27 February, 2014

Show Your Support with a Click: An Update on My Pardon Application Process

The crux of my 2011 “Show Your Support with a Click” post was a plea for Pariah’s Syntax readers to voice their support of my pardon application by following a link to the Free Byron case petition. More than 1,200 have done so, sending the message to Governor Jay Nixon that they are aware of the injustice of my wrongful imprisonment and want me released.

To those who have signed, your support means the world to me. It took courage to overcome the prejudice created by the jury’s verdict, to review the facts on your own, to discover my wrongful conviction and, most courageous of all, speak truth to power by adding your name to (or even signing anonymously) that petition. Really, thank you.

At this point, the Office of the Governor has held my pardon application under consideration for two and a half years. According to the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole, who administer much of the pardon process, most requests for executive clemency (including commutations, reprieves, and pardons alike) are decided within eighteen to twenty-four months. The few applicants I know here were almost all rejected within three or four. What does this delay mean for my chances? No matter the merits of an applicant’s case, asking the governor of any state for a pardon is a long shot, but there are a few factors that help my odds.
  • In a meeting with one of Governor Nixon’s legal advisors, it was clear to my representatives that details of my case are well understood by the Governor’s staff. There being no “smoking gun” involved, my case takes this kind of close attention to comprehend. The deeper you look into it, the more the arguments for my guilt fall apart. In short, knowing the details as they do, they ought to be convinced of my innocence.
  • I’m a model prisoner. In this violent maximum-security facility where I’ve lost the past twelve years, I’ve only ever received two conduct violations. One was for having a pen pal ad (if you need an explanation, read this post). The other was for having a contraband sheet of four adhesive Avery file-folder labels in my cell. No fights, no insubordination, and none of the violent behavior someone with the homicidal urges my accusers claim I have should’ve surfaced at least once in all these years.
  • I have a lot of support from a group of fantastic people. Friends have sent numerous letters to the Governor, attesting to my character and their willingness to give me all sorts of assistance if I’m released: places to stay, transportation, employment, and so on. My transition back into the world wouldn’t be a burden on society, the way the average prisoner’s would.
Do these points actually mean anything, practically speaking? The decision to pardon or not to pardon is purely a political matter, not a judicial one, so the return of my freedom ultimately depends on what the public seems to think. And who is the public? You are.

I started blogging because a friend convinced me that putting my thoughts out there to be read would help people know me better as a person, not as a case, a caricature, or a cause. Is it working? Am I being understood? The number of readers this blog attracts in a week, versus the number of petition signatures collected, tells me no — that many people can shrug off an innocent man’s life being taken because of his teenage friends’ death pact. Two lives are already lost, they might as well say, so what’s one more? That’s exactly what my sentence of life without parole means: without your help, I’ll die in prison.

But not quickly. In the decades to come, there will be losses to bear as my loved ones fall away. I’ll awaken to this purgatory every morning with the knowledge that a little more time has slipped away, feeling that I’m a half-step closer to the grave myself — an end that I can only hope is sudden, so that I might be spared the physical agony of illness in the fumbling, negligent “care” of prison doctors. I’ve been sentenced to life, but it’s no way to live.

Please go to the Petition Site and sign. Please.

09 February, 2014

The Liability of Being Liked

I’ve been discriminated against for countless reasons in my life — for wearing too much black, for being too free with my speech, for hanging out with sketchy characters, et cetera, ad nauseam — but being popular was never one of them. Leave it to prison to change that. Prison: where weekends become occasions for mild dread, being a good citizen lands you in trouble, and sex is something to avoid at all costs. Very little manages to remain uncorrupted here.

A couple of months ago, my friend Davy Rothbart was touring to promote his latest book and the newest issue of his magazine, FOUND. He divides his busy, busy schedule almost exclusively between Ann Arbor and Los Angeles, so the tour’s Midwestern leg offered a rare opportunity for him to visit me here at Crossroads, one hour’s drive from Kansas City. It had been a while and I was excited to catch up with Davy in person. There was, of course, a hitch.

His itinerary put Davy in the area on a Saturday, with a Sunday evening departure. Not being immediate family nor my significant other, visiting hours limited him to a Friday appearance. Policy says that traveling further than 250 miles makes a potential visitor eligible for “special visit” consideration, however, so I filed a Special Visit Request form with the prison administration, citing the distance Davy was coming, plus the narrow window of opportunity involved. My last two visits with him were approved this way, as were several other friends’, because I only ask for a waiver of visitors’ status, not some extravagant off-hours affair. Nevertheless, the administration’s response this time was a denial: “Offender already receives frequent visits from friends and family.” You can’t have too much of a good thing, at least not around here — they won’t let you.

Adding injury to insult, being regarded as a worthwhile person to spend time with has now affected my employability, too. At multiple staff members’ urging, I applied for an open position in the staff dining room last month, where I worked as a server many years ago and was generally approved of. (Hotel front-desk hospitality skills really stick with you.) One of the civilian cooks (a “square,” in prison lingo) made a point of telling me how much my cleanliness and work ethic would be apreciated there, so I assumed that my hiring back to the job was all but guaranteed. I could almost feel carpal tunnel syndrome setting in from all the additional writing time a four-day workweek was going to afford me.

“Sarge would have to give you Friday, Saturday, and Sunday off,” a guard confided, the day after I applied. “He probably isn’t gonna do that, Mister Case. You just get too many visits.”

The fact is, although my mother drives up from Kansas City nearly every weekend, friends mostly live out of state and visit intermittently, as schedules permit. It’s not as if celebrity status invites stop-ins from so many fawning fans that I bump up against my monthly ten-visit limit. Yet the guards who have to amend their count sheet and fill out a movement pass every time regard me as a minor nuisance. More than once, remarks have been made about having to “escort Mister Popular to the door.” It’s a lot of flak to take, considering I don’t even get paid.

Ironically (because a measure of irony creeps into just about every blog post I write), the Missouri Department of Corrections has a lot to say about the myriad benefits of visits. As part of a state-sponsored program, I’ve even been directed by a caseworker to work on my “social deficits” through them. Sitting in her office, scrolling down a lengthy computer document at my annual review, she said, “This year I want you to work on your social. Can you think of any activity you could do that’d help with that? Like, maybe you could go out and play cards in the wing.”

Dumbstruck that playing cards was part of Crossroads’ correctional regimen, I could only blink at her while my brain rebooted.

“Oh, I know!” she piped, clearly tickled by her eureka moment. “You get a lot of visits, right? We’ll make your goal this year to get visits. Then, when you come back for your next review, I’ll ask what work you did towards your goal and you can tell me, ‘I got visits.’”

A record of this insanity is now a permanent feature of my institutional file.

We encourage visits; don’t expect us to let you have visits. Have your loved ones come see you often; don’t have your loved ones come see you too often. The logic doubles back, the snake devours its own tail, and I can’t reason my way past the paradox. No, I didn’t get the server job I applied for, but the kitchen job I have is tolerable and Davy just sent a card saying he’d try to fit in a Friday visit next month — so I guess I don’t have to.