Wednesday, March 24, 2010

David on the Row

David..was on death row. He was one of my first clients to ever take me to "the row" at Polunsky. I had been to the Ellis Unit where Texas' death row used to be. The atmosphere at Ellis was atypical of any other older unit - damp, cold, musty smelling - where trustees mopped and shined and cleaned everything that a rag could touch - just to pass the time of day.

Polunsky was different. It was new. No tarnishes. It was more secure. There were more check points to get inside to see the client. People were reserved.

The waiting room where you visit the inmates was filled with children and loved ones pressing close to the glass that separated the inmate and the visitor. Spiritual advisors were there visiting inmates who had no one to visit them. Children played around parent(s) as if it were a play ground. One mother sobbed profusely when her time was up - and she had to leave. A daughter clung to the phone as she hung her head and sobbed when she had to leave. One group laughed aloud at a joke they were telling their brother over the phone.

Emotions ran high on the row. Sadness. What smiles there were - were planted - making things appear easy - happy. There is no happiness on the row.

David fell out of Tarrant County, Fort Worth, Texas. As most inmates on the row, he had pen pals who believed in his innocence They were supportive of him - financially, emotionally, in every way imaginable or possible.

I was asked to review his see if there was anything that could be done to help him avoid execution.

Interstate 45 from Houston to Dallas then I-20 over to Fort Worth can be a long highway. It gives time for retrospect, time to think about how you will work your case. I rarely play the radio when I am driving. I like the quiet. The time is mine to think and pray.

My drive to Fort Worth gave me the time to work my plan over in my head. I had to find two people. They were important to this case. They were keys to this case.

I found the first person, Lila (name changed) without a problem. Lila still lived in the housing projects that she lived when the murder took place. Her humble abode was clean though the furniture was tattered and worn. Lila, a petite lady in her mid-40s was calm, cool and collected during our interview. She was warm and welcoming upon and during my visit.

We sat with the door open - no screen on it. Everyone who passed could look right inside.

Lila's testimony had now changed from when she originally testified at David's trial. At trial, according to Lila, she was coerced "by the district attorney because I had a case that they would make go away". She had sold her soul to the district attorney. Lila was now willing to give an affidavit that David was not the murderer, but Sam was. I think, Lila was trying to make amends in some manner - trying to get her own heart right with the wrong she had committed. I plugged my trusty lap top and began typing her statement. Printed, notarized, I was out of there.

Though Lila had been very forthcoming and accomodating, I felt eyes on me. I was the wrong color in the wrong place. I was watched from the time I got there, until the time I left.

I searched for 3 days, diligently, for Sam. I went to every smoke filled bar, whole in the wall, whore house, cafe, and other dives that had been suggested to me looking for Sam. I was so disappointed not to find him. To this day, I believe I talked with Sam at one of the bars.

Sam was supposedly the same size and color as David. They had similar facial features. The person in the bar to whom I spoke, could have easily been David - or Sam.

I phoned David's court appointed attorney to let him know what I had gotten from Lila and about the search for Sam. "Oh that's fine just fax it to my office." he said.

"But, his execution is next week what are you going to do with the affidavit?" I asked.

"Well, I don't know right now, I already had a vacation to Australia planned with me and my buddies during that time so I won't be here when he is executed." Cantu replied.

My heart raced and my stomach went upside down. He wasn't going to be here for the execution? What about last minute appeals and filings? Who was going to do that? I would later learn - no one. No one.

The group from Italy were now calling me - several times a day - wanting an update on David's case. I was becoming more and more aware of the stress of the upcoming execution - on all of us. I studied case law; I tried to find something - I phoned other attorneys to ask for help. They couldn't help because they weren't his attorney - there would be an ethics problem. I felt I hit a brick wall every which way I turned.

One of the attorneys whom I work with helped me write an affidavit as a Friend of the Court, asking that David's execution be postponed. In the affidavit I explained that I had recently been hired. I included the affidavit from Lila and my description of Sam. I faxed the affidavit to the Governor's office. I acted like I knew what I was talking about and was confident that something would happen for the good.

Execution day had arrived.

David called from the holding cell next to the death chamber. "Have you heard anything from the Governor?" he asked.

My simple whispered answer was, "No."

The phone buzzed. Caller ID said the call was from "State of Texas" - I had to take the call. My stomach wrenched to the point that it hurt. My writ/affidavit had been denied. The execution would proceed.

David called again. I felt helpless in answering his questions. Ironically, he was the strong one. He thanked me profusely for my work, for my caring. He said a prayer for me. He said he would make sure I got a copy of his book of poems. He said he loved me for all that I did. His final words to me were, "Keep your chin up, because I will see you on the other side."

Time was up. The phone went dead. Twelve minutes later, the chaplain phoned me. David had peacefully gone to the death chamber and had passed on to the other side.

I cried and cried and cried. I cursed the State of Texas. I was a nervous wreck. I was FURIOUS with Cantu for leaving his client to go to the death chamber without any last minute acts of legal work.

I feretted phone calls from Italy and Spain - pen pals of David's - and had to deliver the sad news that his execution was carried out.

The next day -without a return number - I received a fax stating "Sam is celebrating because David paid for his sin"

I was stunned. It was too late. The great and powerful State of Texas - probably executed an innocent man. And, years later, I would learn, there have been others.

I had always thought the death penalty to have it's fallacies. Now I had experienced them first handed. I had experienced holding a man's life in my hands in a small manner - and I was powerless. I cried for days after David's execution.

I never did get the copy of his poems. But, I received something even more important.. David's final gift to me was the hope of forgiveness, grace under fire, and standing firm in your beliefs. For that I will be forever indebted to him

The great and powerful State of Texas HAS executed innocent people. Granted, there are those who are so rotten to the core that they may deserve to die - but who are we to determine the date of some one's death......

I don't want that decision on my shoulders when I meet my maker and neither should anyone else.

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