Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Prison Break, an Execution, and a Debate about Double Jeopardy

“I don't want you to be confused and think I'm suicidal or anything like that. It's not natural for somebody to want to die,” said Jerry Duane Martin at a hearing about his death penalty case in June. He had been on death row since 2009, after he attempted to escape from the Wynne Unit, where he was already serving fifty years. A correctional officer had been killed during the incident. In the presence of his attorneys and prosecutors, Martin was now answering the judge’s questions to determine whether his decision to give up his appeals was rational and truly his own. “I've done the wrong thing all my life,” he said. “I'm tired. This is my one chance to do the right thing.”
Martin was convicted of the murder and tonight he will be executed by lethal injection. But another inmate who attempted to escape with him—and who some argue is also culpable for the death of the correctional officer—is not on death row. His name is John Falk, and he hasn’t yet been convicted; his case is in a peculiar and rare form of legal purgatory.
The bizarre story of their escape and the wildly different outcomes in their cases is testament to a much broader truth about the death penalty in Texas: whether or not an execution takes place is the product of a dizzying array of factors. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Wendy Davis Filibuster Reading Marathon Performance Art Experience

In Austin, Texas one recent afternoon, a small group of women, and a few men, held a marathon reading of an unusual text: a transcript from the Texas State Senate. It was the 13-hour filibuster in which Wendy Davis tried to block a law that would restrict access to abortions around the state, an act of political theater that—though the bill was eventually signed into law and 

is now in the courts—has been immortalized as the origin story of 

a political star. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Hell House of Tolerance?

Callie Flores is one of those high-achieving high school students whose weekly schedule might make you wonder when she finds time to sleep.  A junior, she plays alto saxophone in the Temple High School jazz band and marching band, which means sometimes she gets up at five in the morning for practice. She takes courses for college credit. She’s a worship leader at Temple’s Bethel Church, attending every Sunday and Wednesday and singing in a praise band. She wants to work in ministry herself someday, whether through performing music or teaching art.
This October, though, acting has taken over her busy schedule. She’s playing one of the lead roles in Bethel’s Hell House, a faith-based haunted house the church community puts on yearly in the weeks before Halloween. This isn’t a typical haunted house with ghoulish frights and chainsaw-wielding actors. Bethel’s Hell House is a series of jarring “real-life” scenes meant to scare the thousands of people who will pass through during the two-week-long run and to remind them that Hell is a real consequence of poor life decisions.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

God's Favorite Place On Earth

Carl Baugh, a former television personality with slicked-back grey hair and a warm, deep baritone, is a well-known figure in Glen Rose, Texas, a rural town near Fort Worth with a population of 2,400. On a warm Saturday in early September, he greeted several dozen men, women, and children at the Creation Evidence Museum, a small exhibition space open Thursday through Saturday, which he founded and directs. “It’s so good to see you,” he said, smiling as the families took their seats in the wide, tiled room, with high ceilings and a balcony around the perimeter. The museum features a replica of Noah’s Ark and a set of human and dinosaur footprints in a chunk of rock under a glass case. The tracks, found in 2000 by an amateur archaeologist who was exploring a riverbed near Glen Rose, are said by Baugh to be authentic proof that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time, created by God roughly 6,000 years ago.
Baugh’s “Director’s Lecture” is held each month. Today the topic was not just creationism, but the importance of Israel, a country Baugh has visited sixteen times. “It’s my favorite place on Earth,” he told me. “I think it’s God’s favorite place on Earth.”

Friday, October 11, 2013

Monday, September 30, 2013

Your Violin May Catch Fire

Several years ago, I was asked to play violin with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The gig was on a Saturday night — my birthday, in fact — and the show was called “Beethoven’s Last Night.” I had never heard the famed progressive rock band in concert, but I knew of its reputation for excess, including pyrotechnics, costumes, big hair and thousands of fans.

I would be one of eight people in the string section. Actually, the eight of us were only half of the section. The other half would be electronically present via from a recording, just in case any of us screwed up.
So really, I was one-sixteenth of the string section for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, or maybe even less, depending on the volume of the recorded strings versus the live strings.
But still. The gig paid $250 plus dinner for one hour of rehearsing and three hours of performing. In an email, they recommended I bring my “secondary instrument” because of the pyrotechnics (we’re not saying your violin will catch on fire, but you never know!) I don’t have a “secondary instrument,” but I was willing to risk it. Tuxedos were required.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

On the Aftermath of the West Explosion

Off a dirt road connected to ever-flowing Interstate 35, a little metal sign on a wooden fence is the only indication of what lies ahead. Nearby, Buckley Powder, a mining and construction supply company, stores large quantities of ammonium nitrate, the source of the explosion at a fertilizer depot that killed at least 14 people and injured hundreds more last month in West.

In 2012, according to state records, Buckley Powder had as much as 90,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate in bins at this Central Texas plant — stored, according to Howard Wichter, Buckley’s chief financial officer, under conditions in which “nothing can happen to it.”
At a Country Fare restaurant tucked inside a truck stop not far from the bins, Lisa Slickerman, a waitress, said people who lived in the community nearby knew little about what was stored at the plant, but perhaps should have, especially after the West explosion.
“Nobody talks about it,” she said.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Pending Execution Revives Prison Staffing Debate

Photo by Tamir Kalifa

In December 1999, Daniel Nagle, a correctional officer, stood on the Texas Capitol steps, leading a rally to ask lawmakers for a pay raise for his fellow prison employees. His union had been at odds with the prison administration for months over whether a staffing shortage was compromising safety.

“Someone will have to be killed,” he said at the rally, “before the Texas Department of Criminal Justice does anything about the shortage of staff in Texas prisons.”

Two weeks later, Nagle was fatally stabbed by an inmate while working at the McConnell Unit in Beeville. “There was nobody there to call for help,” said his sister Della Nagle. “It was just him and the inmates.”

Officials of the prison workers' union, a chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, including Nagle’s former colleagues, said that understaffing and low pay continue to put officers in danger today. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs Texas prisons, counters that all of its critical security positions are filled. And the inmate convicted of Nagle’s murder says the staffing issues created a situation that was ripe for corruption and led him to being framed.

Read the rest in The New York Times, or a slightly longer version in The Texas Tribune.

Monday, April 8, 2013

What It's Like to Play in Mother Falcon

Here's a little piece I wrote for the Austin American-Statesman about playing violin in the band Mother Falcon:

For several years, during visits home from college in New York, I drifted in and out of a loosely organized group of Austin musicians. By 2010, when I came back to play violin full time, the group was growing, as friends of friends sat in on jam sessions and stuck around. Since then, audiences have grown from dozens to hundreds, and Mother Falcon, as we called ourselves, has transformed from an unplanned experiment into a proper band, with a manager, an LLC, and soon even our own van.

We’re now at a critical juncture, taking the first steps up a steep learning curve to understand the industry we’d like to join. The group has ranged in size between 12 and 20 members, all now a few years older or younger than 23. Many are finishing college. Others are considering alternate careers. We recently recorded a second album, and this summer we’ll travel to the coasts to try to take the band from local notoriety to some level of national attention.

Mother Falcon started around 2007 when Nick Gregg, a student at Westlake High School, began jamming with other cellists after orchestra rehearsals.  Gregg and I had been in a string quartet, learning Mozart and Shostakovich at the Austin Chamber Music Center and working on the side with composers Graham Reynolds and Peter Stopschinski on playing music that offered more room to improvise.

Six years and a college education later, the band has expanded to a swirling network of friends who play all sorts of orchestral, rock, and foreign instruments. We rehearse in one of several tiny living rooms, in a tangle of bows, arms, chairs, and brass. Occasionally, a song will come to us nearly fully formed, as with the dense and ambling guitar-based pieces by Claire Puckett. Usually, though, a small group will tinker with some basic musical ideas— a riff, a few chords, or a melody— for many hours before showing the pencil sketch of a song to the rest of the group.

Then comes a seemingly endless process of refinement. Gregg will turn a string of incomprehensible syllables into words. Isaac Winburne, the drummer, will try about a hundred options before picking one. Then, a week later, he’ll pick a different one.

It’s a collaborative process unlike anything I’ve experienced before, but which probably shares a lot with building a company, designing a building, or sculpting a sports team. It demands that a lot of people learn how to be diplomatic and work through the thought processes of one another patiently.

The songwriting method is creatively liberating, in part, because you have so little control. You’re only responsible for a tiny piece of the final song, so you can feel free to try whatever you want, knowing you’re not responsible for fully designing the musical moment. “To let someone else make half the decisions, or some big part of them, absolves one of the need to explore endless musical possibilities,” David Byrne, former leader of the Talking Heads, has written about collaborating with other musicians. “The result is fewer agonizing decisions in the writing process, and sometimes, faster results.”

In Mother Falcon’s case, the results actually come slower. We’ll sometimes perform a song we’ve spent weeks preparing, and then decide it needs to be drastically reworked. Saxophonist and guitarist Matt Puckett and I often bemoan how much more quickly we might write a song alone. But then we shake our heads and remember how much we like the product of the big collective process, frustrating as that process can be.

Other times a song that has taken tons of work will die in committee, to borrow a phrase from politics. It loses traction as excitement wanes and we eventually forget about it.

Then comes the live show, which is exhilarating or exhausting depending on my mood. Often, as a violinist, I won’t know which other violinists in the band will be joining me on stage. Once the set has started, we have mental shorthand for figuring out who will play each part.

For example, on the song ‘Kathryn’, which opens with a violin solo, I play the lead part when University of Texas student Clara Brill, who wrote it, is at home in California. Clara and I take turns playing a certain solo in the song ‘Fireflies’ that was written by Rita Andrade, who now studies viola in Chicago. Sometimes we double up to cover a part written on the pedal steel guitar by Evan Kaspar, because he has a conflicting gig in another part of Austin.

Of course, there are balls dropped, parts missed, entrances fumbled, but we all trust that the music is rich enough that a missing piece won’t keep the audience from seeing the bigger picture.

We’re still surprised when audience members think we use written scores. Recently, I received an email from a high school band director asking if we could send him our sheet music. I had to tell him that none existed, but I got to work shortly after on a songbook, so that people can take our music and rework it for themselves.

It’s a comfortably fluid situation made possible, in part, because we’re young. The real struggle down the line for Mother Falcon, as I see it, will be to try to preserve our creative dynamic as we professionalize.

At this point, everyone fits the band into their lives differently. Several band members, including bassist Dusty Rhodes, cellist Diana Burgess, and trumpet player Matt Krolick, are still students, so they rehearse and then stay up all night with their class work. Sterling Steffen and Andrew Fontenot, who both play saxophone, and violinist Kira Bordelon, who plays violin, all teach. Accordionist Tamir Kalifa is a photojournalist, and I’m a print journalist. Both of us are trying to build careers as freelancers so we can make our own schedules and mold those schedules like clay in the cracks left open by the band.

Everyone has other, burgeoning careers, whether in music or another field, be it architecture, photography, journalism, or education. We’ve all got competing life choices, and when we choose Mother Falcon these days, we also choose not to do something else.

What we are choosing to do, in effect, is run a small business together in a wildly unpredictable industry. In that environment, we’ll be confronting bigger questions as we figure out how to meet the demands of a brutally unpredictable music industry while preserving the mutually-trusting, creatively rich group ethic that made us want to confront that industry in the first place. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

David Powell and the Death Penalty

David Lee Powell was on his way to sell methamphetamine on the south side of Austin, Texas. It was shortly after midnight on the evening of May 17, 1978, and he sat in the passenger seat of his girlfriend Sheila Meinert’s red Mustang as they cruised through the neighborhood. He wore white pants and a chain around his neck, and his eyes gaped wide under a stringy mop of long brown hair that looked a bit like a hastily placed wig.

Ralph Ablanedo, a 26-year-old police officer on routine patrol duty, saw that the car in front of him was missing a rear license tag and flashed his lights. Ablanedo did not know that the 27-year-old man in the passenger seat was a former University of Texas honors student, the once-amiable son of a respected rural family who had dropped out of school, taken to drugs, and was now living in ambiguous relation with two women.

He also did not know that Powell, deep in a methamphetamine-induced haze, was carrying $5,000 worth of the stuff, a .45 caliber pistol, an AK-47 with nearly forty rounds of ammunition, and a hand grenade. Ablanedo took the couple’s names back to his car to check for warrants. He radioed the dispatcher, who told him that Meinert was not wanted.

Ablanedo handed Meinert a ticket and returned to his car, asking the dispatcher to check on Powell’s name as the Mustang begin to crawl away. Then, the dispatcher called back and told Ablanedo that Powell had a warrant out for writing bad checks. Following protocol, another young cop named Bruce Mills was sent to the scene as backup.

Minutes later, over his garbled hand-held radio, Mills heard screams. He raced to find Ablanedo lying in the street, shouting, “That damn girl.”

The back window of the Mustang had been blown out by gunfire. Mills cradled Ablanedo’s head in his lap in the grass as he cried out, before succumbing to his wounds, “He got me with the shotgun.”
“He hadn’t even pulled his weapon,” Mills later said.

A group of officers chased Powell and Meinert to a parking lot near an apartment complex and traded shots. A grenade flew toward the police with its pin pulled out, but its safety device in place. The cops caught Meinert and handcuffed her, while Powell ran off toward a high school several blocks away. A few hours later, in the early morning, police found Powell hiding in some shrubs.

“I kept asking him why he killed [Ablanedo],” one officer later remembered, “and he never said a word.”

Read the rest at Guernica Magazine

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program

CLEVELAND, Texas — As Christopher Holbert danced down the aisle of a Cleveland Correctional Center classroom, dozens of other prisoners in matching dark blue scrubs flanked him, clapping and cheering in a deafening roar. When he reached the front of the classroom, he spoke for 10 minutes on his business plan for "Adrenaline Indoor Paintball," an idea he has worked on over the last year.

With three investors lined up, he plans to create the company when he returns to the Dallas area. But first he has to finish his three-year sentence for arson.