Rolling along on Farm Road 350 outside Livingston, Texas, past the billboard advertising Aqua Plumbing (for all your plumbing needs), and the plain white cross casting halfhearted shadows over the East Tempe Baptist Church, and the sign announcing “Grocery” where only broken-down nothingness and weeds currently exist, and the desultory sadness of the Lake Area Mobile Home Park, you eventually come upon the flattened, sandy-colored expanse of concrete buildings known as the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Allan B. Polunsky Unit. Five gun towers, officially called pickets, help make sure its roughly 3,000 inmates stay put, including all 209 prisoners currently marking time on death row, though that number is constantly changing, primarily because Texas has the most active death chamber in the country, praise be to its stockpile of the sedative pentobarbital. About 21 five-gram doses are currently in stock, according to one unofficial calculation, more than enough for the eight upcoming scheduled executions — a number that does not, at this time, include a death-row inmate named Robert Gene Will, 41, who was convicted of murdering a police officer in 2002. Lots of folks think Will isn’t guilty and that his appeals were big-time botches; he is slated to be featured on an upcoming episode of Dr. Phil (much like fellow Texas death-row inmate Rodney Reed recently was, which helped Reed get an indefinite stay of execution). As for Will himself, he says he spends his days painting, reading, writing, meditating, practicing yoga, and trying not to let the babblings of the nearby “schizophrenic” get to him. The friendly, wisecracking guard at Polunsky’s front gate knows all about Will from his years on the floor and has nothing but good things to say.
“Near as I can recall,” he says, “he’s been no trouble at all.”
And then, with a smile, he sends you on your way, toward where Will has spent the past 18 years.
In fact, everyone here seems pretty friendly. Inside, a guard holds up a visitor’s baggie filled with Altoids, frowns, well aware that candy of any sort isn’t allowed inside, and says, “What the hell are those? Oh. Sure. Why not?” And overseeing visits today is a stout gentleman named Robert Hurst, also friendly, who has been shuttling folks like Dr. Phil through four locked steel doors to see inmates like Rodney Reed for the past six years, who has stood witness at more than 50 executions, and who seems to have hardly been changed by the experience.
He sits you in a booth and sends for Will. You’ll be on one side of a bulletproof, soundproof glass window, the condemned on the other, the two of you connected by a phone with a crappy ancient-era connection. Will’s case has gotten a good bit of attention over the years, with a 2012 write-up in The New York Times detailing just how suspect the original verdict and subsequent appeals were; more recently, his plight has been championed by Jason Flom, a social-justice activist who hosts the Wrongful Conviction podcast and, as the music-industry CEO of Lava Records, has launched the careers of, among others, Katy Perry, Kid Rock, and Lorde. On Will’s behalf, Flom has put together a couple of successful New York events featuring the convict’s paintings, with the proceeds going to his defense fund. And it’s he who got Dr. Phil fired up about Will’s case.
Flom: “What’s happened to Rob is about as bad as it gets. I mean, you look at the evidence and it’s clear from the start he didn’t kill anyone.”
Dr. Phil: “Having been trained in forensic psychology and spent many years in the litigation arena, I am appalled. The mismanagement of this case and the attendant evidence is nothing short of monumental.”
But that’s all on the outside. Right now, inside Cage 24 on A Pod in the Polunsky Unit, Will has stripped down to be searched before he can go to the visitation area. One officer paws through his clothes, while another gets more personal, saying something along the lines of “Run your fingers through your hair. Arms out, turn around. Lift your feet one at a time. Bend over, spread your cheeks. Turn around, lift your nuts. Alright, here’s your shit! Hurry up and get dressed!” A bit later, Will shuffles into view: Tall, trim, clean-shaven, bespectacled, oddly twinkle-eyed, having passed on his way an emergency-response team readying for SWAT deployment — nothing unusual about that — with his hands still shackled, moving through a door that’s locked behind him, after which, hands freed, he picks up the phone, carefully wipes it clean of germs, and first wants to speak to Hurst.
“Hey, Mr. Hurst?” he says.
Hurst says, “Yeah?”
“I sent a 15-page letter out 10 days ago and it hasn’t been received.”
“Not anything I have any control over.”
“Oh, I know, but you’re the communications director, right, so, you know.”
Hurst chuckles. “No. I’m not the director. I’m just the public information officer. What you’re talking about, I don’t have any control over.”
“I mean, it’s not like I’m writing anything bad about the warden, because that’s what they really worry about, or at least that’s my understanding,” Will says.
“Yeah,” Hurst says, and that’s that, which is probably par for the course with these things.
“It apparently was disappeared. Pinocheted, as I like to say,” Will says later on. Pinocheted, what an unexpected reference: all those innocents disappeared during Augusto Pinochet’s reign of terror in 1970s Chile. To a large degree, though, that’s Will for you, a good bit unexpected. For one thing, he’d just as soon not talk about himself — where he came from, how he grew up — not go into all those so-called mitigating circumstances that defense attorneys like to trot out during the sentencing phase of a trial to make the defendant seem less deserving of a harsh penalty.
“Ah, well, let me say this. I think in a very holistic, all-encompassing manner. So, I don’t talk about myself, ever, just about ideas and concepts that are outside the individual self. I just don’t think about myself. You know what I mean? And I don’t ever talk about my childhood. It was really not good. Southern Baptist conservative. My dad was murdered when I was 10. And there was a lot of abuse by other family members. But here’s the thing. It’s like, focusing on that, what is that going to change? Why don’t we do something revolutionary, man? Why don’t we just talk about, like, I don’t know, literature, art, life? How about that?”
So, that’s where he’s coming from and what he wants to do during today’s time outside his cage, before he returns there in 60 minutes, to solitary confinement, 23 hours a day of it, and the bewildering circumstances of his long confinement. “At times, I’ve felt like I’m trapped in some type of Orwellian, Kafkaesque, Huxleyan alternate reality. I mean, how is it that a system exists that could allow my wrongful conviction? And the wrongful conviction of so many others? How did that happen?”
Death by noose is how Texas began its seeming love affair with capital punishment, in 1819, with certain exceptions being made for the firing squad. Starting in 1924, the electric chair became the exit method of choice, with its debut performance signaled by the killing of five men on the same day. In all, 361 souls met their end that way, before a 1972 federal court decision shut down executions nationwide. In 1976, however, they returned, and since that time, 1,512 men and women have been executed in the country, with Texas and its lethal injections accounting for a plurality of them, 567 right now, or about 40 percent of the total, far outranking second-place Virginia, with its 113 state-sanctioned killings. It’s hard to say how many innocents in Texas have been executed, but in the past 47 years, 13 individuals have walked free and clear of Polunsky’s front gates due to evidence of wrongful conviction. And a 2014 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences held that about four percent of death-row inmates are erroneously convicted, which means that out of the 215 individuals waiting to die in Texas (there are six women in addition to the 209 men), many of whom say they didn’t do it, it had to be someone else, upward of 10 of them actually should be let go. That, as has often been argued, is a good enough reason to abolish the death penalty once and for all.
Will knows these statistics and, of course, lives with them at all times in A Pod, while his case churns its way through the appeals process, which seems perilously close to coming to an end once and for all.
Inside his bathroom-size cell, breakfast arrives at 3 a.m., lunch at 10:30 a.m., dinner at 4:30 p.m. Will’s small desk is piled high with stacks of books including The Blues: A Visual History, The Poetry of Yoga: Light Pouring From Pens, The Oxford Handbook of Medical Ethnomusicology, Death by Design: Capital Punishment as a Social Psychological System; writings by Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Fyodor Dostoevsky; and a ton of paperwork having to do with his situation. He’s got a small radio that has enabled him to bring Johann Strauss into his cell, Led Zeppelin, a metal cover of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” (“Seriously, it is quite good”), and the news of the day from NPR. Facing him, on the wall: a 30-by-40-inch abstract painting of blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins that he recently finished. “Lightnin’ Hopkins,” Will says, “he just takes you into that zone, man, where it’s reflective and melancholy, but enlightening and enlivening.”
He listens to his music with headphones on to drown out the “nonsensical maniacal gibberish” coming from somewhere out of sight. His nearest neighbors are much more to his liking. The guy in the first cell to the left is constantly zonked on Haldol and -rarely makes any noise, while the man to his right stopped talking to people years ago, allowing Will the space to think about those things that concern him most, “climate change, women’s rights, LGBT rights, all of these things, racism and racial injustice in the criminal-justice system.”
Even so, at night, the sounds of the others continue without end, screams and barks and clangings.
“I’m a pretty generally Zenned-out, centered person, but there’s really no kind of sleeping. You know what, man? I’ve tried. Have you ever heard of yoga nidra? It’s basically a very in-depth yoga technique where you reduce your brain activity to a point where it’s kind of like REM. But, yeah, no, man, it doesn’t help when we’re constantly being woken up. And I’ve spent years and years really trying hard. People think that solitary is quiet. Not at all. It is the loudest place on Earth, man.”
He pauses. “I’ve seen people here go completely all the way insane. Just yesterday, they had to go run a SWAT team on a guy, gas him, and drag him off to another pod.”
His first four or five years on death row were, to him, nonsensical. “I was dealing with a lot of pain, trapped in a nihilistic haze, filled with disbelief, trapped in this little Orwellian world.”
Was he ever suicidal? “Yeah, man, but meditation helps,” he says. “I once did a five-day meditation retreat in my cage, right? I’m fidgeting everywhere, just fidgeting all around. The second day is better, but the fourth day was hard. I’m like, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ I’m fasting and doing all this yoga. I could barely move, my back hurt so much, but in the fifth day, man, I don’t even know how to describe it. I felt an explosion inside my mind where it was like I didn’t exist. I hope this doesn’t sound crazy, but it was basically like a vision where I could see the sky, and the sky reaching out, and I could see the whole Earth, too. And I could feel myself, like my individual energy reaching out to the entire Earth. I cried. I didn’t understand, but I was in tears. An officer came back, this big old redneck: ‘Will, what the hell you doing in there? Whatcha doing with your legs crossed up like that?’ So I came out of it, and only then realized I’d been crying.”
When Will speaks about these things, his Texas drawl is filled with enthusiasm, but he has lots to say and moves on quickly to talk about how “academics” rate Polunsky as a prison (“one of the top-five worst”), about the reasons for titling a recent painting “Kali Love/The Intricacies and Awesome Power of Divine Feminine Energy/Misogynists and Sexists Beware: The Righteous Wrath of the Goddess Is Upon You! (The Me Too Movement)/A New Evolution of Ancient Goddess Feminism Reborn,” about healing through music (“I love music so much”), and about how he has a thing for metalcore singer Maria Brink. “You know Maria? She’s pretty. Oh, man, hook me up. I’m saving myself for her. She’s awesome.”
One day, Will will either be set free or put in a vehicle and driven 50 minutes west to the death chamber in Huntsville, Texas, where a tie-down team will strap him to a gurney, a medic will slip IV needles into his arm, witnesses will watch from another room — including the seemingly unchanged Robert Hurst, friendly as he is — and soon the poison will flow, after which he will be pronounced dead. His last words will find their way onto a TDCJ webpage that currently contains some 500 such final statements, among them, “I am just sorry about what I did to Mr. Peters, that’s all,” “During my time here, I have been treated well by all TDC personnel,” “I just want everyone to know that the prosecutor and Bill Scott are sorry sons of bitches,” “Lord forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing,” “Lord, send me a chariot,” “Warden, you may proceed,” “I’m feeling it,” “I can feel it, taste it, not bad,” and “Warden, murder me.”
On December 4th, 2000, with dawn just about to break on a Houston bayou, Harris County deputy sheriffs Barrett Hill, 38, and Warren Kelly rolled up on a few guys stripping parts from cars; the thieves immediately took off on foot.
Rob Will as a teenage football player. Photo courtesy of the Will Family
Kelly chased Michael “Rock-e” Rosario, 22, in one direction, while Hill hustled after Rob Will, 22, in another, caught up to him and radioed in to say, “I’ve got one in custody.” Shortly thereafter, Kelly lost sight of Rosario and asked the dispatcher for backup. And then he heard shots ring out. A bit later, his partner was found dead on the ground, riddled with bullet holes, and no Will, who fled the scene, commandeered a car, and was arrested without incident 70 miles away, with the murder weapon, a .40-caliber Sig Sauer pistol, on him and blood pouring from a bullet wound on his left hand. He was charged with capital murder and convicted in 2002 inside a courtroom packed with uniformed police officers, with the lead prosecutor telling the jury, “What really we learned from September 11th is that evil exists in the world. The embodiment of evil . . . manifested itself in Robert Gene Will II.”
Will has long maintained that Hill had him in handcuffs at the time of the shooting and that Rosario, the son of a Houston cop, had circled around, come upon them, and shot Hill multiple times, in the head, neck, wrist, and chest, wounding his buddy in the process. And then both took off again.
For reasons that remain unclear, the cops didn’t seem to care much about Rosario, however. He was charged with and convicted of theft. (Rosario could not be reached for comment on this story; according to The New York Times, however, one of his former attorneys has said that Rosario has repeatedly denied that he murdered Deputy Hill.)
Additionally, Will’s hands were tested for gunpowder residue and found to be clean. During one of the trial’s most damning moments, the woman whose car Will hijacked testified that he told her he’d just shot a cop. On the day her car was stolen, however, she didn’t mention that fact in any of the eight conversations she had with officers, even though she knew a cop had just been killed. She didn’t remember it until the prosecutor was prepping her for the trial, 13 months later.
In court, on the day that Will received the death penalty instead of life in prison, Barrett Hill’s widow, Cathy, addressed him directly: “The punishment administered to you is just and fair, according to our law. You did not give my husband the option of life; and, so, we do not give you that option, either.” The next day, she stood beside a memorial for her husband erected at the murder site on the bayou and said, “This is where he met Jesus face to face. His last breath on Earth was his first breath with Jesus.” Hill served in Desert Storm, with the National Guard. At the time of his death, he and Cathy had been married for just 22 days shy of 19 years and had two kids, both girls. She and her family went on to file a $10 million lawsuit against Will, citing pain and suffering and loss of companionship and support, while also attempting to stop Will from having access to his prisoner account, which he uses to buy commissary goods and incidentals. The effort was ultimately not successful. She then began helping the surviving spouses of other murdered police officers, earned a position next to then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry at a 2008 pro-law-enforcement bill signing, and got a job as the office manager of the Harris County deputies’ union. According to a 2016 story in the Houston Chronicle, “She and her two daughters also received hundreds of thousands of dollars in charity.” The piece went on to say, “On Thursday, she was arrested on embezzlement charges, accused of quietly changing her payroll checks over the course of 20 months to overpay herself by $108,000.” She took a plea and got probation. It can be pretty goddamn wretched how everything works out, spilling down through time.
In the 18 years since Will’s conviction, the twists and turns in his case, as raised on appeal, or messed up on appeal, have gotten ever more convoluted and disturbing, such that the whole thing has devolved into what federal Judge Keith Ellison of the Southern District of Texas has called “a procedural imbroglio.”
To name a few: New jailhouse witnesses stepped forward with sworn affidavits stating that Rosario confessed the crime to them. Also, another inmate, in a sworn affidavit, said that Rosario had attempted to put a hit out on Will, presumably to silence him. Despite the new statements, Will’s appeals were denied.
According to Will, his court-appointed attorneys have for the most part been bumblers, if not worse. Most appallingly, the attorney in charge of his first appeal, in 2002, which gave Will his only opportunity to raise new issues and provide new evidence, instead filed a brief that was largely the same as one he’d prepared for a different case a year earlier. It was, of course, denied. And onward, off the rails things went for inmate Will. And then when that lawyer was replaced, Will says, his new one wasn’t much better, mainly because he allowed to stand, without challenge or correction, many of the state’s most questionable assertions.
“There’ve been so many hyper-manipulative, devious, and duplicitous individuals involved with my case, it’s unbelievable,” Will says today. He shakes his head and groans. “I mean, one thing I’ve come to appreciate about Donald Trump and his administration is they are showing the world how people in positions of power can function in treacherous ways with absolute impunity. Just say anything and push the issue and create an entire alternate reality, and people accept that. In my case, regarding the timeline for the shooting, what the state has said is just absolutely absurd and beyond ridiculous. All you got to do is look at the time-stamped timeline and you’ll see.”
The state has always maintained that Deputy Kelly lost sight of Rosario eight seconds before the first shots rang out and that Rosario was about 470 feet away from the pair. There’s no way Rosario could have run that far in eight seconds.
The shooting transcript shows the following: Twenty-three minutes before sunrise, Officer Kelly radios in to say he’s chasing one suspect. Forty-three seconds later, Officer Hill radios to say, “I’ve got one in custody.” Eighteen seconds later, Officer Kelly radios, “I got any units in route to me?” Eighteen seconds after that, he radios in, “I lost him on the bayou.” And eight seconds after that, the first shot can be heard on the radio, then gasping sounds, then more shots. Hence, the state’s eight-second logic.
But, as Will points out, during the trial Kelly testified that he lost sight of Rosario before asking his dispatcher about units en route, which was a full 26 seconds before the first shot and not eight seconds — plenty of time for an athletic guy like Rosario to cover the distance to Hill and Will. But the state’s version of events has remained unquestioned, so frustrating Will that in 2010 he took it upon himself to write Judge Ellison directly, laying out what’s so clear to him in the timeline, and ending with, “Petitioner has been writing nonstop all weekend, passing out and waking back up, and writing, and doing nothing else. Petitioner is about to pass out once again and must have this motion ready to go out, sealed up in an envelope, for mail call in the morning. Petitioner will immediately begin working on part II of this June 18th, 2010, ‘Petitioner’s Motion for Hearing on Merits’ when he awakens again after passing out. Petitioner once again respectfully requests that the court reserve judgment on this motion until it can be presented in its entirety; petitioner will be able to do just that within a day or two.”
And with that noted, the petitioner did indeed pass out, only to wake up in the same place today, nine years later, still behind bars and on death row, with nothing changed, holding up his left hand in the visitors’ room to show two twisted and scarred knuckles.
“And that’s another thing,” he says. “This is an almost 20-year-old wound, right? Now the state said that I supposedly shot the officer from six inches away. Well, if I fired from six inches, blood and bone and the tops of my knuckles are going to be all over everything. But none of my blood was on the deputy’s clothes. At all. So what does that mean? Well, guess what? The state’s theory is completely fictitious. There’s no physical evidence. With all their unlimited funds, all they could come up with was, ‘Boy, he sure acted like somebody who was not a good person, like a killer.’ ” That and a drop of Will’s blood on the officer’s shoes.
And this is but a fraction of it, all of which, in September 2018, led Judge Ellison to reconfirm what he’d written earlier: “Will has repeatedly and persistently argued that [his co-defendant] Rosario killed Deputy Hill. . . . Moreover, the presence in the trial courtroom of so many uniformed policemen would have likely justified post-trial relief had the issue arisen on direct appeal. . . . On top of the considerable evidence supporting Will’s innocence and the important errors in the trial court, there must also be addressed the total absence of eyewitness testimony or strongly probative forensic evidence. With facts such as these, and only circumstantial evidence supporting Will’s conviction and death sentence, the Court laments the strict limitations placed upon it. . . . The questions raised during post-judgment factual development about Will’s actual innocence create disturbing uncertainties that, under federal habeas jurisprudence, the Court is powerless to address.
The reason for this powerlessness is a 1996 law called the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which puts severe restrictions on what federal judges can consider, no matter the number of disturbing uncertainties, which is why Ellison had to bounce the matter back to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which in 2014 the American Bar Association Journal called “one of the most controversial, rancorous, dysfunctional, staunchly conservative, and important appellate courts in the country.”
According to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, “We will now see whether the 5th Circuit has any commitment to fair process or whether it is simply a rubber stamp on the way station to the gurney.” Should the circuit rule against him, however, Will’s next and final move would be to try get his case heard before the U.S. Supreme Court. And he might have a chance there. “His case is one where the procedural irregularities are so extreme,” says Dunham, “that if the Supreme Court allows it to stand, it is basically saying that states are free to make death-penalty reviews a charade. That doesn’t mean they won’t allow that to happen. But that is what’s at stake with this case.”
Not that it changes anything, but Will had a pretty shit childhood, growing up in a pretty shit part of Houston. His father was a jailbird heroin addict who was murdered when Will was 10. His mother, a meat wrapper for a Kroger supermarket, testified in court that he was sexually abused by an uncle from the age of four to around 12. “There was a lot of abuse,” Will says grimly. “It was bad, very bad, as bad as you can imagine.” He waves off any further discussion of the matter. (Will’s mother could not be reached for comment.)
He dropped out of school in the ninth grade, but not before being suspended once, he says, for “being mean to Jesus. At least my conservative Republican teacher thought so, because I always thought of deities as being feminine. I mentioned this in class, got in an argument with the teacher, and he kicked me out. I was mainly a quiet, reserved kid who liked to read. I thought I was a weirdo.”
Around the age of 14, he met Rosario and started doing “stupid things.” When he was 17, he got busted for joyriding in a stolen car, for which he received community supervision; a year later, he was arrested on an aggravated robbery charge, meaning a weapon was likely involved, in this case a shotgun, and he was sent away to boot camp. At the time of his arrest for the Hill murder, he had a five-month-old son to take care of and was apparently trying to turn his life around, having already earned his GED and enrolled at Houston Community College, studying child psychology and moving forward with a 3.43 GPA. “I wanted to help children not go through what I went through, even though, of course, I was still doing stupid things. I thought I was cool. I was hanging around with guys that were cooler than me. They had pretty girlfriends. Tough guys. And I thought that made me tough, too, which is ridiculous.”
Why he went out that night with Rosario, Will still can’t understand. “Well, it’s because I’m an idiot,” he says. “When he came over there, he used to always do this shit with me, ‘Oh, come on, man, I’ll get you all some money.’ He kept badgering me. I was like, ‘I could use some money for my son. Yeah, OK,’ which is stupid, horrible, stupid idiocy. Stupid pure stupidity.” And it’s the same for why he had the Sig Sauer murder weapon on him when he was arrested. “Again, it was stupid. But I wasn’t thinking properly. I mean, I didn’t hang around people who were carrying guns or shooting people. That’s something I wouldn’t have been all right with.”
Then again, during the trial, the prosecutor introduced a photograph in which Will appears to be wearing a bulletproof vest and holding a revolver. And when cops showed up at his girlfriend’s home, they found, among other things, a vast quantity of car-stereo parts, a couple of walkie-talkies, a pair of playtime kids’ handcuffs, a security-officer badge, a few pawn-shop tickets, bolt cutters, binoculars, an Armor of America bulletproof vest, and two Mossberg 12-gauge shotguns. Neither of the shotguns had Will’s fingerprints on them, but at trial, one of Will’s friends testified to often seeing loaded guns in his house and that Will often carried a handgun with him. Which is really neither here nor there when it comes to his actual guilt, but the apparent contradictions might say something about Will’s credibility, or at least about how a wronged man, if truly wronged, might feel justified in trying to dust away his past, especially if it might help lead to freedom.
Certainly, in recent years, Will has been a fairly easygoing, get-along prisoner. Mostly, he reads and studies and paints and writes long, long letters and blog posts for his Free Rob Will website. He’s earned a yoga-instructor certification and a paralegal degree. “Unless you’re involved with gang stuff or drug stuff, you don’t really have too much to worry about in here, and I don’t care nothing about those things,” he says. “When the hit squad comes onto the pod and shakes us down, they never find anything in my cell. I have no use for shanks or drug paraphernalia. No interest. The only thing that bothers me is, sometimes they’ll mess with my art stuff.”
He was much more troublesome for authorities in the early 2000s, when he and fellow death-row inmates Kenneth Foster, Gabriel Gonzales, and Reginald Blanton founded a group called DRIVE, Death Row Innercommunalist Vanguard Engagement, to protest the conditions under which they had to live: tiny cells, crappy food, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, as well as the upcoming executions of a couple of their friends. “We were literally having days-long discussions and engaging in dialectics on how we could apply lessons learned from everything from the Foco theory that grew out of the Cuban Revolution to Gandhi’s satyagraha movement, to just about every other social-justice movement or theory one can imagine,” he once said.
In 2005, in what he calls a peaceful protest based on the teachings of Gandhi, he swiped the handcuffs while they were being taken off him in his cell, jammed the door shut, barricaded himself behind his mattress, and waited for the extraction team to come with its tear gas, which it did, dutifully recording the removal on video, which later found its way onto YouTube, while he voiced his complaints and coughed, choked, and wheezed, naked, and doubled over. In the time since, prison conditions have improved somewhat, so he’s backed off his activism, even though, he says today, “Disciplinary write-ups, if they’re done for righteous matters, they’re like little rewards. You know what I mean?”
As well, he no longer has any like-minded souls to gather with and have dialectical discussions. Foster and Gonzales had their sentences commuted to life, and Blanton was executed. His last words: “They are fixing to pump my veins with a lethal drug. . . . They want to kill me for this; I am not the man that did this. Fight on. I will see y’all again.”
And then, in 2008, a friend and convicted cop killer committed suicide, prompting Will to write on his blog, “Jesus Flores killed himself yesterday. He slit his own throat and died in his cell. He died alone in a small, cold cell of steel and concrete on Texas Death Row. I’ve been fighting back tears all yesterday and today, but as I’m writing this I have tears in my eyes. I knew Jesus since the day he got locked up in Harris County jail, about seven years ago.”
With all of them gone, Will says, “I haven’t had a normal conversation with anybody in about two months.” He smiles. “My interests are, I guess, different than most people’s.”
One thing he’s liked to do is teach yoga and reading skills, which a few years ago got him into trouble with a fellow inmate. In an aside in one of his memos to Judge Ellison, he wrote, “This guy is mad at me because he feels I’m not keeping it real — which translates to ‘being an imbecile and engaging in criminal-minded behavior’ — and because all his ‘homeboys’ want to do now is ‘read those bullshit books.’ The greatest slur he directed at me was, ‘You ain’t even ever killed no one! You’re here for someone else’s murder!’ ”
Looking at Will today, the way he presents himself, it’s hard to see the killer in him. To Deputy Hill’s widow, Cathy, of course, this is irrelevant. “He knows he did it,” she says. “I reminded him during my victim-impact statement that every time he looks at those scars on his hand he will remember what he did to our family. He knows. And when the 5th Circuit Court rules, no more trials, then we will start pursuing an execution date. He’s been on death row for 18 years. His time is coming near. Right now, he’s pleading for his life, doing whatever he can.”
Even as an outsider, submerge yourself in a few hundred pages of court documents, and it’s indeed easy to see how different he once was, the Texas petty criminal out for a night of stripping cars, before he steeped himself in art and literature and meditation practices and yoga. But read enough about his case, leaning first this way, then that, both with similar amounts of rage, outrage, and perplexity, and you finally arrive at one possible conclusion, that he honestly does deserve a new trial. And with Dr. Phil’s upcoming ministrations, perhaps it’ll happen.
Meanwhile, in a few moments, he’ll return to his cell and start filing paperwork about that missing 15-page letter. “Trust me,” he says, “they stole it. Or it’s just sitting on a security desk somewhere.” Pinocheted, as he likes to say, just like he’s been, according to him and his supporters, for the past 18 years, at least for right now.
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