DOROTHY CHARLES BANKS:
Poet With An Opinion is a mixture of take no prisoners editorials and comments written by me. I posted my first comment 3/11/2010. There are also reflections of the past. Poetry is my first love. In writing verse I can create fantasy characters, mixing them with real situations, or I can go fantasy all the way, using common language to create vivid images. For the benefit of relatives who may start their own genealogy search, I've started the process.
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
The Death Penalty in Texas: A 40-year Retrospection
Samuel Morris Holmes
Before his execution 22-year old Samuel Holmes said he is innocent of the crime that landed him on Texas's death row
Part 1: True story that happened in Austin, Tcxas, a special for The Villager, written by Dorothy Charles Banks
whether natural, execution or peaceful can be traumatic for the living
long after the it becomes a script in history. This holds true for crime
victims, their families, the individual who committed the crime. The
perpetrator of a criminal act may find him/herself sitting on death row,
facing a state sanctioned execution. This ultimate sentence depends on
the state in which the crime was committed, and how the crime was
committed. Supporters of the death penalty demand that a horrific crime
can only be rectified if the killer is executed. That is especially
true in Texas.
In this series on the death penalty in Texas, The Villager
will tackle several issues and flaws regarding to the death penalty and
executions. The 4-part series will began with the 1960 electrocution of
Austinite Samuel Morris Holmes, 22, whose controversial execution
pushed the East Austin community to protest and criticize the State of
Texas for its aim to kill an innocent man. Criticism of the death
penalty, and how it was unevenly applied to African American men was not
a first in Texas nor would it be the last.
In addition to retrieving information from the 1956-1960 editions of the American Statesman, and other sources, The Villager interviewedfor this series, Arnette Holmes, Samuel
Holmes' oldest brother. Confined to his bed and a wheelchair, Arnette
died a year later after a long illness. Sensing his approaching demise,
Arnette called The Villager and said he wanted to talk about his
brother's execution. He said he lives with Samuel's execution daily. He
could not stop reliving that dreadful journey that started 40 years ago.
He never wavered from believing Samuel was innocent.
Protests, pleas and cries of innocence
The execution of Carla Faye Tucker, February 3, 1998 for the 1983
double pickax murders of Debroah Thorton and Jerry Dean of Houston, set
the stage for anti-death penalty advocates to take to the streets,
demanding that Gov. George W. Bush stop Tucker's execution. Despite him
being the governor, Bush did not have the power to overrule a decision
made by Texas' Board of Pardons and Paroles. A Texas governor can only
grant a 30-day stay. Tucker, who found Christ and religion while on
death row, said she wanted to live. Tucker turned her life around while
sitting on death row. She did not deny her guilt in the pickax murders.
Her accomplice died of liver disease before Texas could execute him.
Tucker was the first woman to be executed in Texas since the civil war.
Protesters and her discovery of God was not enough to save her from her
appointment with death.
There was another nation-wide protest when Gary Graham's pending
execution was hot news. Graham was a young African American man with a
long criminal history. He was on a crime spree to feed his drug habit
the night he allegedly shot and killed Bobby Lambert, a White man,
outside a grocery story in Houston, Texas. Controversy and declarations
of "not guilty" surrounded the case. Graham proclaimed to the end that
he was innocent of this fatal shooting. A lone eyewitness, a woman,
identified him a the shooter. She did not stagger from her testimony
that Gary Graham was the man she saw shoot Lambert to death during a
The court and jurors said the woman was a credible, believable
eyewitness. They did not find Graham's witnesses believable or credible.
Due to the protests and doubts raised in the case, Graham escaped
execution a few minutes after the 6 p.m. deadline. The Board of Pardons
and Paroles had received a barrage of new information regarding Graham's
case. Board members took a few hours to review the information,
searching for new evidence. They concluded there was nothing new to
consider. Graham was executed at 8:15 p.m.
In 1959 African Americans living in East Austin staged a different kind
of protest to save the life of Samuel Holmes, a young husband and
father. He was employed as a janitor at Brackenridge Hospital and
Bergstrom Air Force Base. Holmes was found guilty of raping and savagely
beating a 56-year old White woman in her West Austin apartment complex
in Enfield, January 19, 1959. He was 20 years old at the time of the
Americans in East Austin refused to believe the rape and assault
happened the way it was reported in the media, and finally presented in
the courtroom. Some 40 years later, a number Holmes' friends and family
who are still alive, have not stopped believing the truth was covered up
at the trial, based on the facts that the accused was a young Black
man, and the victim was a middle-aged White woman.
According to reports in the American Statesman,
the victim, unnamed, provided police with a "meager description" of the
man who entered her home that Monday night. A widow, she thought the
person entering her apartment was her roommate. She realized it was a
stranger when she saw a "black hand" reach through the door to turn off
the bathroom light. Later the media reported the woman saying she "saw
part of a face that looked to be that of a Negro."
Despite not seeing the intruder's face, the woman said her attacker was
about 30 years old, and stood about 6 feet 9 inches. Detectives said
they had few clues to work with, making it difficult to initiate an
investigation that would lead to a suspect and arrest.
Police said the elderly victim locked herself in the bathroom, but the
attacker kicked in the door, forcing himself into the bathroom with her.
Police said a "vicious struggle" apparently took place, because the
bathroom was covered in blood. The victim said Holmes told her if she
called the police he would come back and kill her. She called police
despite the threat.
On the 20th of January police questioned the woman's neighbors. They
did not see the attacker enter or leave the apartment. No one in the
complex heard the woman scream for help during the "violent struggle."
However, a female neighbor in the same building said she heard "a
commotion" but thought nothing about it. Several more residents in the
area reported seeing "a suspicious person loitering the neighborhood."
Brackenridge Hospital employee
Holmes reported to work at Brackenridge Hospital two days before he was
arrested, and held without bond. He was not granted bond. He had
allegedly threatened to kill the victim if she called police. Before he
could get an attorney Holmes was given a lie detector test. Detectives
said they obtained a full confession from him, leading to an official
charges of rape and assault. Police said the polygraph test revealed
that Holmes had "guilty knowledge" of the rape and assault, nothing
conclusive. They said his fingerprints were found in the victim's
apartment. Holmes said the test did not tell the truth about him.
On January 27 several witnesses, including residents where the woman
lived, made appearances in front the grand juror to testify about what
they saw and heard the night of the attack.
'They beat the hell out of my brother'
Arnette Holmes, the older brother and best friend to Samuel, said in a recent interview with The Villager
that his brother wasn't guilty of the charges against him. He said he
and Samuel talked about everything. There were no secrets between them.
Samuel was next to him in age, and if he had done anything wrong on the
night in question, "he would have told me," Arnette said with
confidence. There were nine sisters and brothers in the Holmes family.
"I asked him if he did it and he said, 'No. I didn't do it, but I think I know who did.'" (Arnette gave a name that The Villager cannot reveal.) Arnette said Holmes told him to "just watch him."
"I asked him how he knew he did this. He said he had seen him several
times in the community. He (Samuel) used to cut grass up there. What we
used to do is go to the golf course and caddy on the weekend, and
sometimes we cut grass to make some extra money," Arnette said. He said
he loved playing golf, but he can no longer play because both his legs
Arnette said when he went to the jail to see Samuel after his arrest he
was shocked by what he saw. The person he was looking at could not be
his brother, he thought. "When I went up there three days later his eyes
and mouth was bruised. They had beat the hell out of him! When I left I
went and got Mr. Arthur DeWitty. We went back to the courthouse. Mr.
DeWitty was a big man. That big man had tears running out his eyes when
he saw my brother," Arnette said, shaking his head.
"He asked the police how many times they beat him to get a confession
of him. They almost killed him. He looked like somebody had him on the
ground and run over him. When we went and told my mother about the
condition he was in, that just killed her right then and there. Only
thing is we just didn't bury her. She was dead right then and there,"
Arnette repeated emotionally. Although his brother was executed four
decades ago, the memory and pain remains fresh on his mind. The memory
is like an annoying sore that won't completely heal.
At the trial Arnette says he was "very angry" at the attorney his
mother hired. He said the case was followed all over the world. Holmes'
his mother received donations from thousands of people following the
case. It was with this money that she hired attorney Johnny B. Rogers,
an ex-state senator from Texas.
"Most of the big time lawyers around here wouldn't take the case. So
finally my mother got Johnny B. Rogers. He had Pete (Samuel's nickname)
holding his head down during the whole trial. The whole six days he
never held his head up. He never looked around. He'd sit six or seven
hours a day looking down on the floor. I asked Johnny, 'Why are you
making him do that?' He said he had his reason. I said to myself, 'Yeah,
you're making him look guilty.'"
Arnette said Samuel did not have a record; had never been in trouble
with the law. Holmes begged his attorney to let him testify. "Johnny B.
told him 'if you testify, you're going to put yourself in the electric
chair.' My brother told him, 'Man, I want to testify. How come I can't
testify? Can I tell my side of the story?'"
"He told Johnny B. that he was the one accused of a crime not him. He
still wouldn't let him testify. That killed my brother. They killed him
in a legal way," said Arnette.
Arnette said the victim was not at the trial. "I was there from the day
it started. After they gave him the death sentence, he never said a
mumbling word. He just kept looking at the floor. He never showed no
kind of emotion in any kind of way," Arnette recalls.
Holmes was scheduled to die in the electric chair June 15, 1960;
however, on September 9th, he got an extension from Supreme Court
Justice Hugo Black. Acting Gov. Ben Ramsey, following the recommendation
of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, delayed Holmes' execution date
until October 15. The Board said its actions were in conformance with
Justice Black's recommendation.
The community protests
After the trial Mrs. Fred Godfrey called for a hearing with the Board
of Pardons and Paroles to discuss commutation of Holmes' death sentence.
She wanted to try and get the death sentence converted to life in
prison. Rev. S. L. Davis, and Rev. R. Q. Allen, along with 100 African
American citizens met with the Board in the Senate Committee Room. They
had collected 1,354 signatures on a petition in support of not executing
Holmes. The people who spoke-- begged and pleaded with the Board to
reconsider its decision.
Holmes' mother made a tearful plea to spare her son. She told them that
her son had been a "sick child since birth. There's something wrong
with him," she pleaded, hoping to convince the Board that Holmes had a
mental problem. The Board was not touched. The appeal for commutation
was denied. Holmes was rescheduled to die in the electric chair November
30, 1960. His family was with him that November night. Arnette, who did
not watch the execution, said he looked for signs of nervousness in his
brother's face during their last visit.
"I talked with him about an hour before they killed him. He was calmer
than I was. I was shaking like a leaf. He wasn't scared at all. He said,
'Sonny, that's what he called me--I want to ask you a favor. I want you
to take care of Muhdear the best way you can cause she's gonna take
this hard. And I want you to tell my kids their daddy love them.'"
Arnette said, "Down in Hunstville the night they killed him, it was the
pitifullest sight I ever saw. You can tell when they get ready to
execute somebody. They do it after 12. Every light in that place dimmed
two times. That meant they had killed him. The warden came out and I
asked him, 'How did he go?'"
He said, "I killed a lot of niggers but that boy was hard to go. I
reached and grabbed for him, but Dudley (his mother's friend and APD
policeman) grabbed me to keep me from getting killed. I guess he said
that because, when the electricity hit him, he broke the straps on his
arms and legs. They said that's the first time they had seen that
happen," Arnette recalled.
reporter Jim Berry witnessed the execution. He wrote that Holmes,
strapped in the electric, continued to declare his innocence, as he had
done many times before reaching the final stage of his death sentence.
He said Holmes thanked God for "walking as far as you have with me."
Berry wrote that Holmes' head was shaved clean; he was wearing a clean
black jacket, pants and khaki shirt. He wrote that Holmes was hit with
the first volt of electricity. Seconds later a second charge, and then a
"When the initial 1,800 volt charge hit, his body convulsed with such
force that the leather strap across his waist and the one around his leg
broke," wrote Berry. "Two additional shocks and four minutes later he
was pronounced dead. The odor of death filled the room with the charge
and lingered on."
Holmes was pronounced dead at 12:10 a.m., by a medical director for the
Texas Department of Corrections. The whole process took 10 minutes. In a
pre-execution news interview on Tuesday morning November 29, Holmes
told reporters, " The truth has not been revealed to the people. If I
die and they learn the truth, what will the people say then?"