A Split Second. A Life’s Sentence.

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image by Matt Rota

On the night of June 29, 1996, Andrew Papke, then 19, was driving drunk through South Austin, Texas, when he caused a head-on collision, instantly killing the couple in the other vehicle. After the accident, Papke became active in Alcoholics Anonymous. At his trial, he pleaded guilty and received back-to-back 20-year sentences for intoxication manslaughter. In prison, Papke has worked as a chaplain’s assistant, studied for sociology and paralegal degrees, and become an advocate against drunk driving. His release date is December 16, 2036.

Lady Justice is not blind. She has 20/20 vision. Her actions shriek “How you live is how you die,” assuring us that all ends are born of their means. Death by lethal injection is but a circle come full.

Convicts know this all too well. They sense that the public doesn’t want to hear it, and why should it? The convicts didn’t when they were out in the free world running hard and fast. They thought “I could never end up like that” and dismissed the notion of consequences. But convicts were once citizens, and that makes citizens uncomfortable.

Some cannot view prisoners beyond the fact that they are locked away paying their debts to society. Images of convicts busting rocks on a chain gang, that’s the stereotype. The public wraps its mind around the character gained from hard labor, just as convicts wrap their hands around the bars of cells and holler down the run after rack time. They know that as public issues go, they are at best gnats, flying around the heads of a dismissive citizenry, swiped away by the sweaty backhand of some lying politician hell-bent on a crime crackdown.

Sadly (but truly) for some convicts, prison is a bed-and-breakfast for the lazy, a celebration funded by taxpayers where the jester is king. For some it is a riviera where the wicked meet new associates. Others were just marionettes of a sort. They tied strings to their hands, feet, and jaws and waited for some cosmic puppet master to move them. Then one day, wooden dolls that they were, they came to life, told some lies, and ran away from home believing themselves worth no more than kindling fit for fire. They got messed up. Now, here they are in the belly of the beast . . . er, whale.

Some kids grow up wishing to be firemen or police officers, or even a right-proper crook like a lawyer or a banker. Some don’t want to grow up. They are content with an unplanned future and zero goals, or too fearful to do anything else. Some who floundered are now in prison. For them this isn’t just home. It is the final way station, the last stand. They are cornered and waiting to be snuffed out behind the walls of this great fortress.

Whether we’re free or incarcerated, whether we’re law abiders or outlaws, we all have this in common: We all make choices. In youth we make critical choices that predicate the rest of our lives. During those precious adolescent years, we are caught between wanting to obey and wanting to learn on our own. Sometimes this lack of experience leads to a failure to understand the possible outcomes of certain decisions. Some end up trying drugs. It can happen to anyone, any kid, especially now.

What begins as smoking a joint escalates by any number of means into heavier things: a whole menu of pharmaceuticals, cocaine in powder or rock form, methamphetamines such as crank or ice, and of course alcohol. This stuff gets eaten, snorted, and drunk, and before long, smoked or injected. Then it’s game over. For the users.

Walk a mile in their shoes.

You become a prisoner on the prowl for your next fix. You steal from your family and from strangers, break into cars, houses, and businesses in order to score. Before long, the all-night convenience store glows like a beacon with neon dollar signs.

A robbery goes down, and after a few ill-gotten bucks are purloined, you’re on your way to a dealer’s motel room like a guppie out of water, gasping and flapping your way to a dirty puddle without a second thought, without a choice.

Later, after the county jail staff has detoxed you, the kid inside comes out again. Your court-appointed attorney shows you what the prosecutors will enter into court as Exhibit A. It’s a videotape showing you shooting the clerk of that convenience store, grabbing a few bills from the cash register, and leaving in a rush. The camera still-frames, capturing your wild, hollow eyes. You were once a normal person. Now you are a monster, and you find yourself shackled on a bus bound for the Polunsky Unit in Livingston–the Row.

One cannot begin to describe the cost of maintaining hope in spite of everything in the joint. Convicts are told daily by those who officiate over them, by the news media, and by one another what pieces of trash they are. Nobody deserves to be thrown away, yet every day, some piece of the spirit is stripped, seen only in the night by prayer; by dreams crafted from memories of home and the promise of a future without alcohol and drugs; or by death without this lifestyle as a precursor to the beyond.

Death, however deliberate or prompt, awaits us all. It is guaranteed for every human: citizen, prisoner, master, and servant. There is only a small degree of separation between any of us. As children, we are innocent. As we grow, however, a string of tiny choices separates one kid on the playground from another.

How much more or less, then, is the chasm between you and me? Between us and the condemned? As a teen, did you really never drive home with a few too many drinks under your belt? Have you never been to a horror movie and commented on how cool it was watching someone get beaten, shot, or stabbed? Have you never been to a concert and smelled something that didn’t smell quite like tobacco? Have you not listened to your favorite musician, knowing the money you spent on the album was blown on blow? Do the video games your kids play give them extra points for shooting someone? Have we not all smirked at that? Have we not at least shrugged it off?

Choices are made, and the best of judgment calls are available to each of us at every turn. These seemingly insignificant decisions, the small mistakes that compromise us, can veer out of control quicker than we can react. Suddenly we are blindsided by something happening, and before we could have said “I could never end up like that,” it doesn’t turn out that way. Once the hooks are set in our souls, things we never could have imagined doing can explode into acts that require recompense. Sometimes that price overextends every credit available: A victim’s life can never be brought back from the grave, period.

Does that one life in exchange, an eye for an eye, change anything for that victim’s family? Truth is, now there is another victim’s family who suffers the same fate. Only this time, it is at the hands of the state.

Justice may be lost, but justice will be done. For a citizen turned drug addict turned killer, Lady Justice doles out penance through the same vein. Murder is just a shot away.

Excerpted from the Texas Observer(Nov. 16, 2007). Subscriptions: $32/yr. (24 issues) from 307 W. Seventh St., Austin, TX 78701; www.texasobserver.org.

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