An attorney pieces together a life cut short.
An attorney pieces together a life cut short.
by Burke M. Butler
March 7, 2016
Editor’s note: This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system.
Marvin was the first of my clients to be killed by the state of Texas.
Shortly after I joined Marvin’s legal defense team, my colleague Kate took me to meet him on Texas’ death row. We sat in the visitation booth, separated from Marvin by a pane of glass. He spoke to us through a crackly telephone, elbows on the metal table in front of him. He wore a white uniform.
Kate and I talked with Marvin about football. She loved the Broncos and he loved the Texans. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of sports, and listened to them every day on his prison radio. Beyond sports, I did not know how to speak with him.
He answered my questions with one-word answers. He had no interest in his legal proceedings. He shrugged when Kate talked to him about the execution date, just a few months away.
When he was not yet old enough to buy beer, Marvin committed a multiple homicide. The jury that sentenced Marvin to death knew nothing about him, except that he had caused permanent chaos and wreckage in the lives of innocent people.
Marvin’s jury never heard about his childhood. His trial lawyers assumed he had been raised by good parents. It was only later, during Marvin’s appeals, that attorneys met with his family and unearthed his story. (The names of my client and his family have been changed to protect lawyer-client confidentiality, which does not end at the grave.)
Marvin’s mother, Mary, grew up in a poor black family in rural Texas. Mary’s mother murdered Mary’s father while Mary and her siblings were in the house. Mary watched her mother pull the trigger.
Mary’s brothers and sisters scattered, sent to live with relatives who could take them. Mary moved to a housing project in Houston. When she was a teenager, she gave birth to Marvin. Marvin’s father was never around.
When Marvin was still an infant, Mary married Leland. Leland worked minimum-wage jobs, hauling lumber at construction sites. Sometimes they had too little money to buy food. Marvin wore hand-me-downs from cousins. The family relied on food stamps and welfare. Year after year, they were uprooted by evictions. Leland drank every day. He beat Marvin, whipped him with extension cords and called him stupid. Once when Marvin was playing basketball, Leland took the ball from him, stabbed it, and dropped the deflated lump on the concrete.
When Marvin was young, his mother’s behavior became erratic. Marvin watched Mary chase Leland around the house with a knife. Once, Mary nearly stabbed Leland with a pair of scissors. She spoke to people no one else could see, and tore at her skin in the belief that bugs were crawling on it. Mary attempted suicide for the first time when Marvin was a little boy, and she spent time at a mental hospital.
A few years later, Leland and Mary split up, and Marvin fell apart. He stopped sleeping. He stabbed and deflated a teacher’s car tires. He tore the furniture into bits. He cried compulsively. He slept with a knife under his pillow. Many time, he would bang his head against the wall over and over, even after his mother begged him to stop, ceasing only when she cradled his head in her arms. Mary took Marvin to the hospital, where he was confined for about two weeks and prescribed an antipsychotic. His condition improved with treatment.
That was the last time he’d ever receive mental health care in the free world.
Around the time Marvin returned from his hospitalization, Mary tried again to kill herself. She was hospitalized for a week and had to be fed intravenously. A year later, Mary got back together with Leland and abandoned her son to live on his own.
This is the story Marvin’s lawyers told in his appeals. They argued that Marvin’s trial lawyers failed to create a full picture of Marvin’s life. They insisted that if the jury had known the whole story, it would have had mercy on Marvin.
The courts denied their argument, and Marvin’s execution date was set for a few months later. At that point, I joined Marvin’s legal team in a last-ditch effort to convince the courts to stop his execution. Because Marvin’s best legal claim had already been rejected by the courts, we had few arguments left to keep him alive.
Reading Marvin’s story was like sifting through a pile of broken ceramic. I wanted to piece the splintered bits together, to reconstruct Marvin’s human image from the fragments. But I felt, most of all, a sense of hopelessness. Marvin seemed shattered beyond repair.
I drove with my colleague to meet Marvin’s family. They lived out near one of the Houston airports. Their house had a single pine tree in the yard and a few broken, dirty lawn chairs. The screen door creaked open when we knocked. It was Leland.
He was a tall, broken reed of a man. He had the frame of someone who had once been imposing, but his body seemed sucked clean. His skin was loose on his bones, like a T-shirt flapping on a clothesline. He had blue bags under his eyes.
Leland let us inside. The curtains were drawn against the light; the room was illuminated by the television screen. The house had a damp, metallic smell. On the wall was a photograph of Marvin and his mother visiting in prison. He is wearing his white uniform and she’s posed, leaning against the glass that separates them.
Mary barely looked up from the television. She had a thick Texas accent, and spoke slowly, as if there was cotton in her mouth. Her face was expressionless, almost without contour, like a rock whose features had been erased by a river. Blue embers of television light glowed in her thinning hair.
We sat down on the couch and made small talk. As we spoke, Marvin’s uncle Gerald walked through the front door, wearing shiny Sunday shoes, a gold watch and black pants with crisp creases. He had a girlfriend with him; she wore heels and heavy makeup. They sat next to Leland. Gerald stared at a corner of the ceiling.
We explained the status of the case, the next steps, the upcoming execution date. We asked if there were any questions.
“I have a question about Marvin’s execution,” the girlfriend said.
But before she could ask it, Leland lifted his long hand, palm down, a few inches above the knee. She stopped speaking. “We’re not going to talk about that,” he said.
His hand patted the air a few times before it returned to his knee.
I imagined that hand, hot with rage and wrapped around an extension cord — with a little boy cowering on the ground. Now that hand seemed tired.
Kate and I returned later in the week to interview Mary. She was waiting for us at home while Leland worked at the local Salvation Army, unloading trucks of donated clothes.
“What was he like?” I asked.
“He was a good boy,” she answered. “Just like any other boy. A normal boy.”
I felt Marvin had to be more particular to Mary than just a normal boy. I had always been a particular child to my parents, not an iron-on patch that could just be peeled off and replaced. Because I loved to read, my mother gave me book after book; she once bought me a T-shirt that said “Book Woman.” In a photograph, I am wearing wide round glasses, smiling with thick cheeks, pointing at the Book Woman T-shirt as if to say: Yes, this is me. This is who I am.
“Tell me more about Marvin,” I pleaded.
“Boy, he liked to eat,” she said.
“What did he like to eat?”
“He liked… he liked…” She paused. “What is that word? That word?” She struggled for a moment. “For lunch…”
“Sandwich?” I asked.
“Yes, sandwich. He liked turkey sandwiches.”
She could not remember Marvin.
As we left Mary’s house, I remembered a cold winter day in Pennsylvania when I was a child. My mother drove me an hour to a children’s bookstore a few towns beyond ours. An illustrator was signing copies of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. As we drove home, I held the book, wide as my chest, between my arms. A pearl-colored girl walked out of the ocean because she loved the prince. The earth hurt her bare feet so much that every time she stepped she felt as if she were walking on knives.
Is that what Marvin’s childhood felt like? I wondered.
We drove to the home of Marvin’s aunt, Deanna. She hugged us and said, “I’m so happy you’re here.” We sat on plastic-covered couches. Above the fireplace, she had framed a drawing of praying hands. Deanna’s enormous body overflowed her chair.
“Marvin was a boy who needed love,” she said, wringing her hands. “No one loved him. His mamma didn’t know how to love him. He was always wanting love. He was left out the family, no one cared about him.”
She had a rolling, warm voice that filled the room.
“He’d come over to our house because no one at his house cared about him,” she said. “But he was always a good boy to us.”
Deanna’s daughter Rhonda walked in from the garage. She had her mother’s tall, large body and broad shoulders, and a beautiful round face with long eyelashes.
“We were like twins, even though we were just cousins,” Rhonda said. “He was a teenager and I was four years younger, and we’d just sit on the couch sucking our thumbs. People would say, ‘Stop sucking your thumb like a baby.’”
I could feel Kate adjusting her seat next to me. Marvin sucked his thumb when he was a teenager?Rhonda continued: “He’d come stay with us when things were rough at home. He’d go with us to church because it was important to my mom. He loved getting dressed up for church. He loved my dad. When my dad was alive, they’d stay up late talking in the garage. I wish he was still alive; he could tell you about everything they talked about late at night. And there was this one time Marvin made great peanut butter pancakes for us.”
“Peanut butter pancakes?” I asked. I thought I had misheard. This was the first time I had heard a story about Marvin in which he did not seem irretrievably broken. A story in which he performed a small, ordinary, everyday act of kindness. A story in which he was not just a victim, or a perpetrator.
“Peanut butter pancakes,” she said. “It was the sweetest thing. A plate high of pancakes drizzled with peanut butter. He was trying to make us all fat. I would say to him, ‘Cousin, you’re gonna make us all fat.’”
Rhonda started to cry. “All the aunts and uncles called him The Dark One or Evil One because his skin was dark shade. I wish there was something we could have done to save him. He went down a dark road. He just needed love. He was always different than everyone else. I just wish we had helped him.”
As we left the house, Deanna hugged us. “I just want you to know how much I love you,” she said.
Driving home, I still felt the warmth of her embrace, the pressure of her wide arms surrounding my chest.
That night, I turned over the peanut butter pancakes in my mind. The detail unsettled me, like a fragment of glass that had worked its way under my skin. Microwaving my dinner, putting my clothes in the laundry basket, brushing my teeth, I kept thinking about the peanut butter pancakes. How did he make them? What had they tasted like? Where had he learned to put together pancakes and peanut butter?
As I lay in bed watching the ceiling fan spin hot air around my room, it occurred to me that melting peanut butter in the microwave was something an underfed child would learn to do while living with a suicidal mother who could not grocery shop for him. Opening the kitchen cupboard, reaching past the roaches for the only food left: a half-eaten jar of peanut butter, a box of expired pancake mix.
When I asked Marvin about the pancakes, his face lit up. “Oh yeah, of course,” he said. “I made them for my cousin and my auntie.”
“How do you make them?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “you make the pancakes from a box, melt the peanut butter in the microwave, take it out with a spoon, and drizzle some peanut butter on top. IHOP makes them now.”
“You know, I have all their pictures up in my cell,” he said. “Rhonda and Deanna. But I haven’t seen them in a long time.”
“I’m sure they’re thinking of you,” I said. “You were special to them.”
Marvin told me that he played chess with the other inmates in their cells.
“There’s this one move you can use,” Marvin said. “And you’ll always win.”
“What’s that?” I asked. “Can you teach it to me?”
He tried hard to remember the steps, looking up at the ceiling and tracing it out on the metal table in front of him. I understood just enough about chess to know no such move existed.I asked him to tell me about the different chess pieces, what each could do. A pawn moved
one spot at a time. The piece with the horse moved in a hook. The queen dominated the board. She could go anywhere she wanted. He got confused on the bishop.
“It can only move straight,” he said. He did not know the word “diagonal.”
“Tell me about the books you’re reading,” I said. We had sent Marvin vampire books from Amazon; they were his favorite. Marvin’s description of the plots was muddled and confused. He told me he was reading a book about aliens. “Do you believe in aliens?” I asked.
“Everyone has their own theory of how the world came to be,” he said.
Before I left, I asked Marvin to tell me about the view from his cell window. Death row inmates live in solitary confinement. The only outside light in their cell is the sun that squeezes through the thin strip of window high above their beds, just a few inches thick.
“I look out at that field out there, and the parking lot,” he told me. “They’ve been trying to grow something out on that field for a long time.”
“What are they trying to grow?” I asked.
“I don’t know, but whatever it is, they’re not doing a very good job.”
We laughed. Then I said goodbye.
The week before he was scheduled to die, Marvin told me he didn’t want his family to witness his execution.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Nah, nah,” he said, shaking his head forcefully. “They can’t handle it. My mom can’t handle it.”
I thought, You’re right, your mother can’t handle it. What surprised me was that Marvin knew she couldn’t. What surprised me even more was that Marvin loved her.
“They can come visit me the day before,” Marvin said. He smiled. “My whole family is going to come, everyone. We can say goodbye. It will be really nice. Nice for everyone.”
While sitting in a metal visiting booth, wearing a white prison uniform, looking out at them through a pane of glass, Marvin would receive the most love his family had ever given him.
When I returned to the office, I received a call from Leland. “I wanted to ask you how we get the body,” he said. “If the execution goes through.”
I had no idea what to tell him. A feeling of nausea radiated through me. There will be a body. The state of Texas will inject poison into Marvin’s veins, and he will die. And they didn’t even tell his family how to retrieve his body so they could bury it.
Two days before the execution, my colleague Paul and I sat in my office, putting finishing touches on a brief. Paul had just returned from visiting Marvin to update him on the case. We had filed pleadings in state court and federal district court, and they had all been rejected. We were about to file a plea in the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. If that court rejected our plea, we would file a petition for certiorari review in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court accepted only 2 percent of such petitions.
When Paul left the prison that morning, he told the officer to keep Marvin in the visiting area because his family was on its way up. Leland and Mary did not have a working car, so Leland had arranged for Mary’s brother to drive her the hour and a half to the prison.
I received a call from Leland. “Mary’s missing,” he told me.
“What?” I asked. “What happened?”
“Her brother never showed up,” he said. “Mary got upset and left the house. I don’t know where she is. I’m going to go look for her.”
Paul was getting ready to drive over to Leland and Mary’s place when Leland called back. “I found her,” Leland said. “She was wandering around the streets.”
“Paul can drive her,” I said. “He’s coming over now.”
“No,” Leland insisted. “She’s too upset. Her nerves are too upset to go.”
Marvin had been waiting for four hours, in the cage, for his mother. Paul called the prison and told them to take Marvin back to his cell, that his family wasn’t coming.
After he hung up, Paul gave me a tired look from across the room. “This is the story the courts never hear,” he said. “Their son is about to die, and the family can’t even get its act together to say goodbye to him.”
Desperate for someone to take Marvin’s family to say goodbye, I called a local death penalty activist. We agreed that she would drive Mary and Deanna on Monday, the day before Marvin’s execution. Mary didn’t want to visit Marvin on the day of his execution; she was worried she would fall apart. On Monday, Mary would ask a prison guard to take a final photograph of her and Marvin. Then Mary would say goodbye to her son.
Deanna called me Monday night. She was sobbing. “They didn’t let Mary take a picture with him,” she said. “They didn’t let her, they said she couldn’t take a photograph until tomorrow. And she wants one last photograph with Marvin. I have to go with her, I have to. I can’t, I just can’t stand to go back there. But I have to, for Mary.”
I offered to drive Deanna the next day.
After I hung up the phone, I walked to the cupboard and pulled out two dusty pillows, cleaned them off, and stacked them in the backseat of my car. Maybe they’ll want to take a nap, I thought. I didn’t know what else to do.
When I was 13, my mother woke me up while I was asleep at my grandma’s house and told me that my father had died. Then she took me out to the car to drive me three hours back home. I opened the car door, to find two pillows on the seat. My mother patted them. “In case you want to take a nap,” she said.
I wondered if she had gone insane. How can I sleep now? I thought. How can I ever sleep again?
The night before Marvin’s execution, I wondered if the legal briefs we had filed were useless. They were just paper stuffed into the enormous gears of the death machine. The machine kept whirring, shredding the papers into bits. I feared the papers just fed the story that Marvin had had a fair fight. The prosecutor, the judge, the governor could pat the machine, say: This here is a fair machine. After all, he had a lawyer. He had a chance to stop it.
If I didn’t stop the machine, was I part of it? Was I just another spinning gear?
As I waited on the bench outside the prison, Marvin’s uncle Frank arrived. I had never met him; he lived out in the country, not far from the prison. He waited outside with me, smoking, until it was his time to visit Marvin.
We both noticed a piece of trash on the pavement. Officers nearly trampled it with their boots.
“It’s a bird,” Frank said.
He was right. The piece of trash was a creature. It had died, cracked out of the egg too soon. It had a long, limp neck, a small head hardly the size of my thumbnail, and a thin yellow beak. We looked up at the rafters of the metal awning high above us; the sticks of a nest poked out above a beam.
Frank found a stray wrapper on the cement, scooped the little thing into it, and dropped it into the trash. “Sometimes they die young, and the others push them from the nest,” he said.
If I tell this story, I thought, no one will believe me.
Mary and Deanna visited Marvin until noon, when Marvin had to be driven to the execution chamber.
When she emerged from the prison, Mary showed me the photograph of her and Marvin. She seemed happy with it. On the drive home, Deanna showed me a big white T-shirt she had made for Mary, with Marvin’s picture printed on it in black and white. No one used the pillows.
After I returned to my office, I waited with my two colleagues at the conference table, the phone between us, as the sun set. At dinner time, we received the call we had been waiting for, from the Supreme Court clerk’s office. The justices had denied Marvin’s last plea for life.
I called the prison and spoke to the warden’s secretary. “I need to speak with my client,” I said. “He’s scheduled to be executed tonight.”
“I can’t put you through directly,” she said. “I’ll have to have the warden call you back. What’s your phone number?”
My tongue was heavy; I couldn’t remember our area code. Kate grabbed the phone from me and told them our number.
When I reached Marvin, he was about to enter the executioner’s room. I was the last person he would speak to, besides the warden, who would be at the side of the bed when Marvin was strapped down.
I told Marvin the news. “It’s all right,” he said. “Thank you for everything y’all did for me.”
He told us which football players we should choose for next year’s fantasy league. He was trying to be kind, as if reaching toward the ghost of a person he had never had a chance to be.
I went home, peeled off my clothes, and sat in the bathtub, my arms wrapped around my knees. I ran hot water over me, pretending it could wash the blood off. I asked myself, again and again: How can I live with what I did not stop?
The next day, while I was driving, Leland called. I felt as if a knife had sliced me. I can’t pick it up, I thought. I can’t. He’s going to ask me a question I can’t answer. He’s going to tell me Mary is gone. He’s going to tell me the prison didn’t hand over the body.
When I parked the car, I listened to the message. “I am just calling to say thank you,” Leland said.
Deanna invited me to a barbecue after the funeral. I arrived with flowers from the grocery store. It was a sunny afternoon. Leland and Mary’s house was overflowing with family. Outside, folks sat on tailgates, drinking beer and listening to a boom box. The lights were off in the house because Mary and Leland had spent all of their money on Marvin’s funeral; there was none left over to pay the electricity bill.
An aunt handed me a plastic plate piled high with ribs and cake. Deanna brought me a Sprite. I gave Mary the flowers and hugged her. She was wearing the T-shirt with Marvin’s photograph. I realized that I’d spent days wondering how I could live with what I did not stop, and yet Deanna and Rhonda and Leland and Mary would live with it every day of their lives. They just endured.
That evening, I took my husband to the symphony as a birthday present. I wore a burgundy dress; he wore a sport coat. As we walked in, a black woman in a bow tie handed me a program.
We sat in the audience, waiting for the program to begin. The stage glimmered with lights, the music stands all set, the performers just beginning to trickle in to their seats. A cello played a few notes.Then I looked across the audience: a sea of white faces, facing a half-moon of white musicians. The only black people in the auditorium wore bow ties, creased white shirts and dark pants.
The back of my throat felt hot. A thick, boiling substance flooded my body, poured through my arms and legs, tingling in my fingertips. I had never felt rage before. I did not know what to do. And then it occurred to me: My rage had an end. There would be a time — in a week, a month, a year — when I would return to the concert hall. I would again wear a burgundy dress and my husband would wear a sport coat. A woman in a white shirt and bow tie would hand me a program. I would sit next to my husband on the balcony, listening to the hum of violin bows grazing strings. The lights would dim.
The music would sound beautiful to me. It would not occur to me that the entire audience was white. When the lights rose, I would admire the blinking chandelier; the towering ceiling would not resemble a capsized slave ship. I wouldn’t think of Marvin and Mary and Deanna and Rhonda and Leland. By then, I would have left them behind. I had, after all, the privilege of healing.
As it was, I didn’t have to wait that long. The lights fell, the music entranced me, and, for a while, I forgot.
The year my father died, my cousin taught me to make mosaics. We bought old, dusty plates from the Goodwill store and carried them to my backyard patio. We broke plate after plate, listening to the pop and crack as the hammer hit the ceramic, until the concrete was covered in shards.
We assembled the remains on wooden boards, drawing portraits with the shards: eyes, a mouth, a curved piece for the ear. A faint trace of blue porcelain to form the shadow along a jawbone.Working on Marvin’s case, I thought of myself as a maker of mosaics. My role was to create Marvin’s portrait from the shards. I wanted to show that Marvin was not just a killer. When Marvin was a child, we — our society — abandoned him to a life of poverty, violence and chaos. If Marvin had had a different life, his victims would not be dead. Marvin was a human being, and not a monster.
Most of the time, I believe that if Marvin’s jury had seen his human image in the remains, it would have spared his life.
And yet, once in a while, a nagging fear creeps in: They would have chosen to kill him anyway.
One of the last times I saw Marvin, I asked him about the tattoo on his arm.
“It says Bam,” he told me.
“Where’d you get it?” I asked. I assumed it was a gang tattoo.
“In prison,” he said. He smiled. Then he added: “It was the name my mother called me.”
I thought I had found Marvin’s face in the shards, and yet I had misread as a symbol of violence a mark of affection for his mother.
I said goodbye to him, as I always did, by placing my palm against the window. He placed his hand against mine.
[Featured image of the “Walls Unit” in Huntsville, where Texas executes men and women who have been sentenced to death, by Mark Britain from Houston, USA – Day trip to Huntsville, CC BY-SA 2.0]To support journalism like this, donate to the Texas Observer.