book reviews

WARRIOR WITHIN: Inside report on Texas Row by Charles D. Flores, Patterson Printing, Benton Harbor, Michigan.

 

Charles Flores has been incarcerated on death row in Texas since Easter 1999 for a murder he says he never committed. He has somehow managed within the claustrophobic confines of his minute cell in the ill-reputed Polunsky Unit to write and get published his account of life under the shadow of the Texas Death machine.

 

His publisher and benefactor, James Ulrich has written a valuable introduction setting out some of the glaring anomalies under the legal system which put him there. In fact, 95% of death row prisoners do not escape the date with the executioner. Even though the manner of their killing is clearly an inhumane and cruel punishment under international law, the state-sanctioned murders continue unabated.

 

Ulrich mentions one Federal Court ruling (McCoy v Lynaugh, 1989) where this court ruled that ineffective legal representation does not in itself constitute a ground for overthrowing a conviction,. This unfortunately, was exactly what Charles Flores says happened to him in the course of his trial.

 

He claims in his well-argued book that not only did he not receive a fair treatment at the hands of his two lawyers but the prosecution itself relied on flawed evidence of both identity and alleged confessions. The identity witness had to undergo hypnosis in order to bring her testimony up to proof, breaking several of the rules pertaining to this type of evidence. For the rest, the prosecution relied upon “jailhouse snitches” and an accomplice both of whom received much lighter sentences in exchange for their testimony. His state-appointed lawyers not only failed to call him to give evidence, as was his wish, but also did not call alibi witnesses who would have placed him away from the scene of the crime.

 

Following his inevitable conviction, before the jury in the sentencing process these same lawyers failed to present any shred of evidence in mitigation before the jury determined whether or not a death sentence should be imposed. Once again, no witnesses were called who might have included his own church members and the only lame submission his lawyers made to the jury was that the following day was Good Friday and so they should be lenient. Predictably, no mercy was shown and their client was rapidly transferred to death row where he still sits.

 

His account of that long sojourn where he soon learnt to become a “warrior within” is both moving, articulate and written without a shred of self-pity. Always in the back of his thinking lurks the threat of an eventual unnatural and undeserved death by the killing machine of Texas. So Charles, who is of Mexican descent, has not wasted the last nine years behind bars. With a trail of incompetent lawyers in his wake. He set himself a task of learning the law from embattled colleagues, honing his skills to such a degree that he was able to draft his own Pro-Se Writ of Habeas Corpus in October 2000 containing eight points of incompetence on the part of his former lawyers. This document is published as an appendix in the book.

 

Not only has Charles become a highly efficient and self-taught advocate, but he has also developed considerable literary skills crafting a most effective plea for a more humane approach to prisoners like himself on death row. His is a moving documentation that explores the rudiments of day-to-day survival in the most harrowing of surroundings. The terrible heat in summer, within the confined space he is forced to inhabit, the very limited contact he is permitted with other prisoners and the almost relentless harassment of prisoners on a daily basis by the majority of the guards. His warrior-like qualities equip him to survive all of these obstacles and he even manages to develop some abiding friendships with fellow inmates, including Little Mike, whom he helps to fight an appeal successfully after almost losing him to the killing machine when he was saved by a last minute reprieve.

 

In the midst of these constant reminders of the threat to his own mortality, Charles Flores embarks on a series of pen-friendships which help to keep up his spirits through the Lamp of Hope Project which is how I made contact with him and learnt about the book. His range of scholarship is impressive as he quotes among others, Voltaire, Scott Fitzgerald and even Winston Churchill with an appropriate quote on his definition of courage.

 

His own story is nothing if not courageous. He fights the system when he has to but also learns the value of compromise and self-control in dealing with the prison system. For years he fights his own battles until at last he comes across a lawyer he can trust who helps him prepare a crucial appeal. At the end of the book, this is in the process of being drafted and the final outcome of this step will be known in the next three months. New Zealand lawyers, where we have long since abolished capital punishment, will gain much from the reading of this vibrant account of survival on death row. The obvious rehabilitation of this particular prisoner by his words and deeds who, in any event, claims he is innocent of the crime that has put him in jeopardy of his life, does not appear to count for anything under the Texas legal system.

 

With death row convictions based at least 20% upon accomplice testimony and a third of the executions carried out under George Bush’s suzerainty as Governor, as a result of incompetent conduct by attorneys, there is a real and present danger that this prisoner could himself become a victim of the Texas killing machine. With all the gifts this man has to offer the world, including his artistic illustrations within the book, to extinguish his life now would seem to be a gross injustice and a pointless state revenge for a crime which, in all probability, he did not commit.

 

Reviewed by Colin Amery. available from www.amerylaw.co.nz or email me at amery.lawpolitics@clear.net.nz