Thursday, January 17, 2019

Months Before Six – Part Two

By Billy Tracy

To read Part One, click here

Death Watch Update: September 29th, 2018

It is September 29th, 2018. I have been on Death Row – housed on the Death Watch section with men who have execution dates – for ten and a half months. I have watched eleven men be marched off of this morbid, dank and dreary section of the condemned to be pumped full of poison (which the State of Texas still procures in some obscure way), with ten of those men now having been extinguished.

I have some things on my mind to share with you.

Most importantly, I want all who read this to know that I hold enormous guilt and remorse in my heart for the prison guard I am responsible for killing. This is also true of every Death Row inmate – except John Battaglia and those who have maintained their innocence – who has come through this Death Watch section. Each expressed tremendous guilt and remorse for what he did. Countless times I have talked with these men about our guilt for what we have caused our victims and their families to endure.

The vast majority of Death Row inmates I have met are wracked with guilt. I try to express this in most of the farewells I write. However, these tributes are for those men who have been killed by the State of Texas and for those who loved them.

This is also my attempt to show the world another side of Death Row men, to humanize us and to show the barbarity of this so-called Justice System.

In doing so it is NOT my intention to minimize our responsibility for our crimes. I hope the majority can understand this.

On September 26th and 27th, 2018, we had the back-to-back executions of Troy Clark and Daniel Acker (rest in peace, my friends). This is the second time in 2018 that there were back-to-back executions.

The first time this occurred I was very new to Death Row and hadn't had the time to know the men on the Death Watch section well enough to tell how hard it was on everyone. This time I'd become close with all the guys and could tell when something wasn't right with them – when something was upsetting them.

The week leading up to Clark and Acker’s executions you could feel the tension level increasing – a little bit – every day. I heard more voiced frustrations about pretty much everything and anything. Usually the fellas are pretty positive and not prone to complaints because they know their time may be short and they usually want to stay in a positive frame of mind. There was also a lot of nervous energy released by a big increase in conversations amongst us. This nervous energy infected me too. I was more frustrated, talkative and feeling very aggressive and I couldn't figure out WHAT the cause of all of this was (even though in hindsight it was obvious) until Daniel Acker’s last day. Once he left, the pent up tension just melted away and you could tell everyone had relaxed again. Then I finally understood. We were all like the nervous cattle in the pens outside the Slaughter House. We had been doing the human version of milling, mooing and stamping hooves.

Leading up to a single execution I have not seen anything close to this level of unrest amongst us but two executions back-to-back created a lot of anxiety.

The second most striking thing about the double executions of Troy Clark and Daniel Acker was how looming death affected them so differently. Troy wanted released from his life. He'd flat out had enough of this boxed existence and he wasn't afraid to die. Daniel, on the other hand, was not ready to go and was nervous and unprepared. It was really sad to see that big gentle man struggle so hard with his fate. I'll never forget our conversation when he realized he would likely soon be dead. Until the end he hoped for a stay. Troy, however, would cuss at anyone if they told him they hoped he get a stay. I found it so HUMAN that two people could each experience almost twenty years on Death Row and the experience affect them so differently.

On each execution day (when I am a Level 1 and have my radio) starting at 6:00PM I will turn my radio to 90.1 KPFT and listen to “The Execution Show,” until they announce if the condemned man has been killed or gotten a stay. This show was started by Ray Hill who was a former Texas inmate from decades ago and got his life together and became an activist concerning prison reform and the Death Penalty. “The Execution Show” and his “Prison Show” – also on 90.1 KPFT – is in support of Texas inmates.

(Admin note: Ray Hill passed away on November 24, 2018, after this part of Billy’s essay was written. Rest in peace Ray)

On “The Execution Show,” the host, Ray Hill, and several lawyers discuss the condemned man’s crime and rehash what they read about the case in the trial records. Three lawyers are usually on the show. Jack Lee, Mike Gillespie and Larry. Jack and Larry – especially Jack Lee – act like they are auditioning to be the next “Kill 'em All” Governor of Texas. They take an extremely hard line against the condemned men and seem to take pleasure in presenting the “facts” of the cases in as unflattering a way as possible and ALWAYS coming down on the same side as the Prosecutors, Judges and the defense attorneys and AGAINST any decision, or action, the defendant made at trial.

The only attorney who is reasonable or open to a possibility of a miscarriage of justice is Mike Gillespie. He's also the only one who seems to be against the Death Penalty and not planning to run for office.

Jack Lee actually stated that usually any “ineffective assistance of counsel” appeal claim is a last ditch effort to get a new trial and that lawyers the accused are given are ... “the best of the best of us... “That is absurd.

Court appointed Death Penalty qualified attorneys in Texas are well known to be the worst of the worst. Texas is WORLD famous for its horrible court appointed Death Penalty attorneys. It is preposterous to insinuate for a defendant to claim they had an incompetent “free” lawyer is “just” an attempt to get a new trial and not based on the effort level, talent and competence of the lawyer. To insinuate that is to disregard history and to blindly side with lawyers you don't know and about trial you have not read the records of. If that is not being biased, what is?

He was right about one thing ... In Texas to claim “ineffective assistance of counsel” is a lost cause when it is almost impossible to get an appeal court to agree your attorney sucked when they've denied claims of “ineffective assistance of counsel” for defendants whose lawyers fell asleep multiple times during trial, were drunk at trial and were sleeping with the defendant’s wife.

I asked around and all of the Death Row men I talked to say that “The Execution Show” is no longer objective and has become yet another tool to justify the Texas Death Machine and they can no longer stomach listening to it.

It is just galling to us to listen to a show that is supposed to be operated by Death Penalty activists be so biased against us.

“The Execution Show” has lost its way and good luck getting Jack or Larry elected as Governor.

On a lighter note ...

Memories of Troy Clark – also known as “Pennywise”

The air vent to Pennywise and my cells were connected so we could stand on top of our sinks and talk to each other. One day Pennywise calls me and I climb up onto my sink and say “What’s up, Old Fella?”

He starts talking about something I cannot recall and then stops and says, “Billy we have cameras in our cells and I wonder what “they” think when “they” see me standing on my sink talking into my vent wearing underwear on my head?“

I said “At this point they've seen you do EVERYTHING so they probably don't even think about it ... but is there something we need to talk about Pennywise? Is there something you need to tell me about why you're talking to another man with underwear on your head?”

“Awwwww Billy”, Pennywise said, “It ain't anything gay. It’s just when I put my ear to the vent the air blows into my hearing aid and distorts the sound. The underwear blocks the wind.

“Yeah dude – you're definitely an original!” I said.

This next conversation was also held through the vents.

“Billy!” Pennywise called.

“Eh!” I answered.

“Check this out” Pennywise began, “I just got back from seeing Nurse Mudd at the infirmary about this ear infection and Mudd looks into my ear with that little lighted scope and she tells me that my eardrum looks perfectly healthy and nothing is wrong with me. I told her that I suggested she looks again because that ear doesn't have an eardrum in it so how could my nonexistent ear drum be “just fine.” So she looks again and decides her ass better get me in to see a doctor”

Laughter was my response. Only in Texas.

The Sunday before Pennywise’s execution Oregon State police came to the prison (Polunsky) to do a Polygraph test with him because a criminal up there was trying to blame a murder he was accused of on Pennywise and Pennywise wanted to prove he hadn't been involved in it.

He was taken off the Death Watch section and up to the visitation building at noon and about 3:00PM we started wondering why he was gone so long. And than 5.30PM, when he still wasn't back, the following conversation took place between me, Joseph Garcia and Blaine Milam. Beware reader that this conversation is very politically incorrect and, basically, your typical prison humor.

Billy: “Y'all ever heard of a Polygraph taking five hours?”

Joseph: “It depends where they put the sensors.”

Billy: “You freaky Bastard.”

Joseph: “I heard 8-Building’s close custody inmates are acting real bad.” “So?”

Blaine: “They probably told Rank they'd behave if they brought them someone with a date so they could all have a date.”

Billy: “You freaky Bastard.”

Joseph: “Yeah, Pennywise is getting a REAL test right now ...”

Blaine: “A sausage eating test.”

Billy: “Well, we'll know if that’s true when he comes back. If he's walking funny or not.”

Joseph: “You freaky bastard.”

Blaine: “They'll bring him back on a stretcher.” 

Joseph: “Laying face down.”

Billy: “With lock jaw.”

Joseph: “I'm never going to get a polygraph.”

Blaine: “Me neither.”

Billy: “Hell nah, me neither”.

Blaine: “I can't believe Pennywise fell for that. Those 8-Building boys are happy though.”

At this point Pennywise is being brought back to the section.

Blaine: “How was your trip to 8-Building?” 

No response.

Joseph: “What's that spot on the back of your jumper?” 

No response

Billy: “Why are you walking so slow, Pennywise?” 

Without missing a beat Pennywise says: “My ass is sore.”

Billy: “You freaky bastard!”

He made all of us ROAR with laughter playing into our nonsense and we all miss Pennywise’s awesome sense of humor and extremely sharp wit.

Troy Clark (Executed: September 26th, 2018)

Long before Troy, or “Pennywise” as he was called by us on Death Row, got his execution date and was moved to the Death Watch section, where I am housed, I had heard about him.
People always had something to say about Pennywise and I was thinking to myself, “What the hell is REALLY the deal with Pennywise?” 
I paid little mind to the gossip – I rarely do anyway – but I was interested in meeting the infamous Pennywise. It’s usually people whom others talk about all the time who are the most interesting. The most polarizing… charismatic… intelligent…
The day Pennywise was brought to the Death Watch section, I happened to be standing at my cell door and was able to watch him as he took his first steps onto the section of Death. I immediately knew he was new to Death Watch and had just gotten his execution date. I was instantly locked in on him, trying to read how he was feeling – what his mood was, if he was someone I needed to help – just any clue I could decipher from him. I was struck by several things as I initially observed him. He was a short, middle aged white man, with thinning light colored hair, a goatee more white than not, a little chubby but walking with the grace of a former athlete. He carried himself like an old school warrior – in prison what we call a “peckerwood,” with head cocked back, eyes blazing directly at you, shoulders tensed, chest thrust out with that ”Uh, what ya' gonna' do about it?”-strut. You were not going to mess with this old Kat without him putting a stop to it. And most distinguishing of all was the complete lack of fear radiating from him. This was someone not afraid to die. It made me wonder why.
He was here about a week before I knew he was “Pennywise.” What I found interesting was that those who'd gossiped about him behind his back (calling him a snitch) did not repeat a word of it to him once he was here. Instead they all acted like his friend and that told me quite a lot.
Over the next couple of months I got to know Pennywise through personal conversations and by observing his interactions with others. He is a very hard person to write a tribute for that properly captures who he was. He was such a polarizing person.  He was a bit of an asshole – someone who'd make you mad and make you laugh, all within 10 minutes. He had a flair about him that was fun to be around, even when you knew he was full of shit. He was entertaining, goofy, funny, smart and an asshole – but – an asshole that you liked.

It was very easy to see how he generated so much gossip. His personality was LARGE, he could rub you the wrong way – sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. He would do things, occasionally, that were shady, but he did many more good things than bad. That is why you couldn't help but like him. It was so easy to see the humanity in him – the good and the bad … He was a living example of all of our own inner struggles.

For the majority of his time on the Death Watch section he had no radio and spent most of his time reading novels a multitude of his supporters in the free world sent through Amazon. When he finished reading these novels, he'd give them to an inmate he could not stand, to an inmate who'd once spat in his face, so this person could trade them for commissary: coffee, candy ramen soups and hygiene.

I asked Pennywise why he gave anything to someone he couldn't stand and who'd spat on him. He looked at me very seriously and said, “Man, we're all about to die over here, it’s no time for grudges. That guy has nobody at all to help him – so I will.”

My favorite story about Pennywise shows you what I mean about how he could piss you off and make you laugh all at once.  Years back Pennywise was on Level 3 (for breaking some prison rule or another). This meant he couldn't buy food from the prison commissary. On Level 3 you are always hungry and desperate for food. One day Pennywise was inside of his cell and hollered to his friend “John,” who was housed just two cells away, and asked him if he'd like a sandwich. John says, “Yes.” Pennywise and John then “running line” together, as we call it back here, or “fishing.” They each have a homemade string line with a weight made out of paper attached to one end. They throw the weighted end under their doors and cross lines. In this instance Pennywise “hooks” Johns' line and pulls it into his cell. Then Pennywise takes the sandwich he had wrapped up in paper and ties it onto Johns' line and pushes it outside of his cell and tells John to pull it. John greedily pulls the line in, eager for some extra food. As he begins taking the sandwich out of the paper hundreds of ants swarm out and John has to immediately flush the sandwich down the toilet and begin frantically trying to kill the remaining ants, all the while hearing Pennywise laugh.

Pennywise had been on the section a couple of months before we really began to become friends. He was housed directly above me so we shared the same air vents and could stand on our sinks and talk into the vents and hear each other well. We played scrabble and chess – telling each other our moves through the vent and basically just shooting the shit.

He told me about his Mother, who he loved, his rough childhood, his brother’s suicide, about the huge amount of supporters and friends he'd met while incarcerated and how much he loved them. They meant the world to him. He told me about how he ended up on Death Row and how his live-in girlfriend originally confessed to the crime, until the police convinced her to change her confession and blame him. He told me how he got the nickname “Pennywise” because when he was trying to learn how to tattoo he was told the best way to learn was to tattoo on yourself… So, he tattooed – on his thigh – the clown from the Stephen King novel and movie “It.” Someone noticed that tattoo and began calling him Pennywise and it stuck. Pennywise and I went though his life story, and mine. We had a lot in common and it was fun getting to know him – it was also hard.

Pennywise did not want to exist like this anymore. He had spent almost twenty years living in Solitary Confinement and did not want to continue living like an animal in a cage. He wasn't so much sick of life as sick of this life.  Had he been housed in a more humane way, and not stuck in Solitary Confinement, he'd be happy to keep going. But not if it meant continuing to live in a tiny concrete box where the only entertainment he had was an AM/FM radio, books and some board games. There was no access to nature and no movement at all. Learning how he felt, I finally understood why he radiated no fear of death when he arrived on Death Watch. He was ready for death.

Pennywise had a big spirit. He was a man born to roam, to travel, to explore. He was an adventure-seeker. His soul did not exist to live inside of a box. He was meant to soar, to climb mountains, sail oceans, and ride motorcycles across the country, to walk fields of grass and flowers, sit up in a tree and watch the world below, dance in the wind and rain of a storm, run through a forest, climb a tree high up in a mountain and spy on the night, sit by a fire next to an ocean and listen to the waves, drive an old muscle car as fast as it could go, to make love to his woman under a star lit sky.  To howl at the moon …
Pennywise was a free spirit made to fly in the wind. He was also meant to be around people he loved, to be able to touch them and be touched by them. Instead he got twenty years of soul-squashing solitude without even a window he could open to smell and feel the night and without any physical contact from his loved ones.
Getting to know him was hard because it also meant understanding what he'd endured all these years. Seclusion is unnatural for some spirits. It was torture for his.

He endured for so long and allowed his appeals to play out until he got his execution date because of all of the love and support from his pen pals and his Mom. Ya'll know how much you meant to him and how much he loved you. You made his journey endurable.

You're free to howl at the moon now my friend. 

Daniel Acker (Executed: September 27th, 2018)

Daniel was a large man, around 6 feet tall and over 300 pounds. He had a big-boned frame and enormous calves and thighs, with a stomach that would make Santa jealous.

In spite of his size his most arresting physical attribute were his eyes. His eyes were spaced wide apart, deeply set and a piercing dark color. When he looked at you it was with laser focus, penetrating and direct. He spoke in a very calm easy-going way, with a thick country-boy accent. He couldn't say ten words without everyone knowing he was from the country. And he looked as country as he sounded. It was easy for me to imagine him in coveralls, with no shirt on, wearing scuffed cowboy boots as he labored away out in a field full of cattle. Whomever you are reading this, you've driven past a country farm and seen men out in their fields just like Daniel.

Eight days before Daniel's execution date, he found out at mail call that the Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin Texas (C.C.A.) denied his last appeal and that his only hope now was for the Supreme Court – a long shot – to intervene. 

He stayed up all that long night after he found out he was likely going to be dead in a week. He said it was among the longest nights of his life. He tried to distract himself by doing legal work to prepare for the Supreme Court but he said it didn’t help, and that the night staggered slowly along.

Early the following morning we spoke, and he told me everything he'd found out about his appeal being shot down, and that in the nineteen years he's been fighting this Death Sentence he'd never believed he would be killed. And so he'd never prepared himself to be killed. He just always known he'd get off of Death Row. So when he found out the C.C.A. denied him, it finally hit him full force that he could actually be dead on Thursday the 27th of September. He stated to me, “Billy, after nineteen years of believing I'd live, I now have to prepare to die.”

I was standing at my cell door talking to him. He was three cells down the run, standing at his cell door, and when he told me that I had no idea what to say. I was overwhelmed by the weight of his words.

What can you say when a man is telling you he's JUST NOW realizing he really may be killed in a week’s time? I told him the truth, which was that I had no idea what to say and his words had totally stunned me. I was thinking that I wished my friend Dawn were here, she is a talking machine and would find the right words. Me? I had nothing.  All I could think of was to just keep him talking. So “we” talked and talked until he finally, maybe, felt better and stopped. This quiet, stoic, big old country man talked more that day than all of the combined days he'd been on Death Watch. It was the saddest thing I’d ever experienced, keeping a conversation going so a man could cope with dying.

After this sad conversation trailed off and ended, I stood there thinking about earlier conversations I'd had with Daniel after he'd gotten his execution date and was moved to the Death Watch section to live out his last days that had made me think he was afraid of dying. I cannot pinpoint what he'd said exactly that made me feel that way, but after his recent conversation I finally understood.  It wasn't that Daniel was so much afraid of death as that he'd refused to prepare for death because this big old country giant didn’t give up HOPE on life.

Rest in peace, Daniel.

Robert Moreno Ramos (Executed: November 14th, 2018)

Aside from Roberts' hilarious personality ,what I liked most about him was that you would never forget the first time you saw him – or – heard him talking. His appearance and his voice were one of a kind and only amplified how funny he naturally was. 

Robert stood, perhaps, 5 foot 4 inches tall and weighed, by his account, 280 glorious pounds. Being that short and that heavy gave him the distinct appearance of the fictional character, “Humpty Dumpty” from the children’s books.
Imagine a Hispanic Humpty Dumpty character in his 60’s, with an enormous shiny bald spot at the back of his head, large ears and nose, happy, clear and dark eyes, an average sized mouth, no discernable neck, a belly that seemed to wrap around his body and never end, with very short bowed legs and tiny feet. 
His voice … I loved his voice. You could hear the mirth of life in it. It was loud, slightly high pitched and twangy. For those of you old enough to recall Tattoo from the TV show “Fantasy Island” who was famous for his line, “The Plane! The Plane! The Plane!”, this was what Roberts' voice was like. All raspy and wrapped around an accent so thick you thought he had to be kidding around with you and exaggerating it.
That voice and accent, coupled with his appearance, were a recipe for fortune and fame as a comedian – if backed it up with charm, wit and humor.  Robert had that to spare.
He looked funny – and I mean that in both senses – his appearance was funny and he looked like he could make you laugh. He made the most of it and used it like a gift to lighten the atmosphere in this place and make us all forget where we were for a little while.

One afternoon Robert decided to go to recreation in the dayroom on our section. The dayroom is just another barred cage located in front of our cells. It has a blue exercise matt, a pull-up bar affixed to the concrete wall, a stainless steel toilet/sink combo and a four-seated table in it. Being that it was the middle of the afternoon, mostly everyone was awake, but nobody was talking. Robert was quietly sitting on top of the table, his little legs dangling off the edge, and idly kicking to and fro. Then, all of the sudden, he breaks the silence in a booming heavily accented voice. “Humpty Dumpty sat on de wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. And all of de Kings' Men’s couldn't put Humpty Dumpty back togeder again.”
When he finished it was like you could sense everyone in their individual cells pausing and catching their breath … and then EVERYONE erupted in spontaneous laughter, laughter full of the same mirth you heard in Ramos' voice!

With his self-deprecating humor that came out of the blue on an otherwise unmemorable day, he made everyone feel a moment of joy and allowed us to briefly escape this place.
When you are about to get executed in Texas, you get to have “all day” visits from 8:00AM to 5:00PM several days in a row leading up to your execution and from 8:00AM to noon the day of your execution. The only “good-bye” Robert received was a twenty minute visit the day before his execution. For some reason his visitor showed up at 4:40PM and had to leave at 5:00PM. It was sad to me that he had no visits, except that short one, and I was worried about him being depressed.

Because he had no visit scheduled on his last day he was forced to go to the dayroom just after 8:00AM and would stay there until he was taken out just before noon to be driven to the “Death House” in Huntsville, about an hour’s drive away. The administration will not allow an inmate with no visits on his last day to just hang out in his own cell until noon. The reason? It can take hours and hours to force open a cell door. A prolonged cell extraction would disrupt the execution time line. The dayroom door cannot be rigged to prevent it from being opened – so it’s easier to get us out of the dayroom than a cell, in case we refuse to come out willingly.

Here was a man with only hours to live. How would he be feeling? Would he be nervous? Angry? Bitter? Afraid? How do you think you would feel if you were hours from death and stuck in a cage where everyone was watching your every move, analyzing you, scrutinizing you? Where most of these watchers were men just potentially days from their own deaths and you know that if you're overly emotional, you'll serve to make their time harder – make their anticipation that much worse. Imagine it was you put on display like that. How do you think you would handle it?

I'll tell you how Robert Moreno Ramos handled it. He sat atop the dayroom table, dangling his fat, short legs off of the edge, absently kicking them about while he talked to Richard Tabler and Joseph Garcia for the bulk of the time. He had them laughing continuously, telling stories and having fun. Those three had known each other for years and it was nice to see them spending these last moments together. Ramos wasn't fazed by the circumstances and I was proud of him for how he was handling things and the strength of his spirit, to not only laugh in the face of death but be able to make others laugh too.
I did not insert myself in the conversation because I didn't know Robert well and I didn't want to interfere with the goodbyes of men who did. I was surprised when, shortly before he was to be taken out of the dayroom, he called me and told me goodbye and said he hoped that I was eventually put in a normal cell off of Death Watch and treated better. This caught me off guard more than I can properly articulate. This man was about to be taken to the Death House and he was worried about me? Wishing me good luck? What kind of man can face death like that? 

I don't know what I said back to him. Whatever words I uttered in response to his unexpected farewell were words that didn't express the impact he had on me. He surprised me too much with his grace and class. His farewell to me far surpassed any farewell I've ever written.

Robert Moreno Ramos was a Christian. His King has put him back together again.

Rest in peace, Humpty Dumpty.

Joseph Garcia (Executed: December 4th, 2018)

Joseph Christopher Garcia was born November 6, 1971 In San Antonio, Texas to his 19 year old Mother, Juanita Frances Trevino and Louis Bermudez who he never knew. The father he knew was Louie Negron, who was there in his very early childhood.

On February 8, 1996 Joseph was arrested for the murder of Miguel Luna. He contends this was self-defense. Miguel Luna was unknown to him and they only met by chance through Joseph’s best friend, Bobby Lugo, who had driven Luna to an ex-girlfriends apartment. Joseph arrived behind them in his own car. While visiting the woman, Luna scared her and she asked Joseph to make sure he left. When Lugo abruptly left and drove away Joseph decided he was responsible for Luna and offered him a ride home. During the ride home Luna demanded to be taken back to the woman’s home, and when Joseph refused, he attacked Joseph. In the prolonged fight Luna died.

Joseph turned himself in and was still charged, convicted and sentenced to fifty aggravated years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) where he had to serve twenty-five years straight – continuously – to become eligible for parole.

On December 13, 2000 Joseph and six other Texas inmates escaped from the “Connally” prison in spectacular fashion and became branded by the nation media as the “Texas 7”.

On December 24, 2000 during a robbery of the “Oshmans” sporting goods store in Dallas, Texas, where over $100,000, was stolen, Dallas Police officer, Aubrey Hawkins, was killed in a shootout behind the store. Joseph was inside the store at the time.

January 22, 2001, in Colorado, six of the “Texas 7” were captured alive. Larry Harper killed himself.

On February 13, 2003 Joseph was sentenced to death in Dallas County. All six of the captured “Texas 7” members were individually sentenced to death. Three have been executed; George Rivas, Michael Rodriguez and Donald Newberry. Three are still alive; Joseph, Randy Halprin and Patrick Murphy. Joseph is scheduled to die on December 4, 2018.

Joseph gave the following interview on Thanksgiving Day November 22, 2018 with Billy Joel Tracy and Blaine Milam, who are both on Death Row and housed with Joseph on the Death Watch section. The Death Watch section is where Texas keeps those Death Row offenders who have received their execution dates. This interview was conducted when Joseph was in the dayroom, which is a cage used to recreate the inmates and is directly in front of both Billy and Blaine’s cells.

Interview with Joseph Garcia, also known as Joey, by Billy Tracy and Blaine Milam

Billy:  Thanks for doing this interview with Blaine and me ... It’s our way to say goodbye, if you don't make it, and to share you – who you really are – with the public.

Joseph: It means a lot to me that you and Blaine are doing this for me. I even told my lawyers about this interview and they would like to read it.

Blaine: Happy Thanksgiving Joey!

Joseph: Happy Thanksgiving to you and Billy.

Billy: Happy Thanksgiving to both... You've spent almost six months on Death Watch, since receiving your execution date, embattled in a fight for your very life. What have these last months been like emotionally?

Joseph: A lot of sleepless nights ... crying a lot ... praying.

Billy: Right now you're less than two weeks away from your execution date. What are you thinking and feeling?

Joseph: I'm sad. My soul is torn in two. I am worried about my loved ones and how my death will affect them. It breaks my heart to live in a society that kills its own people. I'm aware of death looming and I don't want to sleep. I don't want to waste my remaining time. I find myself thinking about God all the time because in my religion - I am a Messianic Jew – we're taught that death means we sleep until Jesus' resurrection. If I'm asleep I can't worship my God. I don't know ... I think about Aubrey Hawkins and his family. I wish he were alive.

Blaine: Joey, tell us about where you grew up and what life was like for you in those times. (When Joey was asked this question it looked like he'd been hit in the stomach. It was plain to see it hurt him to think back to these times).

Joseph: Well, I was born in San Antonio Texas, then two months later, we moved to New York City. We stayed there until I turned nine, then moved back to San Antonio. It was a culture shock moving back to San Antonio. In San Antonio I lived in poverty – while in NYC my mom was a real estate investor and my stepfather was an army nurse. We actually had money then, but due to my mom’s drug addiction she took me back to Texas while my stepdad and sister, Arlene, stayed in NYC.

I remember this all so well ... My mother just dropped me off at her mother's house ... I was dumped there ... My grandmother was the mistress of a car dealership owner and not provided well for – while that man’s wife lived in luxury.

I was not ever given new clothes. I was made to wear hand-me-downs and thrift store underwear. Often times I had to fend for myself for food. They didn't want me there. They were already half starving and begrudged having to feed me. They would beat me if I ate too much ... I did not understand why I was unwanted – only the fact that I was.

I'd overheard my aunt and grandmother talking and saying things like “Why is he here?” “When will he go?” “Why can't his mother take care of him?”.

I began collecting glass bottles and recycling them for $0.10 each. I'd run the streets collecting them and take the money and buy bread, bologna and juice. That’s how I usually ate.

One day my grandfather came home and lay down on the couch in the living room where I was laying on the floor watching TV. He was a big, big man, 6 foot 4 at least and around 250 pounds. He laid there on the couch in silence reading the paper.

Then his kids and grandkid came running in and asked him for money to go to the store and buy snacks and things with. One by one I watched, from the floor, as he gave each of them dollar bills and they ran off. I'd watched this process before and when he gave them the usual amount and left, I thought about some bubblegum and I worked up my courage to finally ask him for one quarter, not a bill, just a quarter and wh-- ..

(at this point Joey chokes up, rests his hand on top of his head and walks away, tearing up ... when he comes back, we continue)

…and when I asked him for a quarter, so I could go to the store with the other kids and buy some bubblegum – which I hadn't had since leaving NYC -  he sat up on the couch and I sat next to him and he looked down at me and said in Spanish, “Tell me, why would I ever give my money to a little piece of trash like you?”

(Joey wipes tears from his face).

I just walked away. From that day forward when he was home I would not come inside until his car was gone. He'd be gone by 8:00AM and I'd go in and my grandma would give me left over food if there was any.

He died right on that couch two months later from a heart attack. I remember going to see if his car was there and seeing the emergency lights flashing and my family in the yard hugging and crying.

(We pause the interview for a few minutes)

Billy: Joey, that was a shitty old man. I'll leave it at that. Now let me ask you a serious question. Would you like to tell everyone about the time that guard sucked your tongue through the screen of your cell door?

Joseph: LAUGHING - NO!

Billy: Would you like to tell everyone what you did at visitation with your girlfriend and that salad?

Joseph: No. No. No. No. NO!

Billy: What went through your mind when you were sentenced to death?

Joseph: I knew I would be found guilty and be sentenced to death. I wasn't surprised.
More than anything I was thinking about my frustration with the trial process and my suspicion that my appointed attorneys had sold me out. One particular incident kept bothering me. When we were selecting the Jury, the first forty people were white and we questioned every single one of them. I noticed jurors #41 through #46 were both Hispanic and I pointed this out to my third chair attorney, Brad Lollar, and stated I hope we got one of them on the Jury. He immediately gets up and talks with the District Attorney who then immediately asks the Judge for an early lunch break and for a meeting in the Judge’s chambers with him and my attorneys.

When we came back from break the Judge begins talking about a deal that they all made to strike potential Jurors for cause and then the struck Jurors are called out. I check the master list and see that my attorney had agreed to strike the next six Hispanics # 41 - # 46. I couldn't believe it. Up to that point every Juror had been questioned and we finally get a minority and my attorneys let them go – six of them? In a row?

Things like that were going through my mind as I was sentenced because I was afraid I would get appeal lawyers who would be as shady as my trial lawyers. I was right to be afraid.

Blaine: Tell us about your mother.

Joseph:  My mother, Juanita, was a Messianic Jew so I did not celebrate “Pagan” holidays unless my stepfather, Louie, insisted his daughter, Arlene, and I do so. Let’s see ... I also remember as a kid my mother was always stealing my toys and I did not understand why she did this. One day I'd have a cool Spiderman doll and then the next day I wouldn't ... I found out later that she did this because she didn't want me to play with toys – but with my sister who was diagnosed with cancer at two years old – terminal cancer. She wanted me to be with her, for my world to be her, so Arlene wasn't alone. So we'd spend our time together – our time that was short. The toys my mom stole were gifts, but she ended up giving me the best gift of all – an unbreakable love and bond with my sister.

Blaine: What is your favorite memory from your childhood, one that you have always held close to your heart?

Joseph: That’s easy, playing with Arlene. She was my world. I was devastated when we moved to Texas without her. They took away my best friend. They trained me to care for her every need, to be with her all of the time and then she was gone... Well, my stepdad brought Arlene to Texas and we regrouped as a family in a little apartment – me, mom, Arlene and stepdad. This did not last long. Arlene’s cancer spread to her spine and she ended up paralyzed and in a wheelchair. My mom’s heroin addiction got worse and she abandoned Arlene and me. We ended up in a shelter. I was watching TV, Arlene was behind me in her wheelchair and she needed to use the restroom. I was going to take her but a lady who worked there told me she would do it and Arlene and I agreed that was okay. After the show I go looking for Arlene and she was gone. They had tricked me and stole her from me. They took her to a foster home where she could be properly cared for. Again I was all alone.

A few months later I was taken to where she was staying and the foster care family set up a tent in the backyard for just her and me to sleep in for a night. We slept out there together. That is my favorite memory. We had a great time and that was the last time I saw her. Two years later, on March 14, 1983, Arlene, my beautiful sister died.

Billy: That was the saddest “favorite” memory I have ever heard... Blaine! Don’t make him cry anymore, man!

Blaine: That was supposed to be a happy answer!

Billy: Joey, this got pretty deep pretty fast. Your openness is incredible. Are you ready to continue?

Joseph: Yeah, I'm ready.

Billy: On the off chance that your daughter, Arlene, reads this what would you like to say to her?

Joseph: (He answers in a thick voice.) Baby, I wish none of this would of happened and that I had been, and could be, there for you. I love you. I'll see you at the resurrection and I'll have eternity to make it up to you.

Billy: Is it true that you published an autobiography and donated all of the money the book made and ever will make, to Aubrey Hawkins' son and to your daughter? Why?

Joseph: Yes. Half to Arlene and half to Hawkins’ son. I didn't care about the proceeds... I didn't know what to say to Hawkins' family ... What COULD I say? Sorry doesn't cut it. I wanted to do something to show I was remorseful. I wanted to try to support my daughter financially, if possible, and let her know even though I failed her, I loved her.

Billy: If you had a chance to talk to Aubrey Hawkins right now, what would you say?

Joseph: (He dropped his head and thought for several minutes.) I don’t know what I would say right now. The next time I see him will be at the resurrection. I will hug him and apologize and ask for forgiveness for everything I caused him and his family.

Billy: You were not present when Aubrey Hawkins was killed. What did you think when you found out?

Joseph: Oh God, no.

Blaine: Who was your very first girlfriend and where and how did y’all meet? 

Joseph: Debra. I was living at a group home and we went to the Corneyville Festival in Helotis Texas. I married her not long after that and we named our only child after my sister Arlene.

Billy: When you realized the escape was a success, how did you feel and what were you thinking?

Joseph: Elated. But I was thinking ... Oh, shit, how do we stay out? We had a meticulous short-term plan, but no long-term plan. Once we were out we didn't know what to do to stay out. Every day was a struggle.

Billy: How did you feel when you were captured?

Joseph: Relief. I no longer had to pretend to be someone else. I no longer had to look over my shoulder and wonder if I'd been recognized. I could be me again.

Billy: You're a part of Texas history as a member of the “Texas 7”. How do you feel about being reviled by the general public and glorified by the criminal element?

Joseph: I don't think what I did was all that special. I think that anyone in my shoes would of done what I did. It was an opportunity to take back the freedom I never should of lost. “Civilized society” reviles me because they don't know me and only know what the media says about me. If they knew me, how I came to prison, why I escaped and that I didn't shoot Aubrey Hawkins they wouldn't revile me.

As for the criminal element looking up to me ... I never planned to be a role model in that sense and I am not proud of it at all.

Billy: What did you mean just now about you never should of lost your freedom to begin with and if the public knew why you escaped they wouldn't revile you?

Joseph: I came to prison for killing a stranger who tried to kill me and take my car. I never should have been convicted. That is just the truth. I had never been in any trouble with the Law before. Despite my poverty and rough start I didn't do drugs, commit crimes or anything. I escaped because I was another poor person that was run over by the “justice” system.

Blaine: What is your favorite food and movie?

Joseph: “Forrest Gump,” tacos and pizza. I like flour tortillas, New York style pizza and Pizza Hut. But tacos are Numero Uno.

Blaine: What celebrity would you spend a whole day with and why?

Joseph: Bruce Lee! I loved Martial Arts movies. He just seemed so interesting. I'd like to pick his mind to see who he is.

Billy: You've been living in Solitary Confinement for eighteen years straight. Can you try to briefly explain what that has been like?

Joseph: Were you ever told as a kid to go to your room when you got into trouble? Imagine that and then never getting to come out again. Imagine all you have to maintain your sanity is a cheap AM/FM radio that you listen to with cheap plastic headphones, books, magazines, letters, one 2-hour visit a week – if anyone comes – and some junk food from the prison store – if anyone cares enough to send you money. Week after week... month in and month out ... Year after long monotonous year you're in that little bitty, drab, dull room... My God got me through it with my sanity.

Billy: While on Death Watch you've lived with a camera in your cell, have been up close and personal as several men you've know over a decade have lived out their last days and then were executed. What has this experience been like to you?

Joseph: It is sad because I have become emotionally numb to this whole process. To them killing us. When someone is taken to the Death House to be killed, it’s just another day in the slaughter house.

Once someone is taken away, it’s back to the guards asking “Garcia, you going to recreation? To shower?” When someone leaves I pray they come back. When they don't my mourning stops and it’s on to the next guy.

Billy: On November 14th 2018 Robert Ramos was executed. Before he left the Death Watch section, he was in our dayroom for several hours. You talked to him the whole time and kept offering him food ... M&M's, snickers, cookies, mint sticks and tacos. Why did you do that?

Joseph: To comfort him. It was my way to be supportive and show him he wasn't alone. Food is special to me, and sharing it means a lot. A long time ago I cussed out Ramos and I wasn't civil to him for a long time. When he arrived on Death Watch I apologized and we were cool again. Death Watch isn't the place for tension and stress, but peace and unity. I was talking to him and trying to feed him so he would leave here feeling loved.

Blaine: If Marty McFly pulled up in the DeLorean with the flux capacitor charged up and said “Jump in!” what year would you go back to and what difference would you try to make?

Joseph: I'd go back to my freshman year and encourage myself to be more productive, to not be so angry and depressed over being abandoned. Oh – and I'd tell myself “Do not stop playing tennis!”

Billy: What happened to your family? To your mother, daughter, grandmother and wife?

Joseph: (Big, big sigh) I haven't heard from my daughter since the 90’s. She's just a dream now. My mother died of AIDS in February 1994. I spent two years in the US Coast Guards and got out January 1994 and I saw my mother, who knew she was dying and came and found me. She died a week or so later. My grandmother is gone too. Before the escape my wife left me and I've rarely had contact with her since.

Billy: Your mother’s last name was Trevino and your father’s last name was Bermudez; yet your last name is Garcia. How'd that happen?

Joseph: I was my mothers fourth child. Her first were with Danny Garcia, she abandoned those three kids with him, but kept me because it was believed Louis Bermudez was my father. By the time all of this was sorted out, I had the last name Garcia and not Trevino or Bermudez.

Billy: I know you've had a lot of support from pen pals you met after your escape. Is there anything you'd like to say to everyone for being there for you?

Joseph: Yes. Thank you to everyone for being there when I needed you most. Even those who fell off and disappeared, you all mattered so much to me and made me stronger. Thank you.

Billy: You are a practicing Messianic Jew, how has your faith helped you while living on Death Row?

Joseph: My faith has helped me understand what death and inner peace is. It has allowed me to understand the gospel and want to help others and show them the glory of God. My God has protected me from insanity from living this way – the way we do on Death Row.

Billy: Is it true you wrote a poem about Tacos?

Joseph:  YES!


T” stands for “Tacos!”
A” stands for “Already, Tacos!!” 
C” stands for “Cha-Ching! Tacos!!” 
O” stands for “OMG More Tacos!!!”
L” stands for “Let go of my Tacos!”
O” stands for “Oh shit, did you say Tacos?”
V” stands for “Very slowly step away from my Tacos.” 
E” stands for “Eat my Tacos and your ass is mine!” 
R” stands for “Refried Bean Tacos are the best!”


Billy: What do you think the tacos in Heaven are like?

Joseph: Heavenly!

Billy: BLAINE!

Blaine: Yeah?

Billy: Close this interview down for us, will ya?

Blaine: Alright. Joey, if the Warden were to pull you out right now and tell you that
you would be set free ... Under one condition, that condition being you would have to make gay porn for the rest of your life, what would you say?

Joseph: This is off the record.

Farewell, our friend. May you have plenty of quarters, gum and tacos in Heaven. And tell Arlene we said hi.

Admin note:  The day after Christmas, an envelope arrived with a letter from Joey asking me to share the enclosed photos with Billy and Blaine's farewell.  It is an honor to fulfill his last request.

Carmen and Arlene

My mother and Aunt Sylvia

Me and my baby sister

Arlene and grandmother

My stepfather Louie and sister Arlene

Baby Sis Arlene - 2 years old

My mother Frances and stepfather Louie and family

My mother Frances, stepfather Louie, sister Arlene and me

My mother, sister,  grandmother and cousin in New York 1970's

Arlene and Louie

My cousin Michael, sister Arlene and me

Joseph G. 1988-89 Adolescent Group Home  17 years old

I graduated in 1992.  I had dropped out but went back after a year and  a half.
I was supposed to graduate in 1990.

This is me at age 20.  I was at a family reunion with my ex-wife.
Man, how awesome would it be to relive those years...

1997 Before escape
2000 Awaiting extradition back to Texas.
This was taken in a Colorado courtroom.

Alvin Braziel (Executed: December 11th, 2018)

Alvin was a short, lightly muscled, dark skinned black man, with a shiny, smoothly shaven bald head, a narrow, ruggedly-lined but not unattractive face, pearly white teeth, dark eyes and was possessed of an athlete’s grace.
He was a quiet person who rarely engaged in socializing with those around him. His reclusive nature made getting to know him difficult.
In spite of his desire to be disengaged from the Death Row community I couldn't help but come to know him a little and become aware that he was dealing with a severe mental illness. Though our cells were not close to each other. I could still hear him talking to himself daily – about what, I couldn't decipher. When he went to recreation in the dayroom, which is directly in front of our cells, he would jog and walk backwards while mumbling to himself. On the rare occasions he spoke to us, he would accuse others of trying to harm him, as he did when Joseph Garcia bought everyone on Death Watch an M&M ice cream sandwich as a goodbye gift shortly before his execution. Alvin refused to accept his because he was concerned it was poisoned or sabotaged.
Most everyone understood he was ill and were patient and understanding with him and didn't take his paranoia personally.
His last day alive was disquieting and disturbing. He received no visits – why, I do not know – and due to having no visitors, he was placed in the dayroom at 7:30 am, where he stayed until noon, when he was taken to the Death House in Huntsville.

When he got into the dayroom, he stood there looking all about like he'd never been inside of it before and wasn't sure where he was. He looked so alone, so lost, like a small child. He just stood in the middle of the dayroom floor, his bald head gleaming in the fluorescent light, blinking his dark eyes slowly and staring dazedly off into space.
Nobody tried to talk to him for a long time. I wasn't sure how to approach him, aware that he preferred to be left alone. I didn't want my own desires to “help” to cause him to become agitated. Finally someone spoke to him, trying to coax him to talk, but that didn't get anywhere.
A little while later I decided I'd try to speak with him and I walked to my door. I found Alvin standing at the dayroom bars directly in front of me, staring straight at me. We locked eyes for what seemed an eternity, but was probably only 10-15 seconds, before he slowly turned around and walked away …

What I saw in his eyes will haunt my mind until my own end comes.

His eyes reminded me of a passage in a Greg Isles novel.

“He had never seen such eyes before, not even in the faces of soldiers unmanned in the midst of great carnage. Eyes like black mirrors, at once shallow and bottomless. He had the feeling that if he pressed his finger to one of those eyes, it would shatter and fall inward through a black cavern of grief and loss that could never be filled.”

I'll never know exactly what I saw in his eyes that last day. It was something far beyond true description, something that encompassed madness and inner pain so profound that I cannot imagine how he endured it.

Your painful journey is over now. May you rest in peace.

Death Watch Update: December 19th, 2018

I do not often encounter prison guards who will admit to me that they become fond of any of the incarcerated men they deal with regularly – often dealing with some men for years and years.
Since my arrival on Death Row, thirteen months ago, I've asked numerous guards if working on Death Row bothers them when it comes down to an execution day and they realize they are a participant in another persons death.
“Nah”. And  “I'm just doing my job.” have been the responses I've gotten each time.
I've wanted to get a real answer out of someone so badly that when they blow me off I want to yell at them - “You're not a robot. You're not so tough you can't feel … We're not all so monstrous you can't see our humanity … It’s not “unprofessional” to see us as real human beings!” But I never did.
I can imagine that the majority of the time being a Death Row guard doesn't bother them and its nothing more than “just a job,” but on an execution day, there is no more thinking this is just a regular job. Not when they have to actively participate in leading a man out of his cell and off of the prison to be taken to the Death House and obliterated from existence. That has to bother them, at least, occasionally. 
One day recently I asked a guard this question expecting the same brush off as usual. Instead I got this:

“Does it ever bother you to watch any of us be taken away to be executed?” I asked.

After a brief pause this guard said. “Yes. Some it does. Some it doesn't at all.”
“You're the first guard who's admitted to me they are affected at all,” I replied.
“Rayford bothered me,” they said.
“Old Man William Rayford?” I asked
“Yes. He was not a bad person,” They responded.
“I know. Losing him was hard on me too. What was it like for you to be a participant in someone’s death that you feel that way about?” I asked.

They looked down for a long time and quietly said: “On that day I was not a proud or happy person.”
This conversation had a major impact on me. In my writing about Death Row I look to humanize my fellow inmates and it never dawned on me to also try to capture the humanity in the guards. From now on when moments like these occur I will share them with you all too.

To read Part Three click here

Billy Tracy 999607
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351
Billy Joel Tracy was born in Janesville, Wisconsin in 1977 and almost immediately moved with his family to Texas.  He grew up in the Dallas/Fort Worth area – minus three years in Colorado in the mid-80s.

He enjoys reading about ancient European history, science, psychology, neurology, politics, fantasy, action adventure and mysteries.  He enjoys doing arts and crafts, exercising, writing, participating in activism and learning about other cultures.

He has been on Death Row in Texas since November 2017 at the Polunsky Unit.  And no, his parents were not Billy Joel fans.  He is thankful he wasn’t named after his parent’s favorite band, Pink Floyd. 


Mydogsam said...

Hmmmm..... I usually berate the majority of DR inmates who write because of their heinous crimes. Mr.Tracy included.

I read about their crimes and have yet to humanize them. Until now.

Here’s where you made a difference for a person like me who is an Independent law abiding citizen of the United States.You spoke about the guilt and remorse you have as well as it seems the majority of people you associate and associated with. (I agree with you on Battaglia).

I understand being human and reliving or thinking about what you are incarcerated in isolation in comparison to GP would be daunting for someone with a conscious.

Speaking about your feelings on what you committed and all the residuals left lingering shines a light that I see.

Mr Tracy I wish you well.

Linda said...

Well written just like part 1. Thank you Billy.

Unknown said...

Not sure how I was so captivised by these stories but I couldn't help but continue to read them until the end. Is it wrong that I want to continue to read more? Not because I want people to be executed but because I am intrigued as to their lives and what they go through during their final moments. This has given me a whole new outlook on the death penalty and what it does to those mentally and physically. I wish you the best.

feministe said...

You are one of the best death row writers I've ever encountered, along with Michael Lambrix, Bill van Poyck, and Thomas. And of the four, your style is the most approachable, because you don't try to deny or minimize the enormity of what led you to death row, or speak condescendingly towards your audience, but instead, simply to educate us on a reality to which you almost uniquely bear witness. I can't remember ever before reading an account from Death Watch (any state) coming from someone so far away from their own execution date. It's truly an extraordinary perspective.

I also appreciate your trying to find the humanity in everyone you encounter, even those inmates who are mentally ill or seemingly unlikeable, or guards with whom you necessarily have a conflicted relationship. As someone with professional experience with a different state's death row, I think there can be quite a bit of pressure to present as unaffected by the circumstances, regardless of your particular role. (The guards who claim to be unaffected almost certainly are not telling the full truth, as I'm sure you know.)

You are doing something particularly valuable in chronicling your experiences. I believe that this type of blog entry will not serve not only to educate readers in the present tense, but will be studied and valued as illuminating by criminal justice scholars of the American death penalty even decades from now, after executions in the United States have (almost certainly) ended.

Best wishes to you.

Lindsey said...

I like this series you're doing, it puts personality/character behind each name and face, which is what i've always been most curious about. I can't wait to read more. My only complaint is I wish you'd update more often!

Unknown said...

It does make for an interesting read. Doing this is doing something positive. Like Mr Jones said it humanize criminals and let the world see that although mistakes were made in their live they do have remorse and a conscience. Keep writing on Mr Tracy. You have found your niche on Texas DR

Unknown said...

I hope he doesn't. As interesting as these are to read, the more he updates the more people are being executed. These essays are fascinating but the fact they exist is upsetting.

A Friend said...

Joy Sophie Wood I agree with you. I think what Billy is doing with this series is brilliant and powerful and it is absolutely a captivating read, but the cost of posting more of it is human life. And quite honestly, it takes a toll on all of us who work on it, starting with Billy, who is witnessing these men marched to their deaths. I personally cry my way through the editing process, and receiving Joey Garcia's photos and letter the day after Christmas haunts me. It means a lot to Billy, and to all of us at MB6 who support his writing, to know that you are moved by this series. We are grateful for your feedback and appreciation of Billy's insights. But instead of wanting more faster, my hope is that you will be moved to stand up against the death penalty and fight for the lives of these men. And that you will extend support to Billy and others in his position. Thank you for reading - Dina

DebittNJ said...

The words in these essays are powerful, almost like a call to action. It’s scary that someone may only see it as a fluff piece of life on DR. Thank you Billy for trying to get to know every person on your cell block and support them in those final weeks. Your words are making an impact.