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Wishing for a way to get horses inside prison walls

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Huntsville, Texas

You know the way a donkey, a lamb or a pony just sort of shows up on the stage of a Christmas pageant, or how the elephant walks behind the giraffe up the aisle of St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York every October for the blessing of the animals.

That’s what I wished for Jan. 24 while flying home from Texas to Newark, N.J.

I wanted some kind of divine FedEx deliverer to park his van on Avenue I at 12th Street and to escort a horse — any kind of horse — into the death chamber of the Walls Prison in Huntsville, Texas, and to announce to the warden: “Special delivery, sir. A package for Mr. Billy Hughes.”

Oh, go ahead, warden, do something not in the rulebook. It’s Hughes’ last day on earth. He’s been a model death row prisoner for 24 years, with not a single lapse or disciplinary infraction by your own and others’ accounting. Let him pet that horse, perhaps even sit on it in his white prison uniform.

How does one spend two-dozen years on death row? I had some idea in Hughes’ case. We had met behind the glass and wire-net partition where the press can talk on Wednesday mornings to inmates on the row. I had arrived on Oct. 24, 1984, five days before the State of Texas was to take the life of Thomas Andy Barefoot for killing a Waco cop.

I had heard about Hughes, the artist, cartoonist and editor of a magazine-from-prison that circulated to horse handlers. Hughes hung close by Barefoot during our interview, almost a kind of big brother to Barefoot, who was part Cherokee, part Louisiana oil roughneck.

When I asked Barefoot whether he needed a stamp to write to the widow of his victim, Hughes was quick to reply. “I’ve got stamps,” he said, unfolding his black vinyl wallet and revealing a host of membership cards. Hughes was a dues-paying member of the American Civil Liberties Union, of the Texas Civil Liberties Union, of CURE (Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants), of HOPE (Help Our Prisoners Exist), of the United Farm Workers and of many horse clubs.

Hughes and I corresponded until I left Texas in 1986. Most of his letters contained news of his studies and activities and always a sketch, drawing or cartoon. One of the cartoons depicted the then eight Supreme Court justices sitting at their bench deliberating. Each was holding an instrument of death or torture in his/her hand. At the end of the bench, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor sat knitting a noose.

How did a man who while on death row became a certified paralegal, earned a B.A. in religious education, became an ordained minister; earned over 360 correspondence credit hours in writing, religious studies and Braille transcription from the Library of Congress and who was working on a master’s degree program — how did such a man come to be strapped to a gurney at 6 p.m. Jan. 25, his veins opened for the lethal drugs that would end all future studies?

Easy. He killed a state trooper. Although Hughes has always claimed that he never saw or intended to kill Mark Frederick, the officer who pulled him over on April 4, 1976, he does admit that he was at the scene when Frederick was killed. Wanted for credit card theft in Alabama, Hughes was stopped by troopers in Texas. Hughes’ story is that he never saw anyone but people in his rearview mirror and that all of a sudden he was being shot at as he reached for his wallet in the glove box. He also admits reaching for a gun and firing a shot out of self-defense before racing off.

At his trial Trooper Jack Reichert testified that he’d seen Hughes shoot Frederick. Many who’ve looked at the case wonder how it was possible for Hughes, while still in his car, to kill a man who was behind his vehicle on the passenger side. Reichert testified that he fired six times at Hughes’ fleeing auto and then attended to Frederick, who was pronounced dead at the scene.

In an interview with The Huntsville Item shortly before his execution date, Hughes said: “No matter how you look at it, it’s my fault because I was there. I was the reason [the troopers] were stopped. It’s my fault and that’s why I’m so sorry for his family.”

While some prisoners request a last good meal, Hughes’ final wish — an impossible one — was to spend just one last day with his mother, who was too ill to come to Huntsville, and to go somewhere where he could ride or pet a horse.

Never a cowboy, but a trained horse handler, Hughes had written Horseman’s Travel Guide from the row.

In the death chamber, witness Charlie Sullivan recorded snatches of Hughes’ last words: “Isn’t this all so silly? They’re executing an innocent man.” Then he winked at us, Sullivan said. “This madness will end one day. Continue the struggle. Don’t give up. Don’t give in,” Hughes is reported to have said.

“Death at 6:18. Death at 6:18.” Those are the only words ever said by an official in the execution detail to witnesses.

My plane lands in Newark at exactly 7:18 p.m. I’m still hatching miracles, still trying to wish that horse to Huntsville. I recall the last prayer of petition read by the pastor of St. Thomas Church in Huntsville at Saturday’s 6 p.m. Mass: “For all those executed and those about to be executed.” Heading to pick up my baggage, I respond: “We pray to the Lord.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2000