Many of you are coming to know Thomas Bartlett Whitaker through his riveting series “No Mercy For Dogs,” which he began writing for Bay Area Butchers in March of this year (read parts I-IV here, here, here, and here). If you’ve been reading the serial then you know the story is about his life on the run in Mexico after committing the crime for which he now resides on death row.
After his sentencing, at the urging of his father, Thomas started the blog Minutes Before Six to explore and attempt to understand the reasons for his actions. With the help of friends and family, Thomas discovered that he had a talent for writing and established an audience. He started to use the forum to share the reality of living out a death sentence.
Here is an early passage from Minutes Before Six on his loss of freedom and adjustment to Death Row:
“It was my day to go to rec last, so I asked who I would be going out with. The guard told me there was an odd number of recs left, so I would be going out alone. I’ve been feeling a little crazy and alone lately, so I wasn’t sure I wanted to go out by myself, but in the end I decided the cold air would do me some good. At around 8 PM I bundled up, and pretty soon they came to handcuff me and take me downstairs. I don’t really remember what I was thinking about when I first got out there. Something typically fragmentary, no doubt. I was walking around the perimeter of the yard, my mind off wandering about wherever it is my mind goes most of the time, when the overhead light burnt out. Suddenly, the sickly sodium vapor yellow was gone, and there was nothing but night sky above me. I couldn’t even see the metal grates or mesh, only the sky. I had not seen a star in almost three years, until that moment. I just stood there, staring upward, my mouth hanging stupidly open. You are never alone in the dark in prison. There is always an overhead light, or a searchlight, or something, always in your face. I wish I could put into words how it felt to stand there, with the cold breeze on my face, and the stars twinkling their light down from the cosmos. I wondered about which stars they were. Did they still burn, or had they imploded and collapsed a million years ago? For some reason, the inexplicable desire to get closer to them overcame me, and I started climbing the bars, my bad arm and all, until I had my face pressed against the grate above me. I tell you this in retrospect, because I do not remember getting myself up there. I don’t know how my cheeks got wet. After a few centuries, or a few minutes, I know not which, the picket officer finally noticed that the light was out. She popped the gates, and came outside, and did a double take when she saw me two stories up. I reluctantly came down, and shuffled over to the bars separating us. “Whitaker, what the hell were you doing up there?” She looked concerned, because in a year on Death Row, I’ve never caught a case for anything… I didn’t really know what to say. I think something awkward tumbled out about the stars, but it didn’t make much sense, so I just shrugged. She must have noticed the look on my face, though, because she herself looked up, and then back down at me, and if I didn’t know better, I would have sworn there was a moment of understanding…”
While his crime is indefensible, and he has more than his share of critics, Thomas’ growth and evolution as a person are evident in his writing. I think, after reading his blog, one is hard-pressed to say that he is disposable as a person, and of no value to society.
Whether or not you agree with Thomas and what he is doing, he makes an impression and it is hard to turn a blind eye to what he attempts to expose. In a recent blog post, he describes the process that Texas uses to ready inmates for execution:
“Perhaps you deny the equivalence of the death penalty with murder. Fair enough. I humbly suggest to you that the legality of a thing in no way directly addresses its morality…. Slavery and Jim Crow were legal, and you aren’t defending them, are you? I suspect that the reasons some feel this way about the death penalty are manufactured by the medicalized nature of the lethal injection protocol. There are no spouting streams of blood, no rolling heads locked in half-grimace, no broken bodies on the rack, no twitching limbs strung up from a tree. What we have is a sterilized and thoroughly antiseptic procedure, carefully kept from the public view. The executioner’s identity is a diligently guarded secret… Do you know how the process actually works? When it becomes time for the condemned to meet his end, he is first forced into a diaper. A special team of officers (known as the “execution team” or “kill team” in Texas) straps him to the gurney, often times enlisting the inmate in the procedure by telling him they all need to get “through this thing together”. Each man on the team has one specific task, so that he is insulated from feeling totally responsible for the action about to take place. (This fact is highlighted at several different points in the policy manual.) Officers are given pep-talks prior to the arrival of the condemned, to initiate a process known in the literature as “numbing”… These speeches treat the inmate as something inhuman, and thus also initialize a process known as “doubling” wherein the officers compartmentalize a portion of themselves away from who they really are in order to focus entirely on their “duty”. Experts call this “the killing of self”, a term borrowed from the military… These methods combine a technological distancing (the medical nature of lethal injection), a high level of anonymity and the defusing of responsibility, and moral-distancing to make the entire thing come off like clockwork. Despite all of the research and effort put into this, the turnover rate for the “kill team” is extraordinarily high. One ex-member came to work here on the Row years ago. I’ve mentioned Officer Woods before, when he committed suicide in the parking lot of the unit, right in the middle of his night shift. On his t-shirt he had scribbled the words “do not resuscitate”. I suspect that Officer Woods came to believe that what goes on at the Walls Unit is, in fact, quite synonymous with murder.”
In April 2012 Thomas and some co-defendants filed a lawsuit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in an effort to affect changes to the deplorable conditions of Death Row. In this excerpt from his blog, Thomas offers a glimpse into his life and describes his motivation for filing the suit:
“I wish that each one of you could live in my cell for one day. I would sleep on the floor; you could have the mattress and I would cook for you some Polunsky tacos. You would be exposed to realities that you presently have no conception of; cannot have conception of. You would understand that “hostile indifference” is not an oxymoron… For someone that mostly takes solace in mercilessly punishing himself, I am not writing for my sake. I can take this place; absorb the worst of it as my due. If you were in my cell, you would understand that it is about many people too weak to defend themselves. Watch as an officer taunts a mentally ill man with his breakfast tray, holding it just out of his reach, only to slam his bean-hole chute closed without feeding him. Tell me you wouldn’t feel a slow burn start in your stomach. See officials illegally take away wheelchairs from handicapped inmates because a wheel-chair bound inmate on another unit managed to have an officer smuggle him in a pistol which he used to escape, and your heart will shatter into a thousand pieces every time you see one of them struggling to reach the dayroom with his walker. See him fall on the floor, and weep because he cannot rise under his own power, and no officer wants to help him… At some point in your 24 hours with me, you will inevitably shift from the position of an observer to that of an eyewitness. In short, you will become involved.”
For a glimpse of life at the Polunsky Unit (Death Row) in Texas, where Thomas is serving his sentence, you can read one of Thomas’ most popular posts.