Voices From Death Row: A Prisoner Writes An Ode To ‘Living Dyingly’

Jan 22, 2015

Credit Wikimedia Commons

On Wednesday, Jan. 21, Thomas Bartlett Whitaker’s blog entry, titled ‘21 Years of Living Dyingly,’ opens with these words from British philosopher and humanist Anthony Clifford Grayling:

Death has two faces: one’s own 

Death, and the death of those we

Love.  Wisdom looks into the eyes of

Each face and sees what it must.

Below is a picture of a man, Arnold Prieto, in what appears to be an incarceration facility, and the rest of the post follows.

[Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is unedited]

“It’s around 6 p.m. on New Year's Eve.  I am supposed to be writing an entry to be mailed out on the 2nd. It says so right on my calendar: “Send out AP article today, NO EXCEPTIONS.” I'm not generally in the habit of procrastinating like this, especially when I talk to myself in all caps. Actually, I've been attempting to pick the lock on the gates of inspiration for over a week now, to no avail.  I’ve never wanted to write something less, never felt so inadequate to the task.  If you are reading this, they are in the process of killing my best friend, Arnold Prieto. I’m supposed to eulogize him, and I can’t seem to find my words.”

The Associated Press reported that Arnold Prieto was pronounced dead at 6:31 p.m. C.T, on Wednesday evening, 20 minutes after a lethal dose of pentobarbital began flowing into his veins. Asked by the warden if he had a final statement, Prieto replied: “There are no endings, only beginnings. Love y’all. See you soon.”

Whitaker’s blog post, housed on a website called Minutes Before Six, goes on to make references to Albert Camus’ 1947 classic, The Plague, dips into a Camus-inspired existential ramble and returns to an attempt to convey the detail of Prieto’s being essentially “noble,” which fact, he admits, will be lost in translation to anyone unfamiliar with death row units.

He is right. It is lost, especially when you remember that both he and Prieto, at separate times, admitted to cold bloodedly planning brutal murders. Prieto also carried out the murders, and a decade later, Whitaker watched as a contract killer he had hired, executed half his family.

When you manage to step back from your indignation and distaste and read on, and when Whitaker drops the existential angst and talks of Prieto and himself and their relationship in simple terms, this insight into the undoubtedly complex minds of prisoners on death row makes for a fascinating read.  Here’s another bit from Whitaker, on Prieto.

“The truth is, we probably shouldn’t have been friends in the first place. We have almost nothing in common. He’s not political. He couldn't be persuaded to learn what it meant to be right or left wing. If one were to plot out what he believes on a map, he’d be pretty firmly in GOP territory.  To rile me up (and, oh, does he ever know how to press my buttons), he talks about how Edward Snowden should be executed…”

Whitaker and Prieto met on death row at Texas’ notorious Allan B. Polunsky Unit, which, in 2013, was ranked No. 2 on a Mother Jones list of “America’s 10 Worst Prisons,” the result of a three-year investigation by the publication.

Whitaker, who came from an upper class background, made it to Polunksy for plotting to have his younger brother Kevin, mother Tricia and father Kent shot dead on Dec. 10, 2003, as they and he returned home after celebrating his future “college graduation.” As they entered the house, each of them was shot — his wound was superficial — by an armed intruder. His brother and mother died, his father survived. The ensuing police investigation went on to find that ‘Bart’ Whitaker, as he was called, decided he wanted his family dead for no reason other than irrational anger, insecurity and hate.

In written posts and interviews thereafter, he claims to be a changed man, the one his father has forgiven, most people, though, are nowhere near as forgiving as his father.

The title for the website, Minutes Before Six, comes from the fact that Texas executions usually take place at 6 p.m, and the blog itself has been a seven-year-plus work in progress, so far. Minutes Before Six also seems to have branched out quite a bit from its initial mission — that of being Whitaker’s attempt to come to terms with his journey to his execution date, by blogging about life on death row at his father’s request.

“My father seems to think that someone might actually be interested in my perspective about this whole mess that is my life, and I don't know what to say to him,” he writes. “This is for you dad. The masks are off,” he’d written on July 24, 2007. 

The website is apparently now quite well known in the virtual world, and beyond, as a community for prisoner advocacy, activism and a forum for literature, mostly penned by prisoners on death row, and reportedly has a devoted following; and of course, its own Facebook page.

So who really is Whitaker? For Sugar Land, Texas, homicide Sgt. Marshall Slot, the lead investigator on the case, he “is a true sociopath.” Some call him a prisoner activist, others a con artist. Given the flowery prose he tends to use in his writing and his penchant for heavy, classical quotes, he clearly thinks himself an intellectual. That, though, a criminal psychologist might tell you, is pure malignant narcissism. And then there’s this, from that last post on Prieto.

“All I can say now is that there hasn't been a man I’ve met in ten years that I respected more than Arnold.  And I know that if somehow these walls fell and you had to deal with him, you would have respected him too, though you wouldn't understand what he had to go through to become the man he was.”

All in all, it leaves you with a sense of vague unease.