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The Darkest Hour: Stories and Interviews from Death Row, Chapter One

Posted on: November 4th, 2012 by robyn

No Tears, Only Silence
Oswaldo Soriano

By Nanon Williams

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“I was born in 1975,” Oswaldo said as I picked up my pen and began to write about his early life. Oswaldo was born in Mexico but has no memory of what it was like to live there. When he was three years old, his mother and one of his brothers came to the United States in search of a better life. Oswaldo and his family made a home in Pama, Texas, also known as the “Texas Panhandle,” where there was a unique mixture of city life and country atmosphere. Oswaldo lived a relatively normal life. His mother eventually married, giving him the father he never had and a husband for her to provide for the family. Oswaldo never knew his biological father; he left before Oswaldo was born, perhaps never knowing of the birth of his son. When his mother married, Oswaldo was happy to have someone to call Father. Life got better for a while, but the good times did not last very long.

When his stepfather lost his job, Oswaldo suddenly found their relationship turning sour. His stepfather, as a way to relieve his frustrations, began to use Oswaldo as a punching bag. When his mother protested, the beatings became more frequent and more intense. As time went on, his mother began to pay scant attention to Oswaldo or the beatings Oswaldo suffered. By the time Oswaldo was ten years old, he had become a tough little kid who suffered abuse without shedding a tear. As Oswaldo described the beatings, his voice became flat and void of all emotion. “If I did cry or my mom cried, I would get hit harder. It got to the point where I conditioned myself to feel nothing at all.”

By the time Oswaldo was eleven years old, his schoolwork was suffering. He got into fights and was eventually transferred to another school for his behavioral problems. As he entered fifth grade, he noticed that he was one of the few Mexicans in a predominantly black school. His schoolmates did not accept him and trouble came in bundles. Soon school became a battleground for Oswaldo, and he began to hate going to school. One day a few kids jumped him and beat him badly, causing the teacher to notice his bruises. When questioned, he kept silent. He was sent to the principal’s office and still kept silent. He would not tell on the kids who beat him, so his parents were called in. Oswaldo’s stepfather, fearing that Oswaldo told the principal of the home beatings and that the bruises were from him, came to school outraged. When they got home, without fail, the beating began again. Oswaldo closed his eyes and ignored the pain from the lashes. He felt nothing.

A few weeks later, a black kid named Lamar thanked Oswaldo for not snitching on him and the others. They became best friends. As an act of friendship, Lamar gave Oswaldo a pit bull puppy. Oswaldo was allowed to keep the dog since his stepfather liked pit bulls too. Oswaldo promised he would care for the dog and keep it away from the chickens that roamed the backyard. Oswaldo named the dog Pancho. Sometimes Pancho gave Oswaldo more trouble than he was worth by chasing his stepfather’s chickens, inciting his stepfather’s anger.

Early one morning as Oswaldo was getting ready for school, he heard his stepfather calling him to the backyard. He marched there smiling. “What’s up, Papa?” As he looked around, he saw that Pancho killed a few chickens. He recalls staring into his stepfather’s twisted enraged face. “It felt like a snake bit me in the leg when he hit me with the water hose. I stood there like a warrior trying to take the beating, but the hose was tearing my skin. I heard my mom screaming as I saw the blood rush from my wounds. For the first time in a long time I started to scream and cry. When another blow hit me in the neck, I reached up in rage and snatched the hose from Papa. Soon after this incident I left home.” Oswaldo had no choice but to leave his beloved dog behind.

Reported to the police as a runaway, Oswaldo stayed at Lamar’s house for a few weeks and later found refuge on the streets of Amarillo with a gang called Vario 13. Due to his young age, the gang members gave him the name Junior. From that point forward, Oswaldo took the name Junior, leaving his birth name in the backyard with the blood-soaked hose and abandoned puppy.

Crack cocaine flooded the streets of urban America in the 1980s, and gangs had been recruited to distribute and help control this lucrative drug trade. Junior joined the ranks and started running the streets. In its early years, Vario 13 was just another bunch of kids who were sought to distribute drugs. So at twelve years old, Junior got involved in drug distribution. Junior was like a young pup in a den of wild dogs. By the time he was fifteen years old, he had been in and out of the state’s juvenile reformatories. The reformatories were a second home to him.

While Junior was in these institutions, he was described by juvenile authorities and probation officers as a “child in need of supervision … a follower.” The resident psychiatrist said that most children who were like Junior were regarded as a hero when they are morally impoverished, have no remorse and are expected to lead other juveniles in the segregated institutions.

Subsequently, Junior unconsciously destroyed the boy within him and took the role of “wolf” in the eyes of the neighbors who knew him. Like the tale of so many other abandoned and abused children, they clung to others with whom they could self-identify. Though his counselors did notice, despite his illiteracy, that he had great artistic talent, nothing changed for Junior in the state reformatories. When spoken to about his talent, Junior became defensive. He had become unfeeling so as to ignore all the pain of those beatings and became apathetic to any feeling whatsoever. Emotional preservation required that he close himself off from feeling anything. No one is born good or evil. They become a reflection of the people around them and a product of their childhood experiences. Sadly, Junior was never embraced nor did he ever feel loved.

On November 18, 1992, Junior was arrested again, this time the charge was very serious—capital murder. A robbery took place and many people’s lives were changed forever. One of those lives was taken and another one thrown away. Oswaldo was judged as a threat to society, and he was sentenced to death at the age of seventeen. Almost as though he were two people, he found a safety net in being Junior, the unfeeling kid turned street hustler whose life was judged meaningless.

Life as a gangster taught Oswaldo many things: primarily, a sick and twisted sense of loyalty and honor that forbade him from snitching on those who were involved in the crime for which he was sentenced. Unfortunately, no one probably knows that Junior exists except the other convicts who will further try to contain and shape this explosive man full of pain. His potential to become anything he wants to be is unspeakable because his ability to learn so quickly keeps his peers in awe and silences them. I use the term unspeakable because Junior is, in reality, still a boy. Erasing his existence seems the easiest thing for the state to do. They have a conviction, so who cares? No one? While juvenile officers and prison guards mentally rape and destroy the minds of young kids such as Junior, the invisible part of him—the boy named Oswaldo—remains tucked away, looking for the chance to have a normal life.  Junior has never cried wolf. He has never said anything at all.

Still Surviving, Chapter One

Posted on: November 3rd, 2012 by robyn

Alone in the Dark

By Nanon M. Williams

Still Surviving Nanon WilliamsThe winter night was dark and rainy. I fell asleep in my bunk at the Harris County jail. When I awoke, cold air was storming through the corridors like a freezing gas that paralyzed the nervous system. For a brief moment, it seemed as if I had awoken from a nightmare. But no, as I stared out of the steel cage, I realized that this was no nightmare. This was a reality that I wished like hell was not true. It was the reality of a new life, a new pain, and a new tomorrow that I wished I could go backward in time to escape.

When dawn broke and light erased the darkness, I knew that at any moment I would be handcuffed, shackled, strapped with chains around my waist and transported to a new place, a new prison and a new hell that would make the Harris County jail seem like a boys’ camp, where kids met on weekends to enjoy new adventures in life. However, the place I was headed for was no boys’ camp with wonderful adventures to enjoy. I was headed to death row, a place where joy and hope were left behind and where life ended altogether.

I will never forget the tears streaming down my mother’s face and the feeling of helplessness that tortured her because there was nothing she could say or do. There was no comfort she could give that would take away the death sentence. When I visit that memory, I feel a rage and sadness so jointly connected that a strange calmness is born, asking to be aborted.

As I reflect upon these memories etched so deeply in my mind, memories of the very hour my terrifying journey to death row began, the echoes of life resound louder than ever before.

“Clear the corridor!” a Harris County deputy yelled through the jail’s housing facilities. The moment of actual transportation to death row was here, and my mind felt paralyzed. I felt as though I could not gather myself. The stillness broke as the deputy entered the corridor and shouted, “Nanon Williams, what cell are you in?”

Unable to respond with any degree of self-control, I just tapped the bars signaling to the guard as he walked towards me.

“Get ready for transport.” He spoke cautiously as he looked me up and down. I was a six-feet, one-inch tall, muscular, two-hundred-twenty-five-pound young man with a massive chest and arms. As I looked down at the deputy, who was several inches shorter and at least fifty pounds lighter, he appeared to be afraid of how I would react to the news of my transfer. In my mind everything changed, and I was thinking to myself, Fuck it! My breathing grew heavy and hard and adrenaline stormed throughout my body.

He threw the door open, and there I stood, stripped down to my boxer shorts and staring with a faraway look in my eyes that unnerved the deputies gathering around the cell door.

“Bend over and spread ’em!” a lieutenant called from behind the mechanical doors that rolled open the cells into the corridor. He spoke with a redneck, Texas drawl, a sound that will always be a nightmare to me.

I understood him, but I responded, “Do what?”

“Bend over and spread your ass cheeks and cough, Inmate!” he repeated.

“I’m not bending over to spread shit, so do what you gotta do.” Before I could finish my sentence, they exited the corridor and left me in the open tank.

Those Bastards! I thought. Who in the hell do they think I am? Do they really believe I am going to bend over and spread my ass cheeks for them? Fuck that! I would not allow them to subject me to that degradation, even if I was headed for death row. Some might think that I was copping an attitude to appear tough, but they would be wrong. My sense of dignity was the only thing that could not be taken from me, and I was not going to give that away. Whatever happened would just have to happen. I would not willingly degrade myself.

“Corridor opening!” the deputy yelled again through the holding tank. I could see the metal helmets, steel batons, taser guns, and the padded vests they were wearing as they came into the corridor, walking in a straight line like an army platoon. I knew what was about to happen, so I backed away to the farthest corner of the holding tank, my back touching the concrete structure.

“Inmate! Bend over and spread your ass cheeks, or physical force will be applied!” An oily smirk spread over the lieutenant’s face.

“Fuck you!” I replied. “I ain’t bending over and spreading my ass like an animal for your pleasure!” But before I could finish the words, the taser gun was fired and hit my left thigh, sending a shockwave through my body that made me extremely dizzy. My vision blurred. I smelled the burned flesh of my thigh, and I braced myself against the concrete wall for support as I slid to the floor.

I attempted to rise to my feet again, but I was hit again in the chest with the taser gun. The metal ball that shot out this time didn’t seem to affect me, so I lunged toward the lieutenant with all my might, knocking him to the floor as my fist crashed against his chin. Before I could strike him again, the other deputies wrestled me to the floor and all of them piled on top of me. When I was handcuffed and shackled, lying on my stomach, the lieutenant began choking me, repeatedly screaming, “You dumb son-of-a-bitch! This is how it will feel before they kill you! Feel it, you stupid motherfucker!” He continued to yell as I drifted in and out of consciousness.

What seemed like hours later, after the handcuffs were taken off, a nurse woke me up. I was on a mattress in the infirmary. She asked me how I felt. I looked up at her. Tears were welling in her eyes as she looked down at me. I glanced down at the shackles that still chained my ankles together.

“Young man, I don’t know what happened to cause the incident in the holding tank,” she said softly, “but I advise you to call your attorney and get pictures taken of yourself.”

“I’m on transport to death row,” I replied, “so I won’t be able to make any calls for security reasons. But thank you for being concerned.”

She continued to ask me if I was alright and even volunteered to make a call for me. That was against regulations. I assured her that I didn’t have an attorney worth calling. She then volunteered to call my mother, but the last thing I wanted was to cause my mother more worry and heartache than she already had. I continued to gratefully decline the nurse’s offers of help.

I knew it was a matter of time before they came to get me, so I asked the nurse how long I had been in the infirmary. She said I had only been there about twenty minutes. I thought it was much longer, but of course I was unconscious so that time slipped away.

“Young man, if you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?” the nurse asked. “You look awfully young.”

I told her my age and that I had been incarcerated since I was seventeen years old, waiting to go to trial on a capital murder charge.

She looked appalled. “You mean to tell me you were a teenager when you were arrested and now you’re going to death row?”

“Yes.”

Her expression was one of the saddest I had seen. She continued to stare at me until I felt uncomfortable beneath her gaze.

“Well, I’ll keep you in my prayers, and you make sure to pray for yourself,” she told me. “We need no one except God, and when you feel down and out, ask Him to give you strength. You look like you need it.” Her smile was sincere and helped to impress her words into my mind. “You take care, you hear?”

All through the entire conversation with the nurse, I did not really think about the bruises that plagued my body with pain. The only noticeable injury that I could see was the bandage around my thigh and the bright red mark across my chest. They didn’t hurt too badly and looked worse than they felt. When I heard the deputies enter the infirmary to take me to transport, I stood up and pain shot through my back as if I was being hit over and over again. They had viciously assaulted me, but being unconscious didn’t allowed me to feel much of anything as it was happening. While some people may believe I deserved my injuries for hitting the lieutenant, I wasn’t going to voluntarily let anyone degrade me. I stood up for myself in the only way I knew how.

I was handcuffed, shackled and a leather belt was strapped around my waist that locked my arms across my torso. I could only imagine what any onlookers thought of me, but I didn’t really care at that moment. The time had come when death row was no longer a nightmare that lay ahead. It was swiftly becoming reality. I was going to hell today. Those thoughts circled round and round my weary mind. I had a million and one questions in my mind about existing among four hundred and fifty convicted killers. Would I simply become prisoner number four hundred fifty-one? Would I be just another prisoner consumed by the inferno of the hellhole I was about to enter? The world I once knew and loved was now of a different lifetime. I was a condemned man on my way to Texas’ death row.

The chain bus was extremely uncomfortable. The wheels spun loudly as the van maneuvered in and out of traffic, causing the shackles to bite into my ankles when I tried to brace myself to keep from sliding all around the metal bench that was bolted to the floor. No matter how hard I tried to anchor myself to the seat, I could not maintain my balance. So I just rolled with the punches and stared out the window. The air was cold, and I could tell by the frost still falling from the windowsill that the hard breeze caused everything to freeze up, but who really cared about the weather. I should have been thinking about what death row would be like, but instead I was looking outside at the white puffy clouds, the frost, and anything else that could serve as a brief distraction.

The van turned off on to a winding dirt road. A large sign hung over the entryway that read, “Welcome to Diagnostics—Huntsville, Texas.” I was now lying on the floor of the bus because I had fallen off the metal bench one to many times. I thought, Who cares where we are. I just wish these pigs would get me out of this van!

A guard screamed from the tower above the entryway, “Where you coming from, Chief?” One of the deputies replied with that nightmarish East Texas drawl, “We’re from the Harris County Sheriff’s Department.” He exuded an attitude of superiority over the guard. “We got a death row prisoner for y’all!” The gates rolled open, and the van rolled into a huge building that looked more like a warehouse than a prison. The doors of the van were flipped open.

“You ready to go, Inmate?” a prison guard asked, helping me to my feet. “Take it easy, okay? This is just diagnostics, and I’m going to run you through classification and medical as quickly as I can. Then they’ll take you to your prison unit in a couple of hours.”

I tried to block out his words. He seemed to behave more humanely than the others I had experience with, so I cooperated as best I could. He searched my clothing and dressed me in a thin cloth that resembled a hospital gown.

“How’s that? That fit you alright?” he asked, trying to be friendly.

“Yeah, it fits alright,” I responded. But who really gave a damn if it fit or not? All they had to do is handcuff me and strip me naked if that was what they wanted to do. After all, I had no choice. However, I chose to reply as cordially as I could because the guard was treating me respectfully. I believe that if anyone treats you with respect, you should give that same respect back. If they treated me disrespectfully, well, that would be the beginning of a long, long day for all of us.

“Here at Diagnostics I will be your escort, and we basically will run you through dental, then to the doctor, and take you to Classification to get pictures of your tattoos, scars, fingerprints, etc. It shouldn’t take too long, as you are a high security risk, and we have to run you through as quickly as possible,” the guard continued to explain to me. Sometimes I responded rather coldly to his questions, but I quickly put myself in check. This guy was just doing his job, at least he didn’t have an attitude. Most law enforcement officials attempt to wave their authority in prisoners’ faces. This guard was different, and it relaxed me just a bit.

The heavy steel door that opened another section of the prison stood ajar as we entered. In a bewildered daze, I’m sure I seemed once again overwhelmed at the idea that death row was just hours away. Still, no matter how many other things distracted me, nothing seemed to hold my attention.

“Williams, Williams, Williams,” the doctor said tiresomely as he called my name. “Are you Nanon Williams?

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“Well, I just want to run you through a few simple tests and check your reflexes, eyes, lungs and basically just make sure you’re in good health.”

As he ran his tests, I wondered, why in the hell they would care if I was in good physical health? After all, they were going to strap me down on a gurney, stick needles in my arm and pump poisons into my body so that they could watch me die right before their very eyes. Trying to be sure that I was in good physical health was a sadistic joke—a sick and twisted game the state of Texas plays. I told him I was in good shape and that I was through running tests. He glanced at the guard to see if I would be allowed to do that, and the guard just nodded. He took me up a flight of stairs that entered into a dormitory of sorts.

From a short distance I heard loud voices and guards steadily yelling, “Be quiet!” over a microphone. No one seemed to be paying attention. I could still hear voices clustered together as we got closer to the end of the hallway. As we approached an open door, I saw a large group of prisoners, approximately sixty or seventy men, who were naked and lined up against the wall just outside the door. They were told to get out of the way, and we entered into the dormitory.  Some of the prisoners attempted to cover themselves, but others just let their private parts swing as if they were accustomed to being a part of a crowd of naked men every day. It seemed to me that all prison was going to be was a bunch of guards wanting to watch prisoners get naked, day in and day out. As I thought of this, I couldn’t help but wonder why there were so many prisoners getting raped in prison and men committing sexual intercourse with one another voluntarily. The constant nudity was awkward and felt unnatural. However, as I soon came to learn, the lack of privacy and the lack of modesty were simply more strategies the state uses to take away a prisoner’s individuality, dignity and self-esteem—another method of breaking the spirit.

After looking around, feeling disgusted and disrespected, I was taken to a desk where a female guard sat. She had the brightest smile I had seen in a long time. She was immensely enjoying her position in a roomful of naked men.

They will not break my spirit! I kept thinking to myself. If they think I’m going to get naked in front of everybody, well, these bastards have another thing coming!

“Could you un-handcuff the inmate?” the woman asked the guard, grinning pleasurably. I looked at her with a feeling of repulsion. If this tramp thinks I’m going to get naked for her, she’s goddamned sure got another thing coming!

When the guard reached for the handcuff keys, I hurriedly stuck my hands forward and my eagerness somewhat shocked the guard. But I felt if I was un-handcuffed, I had a better chance of protesting, compared to being shackled, handcuffed and standing in a light blue hospital gown with nothing on but my boxer shorts and a bandage wrapped around my thigh.

“Okay, Mr. Williams,” the sluttish woman breathed, attempting to sound sensual. “Do you have any scars or tattoos on you?” When she cooed my name that way—“Mr. Williams”—I knew that she really enjoyed her job because it had been a long, long time since anyone had called me “Mr. Williams.” I could get used to that, I thought.

“Yeah,” I said, letting her know that she was invading my privacy against my will. “I got quite a few tattoos. But I don’t know what you mean by scars. I don’t have any major scars.”

“Could you please take off your shirt and show them to me?” She asked the questions with so much seductiveness that I could understand for a moment, but only a brief one, why the other prisoners were standing with pride so the woman could get a good view of their manhood.

“I can’t do that with handcuffs on,” I said.

“Oh, I don’t have enough security with me today to take off the handcuffs, Ma’am,” the guard politely stated. “He’s a death row prisoner, and we’re suppose to run him through the classification process as soon as possible.”

“Well, how am I going to do my job if he’s handcuffed?” she replied again, exhibiting a great disappointment that my nakedness would not be displayed for her pleasure. “It will only be for a few minutes.”

“Still, Ma’am, I don’t think it’s best to take the handcuffs off.” The guard was becoming annoyed, tired of explaining things to her. While he was speaking, I looked around, wondering how she could safely stay in this dormitory style building alone with so many prisoners, but when I looked up, I saw a glass window, and several guards stood behind it. I realized that the security was not as lax as I first thought.

“Excuse me! Hellooooo? You there!” The woman attempted to get my attention. “I’m going to have to lift up your shirt and see the tattoos you’ve got, and I’ll try not to be rough.” She lifted my shirt, and I heard her gasp. “Mr. Williams, why do you have so many red bruises on your back? What happened to you?”

“Ask the Harris County Sheriff’s Department. But what difference does it make anyway? What’s done is done. Now, can you hurry up and finish?” I responded coldly. I was in no mood for some woman who used her position as a part of the system that wronged me, to ogle my body and behave seductively toward me.

“I see you have a tattoo on your back and on your arms, Mr. Williams. Do you have any more somewhere else?” she asked, her eyes dropping toward my boxer shorts, obviously hoping that I would pull them down.

“Naw, I don’t have any more.”

She continued writing in her record book, but I could not help wondering why she did not take photos with the camera behind the booth or ask about the bandage around my thigh. Still, the less information they had, the better it would be, right?

“Well, Mr. Williams, that’s it for now. Take care of yourself, and I hope your appeal goes okay for you,” she said, still smiling in her usual way. “Next in line,” she said, dismissing me as the other prisoners argued over who would be next in line.

As I was leaving I looked back and shook my head, wondering how they could argue about something so insignificant, but I didn’t really give a damn one way or the other. I just wanted to get the hell out of Diagnostics and get to the crueler reality I knew death row would present. Once I faced the worst and knew how it would be, then I would know what to do and how to act.

As I was escorted to another holdover cell, I was given a set of all white clothing that looked like a servant’s uniform. Who the fuck cares? I thought. It’s not like I’m going to a fashion show or anything.

“Say, Williams,” the same officer who had been escorting me most of the day said, “I forgot to run you down to dental. Do you need to see the dentist?”

“Naw” I said lazily. “I just want to get to wherever it is you’re taking me next.”

“Well, go ahead and relax a little bit, and there’s a sack lunch on the stool if you want it. The boys from death row will be here to get you shortly,” he said. “We called fifteen minutes ago to let them know we’re done with you.”

After lying asleep in the corner for a while, I awoke from a nightmare. “This is how it will feel when they kill you,” I heard the lieutenant yelling in my ear over and over again. I’ll see you again, you bastard! I thought. But I didn’t say that out of anger or the wish to retaliate. I said it as a challenge that he presented to me, in order to show his sorry ass that death row would never kill me.

“Williams,” the guard said in a low tone. “They’re here to get you, Bud, so be cool, alright?”

Although I appreciated the guard’s friendliness, I wasn’t his “bud.” I was someone he would help drag to the death chamber if he were assigned to that task, so I tried to keep in perspective what was happening and what role the guards play in this whole process.

The door flew open and several guards entered with chains, a shotgun and a mask. I knew that the time had come at last. I had been trying to prepare for this moment. Now it was here.

“Okay, Williams, strip off your clothes, and put them on the bars,” said the guard who had just arrived from death row.

Here they go with that “get naked” shit again! I thought to myself.