Friday, June 28, 2013

An Unfortunate Marriage of Tragedy and Farce

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Simonides of Ceos was what you might call a pretty lucky guy. While attending a large banquet in the 5th Century BC, the poet stepped outside the hall for a moment (for reasons which aren't exactly clear but which probably amount to the most fortunate relieving of one's bowels in the history of mankind), when the entire building collapsed behind him. He was the only survivor. When asked to give an account of who was buried in the debris and where, Simonides discovered a curious thing: while totally unable to recall names in list-form, he was able to recall each person and where they sat by first remembering the exact layout of the dining hall. He later realized that by using this same layout, he could cement other people and concepts - all of the great Greek dramatists, say - in his memory in a way unavailable to him otherwise. These mental buildings became known as "memory palaces", and the art of memorizing entire ballads was passed down to modern readers in a short Latin rhetoric textbook called "Rhetorica ad Herennium.”

I've been trying to use both memory palaces and other mnemonic systems like the Major System for years, because, well, my memory stinks. Memory palaces work because human beings have very good spatial memory: we evolved through natural selection to benefit greatly from being able to recall where food and danger were located. Needing to memorize 1000 names (which no tribe of early humans had a need for) or long lists of telephone numbers are entirely recent phenomena, and the brain hasn't yet caught up with modern necessities. By pegging mundane lists of things like groceries you need to pick up at the store to visually ridiculous images (thinking of the Queen of England sitting at your kitchen table drinking a cup of tea, in order to remember to buy said tea) and then placing these images in your palace, you activate the portions of our brains responsible for better types of our memory. Spatial memory is the cute blonde who gets the puny weakling of the rest of our recall past the bouncer of forgetfulness, in other words.

The pros (yes, there are memory contests; the participants call themselves "Mental Athletes") can use these systems to memorize entire sections of the Oxford English Dictionary or huge sequences of random numbers after only a few minutes of very intense concentration. Usually, they wear earplugs plus aircraft carrier deck ear protection helmets plus dark glasses, and the audiences at the competitions are ordered to be completely silent. (Who goes to such competitions as spectators is not a question I have any answer to....) I am devoid of such tools, but I have had some success with the system nonetheless. My palace is my childhood home. I can usually fit things into the entryway, the dining room, and the kitchen. When I round the corner into the living room, to continue the metaphor, my palace collapses pretty much like the one that very nearly squished Simonides. Still, engaging in 15 or 20 minutes of memory training a day has helped me to see that the human brain is more powerful than we usually realize. With practice, it is capable of some pretty amazing feats.

Untrained and unmonitored, left to its own devices, however, memory is extremely undependable. This is what makes these Mental Athletes so incredible, seeing how different they are from the rest of us. It can make us feel very uncomfortable to realize how prone to error our memories are, for they are fundamental in constructing our identities. Any hint that what we recall may not be accurate instantly makes us feel somehow unmoored. Still, if we are honest with ourselves we will admit that we are often assailed by memories we wish we could forget but which won't go away, names or places we just thought about but can no longer get off the tips of our tongues, and, most troubling by far, being absolutely certain about some past events only to recognize that we were dead wrong. All of these events happen to us all of the time. We may pretend that memory is some sort of tape that we can rewind at our pleasure, but the reality is much more complicated

I recently read a book by Charles Fernyhough called Pieces of Light: How the New Science of Memory Illuminates the Stories We Tell About Our Pasts. This "new science" is actually not so new if you happen to work in the fields of neuroscience, evolutionary biology, or psychology, but much of it was new to me so the title was accurate. Fernyhough states that, "when you form a memory, you don't simply record a mental DVD of events that get played back at the moment of remembering. Memories are constructions, made in the present moment; they are not direct lines to the events themselves...when those memories are so central to our own sense of identity, we are naturally resistant to the idea that we could get them wrong. But we do get them wrong and probably more often than we is well established that a memory is not a faithful, unchanging representation of an event. An event plays itself out in our heads, and we decide, on the basis of many different kinds of information, whether it actually happened or not." Memory, it turns out, is more mutable than popularly known. Each time you dredge up an event from the past, you are always going to be viewing it through the context of the present; each retelling subtly alters the memory in question. Each attempt at recall gives us a progressively smudgy copy of a copy of a copy, over which our present attitudes, beliefs, and "certainties" have drawn a new outline and which dares us to disagree. Merely imagining a potential event can also encode it like memory, so you falsely "remember" it happening much later. The science in the book is very interesting, but most intriguing to me was the uncomfortable feeling it left me with. We trust our memories, which is probably the last thing we should do.

It does make me feel a little better knowing that many really smart people in the past have been wrong about all of this. The great Descartes himself (he of the cogito, ergo sum business) realized that "subjective certainty" was a real problem. He never got around it, really, because he based the "veridicality" of sense perception on the only solid ground he could come up with, namely, on the validity of his proofs of god's existence. If the very notion of the "self" might be said to be located in the memory, knowing that we are so unfixed is a worrisome proposition.

The consequences for forgetting something or misremembering run the gamut from the harmless (forgetting to pick up milk at the store) to the serious (forgetting your wife's birthday...again), to the disastrous (an airplane mechanic neglecting to check a part). Considering that I have known men who were taken to Huntsville in chains and filled with poison based purely on eyewitness testimony, this issue interests me greatly. As far back as the 1800’s, experts have been aware that eyewitness identification was subject to error. This is yet another example of the courts and general society lagging far behind what is known by science, and when I question the reason for this, the best I can come up with is that there is something inherently comforting and satisfying about a witness pointing to a defendant and proclaiming: "He's the one; I know it as well as I know my own mother." A study by Loftus and Doyle in 1992 set up mock trials to investigate just how powerful this effect is, and the results are astonishing. Two different sets of jurors heard evidence presented, with the only difference consisting of the presence or absence of eyewitness testimony. Minus the witness, 18% of jurors gave guilty verdicts, while 72% of the jurors returned this verdict when an eyewitness was present. Here is the scary part: even when the identification was impeached, the guilty rate was still 68%. Many other studies have mirrored this result: even when factors such as bias or poor visibility are acknowledged, jurors overwhelmingly believe eyewitness identifications of suspects. And so prosecutors keep using them, even when the science directly contradicts their validity.

This is yet another indicator of a massive problem in our system of law, one that I have written about before but which seems to be avoided by virtually anyone else, namely the entire concept of the "jury of one's peers." Twelve laypeople are expected to come into court and determine objective truth; the presenters of these various "truths" are showmen, whose job it is to sell a certain verdict. In no other situation in life would you rely on twelve people right off the streets to arrive at such an important outcome. Imagine: you are at a restaurant. You feel an intense pain in your stomach and fall to the floor. A woman rushes to your side, screaming, "out of my way, I'm a doctor!" She quickly claims that your appendix is about to burst and if not removed this instant, you will perish. A man then steps forward, saying he feels it is food poisoning, and demands that twelve random diners vote on the cause instead. Given the choice, only an absolute fool would give a rat's ass about what an architect or a plumber thinks about the pain in your belly. You will always trust the experts, in whatever situation you are in. This is a farcical example, of course, but it really isn't that far off from the reality of our jury system. This is why many jurisdictions in Europe use professional jurists, because they recognize that normal people are not to be trusted in matters this weighty.

The numbers back up my argument: nationally, in cases which were later overturned thanks to DNA evidence or other hard science, eyewitness error was the cause of the original conviction 75% of the time. In a study by Wells, et al, from 1998, an analysis of 40 cases where DNA exonerated wrongfully convicted people showed that a whopping 90% involved mistaken identities. Cutler and Penrod examined this matter by setting up controlled experiments where a person goes into a convenience store and performed memorable activities such as paying for their purchases with pennies. Later, the clerk viewed a photo lineup and attempted to peg the customer. The percentage of correct identifications ranged between 34 and 40%. The percentage of false identifications fell between 34 and 38%. In other words, these clerks got it wrong as often as they got it right, and this was without the stress present in situations involving a weapon and potential violence, and also without the passage of time or the corrupting influence of flawed police identification procedures.

In 1984 a woman named Jennifer Thompson was raped by a man who put a knife to her throat. During the incident, Thompson studied her rapist with great care in order to memorize his facial features. "I studied every single detail on the rapist's face. I looked for scars, for tattoos, for anything that would help me identify him. When and if I survived the attack, I was going to make sure he was put in prison and he was going to rot." Later that day, Thompson went to the police station and worked up a composite sketch of her attacker. The police produced a photographic lineup, and Thompson pinpointed a man named Ronald Cotton. She was positive it was he, and she testified against him at trial. "I was sure. I knew it. I had picked the right guy, and he was going to go to jail. If there was the possibility of a death sentence, I wanted him to die. I wanted to flip the switch."

Jennifer Thompson was as certain as she could be. She was also as wrong as she could be, as DNA later showed. Ironically, she was presented with the real rapist in a trial proceeding a year after the attack, but she swore she'd never seen him before.  Ronald Cotton served eleven years in prison before DNA cleared him. If this had been a death sentence in Texas, he would have been long dead before DNA had had a chance to free him.

In March of 1998, 21-year-old Alfonso Gomez was convicted of being the gunman who fired multiple shots from a passing car that killed Martha Gonzalez and seriously wounded another victim. Two witnesses positively identified the young man, and their identifications were virtually the only evidence presented by the prosecutor. It was enough: Gomez was sentenced to 41 years to life in prison. Orange County DA Howard Gundry claimed that the identifications were powerful evidence, describing them as "righteous" and "certain." "Is he the right front passenger?" Gundry asked rhetorically in his closing argument. Absolutely... I mean it was a dead-bang identification." Dead-bang wrong, as it later turned out. Gomez's murder conviction was later vacated and a man named Armando Parra was arrested. Needless to say, Gomez and Parra look nothing alike.

All of that is academic. Ten minutes from now, precisely zero of you will remember the names of Ronald Cotton or Alfonso Gomez. You might recall the name of Willie Johnson, however, since he writes for this site on occasion. Like Cotton and Gomez, he was convicted based on eyewitness testimony in a total absence of physical evidence. Unlike Cotton and Gomez, Willie didn't escape a death sentence: he's been waiting on a date with the needle since 1987.

On July 1, 1986, Angela Womble, her mother Mrs. Willie Womble, and Angela's 16-month-old son Terrance were at their home in Richmond, California. Angela's former boyfriend was a drug dealer and was in the habit of using her home as a stash spot for his money. At approximately 10pm, Angela heard a knock on the door, and ultimately recognized the voice of Allen Duchine, a friend of her ex-boyfriend's. Upon opening the door, Duchine and another man pushed her inside the home, armed with a rifle and a shotgun.

After discovering that that there was no cache of drug money in the home, the second suspect killed the elder Womble by shooting her in the head with the shotgun. Duchine then shot Angela with the rifle, and the pair fled the home. Angela survived her wounds and was able to point out Duchine from a photographic lineup while still in hospital. The gossip stream in Richmond had kicked into high gear after the shootings, and thanks to a series of telephone calls between several peripheral people in Willie Johnson's life, the police zeroed in on him as the second suspect. At some point prior to a lineup involving Johnson, Angela had already been told by relatives and friends in the community that "Willie Johnson" was a suspect. We will never know if this information came with a description, but I find it hard to believe that things like facial features were never discussed. At any rate, when showed a photographic lineup of him, she said she could not be positive, but that he "looked like the person" who had shot her mother. She claimed that he had an earring in his right ear and that he was tall and dark. She could not, however, even recall whether the lights in the kitchen and the living room (where she was shot) were on or not.

Eventually Angela was shown a second photo lineup with fresh photographs of Willie. She took some time before pointing him out, saying: "His face looks familiar...but you see, it was dark." She said the photo of Johnson had the "same facial features, round head, and forehead structure." On the way to this second lineup at the county jail, the lead detective on the case had admitted to Angela that they had a suspect in custody. Willie Johnson's second set of lineup photographs was taken while he was wearing a jailhouse uniform. He was the only member of the second lineup to wear such attire. Despite the fact that Angela could have easily drawn a connection between the uniform and the detective's comments about a suspect in custody, the state courts of California found no legal problems with Angela's identification. Neither did the courts have a problem with Angela changing her testimony after learning that Willie wore an earring in his left ear, not his right. Nor did anyone seem to mind that Willie was the only person featured in both the first and second photo lineups. That Angela Womble might have been remembering the first series of photographs during the second lineup instead of the actual suspect seems to have occurred to no one. As in the case of Alfonso Gomez, the prosecutor in Johnson's trial told the jury that Angela's "identification of defendant [was] as reliable an identification as may be found in a courtroom." When appealing on this obvious fabrication, the state court claimed that "defendant also contends that prosecutor engaged in misconduct by calling [Womble's] identification of defendant as reliable an identification as could be found in a courtroom. We disagree; the statement cannot reasonably be interpreted as vouching, but would have been understood as an invitation to draw the desired inference." I very much doubt that anyone on Johnson's jury understands the tiny crack of daylight between "vouching" and "an invitation to draw the desired inference"; I'm not sure there is one, actually. What is certain is that this is the language by which a supposedly modern nation kills its own citizens.

Thanks to advances in fields like the social sciences, neuroscience, cognition, and psychology, we know far more about how humans process memory during both violent acts and the eyewitness identification process. There are two sorts of variables that the police must deal with in these situations: estimator variables which cannot be controlled (things like lighting, distance, problems in unreliability of identification when witness an perpetrator are of different races, stress, and presence of a weapon) and system variables which can be controlled (including the type of lineup used, the selection of "fillers" in the lineup), instructions to witnesses during lineup, a lack of blind or double blind administration, and confirmation of a suspect during the lineup . There are literally hundreds of ways an investigator can intentionally or unintentionally corrupt the identification process. Merely saying, "good, you identified the suspect" after a lineup can change a witness's highly tentative "maybe" to a "100% confident" identification.

Stress and weapon focus are also powerful factors. Yale psychiatrist Charles Morgan once tested the ability of highly trained military survival school students on their ability to identify interrogators following low- and high-stress scenarios. In each sort of interrogation, subjects were face-to-face with their questioners for 40 minutes in a well-lit room. When they were asked to identify their interrogator, subjects exposed to low-stress situations incorrectly pinpointed their targets only 12% of the time. Those subjects exposed to high-stress questioning, however, failed 68% of the time. That's a fail rate of more than two out of three times, involving highly trained military personnel after a 40 minute exposure. When you add a weapon into the mix, the rates get even worse. For reasons that are obvious, eyewitnesses tend to be drawn to the point of the weapon rather than the subject's face, an effect known as "weapon focus."

Without extensive memory training, the rate of memory degradation (the "forgetting curve") has been shown to be "Ebbinghausian" in nature, that is, it begins to drop off sharply within 20 minutes following the initial coding, and continues to do so exponentially until it begins to level off around day two. In the case of Willie Johnson, his tentative identification did not take place until well after the forgetting curve had finished its business.

The largest cause of error in this process is known as the "relative judgment" process, a term which fits Johnson's case in more ways than one. In the first, scientific sense, this is what happens when you are trying to select a person from a lineup and simply pick the person that most looks like the perpetrator. The actual person responsible may not be present, so the person who best fits the memory gets tagged. In Johnson's case, there is actually a very good reason why Angela Womble said he looked familiar, but couldn't be certain." In this case, "relative judgment" hits far closer to home than in most.

Since Willie Johnson's arrest and conviction, 23 witnesses have come forward to identify the real killer as Willie's brother, Timothy Johnson, who died in a drive-by shooting in 1989. Timothy was a violent, crack-cocaine user and dealer, a man feared in Richmond. He also happened to be friends with Duchine and also the direct competitor of Angela's former drug-dealing boyfriend. The stories that have come out since his death are a sad commentary on both our criminal justice system and on our class and race relations. In response to this flood of new witnesses and testimony, Hal Jewett, the Contra Costa deputy district attorney who prosecuted Johnson stated: "I have trouble believing that all of those witnesses were so devoid of a sense of morality that they would remain silent." This is typical prosecutor-speak: what does it matter what he has trouble believing? Justice is not about which issues the various parties can and cannot understand. It is about facts. His comments speak to both a total dereliction of duty to pursue justice regardless of where the path leads, and to a frightful amount of ignorance of the experiences of urban African-Americans in his own city. In any case, if one hesitant, coached witness is good enough to sentence someone to death, why aren't 23 good enough to cast doubt?

The new witnesses are remarkably specific. Some said that Timothy Johnson confessed to the crime, and many of these people attempted to get him to turn himself in. Timothy said he could not stand imprisonment, when pressed. Under cross-examination, these witnesses gave different reasons for why they had not come forward during the first trial. Many stated that they were never approached by the police, while others said they feared Timothy. Many said that it was an unwritten rule of the neighborhood to steer clear of any matters involving drugs or drug-dealers. A few quotes from these witnesses taken from news articles and trial transcripts are very enlightening.

Willie and Timothy Johnson's aunt Betty Thomas Johnson said it was simple - although perhaps incomprehensible to Richmond outsiders. In Richmond, things are done differently from Petaluma... once I was at my mom's house [in Richmond], and there was a drive-by shooting. In Petaluma, I would have described the shooters to the Richmond, members of my family would be injured or killed if I cooperated with police. My mother told me I was crazy even to think about talking to the police." She went on to admit that another nephew had told her that Timothy was the actual killer. “I immediately called my mom and told her Timothy was the killer, but she already knew; everyone in the family seemed to know much more than me. I didn’t think I could change anything by saying anything."

Willie's attorney John Philipsborn stated that "some older people felt we were foolish to believe somebody like Willie Johnson would really get a thorough review of this case... there are plenty of people who just don’t believe that people from their income level and their ethnic background will ever get a fair hearing."

It gets worse, of course, as it always seems to around this joint. Six years after Willie's conviction, Allen Duchine, the other assailant who had received a life sentence for his role in the shootings, wrote to the California Supreme Court to inform them that it was Timothy, not Willie, who had been with him on that fateful day. He admitted that it was Timothy who had killed Mrs. Womble, and that Willie was not present. “After Angela Womble identified the wrong person in connection with the shooting, I went along with that story because I feared Timothy Johnson," he wrote.

When Duchine later attended a hearing on the matter, he reversed himself again. Visibly angry, he claimed that his letter was a lie: "I gotta look out for myself now," Duchine said on the witness stand. "I'm tired of sacrificing my life to help everybody else out." Any convict could tell you what had happened here: the system leaned on him. It is common for inmates to be simultaneously threatened and promised parole when co-defendants get retrials or hearings in court; I've seen this happen at least five or six times during my stay on death row. There is no bigger carrot than freedom, no heavier a stick than being sent to solitary confinement for potentially decades over a nonsense case. Sure enough, now that years have passed and Duchine's parole situation has improved, he has gone back to admitting that Timothy was the real killer. I've heard it said that in history, first comes tragedy, then comes farce. For the life of me, I cannot figure out how to separate the two in the case of Willie Johnson.

What is a responsible, ethical person supposed to take from stories like Willie's? It's hard to tell sometimes. First, I think, we need to take a moment and pause in front of the cultural mirror and acknowledge that we are a nation that permits our fellow citizens to be legally murdered based off of the testimony of a panicked victim in a room where the light may have even been off. We need to recognize that so many of the "certainties" in our memories are anything but, even if that means admitting that we are neither as stable or as accurate as we would have preferred. Finally, many of you will one day be jurors. It isn't likely that you will ever have to sit on a death-qualified panel, but my final point works equally well whatever the nature of the case: when you sit on a jury, recognize that you are merely a member of the audience of a play. Prosecutors are actors, salesmen with the entire power of the state apparatus behind them. When they tell you that their evidence is "dead certain," understand that the only thing that is actually certain is that they want you to believe them. Willie's story may be the weathervane of where the judicial winds are blowing today, but it is you who get to determine their direction tomorrow.

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

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

Friday, June 21, 2013

Inhumane Welcoming Society

By Armando Macias

The drive from Orange County Jail was quiet, no one spoke, no radio, no bathroom breaks for me, only for the deputies escorting me. I found that dehumanizing. I was in tight leg irons and just as tight waist chains connected to my wrists, both cutting my skin. I still was able to ignore the pain to enjoy the day-long drive in amazement and wondering of the tiny universes in each car, home and building.

The San Quentin’s entrance is on the beautiful bay water’s edge. There’s a huge contrast between the majestic oceanic view and the eyesore of an old prison. That view was the last picturesque view I was to see.

My welcoming to Death Row was vile and illegal. I.G.I. (gang unit) came and strip-searched me using a flashlight. And then attempted to coerce me into saying I had swallowed some contraband so they will have a reason to x-ray me, which I refused to do since I had not. I thought the strip search with a flashlight was degrading, but I quickly came to realize the demeaning bus ride and strip search were only the beginning.

I was placed on "potty watch.” I put on my t-shirt, boxers and socks. Tape was tightly wrapped around my lower thigh muscles above my knee serving to constrict my movement and blood circulation. Two identical one-piece white outfits were put on me with strings as buttons. One was placed on me backwards, strings tightly tied, then the other forward strings tied. Waist chains were so tight I found it hard to breath. I thought the ride up here was uncomfortable. This was torture. Leg irons were cutting into my ankles. No shoes for my feet. More tape on the outside of the outfit, around my ankles and thighs. The walk up to the Adjustment Center was very painful. My requests for it all to be loosened went ignored.

I was told I was assigned to the Adjustment Center, also known as the hole for trouble makers. I.G.I. told me unless I become an informant I’d stay in the A/C. It’s a statement I ignored because I found it unreasonable so therefore untrue .... wow, was I wrong.

I was placed in a 5 feet by 3 feet wide cell in the middle of the second floor. It was a lesson in what it means to be treated inhumanely, no shower, no soap, the tape and chains made my movements painful and relaxing was virtually impossible. A mattress was given to me at night. I fell over and hit my head trying to lie down. I welcomed the three inch mattress but the pad lock I wore dug into my waist, making it painful to sleep. One of the correctional officers tried to tell the I.G.I. officers to loosen the waist chains up a bit so I may eat my food but he was met with a stern response that things were being done by the book. That was to prove to be the symbolic format of Death Row, an inhumane system with both humane and cruel humans working in it. Eating was hard to do since the spoon wouldn’t reach my mouth. I had to use the bathroom in a bag and cup in front of the officers who intently watched me. I did this at the beginning of the tier where anyone in the cell could look out and see. It’s embarrassing and humiliating to do what‘s normally private in front of other men. But obviously it’s the norm for these men, since they nonchalantly went through the process of “potty watch."

When I asked why I was placed on potty watch I was told in a matter of fact way, “You're a Southern Hispanic. This is your welcoming to Death Row.” It was said as if I should’ve expected to be treated badly and to be submissive and accepting of it.

The cell I went into after I finished 3.5 days of “potty watch" was smelly and held another inmate’s old blankets and clothes. It was filthy and in serious need of cleaning. I was placed in a “quiet cell," which is behind two gates. I had to clean it despite the pain in my hands, back and legs from the lack of proper circulation. I forced myself to soap up the cell with an old soap and used towels that were in there. I threw out the used blankets and clothes.

I was issued only a small percentage of what I’m supposed to be issued upon arrival. It took me four months to get my second towel, three days to receive my plastic spoon (the type used at parties and at fast food restaurants) and four months to get my plastic fork. To this day I still don’t have my full issue of clothes. It‘s cold during winter especially when the air conditioner is on. We’re supposed to have two blankets. It took me two months to get my second blanket.

I questioned myself, is it always like this?? I discovered the rules are not explained but learned at the pain and suffering of the inmate. I was strip-searched for shower and handcuffed behind my back and told to walk backwards as if I was a wild maniac. This process of strip-searching is the normal procedure all inmates in the A/C go through when coming and going from the cell or yard, even in the rain. All other yard cages in San Quentin have a cover for the rain. Yard cages in the A/C do not. We get soaked when it rains.

I didn't know we are supposed to leave out our other hand when it’s uncuffed, so when I pulled it in my other hand was roughly pulled out and to the side until I pulled out my other hand ... Death Row was turning out to be a rough ride.

It’s been 18 months since my arrival to Death Row. I came to Death Row with the belief that the older the prison the better the program. San Quentin is over 100 years old (built in the 1800’s), and I expected at the very least it would run a program equal to other CDCR prison programs. I had heard of a humane Death Row where men may find avenues of personal grown, of redemption, and education, a Death Row where men are able to face execution as human beings, not animals in cages. I came to Death Row believing I would be a condemned man subject to rules that were equally applied to all condemned people. I had expected to be treated in direct relation to my conduct not my origins and race. Shouldn’t my actions dictate how I’m labeled? I’m disciplinary-free as are most men here.

I came to discover how easily laws relate to man but sadly not how man relates to the law. Shouldn’t rules be in place to help further someone’s positive inclinations and give incentive to follow the rules?

CDCR stands for California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The “R" was recently added to CDC. Since I am in their custody, shouldn’t the “R" apply to me as well? I was sentenced to be executed at San Quentin but the judge didn't order for the Warden to execute my spirit and mind before my body. Why is the system in CDCR focused on killing the human spirit?? What is the beneficial purpose?

Yes it’s true I am a condemned man for a reason. It's through deeds that man’s deepest thoughts are revealed. He will feel the effects of his actions. It is also true, through reasoning and self-analysis, that man is able to scratch the surface and reach the depth of our being. It is through books, studying that man may not only ask but seek answers to questions like what does it mean to be alive, to be human and why? For what meaning? But also he may learn the path of such answers.

Up until I discovered there was such knowledge I only knew what I was told, saw, heard and lived. Through books, I discovered all sorts of questions I never even thought of, let alone asked. Now I could begin to seek how to live or how not to live. Being alive is no answer to the problems of the living, so we must seek such answers. But how am I to do that if I am limited to three books at a time? A dictionary and a thesaurus take up two books. Only one property officer assigned to pass out books and property to 100 inmates leaves weeks of waiting for the next set of books. All other California prisons have a ten book limit, as do the other Death Row inmates in East Block.

I came to Death Row with the plan to continue my search of human truths. Isn’t it true if you show man there are more trains of thought then the painful one he’s been born and raised on he’ll leave it for a peaceful one? It is part of being human to seek more and gain more experience. To be human we must be more than human. I’m referring to what us sentient beings are made of and capable of being. There are many cultures with various ideologies. There are many religions that teach many fabulous ways to god(s). There are many forms of knowledge in the world both secular and religious. In a day and age where all that information is at the touch of a screen on a phone, we don’t even have a library program, let alone college correspondence courses. There are very limited religious services.

I’m in the A/C, which is said to be a disciplinary building. I’m classified Grade B. Grade A get all the privileges like contact visits, phone, arts and crafts, college, care packages, etc... On the main line you get those first then lose them if you misbehave or don’t think as they wish you to. Here we are Grade B, with no set criteria to become Grade A. The Grade B in East Block have more privileges then us in Grade B in the A/C. We are about 97% of the A/C with very few for disciplinary reasons. We haven’t done anything. Why am I being disciplined? I look around and see the majority of the men here are of Latino race and those that are not have been disciplinary-free as well. Where’s the justification in that? All of us are yet to be told! Many men have been here 10 to 20 years for no good reason.

All humans feel fear, anger, pain, loneliness, frustration and yearning but in a single man cell alone with these emotions as company, who does a man have to communicate with and confide in? How am I, or anyone, to feel love, learn of compassion and experience both if we are isolated? Mail helps a lot and I’m very grateful for those friends and family who write to me, but mail takes two to four weeks to arrive. There are no phone calls and no contact visits.  What about seeing the emotions on their faces, hear their love in the tones of voice and be able to hug and hold their hands? What about fathers and husbands whose physical relationships are just as important to their spouses and kids? It’s cruel and unusual punishment to be deprived of that contact if our actions do not warrant it.

The food has no salt, nor can I purchase any and there’s a limit to how much we could purchase in our monthly opportunity to order from canteen. The food is bland and only enough to keep us alive. I'd say it’s the legal limit but often it’s not since the trays do not hold the legal limit of some foods.

On September 27, 2011 a memo came out saying all inmates shall have access to art supplies and exercise equipment. In art I discovered an unknown skill, an avenue of creativity and a previously unknown therapeutic method. It’s an exercise in self-discipline, which is a major factor of maturity. It’s a way to tame a wild mind and build self-esteem. Many consider it a spiritual process and thus beneficial in many abstract ways. Yet here in the A/C on San Quentin State Prison death row it’s not allowed. Shouldn’t CDCR follow its own rules?

We’re condemned to execution and confinement but we’re not immune to our unconscious drives and stressful thoughts. We’re in our cells except for the three hour yard time we get three days a week. Our cells have a ventilation system that blows cold air, then hot air, which is suffocating and worse than the hottest summer day. What’s worse is it’s often cold in winter and hot in summer for weeks. The toilet flushes two times in a half hour so if you're not careful you’ll be eating your meal with the smell of feces and urine. The mattress is two inches thick and often worn down from years of use. How is that of any benefit to our state of mind?

Man shouldn't be punished for talking to whom he pleases to talk. Man shouldn't be punished for not ignoring his own race and exercising with whom he wishes to and believing as he wishes to believe. One way to leave the A/C is if you give information to I.G.I. So people make up stuff and in fact it’s encouraged. It reminds me of the Culture Revolution in China; condemn someone else to gain better treatment and truth be damned. Information is never proven to be true but still put in your file as truth and used against you with zero chance of defending yourself! Your good conduct is not considered a factor.

When the law is enforced it’s not racism but “the system.” What’s the difference when the results are the same? No matter what valid logical arguments are presented in my favor, their party line is adhered to and I’m still stuck in the A/C. Shouldn’t justice be done for man's sake, instead of for justice's sake? That's proving to be Noble Cause Corruption. Where is the incentive for us to follow the rules if the end is the same .... I’m stuck in the A/C!

All this proves to me there are different versions on what is right and what is wrong. Someone once said that a country is judged by its treatment of its prisoners. Iran arrested three American hitchhikers under the mistaken idea they were spies. After their release, one visited California’s prisons and said Iran gave them better treatment then we get. Shane Bauer is a journalist who won the John Jay College Award for his story of California isolation units. How ironic is that? What does it say of the USA and particularly the California prison system?

I patiently dwell in Death Row’s vicissitudes because I have hopes it will become better. I refuse to become stagnant, to be executed in body, mind and spirit. I refuse to let them extinguish the spark of spirituality and knowledge now inflamed in me. I refuse to become bitter but fight for a peaceful life. I refuse to become angry, yet fight not to become complacent. This is why I share my story of the California Death Row in the Adjustment Center.

Armando Macias AI4624
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA 94974

I am 37 years old from the county of Los Angeles, California, the city of Pacoima.  I’ve been incarcerated since 2002 for murder for hire plus other violent cases I picked up in jail.  I’m divorced, no kids, with a past full of violence and convictions.  I spent years in isolation until someone sent me books to help me tackle my forever nagging questions of “why” and my world broadened and I became an independent thinker.

Art by Armando Macias

Here's my cell 2012

Friday, June 14, 2013


By Michael Lambrix

The first thing you’ve got to understand is that Billy’s biggest fault was that he just couldn’t turn a friend down when asked no matter what the consequences might be and for that, Billy had to die.  It’s just that simple and such naïve concepts as truth or fairness have nothing to do with it, as if they did, Billy’s life would be spared.  But in this cold and cruel world we have so deliberately created, only death could purge this intolerable fault from our midst…Billy had to die.

The real irony in all of this is that in taking Billy’s life, the State of Florida will have done something Billy never did; the State of Florida will have made a conscious decision to kill, which, for those of us who actually knew Billy, knew that perhaps Billy’s most admirable trait was that despite the tragic history of his tortured life, that’s one line Billy chose not to cross, period.

When the State of Florida carried out the state-sanctioned “execution” of William (Billy) Van Poyck, it killed a man who has never killed.  But under the rule of law, Billy was convicted and condemned to death for the murder of Florida prison guard Fred Griffis in a botched escape attempt in 1987.  Billy participated in the event and that made him criminally culpable under Florida’s “felony murder” rule of law that demands that anyone who knowingly participated in a criminal act that results in the death of another is guilty of capital murder even if they do not commit the act resulting in death themselves.

In Billy’s case, the crime was an attempt to break a friend free from a prison transport van.  Billy and another friend, Frank Valdes, had both been released from prison months earlier, but their friend (James O’Brien) remained inside and was scheduled for medical transport when Billy and Frank jumped the van as it parked at the doctor’s office.  Things quickly got crazy and within that eternal microsecond of chaos, Frank Valdes shot and killed FDOC officer Fred Griffis.  They then quickly fled the scene leaving O’Brien in the van.

Both Billy and Frank Valdes stood trial in the southeast Florida rural community of Martin County, and the guards from the local maximum security prison (Martin Correctional) showed up in force so the jury – many of whom knew or were related to prison employees – would know with absolute certainty what was expected of them.  The jury found both Billy and Frank guilty of capital murder of a law enforcement officer and had no problem recommending both be put to death.

When Billy’s case received its required review on “direct appeal,” the Florida Supreme Court recognized that Billy did not kill officer Griffis, nor was there any evidence of a preformed intent to kill, nor prior knowledge that anyone would be killed, and the Florida Supreme Court vacated Billy’s conviction of “premeditated” murder.  But in a twist that could only come from the distorted “ends justify the means” logic our politically corrupted courts have now become infamous for, the Florida Supreme Court turned around and said, “kill him anyways” as under Florida’s “felony murder” law, it doesn’t matter whether Billy intended anyone die as all that really mattered is that he participated in attempting to free O’Brien from the prison van with Frank Valdes, and although it was clear that Frank shot and killed Officer Griffis, Billy had to pay too.

Even in subsequent appeals, it’s almost certain that Billy would have had his death sentence reduced to life, if not for another event involving Frank Valdes.  In July 1999 a rabid pack of prison guards at Florida State Prison went into Frank Valdes’ cell on the infamous “X-wing” and brutally beat Frank to death.  I was a couple cells down from Frank and we all know it was just a matter of time, as the courts later recognized in Valdes v Crosby, 450 f.3d.1276 (11th cir.  2006), in the months proceeding the murder of Frank, these pack of prison guards were given free rein to target and brutally assault any prisoner they pleased with the blessing of Warden James Crosby – who himself would subsequently be sent to Federal prison.

As one of the few death-sentenced prisoners who had spent a considerable amount of time on “X-wing” and as a result became personally acquainted with both Billy and Frank Valdes, I knew that it was only too common for the guards to invent reasons to enter their solitary cells and under the pretense of doing a cell search, they would physically assault Billy and Frank, and openly promise both that they would not live long enough to be put to death by the state and that was a promise we all knew they would keep.

Months after beating Frank Valdes to death a guard jury indicted two of the guards for murder, and they eventually stood trial in Bradford County, which has only one industry…the seven local prisons that provide the backbone of this rural northeast Florida community centered around Starke.  Every juror admitted to knowing or being related to prison employees and it didn’t surprise anyone that after hearing all the evidence, including other prison employees on testimony detailing the murder of Frank Valdes, the jury still turned around and found all the guards “not guilty.” When asked later how they could acquit the prison guards given the overwhelming evidence, members of the jury could only stutter an implausible explanation, that they had no doubt the guards killed Frank – but they just didn’t know which one of the guards inflicted the fatal blow actually resulting in death and so they found all of them “not guilty”…who says justice has to make any sense?

All of that left Billy in a really bad way.  After the guards murdered his co-defendant Frank, the governor’s office ordered Billy transferred to a Virginia prison for his own safety and from there Billy continued to pursue his appeals.  Having come to know Billy pretty well through the years prior to his transfer, I never expected to see him again as it seemed certain that Billy’s death sentence would be reduced to life given both the Florida Supreme Court’s own recognition that Billy did not kill anyone, and the evidence that showed Billy did not intend anyone to be killed, as well as the overwhelming evidence of Billy’s tragic life history that his sentencing jury was never allowed to hear.

But that’s not how justice works here in American – someone has to pay and with Frank Valdes now already dead, that only left Billy.  To hell with the evidence as only the hopelessly disillusioned would still believe that the inconvenience of truth had anything to do with the administration of “justice,” especially down here in the deep South, where the genetically predisposition towards a good old fashioned lynching is the only way to respond to a crime that upsets the community and so his fate was sealed – Billy had to die, as “justice” demanded no less, especially when Governor Rick Scott is preparing to run for re-election and desperately needs the political support of the prison guards in the upcoming election and although Governor Scott has spent the last three years screwing prison guards out of all he could, by throwing Billy to the wolves, they would now gladly line up to vote for his re-election next November, and he knew it.

Perhaps the greater tragedy in the sacrificial murder of William Van Poyck is that few actually came to know Billy for the person he is and as too many all but openly celebrate his state-sanctioned lynching, they will only know the grossly distorted “facts” of his crime.  As with all those condemned to death, our society does not want to know anything about the person they have decided to kill – the less they know, the better, as God forbid “we, the people” should recognize any measure of humanity within those condemned by our own hand.

But I did know Billy as the person and not the perception of the alleged crime and so I am not at all surprised to see that ultimately Billy must die because he could not and would not turn his back on a friend.  And when his close friend James O’Brien remained in prison with little hope of ever seeing the real world again, and the opportunity presented itself to give his friend that chance, Billy went along as only a true friend would.

Those of us who actually knew Billy came to realize that Billy just wasn’t cut from the same cloth as most prisoners.  Only a few years older than me, Billy was already doing seriously hard time before I even made it into my first year of high school.  Back then, doing time meant surviving in the jungle that most maximum security prisons were before this new generation of politically ambitious prison administrators invented the concept of mass confinement of any and all inmates who dared to show any inclination of violence or anything less than absolute submission.

Billy came of age doing hard time in some of the worst prisons our society created, back when violence and death were served as cold and predictable as the cockroach infested grits each morning in the prison chow hall.  It wasn’t enough to be physically strong to survive, as strength meant nothing when another crept up behind you and drove the blade of a homemade knife deep down into your flesh.  It didn’t matter how big you were, and physically, Billy wasn’t that big of a guy and some might have described him as even small in stature.  But as they say down here in the South, it’s not the size of the dog but the size of the heart in the dog and Billy had a lot of heart and even against the odds, would stand his ground against anyone if he knew he was right, and all too often Billy would put his own life on the line to stand up for those who couldn’t.  That’s just the kind of person he was.

I’ve know a lot of convicts through the too many years I’ve spent in prison – and a lot more who only too quickly will call themselves “convicts” even though they are not worthy.  Billy was old school, and he earned his stripes the hard way.  In this world we live in, prison can break the best of them and anyone who tries to tell you it can’t is full of – well, you know.  It takes someone with incredible inner-strength, and courage to rise above this cesspool of humanity and remain their own man despite the forces perpetually pushing at you from all sides.

I doubt there would be any words to describe that intangible essence of the inner self that provides that measure of strength within that allows the very few to maintain their own sense of self when others all around them slowly become part of that environment.  But anyone who has done hard time will recognize that unique quality and respect of the man who can master it.

It is that measure of the man within that best describes just who Billy was as a person.  Billy was a truly gifted writer who often found his means of detaching and compartmentalizing the trauma of his life experience by writing stories about his experiences.  One of Billy’s stories, “Death by Dominoes” was posted here on Minutes Before Six.  This particular story is a reflection of not only the horrific experiences Billy endured while doing time, but also how he found the strength to rise above it, and despite the probable consequences of intervening in behalf of another prisoner who Billy felt might not be able to stand up for himself, Billy put his own life on the line to do the right thing while the vast majority of inmates around him crawled up under their bunks and did nothing.

But “Death By Dominoes” is only one of countless stories that collectively create the colorful tapestry that is Billy, and there are many of us in prison today who could share similar stories of Billy’s character.

I first came to know Billy not long after he was sentenced to death.  Back then, any prisoner who assaulted or killed a prison guard would automatically be kept in a concrete box of a cell on Florida State Prison’s infamous “Q-wing” (later relabeled as “X-wing”).  Nobody has really done hard time until you’ve done time on Q-wing and even a short stay on one of those 24 crypts often broke the prisoner forever.

I had been sent to Q-wing after being charged with the infraction of “other assault” for beating a “runner” down with a food tray after the runner got it in his head that I might be his new romantic interest. I wasn’t proud of what I did, but it had to be done, as I had to live in this cesspool and any sign of weakness would result in a fate even for worse than death.

They moved me up to 3 West, with Billy two crypts away – and I deliberately call these cages “crypts” as that is exactly what they are.  Unlike regular confinement cells that are “open” (a wall of steel bars) at the front so you can see outside the cell and communicate with your neighbors, each crypt on Q-wing was fully enclosed by thick concrete walls and a solid steel door that when shut – and often it stayed shut – closed out all light, isolating the prisoner just as if he was cast down into a crypt.

Within each crypt was a concrete slab that was the “bunk” and it was not uncommon at all for them to refuse to provide even one of the rodent-infested, generously urinated prison “mattresses,” leaving the prisoner within to sleep on the cold concrete, with the water deliberately shut off and the only means to urinate was to all but blindly feel for that hole in the center of the floor, then remove whatever you stuffed down into it to keep the rats and roaches from coming into the crypt, and remembering to again stuff that newspaper or whatever back in when done.

Few people could possibly imagine the uncompromised hell that Q-wing was, by deliberate design and intent.  Its purpose was to unofficially retaliate against those who had dared to assault or kill a prison guard, and the physical conditions was only a small part of it, as it was unwritten policy that the guards assigned to Q-wing, each handpicked by the warden, were all but strongly encouraged to physically abuse the prisoners housed on Q-wing, and they only too often gleefully obliged the warden’s wishes.

I had already known who Billy was, as there aren’t too many secrets in this small world we live in, and we had mutual friends.  Billy was easy to get along with and it wasn’t long before we were “talking” for hours – and I mean that’s only in the most abnormal way as it wasn’t easy to talk to anyone on Q-wing.  But once you adjusted, it was possible, and we did.

The first thing that caught my attention was Billy’s completely unexpected sense of humor, which was second only to never-ending drive to fight the fight. Where most who find themselves cast down into the depths of hell that Q-wing truly is, would either lay down on their slab of concrete and roll up into a ball in a futile attempt to shut reality out, or simple go mad until the guards get the psych shirts to tranquilize them into a state of mortal numbness, Billy did neither, instead finding his strength in standing his ground by using his knowledge of law to challenge his confinement.  But for Billy, being who he was, it wasn’t enough for him to only fight his own fight, but to take on that fight for those around him regardless of the all but certain consequences of his actions.

That was one of the bonds that created a sense of communion between me and Billy that lasted the better part of 20 years – our mutual unquenchable thirst to use our knowledge of law to fight the fight not only for ourselves, but to help those around us and with all respect, I must bow down to Billy’s obviously superior ability and uncompromised tenacity.

It wasn’t long after my relatively short stay on Q-wing when Billy won the law suit he filed on behalf of all those on Q-wing and it forced the prison to finally release these prisoners from their long term Q-wing confinement, and Billy, Frank Valdes, and Thomas Knight were transferred to the regular death-row confinement wings, where they would be in open-front cells and be allowed the privileges extended to death row, such as use of a T.V., radio, buying “canteen” each week, receiving regular “contact” visits and going to rec yard.  It was a big victory, but not without consequence, and as the years passed it would become common for Billy, Frank and Knight to be targeted for fabricated disciplinary actions and returned to Q-wing for shorter stays under the pretense of imposing discipline.

Within a few years of Billy’s victory in that lawsuit, our paths once again crossed as both me and Billy began contributing to and became instrumental in the growth of what eventually evolved into Florida’s top prisoner newsletter, known as “Florida Prison Legal Perspectives,” which provided prisoners throughout Florida the means with which to stay informed on changes in prison rules, changes in law relevant to both challenging convictions and parole, and a general information platform on what was going on around the State’s prisons.  For years both me and Billy served on the Board of Advisors for FPLP and it thrived, despite prison officials deliberate targeting of the handful of prisoners whose names were associated with FPLP, and even as a number of prisoners who were willing to contribute to FPLP died under suspicious circumstances, such as Enrique Diaz, Billy never backed down from the greater cause and stood his ground to fight the fight on behalf of all prisoners.

During the same period of time a small handful of us on Florida’s Death Row decided it was time to challenge the “totality of conditions,” and despite receiving no assistance from lawyers, we initiated a comprehensive federal lawsuit with Billy contributing countless hours handwriting legal memorandums, and many sleepless nights spent talking about what had to be done, and thanks to the relentless work, we got that case to the Federal Court.

The thing is, we already knew we couldn’t win.  We already knew that none of the typical legal organizations such as the ACLU, NAACP, or others were willing to help Florida’s Death Row prisoners as they often did in the other states because they knew the politically corrupted courts in Florida would be hostile to any such action.  We went into this project knowing that we were passing into a gale force wind, and there would be hell to pay.  But with Billy at the helm, we pushed forward.

We put every ounce of our strength into that lawsuit and the state threw their best lawyers at us.  Each of us willing to put our names to it were targeted by both the guards and other Death Row inmates who would do as the guards asked of them (all the while calling themselves “convicts”), but we didn’t sacrifice a single inch of ground and slowly that iceberg itself gave way.

Because of our excellent legal work, our small group of determined souls forced the Federal Court to deny the State’s motion to dismiss/motion for summary judgment (Lambrix/Teffeteller v Duggar, Case No. 89-840-J-as, US Dist Ct and the Federal Court ordered the case into pretrial discovery and suddenly there we were (me, Billy, Robert Teffeteller and Amos King) celebrating the David over Goliath victory.  We had won and it was good.

As a result of the Florida prison system now facing a very real threat of being found in violation of laws governing basic living conditions on Florida’s Death Row, and possibly even having Florida State Prison itself condemned and forced to close due to the deplorable conditions, suddenly they took us seriously and began not only re-constructing the Death Row wings at Florida State Prison, but announcing they would build a brand new “modern” Death Row unit at the cost of almost 20 million dollars!

By December 1992 Florida opened its new “modern” Death Row unit at nearby Union Correctional, which had 336 single man confinement cells exclusively for Death Row and the majority of Florida’s Death Row were then transferred to the new unit where we actually had a clean environment to live in that was not infested by rodents and cockroaches, and although still unbearably hot in the summer, it had a heating system that kept us from freezing.

But Billy would not be transferred – he would never set foot in this new unit, and was kept at Florida State Prison until late 1999 when he was transferred to Virginia after guards killed Frank Valdes.  Billy would be returned to Florida in 2008 and again at Florida State Prison.  Not long after that I was moved back to Florida State Prison under the pretense of “security” reasons, and was able to get a cell next to Billy up until the summer of 2012, when because of my physical disability (disabled veteran) I was moved back to the main death row unit of Union Correctional.

Billy knew his days were numbered as both the State and Federal Courts summarily denied his last appeals, and yet true to his character, Billy was not broken or gave into despair.  Instead, he stood his ground and took the punches, never giving an inch.

Perhaps ultimately that is what really angered those who wanted Billy dead the most – no matter how much hell they put Billy through, they could never break him, not even once.  Many of the guards came to hold great respect for Billy and would come to his cell to ask legal advice or just talk and Billy never showed any anger or bitterness towards them, not even when one sergeant who previously worked Q-wing and took part in a particularly violent assault upon Billy was temporarily assigned to the Death Row wing.  Billy treated him as if it never happened.

It is the nature of the beast that prison will inevitably break the majority of those who are caught in its grasp.  But then there are those few who possess supernatural inner-strength and will never be broken, instead remaining who they are consistently and standing their ground unconditionally.  Billy was by no means a perfect man, and by society’s standards, Billy probably was an “outlaw” as it’s the only life he ever knew.  But for those of us who actually knew Billy for the person he was, by his strength and sense of character, he inspired us.  For the even fewer who could call Billy a friend, we were truly blessed by his generous spirit that touched each of our lives.  The world that I continue to live in is a small, small world, but it is a better world because of Billy’s willingness to put himself in the line of fire to make it a better place.

In closing, I dedicate a song to Billy that I know will make him smile, as well as all those who have been blessed by knowing Billy…Billy the Kid by Billy Dean.

Michael Lambrix
Michael Lambrix was executed
by the State of Florida on October 5, 2017