Life Without Father

On a recent August evening, 16-year-old T.J. Davis retreated to his room, stretched his 6-foot frame across his bed and stared silently at the greeting card that lay on a nearby end table. Finally, he picked it up, propped it against one of his textbooks and began to write. The A-and-B Richland High School student wished his father happy birthday, wrote of having run well in the previous weekend's cross-country meet, of the sophomore classes in which he was enrolled and of his church activities. In a postscript, he recounted a recent fishing trip with his grandfather.

It was a card he didn't think he'd ever send.

Just weeks earlier, his dad, a man who's never played pitch with him, who's never taken him fishing or to a ball game, had been scheduled to make the 45-minute trip from the Texas prison system's Death Row to The Walls unit in Huntsville, where he was to be executed as punishment for the brutal stabbing murder of an Humble man 11 years ago.

The date, as fate would have it, coincided with the first day of the new school year his son had been eagerly anticipating. Yet young Davis, wishing to join other family members in a final goodbye visit, had already made arrangements for an excused absence. Then, just days before the execution was scheduled, inmate Brian Edward Davis received a stay--his second since being sentenced to die by lethal injection--when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered his trial court to conduct a hearing to determine whether he is, as his lawyers claim, mentally retarded. Earlier in the year, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that executing the mentally retarded violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. And just a week before Davis' scheduled execution date, Curtis Moore, convicted in Fort Worth of three 1995 homicides, had been granted a stay for the same reason.

So Davis would live to see his 34th birthday and receive the card sent by a son whose own life would, at least for the time being, return to a semblance of adolescent normalcy.

T.J., meanwhile, tries not to think about the possibility that the day will eventually come when there will be no more postponements, no more prison visits, no reason to mail a birthday card. "What I do," the polite teen-ager says, "is keep my mind occupied with other things." He studies hard in the evenings, reports to school at 6:45 every morning for pre-class practice with his fellow cross-country runners, takes his responsibilities as a church youth group leader seriously and enjoys an active social life.

He talks of college and one day becoming a lawyer. Or perhaps a fireman. But seldom of his incarcerated father. Friends and classmates don't know that his dad is a convicted murderer. Nor do his teachers.

Recently, he sat mute and angry as fellow students, asked to take a straw vote on the death penalty, voted overwhelmingly in favor of it. "I just laid my head down on my desk and didn't say anything," he recalls.

Though he has seen photographs of his dad holding him as an infant and heard his mother tell stories of Brian changing his diapers and feeding him late-night bottles, T.J., only 3 when his father was first incarcerated, has no firsthand memory of a relationship that doesn't involve a prison environment. In the years since his first trip as an 11-year-old elementary-school student with no real understanding of the place or why his dad was there, T.J. has become increasingly comfortable with the routine. "I look forward to going down there," he says. "I always look forward to seeing him."

They talk of the outside world T.J. is growing up in, the father always warning the son to avoid the pitfalls of his own youth; they talk about T.J.'s plans for the future, about the Bible. They share jokes.

One of the things the youngster notices as he looks around the visiting area is the absence of other teen-agers. "I see older people--mothers and fathers and wives--and a lot of small children," he says, "but hardly ever is there anyone my age." Is it because of the discomfort so many feel inside a prison visiting room? Are peer-conscious teen-agers embarrassed to make such trips? Or are they simply rebelling against a person they feel has shamed them?

"I don' t know," T.J. says with a shrug. "All I know is that I love my dad, and if the only way I can spend time with him is to go where he is, that's what I'll do."

He often makes the trip with his grandfather, an ex-Marine who lives in rural Tarrant County. "Sometimes the visits are really difficult," says 54-year-old Jim Davis. "From the drive down to the return home, you're riding an emotional roller coaster." Even before he arrives at the Livingston prison, Davis knows he'll not shake his son's hand or be allowed to embrace him. They'll be separated by glass, talking on phones for a maximum of two hours. In 11 years of twice-a-month visits, the father and inmate son have never touched. "You try to make it as good a time as possible," Jim Davis says, "but sometimes it's hard."

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers