I recently saw a TV news report saying that Dallas has locked away so many prisoners who are now being exonerated with new DNA testing, that they have a special police unit working on this problem. Some of these innocent men have been in prison for decades.
As the convict singer Leadbelly opined so long ago in his song "The Midnight Special:" "If you ever go to Houston" (although it seems to be Dallas now), you better act right. You’d better not gamble, and you’d better not fight. Or the sheriff will arrest you, and he’ll send you down. The jury find you guilty, you’re Sugarland bound" ("Sugarland" referred to an infamous Texas work camp).
Yep, Texas justice has always been harsh, but a wonderful new film called "Bernie" tells the true story of a man who actually confessed to killing his elderly benefactor by shooting her in the back–and although he was convicted and is still in prison today, the town in which he did this is pretty much all on his side (interestingly enough, a judge eventually released Leadbelly himself, who was a convicted murderer, because he liked his music so much).
Texas justice is harsh, but it’s also complex–take it from someone who lived there for awhile. People are quick to judge you, but they’re also surprisingly quick to forgive. I think it all goes back to the old frontier tradition of relying on your neighbors and taking justice into your own hands. When people in LA or New York ask me what Texas is like, I always tell them this story:
When Whitley and I started taking hour-long walks every day in Texas, we often had to walk late at night, because it was too hot to do it during the daytime. We weren’t the only ones, either–as we walked along, we’d often see other people ghosting along, sometimes taking their dogs for a walk.
When Whitley was a kid in San Antonio, your dog could roam free and was often gone all day, but that was changed when we lived there–dogs had to be fenced-in. One night when we walked past a normal-looking house in our suburban neighborhood, a huge dog rushed out at us, barking and drooling, and truly scared us. The yard he had run out from was NOT fenced, which made me suspect that whoever owned the beast had let him out intentionally because he somehow resented people walking past his domicile in the dark. The dog didn’t attack us, but he gave us a big fright, and I think that if one of had had a bad heart, it might have been the end of us.
We avoided that street from then on, but one night we were careless, and all of a sudden, we noticed we were walking past the same house again. "Oh, my God, Whitley," I said, "We’ve got to get out of here." But a neighbor lady who was out in her yard overheard me. "Don’t worry about that dog," she said, "I shot it." She didn’t call the police or the ASPCA, she simply got out her rifle and took care of the problem.
I tell them another story–about the time we left our car unlocked while we went into a local post office. When we came out, there was a strange woman sitting in the passenger seat of our car. When Whitley talked to her, asking her who she was, she just stared straight ahead and wouldn’t speak, so Whitley decided he would look inside her purse, which was next to her on the seat, and find her I.D. But as soon as he touched the purse, this formerly mute woman let out a blood-curdling scream so loud that several men rushed out of the post office with their guns drawn. Whitley quickly explained the situation, but if someone had fired, it could have been fatal.
I hasten to add that I don’t think the Texas way is the right way–but sometimes, after dealing with layers of government bureaucracy, I appreciate the direct approach.