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"Sam was alone as he had never been before and it seemed that there was no hope for what was left of his life."
On the 27th April 2010 at 18:14 the State of Texas executed my friend Samuel Bustamante. He was born in 1969 into a Hispanic family in Texas. His father left his mother when she was expecting him. Although his father returned after his birth, Sam’s mother never forgave her son for what happened. His mother and father badly abused him throughout his childhood, and he did not do well at school. After leaving school, he got work on the oilfields, but also started getting into trouble with the law.
On the evening of 18th February 1998, Sam went out with his brother and some friends. They offered a lift to a young man from Texas, Rafael Alvarado and Sam killed him with a knife. Rafael was only 27 years old. It was a horrible crime. Sam was arrested shortly after the murder, and in 2001 he received the death penalty. He was sent to death row in the Polunsky Unit, five miles from the small town of Livingston, Texas. There is no library or church on death row. Nor is there an opportunity to work or to do art. There is no common room and the residents are allowed no television. Each prisoner is kept alone in a small room with a solid door which prevents them from communicating with other prisoners or seeing what is going on outside their cell. They are alone for 23 hours of the day. For one hour they are permitted to exercise outside in a metal cage.
Sam was alone as he had never been before and it seemed that there was no hope for what was left of his life. Only one way of escape was left to him; he could write to someone outside the prison. Through the UK organisation ‘Human Writes’, he began writing to his first penfriend, my sister Liz. Liz said, “I wanted to write to someone on Death Row because these are people that everyone has given up on in life and I thought that a lot of them probably didn't have many friends or family in their lives. I wanted to find out what kind of person could commit these crimes".
Liz and Sam began writing in February 2002. He wrote about his difficult childhood and often asked deep questions about life. She said, “Sam was really desperate for someone to love and care for him. In some ways he was almost childlike. I sent him a card with a cartoon caterpiller on it. He named the caterpillar "Fuzzy" and used to talk to it. He got really upset when the guards got rid of Fuzzy. I sent him a puppy picture and that became his new friend.”
Sam wrote that he felt like he was on holiday when he received letters from Liz. Human Writes carries out much needed work. They don’t charge prisoners for finding them a penfriend; something which is very important in a place where prisoners pay for almost everything they need: shampoo, paper, stamps, coffee. Basic meals are provided by the prison, but as Sam wrote, “The food is never cooked right or completely through. Never enough to even feed Ailsa.“ My daughter Ailsa was 3 when he wrote this.
Sue Fenwick founded Human Writes in 2000. She is very busy between her day job and baby sitting her grandchildren or doing work for Human Writes in the evening. Importantly, her family are supportive of her work. Almost twenty years ago when she was considering writing to a prisoner, her son put her application letter in the post, making the decision for her!
Sadly Sue was present at the execution of two of her penfriends. She said, “One man was without support from family or their friends. When we began writing, he asked me to be there when his life ended. I promised that I would do this, and it gave him strength as he waited for death through all the long years in prison.” Sue says that stories like Sam’s are quite common on Death Row. Poverty, abuse and problems at home lead to crime and murder. While this is in no way an excuse, at the same time it’s probable that with a better start in life some of these people would never end up on Death Row. People from black and hispanic groups make up 54% of death row inmates. Sue also told me that she cannot think of a single example of a rich person on death row. They have money for good lawyers. During Sam’s first trial and appeal, his state-appointed lawyers said nothing about his difficult childhood, something which could have made the difference between life imprisonment and the death penalty. Because of this, Sam, the man who was ‘slow’ at school, tried to do some of his own legal work in the hope that it would save his life.
Although I was very proud of my sister, I thought that I would never be brave enough to write to a prisoner. I used to ask Liz about her friend in Texas and she encouraged me to send him a postcard. To my surprise, I received a letter in reply. It was full of feelings, both happy and sad. When we experience difficult feelings, we can talk to a friend or do something to distract ourselves. But Sam was alone in a small room. Writing was just about the only way he had to deal with his feelings. Although I had a small daughter and a busy job, I began writing to him.
Everything from outside the prison was very important to him. He wrote, “I enjoy reading about the nice things you do. It is the only way I can enjoy myself, relax and travel to a place outside this cage.” He told me about his difficult childhood. Because his parents locked him in his room frequently, he learnt to take pleasure in little things which other people would not notice. For instance, he saw things in photos which I hadn’t noticed when I took them. He wrote, “For whatever time God gives me on this earth, I will be sure to enjoy it fully. And appreciate the small things also. The gift alone, June, to see, walk, talk, touch, sit down, move all my body parts. All this is a huge blessing to have every day.”
He felt great regret over the murder of Rafael Alvarado. Sam recognised that he was responsible for the difficult situation in which he found himself. But he wrote, “If they kill me, I can’t show how sorry I am.”
Although he had very little money, it was important for him to give his friends presents. He sent me stickers and pictures for Ailsa. It was also important for him “to listen” to his friends. He wrote, “Even the times you are sad, tired, sick, depressed are things I can use and relate to since I have been through the same thing”
One day, he began his letter in French. He had a ‘big sister’ in France, Emmanuelle. She had been campaigning against the death penalty for years before she got to know Sam through the internet. She said, “He wanted to learn everything about my country and its customs. He was like a child who is continually discovering the world.”
Emmanuelle made three trips to Texas to visit Sam. Because no physical contact is permitted with someone on death row, Sam was behind a large window and the two spoke through a telephone. Sam wrote, “The human touch is something that I do miss more than my freedom”.
At the end of every trip, Emmanuelle did not know whether she would ever see her friend again. But she said, “Visiting Death Row is not only sad. When you are in front of one another, you talk as if you are in the free world. We would talk about life, hobbies, family, friends, work and so on.”
Shortly after Christmas 2009, Liz phoned to say that an execution date had been set for Sam. From then on we knew to the minute when he would die. His health was badly affected. He suffered from headaches and nightmares. The arthritis in his hands grew so bad that he could no longer write to penfriends individually. He wrote letters to Emmanuelle which she distributed by email to around thirty friends. In January 2010, he wrote, “I am trying to be strong … but this is one of the toughest battles I’ve ever had to fight.”
His faith in God was a great help to him. He completed a correspondence course in Christianity at the start of 2010. He wrote on the 8th March, “I’m at peace and very content in my heart nowadays. I have accepted whatever outcome God has planned for me.”
There was a slim chance that he would receive clemency. This would mean life long imprisonment instead of execution. His friends wrote letters to the State of Texas on his behalf.
In March he saw his son, then aged 15, for the first time since he had been condemned to Death Row. He wrote, “We laughed, cried and could not stop talking.”
Six days before he died, he wrote, “Even as I sit in this cage, I know that I am blessed beyond anything I could have thought of. …My will to grow is very strong.” On the 26th of April, the State of Texas refused clemency. His lawyer made a last appeal to the Supreme Court.
I spoke to Sam on the last day of his life at 15:45 Central Daylight Time, CDT (21:45 British Standard Time, BST). Although he had less than three hours left to live, he was calm and strong. I was crying, but he asked me how the children were doing, just as if we were having a normal conversation.
Sam was baptised at 17:30 CDT. The news came that he had lost the appeal at the Supreme Court. I kept a vigil throughout the last moments of his life, as did Liz, Sue Fenwick and other friends around the world. People gathered in various places in Texas itself to protest against the execution. Between 18:00 and 19:00 CDT the independent radio station KPFT broadcast the program ’Execution Watch’ for Sam.
At 18:14 CDT (00:14 BST), our friend received a lethal injection. One of the substances which was administered is banned for use with animals as it is considered too cruel. At 18:22 CDT, Samuel Bustamante was dead.
The next day I began to understand what the Alvarado family suffered; I had also lost a friend through violence.
Liz said, “He went from being very needy to very strong.” Emmanuelle wrote that he will always be in the heart of his big sister. When I am grumpy and tired, I think of the gift which Sam had to enjoy the small blessings in life. Through friendship with someone living in the shadow of death, I learnt how valuable life is.
By June Graham
This is an English translation of a Gaelic original which appeared in the June 2011 of Cothrom, a bilingual quarterly magazine for learners and supporters of Scottish Gaelic. We thank them for their permission to reproduce it on our website.