(Courtesy of HBO)

An Open Letter to Richard Linklater on Our Texas Death Penalty

Capital punishment ensnares us all in a labyrinth of our own making, as your new film poignantly reveals.


Dear Richard,

Your movie “God Save Texas: Hometown Prison,” which debuted recently on HBO, was joyfully upsetting for me. Kudos to you for loving Huntsville, the complex setting of your formative high school years. Kudos for not moving on, for coming back time and again to the life and culture there in your many films. Kudos for loving the people there but not looking away, bringing your unflinching lens to the things they find hard to see. Spoiler alert: This is a movie review about the human subjects of your film.

Working as a postconviction capital defense attorney for almost three decades, I drove through Huntsville many times a year en route to visit clients on death rows at the nearby Ellis and Polunsky units. Ultimately, upon entering the town on U.S. 190, I would veer off to the north on parallel streets to avoid passing and having to look at your hometown prison, the Walls Unit, where some of my clients had been killed. Unlike the many Huntsville residents who drive daily by the Walls, paying it no attention, I chose to avoid it as an aspect of my self-care.

Others who have taken into their minds and hearts what goes on in the Walls have reacted differently. In your film, when Fred Allen, the former execution tie-down team guard, says he’s opposed to the death penalty, you flash a black-and-white photo of a silver-haired man whose name is David Atwood. Dave, a Catholic peace activist who recently died, is the only person I know who has committed an act of nonviolent civil disobedience at the Walls. Dave frequently traveled from Houston to protest at the Walls on execution days. In November 2004, when a man named Anthony Fuentes was being killed, Dave found himself standing next to Anthony’s grandmother who was shaking from cold and fear. Her husband was inside witnessing their grandson’s death, and, when she said she’d like to get closer to the building, Dave and his wife Peggy accompanied her to the yellow crime scene tape that the guards spread in front of the unit on execution days. Dave suddenly felt he needed to do more. He gave his wallet, keys, and phone to his wife, and he crossed under the tape. After he was arrested, when he was offered no community service or probation for his trespass offense, Dave chose to serve five days in the Walker County Jail rather than pay a fine.

“The death penalty takes one tragedy, a murder, and expands the pain and suffering to include so many others.”

You also captured my friend Dennis Longmire, the bearded Sam Houston State University professor standing as a witness outside the Walls where he has stood on 90 percent of execution days since Texas reinstated capital punishment in 1973. Dennis is compassionate and intelligent, a prolific author of studies on the death penalty and violence.  “Moral disengagement” is one of the subjects he’s explored, “the cognitive restructuring of harmful actions or behavior as good or moral through mechanisms of moral justification, drawing palliative or advantageous comparisons to harmful acts of others, and the euphemistic labeling or use of euphemistic language in regard to harmful conduct.” Although “execution” and “murder” are both the premeditated killing of a human being, we take great care to make execution look nothing like murder. We ritualize and medicalize the procedure. We embrace it as somehow less violent than the crime being punished. 

Near the end of the film, you interview Dennis. He shares how, every time he stands at the Walls, he keeps “the victims as well as the offenders” in his prayers, and he imagines the conversations between the parents and children in the cars driving by. “The ultimate measure of the justice of what we do,” he suggests, “is, ‘Can we rightly explain it to our children?’” 

Then there’s Gloria Rubac, who is just as determined as my other friends to be at the Walls for every possible execution. She always carries her bullhorn, through which she tries to awaken consciences in passersby, loudly accusing the State of Texas of murder. More than once I have lectured Gloria about how if she calls the governor a “murderer” he won’t be able to hear her. Offending him, I tell her, won’t awaken his conscience. And it’s the law itself that is the murderer, not the governor. The law’s designed to kill; it’s the labyrinth that we have tragically built to trap ourselves. All of us. We are all in this thing that we built with no exit and even Governor Ann, a saint among Texas liberals, was as caught up in it as the boys. In the face of all my protests, Gloria is quite unrepentant, just as she appears in your film. She is all about exposing “moral disengagement” without excuses. I’m for that too.

Richard, your mother dated Bill Habern? I knew Bill, an attorney legendary for his expertise on parole issues. With most of my clients in no danger of being paroled, I had spotty interaction with Bill. On one occasion, however, with his help, I and one of his firm’s lawyers collaborated to help a prisoner’s mother have a last visit before her son was executed. The mother had been accused of trying to introduce contraband into the Polunsky death row unit and, as a consequence, she had been banned from the prison under Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) rules. Last visits between family members and the condemned are held in the Polunsky visiting area before the prisoner is transported to the Walls. Shortly prior to the execution date, the prison was refusing to let the mother see her son. While Bill’s colleague was negotiating his way through the TDCJ bureaucracy, I drafted a civil rights lawsuit to file if diplomacy failed. It was like the suit Bill describes in your movie: I had next to no idea what I was doing, but it needed doing. As I typed at my computer, the mother lay slumped over a desk on the other side of my Austin office in a catatonic state, surrounded by family rubbing and soothing and cooing, trying to elicit a response from her. Ultimately, TDCJ relented and allowed the mom a noncontact visit surrounded by guards before her son was whisked away.

It is more than interesting to me that you share the story of Bill rescuing Darrell Shaw, who was expelled from Huntsville High School for declining to be paddled by the principal.  

Over the last half-century, American society has moved away from corporal punishment in tandem with its move away from the death penalty. Now, none of the states that have abolished the death penalty allow corporal punishment in the public schools. States that continue to have the death penalty but have abolished corporal punishment are responsible for only 7 percent of all modern executions. I suggest this is no coincidence. Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court largely has limited its investigation into “evolving standards of decency” to questions about the acceptable severity of court-ordered criminal punishments under the Eighth Amendment. However, if the court were to take a broad view of the “evolving standards” as reflected in our changing laws, it would be easy for the court to see that the restrictions on and ultimate abolition of the death penalty fall right in with the strong social and legal currents in our society moving us away from male dominance and justified violence within the family and in society.  

Evolving standards of decency are tantamount to the decline of patriarchy. The author bell hooks defined patriarchy as “a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.” This definition essentially describes the law as it stood two centuries ago. Adult white men had a monopoly on rights, wealth, power, everything. But, unquestionably, American and Texas law have evolved, and we have evolved with it. Husbands and fathers may no longer legally treat their wives and children as property nor terrorize them with impunity. Women are no longer prohibited from voting and the male-dominated political, academic, artistic, sports, and business spheres have been flooded with women demanding to be treated equally. 

My mother was born before women could vote. In 1963, she gained the federal right to equal pay. In 1974, she gained the federal right to open her own bank account without a male co-signer. In 1994, Texas finally removed the “marital rape exception” from the law, dissolving a legal shield that had allowed husbands to assault their wives with impunity. Government child protective services began in the 1960s responding to a rise in awareness of the detrimental mental health and social effects of child abuse in the home. By 2005, in this world of rising rights for women and children, the U.S. Supreme Court decided it made no sense to maintain the death penalty for crimes committed by children.

You’ll notice that many prosecutors and politicians who still promote the death penalty as somehow “necessary” are attached to the old patriarchal world. They are likely to support “traditional family values,” with the husband in charge, and to embrace corporal punishment. They believe that respect for authority in society is built upon violence. When your friend Ed, a warden troubled over participating in executions, sought guidance from his pastor, he was told not to worry about God’s chastisement because the law allows capital punishment. Doubtless, the same pastor would refuse to conduct a gay marriage, although the law allows it. He’d say that’s an ungodly law, so he mustn’t follow it. What I think he was really telling Ed is that God requires a measure of necessary violence, that Ed needed to subordinate the feeling he had “when one minute the guy was fine and the next he was deceased” to the righteousness of necessary violence. Long ago, when we built the trap for ourselves that is the death penalty, we buttressed it in Texas with patriarchal religion that promotes domination—children obey your fathers, wives obey your husbands, slaves obey your masters—and the measure of violence perceived as needed to maintain that order. The trap barred compassion.

Richard Linklater with Ed Owens and Trey Owens (Courtesy of HBO)

Yet, when Fred Allen, your high school football teammate who later served as a captain on an execution tie-down team, met Karla Faye Tucker, she opened the door of compassion to him. There in the holding cell next to the death chamber, while Karla was waiting to be killed by Fred, she asked Fred, “Are you doing okay?” Karla knew that Fred felt troubled and she spoke straight to him and held him tenderly with her words in a time of distress for him. He wasn’t aware of the distress. In other movies, Fred has dramatically described what happened to him when he became aware a couple of days later. Sitting in his shop at home, he heard a news account of Karla’s execution and he began shaking uncontrollably, sweating, and shedding tears.  He saw Karla in front of him and, then, he began to visualize the scores of men he’d led to execution sitting in their holding cells, one right after another. Karla opened the trap in Fred’s mind that had enabled his moral disengagement.

Karla was my client. When Fred was executing her, my co-counsel (George McCall Secrest, lead counsel, and David Botsford, Mac’s co-counsel and my boss) were at the Walls Unit and I, exhausted after a final string of litigation, was alone in our Austin office fielding calls from concerned people as far away as Australia asking about her. Karla was the real thing. The scores of people who visited her at the Mountain View Unit to get spiritual advice recognized that. I’m not aware if she studied Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi. But she daily practiced the active nonviolence of Jesus that King and Gandhi articulated. It resulted in the transformed lives of others, like Fred and like me. Some evangelical Christians, of the sort that hawk a gospel of afterlife and normalize systems of oppression, laid hold of Karla as an exemplar. I felt as though they turned her into a tool to advance their proselytizing. I want to correct the record on that. Karla was way more. She held a key to the labyrinth. She was walking with Jesus and when she touched Fred, the captives were released.

Richard, we’ve had common contact with so many people. We also share, I think, a love of place, a sense of duty to our place and people. In discussion with the writer Lawrence Wright, whose book inspired your movie, you talk about Huntsville “radicals” who have the option to move but choose to stay. Wright describes them as cherishing the place they come from in order to help it become something better. I don’t know if you consider yourself one of those radicals, but in my opinion you are. You keep coming back to the place in movie after movie, studying the people, loving the people, being present, looking for understanding, going toward the root. The thing that I intentionally have avoided looking at, in order to manage my own trauma, you portray in almost every other scene: the red-bricked Walls from all sides and the air.  You examine how its architecture of cruelty holds your friends and high school mates. When you come to your conclusion in voice-over as to why you oppose the death penalty, you let them know that you see them in the way Karla let Fred know she saw him. I felt seen too. That is why the film was joyfully upsetting for me. The subject matter is deeply upsetting. But there is no greater joy than to be seen.  

You say, “The death penalty takes one tragedy, a murder, and expands the pain and suffering to include so many others, all the people involved in the legal and criminal appeals process that get dragged slowly to the death chamber, all the obligatory witnesses, and all the people with various jobs in the system.” Then you lay bare the moral disengagement that leads to moral injury: “The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution specifically prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, but what could be more cruel, certainly unusual, than to have to play a part in or witness another person’s murder, however state-sanctioned?” The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs defines moral injury as occurring when “in traumatic or unusually stressful circumstances, people … perpetrate, fail to prevent, or witness events that contradict deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” That is all of us who have any real contact with Texas’ death penalty system. The ones most damaged by the moral injury inflicted by capital punishment are those ensnared in the outworking of the lethal law, whether we are killing or rescuing or bystanding, whether we are aware of the damage or not.

The death penalty is mental torture as defined by the United Nations Convention against Torture. Everyone in contact with the tortured prisoner or the system doing the torturing is subjected to the same threat that constitutes the torture. Richard,  beautifully you put it: We all are “dragged slowly to the death chamber.” We live in a State of anticipatory homicide.