Friday, November 27, 2015

Meet Your Heroes: The Ballad of Ray Hill

This is a true story.

I haven’t always lived in Houston, you know. There was a time, many years ago, when I resided in a little Texas town known as Huntsville. Population 20,000, give or take.

This would have been back in about 1995. I was ten. Dad moved me and Antony up to this God-forsaken place so that he might attend Sam Houston State University, which didn’t work out as planned and then there we were. In Huntsville.

Now, Huntsville is exactly one hour due north of Houston and any way you slice it, it’s a town that is notable for one thing and only one thing: It is home to the world-famous Texas death chamber.

And the mid-Nineties? Well, this was the Golden Era for Texas death row: George W. Bush was in the governor’s mansion! Guys with 50 IQs and hell, even kids were still fair game for the needle! Texas was lining them up and taking them down. Thirty, even forty, a year. Sometimes two in a single night!

When they did it, they did it in this place called the Walls Unit, right off the center of town. Just some tall red brick walls and some watch towers. Dad and Antony and I lived two blocks away. We were so close we could hear the siren from the prison yard: Once meant it was time for the inmates to come back inside. Twice meant that they’d all been accounted for.

Which, when you think about it, was always a good thing to hear.

Here’s why I’m telling you all of this: One night, it was an execution night and Dad walked Antony and me down and we stood in a parking lot just outside the Walls. I can remember the spotlights, which were spaced out so that there’d be a thin strip of light, and then a lot of blackness, and then another strip of light.

All I could see was that red brick.

Gradually, though, we started hearing people moving around in the blackness, and the people lit candles, and the candles revealed tiny, chubby nuns and other people who looked like tiny, chubby nuns but weren’t. They started singing, and they were singing songs about forgiveness and about life and about God’s love.

This went on for some time.

The group of gawkers kept growing.

At about twenty minutes before execution time, we heard the distant sound of pickup trucks possessing questionable mufflers. The pickup trucks came closer and they pulled up in the parking lot and students from Sam Houston State piled out them.

These students – guys and girls, all with beer cans in hand – they were drinking and they were hooting and they were hollering. One screamed, “Fry ‘em!” over and over again, so loud that her voice broke. Another held a sign on which somebody’d scrawled “Go Death!” **

I’ll never forget it: Into the midst of this suddenly festive environment, a middle-aged white guy walked up. Beard. Glasses. Balding. You know, unremarkable at first. But he spoke to the students and when he spoke, he had a voice like Winnie the Pooh.

Well, like Winnie the Pooh… only east Texan.

He said,
“You kids got an early start, did you? I remember the last time I had a drink. Havana, 1959! I’m hunched over a toilet, the Cuban Revolution blazing right outside the window! Snuck in there just under the wire using a French press pass. And I-”
I couldn’t hear the rest of it because television vans started pulling in. To cover the execution.

My dad said, “The old guy with the voice there is Ray Hill. Does the Prison Show on 90.1. Activist. Rabble rouser. Former jewel thief.*** Has a couple Supreme Court cases named after him.”

I pushed up closer to hear Ray Hill.

I’d never met a jewel thief before!

Ray was leaning in, talking low to two drunk girls – girls who only minutes before had been cheering the execution on.

Now they were crying.

One of them said, “Oh my God! That’s awful. I didn’t know! I didn’t know!” She looked up at the red walls and at the strips of light, and then the girls announced to their boyfriends that they wanted to go home. Off they went. 

I wondered: How did Ray Hill do that? He’d only talked to them for like three minutes. How had he changed their minds about the execution?  

I wanted to know.

I was only ten years old, but that little ten-year-old me needed to know.

I had a hero now and there was so much that I needed to learn from him.


**This must have happened a lot. The next year, which was 1996, a singer-songwriter named Steve Earle released a song called “Ellis Unit One” that mentions this drunken Sam Houston death crowd phenomenon:

“Well, my daddy used to talk about them long nights at the Walls
And how they used to strap 'em in the chair
The kids down from the college and they'd bring their beer 'n all
When the lights went out, a cheer rose in the air.”

Go Death…

***My dad appears to have been wrong about the jewel thief part.


  1. I think there are legitimate reasons for execution... if you can be sure that you have the right person.

    1. It's not an issue I debate much.

      I know I'm in the minority on this issue, and I try not to bicker about politics just to bicker. I will if I believe there's a chance to guide people over to a different place, but that seems unlikely with the death penalty.

      There are too many good things to do out there to waste time bickering!

  2. To my shame, I was once a supporter of the death penalty. In certain cases. When there was no doubt. And then I found that if you were rich and connected you could do anything you wanted, but if you were poor/Muslim justice wasn't even a possibility . When a man is hanged - as Afzal Guru was in India - even though the court itself admitted he was likely innocent but said the collective anger of society "demanded someone answer for the crime" there is absolutely no way the death penalty can be supported. Under absolutely no circumstances.

    1. In the States right now, the debate apppears to be about the chemicals used to carry out the death penalty. Basically, the states are out of the chemicals, and they're experimenting with other things.

      Texas just got busted by the feds for importing some chemicals that aren't supposed to come into this country through the mail.

      (Of course, I wouldn't support it even with the "right" chemicals, but I'm in a small minority here.)

  3. Death Penalty... The justice system has the right to conduct first degree premeditated murder of sick people? I am reminded of John Grisham's nonfiction book, “Innocent Man” -

    "That person is sick in the head. Lets kill this person before we find a cure"


    Bored to death is worst than death...

    The 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef, inmate No. 03911 at the federal Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, is serving life with no parole plus 240 years in a 7-by-11-foot cell with no bars and one small high window. Ramzi Yousef can't speak to anyone, he can't touch anyone, even his meals provide little relief, with the food trays shoved by unseen guards through a sally port between two steel doors.

    Warden David Berkebile wrote to Yousef , in response to his requests to get out of solitary: "You are a violent jihadist, committed to waging war on the United States, with a strong following of supporters and admirers. There is substantial risk that your communications or contacts could result in death or serious bodily injury to others."


    OK, If you can be born gay, it stands to reason one could be born "bad to the bone"

    CONCEPT Bad to the Bone

    1. "[Ramzi Yousef] is serving life with no parole plus 240 years in a 7-by-11-foot cell with no bars and one small high window. [He] can't speak to anyone, he can't touch anyone, even his meals provide little relief, with the food trays shoved by unseen guards through a sally port between two steel doors."

      Sounds like my life! Well, except no one brings me meals...

    2. The Bad (And Good) News About The Death Penalty In Texas

  4. "Other States're trying to ABOLISH the death penalty. My State's puttin' in an EXPRESS LANE."
    This American Life did a show on Roy Hill MANY years ago. After checking, I see it's still up. I just remember cranking up the volume on the rad-eeyo to be able to hear his soft speaking voice.
    All things considered, I'd still rather be home with the armadillo. Anywhere but Colorado Springs ....

    1. I just looked at the stats on the states and the death penalty that I included, above. The bottom, white numbers are how many people have been executed (since 1976) in each state. Texas' 481 is almost as much as the rest of the states combined.

  5. Great story Katy. Can't wait for the rest. The death penalty gives the state government an air of infallibility. I don't know about you, but I don't think there is an infallible government entity on the entire planet.

    1. Obviously, government is untrustworthy and should be trusted with doing anything except teaching our children religion in school and killing some of us.

  6. Shall I, as they say on TV, "tune in tomorrow" for the next part of the story? I'm kinda curious now.

    1. I'm aiming for Sunday.

      I'm notorious for never getting around to writing the second part of two-parters.

      But I have to do this one.

  7. And, now he invites the cops to his Gala, and endorses police chiefs to city council. How times have changed.

    1. Yes. But I'll wait until I post the second part to this on Sunday before I say more than that.

  8. You're leaving me in suspence???? This is very interesting. I know absolutely nothing about any of this, so continue with the history lesson...and pronto Katy!

    1. Hi, Sandra!

      I'm going to try and have a go at part 2 tomorrow. It's a rare week that sees me writing two blog posts in a single week, but if I don't knock it out in the next couple of days, I'm going to move on to something else and never get back to it.

      It's going to be a difficult write.

  9. I'd always been in favor of the death penalty until the last 15 years or so. Back in 1979 my little brother was beat to death and his car torched in a cemetery near the Seawall in Galveston. He'd just gotten out of the Coast Guard and was going to Texas A&M for some kind of Marine Engineering Degree. My late wife, kids and I spent the night before with he, his wife and kids at AstroWorld. My older brother and I had to identify him. That was only time in my life I ever tried to to get so stoned and drunk that I wouldn't remember. It didn't work then or ever. The killers were picked up by the Coast Guard off a shrimp boat a few days later. It was my understanding that the seas were so rough was difficult to transfer the killers, who were handcuffed, from the shrimp boat to the Coast Guart Cutter, safely. One or two of them got trapped between hulls of the boats and I believe one actually fell into the water, and almost drowned before some courageous
    sailor dove in the water and saved the guy from drowning. That was maybe a story to make us feel better or more likely it may have been true.
    At any rate they were the first guys from Galveston who faced a possible death penalty, since it had been legalized again. The three of them plead guilty to first degree murder with a life sentence, rather than risk a trial which would likely have put them on death row. About 20 years later I heard that at least one or two of them had been released. When they had been sentenced, in Texas there was no life without parole, The State Prison System was controlled by the Fifth Circuit, or one of their judges, because it was so overcrowded. There were also problems caused by prisoners "Building Tenders", who were responsible for keeping order, because of the shortage of guards.One of the Building Tenders was Elmer WAyne Henley. You ought to google that name.
    If Katy finishes her story I'll tell you why I'm now against the Death Penalty, even though I'd likely become a hypocrite if I ever ran across one of my brother's killers and had a gun handy.

    1. That's an incredible story and I had no idea, even though we've talked back and forth for damn near a decade now.

      I think there's no question that if someone murdered one of my loved ones, I'd want to extract the most serious revenge I could muster - which is pretty much why grieving and angry loved ones aren't the right people to make those decisions.

      Texas didn't have life without parole until just a few years back. The legislature used to pass it but the governors would veto it because they were afraid that if juries were given that option, they'd choose it instead of the death penalty (seriously - look it up!).

      I look forward to the second part of your story and I hope that I can get part 2 up so you have occasion to post it!

  10. The suspense morphs into anticipation. So the post will be at 12:01a.m. tomorrow morning? Hah!

    1. My punctuality when it comes to writing on a schedule leaves a lot to be desired.

      But I'm going to pull it off this time.

  11. Aww, the jewel thief part was the most intriguing...I mean, if you don't count the part where an old man made some drunk college kids cry by speaking harsh truths. The most menacing thing in the world to me is being in a group of progressive people and hearing "the distant sound of pickup trucks possessing questionable mufflers."

    1. It goes without saying that they thought my Dad "sure had a pretty mouth."

  12. This was a kickass two-parter, Katy. You should do more of these. Write more shit like this and I won't have anything to bitch about.

    1. Thank you, Gert! I'm sure you could have plenty to say about the one I just posted today (12/8/2015). It's not my best, but at least I managed to post something.

      The next one will be better.

  13. It is so great to read a real story. It brings me some new moods. Thanks.


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