Freedom of Expression

May 6, 2016

A couple of months ago I did an interview with a Japanese journalist. Throughout the interview he described the conditions of death row in Japan, at least as far as he was aware. You see, according to this journalist, everything about the death penalty and death row in Japan is opaque and obscured by the fact that their government maintains an extreme level of secrecy and disallows the media access to the condemned. All he knew were a few appalling details; death row prisoners aren’t allowed any contact with the outside world, which includes media AND communications with family and friends; “It agitates the condemned,” He said was the government’s reasoning. He also said that those set to be executed are only given one hour notice before they’re killed…. Makes the 90 days required by Texas law sound like an eternity! ;-)

When the TDCJ (Texas Department of Criminal Justice) posted its new rule prohibiting prisoners from interacting on social media in April it made me think of what the Japanese journalist told me about death row over there. First of all, the rule is worded with such ambiguity that no one seems to know what it means exactly. When I asked a high ranking administrator about it he smiled and said, “You think they worded it like that for a reason?” I don’t think he was being sarcastic really, just telling me straight up that they want it vague so they can come back later and interpret it however they want. Secondly, isn’t this a clear violation of our right to free speech? From the very moment I read the new policy I felt the TDCJ wanted to muzzle us; to keep us from writing about the conditions here and how it affects us… It’s not exactly death row in Japan here, but the new rule makes me think that’s how they’d like it to be.

I’m facing my 5th execution date in four years on August 23, 2016, which also happens to be my 21st anniversary since I was first arrested at age 15. As I sit here on death watch awaiting rulings that will determine my fate a myriad of thoughts and emotions wash over me. One of my friends recently asked me, “How is it for you? Is it still the same as when you had the first execution date? How is it to face your death for the fifth time? Don’t you, somehow have a countdown system that wears out after being applied a few times?” Previously, this same friend operated a webpage on my behalf, giving me a platform to express my thoughts and emotions on such matters, not to mention a place for anyone interested to read my autobiography and legal news regarding my case. But are we now being denied such outlets? In an article I recently read, Jason Clark, spokesperson for the TDCJ, was quoted as saying, “the rule is aimed only at social media, and 3rd party-maintained prisoner blogs and websites are still allowed.” Is that true? If so, why aren’t they answering our questions directly and clarifying things?

Being allowed to express ourselves to the public, to have some platform available to us to have our thoughts/emotions posted online, not only helps provide the world out there a better picture of what goes on inside these walls, but it’s cathartic to us and sometimes inspiring to others. I wrote my autobiography some years back with the hope that teenagers facing some of the obstacles I once did might stumble across it and somehow learn from the countless mistakes I made in life. Sure, it felt great finally telling the entire story, but if just one person read it and took something positive from it then that would’ve been even better to me. Some here suggested I have it published and sell it, but I immediately rejected that idea. I’d never accept anything material for telling my story. The idea was to give something back to a world I selfishly took from in my youth, not keep taking from it. So I asked my friend to please create a website and post my story there, free for any and all to read at their leisure.

The reaction from the public has been nothing short of beautiful to me. Hundreds and hundreds have e-mailed the website to say how my story inspired them to change in some way. Kids travelling paths similar to the one that led me to prison, terminally-ill people, suicidal people, and many others from all walks of life have written to thank me for sharing my story and tell me how I managed to help them in some way. It has been such an incredibly positive project, and it’d be all kinds of wrong to prohibit such outlets for us to express ourselves to the public.

So how is it to have a 5th execution date in four years? Well, I certainly take it as seriously as the 1st date. But I try not to “count down” to anything. That type of thinking can only make one anxious and divert their attention from the moment at hand. I’m not sure what the lesson(s) is for me here, why I’m going through this again, why the state seems so intent on killing me when the evidence is circumstantial at best. Why not allow for DNA testing that could very well exonerate me? Why not have an independent DNA expert review the STATE’S expert’s work so far? These are some of the things that cross my mind. Something else that has crossed it is how the TDJC’s new rule limiting  free speech is indicative of how the conditions here have gotten progressively worse for us over the years…. and part of me wants to resist this downward spiral and be done with it, somehow, someway. But, of course, I’m aware that such thinking, such perspective, the resisting what IS, is the root of suffering. I hope to stay open to the lessons of this experience and whatever else happens in life, and resisting what IS isn’t conducive to that. Each date has had its own feel. I know it’s difficult for those in the free world and many of us here to deal with execution dates, much less multiple ones, but I continue to search for meaning/purpose in all I experience. As Viktor Frankl wrote in “Man’s Search For Meaning,” finding meaning in whatever we’re dealing with makes it so much easier to endure…. And part of the meaning for me in life has been sharing stories from my past, lessons learned, and helping others discover more positive and productive perspectives about their lives. So hopefully the powers that be aren’t trying to completely cut me and the many others within these walls off from sharing with the general public in the ways that we have been. Perhaps it’s an exaggeration to compare death row here to what they’re enduring in Japan, but are we headed in that direction?

Love and Light

Robert