By Billy Tracy
To read Part Two, click here
Death Watch Update
May 1, 2019
Death Watch is a special section on Texas Death Row where the Death Row inmates are housed once they are given their execution dates. They are kept on this section until the State of Texas injects them with poison until they are dead.
To read about this section and why I am housed here, even though I do not have an execution date, please read Months Before Six Part One.
2019 has been a gut wrenching ride so far. Three men I liked very much have been executed (Robert Jennings, Billie Coble and John King), and there have been four stays of execution. Three (Blaine Milam, Mark Robertson and Dexter Johnson) were given stays just a few days prior to their scheduled executions. They were all having their final visits with family when they found out they would live. Patrick Murphy had actually been taken to the Death House in Huntsville, where his execution was to take place, and waited several hours past the appointed time of his execution before the Supreme Court granted him a stay. He cut it about as close as one can.
Watching all of these men come so close to death and then live has been an emotional whirlwind for me personally, and I am only a bystander. It’s hard to even start to comprehend what it’s actually like for the men themselves.
How this ordeal affects these guys varies drastically. One telling moment took place recently between Patrick Murphy and Mark Robertson.
Patrick Murphy is a Buddhist. He is the calmest person I have met in years, if not ever. Patrick remained calm the entire time he was on Death Watch, no matter what chaos was going on around him. Two weeks before his scheduled execution – when many start to feel the pressure building – Mark Robertson (who was one month away from his own execution date) asked Patrick how he was doing. Patrick responded in his very calm, country voice that he was doing “great.” Mark said, “I'm as nervous as a whore in church. I need some of your [Buddhist] Zen.”
Patrick was calm, while Mark was very nervous. I have seen a few men on either end – nervous or calm, while the majority are somewhere in the middle.
For me the close calls and the executions have been nauseating. I come to like, or love, almost all of these guys. In almost eighteen months living on Death Watch, I have made more friends then I have in the twenty-plus years I have spent incarcerated combined. Sharing someone's last months and days alive creates an intimacy that is otherwise unknown in prison. Living in such close proximity with death knocks walls down from our hearts and allows us to open up to each other more quickly and form bonds.
Watching men I come to like, respect, (and a few, love), come right down to the edge of death and live, or actually die, has taken a piece of my soul. It has also showed me more than ever how precious life is and made me feel even more guilt – not just for the life I am on Death Row for taking, but for causing that man’s family so much pain. Pain I now know so well.
What follows next are my farewells to the three men executed by the State of Texas and one “farewell” to Blaine Milam who was given a stay of execution. His story is too powerful not to share. Occasionally I will write about the men who were given stays.
Blaine Milam Stay Granted January 15th 2019
Hey Bro, it’s been a week since you received a stay of execution and were moved out of the cell next to me on Death Watch.
The day before your scheduled execution I was at a visit with my friend when you and your family found out you'd been given a stay.
I was quietly talking on a grungy old phone with my visitor, looking through the thick sheet of glass that separates us when I noticed your friend, Betty, walking slowly and calmly towards my visitor, who is Betty's friend. When I saw her walking “slowly and calmly” it registered with me that something was different about Betty because I'd never seen her walk “slowly” or “calmly” in my brief acquaintance with her. She always BUZZES with energy and ZOOMS to wherever her destination is. Her “calmness” was noted but it didn't register that was due to you. Betty stops next to my visitor, bends over, hugs her and whispers something to her and they both start smiling and Betty starts to cry. I still didn't realize what had happened until my friend gets back on the phone and very quietly says, “Blaine got a stay.” We all start smiling and laughing and four months of tension melts away from the three of us.
Betty walked a few steps away and just stood there dazed, looking upwards at the ceiling, taking deep slow breaths and wiping tears away before she'd collected herself enough to rejoin your family in the room they were in having their “last” visit with you.
I didn't see you again, so I didn't get to say goodbye… After your visit was over you were taken straight to another pod and Correctional Officer Newman came onto this section pushing a wobbly old flat cart and packed up your property (Well, most of it. The airhead left a stack of books in the cell which had to be retrieved days later) and haphazardly loaded it up and left.
It was the weirdest thing, Blaine… the next day I found myself feeling depressed. What the hell? I should be happy – not sad! Then it hit me. You lived, but you were still gone and the only way I'd see you again was if you got another execution date. What a depressing reality! It took some time to get over it and to only feel happiness for you and your family.
We were neighbors for over four months and became close friends during that time. We went through a lot together that cemented a bond – losing our friend Joey, ragging on Camel Face, sharing our struggles and triumphs with each other. Through you, I came to know about your mother, wife and Betty. You shared some of the funniest memories of your mom with me and painted a picture of her so vivid that I wish every boy in the world had a mother like her. And Tiara – oh man, you made me love that crazy chick too. Your stories showed her as a good person whose had a hard life and is doing her best. Then with you being close to three hundred pounds, red bearded, bald headed and sounding more country than John Wayne, it came as a surprise when you showed me a picture of Tiara and I saw she is a beautiful black woman. I said something like “She's gorgeous Bro, but not what I expected”. You said in your redneck drawl … “You didn't know I like 'em dark?” Nope. Had no idea, but it just made me like you both more. It humanized you two more than anything else I could imagine.
Blaine’s story revolves around the close bonds he made with others during his free world life and during his time on Death Row. His story is about FRIENDSHIP, LOYALTY and LOVE.
We start with….FRIENDSHIP
In September 2018 Blaine received his execution date and was moved to A-Pod, a special section designated for men with execution dates. This section is called Death Watch due to cameras located inside the cell. Cameras that are allegedly only there to prevent suicide attempts.
Blaine’s best friend, Rabbit, happened to be on a separate pod at this time, which meant he was utterly separated from any contact or communication with Blaine and would be unable to support him at this most crucial time … well … that would be the case for most friends, except for the fact that Rabbit isn't a domesticated man. He's full of life and will never just accept the fate dictated to him by others. Rabbit is a fighter and was resolved to find a way to make it to A-Pod before Blaine’s execution.
First, Rabbit talked with the Death Row major when he did a weekly round through each pod. He candidly expressed his desire to be moved to A-Pod so he could be there to support Blaine. Rabbit reminded the Major of Death of an extremely close call Blaine had with death a couple years prior, when he'd attempted suicide. Rabbit assured the Major that his support would keep Blaine calm and prevent any further suicide attempts. Rabbit knew the last thing any Death Row administrator wanted to occur on their watch was a suicide by someone with a date. That could cost them their rank. Past administrations have been willing to move an inmate around someone with a date to keep them calm.
“NO.” The Major of Death said.
Next, Rabbit tried this same tactic with the Death Row captain.
“NO.” They said.
A couple weeks after Rabbit began his quest Death Row received a new assistant warden, major, captain and many new lieutenants and sergeants. Rabbit again spoke with the major and captain.
They said, “Not NO, but HELL NO.”
Was Rabbit deterred? Not NO, but HELL NO.
About two months after Rabbit started his “Get to Brother Blaine” mission, maintenance began replacing the food slots on each cell door. To do this, each inmate had to be moved out of the cell. At this time, inmates were getting moved all over the building. Unfortunately, Rabbit did not end up on A-Pod. However, he did end up in a cell with mold growing all over the cells walls … or at least, in a cell with what looked like mold growing on the walls.
Rabbit, being the intelligent man he is, waited until he knew the bean slots were replaced on A-Pod so if he got moved to A-Pod he wouldn't just potentially end up being moved off of A-pod again. He then told Rank about the “Health Code Violation” in his cell and requested to be moved.
Rabbit then had a visit with a friend and told them about the “Health Code Violation” in his cell and Rank’s refusal to follow policy and move him. Rabbit requested that his visitor ask to speak to a warden after their visit and explain to them the issue with the mold. His friend did so and ….
The next day Rabbit was finally moved. As “luck” would have it he ended up going to A-Pod.
Blaine was asleep when Rabbit arrived. When he awoke I told him the good news. He was extremely excited and relieved to have his best friend with him. From that day on Blaine was much more relaxed. Having his friend close by made an enormous difference to him. Every night those two stayed up all night talking and laughing.
FRIENDSHIP meant everything to Rabbit and Blaine. The power of friendship is incredible to witness. It meant a lot to me to see the lengths Rabbit went to in support of his friend and the impact it had on Blaine.
The next part of Blaines story is about ….LOYALTY and LOVE
Imagine that you were told your child, your parent, or your sibling would be executed in four months’ time - as Blaine’s were - and that amongst the entire family and all of your loved ones’ friends’ you would be allowed to see them once each week, thru a glass window, for two hours. And once per month anyone living 250 miles away could get two days of four hour visits each day in place of the two hours on one day. And during the last week of your loved ones life they were allowed a total of twenty hours of time with family and friends. At maximum there are seventy-four hours of visitation time over these four months to be divided up amongst everyone.
You can imagine the stress this would cause a family. The worry about who gets the visits, who “should” get more time, who was there for them more, who's more important … What about non-family? How do they get included? Do they?
How would your immediate family react to giving up visit time to an “outsider” - someone who wasn't “family”? Would that go well, or cause some stress? Some aggravation?
These issues could naturally cause friction with anyone.
Blaine has sisters, nieces, nephews, a mom, a wife and friends.
How could the visits be allocated so that everyone was happy? So that nobody feels left out. So that no drama erupts? So that there are no permanently hurt feelings?
Blaine has a friend named Betty, an attractive, short-haired lady in her 60s, who is like a second mother to him. When the only other person still in his life was his mother, Blaine had Betty. She helped him through his darkest days and was immeasurably important to him keeping his sanity while living in solitary confinement. She encouraged him when he was down, sent him money so he wouldn't go hungry, visited him, made him laugh and showed him love. She is more than just a friend; Betty is family to Blaine.
When it came time to divide up the visits some of Blaine’s family did not understand the importance of Betty to Blaine and resented sharing visiting time with her.
Blaine was NOT trying to hear that, not for a single second. He made it clear to everyone that Betty was family and would be treated like it.
The loyalty of Betty to Blaine and to Betty from Blaine was uplifting to witness.
I was proud of Blaine for how he handled this situation and also proud of Blaine’s family for how they worked things out in this hyper-stressful time.
The last part of Blaine’s story is about …LOVE
Blaine: Billy, do you think you can make my farewell special to Tiara, my mom and Betty?
Billy: Sure. Let me think about it.
A week later.
Billy: Hey, Fat Boy.
Billy: I've got an idea for your farewell. Tell me if you like this. Write a song to your mom and Tiara AND also write them each a letter telling them what they mean to you …
[after a short pause to think]
Blaine: They'll love that. I'll do it.
Billy: We don't have much time to do this … so …
Blaine: I'm on it.
Billy: And I know what to do for Betty. Trust me.
Blaine: I do.
Two weeks pass …
Blaine: I finished the song.
Billy: Really? Let it rip and I'll write it down as you go.
[Blaine begins to sing. His voice is twangy and mostly on key. He sings this song from his heart with his voice full of emotion. Full of love.]
“A husband’s … A son’s … LOVE”
No matter how hard it may be
please don't worry about me
Because as sure as a river flows
Death is something we'll all come to know
Some sooner than others.
But it is all part of the journey that God laid before us.
So if it comes to pass that I should die
all I ask is that you please don't cry
Just lift your face and look into the sky
For it'll be there that my soul flies
Watching over you all from way up high.
Yeah I tell ya
Dad, Grandma and I we're doing just fine
here in the land of no pain or tears
Never thought one could feel so free
Far away from all the heartache and misery
So you can rest assured now and wash away all those fears
Because that is the way it is here.
Now people are going to make you mad
and you will feel sad
But I promise it'll be all right
I'll come down on the darkest nights
to keep you warm and safe with all my light.
Always remember to listen closely to the wind
My whispers will be there again and again
speaking to you like a long lost friend.
Yeah' I'll keep you company 'til the end
Protecting you from danger around every bend
I'll help you to stay strong whenever you feel weakened.
Love is light and it never dies remember to keep your face towards the sky
Billy: They are going to LOVE that. If you live you've got to sing it to them.
(Two more weeks pass.)
Blaine: I've got the letters written …
Billy: Good! Read them to me and I'll write them as you go.
Blaine: Dear Momma' and Billy – spell Momma' M-O-M-A, okay?
Billy: Sure, but why?
Blaine: When I came to prison I could barely spell or write. When I wrote my mom I spelled "Momma" M-O-M-A. When I began to learn to spell I wrote my mom and spelled "Momma" the proper way and she told me she liked it better the other way – OUR way.
Billy: I love that story. I've got you Bro.
Howdy there little lady! I truly hope these final words reach you well.
So if you're reading this, then that means I am already on my new quest and no doubt doing a lot better than I was when I was stuck here Moma.
Although I know the point is probably moot, I have to tell you anyways … Please try and forget about all of this Moma, and move forward with your life the best you can and be happy for me okay?
I want you to know, Moma, that mere words alone could not ever begin to express how much you mean to me, not a day, hour or minute ever went by that a thought of you did not pop into my mind.
The thought of you is what helped me along in the earlier years of being here in this God-forsaken place. Trust me when I tell you that you've done what most people couldn't and wouldn't do. If anyone ever looked you in the eye and told you that you were anything but a sweet, kind, generous person with a beautiful soul, they would be lying, Moma, because you are all of those things.
Moma, I kind of feel like I never told you this as much as I should have, but I am very grateful to have had you as a mother and rest assured if I could choose you as my mother again in another life I would not hesitate for one single second.
Anyways, I really feel that I need to apologize to you, Moma, for not being the son I should have been. I am very sorry for anything and everything that I might have done in the past to cause you any anguish or hurt your feelings, okay?
Oh and I am sorry for drinking one of your two vintage collectors Cokes that were, like, thirty years old … My brother dared me … I … Sorry, Moma. If it makes you feel any better, it gave me the runs.
This part of this letter is important to me, Moma, these are some memories that I have always held close and dear to my heart.
The first is … It was one of my birthday parties. You had made me a Scooby Doo cake, you remember that? Well, I do. I remember it was a BIG cake and molded to look just like Scooby Doo and even painted with frosting! It was absolutely perfect. You even made cookies to look exactly like Scooby Doo snacks! I was so proud of your creativity. So impressed. I felt so special!
It had my friends - Chris, Cliff and Rafael - amazed too... before we tore into that poor cake. I guess what stayed with me all of this time was all of the hard work and effort that you poured into fixing that birthday party for me and my weirdo friends. The remote control car I got that day was special too. The entire day was one of the best I ever had Moma. I never expressed how much that day meant to me … Thank you Moma.
The second is: a week before my 12th birthday, when Dad was still very ill and we were at the hardest times yet me, you and Pops left to go into town. We were taking one of Dad’s guns to sell at a pawn shop like we had had to do many times before so we could have food to eat and other things that we really needed. For a twelve year-old kid I had a better understanding of why there would be no gifts. Anyway, we got to the pawnshop and while ya'll were dealing with the pawnbroker, I did what I normally did – I walked around looking at interesting things. As I was looking at Nintendo games inside a glass case, Pops walked over and put his hand on my shoulder and asked what I was looking at. “Nothing,” I said, knowing we couldn't afford anything. He said to show him – so I pointed at a game called “Mario Cart.”
You guys finished signing tickets and we left for the grocery store. Fast forward a week, it’s December 12th and freezing cold. I was chopping wood and stacking it on the rack on the front porch when Pops comes to get me. We go inside and I go and put another log on the fire. While standing by the fireplace you two walked into the living room and handed me a sack. Inside was a lot of candy and the game I had pointed out to Dad the week before. That memory is very special. Thank you for that one as well.
Last but not least is all of those trips into town we use to make, singing all kinds of songs. Not caring what we sounded like, just having fun and singing. I lived for those moments, Moma.
You were always more than just a mother to me, You were also my best friend.
I will always LOVE YOU and will be with you forever and always Moma. Please move to Indiana with Teresa and Neva. I have discussed with them you pay zero rent and they will help you and take care of you. Please go Moma, I am begging you, it is my last wish to you! It is time for you to relax okay?
This is my farewell Moma, we'll surely meet again, until then I LOVE YOU, and miss you very much.
Live, Laugh, Love
Always Your Baby Boy,
Billy: Blaine … that last part … the pain …. the love … You did a really good job.
A few minutes later
Blaine: Are you ready for Tiara's letter?
Billy: [BIG BREATH] Yeah. Come on.
To My Beautiful Wife,
Hello there, my Caramel Delight! I hope that all is as well as it can be. These will be my last words to you my dear.
Let me start by saying that the Houston Texans sucked donkey penis! And the Dallas Cowboys have always been the best and always will be the best. HA! I did get the last jab in. I win Chick!
Now that we got that out of the way, I thought it important to leave my words behind to let you know how much I love you and what you meant to me Tiara.
Do you remember how we talked about our souls being destined to be together? I think that we will find one another again in another life and time. However, I think we're going to have to put you on a spiked chain leash, or a shock belt.
Something to make your arse CALM DOWN.
You have a really good heart, Tiara, and always mean well, but you say a lot of things you do not mean when you get all worked up over nothing. You let your emotions get the best of you sometimes, which is why I call you a “fire-cracker.” I say all of this to say … Please try to remember that if someone you know and love tries to tell you something that you do not like or want to hear, it is not because they are going against you, but are only trying to help you, okay?
You, my lady, surely made my life a heck of a lot more bearable here and I am very thankful for having had the chance to know and love you as long as I did, which really is quite a long time, huh?
Maybe in the next life we'll be together under different circumstances and have the farm we always talk about. That would be great wouldn't it?
You and I had a lot of good times and I do not regret anything between us. Really, we could count on one hand the fights we had. Not too many couples could say the same. We had what, three big scuffles? That is nothing compared to most others, right?
I love you Tiara Nicole Milam and I always will, no matter where my soul is at. That is something that you should always remember okay? And you should carry on and grow into an old grey-haired woman with hundreds of cats surrounding you – too paranoid to leave the comfort of your home … don't look at me like that, woman!
Remember that I love you dearly and we'll be together again in another time and place. You just remember be nice, stay positive and finish your life the best way possible, okay? I love you and that will never change my Caramel Delight.
Live, Laugh, Love.
Always Your Hubby,
Billy: Did you say “Blainey Pooh”?
Billy: Okay … Blainey Pooh … that was a great letter too, but you know you may live, right?
Blaine: Yeah? So?
Billy: Well, everyone will call you Blainey Pooh.
Blaine: Uh …
Billy: Too late Bubba.
Blaine: That was off the record!
My friend, you lived! May you defeat your Death Sentence altogether. Sing that song one more time for us, will you … Blainey Pooh?
Bill Coble (Also known as Five Dollar Bill) Executed February 28, 2019
Hey Old Man. Are you still grouchy in Heaven or have you finally mellowed out? HA! I doubt even Heaven can mellow you out.
You've been gone almost two weeks and I've been having a tough time trying to figure out how to write your farewell. Up until your last week alive on Death Watch with me, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to write about. Then my plans got all turned upside down by the events you endured during your last two days alive.
Before I get to those events I want to tell everyone about the grouchy but kind-hearted man I came to know.
My favorite memory of you, Old Fella, happened one day when you were in the dayroom, at recreation, and were standing at the “wall” of bars maybe fifteen feet away from my cell door. We were having a nice conversation and somehow ended up talking about politics; specifically about Mr. Douchebag Trump and his border wall and it devolved quickly into an argument that culminated with us having a forty-something minute staring contest. Neither of us was going to budge. That was the best staring contest I've ever been in. The staring contest only ended when someone in another dayroom called you, wanting you to relay a message to someone and you walked away to attend to that errand.
We both got mad as hell but got over it and started laughing about how you at seventy and me at forty-one have one hundred and eleven years alive between us and could still act like kids.
We didn't talk politics anymore and for the record – I won the staring contest.
I've always loved old people. My favorite kind of old people are those who are grouchy – cantankerous - but with a kind heart. Feisty – but sweethearts under all the gruffness, and who like telling stories. You were exactly that. Feisty. Spirited. Kind. A storyteller.
I loved getting you talking about “The Good Old Days” - especially about your time as a Marine in Vietnam, and growing up in a group home. The first story you told me was about why you were always saying, “That will be five dollars” to just about everyone you saw. A nurse gives you your pills, you'd say, “That will be five dollars.” A guard or inmate walks by you, you'd say, “That will be five dollars.” You said it so much, for so many years, that people called you “Five Dollar Bill.” You told me in Vietnam you could get almost anything for an American five-dollar bill. When you asked a price for goods or services a Vietnamese would always say, “Five dolla.” You got it from them.
I could tell you really loved those Vietnamese people. Every story you told about them was a positive story – one that complimented their work ethic, will to survive and ingenuity. Like the guy that begged you to write out a recommendation for him and give it to a Marine bureaucrat so the guy could enlist in the Marines in some capacity, which would help him earn American citizenship. You didn't even know him but recognized his spirit and helped him. He became a citizen. When you spoke about the war, it was never about killing, hate or to deride the “enemy,” but to speak well about them. That more than anything I can say about you shows who you were.
You never told me why your mother sent you and your older brother to that children’s home when you were around eleven. I assumed your family was dysfunctional for you to get sent away. My older sister and I were both sent away by our family because we were not wanted. That’s not something I like to talk about so I never asked you how you and your brother ended up there. You told me about your first day there and some bully picked a fight with you for talking to his girlfriend and you kicked his ass. Nobody bothered you after that. You said you didn't mind the place but didn't want to be there until you were twenty-one years old so the day you turned seventeen you joined the Marines.
You spent thirty years on Death Row and were universally liked and respected by not only us inmates but also by the guards. That is an almost impossible accomplishment. Normally if you're liked and respected by the inmates then the guards will despise you. If you're the type of person the guards like then the inmates despise you. You pulled it off somehow.
During the roughly four months you spent on Death Watch with me I saw your struggles facing your encroaching death. You were a proud, strong man, but I could still tell that, at times, your last months were not easy for you. I never tried to talk to you about it. Never hinted I saw your struggle. Like Robert Jennings, all that would have done was piss you off. I let you deal with it on your own. I hope that was the right choice.
One thing I really admired about how you handled the end was something I haven't seen anyone else do. Maybe three weeks prior to your execution date you began to get flooded by strangers writing you offering support. I don't recall the exact number but it was well over fifty people. Up until February 25th you spent the bulk of your time responding to every single person. In my mind I was thinking Who would want to spend their last couple weeks alive writing back to strangers? When I complimented you for being so polite you said simply “If they were kind enough to take the time to write me, than I'll make the time to respond”.
You were a good old man … That 'll be five dollars.
Two weeks out from a condemned mans execution date he is taken from his cell by two guards and escorted, handcuffed behind his back, to the Death Row Warden's office so that paperwork can be filled out. Paperwork on what to do with their body, with any personal property they may have, with any money on their Inmate Trust Fund account and most importantly - for many - to schedule who will be coming in, on what days and at what times for their last visits.
Five Dollar Bill’s execution date landed on a Thursday. The way last visits have been handled with Thursday execution dates is for Monday and Tuesday to be “all day” visits from 8 am to 5 pm and Wednesday and Thursday to be from 8 am to 12 pm. On Wednesdays visitation is closed at noon for everyone unless they are having a Media visit. On Thursday – the day of the execution – the inmate is taken off the prison at 12pm to be transported to Huntsville, Texas, where the Death House is located at the Walls Unit.
Five Dollar Bill spoke with the Death Row captain to arrange his visits. This was the first Thursday execution the captain had had to arrange visits for and he told Five Dollar Bill his visits would be 8am to 5pm on Tuesday and Wednesday, and 8am to 12pm on Thursday. No special visits on Monday. When Five Dollar Bill reminded him that on Wednesdays visitation was shut down for media visits and expressed concern that his visit would get cut short, the captain assured him that he'd get his full visits – that he would take care of it himself. For that Wednesday, Five Dollar Bill scheduled his friend Liliane from 8am to 12pm and his son from 12pm to 5pm.
On that Wednesday, the day before his execution, he was taken to visitation just past 8am and immediately things were a disorganized mess... First he's put into a visitation booth that is one booth among fifteen, all in a row. It is noisy and there is no semblance of privacy. His last visits are supposed to be conducted in an isolated attorney booth that is set off away from everyone else so he can have some peace, quiet and privacy. Next, he is told his visit is only for two hours not until 5pm.
As he's trying to visit with his friend, he is also wrestling with the guards working visitation to get them to call the Death Row captain so he can tell them that his visits are scheduled until 5pm.
Eventually a guard tells Five Dollar Bill that they spoke with the Death Row warden, Warden Perez, and he said Bill would have visits until noon. That’s it.
Five Dollar Bill tried to explain to them that he had been told he was approved for visits until 5pm and his son had come a long way to see him and would be at the prison at noon trying to come in.
Nobody would listen to him so he refused to leave the visitation room until he spoke with rank.
A captain came to talk to him – not the Death Row captain – and told Five Dollar Bill that the warden had overridden whatever had been arranged previously and his visits were over with at noon.
Nobody understood why the warden was refusing to allow Five Dollar Bill to have his scheduled visits, visits the warden's Death Row captain had scheduled.
Five Dollar Bill's heart was damaged from several heart attacks and not up to dealing with a lot of tension. He grew so upset over not being allowed to see his son that his heart couldn't handle the strain. While walking back to his cell – hands cuffed behind his back – with a guard at each elbow, he passed out and would have fallen to the ground had the guards not caught him. The guards got him to the medical wing where he was given nitro pills and allowed to rest until he recovered.
Meanwhile, Five Dollar Bill’s son was at the front of the prison trying to get in at 12pm to see his father. He was told his visit was canceled, given no explanation and told to leave. He requested to speak to a warden. He was told NO. He then refused to leave until a warden talked to him.
Finally the Death Row warden rounded up several guards, presumably for his protection, and went up front. He told Five Dollar Bill's son that he was not getting in and if he didn't leave he'd be arrested for criminal trespass.
How do you think Five Dollar Bill and his son felt to have this visit stripped away from them so rudely, so confrontationally and through no fault of their own?
Do you think this may have caused them both a great amount of stress, anxiety and aggravation?
When Five Dollar Bill made it back to the Death Watch section he was put directly in the dayroom. He was visibly upset – shaking and his face was bright red, which made his hair seem even whiter than normal. It was the first time I'd seen him look vulnerable and it made me feel sad and mad all at once. He told everyone on the section what had occurred with his visit. We were outraged and many began to hit their cell doors with hard plastic drink cups to create a lot of noise so that rank would be called to come and speak with Five Dollar Bill. A short period of time passed and a sergeant came and spoke with Five Dollar Bill. He was then taken to see the Death Row captain. The captain, Five Dollar Bill later told us, apologized for the massive screw up and seemed genuinely upset. To try to make up for the fiasco he allowed Five Dollar Bill to call his son and speak to him for about twenty minutes. This is when he found out what his son had experienced when trying to get in.
Five Dollar Bill said he felt bad for the position the captain had been put in and that he'd forgiven him, unconditionally, for messing up scheduling his all day visit on a Wednesday.
The next day, February 28th, the day of Five Dollar Bill’s execution. I was exercising at 4am and heard some thumping on my ceiling. Five Dollar Bill’s cell was directly above mine, so, I knew that was him. All I thought about the noise was that he must not have been able to sleep if he was up so early. I didn't think twice about it.
Around 6am Five Dollar Bill was put into the dayroom where he could recreate until 8am when he would be taken to his last visit with his son until noon.
While in the dayroom, Five Dollar Bill spent time talking with most of us on Death Watch – just chitchatting. Then he told me, out of nowhere, “I didn't know I was such a coward. I tried to hang myself this morning but every time I started choking I couldn't stop myself from pulling the rope off.”
He said he was trying to do this around 4am. The thumping noises I'd heard were his feet thumping on his floor as he was choking and trying to get the rope off his neck.
When he told me this I was surprised. I hadn't suspected he'd planned such an ending for himself. I couldn't help picturing this kind, elderly man all alone in his small cell, with his personal property neatly packed up, only hours away from his state-sanctioned murder and trying as hard as he could to allow himself to hang until his life was over and being unable to give up on living.
That he felt it was cowardice to be unable to kill himself bothered me. I didn't want him to die feeling weak. He wasn't.
Someone else overheard what he said and told him they understood but they were happy he hadn't done it. When someone is so close to death it’s hard to know what the right thing to do or say is. I felt with Five Dollar Bill, he'd just needed to get that off his chest and didn't want or need any comments or questions, so I didn't say anything.
Just after 8am he was taken out of our dayroom and taken to his last visit with his son. He walked out smiling and telling everyone good-bye.
While Five Dollar Bill was visiting his son, for the last time, I was visiting our mutual friend, Liliane, before she'd travel to the Death House to be a witness. She theorized that maybe he couldn't go through with killing himself because he hadn't gotten to see his son the day before, so couldn't leave him without a good-bye.
When we are executed our witnesses are in a small room with several cops and two reporters who are all able to view the execution through a glass window. Five Dollar Bill’s witnesses were his son, grandson, daughter-in-law and his friend, Liliane. After Five Dollar Bill was injected with poison and was dying, his son became distraught and hit the bar in front of the viewing room. Immediately extra cops swarmed into the viewing room and tackled Five Dollar Bill's son and grandson and dragged them out. They were arrested for “creating a disturbance,” “language,” “resisting arrest.” Five Dollar Bill’s daughter-in-law left at this time too. That left Liliane as Five Dollar Bill’s only witness. She stayed until the end.
He was not alone.
My heart goes out to the Coble family.
Everyone on Death Watch sends their love and support.
Rest in peace Five Dollar Bill.
The following is witness Liliane Sticher’s account of Bill Coble’s execution, shared with permission:
Last Thursday, Bill Coble was executed by the State of Texas and his son and grandson were taken into jail under the charge of resisting arrest. Gordon Coble is now charged with Disorderly Conduct, Language and Resisting Arrest.
It started with some difficulties on Wednesday. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) had told Bill that he would be able to have whole day visits on Tuesday and Wednesday and on Thursday until noon. His family and I had planned accordingly. His family visited him the entire day Tuesday and I was going to visit Wednesday morning and his family again in the afternoon. When I arrived Wednesday morning, I was told there would be a two-hour visit only. After talking to the warden’s secretary, they granted me until noon, but his family would not be able to visit him in the afternoon. Bill tried to change this without success. Contrarily to what he had been told and was confirmed at first, his visits were now on Monday and Tuesday. Not knowing it, no one had come on Monday.
As it was noisy on Wednesday, he also asked to be in the special, quieter room reserved for the two last days of visits before an execution. It was denied for Wednesday’s visit.
Bill’s family came on Wednesday, expecting to see him in the afternoon, and they were denied the visit. They saw him on Thursday until noon, at which time he was taken directly from the visiting area to the Walls Unit in Huntsville, the place of executions.
At 2 pm, we went to the Hospitality House in Huntsville. Witnesses were given information on the process that was going to take place and then we all waited, hoping for a stay. In addition to his family and me, two friends were present, as well as several chaplains, supposedly for support. During the afternoon, from 2 to 5 pm, in turns we each talked to Bill several times on the phone. He received two phone calls from overseas, including one from a pen pal in Germany who wrote to him for over ten years. At around 4:30 PM, I was on the phone with him when he said that he was getting a phone call from his lawyer and would call back. He did a few minutes later and told me that the Supreme Court had denied him. I did my best to cope with the news. Bill told me that he felt no fear; that he was going to be with God. He said that he would be with us from the other side. We joked some and talked more seriously too.
He talked to each of us for a few minutes, until just before 5. Then he talked to his son again. Gordon was crying. At around 5:15 pm the witness left the Hospitality House. Hunter, Bill’s youngest grandson, had to stay there and wait with his older brother’s girlfriend and a friend. He had been denied being a witness because of his age, seventeen, but resented not being able to come.
After some waiting in another building, a little before 6pm, we passed in front of the media and crossed the street to enter the Walls Unit. After the security checks, the examination of IDs, pat searching, and so on, we waited again until we were led down a numbers of halls, inside and outside the building, up some stairs and asked to wait in another room. Then, the door to the viewing room opened and we entered.
Gordon stopped for a moment in the back of the room, crying. His wife, Nelley, stayed with him, then they came forward in front of the window. Gordon was standing next to me and holding on to us. On the other side of the window was Bill, his father, tied on a gurney, his arm extended with tubing going in. Bill gave us a sweet and soft smile. A solid wall was separating us from the victims’ families. We were told again not to touch the window as it would vibrate and people on the other side of the solid wall would hear it loudly, as would we inside the room. A chaplain was standing near Bill’s feet and a man, the warden, near his head. Bill gave his last words. He looked at each of us, one after the other in the eyes saying: I love you. Then he said, “It will be 5 dollars.” I will explain the meaning of these words below.
The injection process began, and Bill closed his eyes. Gordon then cried out, “No…no Pa…don’t go.” and he hit the wall or the window with his fists. In seconds he was flat on the floor, and his son Dalton as well, held down by several people as they had immediately opened the door to let security in. With force, their whole body on the floor, they were dragged outside. As much as I wanted to go to defend them, I stayed with Bill, who was being put to death. The tumult outside continued for a while, I heard Nelley saying in panic that they couldn’t do this. Then it got quiet.
During this time, Bill’s eyes closed and opened several times. Some officers came in talking and I asked them with a soft voice to please be quiet. I started saying out loud to Bill, trying to get away from the shock and be with him: “I love you, it is unconditional love. We love you” and I continued repeating these words with my hands joined.
After what seemed a long time a doctor came in and checked his heart and eyes and breath and pronounced 6:24 as the time of death. We stayed a few minutes, to give the victims’ families time to leave, and then left the same way we came in. A female officer came to me and said: “I am sorry.” Before we exited the building, I asked where the family was. I was told not to worry about this but I refused to leave the premises without knowing. A person in a suit came and told me that if I refused to leave I would be arrested. I answered that I didn’t care and only had one question. He agreed to answer, but outside, so we went outside and I repeated my question. I was told that they were at Walker’s County Jail. They refused to answer any other question.
We went back to the Hospitality House. When I entered following the chaplains, Nelley was calling Dalton’s girlfriend from the county jail. As she listened, she started to cry. I told Bill’s youngest grandson what had happened. In shock, he went outside in the cold and dark, crying. He kept repeating that he should be there, with his family.
Later we went to the county jail but after a while we had to leave because Bill’s son and oldest grandson, 21 years old, were being hold in jail for the night with the charge “resisting arrest.” Gordon Coble is now charged with Disorderly Conduct, Language and Resisting Arrest.
They were released the next day under a bond.
A press conference was held later this evening by the authorities. None of the witnesses on Bill’s side were present.
A comment on his last words: Bill’s nickname in prison was “Five Dollar Bill.” Anytime people would ask him questions, he would say, “It will be five dollars.” A resident for 30 years, most persons on Death Row knew Bill. He was at Ellis Unit in Huntsville before Death Row was moved to Polunsky Unit. When he would be led out to the visitation area or to some other place, people would shout from their cells: “Hey Five Dollars,” he told me. Some Corrections Officers would tell me to say hi to him for them. One suggested that by now it should have increased to twenty dollars. He was “Five Dollar Bill.”
The world became colder and we are more alone since he is gone.
Robert Mitchell Jennings Executed January 30, 2019
At just past 8am on January 30, 2019, Robert Jennings left his cell to go to his last visit on Texas Death Row. Black-framed plastic glasses loomed large against his slim face. His low top New Balance shoes, purchased from the prison commissary for $49, looked new in spite of being several years old. The bright white, state-issued, size 3XL jumpsuit with the letters “DR” emblazoned across the back ensured that Robert would be properly identified by all as a Death Row inmate.
As he walked past my cell, hands cuffed behind his back, escorted by two prison guards walking at each side of him, he looked briefly at me standing at my door and we each nodded at each other but didn't speak, as he was busy shouting goodbyes to men he'd known for years.
He swept by my cell without any significant emotion showing in his voice or on his smooth skinned black face that was framed with a black and white goatee and a head full of thick black and white hair. His dark eyes were hidden by the glare reflecting from the lenses of his plastic glasses.
“RJ,” as he was called, left the section that last day, and I thought to myself that for a man in his 60s, who'd been on Death Row over thirty years, he carried his six foot three inch one hundred and ninety pound frame with the grace of a young man. And still seemed to have the spirit and will of a young man.
I had no idea of the true emotions hidden inside that quiet and calm man. RJ lived on Death Watch, just four cells away from me, for about five months. That entire time he only spoke of his will to continue to fight to live. He never gave any indication that he was tired of living and was ready for his next journey.
It came as a shock when I was told it had been reported that at the end of the appeals process he'd told his attorney's not to file anything else for him. That he was ready to go.
I was dumbfounded. I heard many others on Death Row talking about this and everyone expressed the same surprise. None of us were aware of RJ's despair. He'd managed to keep it so well hidden that no one had any idea.
RJ was a proud man. He was a fighter. Those were the two main characteristics of his personality that everything else revolved around. He was born in the 50s, in the South, when racism was raging strong and pride and willingness to fight was needed to survive.
For a man like that to be ready for death will tell you how harsh the living conditions on Death Row are.
That he could keep these feelings so well hidden while living in such a closed off environment, surrounded by men who are keen observers and masters at sensing emotions is another testament to how much pride RJ had. Even feeling that way he was able to allow no one to get so much as a sniff of it.
Had anyone been wise enough to sense RJ's true feelings they would have also been wise enough to say nothing at all to RJ about it. And certainly wise enough not to try to “comfort” him. To know someone had sensed his vulnerability would only have embarrassed him.
His despair is a part of RJ's last story – but it is not all of it and not how I choose to remember him. Certainly not how that proud man would want to be remembered.
What I will remember him for was his exuberance for his hometown sports teams – the Houston Texans, Houston Rockets and the Houston Astros. Any time these teams played he would listen to the games on his radio and would be as happy as a little kid when they won and grouchy if they lost. I could hear him cheering for his teams and it would make me laugh.
I will remember him for betting Jumping Jacks with Joseph Garcia on various games. The loser would have to do however many Jumping Jacks they'd bet (and lost) in our dayroom. One day RJ had to do so many Jumping Jacks his glasses bounced right off his face onto the floor.
I remember RJ for going to the dayroom, which is in front of our cells and is a cage with a table, sink and exercise mat, almost every day and then striding from one end to the other, back and forth across the floor while reading a book the whole time. His steps were so long he'd take six or seven and have to turn back around and go the other way. How he did this reading a book I have no idea, but it was funny to watch.
I will remember RJ for his continuous generosity to anyone on Death Row who was on hard times. He'd help them without needing them to ask. He'd just do what was needed.
Finally, my favorite memory of RJ occurred at visitation on September 27, 2018.
The whole prison had been on lockdown for two or three weeks and he'd eaten all the food he'd bought from the prison commissary. He was surviving on the lockdown “Johnnie Sacks” we received three times a day. These meals come in a brown sack and nobody knows why they are called “Johnnie Sacks.” They consist of a small dab of peanut butter on two slices of bread, a slice of bologna or some other meat on two slices of bread and maybe a one-ounce box of cereal or two or three prunes... RJ was hungry.
I was sitting two cages down from him visiting my wife (we actually wrote our own marriage vows and married ourselves that same day) and RJ was visiting a pretty white lady. He and I were both talking quietly with our visitor and then all the sudden I could hear RJ loudly and excitedly exclaim - “We're on lockdown! I want everything!”
I - and several guards in the area - immediately knew what he was talking about and we all started laughing.
His visitor had just asked him what he wanted to eat from the vending machines and he wanted to eat it all.
RJ, you're not hungry anymore my friend, and there is no longer a “DR” on your back. You're free.
Rest in Peace.
John William King Executed April 24, 2019A.K.A. Opossum
“Billy,” John King called from the dayroom on Texas most notorious section – Death Watch – where men sentenced to death, by fellow citizens, eventually all come to spend their last few months living in cells equipped with cameras before being poisoned to death.
I was sitting on my homemade “chair” - a two-foot stack of paper – and using my metal bunk as a desk to write a letter on when John called me.
“Yeah,” I responded as I stood up and wrapped a sheet around my shoulders to ward off the cold inside my freezing concrete cell.
I took two steps – two steps that transversed the length of my cell and brought me to my cell door. I peered through the murky double sheets of Plexiglas that cover the two narrow observation slits cut into my steel cell door and saw my friend, John William King, standing maybe fifteen feet away looking at me with his perpetual smirk. A smirk that was a little bit of “I know something you don't know,” a little bit of “and I know what you know,” a little bit of “I don't give a fuck,” and a little bit of – well, A LOT – of pessimism. Yet, his smirk still managed to convey charm. I'd never met someone whose smirk so well expressed his personality.
John was standing at the dayroom bars holding one in each big hand as he squinted at me through them. Or I should say, it looked like he was squinting. Along with his perpetual smirk, he had a perpetual squint – which is where he got his prison nickname, “Opossum.” A fellow inmate, long ago, noticed he had the beady, squinty eyes of an opossum. He began calling John “Opossum” and it stuck.
John was standing there, squinting at me through the dim fluorescent light with a shadow cloaking half in his face as steel gates slammed loudly behind him and stale dusty air hissed out from a nearby vent. He was close to six feet tall, dark black thinning hair, with a five o'clock shadow covering his plump pale white face. His eyes were dark and close together, his small nose sat straight and proud in the center of a handsome, youthful forty-four-year-old face. He was a big burly guy of two hundred and sixty-five pounds and was wearing a state-issued white jumpsuit that had “DR” - for Death Row – stamped in black letters across the back and on the left leg. On his feet he wore a four-year-old pair of New Balance tennis shoes.
Seeing me at my cell door John said, “Billy, do you still plan on writing a farewell for me?”
“Yes” was my simple reply.
“And the point is to humanize me, right?”
“Yes” was again my reply.
“Billy, you know most of the people in the free world detest me because of my crime. [For being convicted in the dragging death of a black man – an infamous hate crime.] There is no way you can humanize me to them.”
“John,” I said, “You are not giving people enough credit. Sure, some will never see past the crime to see your humanity, but some will.”
John replied, “If you say so.”
“That's the John King I know and love – the eternal optimist.”
“Whatever dude” John fired back.
Many of us have tried our best to put ourselves in African Americans shoes to imagine what it was like to be ripped from your country, your family, your culture and be made a slave. To be viewed as a THING, to be owned, to be someone’s property and considered less than human. Many have tried to imagine that level of oppression and subjugation that African Americans endured. We try to imagine what African Americans continued to endure after slavery ended. Having to fight for every imaginable basic right that whites had, and basic human dignity, and for things as primary as sharing the same restrooms and schools as whites. We have tried to imagine what it was like for African Americans to have to fight every single day of their lives just to be treated fairly and equally.
Imagining all of these things makes it easy to understand if African Americans distrusted white people, and even easy to understand if African Americans, in turn, hated their oppressors.
Imagining all of these things leaves many of us awestruck that so many African Americans from those eras and todays, have forgiven white people and gotten over the evil done to them or their ancestors.
When John King came to prison as an eighteen-year-old, good looking, skinny white kid in the early 1990s for a burglary, he was thrust into an alternate reality. All of the sudden he was the minority. Not just a minority, but a minority in ancient times. Everywhere he looked he saw white inmates being victimized by other inmates, simply because they were white. In this new reality, white people were turned into sex slaves, beaten, dehumanized and had everything they owned taken by force or stolen. In this new world, it was white people subjugated by another people. Now it was his time to endure what African Americans endured for so long. Now John King viewed as weak, inferior, less than human – just because of his skin color.
All of the sudden this eighteen-year-old had to fight every day of his life to keep from becoming a sex slave, to keep what little property he had – to keep his dignity and his pride.
Experiencing that at such a young age would traumatize anyone. I know. I was here, back then, barely seventeen-years-old. I went through it too.
Can you imagine yourself in John King’s shoes? How would you have handled such oppression? Being hated and targeted, just because of your skin color. How would you have survived and coped? Would you have fought as John did? If so, how would you have fueled yourself to fight every day and not give up?
What John went through in prison is HOW he ended up in a racist prison gang and HOW he ended up with racial views. It was survival instinct and trying to cope with a horrible situation.
And like the majority of African Americans – who leave me in awe – who worked past the trauma unjustly perpetrated against them and learned to love members of a race that targeted them, so did John King.
John always talked about his friend “Big Cat.” Being new to Death Row, I didn't know who that was. After the umpteenth time of John mentioning Big Cat, I asked John. John told me when he first got to Death Row in 1999, none of the black inmates would have anything to do with him – except for Big Cat. Because of Big Cat’s constant support of John, many of the other black inmates began to thaw towards John and became willing to interact with him and not ostracize him. Big Cat didn't prejudge him based on his crime and gave him a chance. That meant the world to John. They became true friends. A friendship that lasted two decades.
During Johns last few months, Big Cat lived two sections over from the Death Watch section. This allowed them to continue to communicate and stay in touch. They would each buy food from the prison store and pitch it in to make a meal to share together. They cooked for each other and in solitary confinement that is the most intimate way we can interact and show how much we trust one another.
Most telling about John’s deep trust for Big Cat is this: John’s most important personal property was a photograph collection. The last week of his life he began sending all of his photos and personal papers out to his friends on Death Row. One of only two people he entrusted to help with this task was Big Cat, a black man. There were several white inmates of good standing nearby that he associated with he could have entrusted. Yet, he trusted his friend Big Cat because John didn't see a black man in Big Cat – he saw a friend.
Rest in Peace John.
Death Watch Update May 5, 2019
Hi Everyone. It's Sunday, I was just sitting here in my cell missing my friends and began going through and reading their farewells. That got to me pretty bad. I had promised myself I would never forget any of them, but reading their farewells again I realized the pain of losing so many people I liked, so quickly, had made me, subconsciously, start to forget them so that it wouldn't hurt so much.
I think part of trying to distance myself from those who had died is so its easier to get to know the new men with execution dates who get moved to Death Watch. So I can have a real chance of getting to know them and properly capturing who they are in their farewells if they don't make it. It is so hard to focus on someone new – to really understand them – when you are mourning.
I have never dealt with something like this. Trying to force myself to stay open towards others while dealing with constant death that's making my mind want to shut down to protect itself. I imagine this is something similar to what soldiers have to cope with during war. Nobody should have to endure this. Not the good guys or the bad guys.
Today is just one of “those” days where I feel the weight of the world on me and thought I could seek solace “talking” to you readers who, many, really genuinely care about people like me. It's crazy, I don't even know ya'll but just know ya'll are out there and care actually helps.
Something else is weighing me down today. A promise I made and dread keeping.
John King and I only knew each other briefly but due to our similar ages and backgrounds we quickly became friends. He was someone I understood very well and enjoyed talking with. Towards the end of his life he told me on his execution day he wanted me to celebrate his death as the day he gained his freedom. He asked me to make his favorite prison meal, which happens to be my favorite prison meal, a chicken nacho spread. I promised him I'd do it. On April 18, 2019 – six days before his scheduled execution – I bought everything I needed to make this meal John’s favorite way.
I rarely ever make a big expensive meal like the chicken nacho spread is, but when I buy the items needed for a special meal to be made on a certain day every time I will see any of the items for this meal in my cell I will feel anticipation, which only increases my hunger for this meal. By the time the awaited day comes I am ravenous and excited.
As John’s execution date neared every time I glimpsed the chicken nacho ingredients I felt dread at the thought of eating it. As the days passed the thought of eating my favorite meal became revolting.
I knew I'd never be able to eat that meal on the day my friend died. I had to tell him I'd do it but it would be when I could build myself up to it.
The meal is still sitting here, eleven days after his death. I will keep my promise to him and eat this meal to celebrate his freedom. I think that the chips and peppers will be expired by then though.
On a positive note: On May 2, 2019 I met Dina Milito, the director of Minutes Before Six, for the first time. She came to the prison to visit two of her other friends and also visited me.
We had an excellent time together. She is a compassionate and fiery woman with one sharp mind. She is a genuinely sweet and kind person. Well, until you bump heads with her. She has been accused of acting like she runs the New York Times, and of treating her friends like royal subjects.
Occasionally Dina will command one of her subjects rethink something they want to post on MB6 that she doesn't think fits.
Dina, or as I call her, the Special Little Tyrant, and I have been battling about one of some of my writing. She feels I come across like an asshole. Sometimes I AM an asshole. I think it is only fair to let ya'll see me when I am a jerk and not just when I am not.
(Note from the Special Little Tyrant: Billy sees it as his job to show the humanity in the men on Death Watch. I see it as mine to show the humanity in Billy. He and I disagree sometimes on what this means, hence his comments above.)
|Billy Tracy 999607|
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.