23 September, 2021

The Speak Easy Gavel Club VPE Redux

Remember how much I enjoyed my first days in ERDCC's Speak Easy Gavel Club, and soon after being elected a Gavel Club officer? Well, get ready to read even more about speechifying, honing leadership skills, and cultivating self-betterment, because yours truly has been elected once again to the position of Vice President Education in the organization.

Our club's normal period for elections is the month of June. COVID-19 cramped everyone's style. When the Department of Corrections allowed groups to meet again a couple of months ago, Gavel Club's old guard were itching to vacate offices too long held. (In the case of our now-outbound president, extraordinary – really, absurd – circumstances made him the longest sitting president in club history, at two and a half years.) Fresh faces were all too happy to step in and fill some of those offices. Whether out of others' deference or their fear, I ran for Vice President Education unopposed.

The VPE is the club's scheduler. Part of the duties of office involves tracking members' progress though Toastmasters speech and leadership projects, and helping them meet their goals. Other responsibilities include organizing club meetings and planning monthly themes for the year. It's a nice vote of confidence to be installed in such a position of influence, to be empowered to direct thirty-odd people's transformation into more effective, confident communicators.

My membership began as a lark. Probably because I was never really involved with Corporate America, I had only the vaguest idea of what Toastmasters did. Joining up with its affiliate, Gavel Club, was simply a matter of trying something new in my prison life. I spent almost seventeen years at Crossroads Correctional Center, a facility that offered almost no positive, structured activities. Then I came to ERDCC. Suddenly: stuff! Why not give this speechifying thing a go?

Delivering speeches never compelled me before. More accurately, I never considered public speaking as something that I might do. I'd certainly given performances – musical theater, violin recitals, making awful spectacles of myself – but of course I'd written plenty of essays. Coherently presenting series of structured thoughts aloud, using meaningful body language, maintaining eye contact with an audience, employing the right vocal inflections to express my intended message, and all the other aspects of good speechmaking involve a skill set I'd barely used before that morning, three years ago, when I delivered my Gavel Club icebreaker.

Honing my interpersonal skills, exercising a different type of mind-body harmony, building my improvisational abilities, and, most importantly, helping others do the same, are what the Gavel Club experience is all about. I can hardly wait to start this new facet of it.

21 September, 2021

Ten Years After Filing, My Application for Pardon Gets Shot Down

My hopes were never all that high. Governors, even when they do exercise their clemency privilege, rarely grant pardon. Why undo what the courts – those perfectly fair and just arbiters of truth – have done? Justice had its chance at trial. Still, this form letter on flimsy paper is a major letdown.

"Dear Offender Case," it begins.

My first thought was, Fuck you, you pompous twit. Would it have killed him to address me with a formulaic "Mr."? I envision a meeting of self-righteous DOC higher-ups, at which were discussed sundry ways of making sure the imprisoned feel good and low. I'm sure that suggesting the word "offender" won someone high praise. It succeeds in being simultaneously reductive and hyperbolic, a big, ugly brand on the neck of anyone who passes through the gates of a "correctional" center. Even if I were guilty of the crime that put me in prison, this designation would piss me off.

"This letter is in response to your application for Executive Clemency. I regret to inform you that the Governor has declined to grant clemency."

So that's that, then.

I filed my application for clemency in the fall of 2011, following months of research. Once I composed a straightforward narrative of my case and felt ready, I mailed my application form with a forty-one page summary of the case, a personal letter to then-incumbent Governor Jay Nixon, information relating to bipolar disorder (which Kelly Moffett was diagnosed with), a Kansas City Police officer's report, a copy of the 2007 book The Skeptical Juror and the Trial of Byron Case, an excerpt from a forensic study titled "Eye Changes After Death," and Jackson County Sheriff's Department interviews with Robert WitbolsFeugen and Betsy Owens, Anastasia WitbolsFeugen's parents.

A bunch of my friends and supporters wrote letters that pleaded for Mr. Nixon to give me my freedom. The Office of the Governor forwarded these to the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole, which manages all clemency applications for the governor. For a while, P & P even forwarded me copies of its responses. They must have some rule about only answering constituents, because I never heard about anyone living outside of the state hearing back, but still, a nice gesture.

My mother started a petition online, collecting signatures in support of my release. John Allen, author of that Skeptical Juror book, wrote a whole series of mailings to Governor Nixon, which picked the case to bits. Both John and Mum traveled to Jefferson City, Missouri's capital, to meet and talk with two successive governors' legal counsel. All of this for naught.

I'm not complaining that Governor Parson shot me down (or not only that, anyway) but that the act took a full decade to carry out and ended with an insulting form letter. Insult to injury.

Oh, but FreeByronCase.com got a cool new look and layout last week. At the same time, Framed for Life, Volume 3 hit Amazon's shelves and some journalists took an interest. My lawyer has been quiet for a couple of months, which I can only hope means the species of busyness that yields progress. Dedicated supporters are putting forth more energy, all at once, than they have in a while. All of this imparts the sensation of building momentum – but is that really what it is? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, shame on you, Governor Parson, for rubber-stamping people's lives away.

13 September, 2021

Six Books I Read This Summer

The season started in March, with a book my mother sent me, When This Is Over: Pandemic Poems, by Ralph James Savarese, an Iowa poet. I picked through its contents slowly, wondering at my disconnect from the world. The same happened after 9-11, when I listened to countless news radio broadcasts, failing to fully appreciate the immensity of what was being discussed. Because in September of 2001, I was locked in a cell and facing my own zero-sum existential battle, media coverage of the Twin Towers tragedy had a slight whiff of overreaction – a scent to which I'm deathly allergic. Savarese's pieces in When This Is Over similarly overtaxed my empathic algorithm. My response was less "So what?" than "Too much, too soon." Because several of his autobiographical poems mention his son, who is, as I am, on the autism spectrum, I hope he'll understand my stance and be forgiving of it.

For me, The Sandman Omnibus, Volume III, by renowned British SF writer Neil Gaiman, constituted a conclusion twenty-four years in the making. I started reading his gorgeous, lush Sandman graphic novels in 1997, when my friend Stasia loaned me what was then the entire run. The series ran for a while longer, spinning off several excellent tie-in miniseries, such as Death: The High Cost of Living and Sandman: The Dream Hunters, in the process. By the time Gaiman wrapped it all up, in the six-part Sandman: Overture, I'd moved far enough away from the world of comic books that even this award-winning literary work couldn't draw me back to the fold.

Now, however, I've made time enough to read the entire cycle through. As she did with the previous two dictionary-sized hardcover volumes, the ever-generous Emily C. sent me Volume III as a gift. And what a marvelous gift they've been! Like visiting old friends, from Martin Tenbones to Mad Hettie. No spoilers here, but I will say that the ending satisfied immensely, even as it left me in thrall to Desire and Despair.

Different forms of those presented themselves when I read the Framed for Life, Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3/4, the latest exculpatory endeavor by John Allen, who also wrote the series of Skeptical Juror books, beginning with The Skeptical Juror and the Trial of Byron Case. Although he wrote that particular text before meeting me, we've since become friends. Subsequently, he's had ten years to research and refine the most thorough, logical narrative of the case of Anastasia WitbolsFeugen's death, and my wrongful conviction for her supposed murder, yet. Framed for Life isn't for casual readers. It represents a systematic synthesis of data organization, information gathering, experimentation, and the author's obstinate willingness to raise a few hackles at the Jackson County Prosecutors Office, which these books show conspired to convict me, as well as many others (i.e., Theodore White, Richard Buchli, Ricky Kidd, et alii), with perjurious testimony, withholding and altering evidence, and generally being amoral shits. These weren't easy reads for me (see my "Framed For Life" post from mid-August), but I'm glad I made myself read them anyway.

Master Ma's Ordinary Mind: The Sayings of Zen Master Mazu Daoyi, by Fumio Yamada (translated by Nick Bellando), a Japanese Zen teacher, enriched my life at a rate of one saying per day. When I finished with that book, The Zen Sayings of Homeless Kodo, by Kosho Uchiyama and Shohaku Okumura, and edited by Molly Delight Whitehead, footed the bill. Both books offered straightforward teachings and commentary, but the latter did so from the perspective of three generations of teachers, beginning with the eponymous Kodo Sawaki, who died in 1966. The teachers in that book piggybacked off Kodo's words – and each other's. Imagine a posthumous correspondence with a parent and a grandparent. (Zen Buddhism is big on lineage and refers to one's teacher as one's dharma mother or father.) Both offered worthy insights.

For the literary gifts mentioned here, and for everything else that you do for me, thanks again, John, Emily, and my dear Mum. I appreciate all of you so much.

10 September, 2021

JPay Tweaks Its E-mail App and Stabs Meaningful Communication Right in the Heart

Like the naive victim of any confidence scheme, I dutifully complied when I got the notification, and synced my tablet at the JPay kiosk in my wing to download the latest critical update. I should've held out; being an early adopter is often costly.

Suddenly, the e-mail app I'm forced to use no longer allows line breaks. The button that should say "Enter," on the Android keyboard, instead says "Done" and returns you to the app's main screen. Goodbye, salutations! New lines, paragraphs, and blockquotes are things of the past, too. Could this be a glitch, an unplanned bug that renders our e-mail compositions as ticker-tape communiques? Or do JPay and the various Departments of Corrections with which it colludes have ulterior motives?

Despite the old saying about not attributing to malice what you can blame on incompetence, my bet lies squarely on the former. There's probably more money to be made by forcing prisoners to type messages as unbroken blocks of text. It makes the presentation of even moderately complex thoughts more difficult. Call me a formalist if you want, but how does a writer switch subjects without beginning a new line? A further impediment is that writing in one long line taxes the working memory of this underpowered JP5S tablet I'm using, causing it major slowdowns. Even now, these letters lag behind my thumbs' ability to tap them out – a lag that'll only get worse, the more I type. Shorter messages, in theory, should also result in more messages. At 25¢ per e-mail, more messages mean more money in JPay's coffers. You don't need to be an economist to figure this stuff out.

Communication, when you're imprisoned, is difficult enough. If I had to cite the single worst stressor in my life, it wouldn't be fear of my fellow prisoners, the emotional weight of legal concerns, or sharing a tiny personal space with a careless boob – it'd be the myriad restrictions placed on my ability to stay in touch with everyone I care about.

So now there's this. How much longer will it be (if ever) before the prison profiteers at JPay cut us a little slack? I think this is just the latest in a lengthy procession of signs that I need out of here. I'm too large for prison.