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The siege mentality

I was placed on Louisiana’s death row in November 1966. The state’s last execution had occurred in June 1961.

The state’s death row in 1966 had gained international attention because of the Edgar Labat and Clifton Poret case—two black men convicted of the 1950 rape of white woman in New Orleans. The convictions of the two men were reversed that year by a federal appeals court. They had spent more time on death row than anyone in the U.S., eclipsing Caryl Chessman’s previous record of 12 years.

One execution was carried out in the U.S. in 1966. James French was put to death by Oklahoma in August that year. Two executions were carried in the U.S. the following year—the last being Luis Monge who was put to death by Colorado in June 1967. That execution marked an “unofficial moratorium” on the death penalty in the U.S. that would last until Gary Gilmore was executed in Utah in January 1977.

There were roughly 30 men on death row when I arrived. I was one of seven white inmates housed there. It was a dark, dank world in which inmates lived in a perpetual limbo between life and death. Execution was not an imminent threat but it hung over every thought each day like a Damocles Sword.

The long term cell confinement of death row produced its own sources of madness—one inmate severed his penis, another slashed himself dozens of times with a razor, and two men daily engaged in a “fart war” with animus in their hearts. One inmate believed the Russians were monitoring his thoughts through Sputnik satellites while another 350-lb inmate went naked all the time as a form of “protest.” Another inmate, convicted of rape, believed that every time the word “rape” was spoken it was somehow directed at him.

This is what life and death uncertainty in a closed custody confinement can produce—so much more than a “low grade depression” Michele Obama recently spoke about.

Home confinement because of the Covid-19 pandemic bears some resemblance to that period when the nation’s condemned inmates lived in a world suspended between life and death as the unofficial moratorium played itself out. This pandemic crisis has created its own unofficial moratorium on living life in a normal manner.

We all now live with a siege mentality under Damocles Sword—knowing that the suspended sword could drop at any moment. One mistake, one miscalculated step could lead to infection and a horrible execution.

Covid-19 is now our death row custodian. We can try to escape it by pretending it does not exist or that its threat is not as imminent as experts tell us.

But we really know better.

One death row inmate would scream out in the middle of the night, “fuck, please hurry something.”

We all know that feeling of frustration. Life as we knew it has receded. Our relationships, our work, our play have all changed dramatically—and we don’t know when, or if, they will ever come back.

I was 21 years of age when I heard that death cell door slam behind me. Six years later, in November 1972, it opened and I was released from a death sentence to a life sentence. I had survived the siege mentality of death row.

Now in the twilight of my life, I must navigate myself and my wife through the siege mentality produced by social isolation. That fucking sword hangs suspended over our lives—masks, gloves, goggles, face shields, and six foot social distancing between us and all other forms of human life keep us safe in this uncertain world between life and death. Family communication is done through Zoom, face time, or cell phone—artificial contacts.

Michele Obama is right.

This nation is suffering from low grade depression—and so much more; more than we could ever have possibly imagined.

We now live, and survive, with a siege mentality.

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Pictures

An ancient Japanese philosopher once said that, “One look is worth a thousand words.”

I recently saw a picture in the July 21, 2020 edition of the Texas Tribune. It accompanied an article about how crematoriums in the state’s Rio Grande Valley are running overtime dealing with bodies of deceased Covid-19 victims.

The picture, which is actually a collection of three photos, shows two men rolling a body into a crematorium in Donna, Texas; a second photo shows a man standing by an incinerator; and the last photo shows smoke billowing out of one of the two smoke stacks at the facility.

The smoke billowing out of the smokestack reflected an image of “black death” body collectors hauling infected bodies to mass “plague pits” where they were dumped; and when the land ran out, the Pope ordered them thrown in the nearest river.

Body disposal in pandemics has never been a pretty business, although well-paying.

There have been more than 150,000 bodies which have already been disposed of during the current Covid-19 pandemic in the United States—more than in any other nation. Bodies have lined the hallways in intensive care units before being hauled away to freezer trucks for storage until claimed by a loved one or until a county decision was made as to how to dispose of it.

The smoke billowing from that crematorium smokestack was once a human being who walked into the local post office without a mask; or who once attended a large family gathering without a mask; or who once sang at the top of their pre-infected lungs during a church service without a mask; or who once sat on a bar stool in a crowded Texas salon tapping his foot to “there’s no place I’d rather be than right here with my red neck, white socks and blue ribbon beer” without a mask; or who once left behind hospitalized grandparents they infected with the virus by not wearing a mask.

The smoke billowing from that crematorium smokestack was the residue of, most probably, a life well-spent but wasted in its final moments by not taking precautions to avoid the horrible, life-sapping little Covid virus.

The smoke billowing from that crematorium smokestack mirrors the tears of children left behind; the grief of a wife that will never heal; the hug from a brother that will never again be felt; the face of a sister that will never again light up; and the sorrow ridden eyes of parents who in the dusk of their lives pray only that the end will come sweet and peaceful.

The smoke billowing from that crematorium smokestack is from the shallow, skin-thin bodies of those elderly people trapped in nursing home facilities who never understood the calls from politicians in the early stages of the pandemic suggesting that they should be willing to accept the high risk of death posed by the Covid virus for the sake of the economy.

That second smokestack at the crematorium from which no smoke billows is waiting to spread the smoke-dust ashes from the small, defenseless bodies of school children forced back into dangerous classroom settings—sent there by parents under government pressure to get back into a Covid infected chicken n’ sausage producing plant needed to boost the economy.

Those three crematorium photos represent the heartbreak of a nation caused by so many unnecessary deaths—so many of which could have easily been avoided or prevented.

That billowing gut-wrenching, heartbreaking smoke will forever, and ever, be a stain—no, a blight—on the soul of this nation, and will bear witness throughout history of all those stupid motherf..kers who let it happen.

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Trains and dreams

There I sat – no more than 10 or 11 years old – on the dock of a cotton warehouse. Cotton was indeed the “King” of the South in the mid-to-late 1950s. That was especially so in the small northeast Louisiana town of Rayville—just 80 miles west of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

My mother, with the help of her two gun-toting brothers, had just packed up all the belongings in our New Orleans home and relocated us away from our abusive father to the “green house” in Rayville—a dilapidated shack in the poorest part of town.

But at only $35 a month to rent, who could complain.

Mother had taken a job at the local Morgan and Lindsey for $18 a week.

In the afternoon my Uncle George, who worked for the State Highway Department, would stop by the green house, load me, my three brothers, and little sister in the back of his pickup truck and haul us to his house deep in the countryside for the night. We got a good hot meal for supper (fried chicken, real mash potatoes, and other good stuff), cooked all afternoon by my Aunt Marie on a wood-burning cast iron stove.

And the next morning there was stomach filling hot breakfast waiting for us the next morning. Aunt Marie had already milked the two cows, gathered the eggs, fed the mule, and wrung the neck of the chicken that would be served with dumplings for supper before breakfast.

Looking forward to those hot scrambled eggs, thick slices of bacon freshly cut from a recently butchered hog, and big white biscuits with maple syrup, made sleeping for me on the cold wooden floor, listening to the patter of rain hitting a leaking tin roof, so much easier.

Then back to the green house with a broken bath tub and plywood over the windows to keep out the winter cold and summer mosquitoes.

And back to my favorite place of sitting on the dock of one of those dozen cotton warehouses located just beyond our backyard.

Sitting there, I waited for the trains to pass—all loaded with timber, cotton, farm equipment and all sorts of other goods headed for only God and the Engineer knew where. Dressed in my size-too-large Happy Jack jeans or faded overalls and a scraggily t-shirt more often than not, I would jump up and start waving when I heard the train approaching as it was leaving town. The Engineer would sit down on his whistle and wave his thick work gloved hand back at me from his open window.

Life was so good, so simple.

Those moments were the best of my childhood as I thought of one day being able to go where the trains went. I dreamed of all those great, wonderful places that awaited me beyond youth and just before the edge of adulthood, where experiences of love, adventure, and money beckoned.

“Billy Wayne, get on back in this house and eat these hot white beans and hocks,” the raspy, nicotine-stained voice called out to me.

That voice belonged to the old “widow lady,” as we called her, who lived across the street from us. Each day on the front side of eleven o’clock she brought a steaming pot of big white lima beans and ham hocks to our house for lunch. I initially hated those damn white beans, but after awhile the stomach, which had long since done away with Aunt’s Marie’s eggs and biscuits, grew kind of fond of those “baby lima beans,” as the widow lady called them.

Our penitence for the beans was having to listen to widow lady tell us about a hard life of too much drinking, too many hard-partying men, and enough broken hearts to fill one of those cotton warehouses.

“I pray you boys never grow up and see what these eyes have seen,” widow lady would say every day.

Almost invariably, each day as widow lady got to that juncture in life’s terrible woes, my younger brother Pat would pass gas in a noticeable way.

“Boy, git yore ass out there on that front porch,” widow lady would say, grabbing her almost empty pot of white beans.  “I done tole you that you don’t do that boy stuff in front of a lady.”

As soon as widow lady left through the front screen door, I was out the back door, leaping down the five-step stairs, and running down a beaten path with my bare feet touching hard brown dirt headed for my place on the warehouse dock just in time to catch the 1:30 train barreling out of town toward Vicksburg.

Trains and dreams.

Never got to ride a train, and too many of those dreams turned into nightmarish realities.

However, looking back over the landscape of my life, I realize things could have always been worse – and here I sit today on my front porch with glass of ice tea in my hands trying to come to terms with the brutal uncertainty a pandemic has inflicted on all our lives.

As the breeze of approaching dusk passes through the air and as the birds gobble down their fill of bird seed before heading off to roost and as the deer graze on the grass of a nearby hillside under the watchful eyes of my three dogs, I do have one absolute certainly—there will always be trains and dreams, and, yes, those goddamn white lima beans.

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Masks

They have been used as far back as the 17th century to ward off disease and infection.

The most effective preventive measure against the Covid-19 virus currently ravaging the nation, and Texas in particular is a mask. The mask not only protects the wearer from contracting the virus from public exposure but also prevents an asymptomatic person with the virus from infecting others.

But despite the fact that more than 140,000 people have succumbed to the virus and millions more have been infected, too many people make a personal choice not to wear a mask in public and, in fact, will vehemently assert, even violently express a perceived constitutional right not to be required, either by the government or public businesses, to wear a mask in public.

First, most people who assert “constitutional rights” have never read the U.S. Constitution, much less took the time to understand how its principles are applied. The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, do not mention the word “mask” nor can any of those amendments be remotely interpreted as a “right” not to wear a mask when required to do so to protect public health.

The First Amendment rights of religion, speech and assembly do not mention the word mask, nor do these rights entail any protection from being required to wear masks to protect public health. The Second Amendment right to own and tote a gun has nothing to do with masks. The amendments go on and on without discussing masks. Suffice it to say that the issue of masks was not high on the constitutional agenda of the Framers of the Constitution.

Protecting public health has always taken precedent over perceived individual liberty. For example, when science and medicine informed the public that secondhand cigarette smoke could cause cancer or other debilitating diseases, the government (local, state and federal) imposed cigarette smoking bans in certain businesses and in public except for designated areas.

In effect, the non-smoker’s right to be free of the dangers posed by someone else’s cigarette smoke exceeds the right of the smoker to light up and puff away as they see fit.

Again, the Constitution does not grant to the smoker any imagined right to huff and puff away in public at the expense of public health and the endangerment of others.

The overwhelming need to protect public health extends to the government an absolute legal right to regulate such dangerous human endeavors as vehicle driving, alcohol consumption, animal hunting, fish catching, human killing, and a host of other life-threatening human behaviors.

Personally, I wear a mask and medical gloves each time I leave my vehicle and step into the public arena (and I’m waiting on a face-shield from Amazon). I engage in this public safety behavior to protect myself from the non-mask wearer.

I will not confront or chastise the non-mask wearer for their individual recklessness and socially irresponsible behavior. I subscribe to the notion that every person has the right to go to hell in their own way.

More importantly, however, I do not engage in this challenging behavior because the reality is that a lot of non-mask wearers are certified, bona fide idiots. They welcome any opportunity to spit and slobber their imagined, un-sourced “constitutional right” not to wear a mask to anyone who challenges them. They will yell, curse, and make a genuine, 100 percent fool of themselves in public in support of their imagined “constitutional right” until the ICU doctor tells them that nurses have to stick a ventilator tube up their ass to pump oxygen into their failing lungs being munched on by the little ugly Covid-19 virus.

The issue about mask wearing in public is not about politics, hoaxes, Deep State conspiracies, the Boogaloo Movement, defund the police, Black Lives Matter, or any of the other emotional issues dividing this nation along racial and cultural lines. It’s about protecting you and your family’s lives, the lives of your grandma and grandpa, the lives of your friends and neighbors, and all of our obligations to protect public health and safety.

And if those of you who refuse to wear a mask cannot see that, then continue to clothe yourself in God, Flag, and Country as you watch our society die and collapse—a catastrophe you help create and perpetuate.

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Commutation of sentence.

The recent commutation of Roger Stone’s 40-month federal prison term just days before he was scheduled to report to a penal facility to begin that term triggered an avalanche is criticism about corruption in the executive clemency process.

I know a thing or two about corruption and clemency.

In August 1986, my wife and I reported to the FBI about a massive pardons-selling scheme in place at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola. It became the largest “pardons-selling corruption” investigation in Louisiana history.

Jodie  wore a wire for the FBI during their investigation of the scheme—a criminal enterprise that implicated former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, the governor’s executive counsel, his legislative floor leader, his pardon board chairman, a host of prison officials, and a litany of Dixie Mafia henchmen at Angola.

The whole scheme was laid out in my memoir, co-written with my wife, and released through a New York publisher in 2000, titled, “A Life in the Balance.”

To say we paid a hell of a price for being whistleblowers would be a proverbial understatement.

It nearly cost me my life as the hands of a Dixie Mafia henchman and most assuredly caused me to spend 20 more years in prison while every inmate who “bought a pardon” went free.

Being labeled an “FBI informant” resulted in my reputation as an award-winning prison journalist being criticized in a New York Times editorial (seriously, The New York Times said I had a higher ethical duty to protect journalism over a legal obligation to report criminal wrongdoing). It also produced articles in the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review and a host of newspapers like the New Orleans Times Picayune critical of my FBI informant role.

And while the Times was editorializing against me for doing the right thing, the head of the Dixie Mafia was operating a $2 million “homosexual mail scam” inside Angola—a scam federal prosecutors would later say earned him at least $2. 4 million put away in three bank accounts the federal government could not touch.

I was told by Kirksey McCord Nix’s right-hand man and two State Police investigators that the mafia chieftain had put at least $500,000 in the Louisiana pardons selling pipeline through a Biloxi, Mississippi attorney named Peter Halat.

Halat had been law partners with a prominent Biloxi judge named Vincent Sherry since 1981.

In arrangements made by Nix’s wife, who was overseeing Nix’s criminal enterprise out of Halat’s law office, the attorney had supposedly given the money to a Mississippi sheriff, a longtime friend and hunting buddy of Gov. Edwards, as payment for a commutation of the life sentence Nix was serving for a 1972 murder that occurred in New Orleans.

Our exposure of the pardons-selling scheme, of course, disrupted Nix’s commutation plans.

After my debriefing by the FBI in November 1986 and my appearance the following month before a state grand jury, the State Police’s launched an investigation into a broad range of corruption issues at Angola. That investigation began to develop information about how widespread the Dixie Mafia’s influence was at Angola.

Without good reason, the Louisiana Corrections Secretary, reportedly at the direction of the governor, stepped in and ordered State Police investigators out of Angola. That action by the Secretary put an end to the State Police investigation into Nix’s multi-million dollar criminal enterprise.

The decision to end the Angola investigation occurred in February 1987.

With his commutation chances blown up by our exposure of the pardons selling scheme, Nix instructed Halat to return his $500,000. At the time, Halat was amassing a war chest for his eventual 1989 election as mayor of Biloxi. He needed Nix’s money to underwrite that election campaign.

Knowing how dangerous Nix was, Halat told the Dixie Mafia chieftain that Vincent Sherry had “ripped off” the money in order to secure his 1986 appointment to a state court judgeship.

That was a lie and a gross betrayal of the friendship Vincent Sherry had given to Halat.

Furious, Nix initiated a plan through a Biloxi strip club owner, with deep ties to the Dixie Mafia, to have Vincent Sherry killed. The strip club owner, Mike Gillich, was more than willing to orchestrate the contract killing Judge Sherry and, in fact, added the judge’s wife, Margaret, to the hit list because she had long crusaded against the corrupt influences of his strip club operations while she was on the Biloxi City Council.

Through arrangements reportedly made by Gillich, a contract killer was brought in from Texas to carry out the Sherry contract killings.

In September 1987, Vincent and Margaret Sherry were brutally murdered in their exclusive Biloxi residence. Their double murder drew national and international media attention.

The Sherry murders would not have taken place had the State Police been allowed to continue their February 1987 investigation into Nix’s corrupt enterprises at Angola. The plot to kill Judge Sherry was already in its early stages when the State Police investigation was abruptly shut down by the Louisiana Corrections Secretary. Had it been allowed to continue, that investigation would have led to the Sherry murder plot and their murders would have been averted.

Of course, the Corrections Secretary had the cover of the New York Times editorial to undermine the integrity of the pardons-selling investigation—all of which was used to create a tacit pathway to shut down the State Police investigation into Nix’s criminal enterprise.

In the wake of both the state and federal pardons-selling investigations, this is what the political landscape looked like in 1987-88:

 Gov. Edwards escaped liability as did his executive counsel; the legislative floor leader was indicted but acquitted at a jury trial; the pardon board chairman was indicted, pled guilty, and received a 5-year federal prison term; several prison officials, including the one who tried to broker the deal with me and Jodie, were indicted, pled guilty, and received probation; two Angola wardens, including the head warden, were forced to resign as were a laundry list of other prison officials; and all the inmates who bought pardons were allowed to keep them and they all were released from prison.

In March 1988, Louisiana’s first truly “reform” governor assumed the reins of power. One of his first actions was to reopen the Angola corruption investigation by naming an elite 17-man State Police task force to complete their 1987 investigation.

That task force investigation led state and federal authorities to Nix’s role in the Sherry murders.

An ensuing FBI investigation discovered the Dixie Mafia’ involvement in those murders. 

Subsequent federal prosecutions convicted Nix, the Texas hitman, the strip club owner, and Peter Halat for related conspiracies in the Sherry murders.

The hitman died in a federal prison and the strip club owner gained early release to die of cancer in the free world.

Halat served 15 years of an 18-year prison term before being released in 2012 and is now living in retirement with his wife.

Nix is locked away in a federal super max prison in Colorado where he will spend the rest of his life.

Three Dixie Mafia henchmen who cooperated with the initial 1987 Angola corruption investigation were mysteriously gunned down in different Louisiana parishes within weeks of their release from prison. None of their killers were ever captured.

And what about me and Jodie?

Just days after I testified before a state grand jury investigating the “pardons-selling scheme” and exploring corruption at Angola, Gov. Edwards, on the advice of his executive counsel, denied a 60-year commutation of my life sentence which had been unanimously recommended by his pardon board two years earlier.

It was calculated political revenge and a message to any other inmate thinking about telling what they knew.

The long and short of it is that Jodie and I refused to pay the $15,000 for my corrupt release in 1986.

Twenty years later, in 2006, we paid $25,000 to the best attorney in Louisiana to create a level political playing field in order to secure my parole release from the Louisiana prison system.

“Why didn’t you just pay the money to buy a pardon,” we’ve been asked a million times.

Because it would have been crime to do so  — and to this day I don’t give a f..k what the New York Times said, I had a greater legal obligation to report corruption than to protect any perceived “journalism integrity” a prison magazine may have had—incidentally, one of whose staffers had, ironically, paid $5,000 to buy a pardon.

That was my experience in the executive clemency arena.

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