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Memories of Richard
Last month, the state of Texas carried out its first execution this year. Terry Philpot, who befriended the man involved, remembers an unlikely friendship and a life that ended with a lethal injection.
Richard Masterson died at 18.53 on 20 January. That's when he was pronounced dead in the Walls Unit execution chamber, in the small, attractive town of Huntsville, Texas. It was the first execution in Texas this year and the 196th since 2005.
Richard was 29 when he was convicted and would have been 44 in March. I had known Richard for 12 years and just over nine months. A friendship that began with a letter on 3 April 2003 ended with a death which, perhaps strangely, has affected me more than that of others. This is, in part, due to the horrible circumstances of his death, the nearly 14 years of inhumane incarceration, and his life until he went inside that final time.
But I grew to like and care for him and recognised very human qualities in a man who, apart from letters, could only ever meet visitors by talking on a phone with a pane of unbreakable glass between him and them.
Citing Christian duty or a wish to help someone as reasons for what we became makes the friendship sound too deliberate and formal, too detached from a real relationship. The archive of letters that had passed between us, the exchange of Christmas and birthday cards, my cards from holidays and elsewhere, his occasional gifts of his paintings, and the our meeting created and cemented a real friendship.
Richard had been on death row for 13 months when I responded to an advertisement by Human Writes.
I knew nothing of Richard, apart from his age, when we first met. What I found at the start was not always to my taste: the occasional anger, the mood swings, his outbursts of racism and his support for capital punishment. (He assured me, probably rightly, there were men with him in the Polunsky Unit, where he was incarcerated until transferred to Huntsville, who'd rape and murder my sister given the chance.)
We chatted and joked while also arguing about these, and while Richard never said I was right to oppose the death penalty or to believe that (as his own country's constitution says) "all men are created equal", he never again mentioned capital punishment or made racist remarks. The occasional anger and mood swings remained but such a cruel system's emotional torture distorts how one sees the world.
There was, though, an awful seeming inevitability about Richard's ending up where he did. He was dealt a bum hand the day he was born. His childhood was one of terror. His late mother, about whom he never said a cross word, had herself been abused as a child. His father was an alcoholic, who severely beat his wife and their eight children. The children never lived continuously with both parents and spent time in foster care. Richard's physical abuse (and later use of crack) occasioned brain damage. His older brother raped him.
He dropped out of school at 13 and lived on the streets, working as a male prostitute and dealing drugs. He did occasional manual work, served probation and spells inside for burglary and assault. He carried a bullet in him that he received as a teenager.
In January 2001 Richard met Darin Shane Honeycutt, a cross-dresser, in a gay bar. In Honeycutt's apartment they engaged in erotic asphyxiation (where oxygen to the brain is restricted to produce sexual arousal). Richard claimed that Honeycutt was alive but unconscious when he left the bedroom. On his return, Honeycutt was dead. Richard panicked and fled, stealing the other man's car.
Apprehended in Florida, he confessed when withdrawing from prolonged drug use in jail, a confession he later recanted. At his trial Paul Shrode, an assistant medical examiner, testified that death was due to strangulation. Richard state-appointed defence attorney had a disciplinary history for neglecting his clients, as he neglected and ill-served Richard. After Richard's conviction, other professional testimony diagnosed that Honeycutt had died of a heart attack. However, also Shrode was said to have lied about his qualifications, had made other mistakes in autopsies, and was sacked as El Paso's chief medical examiner about testimony in an Ohio case, which led to the convicted man receiving clemency.
For nearly 14 years, Richard spent 23 hours a day in a cell, 10 ft 6 ins x 6 ft 6ins, with bed, sink, toilet, a radio, a typewriter, and books. (His tastes ranged from popular and literary fiction to George Eliot, The Count of Monte Christo, Dickens and The Little Prince.) His daily hour of "recreation" was in a cage on his own. He had to shout to speak to fellow inmates.
Much to my surprise and through another friend, in 2009 Richard was received into the Church. The prison did not allow use of the chapel; the barber's shop was used. Subsequently, he received the Blessed Sacrament through a slot in his metal door; there were no collective acts of worship, so no Christmas or Easter masses. In the week before his death, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, who had been in contact with Richard, said that Pope Francis had been closely following his case. Sr Helen Prejean, the American anti-death penalty campaigner, said that Francis bowed his head when she gave him news of the execution in the Vatican.
The last couple of weeks were tense and anxious. Greg Gardner, Richard's new, excellent and deeply committed lawyer, made two actions for a stay of execution: to the Texas board of paroles and pardons and to the Federal Court of Appeals (5th Circuit). They failed. He then appealed to the US Supreme Court, and was turned down on the evening of the execution.
Richard refused to see Fr Clifton Labbe, the local Catholic priest and the Catholic chaplaincy. In my last letter (not easy to write when the appeals were still pending) I hoped that he would change his mind and see a priest. He did. I hoped, too, that he was able to pray, which a couple of months before he said he had been doing. I said I knew he would show the courage he had always shown and that he should free himself from any bitterness or anger because otherwise the police, the judges, the governor, and those who had tormented and tortured him would win.
In his Christmas card Richard said: "I am at peace and ready for whatever happens" and in accompanying letter: "I guess all we can do is HOPE".
At the end he refused to see most visitors (a brother was hurt to get only an hour). Four days before his death (I received it five days after), his last letter said that he was losing control, with people making decisions about when they would visit without asking him. To exclude everyone seemed the only way of reasserting some control in the last few days of a life over which he had so signally lacked control.
Many people came and went in Richard's prison life, among them women who expressed eternal devotion (even marriage) but disappeared. But while Richard could be a difficult person to know, consistency and accepting people as they are, are the marks of real friendship.
Long ago, I recognised in Richard humour, intelligence and kindliness. He always asked after my friends and family, and bereavements and a very serious family illness provoked only concern and kindly words.
As Greg said to me five days before Richard died: "He never had a chance in life. Now, he is getting railroaded into an execution because no one cared enough to help him at any point. He is a nice, thoughtful person who the world treated like garbage."
Richard last words were: "Sending me to a better place. I am alright with this, you have to live and die by the choices that we make. I have made mine. ... I am ready." Richard did, indeed, make some quite terrible choices. But the one he did not make was to kill Darin Shane Honeycutt but for that death the state of Texas took his life.
© Terry Philpot 2016
This is a slightly edited version of an article by the author which appeared in the 6 February issue of The Tablet.