Our Other Selves
Shooting through thick glass into the narrow box of a prison interview
cubicle, John Holbrook had few options as a photographer. On Texas death
row, the inmates uniforms were routinely white, the walls barren, the
lighting harsh. But there were faces, body language, hands. And so he used
those things to tell the story: hands clasping each other, or pressed
against the glass, folded in prayer, spread across a chest. Eyes looking
straight at the camera, or giving a sideways glance.
Holbrook, who also is a private investigator, is a confirmed opponent of
the death penalty, and his photo essay was originally suggested by fellow
anti-death penalty activists. But along the way, he said, he realized that
his pictures are as much for himself and the families of the killers'
victims as they are for people who'd like to abolish capital punishment
mainly because Holbrook came to the death penalty debate through hate and
In 1994 and 1995, Holbrook worked as an investigator in a capital murder
trial, studying crime scene and autopsy photos of a 16-year-old's grisly
death raped and tortured, she'd been finally shot in the head, the exit
wound making a ragged hole between her eyes. As he studied the pictures
and learned about her, he grew to hate the 2 "animals" whod so viciously
attacked her. "I was wishing I would be the ones injecting them," he said,
referring to the drug cocktail used in executions.
Holbrook wasn't working for police or prosecutors, however he was working
on the legal defense team of 1 of the defendants. And so he took the anger
and revulsion and hate and tucked it inside, where it stayed for years,
his own private hazardous waste dump, leaking its toxins into his psyche.
Along the way, Holbrook began taking pictures of homeless people and other
social outcasts around North Texas, often depicting them with halos or in
saintly poses. His work drew the attention of churches, homeless
advocates, and CNN and became part of a national exhibit.
But amid the recognition, something was wrong. Holbrook had begun to
notice that he was becoming fixated by various round images, like the hole
in the concrete he passed on his daily run that hed stop to stare at for
long minutes. A hubcap, a drainpipe same thing. And as he stared, he'd
begin to see again the decomposing body of the murder victim, with the
wound in her forehead. "I might have killed myself, it was that bad," he
A psychologist diagnosed Holbrook's problem as post-traumatic stress
disorder, brought on by the time he spent with the gruesome pictures from
the young woman's murder. His photos of the homeless, the psychologist
said, were an unconscious attempt by Holbrook to replace the horrible
images with good ones.
Over the years that followed, Holbrook came to another realization: He not
only had to replace the images in his mind, he also had to replace the
hatred with something more positive.
As he worked his way through that process, Holbrook continued to take
photos of homeless people. That led, last year, to an inquiry from 2
anti-death-penalty activists from Oslo, Norway, who approached him about
doing similar photos of the men and women on death row in Texas. As it
turned out, 1of the 2 activists had been a pen pal for the killer who had
tortured and murdered the young woman in the pictures that had caused
Holbrook so much anguish a decade earlier.
Negotiations on that project broke down temporarily, and Holbrook
approached Fort Worth Weekly about doing the death row portraits for this
paper to put a human face on the most active death row in the country.
And so Holbrook went down the path followed by many before him: He started
turning his anguish into art. Beginning in January, Holbrook made repeated
trips to Livingston, where men sentenced to death in this state are
housed, and to Gatesville, where the women on Texas death row are
incarcerated. He has photographed only a handful of the condemned 1 of 9
women, 10 of about 380 men. Since then, 2 of the men have moved off death
row: Thomas Miller-El of Dallas dropped his appeal, which had been based
on Dallas' formerly racist jury selection procedures, in return for a life
sentence. LaRoyce Smith, not pictured here, was granted a new trial.
Holbrook's subjects range from a man convicted of beating 2 women to death
with a skillet to Darlie Routier, the glamorous Rowlett housewife
convicted of fatally stabbing her 2 sons, to Travis Runnels, a young man
who, already serving a long sentence for aggravated robbery, graduated to
death row by knifing a prison factory supervisor. They also include
Randolph Greer who, though only 18 when he was arrested in Houston, was
also an accused serial rapist, described by police as a remorseless
psychopath. Tony Ford is another subject, convicted largely on the basis
of one witness who has since recanted and another whose identification of
Ford is suspect due to the inmate's eerily close resemblance to the man
that even police have heard was the real killer. And then there's Nelson
Gongora, a longtime violent Fort Worth gang leader with a ruthless
reputation, who shot his victim in full view of several witnesses; he
asked Holbrook to send copies of his picture to his mother.
"I have deliberately chosen to photograph those who are very obviously
guilty of the crimes they are convicted of and those who are probably
innocent as well," Holbrook said. "If you feel compelled to figure out
which is which, please do so."
For the most part, Holbrook is not an apologist for the inmates. "Most of
them are guilty, and most of them are lying," he said. But that doesn't
change what he sees as his mission.
The ultimate conclusion he came to, Holbrook said, is that, for families
of the dead and for collateral-damage victims like him, "The only way we
can truly stop suffering is to love and forgive those who have caused the
suffering." He wants viewers to see the common human link between the
killers and jailhouse preachers and themselves. "The ultimate question we
are trying to answer when we look at these condemned human beings is, 'Am
I capable of that?' And the answer is yes," he said, "given the same life
experiences they have had. They are our other selves."
If that all sounds mystical and churchy, Holbrook is decidedly the 1st but
not the 2nd. He believes in God but has no use for organized religion.
And so Holbrook also realizes and doesn't care that many of the inmates
agreed to be photographed because they're grasping at any straw that might
save their lives: If they look meek and reverent, maybe someone will help
with their appeal or join the fight against the death penalty in time to
keep the needle away from them.
The inmates had different reactions to Holbrook and his camera. Ford, for
instance, wanted to be photographed while engaging in prayer. Routier
flirted. When he took Greers picture, Holbrook said, "It was as if I was
not there. He used the brief photo session to escape into some kind of
fantasy world. He posed like he was the subject of some kind of exotic
Holbrook said he found that Miller-El arrested following a shoot-out with
police, after killing 1 man and leaving another paralyzed by his wounds
has, over the decades, become one of the most beloved people on the death
row unit, respected by guards and inmates.
The 43-year-old photographer believes in the "spiritual transformations"
that inmates such as Miller-El appear to have undergone. "Would they have
made these transformations if not for the fact that they were about to be
killed?" Holbrook asks himself, and he has no answer.
Holbrook was most affected by his session with Ford, whom the photographer
said "has the best innocence claim of anyone I have photographed." That
causes Holbrook great anxiety. After that trip, he said, "I woke up at 3
a.m. and had a panic attack."
But the "reality of the death penalty finally set in," Holbrook said,
after his visit with Runnels, who committed his murder behind bars. "I was
taken by the absurdity of wasting such a perfect physical example of a
human being" and by knowing what Runnels did to end up where he is.
Holbrook hasn't talked to the victims' families, but he doesn't expect
them to accept his view. It took him a long time to come to it, after all,
and he personally has lost no one to a murderer except, almost, himself,
and a girl he never met in life.
He intends to keep taking death row pictures, if he can. And the Oslo
group and others are again working on plans for the photo exhibit to tour
Europe, where opposition to the death penalty is much stronger than in
this country. The portraits will also be shown around the United States.
The man whose defense Holbrook was working on back in 1994 got a long
prison term. His accomplice was sentenced to death and executed in April
2007, the photographer said, "about 5 days before my son was born."
Holbrook still aches for the "beautiful human being" who was the victim in
that case, and still get echoes of the psychological stress he went
through back then. But Holbrook said he's learned the mechanism for
defeating those demons.
Forgiveness, he said, "works like magic."
The Murder Victims
Fort Worth Weekly was unable to obtain pictures of most of the victims of
the murders for which the inmates in the portraits were convicted. In some
cases, local newspapers or government agencies declined to allow photos to
Here are the victims and their circumstances:
Houston grocer Kenneth Kwan, 43, was killed in 1991 when several men
overpowered him and a security guard as Kwan returned from a bank carrying
cash. George McFarland was convicted in his death.
The stabbing murders of Devon, 6, and Damon Routier, 5, in their Rowlett
home in 1996 became an infamous case. Darlie Routier claimed that an
intruder had killed her sons, but many suspicious circumstances such as
finding that the knife used to cut a window screen had been returned to
its place in the kitchen led police to charge her. She was convicted in
the death of Damon and not tried in Devon's murder.
Walter Chmiel, 47, was slain in 1991 by a robber who took money and 25
weapons from Chmiel's gun store in the Bellaire enclave in Houston.
Randolph Greer, convicted of the murder, was identified by 3 women as
their attacker and was a suspect in violent crimes in North Carolina.
Armando Murillo, 18, of El Paso was shot to death in 1991 by 2 men who
broke into his mother's home. His mother, Myra Conception Murillo, and her
2 daughters were also shot but survived. Tony Ford was convicted in
Delfino Sierra, 36, brought his family from Dallas to Fort Worth in 2001
to attend a quiceaera. When he left the party to get some air, witnesses
said, Nelson Gongora shot him in the head.
Douglas Walker and Donald Ray Hall were working as clerks in an Irving
hotel in 1985 when a robber bound and gagged both men and shot them.
Walker died. Hall, permanently paralyzed, survived and identified Thomas
Miller-El as the attacker.
James Mosqueda, 27, and his girlfriend, Amy Kitchen, 22, were found slain
in their North Dallas home in 2000. Ivan Cantu, Mosqueda's cousin, was
charged in both deaths and tried and convicted for killing Mosqueda.
Stanley A. Wiley, 38, was working as a supervisor in an state prison shoe
factory in Amarillo in 2003 when he was attacked by an inmate. Numerous
witnesses identified Travis Runnels as the man who slashed the
supervisor's throat. Wiley died in a local hospital 4 hours later.
(source: Fort Worth Weekly)