Monday, January 23, 2012

Thoughts about Scars and the Path Northward

Through the mail, Michael Wayne Hunter receives Minutes Before Six posts and reader comments.  He was moved to respond to a question posed that Thomas discussed in his post titled “Scars and the Path Northward.” 

by Michael Wayne Hunter

I read on Minutes Before Six where a woman basically asked, “If prison is so terrible, why would condemned prisoners fight so hard to get their sentences commuted to life without possibly of parole?” She also essentially said if she found herself sitting on Death Row for a crime she didn’t commit, she’d fight like heck for her freedom, but if she did commit the crime, she’d want to be executed as soon as possible.

I appreciate that in his response, Thomas directed readers to my writing on Minutes Before Six where I have written about life in prison after Death Row. I hope he will also allow me to address aspects of the issues posed by this thoughtful woman and I want to thank her for her interest.

Although doing life in California prison is far from paradise, if you choose, you can make a life here. I read, I write, I hang with my hoodlum friends, I go to work in various jobs I’ve had since I left San Quentin’s Death Row in education, the library, and now as the lieutenant’s clerk.  I’m not unhappy as I make my way through my day to day.  When I’m tempted to drift towards some sort of pathetic self-pity, I think about random cruelty throughout the history of humans, people who have been imprisoned or killed not because of what they’ve done but simply because of who they are, such as the victims of the killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda or Hitler’s Europe.  What did the people in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon do to justify their tragic deaths?  Seems to me all they did was go to work to support their families.  Any injustice I’ve experienced pales into insignificance in comparison to the harsh realities of September 11, 2001.  Viewed in this context, I feel humbled by the opportunity I have to live my life albeit in grim circumstances, and find myself choosing life and optimism over death and despair.

When I was on Death Row, many prisoners said they wanted to be executed much like the woman who posed the questions.  In California, state appeals are automatic and can’t be waived.  This means a prisoner must remain on Death Row for at least a decade before they can voluntarily waive their federal appeals and allow the execution to go forward.  I wrote about this embrace of death in a published article titled Dave and I will ask Thomas to allow Dave to be posted on Minutes Before Six if readers are interested.  Of course more than a dozen California death row prisoners committed suicide during my eighteen years, but in my opinion very few took their own life due to a reasoned, rational analysis of their circumstances as suggested by the woman who posed the question that Thomas answered.  I believe most gave into despair and depression and then ended their lives, but that’s just my opinion.  One really never knows precisely what’s going on in someone else’s head.

Reading Thomas’ answer, it seems to me what keeps him going is trying to become the change he wants to see.  My motivation is much more mundane:  curiosity.  I have so many authors I still want to read and words I still want to write describing in my simple way the world I move through each day.  And most of all I just want to hang around to find out what’s going to happen next.

To read a letter about a Death Row suicide written by Willie Johnson, a resident of San Quentin’s Death Row and contributor to Minutes Before Six, click HERE 

© Copyright 2012 by Michael Wayne Hunter. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Letters to a Future Death Row Inmate, Part 25

by Samir (known by the FDOC as Roderick M. Orme)

To Whom It May Not Concern:

I very much wish I didn’t have cause to pen this letter, but life can be ugly sometimes and what matters is where you go from here.  I’m not really sure if my voice will be of any comfort because few listen to the words of the condemned.  Perhaps we both still have time to mend the shattered world we roam…6 feet by 8 feet a day.

I know for months and most likely years now, you have felt a numbness of disconnection.  Every time you see your reflection in the mirror as you brush your teeth or wash away the cold sweat from another night of restless sleep, you see a distorted stranger looking back at you.  It’s not the fun house mirror.  It’s the battle of your conscience not being able to answer that nagging question of “how did I get here?!”  I suggest you do your level best to answer this question, but not in one day and certainly not in the first days.  This puzzle will slowly fall into place, as truth always presents itself if given time.

For now, try to place yourself in the moment.  Going round and round with all those thoughts of  “I wish…” and “if only….”, and seeking that one domino that started this awful chain reaction will not change where you are now.  Those choices have already come and gone and you chose poorly.  Also, worrying about the days yet to come is fruitless right this moment.  First, you must accept where and who you are, for only then can you decide where and who you’ll be.

So brother, as they first lock you into this cage with that slamming steel door, try to just breathe.  Don’t let the walls crush the last vestige of hope and sanity from your being.  Be in the moment…close your eyes…and just breathe deeply.  The air might be stale and musky, but the worst breath is better than no breath.

Once you’ve steadied your breathing, open your eyes and look around you.  This is real.  This isn’t a sleeping nightmare.  Don’t imagine that every time you hear a guard enter the wing, he’s coming to tell you that you’re free and it’s all been a big mistake.  If you’re innocent, pray that God, DNA, and sound evidence bring you freedom, as it does happen.  Calm down and be patient.  Never, ever give up but don’t give in to illusion either.

Unless you’ve been diagnosed with a serious psychosis like schizophrenia, stop taking all anti-depressants.  Of course you’re depressed! But if you’re not careful, the state will pump chemicals into you to keep you quiet until the last chemicals come to you while you’re strapped to a gurney.  Try to deal with the pain because feeling pain is better than feeling nothing.

Your first order of business is giving your mind an exercise in necessity and not futility. Get into the law.  Lady Justice today is still blind, but these days she is blinded by overworked public defenders who often reek of booze and chewing gum, by career building prosecutors who use your misery as a stepping stone for political gain, and an over-burdened legal system that feeds on copious amounts of cash for justice. But you’re not blind!  Even guilty people have been afforded by our founding father the right to seek redemption, penance (as in penitentiary) for our guilt and sins.  Study the law and don’t be just another warehoused sheep.  We truly have the best legal system in the world but it cannot help you if you don’t know it, so stop watching TV all day and pick up a law book.  Don’t believe your innocence, or the fact that you’re a nice guy, holds the key to your freedom.  They execute nice guys all the time, and cook a few innocents as well. This isn’t an episode of Law and Order, and CSI isn’t real life.  Do your own work.

If your family and friends abandon you right away or slowly fade to black in time, bear no ill will.  This crisis affects more than just you.  At least two families have had the world snatched from under their feet.  It’s not just you in pain.  Be understanding and patient with them, for they too are having trouble breathing right now.

Finally, this place can either be a prison strictly of steel and stone or it can be a personal sanctuary, and even a monastery.  Work on your strength, physically, emotionally and especially spiritually.  The truth of God will reveal itself to you in time if you just seek truth.  Chances are you came here in a sad state, either brought on by others or self-inflicted through abuse and addiction.  Use this time to regain your humanity.  Go back and find that innocent little boy you lost contact with so long ago.  Take his hand and let him show you the way to happiness.  He can teach you how to once again love yourself and hopefully, in time, forgive yourself for past mistakes and sins.  Many will never grant you respite, but in the end, it is ultimately God and yourself that you need grace from.  So love yourself fully, wholly acknowledging both your attributes and your flaws. This is the only way to truly pay tribute and respect to those you’ve wronged.  Be a better person and when that final day comes, however it comes, you can let go with peace in your heart.

I hope these words have helped you, my brother.  You can do it.  Until we meet in the next life…

Your brother,

Roderick M. Orme #726848
Union Correctional Institution
7819 N.W. 228th Street
Raiford, FL 32026

© Copyright 2012 by Roderick Orme. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


By Michael Wayne Hunter

"One day you'll slip," Woody shouted at a guard up high, manning a control tower at Salinas Valley Prison, "and I'll get you."

"Yeah, yeah," the guard replied in a bored with it all voice. "Go about your business."

"I'm serious."

"Trying to get off the yard?" the guard asked calmly, casually.

"Punk ass bitch!" Woody shook his fist.

Sighing, the guard activated his alarm, the yard went down, and Wood was gaffled away.

"Drug debts," my cellie, Cannibal, clued me. "Guess he couldn't pay them, so he hit the gate."

Months later, I boarded the gray goose, the California Department of Corrections bus transporting me to Pleasant Valley Prison, resolved to keep quiet my eighteen years on San Quentin's Death Row. I wanted to just fade into the background.

"Death Row Mike," I heard someone say.

So much for obscurity. Looking around I saw Woody.

Going through the Orientation process at Pleasant Valley, I lost track of Woody and considered myself lucky.

"Death Row Mike," Easy got at me on the yard. Six foot five or so about 270 pounds, he was the dollar bill shotcaller. A white clique mostly from Sacramento and Stockton, they tatted dollar bills on their hands. Their motto: "WE GET PAID."

Although athletic as hell, dominating the handball wall, Easy walked with a limp courtesy of a 9mm capping his knee. Making his way to me, he said, "Got something going with Woody. Said you jailed with him at Salinas and would co-sign he's a good wood."

Silence reigned for a minute or two before I replied, "I'm not representing."

"Just you and me, Mike, no one else listening."

"Woody hit the gate owing."

Heard about all that. Woody said he was on a mission for the woodpile and they were s'pose to clear the debt."

"That so? Never heard of a mission that called for hollering at a cop in a tower."

"No, no," Easy interjected, "he hit a snake in the grass."

"All he hit was the gate."


"Yep. Spoke harsh to a cop and was gone."

"All right." He tilted his head back and forth and then seemed to come to a decision. "Jus' keep this 'tween you and me."

Over the next few months, Woody was mixing with the dollar bills. Figured Woody had something they wanted, no doubt a drug pipeline. I waited for the wreck and all of a sudden Woody was gone.

"Woody screwed me," Easy got at me.

"That was predictable."

"Said he needed some sharpened steel to take care of some bizness."

"Didn't think Woody was really going to hit someone?" I tried and failed to keep the merriment out of my voice.

"No, thought he was just going to show it to someone, run a bluff. Showed it to someone all right, he turned it into the sergeant, gave up my name, and locked up."

"Why your name? There's a whole lot of guys I'd rather have mad at me than you?"

"Wants me on his enemy list, so we won't jail again. Rat bastard owes me. You screwed up, Mike."

"I told you he was no good."

"Shoulda pushed the issue."

"Told you what I knew. Next time you want me to make something up?"

"No, no, all you bring in here is your word. You're right."

Hesitating, he added, "Woody was golden, for awhile, any wood who says he needs a shank has one coming." Shrugging, he laughed and said, "I'm not locked up, so I guess they know he's full of lies. It's all good."

"Cool." I started to move away. "Catch you around, Easy."

"Wait up. Think you owe me one. Need you to move my homie, Smiley, in your house."

My cellie had just moved in with an ink slinger to have his chest blasted with tatts, so I had an empty bunk.

"My cellie is falling back after his tattoos are done."

"Take Smiley in until then."

I didn't want Smiley. Thirtyish, five foot seven or eight inches and about three to four hundred pounds. As wide as he was tall, a cube. Some of the worst jailhouse tattoos covered his face and body. My only contact with him to date was when he'd holler from another table in the chow hall, "Gonna eat that?" "Yes," I'd always tell him, even if I didn't want it. I hate bad manners.

Food sharking was more than a past time for Smiley, it was a primary aspect of his belief system. He didn't view it as bad manners. Living together would be a severe culture clash.

"Easy, I don't think we would be a good fit."

"Not 'zactly a News Flash, no one wants to live with Smiley. But he's my Sac homeboy, we jailed at High Desert. Jus' do me a favor and talk to him. Okay?"

Reluctantly, I nodded.

"Easy's my dawg," Smiley eagerly volunteered. "We were loaded 24/7 at High Desert."

"That's not my life style." I tried to get Smiley to reject me. "No alcohol in the house. If the cops crack it, I'll have to ride the beef with you and I'm not down for it."

"I'll take the heat," Smiley insisted.

"A bag of wine is too large, the cops won't b'lieve I don't know about it."

"How about substances?"

"Guess if I don't know I don't care. I'm gone most of the day to Office Services and when I'm home I'm studying college courses. I need a cellie that can chill. Are you able to kick back?"

"Don't have no appliances. Can I watch your TV?"

It's no disgrace to be broke. When I was at San Quentin, I went through a divorce. I had given control of my bank account to my soon to be ex-wife, so while we went through the divorce process I had no access to money for almost a year. I had a radio, TV, to fill the empty hours, but over the months my shoes got real beat up. Without telling me, my condemned buddies on Death Row had new ones sent to me. "Glad you got some decent kicks," my friend Bill, whose mom had sent the shoes, said, "you were a dam embarrassment."

"I have to watch college videos on my TV," I answered Smiley. "Easy asked me to get at you, that's done, I'll get back to him."

"We're definitely not a good fit," I laid it on Easy.

"Just bring him in for a minute." Easy clapped his huge paw on my shoulder. "If it's no good, I'll move him on."

"He has no appliances. I'll find him a TV, but his homies have to chip in."

"We got you. Smiley's got game, Mike, he'll find a hustle."

Taking precious time from my studies, I checked out some idiot boxes. First one I could have for free, but multiple patched together repairs made it a fire waiting to happen. Pass. The second was thirty-five dollars and a huge improvement, but all the buttons had fallen off, so a pencil turned it on and off and changed the channels. Maybe. The third was fifty dollars and was pristine. The guy selling was about to parole and wanted food for a farewell feast. I hit the prison store and traded for the set.

"Right on," Smiley said happily when I delivered the set. "Am I moving in?"

I shrugged, found Easy, and asked him for four jars of Folgers for his share. Taking them from his shelf, he handed them over.

"I'm not paying the clerk to move him in."

"Drifter's a homeboy. I got it," Easy assured.

Smiley showed at my door with the TV and damn little else, a couple of large plastic bags full of what looked like trash.

"What's that?"

"Hook up letters," he answered and slid the bags under the bed. "I have trouble getting onto the top bunk. Can you move up?"

"I'm old, not going to get any younger. 'You're fat, you can lose weight."

Disgruntled, he set his TV on the top locker and climbed onto the upper bunk.

"Coffee?" I asked. He brightened a bit. Filling my hot pot, I said, “You can use it, but it's got a short. When it's plugged in, don't move it or the power will blow. We have to be careful until the new one I ordered gets here."

"Mike," he said sarcastically, "I know how to use a hot pot."

"Just be careful. Don't blow the power."

"I won't. Hey, it's stuffy up here, can you move your fan so I can get more air?"


Smiley pouted but didn't say anything and sipped the coffee I handed up to him.

After awhile, dayroom was called and we went out. I headed for the phone, Smiley went directly to the officers' podium and started chopping it up with Officer Fernandez. The fat man was bouncing up and down like a beach ball, they were laughing. Smiley as court jester.
On the phone, I told Rene about Smiley's weight and request for air.

"If he'll exercise, just walk twenty minutes or so a day, I'll send him a fan," she offered.

"I'll let him know."

"Rene would do that for me?" Smiley exclaimed when we were back in the cell.

"Only if you exercise."

Settling onto my bunk, I started reading political science.

"Mike, where are soups on this canteen list?"

"There." I pointed.

"And coffee?"

Setting aside my book, I asked, "Can you read?"

"A little. Can puzzle things out."

We went over the entire list, and Smiley was able to memorize where every item was located. Amazing.

"My homie, Risky, is hooking me a case of soup and a jar of coffee."

"Good of him." I started to open my book again.

"What you reading?"

"How laws are made in Washington."

Hesitantly, he said, "I know Washington is up north somewhere, but sometimes on TV it seems it's way east."

"The state of Washington is north. Washington D.C. is east, it's the United States capitol.

"I seen it on the weather map," Smiley acknowledged. "But why's the capitol way over there? Sacramento is California's capitol and it's kind of in the middle. Why not put Washington in the middle?"

"It was sort of in the middle when there were thirteen states. George Washington was from Virginia, the capitol is near his home, Mount Vernon."

Smiley looked confused but didn't ask anything.

"How far did you get in school?"

"Not far. My dad was a biker, in and out of prison, so we lived in Section 8 housing in the ghetto. I was the only white kid in school, so I was in fights a lot. By the seventh grade, I stopped going."

"What did you do?"

"Ran the streets, shoplifted, sold drugs, when I got older stole cars. Wasn't 'til after my first term I started robbing. My dad died in prison from AIDS he got from a dirty needle. My mom went back to Iowa. I was in prison then, but when I got out I went there too."

"Why did you come back?"

"Robbed a liquor store. The cops that busted me found out I was wanted in California, so they didn't bother charging me. I was shipped on the first thing smoking back. All California wanted me for was failing to report to my parole agent, so I did a six-month violation and was back out. But my mom told me to stay outta Iowa," he said sadly. "Guess it was for the best, probably woulda charged me for the robbery if'n I'd gone back there."

"All right, Smiles."

It occurred to me that except for a side trip to Iowa, all Smiley knew was a few square blocks of Sacramento ghetto and assorted prison yards.

When I came to Pleasant Valley, they didn't have my education history, so they placed me in G.E.D. class. How in the hell did Smiley slip past?

Lying on his bunk, Smiley slid his hands under his belly fat and they disappeared from view. Black hole.

After dinner, Smiley peeled off to pick up his psych meds. "Get depressed sometimes," he said.

When he caught up to me, he reached under his belly and pulled out a clear plastic bag full of pills. "Like my safety deposit box?" He patted his stomach.

"Thought they were crushing pills?"

"Easy got a legal beagle in the law library to file some court papers. So far got back the Morphine pills and Neurotins. Not legal to crush time release meds."

In the morning, I made Smiley a cup of coffee and went out early with education release.

On the morning break from school, I saw Smiley spinning laps on the yard. "Tell Rene," he called as he sped by.

Right on, Smiley, I thought and went about my day.

After school, I went home to a dark cell. Power blown.

"Risky dropped off the soups and coffee," Smiley explained. "When I tried to use the hot pot, the power went off."

The guards won't flip the breaker unless you turn in the faulty appliance, so I took a toothpaste off my shelf and bought from Boxer a burned out homemade stinger. After I turned it in at the officers' podium, Officer Fernandez went into our cell's chase and flipped the switch.

"Thanks, Fernie," I heard Smiley say, "my cellie's fuckin' up." They laughed together.

Walking silently away, I hit the showers and tried to cool off.

"Look," I said to Smiley when we were back in the cell, "I told you the hot pot..."

"Been jailin' a long time," Smiley cut me off. "Don't need no schoolin’.”

About to go nuclear, I noticed for the first time his glazed eyes. Swiftly glancing around, I spotted at the end of his bunk pill residue left from smashed and snorted pills.

"Sure you're right," I rasped, "no use schooling a pill head. From now on don't touch my stuff or we're going to have problems."

"Got my own stuff coming," Smiley replied cryptically.

After dinner, our cell door popped open and Smiley seemed to be expecting it and took off. Looking out, I watched Officer Fernandez unlock the guards' office door and Smiley went in and started cleaning.

What the hell? Deciding just to feel blessed he was out of the cell, I started studying.

"Mike," Smiley was at the door. "Need to borrow a CD."


"It's not for me, Fernie has a boom box in the office and we're going to bang it."

I handed him my least favorite CD.

"Not that one," Smiley objected. "Fernie wants to listen to your Led Zeppelin CD.

"How in the hell does he know I got a Led Zep CD?" I asked sharply.

"Uh," Smiley stuttered, "you don't have to loan it."

"Oh, yeah, he can just come up here and take everything I got. Here!" I thrust mighty Led Zep at Smiley. "Do not come home without it!"

Smiley came back a few hours later with the CD and a hot pot and a fan.

"Where did the appliances come from?"

"Staff  bathroom. They got all kinds of stuff they've confiscated in there."

Apparently cleaning the guards' office and staff bathroom made Smiley hungry, he cooked four Top Ramen noodle soups and then ate two more raw before he went to bed.

Since he had his own fan, Smiley stopped walking and seemed to grow bigger day by day. When I came home from School, he would be writing letters, seemingly copied from a form letter he got somewhere and then would post them nightly. Most of his letters came back marked UNDELIVERABLE, but when he received a response he'd quickly take it to Easy and they'd confer sometimes for hours.

After dinner, Smiley would fall by the pill line and come home with pills, sometimes several bags of them, hidden under belly fat. The nights Officer Fernandez worked, Smiley would head out and come home most nights with appliances such as fans, radios, TVs, hot pots, one time a typewriter. I was cool with it since he'd be gone and I could study in peace.

"Where are all the appliances going?" I asked, they were always gone by the time I came home from school the next day.

Smiley ran down all one hundred cells in our building, named the prisoners in them, what appliances they had in the cell and what they might want to buy. I was in awe. No doubt he would've been a great used car salesman, especially since he had a singular lack of ethics. Someone got at Smiley about a specific type of radio, he found one in a cell and had Fernandez confiscate it.

"Are you crazy?" I asked Smiley. "That radio is all that guy had in the world. Not only is it just plain wrong, he might get it into his head to stab you."

"Don't know I got it, it's sold and gone," Smiley said off-handedly.

When Smiley was making his rounds looking for product and customers, sometimes the tower officer would tell him to take it home. With a great flurry of arms and legs, he would look like he was obeying, but really wasn't moving at all. When the tower officer's attention went elsewhere, he would continue his rounds.

Drifter and Risky got at Smiley. "I want the digital radio you got last night," Risky said, "but ten dollars is too much. How about six?"

"Price is ten." Smiley was firm.

"Risky been buying you soups and coffee every month," Drifter argued.

"He's your homeboy, need to give him a break."

"Need to respect my hustle."

"The appliances the cops confiscate is my hustle," Drifter said sharply, starting to get angry. "I'm the damn building clerk. Only let it 'cuz you're a homeboy."

"I'm going to get Easy," Smiley threatened and took off.

"What's the deal with Easy and Smiley?" I wondered.

"Smiley's unsearchable," Drifter clued and Risky nodded.


"If Smiley picks up dope in the Visiting Room, he's got so many folds in his fat he's unsearchable. Easy and Smiley had some hood rat muling at High Desert. They had it going on."

"Smiley hasn't been getting visits here."

"Smiley paroled and within twenty four hours strangled the mule. That's what he fell for this time. Now they got to find a new hook up to mule."

"So that's what all the letters are about?"

"Yeah, Smiley's writing every crack house in the hood, looking for a crack whore with a clean enough record she can be approved for visits. Once they find one, they'll be rolling."

"What's with Smiley and Fernandez? Is he telling?"

"Naw," Drifter denied. "Cops like a fool and Smiley plays one for 'em”

Easy came up with Smiley. "What's the problem?"

"No problem," echoed Risky and Drifter. Smiley looked on with a triumphant grin.

As the days passed, Smiley spun more and more wildly, loaded on Pharma Bliss. Often, I'd come home and he'd be sitting naked in the cell with the lights off, staring blankly at something only he could see. Disturbing.

"Bringing an ink slinger into the house on Saturday," Smiley let me know, "getting a dollar bill tatt."

"Go to his house."

"Not asking, tellin' you."

"And I'm telling you no."

"I'm gonna tell Easy."

"I'll tell him."

I caught up with Easy and let him know it's not working, he needed to find another place for Smiley.

"What's wrong now," he said with a deep sigh.

"Don't really care that much about the pills, but..."

“What pills?"

I ran down the story of a naked, spun Smiley in a darkened cell.

Face tight with anger, Easy sent Risky to find Smiley.

"Tol' you to stay straight 'til you get a hook up!" Easy got into Smiley's face.

"I'm straight," Smiley lied.

"Bet he's got pills hidden in his belly," I interjected. "Maybe we can find them there, maybe not, but check the end of his bunk. It's caked with crushed pills, he's too damn lazy to clean up."

"You crushed the pills," Smiley said desperately.

I shook my head, and Easy said, "Everyone knows Mike doesn't use. That's why I put you in there."

Turning toward me, Easy said, "I got this, Mike." I took off.

A chastened Smiley came home. "Easy tol' me I was wrong and I'm through if I lie to him again. Why'd you tell on me?"

"Wouldn't have to worry if you didn't lie to your homies. You're not bringing anyone in this house on Saturday or any other day. Hear me?"

Eyes on the ground, Smiley nodded.

Evil got at me in school. "Your cellie's been no paying on a fifty dollar paper of heroin. Know you weren't there when the deal went down, but you will be there when the vato locos come in your house to collect."

Just great, Smiley been doing big things. "Thanks for the head's up, Evil. Keep the vato locos out of my cell and I'll get back at you with something tomorrow."

"Taking over the debt?"

"No way." I shook my head. "Smiley will pay or I'll slow drag from yard and give the vato locos a clear shot at my cellie."


Walking into my house, I pushed up on Smiley. "Clear your heroin debt now!"

“I need some time."

"Sell your TV, get at Fernandez for a boom box, borrow from your homies. Clear the debt and start looking for a new cell."

"No one likes to live with me," Smiley said ever so sadly.

"No kidding. Clear the debt or some really bad things are going to happen to you."

"I'll take care of it tonight, jus' don't tell Easy."

"lf I don't hear tomorrow morning the debt has been paid, I'm giving the vato locos a free pass into the house to collect and I'm going to tell Easy you're getting ill instead of taking care of business."

"I am takin' care of bizness!"

"Then where's your hook up? Guess it would easier to find one if you didn't strangle them."

Smiley's mouth dropped open, realizing I knew his one and only asset to the Dollar Bills was he's unsearchable, a talent that's worthless if no mule would come near him.

Smiley took off in a hurry when Fernandez let him out that night, and Evil confirmed the next morning he had cleared the debt. But I just wanted him out.

My friend John who I shared a computer with at school, showed up in class with a Dollar Bill tattoo on his hand.

"Always thought you had a good head on your shoulders," I spoke to him, "why in the world would you join the Dollar Bills?"

Looking kind of embarrassed, he just shrugged.

"Are you clean?" Easy asked Smiley at our cell door a week or so later.

"Yes, yes," his head bobbed up and down, "I told you I'd stay clean 'til I got a hook up. Bizness first."

"Fill this." Easy slid a urine sample vial under our door. "I'm on the random drug test list today. I need a clean sample."

A month went by and Smiley had written letter after letter, but still hadn't enticed a rock star, some burned out babe, who would do anything for rock cocaine to mule for the Dollar Bills.

"Depressed," he'd mutter and dig through his bag of letters, frantically searching for the right paper that would lead to treasure.

Spinning further and further out on substances, decompensating, his comic routine faded. Officer Fernandez stopped looking out for him. Still using despite his promises to Easy, his money started getting funny. Sharks circled wanting to get paid for fronted Pharma Bliss. I wasn't going to wait for the inevitable train wreck.

"Smiley's strung out, he's in debt to scum, I want him out," I laid it out to Easy.

"I'm dealing with him," Easy assured.

"Good. I'll tell him to pack."

"Don't!" Easy grabbed my arm. "If you kick him out, he'll hit the gate."

"That's fine."

Hand tightening on my arm. "You need to hear me and stay real quiet. Even the hood rats won't deal with a stranglin' Smiley, he's bad bizness."

"Cut him loose then."

"No. The lab report came back. The urine he gave me was dirty. I got a rules violation report, and I'm going to lose my visits for a year and have mandatory monthly drug testing. I tol' 'im if he lied to me again, he'd be through. Gonna git his face sliced up, so he'l1 remember me every time he looks in the mirror. Got me?"

"Got you, Easy."

Smiley had been basking in the Easy sun for a long time and if he got burned now, so be it.

Spinning laps on break from school, three Dollar Bills jumped on a random white boy. I had no idea of the why of the beat down.

Gaffling up the three Dollar Bills, the guards went looking for more. Every white hand was checked for a dollar bill, any found were off to the hole. Easy was escorted by two guards, followed by Risky, Drifter, John his hand still healing from the dollar bill tattoo, the entire crew went away.

After an hour or so, the yard came back up and I went home. Smiley was not there. I assumed he'd been taken in the sweep and breathed freely for the first time in awhile.

The door opened, Smiley came in and jumped on me while I was lying on my bunk. "Not getting my hand tattooed saved me. Thank you, Mike," he exclaimed and hugged me. Although I was grateful he was wearing clothes, his weight compressed, suffocated me.

"Get the hell off me, Smiley."

Beaming, he got to his feet and bounced around the cell.

Our cell door opened again, Officer Fernandez looked in. "Going with your homies?" he asked Smiley.

"Don't even know those guys."

After the door closed, I said seriously, "Easy's urine came back dirty and he was going to have your face sliced open. Everyone knew about it but you. You know I'm telling the truth because you knew you were dirty when you gave Easy the urine sample and lied and said you were clean. Any other Dollar Bills around like you without a tattoo? Seems like you still might get your face sliced open, Smiley."

Fear flashed, Smiley quickly went to the door, short stopped Fernandez and went away.

-The End-

© Copyright 2012 by Michael Wayne Hunter. All rights reserved.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Checkmate in Three

(Admin Note: Thomas' Facebook page has yet again been disabled and deleted by Facebook. At this point in time I will not be starting a new personal Facebook page for Thomas. There will be a place on Facebook for us to share thoughts, links and ideas soon. Please keep an eye out here for when this is done. If you have other friends who were also friends of Thomas on Facebook, please pass this message on as well as share the link to this entry. 

Thank you for your friendship and support - Ecla

Postscript: A Facebook page has been setup for the website and not for a single inmate. The link is to the right of this page or

You are in the hospital.  They found a lump, or a leak, or you have an arrow sticking out of the side of your head.  Whatever.  It’s bad.  Everything in your little room is clean and antiseptic and a pleasant shade of taupe.   Nurses come and go, taking blood and giving you comforting   and sorrowful looks.  They never say anything, except that the doctor will be around to speak with you shortly.  When he does show up, he simply checks your chart, makes a little grunting noise, and remains inscrutable. When they come around in packs, what words they do use are as indecipherable as their handwriting.  They might have your best interests at heart, but if they do, this is an item that must be taken on faith.  Whatever is being done to help you is being done entirely out of your control, and usually entirely out of your knowledge.  It’s your life, but it sure doesn’t feel like that anymore.

This is how most prisoners feel in regards to the court process, save that the environment is not clean, there are no nurses, and whatever contact you have with your attorneys comes almost entirely in the form of letters (and you are just as dead if they screw up as when the surgeon does).  I met with my  trial attorney a handful of times while in the county jail.  I saw my attorney a handful of times while in the county jail.  I saw my direct appeal attorney once – while I was still in the county jail waiting on the Bluebird to take me to prison.  He never once came to death row.  I met with my state habeas attorney twice, the first time for a brief introductory salutation consisting of a five minute speech about how my chances of surviving this experience sat somewhere around 4 to 5%, and a second time for about five minutes, due to the fact that my writ was due the next day and he needed my signature on something that he had procrastinated on for too long to simply mail.  Since my conviction, I have spent less than an hour speaking with my actual attorneys of record about my case.  Now that I am in the federal district court, my attorney is actually pretty good, but I have still only met with him once…for fifteen minutes.  I had David Dow work on one issue of my appeal pro bono, and I have spoken with him for a number of hours, but he is not my official attorney.  The sad part is, even with this dearth of contact, I have still spent more face time with my lawyers than most of the guys around me.  Holding your client’s hand is not, apparently, part of the contract.

So you write letters.  If you are lucky, you get some answered.  If you are me, you write them incessantly and when you don’t get them answered, you send carbon copies of them to the judge to be posted on the docket sheet.  Attorneys are aware that in Texas they can get away with pretty much anything when capital defendants are concerned, so they rarely have the motivation to answer what must seem like simplistic or naïve questions.  Unless you pay them, of course.  My friend Lester has a firm out of Washington DC working on his case pro bono, what has done millions of dollars worth of work in his case.  My other friend M had a pen-pal pony up $250,000 for his defense.  Both are still alive and kicking after a few decades, and both get stacks of attorney mail.  I’m sure that is just a dual coincidence, though, right?  Legal mail is passed out in the mornings (instead of at night like the regular mail), and when you hear them knock on your door your stomach automatically clinches up, the klaxons going off at full volume up in the hypothalamus.  The other shoe doesn’t just drop around here.  It kicks hard on the way down.

About two months ago I received the finalized copy of my federal writ of habeas corpus.  For those of you not well-versed in the game of Three-Card Monty, that is the death penalty appeals process, the system works like this, briefly:  first and foremost comes the direct appeal, which deals with the issues preserved in the trial transcript.  The same judge that sat at your trial makes a recommendation to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on this, and since he was responsible for ensuring no hi-jinks went on in the courtroom, he is never going to recommend a reversal based on a point of law.  That would be a tantamount to him admitting he wasn’t paying attention.  Even if you have one of these moments, the final ruling is made by the TCCA, a body of judges entirely made up of conservative radicals who haven’t seen a death penalty conviction they didn’t approve of, save perhaps that of Jesus of Nazareth (but I am not entirely certain of even that).  If you were to create a gigantic Rube Goldberg device which stamped appeals with denials, the TCCA judges could retire and no one would be the wiser.

In most states, after the direct comes the state writ of habeas corpus.  In Texas, however, the writ and the direct appeal run concurrently.  This prevents one from using errors in the direct in your habeas, of course, but this system was designed to speed up the process, not give careful and nuanced decisions.  In this phase, you are allowed to address issues not directly noted in the trial transcript, like, say, your attorney was asleep (true story) or that the DA withheld exculpatory information that should have been presented to the defense (an event so common it has passed into the realm of cliché).  Once again, the trial judge makes a recommendation to the TCCA, who almost always deny relief.  The degrees to which the TCCA will go in order to approve of a death sentence are legendary in legal circles, and over the last few years even the 5th Circuit (the most consistently conservative federal circuit court, by far) and the SCOTUS (one of the most conservative in US history) have issued blistering rulings assaulting their competence.  So far, they have not made any adjustments down here in the Lone Star State, probably because all elected officials here know exactly who to pander to in order to get elected.  Remember, we’ve elected Mr. Can’t-Remember-A-List-of-Three-Things multiple times.  I won’t even bring up good old GW.

After the state courts come the feds.  Your first stop is the federal district court, which is where I currently find myself.  Thanks to the Antiterrorist and Effective Death Penalty Act passed by Congress back in the 90’s, the capital defendants are severely limited in which issues they can address in this court, and one has only a short amount of time with which to investigate one’s claims.  For most of us in Texas, the federal courts present us with A) our first contact with a qualified attorney, and B) a judge who *might* actually be willing to looks at one’s claims.  Why? Simple: federal judges are appointed for life, not elected, meaning they can rule based on the laws, and not public opinion.  Think about that when you vote for Newt, you nut-jobs.  Anyways, if one loses at the federal district court level, one moves on to the circuit court, which in Texas means the 5th Circuit.  The 5th has almost as bad a reputation as the TCCA, so the reality is that once you are denied relief by the fed district court, you are dead.  The 5th is not going to help you, and the only step left after that is the SCOTUS, who only look at a tiny fraction of cases each term.  Once you hit the 5th, in other words, it’s just a matter of time.  This is analogous to the doctors telling you that they growth is cancerous, the stay IV kind, and that you have a few months to put your house in order.

Below I am including a copy of my federal writ for your consideration.  It is a bit large, so I thought I would add a little table of contents for you.  I am bringing up only four issues in this writ, a significant decline in the number found in my state writ.  As I mentioned, the fed limits what issues you can appeal on quite severely.  The first claim is found on page 5, and deals with a bad plea agreement the state used to con me and my trial attorneys.  Claim 2 is probably my best, and starts on page 23; it deals with ineffective assistance of counsel at the trial level.  Claim 3 can be found on page 68, and is a three-pronged attack on the concept of “future dangerousness”.  The first two prongs are a bit complicated, so if they start to bore you, try to zoom in on the third (labeled “C”), which can be found on page 91.  Claim 4 is found on page 95, and is the standard 8th Amendment objection to the lethal injection protocol found in all writs.

The rest of the writ deals with exhibits, a list of which can be found on page 98.  I will leave it up to you to determine which of these merits your attention, but basically all of the errors in my trial are contained within this section.  I would like to bring two of them to your attention, if I may.  A few years ago, a major US “news” program went to Mexico and spoke with some of the people I lived and worked with during my time down there.  The interviews shocked me, because I still write this family, and the things that were said in the interviews were diametrically opposite what I was seeing in the letters.  Immediately after this program aired, I received letters from them which expressed their dismay at the way this program was misused, manipulated, and mistranslated their true comments.  While it does me little good now, I was able to get affidavits from this family about what they really feel about me for this writ, and I want to post them separately so as to prove a point I have made here in the past, namely that the majority of the embedded media sources in this nation have long since lost track of what honest journalism is supposed to be about cold, hard facts, not super-sensationalized drivel.  In any case, I am going to climb off my soapbox to let you peruse the writ, if you care to.  A few of you made donations to my DEFENSE FUND to help me pay for this thing, and I truly thank you.  If it is better than anything I’ve been able to submit in prior appeals, this is mostly because of you.

My federal writ of habeas corpus can be found HERE.

Exhibit P by Silvia Edith Salazar Toscano can be found HERE in English and in Spanish.  For those of you who want to know who I really am outside of all this mess, these may be as close a set of accounts as you are ever going to find.

© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved