Rich did not take the easy path, and certainly not the path of least resistance. On death row, he learned that the rules are subject to interpretation, and that some guards that work there twist and bend them in a way that is very cruel. He was not willing to be silent and endure, or to watch his friends and fellow inmates be tortured and abused without speaking out. He, along with his spiritual brother Paul Colella, wrote many articles about the cruel and inhumane treatment of the men on death row. These can be found at the following link:
I firmly believe that the final petition filed on his behalf by the Innocence Project out of the University of Houston was denied partially because the people in charge like Governor Rick Perry wanted to silence him because they considered him a troublemaker. They wanted to continue to impose the death penalty and use it as a political campaign position to be re-elected. This is because statistics show that approximately 80% of Texans support the death penalty. In writing this account of the last week in the life of my son, Richard Cartwright, I want all Texans, an indeed all Americans, to know what they are supporting when they support the death penalty. If anyone still supports the death penalty after reading this, at least you will support it from a position of full understanding. It is my personal belief that when you do understand how it works, you will be appalled and horrified.
I want to add something else here. I am not a legal person. When my son came into this judicial nightmare, I somewhat supported the death penalty myself. I also strongly believed that the justice system in our country was above reproach, that if a man or woman was convicted, there had to be a good reason because that wouldn’t happen to an innocent person, and that everyone involved in the process always had the truth as their ultimate goal and guiding principle. I am not ignorant anymore, I understand most of what happened to my son, and I will always be sorry that I didn’t know how the legal system worked at the beginning of our walk through it. Everything I write here is from my heart, and if anything I say is inaccurate, it is not on purpose. I am going to give you the truth as I know it, with no holds barred. Fasten your seat belts, sit up, and listen. Otherwise, my story could some day be your story. Your son or daughter could one day lie on a gurney with needles in both arms, and gasp their last breath right before your eyes.
My last truly private visit with my son takes place on Saturday, May 14th. I am allowed to visit with him from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. I fly down from Chicago in the morning, then drive from the airport to Livingston, Texas, where death row inmates are housed on Polunsky Unit.
I go into the main building at Polunsky Unit and provide my photo ID to the guard on duty. The guard checks to ensure I am on my son’s approved visitation list. Once that is done, the guard retains my ID and gives me a bright yellow badge with DR and a number on it to pin on my shirt. “DR” stands for death row. I feel a little like the Jews must have felt when they were “branded” by the Nazis. With my badge in place, I walk through a metal detector, and pass through two controlled doors, and a controlled gate. In doing so, I move through two sets of high chain link fencing, topped with coiled razor barbed wire. I am once again outside. It is a long walk from the guard building to the main building, the evening is warm and sultry, and the walkway is lined with beautiful, very old, rose bushes and moss roses. Tonight I think once again how strange to have such beauty in the midst of a death camp. Finally I am inside the main building. Next, I am buzzed through two more controlled doors, and finally I am in the visitation room. I hand the blue slip of paper to the guard at the table, and I am assigned a window where I can visit with my son.
Each window has a metal shelf in front of the glass, and is about 3 feet wide. There are two phone receivers, on hanging on each side of the window. They are used to speak with the inmate. A plastic stackable chair is where the visitor sits. The inmate on the other side of the glass has a similar shelf, but sits on a metal stool. The inmate is enclosed in a metal cage with solid sides, and a door in the back. The top of the door has a metal grate, and the bottom is solid.
Arriving at the assigned cubicle, my son is already waiting for me. This only happens on Saturday visitation. Other times, a visitor often waits 1 to 2 hours before the inmate is brought to the visitation room. Rich is behind the glass, smiling, and immediately reaches for the phone. You see, on death row, an inmate can never touch their visitor. There is thick glass between us, and we each press one hand to the glass, as though we are holding hands, but in reality our connection is through our hearts, not our touch on the cold glass. We first talk about who will be coming to visit next week, his final week of life. We discuss his appeal, and how much he appreciates the work of Morris Moon in the Texas Defender’s Office and Jared Tyler with the Innocence Project at the University of Houston. Rich tells me that Jared Tyler came to visit him in person on Thursday of the preceding week. Jared let Richard know that it was likely that their petition on his behalf would be denied. There is this thing called “procedural barring” that stands in the way in the State of Texas. Translated (at least this is my interpretation of procedural barring), it means eliminate all possible grounds for appeals to the State of Texas so they can dispose of the men and women on death row in an expedited manner. It prevents evidence from being introduced, no matter how relevant it is..
Rich is simply grateful and amazed that Jared took the time to visit him in person. This is not a common occurrence for him. His attorneys haven’t visited him death row. Instead, more often than not, they send a short letter. There are exceptions to this, and there are some wonderful attorneys that give their heart and soul to these cases and these inmates, but to this point, Richard has not been blessed with that kind of caring legal assistance. Rich tells me he really likes Jared Tyler and his honest, straight forward approach. I tell Rich that Tina Church, the private investigator working on his case that brought both Morris Moon and Jared Tyler into it, is continuing to work hard as well, desperately looking for something that can get his case back into court, or at least postpone his execution. He tells me, “Mom, I am at peace with whatever happens. I don’t want to die, but I hate living like this. And I don’t want a 30 day stay. I would never, never want to put you through this again. I know how hard it is on you, on all of you. If they are going to kill me, it is better done now.” I have trouble not crying. Rich continues to be more concerned with those around him then himself, right to the end of his life.
One more word about Rich’s attorneys. When Richard was given an execution date, his attorney, Michael Gross, did not call or visit him. He did not call me, either. Instead, he sent me a copy of the “Death Warrant” with a one sentence cover letter. Rich received the same letter with a copy of the death warrant in the same manner. I cannot think of a more devastating way to learn your son or daughter has had an execution date set, can you?
Tonight we talk about Jack Wilcox, Rich’s spiritual advisor. Jack is 80 years old, but comes to the prison each day, along with his wife Irene, and they minister to death row prisoners. In reality, it is who they are. Jack and Irene are committed to the spiritual growth of these men, and are so very faithful in their work. They call out between 2 and 4 inmates each day, giving them a brief respite from their cage and loneliness, buy them some food, and simply talk with them, not just about God, but about their wants, needs and hopes. When the time is done, the inmate knows that someone cares about them very much.
Jack just had hip replacement surgery and Rich tells me that Jack came to visit him earlier in the week. Rich was Jack’s first visit to anyone back on the row since his surgery. Jack wanted Rich to know that no matter what, he will be there for him on the 19th, if it comes to pass. Jack wasn’t up to other visits that day, so he left after that. With that visit, a weight was lifted from Rich’s shoulders, he tells me. Jack will be there to see him through. Jack will comfort and guide him, then be there for Rich’s family on execution day. Rich is happy about this, but I am sad, thinking more why Jack will be there, than about the comfort he will surely bring to us all.
Rich also proudly tells me that he was baptized this past week. He says that he knows he was baptized as a baby, but that was my choice. This time, doing it as an adult, it is his choice. He has me laughing as he tells me how he almost drowned and got killed during the process. He says that they took one of the carts that they push around to collect laundry that has canvas bags in it, and they put in a plastic liner and filled it up with water. Then they had him climb in, but he was handcuffed. Somehow they were then pushing him down the run, things were hitting him in the head, he couldn’t stand up, fell under the water, came up sputtering, and was not quite sure he would live through it as it was happening. But in the end, he was baptized and he feels terrific about that. I smile, thinking of him sputtering and surfacing, not quite sure what is going on, but determined to finish what he started, just like everything else he does.
Rich is also concerned tonight about his property. You see, if an inmate has something for someone that is visiting with them, the inmate can send this property out to the visitor ahead of time. He has two pictures for me in his property, actually one for me and one for Ricki, his beautiful 8 year old daughter. The guard keeps saying later. But finally it comes. He is so happy that I have them. Rich tells me to be careful because they are chalk, and could smear so easily. The envelope is taped, so I have to wait until later to look at them. He is peaceful, knowing that I have received his final gift to me and to his daughter.
During the visit, I buy food for my son from the vending machines in the visitation room. I wait my turn, since only one person at a time can buy food. The way it works, the guard has to accompany you to the machines, you put the coins in and make the selection, but you are not allowed to touch any of the food, or the inmate can’t have it. He requests two sandwiches, since meat is very rare in their meals. He also requests 7 packages of teriyaki sticks, which are little sausages. To go along with that, he wants a vanilla Coke, a Dr. Pepper, a honey bun, a bag of barbecue potato chips, a piece of cheesecake, and a cup of peaches. Real fruit is also rare in a prisoner’s diet.
Buying food is a special treat for me, because I am not allowed to buy many things for him. I can send him books through a third party like Amazon (I cannot send him books I have at home, though.), and I can send him paper and envelopes through a third party like Office Depot. Nothing can be sent directly to him. Twice I was able to buy him eye glasses, and you have absolutely no idea how difficult that was. My best estimate is that it took more than 40 phone calls and a great deal of pleading. One would think the State of Texas would be happy to have someone pick up the tab, but that is not the case.
Anyway, once I purchase the food, I go back and talk once more with my son. Soon someone is behind his visitation cage with his bags of food. They drop down the bean slot, a little drop down door, somewhat like a mail shoot, and pass the lunch sized food bags to him. When he has a visit, normally he will skip his meal tray all day, starting with the breakfast tray that is served every day at 3 a.m. Today is no exception. He wants to savor this good vending machine food. He pulls out each piece, then slowly eats it all. I smile, watching him eat, and the he licks his plastic fork after the cheesecake slice is gone.
Next, we talk about God. Richard’s walk with God is very strong, and he tells me that he cannot believe how calm he is as he approaches his death. He says that Jack told him he has “the peace that passes all understanding.” I see it, but don’t quite know if it is real or not. I think to myself, the next few days will tell us for sure. But he is calm, cheerful, his usual zany, lovable self. I enjoy the visit, in spite of my feelings of sadness.
Rich tells me that he has put the Purpose Drive Life book aside, preferring to stay directly in his Bible now. It is his third time through the Purpose Drive Life, and we were actually reading it together. We had set up a calendar with the dates we would read each chapter, and then we were mailing our thoughts back and forth to each other every day. It has been a way of sharing for us, just like we always look at each sunrise and sunset, and think of each other. I say I understand, and I really do. Nothing gives me peace or a feeling of contentment quite like reading my Bible. I am glad to know the same is true for Rich.
Rich tells me that there is a guard at Polunsky Unit that cannot seem to find the Purpose Driven Life book. His name is Sergeant Thompson. Rich asks me if I would give Sgt. Thompson his Purpose Drive Life book if he is executed. He wants the book to continue to bless people. I ask Sgt. Thompson’s first name, but Rich doesn’t know. He says just send it to 3rd shift Sgt. Thompson. I tell him I will.
At 9:50 p.m., the guard walks behind me and says “10 more minutes.” I cringe, knowing I have to leave my son here. It is so very, very hard to do. We spend the last few minutes joking about great escape plans, swooping down with a helicopter, and such. Sadly, we both know it is idle chatter.
Finally, time is up. I press my hand to the glass again, and he does the same. The tears are so close to the surface for me now, and there is a huge, uncomfortable knot deep in my throat. I feel it again as I write this for you. I have learned to live with it. We say good bye, and he asks me to try and bring his daughter for a visit. I promise to do so.
As I leave, all the inmates are still sitting inside their cages. I pass to the other side of the visitation room, and I can see Rich from the back side. He turns to face me, and waves through the wire grate as I once again pass through the controlled doors. I continue to wave as I go down the long glass corridor towards the entrance of the building, until I can no longer see my son. Now I let the tears roll down my cheeks. As my son would say, four more days and a wake up call until he is snatched from me forever.
I head back to where I am staying, taking the two pictures he drew with me. When I get inside, I open the pictures. Rich told me at visitation that even if he gets a stay, he doesn’t think he will draw again because he couldn’t draw anything that would come close to these two pictures. He is right, they are wonderful. For me, he has drawn the head of Christ, complete with a thorny crown. It is all in charcoals, and beautifully done. The expression on Christ’s face is pained and peaceful at the same time. The picture for Ricki is of Ricki. He copied a photograph I sent him of Ricki from last summer, sitting at my kitchen table, drinking a Dairy Queen Blizzard with a big smile on her face. He captured her image and personality beautifully. I not only have a wonderful, gentle, kind, strong son, but a very, very talented one as well.
Sunday there is no visitation. Normally an inmate can have one regular or one special visit each week, providing they are on level one, a level for prisoners that have not gotten into trouble. At each visit up to two people can be there, provided they are on the prisoner’s approved visitation list. A regular visit is two hours in length. A special visit consists of two, four hours visits on contiguous days. Special visits are only available to visitors that travel more than 350 miles for the visit. Inmates are only allowed one special visit per month.
During the week the execution is scheduled, and inmate can have two full days of visits, then four hours on the day of the execution. Anyone on the inmate’s approved visitation list (the prisoner’s list can contain up to 10 names) can come on those days. Rich was allowed to change his list just 9 days before, on May 5th. Normally, a prisoner can only change their list every 6 months, but since he is to be executed, he is able to change it two weeks before his execution. He was called into the office on the 5th of May to change his list, and to let them know what he wanted for his last meal. It was quite stressful, because he had to add some people that wanted to see him, and he was concerned that he would miss someone important. At his visit earlier, he told me he was so nervous, he forgot to ask for breaded pork chops with mushroom gravy, and instead had asked for a cheeseburger and fried chicken!
Anyway, as I stated earlier, there is never any visitation on Sunday. So on Sunday, I went and picked up my granddaughter, Ricki, and we went to church with Jennie, one of Rich’s friends at the Church on the Rock in Livingston. Pastor John Wood is the youth pastor there, and I met him through radio station K-DOL in Livingston. You see, he does a Christian Rock show and has a SHOUTOUT program on Sunday night where you can call or email shoutouts in to the inmates. It is a very special program, allowing people like me to reach out and “touch” their loved one that is many miles away. I can then listen to the show on the internet from my home PC.
After leaving church and the warm, loving arms of the congregation, Ricki, Jennie, and I go to K-DOL to record a special message to Ricki’s Daddy. The folks at the station there are so warm and loving. They have prepared a wonderful meal for us, including ham, and all the fixings to go with it. There is even homemade banana cream pie. Next, after eating, we are able to record personal messages to Rich, and later they will be played, along with the songs we picked, during the Sunday afternoon SHOUTOUT show.. Ricki, as always, picks the song Butterfly Kisses. It makes her Daddy happy and sad. Happy because it reminds him of her, and sad, because he can’t be with her. Bittersweet. Made sweeter hearing her say, “Butterfly kisses Daddy. I love you. This is Ricki.”
While we are talking, Ricki plays with a 12 week old puppy, and swings high on the swing set in the back yard. She is a typical little girl, unaware of the sadness and apprehension in the people around her. One of the personal messages for Rich this day will tell him how happy Ricki is as she swings with “her” puppy, Hannah. It is a beautiful day, and his little girl is happily playing with a puppy, picking flowers and passing them out, and enjoying herself immensely. Rich will tell me tomorrow how much that description of his daughter’s happiness brightened his evening.
All too soon it is time to take Ricki home to get ready for school on Monday, and then I head to the airport to pick up my niece flying in from Chicago. Finally, it is time for sleep, and to get ready for the longest, yet somehow shortest week in my life.
Monday we visit with Rich from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Rich is upset when he comes out because they didn’t get him out until 8:55 a.m. He lost one precious hour of visitation, and he is not happy. The guards tell him they were busy with other things. We are here along with the family of Bryan Wolfe. Bryan’s date with the execution chamber is May 18th, the day before Rich. We are two families joined together in a way that we will never forget. The visitation room is freezing cold. I am always cold anyway, but this cold goes beyond that. I have on a shirt, sweatshirt, and jeans, but am still cold. My niece lends me a black fleece poncho, so I look a little like a caped crusader. I may look strange, but I am warm.