Texas death row inmates go high-tech in longshot bid for clemency
With the rise of the internet, many are harnessing its power to beg for a second chance at life
By Keri Blakinger
HOUSTON — When he watched the first video, he looked for remorse. When he watched the second, he found understanding. Then he watched the third and the fourth, pressing play again and again.
Seeing the footage only reinforced what Mitesh Patel already knew: He would fight for the man who murdered his father 14 years earlier.
The killer — former San Antonio gang member Christopher Young — never claimed he was innocent. He didn’t argue it was self-defense. He still has pending appeals. But with an execution looming on July 17, his best hope for reprieve may lie in a 14-minute clemency video.
Young’s rare tech-savvy submission to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles is a sign of the times. As courts transition into the digital age with online records and e-filings, clemency proceedings, too, are moving into the 21st century. Where 20 years ago a paper submission and calls to the governor were the best options, today prisoners can garner support through Change.org petitions, Facebook campaigns, emailed calls to action, and — as in Young’s case — painstakingly produced footage.
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” said attorney Keith Hampton, who is not representing Young. “So we take advantage of that.”
A rarely used executive privilege, death row clemency offers an 11th-hour reprieve to a lucky few prisoners slated for execution. In Texas, a written petition —sometimes dozens of pages long — is carefully crafted by a legal team and sent in hard copy to the parole board in Austin at least 21 days before the scheduled death date.
Then, the seven board members review the petition independently. One member may pay a visit to the condemned. Others may talk to survivors and victims’ families.
Two business days before the execution, they announce their decision. If it’s a yes, the plea lands on the governor’s desk for the final decision. If it’s a no, mercy is off the table.
Room to be ‘creative’
Throughout most of the Lone Star State’s history, that’s been the entirety of the process. But with the rise of the internet, advocates, lawyers and even the condemned men themselves are harnessing its power to beg for a second chance at life.
“The board has rules about clemency petition submissions and they’re very bare bones — and in those blank spaces, there’s space to be creative,” said Kathryn Kase, a longtime defense attorney who previously headed up Texas Defender Services.
In the early 2000s — in what likely was among the first video offerings — attorney Jim Marcus submitted a VHS tape with his clemency petition for Thomas Miller-El. He never found out if the board actually watched it, but in the end the courts intervened and Miller-El got a stay based on racially tainted jury selection practices in Dallas County.
Since then, other Texas prisoners — including death row inmates Paul Storey and Scott Panetti — have released clemency videos publicly, sometimes even when they weren’t part of the official petition.
“Videos — particularly in clemency — are going to be the wave of the future,” Hampton said.
But it’s hard to say how often submissions like these pop up, as many pieces of clemency submissions aren’t public. What is public — as pointedly public as possible — is the broader clemency campaign effort, which often includes a push for supportive calls, letters and emails to the board or the governor.
In support of Young’s efforts, for example, the Texas Coalition Against the Death Penalty launched a Change.org petition including an embedded video and a plea to “send a message” to the board and the governor. As of Monday morning, more than 21,000 people had signed.
‘A hard realization’
Young carjacked a woman at gunpoint in San Antonio in 2004, then headed to a mini-mart and dry cleaners. He walked in, asked for prices, and then demanded money.
Store owner Hasmukh “Hash” Patel pushed the panic button and ran, but Young followed and shot him to death before fleeing. Police caught him later that morning just a few miles away.
When a Bexar County judge pronounced his death sentence two years later, Young heard a gasp from the crowd. His mother had fainted.
Whatever the toll on his family — and his victim’s family — Young came to death row angry and bitter. For almost a decade, he stayed mad at the world. Then, five years ago, something changed. The anger dissipated, replaced with remorse, he told the Houston Chronicle in a death row interview.
He doesn’t know what clicked or why he moved on. But today, he says, he’s a different person.
“I stopped blaming others for my situation and realized that I put myself here,” he said. “And that’s a hard realization.”
Los Angeles-based filmmaker Laurence Thrush first set his sights on Young’s case in 2014, when he started making a show about the prominent Houston-based capital defense lawyer David Dow. The series fell through, but in the process, Thrush met Young, one of Dow’s clients. The two hit it off.
They stayed in touch, and at the start of this year, the pair teamed up to make a film from death row.
“For me conceptually it was really interesting to see what he would make as a filmmaker, this idea that we can really make things remotely,” Thrush said, “that he can tell me what to shoot and who to interview.”
At that point, Young still had pending appeals. But then in March, he got an execution date, and everything changed.
Putting the main film on hold, Thrush redirected his efforts, instead focusing on a video aimed at saving the condemned man’s life.
Do videos work?
The parole board doesn’t have to give any insight into the reasoning behind its decisions, so it’s hard to say what will work or even to pinpoint what’s been persuasive in the past.
But videos do offer a few clear advantages.
For one, it’s a way to shoehorn in more voices in states that limit the number of witnesses allowed at live clemency hearings, said Laura Schaefer, an attorney with the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Representation Project.
But in Texas, the condemned doesn’t get to talk to the entire board, so a video is a way to make that happen. And footage can bolster broader clemency campaigns with an emotional message.
“In terms of getting more public support,” Schaefer said, “using a video is going to help bring more people to the cause because they can see the person speaking.”
It’s hard to say if it’s effective, though; clemency is rarely granted. And it could work the other way, too — if video can bolster the defense arguments, the same strategy could help the state.
“There’s nothing to stop district attorneys from doing the same thing,” Hampton said, “making videos saying, ‘Here’s the victims.’”
Looking for the good
When Gov. Greg Abbott granted a last-minute commutation to death row inmate Bart Whitaker following a board recommendation earlier this year, it was the first time a Texas governor had shown such mercy in more than a decade.
The Fort Bend man’s case stood out because the one survivor of the attack — Whitaker’s own father — begged Abbott to spare his son.
Three months ago, Young was in a very different position; the family of his victim planned to watch the execution and did not support clemency. But then Thrush reached out to Patel, showing up unannounced on his doorstep one day.
At first, Patel was hesitant. But then, he agreed to talk. And it was learning of the video — and the fact Young showed remorse —that swayed him.
“I assumed he was a typical death row inmate with no remorse,” Patel said. “But learning that he’s been a positive force in his daughter’s life, that struck a chord with me.”
Maybe, Patel thought, Young could serve a better purpose in prison, sharing his story of change and personal transformation. And maybe his daughters wouldn’t have to go through the same heartache Patel has for more than a decade without a father.
So he decided to go to the board and advocate for Young’s life for the sake for his children.
“We’d rather see some good from all of this,” Patel said. “His execution doesn’t change what he did 14 years ago. It doesn’t bring my dad back.”
©2018 the Houston Chronicle