Friday, October 26, 2012

Retributive Injustice

By Jeremiah Bourgeois

You do not have to spend much time in a law library before discovering that legal precedents are easily abandoned or modified in order to reach a particular result. No lawyer, law professor, or legal commentator recognizes this more clearly than the prisoner does. I want to illustrate this phenomenon by evaluating a legal opinion in that I found particularly galling.

As a condition for obtaining habeas corpus relief from a federal court, a state prisoner must show that a state court’s ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fair- minded disagreement.
Harrington v. Richter, 131 S. Ct. 770, 786-77 (2011).

State prisoners have an exceedingly high legal threshold to meet when challenging their convictions and sentences in federal court. A federal judge may believe that a state court decision is erroneous, yet nonetheless be precluded from granting relief because the question “is not whether a federal court believes the state court’s determination was incorrect but whether that determination was unreasonable-a substantially higher threshold.”i This standard is sufficiently elusive to allow decisions that could not be predicted by precedent or principle. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Smith v. Spisak exemplifies how judges will give short shrift to facts, and will even obfuscate them, in order to reach the results that they desire-in this case, the desire that Frank Spisak Jr. be executed for his crimes.

Frank Spisak was convicted in 1983 for committing three murders and two attempted murders. The victims, all targeted because of the color of their skin (black) or ethnicity (Jewish), were shot down because, according to Spisak, he was on a ‘war’ for ‘survival’ of the ‘Aryan nation’ and felt it was his ‘duty’ to ‘inflict the maximum amount of casualties on the enemies.’

He also testified that he would continue his war if he ever got the chance. Not a sympathetic figure in the least. With his eagerness to go on further ‘search and destroy’ missions, it is easy to see why he was sentenced to death. The Court of Appeals overturned Spisak’s conviction and ordered a new trial after determining that his attorney’s performance was unacceptable. ii

In reversing the Court of Appeals finding that there was a “reasonable probability that a more adequate argument [by Spisak’s attorney] would have changed a juror’s vote,” a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court details, at length, just how homicidal Spisak was, yet all but omits the ineptitude of his attorney iii. They make a point of highlighting the few things that the attorney did right: he called three expert witnesses to testify that Spisak had mental defects that impaired his ability to conform to the law, and he made numerous appeals to the jurors’ sense of humanity.iv This recitation is just a prelude, however, to the conclusion that “we cannot find that a more explicit or elaborate appeal for mercy could have changed the result, either alone or together with the other circumstances just discussed.v The justices’ focus on Spisak’s mercilessness and their disregard for his attorney’s incompetence unbalanced the scales for weighing the prejudicial impact of the attorney’s performance-to wit, the probability that the outcome would have been different had the attorney performed competently. This is sophistry.

What the majority glosses over is finally revealed in Justice Stevens’s concurring opinion, where he writes:

It is difficult to convey how thoroughly egregious counsel’s closing argument was without reproducing it in its entirety. The Court’s assessment of the closing argument as ‘lengthy and rambling’ and its brief description of its content does not accurately capture the catastrophe of counsel’s failed strategy. Suffice to say that the argument shares far more in common with a prosecutor’s closing argument than with a criminal defense attorney’s. Indeed, the argument was so outrageous that it would have rightly subjected a prosecutor to charges of

After citing instances in which the attorney described Spisak’s acts “in vivid detail” and argued that Spisak deserved “no sympathy for his actions,” Justice Stevens sums the attorney’s argument up by stating:

At no point did counsel endeavor to direct his negative statements about his client toward an express appeal for leniency. On the contrary, counsel concluded by telling the jury ‘whatever you do, we are going to be proud of you,’ which I take to mean that, in counsel’s view, ‘either outcome, death or life, would be a valid conclusion. vii

According to Stevens, the closing argument by Spisak’s attorney “grossly transgressed the bounds of what constitutionally competent counsel would have done in a similar situation.” viii Nonetheless, he concludes: “Spisak’s own conduct alienated and ostracized the jury, and his crimes were monstrous. In my judgment even the most skillful of closing arguments-even one befitting Clarence Darrow-would not have created a reasonable probability of a different outcome in this case.” Whether or not you agree (the Court of Appeals clearly did not), it is clear to me that Justice Stevens’s analysis was the more intellectually honest of the two Supreme Court opinions, for he did not resort to downplaying the egregiousness of the attorney’s performance in order to legitimate reinstating Spisak’s death sentence.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Martin Luther King Jr.

Frank Spisak had a constitutional right to effective counsel, and his attorney was clearly ineffective. Frank Spisak has likely been put to death. Yet to ensure that this punishment was carried out, many within our judicial system had to turn a blind eye to an injustice. I have no respect for what Frank Spisak did. I feel nothing but contempt for the man. My personal feelings, however, do not blind me to this injustice.

i Schriro v. Landrigan, 127 S.Ct. 1933, 1939 (2007).

ii To prevail on this ‘ineffective assistance of counsel’ claim, Spisak had to demonstrate that his attorney’s representation “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness,” and that “there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the results of the proceeding would have been different.” Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 688, 694 (1984).

iii smith v. Spisak, 130 S.Ct. 676, at 685»87 (2010).

iv Id. at 687-88.

v Id. at 688.

vi Id. at 691-92 (internal citations omitted).

vii Id. at 692 (internal citations and quotes omitted). For the sake of brevity, I chose not to reproduce the examples given by Justice Stevens. However, it is worth reading, for it truly captures how outrageous Spisak’s attomey was, and reveals how glaring an omission it was for the majority not to cite it.

viii Id. at 693.

Jeremiah Bourgeois

Jeremiah Bourgeois #708897
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

Saturday, October 20, 2012

More on Proposition 34

In response to the October 5 post on Proposition 34, William M. Dennis, Douglas Scott Mickey and Donald Ray Young, inmates on Death Row at San Quentin State Prison in California, have written to express their supporting views. 

You don't need to be a resident of California to support Prop 34.  Please click here for more information:

Reconsidering California's Death Penalty

By William M. Dennis

At the time of this writing 13% of California voters are undecided on how to vote on Proposition 34, which replaces the death penalty with a sentence of life without possibility of parole (LWOP.)  The fundamental question California votes have to ask themselves on Proposition 34 is “What is in our best interest when it comes to public safety and the cost of maintaining a broken death penalty law?”  Imposing a sentence of death costs California taxpayers more than $180 million a year over what it would to sentence the same people to LWOP.  And by all accounts the system of capital punishment isn’t working as it was intended.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, 13 men have been executed.  Former San Quentin Warden Jeanne Woodford stated, “We have spent more than $4 billion on the death penalty to date.”  That averages out to one execution every 2.6 years and $300 million per execution.  As of now there are 729 women and men on California’s death row.  Even if California’s courts stopped sentencing any more people to death, at the rate we’ve been going it would take the State 1,906 years to execute everyone currently locked up on death row.  Clearly the system is broken and imposes an unsustainable and costly burden on California taxpayers.

Louisiana has the highest murder rate in the United States at 11.8 per one hundred thousand people, followed by New Mexico at 8.7, then Maryland at 7.7.  All three of these states have the death penalty law and impose it.  Does it make their citizens any safer?  Vermont and Iowa have two of the lowest murder rates in the U.S., both at 1.1 per hundred thousand.  Yet neither of these states have the death penalty.  These numbers show conclusively that the death penalty isn’t a deterrent and has no bearing on improving public safety.

Then there is the hidden cost of sentencing women and men to death.  California law mandates an automatic review of all death penalty cases by the State Supreme Court.  California’s Supreme Court estimates that it spends one third of its time and resources reviewing death penalty cases, which make up only about 1% of the Court’s caseload.  Most non-death penalty briefs submitted to the Court require one to five pages.  LWOP briefs average ten pages.  To file a death penalty brief takes well over 100 pages . . . and that’s before including the Attorney General’s equally cumbersome brief.  Cases representing only one-percent if the Court’s caseload, while taking up one-third of the Court’s time and resources, impose an unreasonable burden on the Court, and result in costly delays in reviewing non-death penalty cases.  Too many cases have to wait years before even being heard, let alone ruled upon by the Court.

If the voters fail to pass Proposition 34, there are plans to build an ultra-modern high security death row housing complex on San Quentin prison grounds to ease overcrowding in antiquated housing units.  The price to erect this state-of-the-art death row complex has been estimated to cost California taxpayers more than $650 million before construction is complete.  For the moment these plans are on hold.

Imposing the death penalty in states with the highest murder rates has not worked as a deterrent.  Sentencing a person to life without possibility of parole fully protects the public at a much lower cost, and will save $180 million every year.  This savings could be better spent keeping public schools open and improving our educational system, increasing public safety by putting more police on the streets, and maintaining local fire departments.  It is in the best interest of California’s citizens to vote YES on Proposition 34.  It would relieve taxpayers of a prohibitively expensive and broken death penalty system while increasing public safety and protecting educational opportunities for California’s children.

William M. Dennis
D-95701   NB S6 13
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA  94974

Are You For Abolishing The Death Penalty . . .

But Thinking of Voting Against Proposition 34, the S.A.F.E California Act?

By Douglas Scott Mickey

A majority Yes-vote on Proposition 34, a ballot measure, abolishes California’s death penalty and replaces it with life in prison without possibility of parole (LWOP) – retroactively for the 729 men and women currently awaiting execution on California’s death row.  A handful of death row prisoners, family members, associates, and an appellate attorney have been making news by publicly denouncing and/or advocating a No-vote on Proposition 34.  In all the so-called left-wing arguments for why people against the death penalty should case a No-vote on Proposition 34 there’s been a deafening silence about the consequence if this ballot initiative fails to pass: dozens of men and women will be executed long before California gets another opportunity to abolish the death sentence. 

Of the handful of death row prisoners speaking out against Proposition 34, only one of them has any real “skin in the game.”  That is, their necks aren’t the ones being put on the executioner’s chopping block.  Only one of these men has exhausted his appeals and will be among the first wave to be executed should Proposition 34 fail to pass.  These other men have several years or decades to before their appeal process is exhausted.  Some of them haven’t even been appointed an attorney; until then their appeal’s clock doesn’t even start ticking.  So it’s all well and good for these men and their advocates to attempt to discourage voters from passing Proposition 34.  They have nothing to lose in waiting for a ballot measure that’s more to their liking.  I, and others like me, have increasingly been subjected to some of the “Johnny-come-lately” death row prisoners mocking us with remarks such as “We’ll have to sacrifice some of you ‘old timers’ now so the rest of us can get a better deal a few years from now.”  That doesn’t sound to me like someone who is “anti-capital punishment.”

What isn’t breaking news is the representatives of the State’s top law enforcement groups, victims’ rights groups, and right-wing politicians are riding on the same bandwagon as the life-wing opponents to Proposition 34’s repeal of the California death penalty.  Although these two groups come from opposite ends of the political spectrum and pose vastly different agendas for voting “no” on Proposition 34, their short-term goals are identical, i.e., to prevent the S.A.F.E. Act from passing on Election Day, November 6, 2012.  Politics indeed makes for strange bedfellows. 

The Proposition 34 proponents’ best argument is that “nobody is being executed, the system is broken, so let’s replace it with the less expensive LWOP option.”  Last year it cost California taxpayers $184 million over what it would have cost to house death row prisoners if they had been sentenced to life in prison.  Moreover, to fully implement the death penalty will cost State taxpayers another $85 million a year for court costs and attorney fees.  And that’s before calculation for the ever-increasing growth in the death row population. 

Governor Jerry Brown and State Attorney General Kamala D. Harris have pledged to carry out the State’s death penalty law.  Those hoping for clemency should know that Governor Brown has stated he needs “another term” to finish balancing California’s budget.  Consequently Governor Brown has directed the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to develop a one-drug protocol for lethal injection executions.  The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled this on-drug protocol to be constitutional in other states.  If Proposition 34 fails, California’s new single-drug protocol could be published for public comment the day after the election.  By mid-summer 2013 the flood gates to California’s execution chamber could be wide open for business – putting to death a growing number of men and women whose appeals have been exhausted. 

Once the execution machine is up and running, the proponents of Proposition 34 can no longer claim with any conviction that the “the system is broken.”  By the time the next election cycle rolls around these “pro-lifers” will have to come up with a far more convincing rationale for abolishing capital punishment. 

Right now Proposition 34’s proponents have a funding advantage of about $3 million over the opposition’s $40,000.  Contrary to what left-wing opponents of Proposition 34 claim, the ACLU has endorsed the ballot initiative to the turn of $325,000.  But if Proposition 34 fails even while pending executions are on hold, and even while proponents have an overwhelming advantage in funding, then by the time the next election cycle comes around, it’s going to be nearly impossible to get the necessary support and funding for a “new and progressively improved” anti-death penalty ballot measure. 

So if you are against the death penalty, please don’t be misled into believing the hype that “Nobody’s going to be executed anyway!”  The appellate attorneys have done their best and all but exhausted the constitutional grounds for postponing executions.  The number of men and women whose appeals have run their course continues to grow ever larger and larger.  The single-drug protocol has been ruled constitutional and is being used in executions in several states.  The State sponsored execution machinery suffers no shortage of the necessary drug to render death to any number of hapless human beings. 

Legislatures in other pro-death penalty states are anxiously watching to see if California abolishes capital punishment.  Many of them are ready to follow California’s lead.  If the S.A. F.E. Initiative succeeds in passing, then it would save countless lives on death rows across our great nation.  The world is watching to see what California voters will do here on November 6, 2012.  Will they rewrite California’s history to become a beacon of compassion toward the least of us, or to become an ever darkening cloud of social intolerance and political backwardness?  On which side of history do you want your vote to make a stand?

Make no mistake, if Proposition 34 fails, then a rush to execute dozens of human beings will be unleashed upon your “Golden State” sooner and more viciously than you might imagine in what many consider to be the world’s most advanced civilized society.  The “Global Village” is watching.  Vote for the aspirations of your conscience, not for the emotional strivings of those hell-bent on getting a better deal for themselves or to advance their political ideals regardless of how many lives and how many taxpayer dollars it will cost society along the way . . . not only here, but also across the country. 

Douglas Mickey

Douglas Mickey has been on death row over 30 years and will be among the first to be executed if Proposition 34 doesn't pass.

Douglas Scott Mickey
C73900 NB S6 30
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA  94974

Pine Box or Ballot Box

The Savings, Accountability and Full Enforcement for California Act

By Donald Ray Young

This is our time to abolish capital punishment in California via the ballot box.  If we allow this killing machine to resuscitate, we can expect executions of the more than 725 death-row prisoners at a rate that will send shock waves throughout Texas.

Which side are we on?  We cannot stand in the middle of the road this time.  Abolish capital punishment in California or support government sponsored premeditated murder of death-row prisoners.  We have over 14 people with fully exhausted appeals.  The sole protection that stands between them and a pine box . . . is our vote.

We said, “I AM TROY DAVIS.”  Many of us said that we were Stanley “Tookie” Williams, Cameron Todd Willingham was another innocent person on death row; the Texas criminal justice system executed him in our name.  If we had abolished capital punishment, all three of these men would still be alive, able to prove their innocence to the world.  No one enjoys a prison sentence of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP), but it definitely keeps Mumia Abu-Jamal speaking truth to power. 

Before being distracted debating how cruel LWOP is, let us complete the urgent business of abolishing capital punishment with our votes.  Death penalty proponents have revived their rhetorical corporate media fueled propaganda campaign. 

Californians, putative abolitionists and death penalty opponents:  Keeping death row intact when given the option to abolish capital punishment is nothing more than subterfuge – covertly supporting what we claim to loath and despise.  Take out the fear and face the facts:  most life and lengthy prison sentences end with the prisoner dying in prison. 

As it stands, prisoners convicted of murder – innocent or guilty - face capital punishment or LWOP.  The SAFE California Act will convert all 725 death sentences to LWOP, making LWOP the harshest punishment for convicted murderers.  The right to appeal convictions to the state and federal courts will still exist, with the same constitutional guarantees afforded LWOP prisoners.  And after all the appellate issues are exhausted they do not kill the appellant.

While many disagree with certain aspects of the SAFE California Act – for example, $30 million a year for three years given to municipal police and prosecutors, coupled with the SAFE California Act’s florid pro-prosecution language – if this road takes capital punishment off the table, we must travel.  The United States has executed over 1,290 prisoners since 1977.

The future belongs to us and step-by-step we will seize power.  After winning this highly contentious battle we will join resources to abolish all forms of permanent imprisonment.  All prisoners should have the right to be released if they are not a threat to society. 

Since 1978 capital punishment has left California with a fatally flawed system.  Over $4 billion was wasted, 13 executions and 3 exonerations.  This is our once in a lifetime opportunity.  Let us choose the ballot box – or the pine box will choose us.

I look forward to your contact and communications.

Donald Young

Donald Ray Young has been on San Quentin’s death row in 2006.  Donald is a paralegal with an Associate of Arts degree in Sociology. He hopes to pursue further education, including a law degree that will aid him in achieving his exoneration. His first book is scheduled for release in 2013, and he blogs at:

Donald Ray Young
E78474 East Block
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA  94974

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

No Mercy for Dogs Part 7

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Part 6 can be read HERE

It wouldn't be accurate to say that I didn't sense the trap. I did. Neither is it the case that I thought that I was smarter than Papa Ramos, or immune to his persuasions. I wasn't. My radar antennas might have been cranked up to full blast, but my engines were also running at full steam. One of my deepest personal failings has always been that most of the normal content of life - the day-to-day occurrences that make up our comfortable existences - bore me terribly; that when I stumble through the gray marshes of life and finally get a glimpse of the sea, it seems disingenuous not to go ahead and toss myself over the cliff's edge and dive into the deep. I never thought that I would live forever, nor can I imagine why anyone would want to. There is no sense in avoiding the truth: I followed the Hammer into that building because the curiosity was simply too powerful for me to resist. Still, it did not evade me that this scenario was deeply reminiscent of the beginning of a bad joke: a white guy walks into a drug den in Mexico and ....

The first thing that struck me was the size of Papa Ramos's repair shop. The northern apex of the property was perhaps 450 to 500 meters in length, and the aluminum shed covered at least half of this space. The remainder was made up of a junkyard sporting roughly forty derelict vehicles and space for several 18-wheelers to park. The entire facility was covered in solar panels, an array large enough to power the entire compound on most days. Inside, the entire space was made up of concrete and was kept in immaculate condition. Halogen lamps made up for a complete lack of windows and huge industrial fans kept the place relatively cool.

There were three separate repair bays for tractor-trailers and five more for vehicles of regular dimensions. One of these was occupied by a red Ford F-350 Dually truck, and it was to this that Ramos led me. The only auto-mechanical skill I possessed basically amounted to dialing AAA, so the carefully orchestrated activity of the six men working underneath this behemoth mostly mystified me. As we watched, the rear axle was removed and laid carefully on a workbench. Several of the men began to hover over it like surgeons working on an etherized patient, and the assiduity of their movements impressed me. Only one of the men seemed to feel it necessary to speak, but I couldn't understand what he was saying because he really didn't appear to be talking to anyone in particular. Occasionally, one of the other men would grunt or chuckle at something he muttered, but the joke was beyond me. The speaker was the odd man out for several reasons, I noted. His clothes were neater than the others', consisting of pressed khakis and a short sleeve Polo shirt; whereas everyone else was covered in grease stains, he kept himself extremely clean. He had a pencil-thin mustache instead of a goatee, which made him look like a sort of low-rent. Mexican Mephistopheles. Everyone else was more of a type: thickset men in their 40s or 50s, who had the look of laborers or farmers. Several of them wore clothes that looked like they existed mostly to feed the moths. The truth is, they looked like the brutish missing links between animals and real human beings, like not even alcohol could find their brains. In Mexico, they have a saying for this sort of person, that he is "not quite 11 pesos to the dollar." Still, very few of my experiences in la Republica had thus far behaved according to my expectations, so rather than attempting to classify anyone, I merely sat back and observed.

The apparent purpose of all of this activity was to dissect completely the rear axle. Two men labored over the differential, while the rest wheeled over easy chairs and a metal card table. A large white cooler was pulled over, and Carta Blancas were handed out. Mr. Ramos himself pulled one out for me, but I nodded at the clear bottle in his hand, which appeared to be some sort of carbonated water.

"Can I have one of those instead?"

"Por supuesto. You no dreenk the beer?"

"Oh...sometimes, yes. It’s too hot for alcohol right now.”

He looked at me curiously as he handed me a bottle and I noted that several of the others did so as well. In all of my time south of the border, I never saw alcohol touch Don Gelo’s lips, and I think that everyone had gotten accustomed to him being the only teetotaler in the group. That, or maybe after working for the Hammer for a generation everyone knew how to identify a control freak when they saw one.

This crowd all spoke English, so introductions were made in that language. Though he had told his own family that I was his long-lost son, to his soldiers I was "Rudy, for the time being."

"Bueno, For-the-time-being-Rudy, I am el Lobo," said an older man with thinning hair, who nodded to me in a curiously formal manner. El Lobo, I was to learn, was the Hammer's second- in-command, a man of elephantine memory and a kindly disposition
"These two gentlemen working at the table are Chuy and Abelardo, brothers. Abelardo is also brother-in-law to Don Gelo, having married his third sister. Chuy too is married into the family, having taken Magda as his wife, who is a cousin to Esperanza's sister. Edlemiru here," he said, pointing to a man reclining in a chair, whose hat had been pulled low over his eyes, "is cousin to me, and also married to the sister of Don Gelo's cousin Jorge, who owns the deposito. We also call him el Cachetes, or "puffed cheeks" for obvious reasons. I am myself married to one of Jorge's kin, his daughter Berta." Turning to this right, he nodded at the skinny man with the mustache. "This dapper fellow is called El Topo, but you can also call him David." At this, I looked down at the bottle in my hand, which carried the label of "Topo Chico."

"What is a 'topo', by the way? I don't know that word," I asked, turning to the Hammer.

"Ah, ees a...a mole, yes. A mole. Ees a long storee."

I took the hint, and turned back to el Lobo, which I knew to mean "the Wolf."

"And this," he nodded to a fat man reclining in a chair, who sported an immense scar from his cheek up past his left ear, "This is el Mochaorejas. He ex-Kaibiles." At this he seemed to stumble, not sure of the translation.

My mind flipped through my mental dictionary. "Doesn't that mean 'oyster,' or something?"

Papa Ramos cut in. "No. And that ees a mooch longer storee.

El Lobo recovered. "Ah, yes, He first married the daughter of Gelo's uncle Manuel, who was cousin to Gelo, but she died many years ago." At this, several of the men crossed themselves, a gesture that seemed a rather absurd violation of context. "He remarried Gelo's sister Miriam when her own husband passed."

I was already having a difficult time following all of this, but this last convoluted twisting of the family tree made me laugh.

"So, this Mochaorejas is his sister-in-law's sister-in-law's husband? Wouldn’t that mean any children they had would be their own first cousins?"

The group pondered this for a moment, before the Wolf smiled broadly. "I honestly do not know. Something like that. I think. We are very close, you see, this family."

"I see," I said, turning to the Hammer. Because I really did see what he had done. His family by blood he mostly put into legitimate business, but his family by choice - these men – he married into the line. If caught by the law, no one could say anything about anyone without sinking their own kin, their entire structure of family support. By the tiny hint of a smile on his lips. I knew that Papa Ramos had witnessed the dawning of my understanding. I raised my bottle to him in a toast.

David, the as-yet-unexplained-Mole, chipped in. "What part of America are you from?" His English was totally lacking in accent, the type of speech you only get from living in the mother country.

My mind flashed to the ID given to me by Chespy: "I'm from Florida."

"Ah, Florida, yes. I know it well. Did you know that there are more plastic flamingos in Florida than real ones? And that the Bible is the most shoplifted book in the state? And also..."

Several of the group groaned, and I looked at the Wolf for an explanation.

"David here, he read too much. All day long, he speak of the trivia. It is almost enough to make one want to go to el Mochaorejas." At this, everyone but David laughed.

Don Gelo explained.  “‘El Mochaorejas' means the ear-chopper.”

"Ah..." I paused. "That must be one hell of a story, then."

He was about to respond but his cell phone chirped in his pocket. Everyone watched him as he listened. He never said a single word, merely stood there, head bent slightly. Upon flicking his phone closed, he simply nodded. El Lobo walked briskly to the door, and emitted an ear-splitting whistle. Within sixty seconds, a small crowd of eight to ten children had arrived at the door, panting. The Wolf spoke to them quietly for a moment, before they began running off in opposing directions. The brothers Chuy and Abelardo walked to a large workbench set in the corner, and opened up the shelves. After moving some things around inside, I heard what sounded like another shelf opening. From this they produced two all-black AK-47’s, known in Mexico as "cuernos de chivo," or "goat horns" for the look of the curved bandoliers that hung down ominously below them. If the tension in the air hadn't been enough, the sight of all of the hardware clearly told me that playtime was over.

The brothers took up positions by the main doors on the east end of the shed, while Edelmiru began to assemble a police band radio by the card table. The rest of us just sat there, watching the Hammer stare off into the middle distance. No one said anything, though every few minutes Gelo would receive a text, the bluish light of his phone's screen casting an oracular blue light on his eyes. Immediately after one of these came in, he called out to the brothers, who began to slide the huge bay doors open. Forty seconds later, a mid-70s gray two-door Chevy Nova cruised through them. The deep, throaty rumble of the car's engine was a clear indication that this vehicle was not factory issue. The driver himself was pretty good, throwing the car into a spin and backing up quickly into a space mere inches from the workbench where the rear portions of the truck were set out. Everyone promptly flew into action. The passenger side chair of the Nova was detached and set to one side. A metal lid was lifted out of this space, which was followed by four roughly brick-sized packages. These were wrapped in a gray matte packaging, and free from design or marking save for what looked like the face of a laughing circus clown, laid out in crimson ink. The Hammer immediately handed an envelope to the driver, who slipped it into the small space under the seat, which was quickly replaced. After this happened, everyone paused and turned to watch Don Gelo again, who held his cell phone at his side, almost like a talisman against evil. After perhaps thirty seconds this beeped, and he read the screen. Afterwards he nodded again, and the driver climbed into his car and gunned the engine. All told, he had only been inside for perhaps four minutes. As the doors were once again opened for him, a huge man on a motorbike dashed inside. I knew by his sheer girth that this was the missing Smiley, who had driven me through the badlands into town.

At this point, I decided it would probably be better for everyone (read: me) if I stepped back a bit. I watched from a distance as the four packages were fitted into slots in the differential, and the entire axle expertly reconstructed. As this was happening, the Hammer and Smiley were deep in conversation, interrupting themselves only once to wave to the Mole, who left out of the side door. El Smiley looked in my direction several times, as if he was continually surprised to see me there. I had previously suspected that he had possessed the emotional range of a shovel, but I could see tension behind his stare, and began to wonder when the other shoe was going to drop: I was allowed to witness all of this for a reason, and I began to suspect that I knew what this reason was.

The Mole returned a few minutes later, driving a late 80's model Dodge truck, which had a long trailer attached to it. I couldn't tell what was under the tarp, which was stretched from end to end, but it looked to be loaded with something irregular and massive, like construction material. This trailer was detached from the Dodge, and Edelmiru climbed into the cab, moving it to the front of the shed. The Mole stood to one side, where he began thumbing through some paperwork held inside a black satchel. It dawned on me at that point that his more expensive attire was not a sartorial affectation, but rather camouflage.

Less than fifteen minutes later, the Ford had been re-assembled. Before lowering it to the ground, a huge barrel of some sort of grease was wheeled out and a thick layer of this material was slathered over the axle. The hydraulic lifts made a sighing sound as they lowered and it seemed almost as if I could hear this sentiment echoed by everyone in the room. The Mole carried his Satchel to the truck, and before climbing into the driver's seat was handed a glass of water and two small pills. These he swallowed quickly. Five minutes later, he was pulling out of the garage, led by Edelmiru and followed by Smiley on his motorbike. Mr. Ramos did not speak for several minutes, until he received another series of texts. This final message must have pleased him, because he smiled broadly. Everyone instantly relaxed.

"Come, come, dreenk. We are alone." This seemed a curious comment to make in a shed with six people present, but I quickly realized he meant that no other parties were present.

Talk quickly turned to the news that Smiley had brought, that a group of Central American immigrants had been apprehended at the military checkpoint just outside of town, on the highway to Ciudad Mier. The leader of the group had tried to escape, and had been gunned down.

"One less coyote to lead the pollos," remarked the Wolf.

"A coyote is a guide, right?"

"Si, a human trafficker. The pollos, or chickens, are the immigrants. They are so called because they follow the coyotes like baby chickens after a hen."

"And the coyote got shot? Right there in the street?

"Si, Ninguna misericordia para los perros."

This phrase was repeated by each man, sort of like a mantra.

"What is that? 'No mercy for dogs?'"

Mr. Ramos turned to me. "Ees a saying; eet means sometheeng like 'you geet no do-overs in thees life.' Like, there ees no pity or mercy in nature, and none een the real world either.”

"So we are all dogs then?"

"Si. Somos todos los perros."

"Let me see if I have all of this straight," I sighed. "We have a wolf, a raton, a mole, and an oyster that is not an oyster. Coyotes are smugglers and pollos are immigrants. Dogs are pretty much everybody. Is that the whole menagerie, or am I missing something?"

The Wolf smiled, and it was obvious that the process of de-stressing had left him somewhat manic. "Si, si: first, you have the aguilas, the eagles. They watch the desert for us of the old ways, and keep track of who is doing what. In the cities, you have los halcones, the hawks. They work for the cartels, and are usually children who watch all the streets in important neighborhoods."

The ear-chopper grunted, speaking for the first time: "Los Cobras." He settled back into his chair, as if this singular effort at vocalization had drained him.

"Ah, yes. 'Cobras' are weapons traffickers. You also have the `Leopardos,’ which are prostitutes that extract information from government officials."

"You people have nicknames for everything."

"Si, I suppose we like animals very much."

I waited for a moment, letting the silence draw out a bit.

"So, what is Chespy?"

I had expected my comment to be the verbal equivalent of tossing caltrops into the conversation, and was pleased by the way most everyone looked off to the side or cleared their throats. No one said anything for a few minutes.

"Un tiburon," remarked Chuy finally, who immediately seemed surprised that he had spoken.

"A shark?"


I thought about that for a few seconds. "That doesn't seem so bad. Sharks have no memory."
"Si," answered Papa Ramos, "but the downside ees you can't stop sweeming or you die. Mira, Rudy, you have to understand, he no es weeth us."

"Who is he with then?"

"That is another long storee. He had to see me thees day, and was...concerned about you being here. He wanted to see you heemself."

"You people like long, never-discussed stories almost as much as you like animals."

"Yes, long storee for people with long memory. And I theenk eet ees now time to take you back to you ranch."

I took a moment to shake hands with everyone, before following Mr. Ramos outside.

"What was in the trailer?"

"Hand-carved furniture from Michoacan. Very nice, made of mango wood. Sell for veery good price. Ees very popular weeth you gringos."

"And the customs people spend all of their time on the trailer as an additional happy coincidence."


"And this works?"

"Eet has worked for more than twenty year."

"Jesus. And the grease?"

"Ees for the dogs. They no can smell through the grease. You no see it, but there ees material we put eenside the axle that deflect the laser scanner tambien."

"What about the pills you gave the Mole?"

"Son beta-blockers. Keep you from having the sweaty hands or fast breething."

"Edelmiru was running point? And you have the kids out watching the neighborhood, too? Who do you sell the furniture to?"

By this point, we had passed by the main house and were approaching Don Gelo's truck. He turned to look at me.

"Yes, yes, all thees is true. And we sell the furniture to companies we set up een America. Ees completely legitimate."
"Who sets up the companies?"

"People. We call them Los Manosos, the Cunning Ones. And you start to tire me weeth you questions."

"Bullshit. You bring me down here, show me all of this, how you do all of often do you do this stuff, by the way?"

"Oh...once a week, more or less."

"So you send four kilos of something dangerous enough to need AK-47’s to protect each week, and you show me how you do it, and you expect me to think you don't have designs on me? I've seen how you set your family up. Which cousin or niece or whatever am I supposed to marry? And I'm betting these "Cunning Ones" are all American, right? They look like boy scouts, clean cut and everything." My eyes narrowed. "Exactly like me. Don't fucking play games with me, Hammer. I have behaved like an idiot, but I am not stupid."

He stared at me for a long minute, before saying: "For you, marriage no ees the goal. For now, you are to watch. Thees ees all. You watch, and you theenk. I weel tell you when you need to do sometheeng."

"And if I don't follow orders?"

"I do not know. Thees has no ever happeened before." He raised his eyelids at me, and flashed his teeth, before sliding into the driver's seat.

I climbed in after him, being profoundly deficient in other options. I tried to take comfort in the fact that at least in one battle, I was still beating the Hammer: in the war of information, I knew far more about him than he knew about me. After all, I was only Rudy-for-the-time-being. Tomorrow, I could be anyone, including someone that had never heard of Rogelio Rodoflo Ramos, Sr. Or so I hoped.

To Be Continued…

If you are a Catholic, see this LINK for an excellent paper on the Church's position on Capital Punishment. The paper is available in both English and Spanish

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Friday, October 12, 2012

No Mercy for Dogs Part 6

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Part 5 can be read HERE

If Cerralvo had not been exactly what I had expected, neither was the Ramos compound.

In place of the gleaming gaudiness on display at some of the other narco-castles we had passed on our drive, a cold functionality ruled behind the Hammer's walls. A neat gravel parking area encompassed the section immediately past the gate. I saw about a dozen vehicles, all clean and in good shape but none of which that would have impressed the casual onlooker. The main house was beyond that, a simple one-story box of perhaps 2500 square feet. Aside from the elaborate solar array that covered every square inch of rooftop space, this could have been any house in town. About a hundred feet from this was an open pavilion under which sat seven washing machines. Large oak trees were trimmed so that an incredible array of clotheslines could be strung around this point. Enough garments to clothe an army were hanging on these, my first clue as to just how many people depended upon the Hammer for their wellbeing. The south wall of the perimeter was made up of businesses which opened up on the main thoroughfare to the rest of town, and included a tortilleria, a carpenter's shop, an electrician's shop and parts supply warehouse, an auto repair shop, and on the corner, yet another of the ubiquitous depositos. The various portions of the family that operated each store lived in homes built on top of each showroom, each of which was draped in its own extensive solar array. A much larger tractor-trailer repair shop occupied the entire northern wall, though I could not see this from where we had parked. All told, the perimeter wall enclosed a rectangular space of perhaps 500 by 700 meters.

Most of that interior was parkland, which was fed by a system of hoses leading to yet another windmill/well array; only this one was supplemented by an automatic pump for days when the wind was playing hooky. The Ramos clan kept geese, ducks, dogs, cats, and a cantankerous potbellied pig poignantly named Vicente Fox Quesada in a barn on the east side of the complex. The geese were particularly mean bastards, I was soon to learn, though we would all have our revenge for nipped-at-ankles when we ate them at Christmas time.

An immense pavilion was the tallest structure in sight, which served as a communal eating location for the entire family. It was to this building that Mr. Ramos directed me after parking his truck. Two immense wooden picnic tables there served as the nexus of family life, and already two-dozen people were gathered around them, talking, laughing, and eating. Six of these were adult men who did not look to be part of the family, and it was to them that the Hammer spoke when we reached the pavilion. I didn't see El Smiley anywhere, but I guessed that these men constituted his posse. I must admit, at first glance, they did not impress.

Most of the rest of the crowd made polite comments to me when I was introduced. I suspected that some version of my legend had been told to them prior to my arrival, but none of them seemed terribly interested in questioning the real reason for my presence in Mexico. Papa Ramos compartmentalized everything and I was just another tiny piece of a hidden portion of his life to nearly everyone seated around the tables. Given what he did for a living, I am certain that not asking questions was seen as a great virtue. Only the Hammer's wife stared at me continuously, her gaze the very definition of calculating. She was not what I had expected, at all. Rather than the traditional trophy wife, Don Gelo had chosen a broad brute of a woman as his official partner. I could tell by her glare that she had taken an instantaneous disliking to me. I wasn't wrong, as it would turn out. The Senora Esperanza took an instantaneous disliking towards everything. If human beings came with subtitles, hers would have read, “I’m not on your side, whatever side you’re on.” Even amongst her family, it was joked (behind her immense back, of course) that there had never been a human being so inappropriately named.

Beyond the termagant presence of the Queen of the compound, the only person who took and a real interest in me was one of the Hammer's sons, Edgar, who managed to get a double-dose of the elephant ear gene. Fate, it seems, was kind to the lad, because it made it up to him by otherwise making him astoundingly handsome. It would come as no surprise to me to learn shortly that even at the tender age of 17, he had broken more hearts in Cerralvo than coronary thrombosis. Neither did it surprise me, come to think of it, that he had inherited his father‘s predilection towards fucking first and asking questions never. The really extraordinary thing about Edgar was that he seemed totally unaware of the fact that he had hit the genetic lottery; in two years, I cannot recall a single instance where he paid himself a compliment or elevated himself above anyone. Embracing the impossible-to-ignore presence of his auricular appendages, he had taken to styling himself as "El Raton," a comment usually followed up in the presence of certain laughing females by asking them if they would like to see his "tail." It was hard not to like Edgar.

The meal consisted of the Mexicanized version of the hamburger, which, to my surprise, took no lessons from its better-known cousins to the north. One-upping those gringos who prefer their burgers with only one type of meat, the Mexican hamburger always comes with a slab of actual ham atop the cow meat. Loaded above this cholesterol H-bomb was a thick slab of avocado and a hefty dose of mayonnaise. Jesus, I thought. No wonder everyone's face is so round down here. All of this tasted a bit odd to me on that first day, but humans can pretty much adapt to any situation which doesn‘t kill them, and I would become so accustomed to the saber of the Mexican burger that were I to ever eat an Americanized version again; it wouldn't taste right.

The division of labor at the Ramos compound ran along traditional lines. An uncle or cousin or brother (I was never entirely able to map out the convoluted Ramos family tree, even after it was explained to me) manned an immense grill, while the women prepared the rest of the food. Soon after we sat down, a small army of cousins set down plates laden with hamburgers, french fries, and cups filled with an odd but delicious peach-flavored soda. I wondered if all of this Americana was for my benefit, but when
I raised an eyebrow at Don Gelo he merely mimed that I should eat. I had left my dictionary back at the ranch, and was trying to work out how to properly ask for someone to pass me the ketchup, when Edgar looked up from his plate and followed the direction of my gaze. He began to reach for the bottle but I stayed his hand.

" se dice..." I began to traipse horribly through the garden of the Spanish language with metal-tipped cleats, and eventually Edgar realized that I was asking more for a language lesson than the actual bottle. He leaned in close and whispered a phrase in my ear. Alarm bells should have started pinging at this point, but I was embarrassed by my lack of speech and...well...he just seemed so darned nice. I admit, I completely missed the tiny gleam in his eyes, an exceedingly important item to note when dealing with a Mexican Eddie Haskell.

I cleared my throat. "Ehm, por favor...prestame la verga de ketchup."

If a record had been playing, it would have screeched to a stop, along with all of the conversation. Thirty sets of eyes swiveled to take me in, and several mouths dropped open. I was about to clear my throat again when three things happened in rapid succession: first, Edgar snickered, a tiny hiccup of air escaping from the confines of his lips. At the same time, the Hammer started chuckling, a low, ominous sort of thing, and began to shake his head. Finally - and I mean half a second after all of this started - the Senora Esperanza reared back and swung her entire body into a roundhouse haymaker that connected with Edgar's shoulder and lifted him clear off of the bench and deposited him in the dirt. He popped up, yelling at her and rubbing on his upper arm comically. I wasn't able to catch but a tiny bit of the word stream that passed between them, but "puta madre" featured largely and repeatedly. The novelty of a mother complaining about her son's "bitch mother" seemed lost on everyone, who instantly went back to their own conversations. I mostly sat there staring at them, transfixed by this random and apparently commonplace violence. Papa Ramos was still chuckling, smiling broadly at his son, who happily plopped down on my left, interposing his mother and me. I looked askance at her to see if I was next, thinking that as hard as my head was, it would make a pretty sorry shield. Though she was still mumbling under her breath, the Senora had already begun digging back into her food. I gathered that cursing her progeny was an unremarkable event for Esperanza, and not likely to be remembered by the time plates were cleared. No wonder he sleeps around, I recall thinking.

It was at this point that the little bastard on my left informed me that the proper word for bottle was, of course, botella, and that he had substituted it for a slang term describing a portion of the male anatomy. I nearly knocked him off of the bench myself, but it was actually kind of humorous. I was feeling extremely out of place, and perhaps it was my uneasiness, which caused me to let this pass, and to drop my defenses again.

I recall reasoning that I had learned an important lesson about el Raton, and had done so at a very cheap price. Fool me once, shame on you ....

He called for his tray, which I reached over and grabbed. As he prepared to eat, he retrieved a stone bowl of tiny, globe- shaped green peppers. He offered some to me, but I passed. He shook his head vehemently.

"Mira, Rudy. Esos...son...chilis del monte. Son muy sabrosos." He was speaking slowly to me, as if I were a child or slow. "No son muy picosos.” If I didn‘t know what "picoso" meant, but he mimed eating them and shook his head, as if they were not hot at all. I must have looked skeptical, because he proceeded to grab 5 or 6 of the chilis and tossed them down before biting into his hamburger. He made the appropriate noises of ecstasy before pushing the bowl towards me. Hell, I thought, when in Rome. I reached for the bowl, snagged five chilis, and began chewing on them with a bite of hamburger.

...Fool me twice, shame on me. "Chili del monte" – better known as chili piquin - rate;somewhere between the jabanero and the sun on the capsaicin scale. As volcanic detonations started tenderizing the soft tissue of my mouth, my eyes flicked over to Edgar, in time to see all but one of the chilis he had supposedly tossed back roll out of his hand. Both he and his father were watching me closely, so I clamped down on my desire to toss myself headlong into the well and instead put a thoughtful look on my face as I chewed. My eyes had to be watering noticeably, so I doubt that I pulled off anything approximating nonchalance, but at least I didn't spit the food out. I wasn't really sure about the polite rules of table decorum in Mexico – apparently punching people wasn't frowned at - but I assumed that violently expelling bites of hamburger and fragments of my obliterated mouth would be seen as a touch unmannerly.

" verdad son muy sabrosoif I took a (small) sip of soda, before reaching for the bowl again. Taking eight or ten chilis in my hand, I turned to the Hammer. "Tell me, how does one say 'revenge is a dish best served cold'?"

One corner of his lip went up, and he quickly translated for me. As he did so, I made a show of slowly depositing pepper after pepper in my mouth, palming them all, as he had done. I slowly started to chew on nothing, before smiling at Edgar.

"Gracias para el...lesson?...leccion en espanol." I reached over and patted his shoulder before squeezing down on the spot where his mother had smacked him. He winced and pulled away from me at the same time as his father erupted in laughter, a much louder and more genuine sort of mirth than when he had directed it at Edgar.

Wiping a tear from his eye, he remarked "He no understand these about the revenge, but he understand that!"

"What didn't he understand about revenge?"

The Hammers eyes swiveled back to me, the laughter dying in them as if a breaker had been flipped.

"Cold revenge...thees is a norteamericano thing. Down here, we do the revenge hot."

I mulled this over while I finished my lunch. Nothing in my life had prepared me for anything like the present situation. I am used to feeling out of place. I've been searching for the part of the board where my jagged puzzle piece is supposed to fit since I was old enough to see myself reflected in another's eyes and realized that I was not welcome there. But I was accustomed to feeling awkward in ways completely different from this. Less alien. Less foreign. In my desperation~ I had allowed the pleasant domesticity of the scene to lull me into a sense of safety. Leave it to the Hammer to remind me that the meadow I was so casually strolling through was really a minefield. My weariness flooded back into me, and I began to shut down again, returning to my safe place. You can’t hurt the watcher, I knew, because the watcher isn't alive. There's nothing left to take.

There was a family dynamic at work here that was completely foreign to me. These people truly enjoyed each other. You could tell that they actually wanted to be here, together. There were no masks of polished but nonetheless feigned interest, no attempts to buy affection instead of attempting the real thing, no need to start elaborate stories whose sole purpose was to waste just enough time to reach the pre-planned and much awaited point on the clock where it would be seen as acceptable to leave. Most importantly, there was no contest here, no expectations, no snide judgments carefully gift wrapped in the guise of polite inquiry, designed to surgically flay your skin back and expose your heart to ruthless probing and ridicule. There was genuine love here. It made me feel small and external, an interloper who had stumbled in from the cold and would soon be asked to leave.

I must have lost myself in the fog of my musings, because when I came around I found myself sitting alone at the table. My place had been cleared, save for my cup. The sky was very clear, a remarkable cerulean free from the slightest taint of smog. Some children were playing soccer, trying to kick the ball past a very large, hulking man who protected a small space between two of the oak trees. After several failed attempts, the younger generation mutinied and began to attack themselves to the legs of the goalie. After six or seven of them had piled on, the adult feigned a loss of balance and gracefully and carefully fell into the grass. While the screaming pack held him down and shouted encouragements, a small girl with pigtails lined the ball up with excruciating care and scored the winning goal.

I looked away, somehow unable to view this scene any longer I knew how it would all turn out, how the adult would pretend to be enraged at his defeat, and would make much of the strength and prowess of the young ones. In another life, I had been that guy. I don't know how he got away from me. It all happened so slowly, the evolution too gradual to notice unless one took a step back. I did not think it possible to hate myself any more than I already did, but I kept finding new ways to get there.

I noticed after a few moments that the Hammer was talking on a cell phone near the back entrance to his house. He eventually saw me watching him, and began walking towards me. By the time he had reached the pavilion, he had returned the cell phone to his pocket. I felt embarrassed by my mental departure, but didn't know what to say. Seeing me watching him closely, he sat down opposite of me at the table. We both just existed there for a small eternity, neither looking at the other. I didn't know why he had brought me here. It seemed reckless, but he wasn’t a rash man so I knew he had a reason for all of this. I couldn't see it and it infuriated me. He wanted something from me, and
I knew this couldn't be a good thing. His silence - a weapon that I had always presumed to be my own - now carved into me. It became so unbearable I felt like screaming just to shut it out.

Instead, I sighed deeply. "I don't know what I am doing here. I'm feeling lost. Totally adrift."

He merely looked at me for a time.

"You theenk ees deeferent for anyone else? Thees ees what it ees to leeve, to feel lost. All of life ees a game. a deestraction from thees feeling." He paused. as if trying to find the right words in English. "Look, I do no know why you are here. Ees obvio que you have done sometheeng en el otro lado. I no care what thees ees. The laws of you country no me interesa. I leev there durante los setentas, when the soda was first become popular. I take eet from sellers in the Miami to Orlando and sometimes up to Cheecago."

I thought it funny the way he said Cheeeecago, but didn't feel this was the moment for laughter. "So, you were what, Scarface?"

"No, no. en realidad thees movie never get nothing right.

It no was so messy. We were make so much money that at first there was enough para todas. I sometime make teen thousand dollar a day, and I was no beeg compare to others. Steel, eventually people I know do sometheen stupid and I have to do the ugly theengs. After enough of thees. I no can stay, or go back. Whatever you do, I have the worse cases waiting for me if I ever go back."

He stopped for a moment, looking off at the children. I wondered if this was the end of the story, but eventually he roused himself and continued.

"Do I regret the keeling? Si. Few people enjoy thees. And I no am eegnorant of the people who abuse what I sell. The quality we send, ees too high for the crack, so eet mostly go to rich people. But I know sometime it do damage. If the people there een Miami play fair. I would no have done so much wrong. I come back here and start the familee, buy all thees," he waved expansively with his hand. "Sometime in the night, I used to have, como se dice? The bad dream. Thees place, I buy it theenking I buy the clear conscience; teep the scale the other way. It no work like this. Steel, look around. You see the business there? Onlee one of theem make a profit. Si, they make a leetlc money, enough to buy the clothes or maybe some food. But to leev? Shaw, I pay for them to leev. I no have the time for bad dream, you see? My pain no feed they stomach. The electrician, hees name is Marcelo. He ees nephew to me. He make a small profit. Ees good man. Eef the uneeverse fair, he would have everyting. You see leetle Lucia?" He pointed to the girl with the pigtails who had scored the goals. She had left the other kids and was playing with a cat in the tall weeds by the barn. "Marcelo y Irma, they try for yeers to have keeds. Yeers y yeers. When notheeng come, I pay for the process for her. I no know how to say een English. Eet cost more than one hoondred thousand dollar. But theer is Lucia. She ees so smart, Rudy. She weel be doctor or lawyer, will change thees place. She is better than I weel ever be, but she no be at all wecthout me. You see? Nhat I tell you ees things are difficult now for you. You need the time to have deestance from eet all. All thees hurt, you do it to yourself. Moraleety ees for the peeple weeth sometheeng to lose. Yes?"

“You are saying it is 'always darkest before the dawn'? That's your great advice and wisdom for me? I suddenly feel like I can conquer the world. Thanks."

He actually smiled at my self-pity, which is a good thing because I had been way out of line with my comment.

"Yes. Rudy, he tell me you have the tongue. But no, what I say to you ees thees: demons; they no are defeeted, only confronted. And not knowing what you feel no ees the same as feeling notheeng."

I shook my head, trying to shrug off the direct hit. How the hell had he gotten that close to the mark?

"What do you want from me, Gelo?"

"We talk about thees later. When you get you head back. For now, you come see how I confront my demons, yes

He stood, and I followed him northward. The taller on this side of the property was immense, a huge metal building designed to swallow up tractor-trailers for repair. There were none of these in View inside, but instead I saw a large red Ford F-350
Dually pick-up truck, which had been lifted up on an oversized industrial rack. The six men that I had seen at lunch were at work underneath this, scurrying about in an orgy of dissection. They reminded me of ants tearing apart a cricket; such was their focus. The Hammer slid the shed's door closed behind us, and proceeded to give me my first lesson about how to smuggle kilos of illegal narcotics across the borderlands.

To Be Continued…

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Friday, October 5, 2012

In Support of Proposition 34

Proposition 34, also known as the SAFE California Act, is on the November 6, 2012 ballot in California as an initiated state statute.

If the state's voters approve it, Proposition 34 will eliminate the death penalty in California and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Specifically, Proposition 34 will:

  • Repeal the death penalty as maximum punishment for persons found guilty of murder and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
  • Apply retroactively to persons already sentenced to death.
  • Require persons found guilty of murder to work while in prison, with their wages to be applied to any victim restitution fines or orders against them.
  • Create a $100 million fund to be distributed to law enforcement agencies to help solve more homicide and rape cases.

California has 725 people on death row. Seven of the 725 people currently on death row have exhausted all appeals and are therefore eligible for execution, although legal challenges to California's lethal injection procedure must be resolved before any of them could be executed. The last time a prisoner was put to death in California was in 2006. At that time, a federal judge halted executions in the state until various changes were made in how the state administers the death penalty. (source:

The San Francisco Chronicle recently ran an article about a segment of Death Row inmates in California who are vocal in their opposition to Proposition 34, and detailed their reasoning, which centers on the fact they stand to lose state funding for their post-appellate proceedings.

Three of our Minutes Before Six writers who support Proposition 34 have written essays in response. 

Willie Johnson has been on Death Row at San Quentin for 30 years for a crime he did not commit.  His Actual Innocence appeal is currently pending.

Michael Wayne Hunter spent 18 years on Death Row at San Quentin before his sentence was commuted to Life With Out Parole in 2002.

Thomas Whitaker has resided on Death Row in Texas since 2007.

Both Michael and Willie are familiar with the Death Row inmates opposing Proposition 34, and all writers put forth their supporting opinions with respect. 

Don’t Give Up

By Willie Johnson

I’m always amazed by the sociological impact that western culture has on the psychological make-up of African-Americans.  Here we are three hundred years after the initiation of slavery and there’s African-American prisoners embracing the practice of state execution.  I know that my brothers on death row are not motivated by selfish reasons when they speak against SAFE California/Proposition 34 that will end capital punishment in California.  But they should always keep in mind the symbolic meaning of blacks being killed by the state.  And the symbolic implication it holds for future generations.  It’s been a long journey since slavery.  And the little freedom we hold is the result of many people making blood sacrifices.  Individuals were willing to give their lives so that the next generation would have an opportunity to improve on their work.  And their work was to ascertain equal rights and protection for all citizens under the American flag.  So to hear brothers speak out against ending the death penalty makes me sad, particularly since I have a clear understanding of what it means to the struggle of African-Americans and poor people in general.  I know that these brothers are concerned about what ending the death penalty means.  But they must keep in mind how many lives ending the death penalty will save.  I’ve personally seen many men sent to death at San Quentin and I’ve also witnessed the many suicides and other deaths that have occurred on the row.  And each one has touched me deeply, not only because each man was a human being, but also because each death was the result of social injustice.  I say that because the American justice system doesn’t treat rich and poor people the same.  And that to me speaks volumes of what America is all about.  So from someone that has been getting the boot all his life, I say whatever advantage the state provides us we should take it because in the end we don’t know how much it will assist others to bring a better day.  Sometimes in life we are forced to bite the bullet for the sake of others.  And I believe this is one of those times.  Besides, if you really have faith in yourself, you will find a way to get your case heard.  And in all respects you shouldn’t have to rely on the state to be fair by you.  After all, it’s the state that wants to kill you in the first place.

Willie Johnson
C35635 5EY55
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA 94974

Thoughts on the SAFE California Act

By Michael Wayne Hunter

As a prisoner who was warehoused on San Quentin's Death Row for eighteen years and now have been serving Life Without Possibility Of Parole (LWOPP) for ten years, I read with great interest the writings of several death row prisoners about the SAFE California Act. The main two objections by condemned prisoners to the SAFE California Act seemed to be the lack of consultation with prisoners currently sentenced to death, and the fact that if the act passes and condemned prisoners sentences are modified to LWOPP, their appellate attorneys' fees will no longer be automatically paid for by the taxpayers.

As for consultation, condemned prisoners are not a monolithic group marching in lockstep toward the execution chamber. There are as many opinions as there are prisoners. When I was on death row, I used to joke that if San Quentin's walls fell down and the guards told condemned prisoners to just go ahead and leave, a significant segment would refuse while saying, "Don't you tell me what to do!"

When you are on death row, you are catered to in ways that you don't fully understand until you leave for the general population. When I was transferred to Salinas Valley Prison, I found myself sleeping on the floor of Receiving because there was no cell available for me, while thinking, "Didn't they know I was coming?!" Then it occurred to me that I was no longer one of the seven hundred on the row carefully warehoused while awaiting execution, I was now one of the 170,000 in California prisons and Salinas didn't know or care that I was arriving at the prison.

What the SAFE act proposes to do is eliminate the death penalty and place the prisoners currently housed on death row in the exact same situation as thousands of prisoners in California prisons who at their trials were sentenced to Life In Prison Without Possibility Of Parole. I see prisoners in general population writing innocence projects, self-educating in the law library, and trying every way possible, mostly without success, to obtain judicial review of their trials and sentences. I would like every lifer have the right to appellate counsel but the State Of California is broke and on the reality plane the taxpayers are simply not going to pay for our appeals.

Although I like and greatly respect Kevin Cooper, who I personally know and believe along with many judges to be innocent of the murder charges against him, and I'm moved by KC's willingness to risk execution in order to have the right to an attorney who will represent his claims in the courts, I think about the scores of prisoners on death row who are guilty of everything they were charged and convicted and have no appeal issues and will be executed if California doesn't abolish the death penalty.

I understand the suspicion of Jeanne Woodford and to a large extent share them. I did not think she was a good warden when I was on death row or sympathetic to the concerns of condemned prisoners or their families and loved ones. But if condemned men are going to ask for an opportunity to grow and seek redemption, we should give that same opportunity to Jeanne Woodford, and I think the California SAFE Act although far from perfect is a step in the right direction and will save the lives of many condemned prisoners.

Just Another Brick in the Road

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Come November, the citizens of California are going to vote on whether or not to keep the state's comatose capital punishment scheme on life support. Prop 34 - or the SAFE California Act to those who prefer their bags of coal tied with a shiny red ribbon - would execute the death penalty and replace it with Life With Out Parole. (LWOP) If passed, the number of condemned prisoners in the United States would be cut by roughly a quarter, and CA would represent the 6th jurisdiction to abolish state-sanctioned murder in just under six years. Since the 9th Circuit is located in San Francisco the passage of Prop 34 could also potentially have the effect of increasing the rate of overturned death penalty convictions from the other states which fall under the oversight of the 9th Circuit - states like Arizona, Washington, and Oregon. This sort of home-court advantage isn't supposed to happen, of course, but it does and there is no sense in pretending otherwise. The Act was considered a long shot to pass when the signatures were gathered to put the voter initiative on the ballot, but due to the bipartisan support amassing behind the movement, it now has a fair shot at passage. Voters should support the ratification of Prop 34 and add California to the list of territories currently acknowledging we aren't living in the stone ages.

That said, Prop 34 is not a perfect thing. It has come to my attention that a certain subset of the population of California Death Row is urging voters to shoot this initiative down. I wasn't really surprised to learn of this. You meet all sorts of people in prison, many of whom have...ah..."interesting" views on politics. In any case, their arguments against the Act aren't entirely baseless, merely flawed because those who hold them are laboring under some serious misunderstandings of the law and life itself. The first of these justifications goes something like this: LWOP is just another kind of death in prison, so Prop 34 isn't any sort of real solution. Ok, granted: LWOP is a barbaric concept and clearly not a great outcome. But you guys are allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good (or at least the decent). The pace of progress is a slow shuffle, and sometimes it feels like you spend 90% of your energy just trying not to fall backwards. It would be wonderful if we could see the passage of a bill that A) abolished the death penalty, B) instituted a reasonable set of determinate sentencing guidelines, and C) apportioned the funds needed to set the wrongly convicted men and women on death row free. While we are at it, I'd like to have an eidetic memory, 24-inch biceps, and a robot butler that looks just like Jessica Alba. Let's get real here: ain't none of that happening. Though it is not apparently popular (even amongst the Left) to believe in the concept of Utopia anymore, I still do. Perhaps not the pie-in-the-sky worker’s paradise of yesteryear, but some sort of human society that addresses the needs of all in a rational, utilitarian manner, without ending up with the horror of an Omelas.

You guys who are advocating the continued existence of the DP need to understand that you are never going to see the Promised Land. You, me, everybody: we're all screwed, doomed to toil away in this existence (whether behind bars or in the free world) and die unremembered, all because we had the misfortune of having been born too early in the history of our species. Get over it. Our job is to follow the pathway laid down by past generations, find the spot where its edges meet the Uncharted Lands, and then lay our own bricks down. That's it; that's life. That is the simultaneous beauty and desperation of the human condition. Prop 34 is one such brick, and it's a big one. Once it is set in place, we can go about figuring out how to lay down the next, which deals with true criminal justice reform. But we have to get the distraction of the death penalty out of the way first. I know that sometimes progress feels like a pretty name for having to choose between two evils, but if you keep choosing the lesser of the two and never take your eyes off of the horizon, eventually you (and by this I mean the human race) are going to find yourself in a place that starts to look like home. And in any case, I've learned this about the journey: the cure for the pain is in the pain. Think about that for a bit, because there is a whole mountain of power and peace in those few words.

The first rule of intelligent tinkering is this: save all of the parts. That is what Prop 34 does: it removes the medicalized gibbet from the picture, and saves 725 lives. According to my data, there are either 14 or 15 men on California's death row whose appeals are currently exhausted. If the voter initiative fails, most or all of these men will die in the relatively near future. Once Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler rules on the execution protocol changes. Do you want that on your conscience? Think about all of the rest of us nationwide who are rapidly approaching final contact with a gurney: there are 9 human beings currently with dates in Texas in the next 3.5 months alone. We need forward thinking states like California to fall so that the pressure moves on to other jurisdictions. As my friend Willie wrote above, "Sometimes in life we are forced to bite the bullet for the sake of others." This Act is a reasonable first step in a state where capital punishment still has a favorable majority opinion. Bring your head out of the clouds and focus on the real situation on the ground and take what you can get. And live to fight another day, a cliché that seems remarkably apt for the current debate.

After offering up the preceding moral/ideological argument, those advocating the defeat of Prop 34 move on to a more practical one. They claim that the passage of the Act will remove forever from the table their ability to find good attorneys capable of setting them free. This is a legitimate concern, at least on its surface. In a recent issue of the SJRA Advocate, San Quentin resident Correll Thomas writes: They are attempting to force us condemned men and women to accept another Death Penalty without any habeas review of our sentences.

Jarvis Jay Masters echoes this fear, saying: You need to know that your vote for this act would throw away the key for all the innocent men and women on death row, and instead, sentence all prisoners on death row to spend the rest of their lives in prison without the possibility of parole and without effective legal representation.

I don‘t know how the passage of the Act would affect these men’s constitutionally guaranteed right to counsel, because they would no longer be under sentence of death. (For the record, I don‘t think anyone really does at this point, and this issue will be litigated going forward.) For the sake of argument, let's say that Thomas and Masters are right, and they are soon to be punted into general population without any legal help whatsoever. Wake up guys: the Act in no way precludes anyone A) going out and hustling up pro-bono representation or B) going to the law library and learning enough to file their own §2254s. I mean, gee, guys, welcome to the South: everyone of us down here in Yee-Haw Land understands instinctively that to survive this place we can't rely on the state to provide us with a good attorney. Like Willie wrote above, "And with all due respect you shouldn't have to rely on the state to do right by you." A-bloody-men, brother. I've had to file my own motions, and I had to track down my own federal representation. It sucks that we have to do this if we want we want a chance of finding an attorney who actually wants to see us survive, but these are the rules of the game and there is no sense in complaining too much about them: just roll up your sleeves and get to work. Doing otherwise smacks of laziness. Doing otherwise while supporting a status quo that is about to put a wrecking ball through the lives of potentially hundreds of human beings is, frankly, evil.

In any case, the actual facts aren't on your side: roughly 40% of the men on California's death row don't even have an attorney, let alone a good one capable of doing much for them. It can take a decade before you ever get your first, your first of many. California’s death row is a place you go to die - of old age. Or suicide. Or sickness. Anything but the actual needle. Even when you do get counsel, the vast majority of these attorneys are going to be novices or worse: those who took your case not for ideological reasons, but simply for the cash. If what you are really interested in is getting top-notch representation, the only way this is going to come to pass is when you stop waiting on others to save you and start writing letters. I sent out over 150 information packets before I found my firm, and this action is probably the only reason I am still alive to write these words.

Seven years of life behind bars has caused the sensitivity of my BS detector to improve in ways I had never imagined possible. Reading the publicized complaints by the condemned Prop 34 detractors caused this apparatus to start pinging crazily. I suspect that when you break it down, each and every detractor has selfish reasons for wanting the only two options to be release or the status quo. The thing is, guys, we have moved from a world of personal goals and fears into one of pure ideology here, and the self has to take a backseat to the greater good. That may be uncomfortable for some, but I am hoping that a majority of California residents are persuaded to take a stand for the side of light. One has so few opportunities to participate in an actual movement in this post-modern sludge.
If this thing fails, it will be partly because you guys collapsed at the moment when solidarity was most needed. If god or karma or whatever other metaphor for justice you care to worship exists, I hope that it/he/she is kinder to you than I would be, because you are about to have entire rivers or blood on your hands. Some of it will belong to friends of mine. Some of it will belong l to me.

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

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