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Condemned Inmate: Prison Officials Won’t Let Guards Speak Out

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Update: Willie Pondexter was executed as scheduled on March 3.

Willie Pondexter has spent nearly 15 years on death row. Now some of the people charged with guarding him would like to help save his life, if they can get the chance.

Pondexter is scheduled for execution on Tuesday, two days before his 35th birthday. His attorneys have filed a last-minute civil rights lawsuit on his behalf, arguing that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Polk County Sheriff’s Office (death row is in Polk County) have intimidated prison guards to keep them from speaking publicly on Pondexter’s behalf. The intimidation allegedly includes a bizarre incident in January in which the Polk County Sheriff’s Department detained two legal interns working on Pondexter’s behalf for several hours after they had tried to interview a prison guard.

Pondexter’s attorneys are seeking a stay of execution for 120 days. They want more time to collect testimonials from prison guards at death row in Livingston about Pondexter’s reformation in hopes to winning clemency and commuting his sentence to life in prison. A federal district judge turned down the lawsuit, and earlier today, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the case without comment. His legal team will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The Polk County sheriff’s department and TDCJ officials ensure that corrections officers are not going to cooperate with lawyers of death row inmates,” said David Dow of the Houston-based Texas Defender Service, which represents Pondexter and filed the civil rights suit on his behalf. “They’ve created an environment of intimidation.”

Pondexter was sentenced to death for taking part in the 1993 killing of 85-year-old Martha Lennox in the northeast Texas town of Clarksville. Pondexter, then 19, and James Lee Henderson broke into Lennox’s home, shot her in the head and made off with $18, according to state records.

Pondexter’s guilt is not in doubt. In their case for clemency, his attorneys have contended that Pondexter has changed in his years in prison from a violent young gang member into a peaceful, responsible adult. Many condemned prisoners have made this argument. What makes Pondexter different is that prison guards on death row are vouching for him.

Pondexter has endured almost half his life on death row. The correctional officers in the Polunsky Unit are the people who perhaps know him best. At least half a dozen of them told Pondexter they didn’t want to see him executed and that they would speak up on his behalf.

Last fall, after Pondexter’s execution date had been set, Dow and his legal team set out to talk with correctional officers who knew Pondexter. Hardly any were willing to talk for fear of retaliation. “Those prison guards that we have reason to believe would give affidavits that Pondexter is not dangerous, that he’s fully rehabilitated, that there’s no reason to execute him–they have been prevented from talking to us and we have been prevented from interviewing them,” Dow says.

Lloyd Coker, the only corrections officer who did speak with the legal team, told Kate Black, an attorney with the Texas Defender Service, that “Willie Pondexter has never posed any threat within the prison, even when given the opportunity,” according to an affidavit Black filed with the federal lawsuit. “I have seen some guys on death row who are extremely dangerous, and some of them I believe ought to be executed. Willie Pondexter isn’t one of those people…..he could safely live out his days in a structured environment. In fact, if Willie Pondexter were out here in the free world, I would be willing to give him a job working on my property.”

Although Coker spoke with Pondexter’s attorneys, he told them he was too scared to sign any documents advocating for clemency for fear he would incur retaliation. “If people are not talking, it is probably because they are scared to lose their jobs or scared of being written up,” Coker told Black, according to her affidavit. “And I likely wouldn’t talk to you about another inmate either. But Willie Pondexter is one of the few inmates I’d be willing to speak up for. … I would really hate to see him go.”

Michelle Lyons, a TDCJ spokesperson, told the Observer that the department has no policy forbidding correctional officers from speaking with attorneys or filing affidavits. “I can’t imagine what the disciplinary action would be,” she said. TDCJ does forbid guards from forming personal relationships or friendships with inmates because it can compromise security. “That being said, an affidavit saying an inmate hasn’t had disciplinary problems would be allowed,” Lyons said.

Dow believes that TDCJ doesn’t want its guards urging clemency for death row inmates. “It’s pretty clear that there is an unwritten policy,” he said. “We have people who have told us as much that guards are discouraged, if not forbidden from cooperating with lawyers like us, that other guards who have cooperated have been retaliated against.”

Ron McAndrew-a prison consultant and former longtime warden and correctional officer in Florida who has filed a letter with the Board of Pardons and Parole supporting Pondexter’s clemency-said the code of silence among prison guards is well known. “They’re very, very afraid to speak,” said McAndrew, who in 1998 spent time studying the Texas system while overseeing Florida’s switch to lethal injection from the electric chair. “It’s not about being written up, it’s retaliation in general.” He said guards would risk being passed over for promotions, losing their jobs or incurring stiffer punishment for minor infractions.

On Jan. 17, two Harvard Law School students, who were interning with Texas Defender Service, were detained in East Texas by the Polk County deputies for several hours. The reason for their detention wasn’t clear, but the law students had been trying to interview prison guards about Pondexter. Dow suspects one of the guards called the Polunsky Unit, which called the sheriff’s department. When the students were pulled over, Deputy Terry White radioed in that he had found “the suspects,” said one of the students, Ariel Rothstein, when reached by phone in Boston.

No charges were filed, though the students were issued a warning for “criminal trespass.” When they were finally released, deputies told the students they would likely be arrested if they tried to visit prison guards, and to contact the sheriff’s office the next time they returned to Polk County. “It became pretty clear after they threatened us twice not to go back to the property that it was definitely a warning,” Rothstein said. “It was a very strong warning never to go back or else.”

“I’ve never heard of anything remotely like this,” said Dow, who’s worked on numerous death penalty cases in Polk County. “We’ve never trained anyone on how to deal with being detained by law enforcement officers for legal conduct.”

Chief Deputy Byron Lyons with the Polk County Sheriff’s Department said the department couldn’t comment on the incident because of the pending lawsuit.

Meanwhile, Dow hopes the Supreme Court will grant Pondexter a stay. Without testimony from the guards, he says, Pondexter can’t make a strong case for clemency, which violates his due process rights.

“[TDCJ] understand[s] that it puts pressure on the Board of Pardons and Paroles as well as the governor’s office when you have guards who are saying that somebody who’s been on death row for 15 years is not dangerous. If the reason that we as a state decided to execute this guy is because he’s dangerous, then we’ve made a mistake. I don’t think TDCJ wants their guards participating in that conversation.”

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.