that off I have no idea. You would think listening to a robot talk would be boring, but it wasn’t at all. Plus, I was still convinced that one day, his head would fall off, and that kept me riveted too.
As robotic as he speaks – as emotionless as he portrays himself to be – you’d damn sure never expect him to be able to express deep emotions with the written word. Well, you’d be wrong. He’s the best incarcerated writer I’ve ever read by far. He writes the way I wish I could. How can such a somber person express such deep emotions in such a creative way? It’s as if he is afraid if he lets emotion show in his face or voice then it’ll be forever lost and he’d never be able to capture it on paper. It’s like he has to hold it all inside so he can save it for a later need – a later time – when he can channel it to share it with many more people through a story, article or essay.
Maybe the reason his head is so big is it’s filled with all of the emotions he never showed anyone except when he wrote.
I came to really like Thomas and respect him. He’d spent years on Death Row educating himself to a degree I have never seen another inmate do and also rebuilding a damaged relationship with someone close to him (that story alone is inspirational), all the while maintaining decent conditioning. It is rare to see men in prison who workout their bodies, minds and master their emotions. Most either accomplish nothing, or, focus on just one thing, exercising exclusively their bodies, or minds, or emotional well-being. People like that are like body builders who only workout their upper bodies. They seem okay, at first, until you see their atrophied legs. Bobby – I mean Thomas - wasn’t atrophied, especially not his head. He was well-rounded, especially his head. During his last days on Death Row he was cool and calm and stayed mellow. I know he was feeling plenty but he didn’t show it. He didn’t start acting crazy or seeking God. He maintained his composure and prior beliefs. He handled the enormous pressure of looming death extremely well. Almost as well as his neck handles the enormous pressure his head puts on it.
When it was announced on the news, he’d gotten clemency, there was a lot of cheering from those of us on Death Row who called Bobby our friend.
May your journey continue in peace and be successful.
|Billy Tracy 999607|
3872 FM 35 South
Livingston, TX 77351
|Thomas Whitaker 02179411|
3001 S. Emily Drive
Beeville, TX 78102