Since I wrote “Fighting for Life, From Texas Death Row,” much has happened to the inmate I was working with, Robert Will, and myself. Following my successful efforts to find him experienced pro bono lawyers who worked with his Texas court-appointed attorney, Rob’s case was remanded from the federal courts to the Texas state court. This is significant as in Texas, as once you have reached the federal level, there is nowhere to go but to the Supreme Court for relief. Surprisingly, in February 2014, the Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Rob based on both actual innocence claims and prosecutorial misconduct.
Given that Rob’s case is being handled exceptionally by his new lawyers, last summer I began to assist a man named Bobby Garza who had recently been given his execution date. I met Bobby by accident when at an earlier visit to Texas death row, the guards mistakenly placed him in the visitor’s booth with me instead of Robert Will. Several months later I wrote him a letter asking him if he had sufficient help and support now that he had been given his execution date. I received a letter back which explained his desperate situation.
After Bobby’s court-appointed lawyer abandoned him after submitting an inadequate clemency application, I and a friend who was working with me on his case asked Texas civil lawyer Mary Felps of Descending Eagles, who had been working tirelessly pro bono with death row inmates, to visit Bobby. Together the three of us helped him write his own appeals pro se as no other lawyer would take on his case. Actually, one other lawyer wrote out a quick brief, but when it was denied, he never appealed it to the higher courts. We did.
Bobby Garza was on death row under Texas’s “Law of Parties” rule, which states that if an individual is present at a murder, s/he is just as culpable as the person who committed the murder. There was no evidence he was present except for a coerced confession, which he quickly recanted. Nonetheless, after appealing all the way to the Supreme Court, he was executed on September 19, 2013.
I stood with other protesters outside the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas, looking on helplessly as Garza’s younger brother and sister sobbed in shock during Bobby’s execution. After the execution the prison released his property, and his children and younger siblings fixated on the mesh bag containing all that he left: a pair of sneakers, a bible, underclothing and some papers. His son quickly put on a plain white t-shirt, which he wore with pride; his daughter cuddled with a washcloth, trying to smell a man who no longer existed. Another son vacantly walked up to people saying, “They killed my Daddy.” Then the prison officials took everyone over to the funeral home where Bobby’s body was laid out. The children wailed, and the family kissed him, or held his hand, not having touched him since he was imprisoned ten years earlier. I noticed that there was still scotch tape on his arm; tape that was used to hold down the IVs which administered the lethal drugs into his system.
There is no possible way I can convey the horror of that day. Many will call it justice, but is it justice to leave yet more pain and suffering on this earth? Every day Bobby’s mother visits her son’s grave, and his family and friends are still grief-stricken. Execution does not end the suffering. It often brings more.
Today I assist another young man, because to just be against the death penalty is not enough. Signing petitions is not enough. In Texas, the men live in solitary confinement, not even with a television as companionship. Studies show 10% are innocent. Most have families.
Even when we know a person is guilty we have to ask ourselves why life in prison is not a severe enough punishment. Pre-meditated murder is a horrible thing, however, few of the criminals on death row are there because they killed out of pre-meditation. They killed impulsively, using poor judgment, and often the mitigating factors that contributed to this poor judgment were age, low IQ, alcohol or drug impairment, a lifetime of abuse causing a lack of forethought, and mental illness. However, when the State kills it does so with calculated pre-meditation, and with cold intent. It is time we asked what kind of people we want to be as we move forward as a society.