Robert Butts, Jr. and the Injustice System
Sometime very soon, most likely in 2018, Robert Butts Jr. will receive a death warrant from the State of Georgia. Sentenced in 1998 for a murder he probably did not commit, Robert may be executed as a result of the complete collapse of the familial and societal support systems that most of us take for granted—his family members, his friends and teachers, his community leaders, and ultimately, the American justice system. Robert was perhaps doomed from the very moment he was born—every significant person in his life failed him, from his mother to his court-appointed defense attorneys. But it is perhaps the District Attorney, the representative of the State, who should shoulder the burden of Robert’s death, because he lied to the jurors about who fired the fatal gunshot in the separate trials for each defendant.
I was hired by William Clineburg, a senior partner at the Atlanta-based law firm King and Spalding LLP, during a meeting at the end of October 2005. Founded in Georgia during post-Civil War Reconstruction, King and Spalding is the oldest law firm in the southern United States. Mr. Clineburg had received a hand-written letter from Robert, seeking help for his appeals, and something about the letter piqued Mr. Clineburg’s interest. International corporate firms like K&S have seemingly unlimited resources to tackle good conscience cases, and Clineburg put together a team of associates to research Robert’s 1996 trial and subsequent conviction. Once the attorneys were satisfied they could find the information to support an Ineffective Assistance of Counsel claim against Robert’s original trial lawyers, the team hired mitigation expert and social worker Janet Vogelsang, and she in turn, asked that I be brought in to develop the mitigation case which would form the basis of Ms. Vogelsang’s testimony for the evidentiary hearing.
I had little information by the end of that initial meeting. I knew that Robert had a brother, perhaps a sister, and a mother who had failed to attend his trial in 1998. He had a grandmother and an aunt, who had been at the trial. There was a mention of his mentally ill father, but there was little information to work with. I left Atlanta after the meeting and drove the three hours back to Alabama. I began to strategize my work out of Milledgeville, Georgia, a small town located five hours and a time zone away from where I lived.
Amy, a young mitigation investigator from the Georgia Resource Center (GRC) had been visiting Robert as a courtesy to the K&S team, acting as a placeholder until I could be contracted and join Team Butts. GRC was representing Robert’s co-defendant, which posed a tricky conflict, that she should even be talking with Robert. Each had pointed the finger at the other as the shooter. Amy sent me what she had on Robert, which amounted to little more than addresses and telephone numbers for his mother, a sister and a brother. The sister was in the military and was living in another state. I met Amy at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson one morning in early November. We entered the prison together and she introduced me to Robert.
Our first meeting was brief. I sat on the sidelines while Amy and Robert talked, about football, mostly. Introductions are always best made by someone the client trusts. Amy was in her early 30’s, thin and adorable with long brown hair. She and Robert flirted with one another; he was clearly enamored with the young woman and she enjoyed his attention. She explained that I would be working his case from that point on. She promised she would continue to see him when she could. Robert was forlorn as they hugged and said their goodbyes. I assured Robert that I would return that afternoon to begin his case in earnest.
Visits with a death row inmate are laden with security precautions, even for legal visits, which ours were. Each time I visit Robert at the GDCC, I have to wait outside a small, run-down wooden building until the door is opened and visitors are allowed in. There are two visitation times during the weekdays; the first is scheduled from 9-11 a.m., and the afternoon period is from 2 to 4 p.m. I have never once known that door to open before a quarter after the hour, and sometimes it’s much later before we’re allowed inside. I then pass through a metal detector, while my shoes, notebook and pen go through a scanner, a machine similar to the ones the TSA uses at airports. Once I clear, I am patted down. Then I stand at a concession-style window and hand over a letter from the attorney on record, and explain I am there to see Robert.
The warden’s office would have received this letter via fax a day or two in advance, and a quick background check would be done against my driver’s license, social security number and birthdate. If I had been convicted of any type of felony, whether violent or drug-related, I would not be allowed into the prison. If you have a felony conviction, no matter how old, you are not allowed to visit an inmate.
Once I hand the Corrections Officer my copy of the letter, I sign the daily visitation log, with my name, occupation and the name of the inmate I am scheduled to see. Robert Butts has been my only client at the GDCC. Listing my occupation is tricky and requires a bit of deception. Corrections facilities throughout the country fear class action lawsuits and the last thing a warden wants in his prison is an investigator. To circumvent this worry, I always have the attorneys list me as a paralegal providing legal assistance on the paperwork.
“But you are so much more than an assistant,” lawyers have told me when I explain this bit of protocol at the start of a case. My husband gently objects to me being labeled a paralegal. Anyone can be a paralegal, he protests. He knows how much I identify as an investigator—it’s as much a part of me as being a woman, a wife and a mother.
“I don’t care what they call me,” I say. “I just need to get into the prison.”
I step over to a second window where I surrender my car key and driver’s license to yet another CO. In exchange, I receive a round metal disk with a number that corresponds with the hook my key and license hang from. This is standard procedure at any corrections facility: in case of a prison riot, or a fire, or something bad, we surrender our driver’s license so authorities know who’s inside. I’ve left my prescription sunglasses in the car and I wear glasses with clear lenses – eyes must remain visible. That I use the sunglasses to see carries no weight with the prison officials. Dark glasses are not allowed inside. Sunglasses, like sex, cigarettes and postage stamps, have value and are currency to the inmates.
I am now inside the prison.
I walk down a long hallway. The prison noises become louder as I get closer to where the inmates are housed. Cheaply framed motivational posters (Soar High! and Reach for the Stars) are mounted on the cinder block walls. Another warns that I could be a guest at that facility if I bring contraband to an inmate. Don’t worry, I think. I reach a third security area. The guard greets me with a friendly smile and a wave.
“Hello,” I say, a smile on my face.
“You here to see Butts?”
“Robert. Yes, I am.”
He unlocked a gated, enclosed, chain-link walkway. Its door clanged and locked behind me. A second door is unlocked by a different guard who also greets me with a smile. The gate slams shut behind me and I am led into the visitation area for maximum security inmates. Most days I will be put into one of two small, barred enclosures, essentially a small cell, typically reserved for legal visits. The guards and I greet each other with recognition from visit to visit, but I don’t know their names, nor they mine; we don’t see one another often enough to be anything but cordial. The guard opens the door to a different cell from the one we occupied that morning. There is a small table and two chairs inside. He assures me that my client will join me shortly. I look at my watch. It’s already 2:50 and I know that I won’t get any extra visitation time. I’ll be escorted out at 4 p.m.
I wait for Robert to be brought up from his death row cell block.
I am surprised by the noise. A constant drone of sound surges through the area. Doors crashing closed, men talking, whooping and yelling when they see a new woman, the occasional scream. Trays dropped. People moving through the facility. Cheap metal chairs scraping the floors. Clangs and bangs and rattles. Every sound reverberates off the concrete and steel and echoes throughout the prison. It is not quiet here and I often have a difficult time understanding what people say to me over the cacophony of the ever-present noise.
On this particular afternoon, after the first morning meeting with Robert and Amy, I want to get down to business. I have a questionnaire I need to work through with Robert, to document his personal history, which includes his family members, his school and medical information, all of which will help me with the process of gathering his records and to understand who his family is, how to contact them, and what their stories are.
I need to know his history—his story—in order to help him. This is quite a task. Many of my clients know little of their own narratives. They often don’t have an understanding of the circumstances that led them to where they are now: either in jail awaiting trial or already on death row. I count on the client to give me enough information to start the mitigation process. The investigation grows organically from that point.
But today, the longer I have to wait for Robert, the less likely it is that I’ll be able to get through the form. I’m nervous, too. He is a convicted murderer and I will be locked in this cage with him. I don’t know Robert yet. My palms are sweaty and I am anxious. No matter how many times I visit a jail or prison, there is always a fear at the back of my mind telling me that something bad could happen. Of course, bad things happen anywhere, but here I am confined in a virtual straitjacket, all control stripped from me. I don’t usually suffer from claustrophobia; apprehension always prickles at me as I wait for an inmate.
I see a guard appear with Robert. He’s holding Robert’s forearm, and with his other hand he pulls out a ring of keys and unlocks the door. Robert shuffles his feet as he makes his way toward the cell. His ankles are chained together. His hands are shackled behind his back. I wonder how Robert will be able to sign release forms for me with his hands cuffed behind him. I’m about to ask the guard, when he unlocks the cuffs. Robert places his hands in front of his body, and they are re-cuffed. Robert enters the cage, we both choose a chair, and sit down. The guard locks us in. I look at my watch. It’s 3:06. We have less than an hour left on the visit.
I have placed the questionnaire and three different sets of release forms on the table. I also have my legal pad. All of these are free from staples or metal binders, which are not allowed in the prison. These can be used as weapons.
I begin the conversation by talking a little about the K&S attorneys and our recent meeting. Robert made himself comfortable and reclined in his wooden chair, its two front legs off the ground, his shoulders rested against the bars. He chewed on a toothpick and watched me.
“Robert, in the little time we have, I’m going to ask you questions so that I can get started in Milledgeville, where I’m headed when I leave here.”
His chair’s legs slapped loudly against the floor as he sat upright and leaned towards me. He took the toothpick out of his mouth, a flicker of interest crossing his face. “You going to Milledgeville?”
“Yes, when I leave here. I’m going for several days. I want to meet your mom, your family. I need to start gathering records. I’m hoping you can tell me a little about your family today.”
“What do you want to see them about?” he asked guardedly.
“They’re important to help us understand your story, the story that should have been told at your sentencing but wasn’t. The jurors were not told why your life was worth saving.”
I flip idly through the papers then look him in the eye. “I need to learn as much about your family history as I can. I need to understand how you ended up here.”
“There’s not that much to know,” he said.
“You say that now but I’ll bet there is.” I picked up some papers. “At the very least, let’s get these releases signed, okay?”
He nodded and extended his left hand for the pen. “Me too,” I smiled and handed him the pen with my left hand. “I’m a lefty, too.”
“This is a general release,” I said. “I’ll use this to get your school records and others, like any criminal ones, if you have them.” I looked at Robert, he nodded.
“I need you to sign here, put in your social security number and birth date.” I pointed to the areas. He squinted at the words, held them away from his face, then pulled them closer to his face. His shackles hampered his attempts to get a clear view of the of the documents.
“Shall I walk you through this, to make sure you understand what you’re signing?” I have worked with people who cannot read, and I try not to embarrass them if this is the case.
Robert sighed. “I can read,” he said. “But I need glasses and the prison won’t get them for me.” He rocked back in the chair again.
“So, you can’t see to read, or you can’t see at a distance?”
“I think a little of both,” he said. “I have trouble seeing the words on a page, and I can’t really make out faces or anything at a distance.”
“Do you have a prescription? Is it just that the state won’t provide glasses for you?”
“I’ve got a prescription. I saw the doctor, but I can’t get any glasses.”
I shook my head. I picked up the general release form and walked him through it. I pointed out where he should print his name, his birthdate and his Social Security number. I noticed his birthday was in May, just a few days after mine.
“Ah, you’re a Taurus,” I smiled. “Me too.”
“Oh, yeah?” He looked up with interest. “When’s your birthday?”
I told him, handed him a release form for his medical records and pointed out where he should write his vital statistics. I asked if he had gone to a pediatrician as a kid or had a family doctor.
“Dr. Banks, or Banker, I think his name is. At the health department.” I wrote that down. I picked up the third form. “Were you in the military?”
“Nah.” Robert stuck the toothpick back in his mouth.
“Was anybody in the military? Your mom? Your dad?”
“Not my mom. I don’t know about my dad. My sister’s in the Air Force.” I tucked the form back in with the others. “How about Social Security? Did you receive SSI benefits?”
“I don’t know. You have to ask my mom.”
Robert listed the schools he’d attended and said he dropped out in the eleventh grade. He asked me a few personal questions about my husband and my children. I briefly mentioned my son and daughter in college, and my middle child who was in the Army Infantry. That caught his attention. The Iraq war was beginning to heat up, back when we hoped it would be over quickly, before the country was devasted and countless lives were upended, damaged and lost. I explained that Danny was stationed in Germany and was scheduled to be deployed to the Anbar Province, in Iraq.
“I’ll bet you’re worried.”
“I am.” I sat forward and placed my left hand over my mouth. I was overcome with profound sadness and struggled not to cry. My husband, children and I had gone to Germany for two weeks in early October so that our little family could spend time with Danny before his year-long deployment to the Middle East. Since then, I’d been gripped with persistent feelings of dread, panic, sorrow and abject fear.
I was grateful for this work. It distracted me from dwelling on personal horrors, which, in comparison to Robert’s, now seemed smaller and more manageable.
“Hey.” He reached over and lightly tapped my right hand with the pen. “He’ll be all right.”
“You’re absolutely right.” I smiled. A connection between us had been created. I placed the signed releases between pages in my legal pad and changed the subject. “Can someone in your family help you get a pair of glasses?”
He shook his head no.
“Have you asked your attorneys?”
“Nah. They’re doing so much for me already, I can’t ask them for glasses.”
“Do you have your prescription?”
“It’s in my, uh, room.” Death row prisoners are given small, solitary cells. They cannot see their neighbors, but they can hear them. They are housed separately from the other inmates. DR prisoners live on cellblocks and there is a communal television room where these inmates are allowed to gather to watch special shows, notably sports events. Robert lives on a different cellblock from his co-defendant, to eliminate any potential hostilities.
“Will you give me a copy of the prescription the next time I see you? Maybe I can get you a pair of glasses.”
“You’d do that?”
“I can try.” I pulled the questionnaire toward me. “Okay, let’s talk about you. How would you describe your life growing up?”
He leaned back again in the chair. He fiddled with the toothpick.
“Well, I guess I had a normal childhood.”
Over the next two years I would learn that a normal childhood, if there is one, was not what Robert had. It took me several months before I could coerce his mother into a face-to-face conversation; it took me all of two years to piece together Robert’s life from his birth to the time of his arrest, just shy of his 19th birthday. Little did we realize, but this word, normal, would haunt him for years to come.
Milledgeville is a small town in the middle of Georgia. With a population estimated at 19,397 in 2005 the town is evenly split between blacks and whites. Milledgeville is 45 minutes northeast of Macon and about two hours south of Atlanta. It was the capital of the state from 1804 through the Civil War and into Reconstruction. A prominent feature of Milledgeville is the Central State Hospital, once the world’s largest mental hospital, with over 200 buildings on 2,000 acres. According to the Atlanta Magazine, the first patient, a Tillman B. of Bibb County arrived in December 1842 and died six months later of “Maniacal Exhaustion.” Originally described as a Lunatic, Idiot and Epileptic asylum, Central State is now closed, most of its buildings abandoned and decaying. Many of Robert’s relatives, including his grandmother and father, worked at the hospital and then became patients themselves.
Robert was born in 1977 to Robert Earl Butts Senior, and Laura Waller Butts in Milledgeville. Laura was eighteen-years-old and Robert Sr. was twenty-three. Laura had given birth to her first child, Tammy, in 1975, just after her sixteenth birthday. In 1978, when Robert was an infant, his father began to exhibit signs of mental illness. Laura’s brother Pete stated in his 2018 clemency petition for his nephew Robert, Jr.:
“I got out of the Army at about the time Laura and Robert Butts Senior were married. We lived together for a bit and I knew Senior before mental illness took over. He was a nice guy and he was very smart. He was in college and working at Central State Hospital. He and Laura were happy. They both were working and things were good. But Senior began acting oddly around the time Robert Jr was born. He would take pails outside to collect rainwater. He built wooden crosses and put them up on the hill near our house. He started reciting verses of something, I don’t know what, and he took to wandering all over Milledgeville. It wasn’t long before Laura took Junior and left him. She was scared that he would hurt them.”
His mental illness rendered him unable to work, and in December 1978, when Robert Jr. was seven months old, Senior was committed to Central State Hospital in Milledgeville with the diagnosis of Schizophrenia, Paranoid Type. So began a cycle of arrests, commitments, hospitalizations, and releases to outpatient services and halfway houses for Robert’s father, which continues to this day.
Locating him is always a challenge. The first time I found him, a big bear of man, I was intimidated by him, scared even. I tentatively explained to him that I was trying to get his son, Robert Jr., off death row. He was pleased by that. I love my son, he told me and signed the releases for me. With signed release forms, I was able to obtain thousands of pages of Senior’s psychiatric treatment records.
When I would once again need to find Senior for yet another attorney or expert witness interview, I’d check with his elderly aunt to see if she knew where he was. If she didn’t, I’d drop by the Oconee Mental Health clinic and look for him there at meal times. I’d figure out which halfway house or apartment he was assigned to; or if no one had seen him lately, I’d check the local jails. If those avenues of chance failed, I’d drive around the downtown Milledgeville area. Sometimes I found him at the carwash on Jefferson Street where he’d hang out with the workers and pitch in by drying cars for a bit of coin.
With her husband descending into madness, teenaged Laura decided to have some fun. She frequently left her two children with her mother or elderly, alcoholic grandmother and hit the streets in search of drugs, sex and booze. She soon moved into a federally subsidized apartment with Robert Jr. and two-year-old Tammy. In May 1980, when Robert was a three-year-old, Laura gave birth to his half-brother Tamayo. In 1982, just after Robert entered kindergarten, his half-brother Dominique was born.
Laura was twenty-three years old.
By the time Robert was in second grade we have clear insight into what was happening to him. His teacher, Henrietta Reeves, wrote in 2007 that Robert “… had a great deal of difficulty accepting nurturing, hugs, pats on the back, words of encouragement … children who are not receptive to nurturing or affection may be reflective of a failure of a parent bonding with, or nurturing, her child. Robert was a quiet child. He was not aggressive, but he was a lonely child, a loner, and I believe that life, in the second grade, was a struggle for him. He was a little boy, and by that young age life had already taken him too much up and down. He always seemed tired, weary even, and I believe that when a child is living in a stressful environment, at home … this depletes the child’s spirit.”
Shortly after his half-sister, Tameica, was born in 1986, Laura was arrested and charged with driving under the influence. By September of that year, when Robert was beginning the fourth grade, his mother had begun using crack cocaine. During a 2006 interview, she admitted that a niece had come to her house one day and asked to borrow a baking pan. When Laura asked her why, her niece told her that she wanted to make crack cocaine. Laura tried crack that day, a decision that rapidly developed into a daily habit. She was twenty-seven years old, with five children and a drug and alcohol addiction. With the exception of Tameica’s father, Harold Burton, none of her children’s fathers provided any income or assistance for their children nor did they provide any parenting help.
Laura frequently disappeared for days at a time.
On August 1st, 1987, Laura’s mother Mary Cooper, with the assistance of a federal program, helped Laura purchase a double-wide trailer on a small plot of land on Pettigrew Road, on the rural outskirts of Milledgeville. Tammy went to live permanently with her grandmother. Complaining “too many children, too much trouble,” grandmother Mary Cooper and great aunt Doris Cooper would bring bags of groceries to the four children left in the trailer. Ten-year-old Robert was in charge. Older sister Tammy reflected on this memory in her clemency petition to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole in 2018:
“I did not realize, until just recently, that once I was removed from my mother that Robert had no one to look up to, or to protect him or guide him. Suddenly, Robert was the eldest in the home, with no one to help him. That must have been worrisome for him, especially as he, and my other siblings, grew older. Once I was gone, Robert took care of our brothers and sister, and I wasn’t there to help him.”
By July 1988, younger brother Dominique began receiving a Federally-mandated Individualized Education Program (IEP) for special education services because of his behavioral and learning difficulties. His school records described him as “aggressive toward others and very disruptive in the classroom.” Years of testing commenced for Robert’s half-brother which eventually led to a diagnosis of “ADHD” and “Oppositional Defiance Disorder.” The medical evaluation, conducted by the Medical College of Georgia concluded, “both [diagnoses] were organic in nature due to exposure to alcohol prenatally … frontal lobe not working well.” Laura admitted to me in a 2007 interview that she drank heavily throughout all five of her pregnancies.
The same month that Dominique began receiving special education services, Isaac Jones, Laura’s live-in boyfriend and supplier of drugs, was arrested on charges of Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon when he shot a man during a drug deal. His plea deal required him to pay one-third of his victim’s hospital bills.
Up through the sixth grade, Robert managed to make As and Bs. He finished the year with only ten absences. By this time his father had been arrested ten times and had been hospitalized on twenty occasions at the Central State Mental Hospital where he received treatments for his paranoid schizophrenia.
While Robert was balancing his grades with his neglected home life, his brother Dominique continued to behave badly in school. As he aged he became increasingly aggressive toward both students and teachers. By May 1990, he was eight-and-a-half years old, but still in the first grade. It was reported that he began making sexual overtures. “He came up behind Mrs. A, felt both her breasts, felt her on the legs; touched Mrs. B on her bottom… Mrs. Butts stated that Dominique exhibits the same behaviors at home.” Nevertheless, Dominique was promoted to the second grade. It had been noted in reports throughout the year that Laura repeatedly failed to provide Dominique’s prescribed Ritalin. Teachers notes and school records portrayed a child completely out of control.
By November 1990, Dominique’s behavior had become dangerous, both at school and at home. His mother often neglected to fill Dominique’s prescriptions, which by now included Haldol, an antipsychotic medication, to control his auditory and visual hallucinations. Laura consistently missed parent-teacher conferences. Her boyfriend, Isaac Jones, came to the school in her stead, and, once he was jailed, Tameica’s father, Harold Burton, would attend the meetings.
On November 19th, Jones reported to the school that Dominique had shot his brother Tamayo in the head with a BB gun. While Jones claimed that both he and Laura were home at the time, Robert recalled that he was alone with his brothers cooking dinner when the incident occurred. Both Tamayo and Dominique support Robert’s version of the story. Robert was thirteen-years-old.
It was during this time that Laura received inpatient treatment for alcohol and drug abuse. She was hospitalized for twenty-eight days. Medical records were included in her petition for Social Security Disability. “She was in two detox programs … 1991 and 1994. These records indicate she is unable to control her drug intake. The longest period she was abstinent was six months back in 1991. There is a history of prostitution to get drugs. She was living on the street for a time, using crack and drinking approximately one pint of alcohol daily and leaving her children alone at home.”
By August 1991, Dominique had been sent to Augusta University’s Medical College of Georgia for an outpatient psychiatric examination, referred by the Department of Family Services (DFACS) in Milledgeville. He was nine-years-old. In these reports, it’s very clear that the child protective services investigators were fully aware of Robert’s unstable living situation, with Laura often gone, and fourteen-year-old Robert trying to deal with a very disturbed brother. DFACS reported that Laura told them her boyfriend Isaac Jones “physically abused her and the police contacted DFACS about removing the children.”
Indeed, by this time there was such an extensive record built around Dominique’s behavioral problems that Robert’s struggles—now increasingly on his own—became widely known to the community at-large. DFACS had an open child protective services case for years, yet the boys and little Tameica continued to live alone—sometimes, as Robert reported, without electricity or running water when their mother would fail to pay the bills. Tameica wrote in her 2018 clemency petition:
“I remember that he would fix us breakfast in the mornings and made sure I got on the bus to school. He’d make dinner for us at night. He would try to fix my hair. He helped me with my homework. He took care of me, pretty much on a daily basis. He made sure that Tamayo and Dominique didn’t tease me or pick on me. When our mother was gone, Robert tried to make life normal for us. I was a little girl in a trailer of big boys. We would all worry about our mother when she was gone. I recall being very tired at school as I never seemed to get enough sleep and my grades were affected.”
In August 1992, Robert began the ninth grade at Baldwin High School. He had five absences. He passed all of his classes, except for one semester of Algebra I. That was his last good school year.
During our frequent visits between 2005 and 2007, I would often share with Robert stories from the people I’d met in Milledgeville. I remember asking him about his shoes and clothing. He said they were usually “raggedy,” and that his mother would get them from charities. He also said that his maternal grandmother, Mary Cooper, would buy a few articles of new clothing and a pair of shoes at the beginning of each school year for each of them. Robert recognized that these purchases were a hardship for his grandmother, who worked as a maid at the Central State Hospital. He said that as he entered high school he was self-conscious about his appearance and tried to keep his clothing and shoes clean and in good condition, but “Dominique would get into my stuff and wear my clothes and make a mess out of them.” At one point, Robert put a lock on his bedroom door to keep Dominique out. Dominique circumvented the lock by breaking his bedroom window to gain entry.
Holding onto personal items was difficult. Robert told me that one year Harold Burton gave him a portable stereo for Christmas. “I loved that boom box,” Robert recalled. “I loved being able to listen to music.” Music took him away from his problems. His enjoyment was short-lived. When he came home from the first day of school after the Christmas break, his boom box was gone. His mother had pawned it.
“Anything I ever got would disappear,” he said. Harold Burton later said that when he got his paychecks he would try to buy back some of the items Laura pawned.
In August 1992, Robert entered the tenth grade at Baldwin High School. His grades show that he was struggling. He had twelve absences for the year and earned only four credits. He was not promoted to the eleventh grade.
On June 14th, 1993, Sheila Brown, a Baldwin County DFACS investigator, began looking into allegations that Dominique had been sexually molested. She contacted Dominique’s school liaison. The liaison later wrote “… reportedly there were a number of children in the neighborhood who were being molested. It was discussed with Ms. Brown the possibility of investigating the family for neglect issues. Ms. Brown reported that a file has been accumulated from previous investigations. She will currently assess the family for possibilities of current abuse and neglect.”
There were no additional records about this investigation.
In August 1993, Robert repeated the tenth grade. He earned 2.5 credits for that school year.
Baldwin High School teacher Henrietta Taylor noted in an affidavit in 2007 that he was a loner and often slept in class.
“While I did not know the circumstances of Robert’s home life, and I did not know that Robert’s mother had a substance abuse problem, I did know there was something wrong. This was a young man with a lot going for him. I felt that Robert was trying to figure out who he was, seeking an identity … like many young people, he wanted to fit in somewhere—he wanted to be accepted and to have friends. I knew that his mother was not a positive influence in his life… it seemed to me that Robert was powerless. He had no security and no structure … this was a young man who was hopeless.”
Tired of being made fun of for his clothing and shoes Robert resorted to stealing items to pawn for cash. In early 1994, Robert committed two burglaries at nearby homes with a friend. He was arrested and confessed to four counts of Burglary and Criminal Attempt to Commit Burglary. Robert was one month shy of his seventeenth birthday.
In July, Robert got a job at Burger King in Milledgeville, earning $4.25/hour. In August, Robert was sentenced for the four counts of burglary. He was court-ordered to pay $1,223 in restitution to the victims. He was also placed on probation. Since Robert was employed his mother demanded he give her $25 per week in rent. In the fall he began the eleventh grade. He earned no credits during the first semester and was referred to the Baldwin County Alternative School for the second semester. He earned 1.5 credits for the entire year.
On January 4th, 1995, Robert pumped $11.67 worth of gasoline into his car and drove away without paying. The next day, when contacted by Sheriff’s deputies, he admitted to not paying for the gas. Robert agreed to reimburse the victim for the gas to avoid arrest.
On January 13th, a co-worker at Burger King seized Robert by the throat and began to choke him. Robert grabbed a hammer and tried to strike his assailant. The responding officer noticed visible marks on Robert’s throat, as well as a hammer in the kitchen. Both were terminated by the restaurant’s manager.
Several weeks later, on February 3rd, Robert began work at a Taco Bell restaurant. His starting wage was $4.25/hour, which eventually rose to $4.35. On July 5th, now 18, Robert was charged with Violation of Probation. He had failed to report to his probation officer and had fallen behind with paying court-ordered fines and restitution.
In August 1995, Robert repeated the eleventh grade at the alternative school. On September 29th, Robert was placed on probation for the burglary incidents in 1994, ordered to report weekly to a probation officer, and pay $30 per visit for restitution. As part of his probation, he was also ordered to present copies of his paychecks to his probation officer, attend school daily, make passing grades, and obey a curfew.
On October 16th, 1995, Robert dropped out of school, and everything fell apart.
Robert confided to me, and the records supported his story, that by that fall his mother was deeply into addiction and prostitution. Her long-time boyfriend, Isaac Jones, was in prison and no longer supplying her with drugs. She pressured Robert to buy crack for her—he relented and did so to keep her at home and off the streets. He used the little money he earned from Taco Bell, money he needed to meet his restitution and court fine obligations to buy crack cocaine for his mother. It was while purchasing drugs at the Milledgeville Manor, a grandiose name for the federally subsidized housing project, that he met his future co-defendant Marion Wilson.
“Man, look at your nasty shoes,” Robert recalled Wilson saying to him. “Ain’t you got no self-respect?” With that question Wilson planted the seed that led Robert into Wilson’s orbit.
On October 20th, Robert was arrested and charged with possession of “one small piece of crack cocaine.” He was also charged with possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime, and with carrying a concealed weapon—a .380 Lorcin was found in his pants. Robert said the gun had belonged to Isaac Jones, and he would carry it when he had to go buy crack, to prevent being robbed.
The next month, Robert was arrested again and charged with “Theft by Shoplifting.” He and a friend were charged with stealing four music cassette tapes from a Blockbuster store in Milledgeville. The tapes were recovered. Robert entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to twelve months of probation with a $500 fine.
By this time family members other than Robert’s mother were aware of his legal problems. Robert’s aunt worked as a court liaison for the Milledgeville Police department. No one stepped up to help the troubled young man.
Robert went to work at the Concord Fabrics factory in December. He earned $6.25/hour. A month later he was earning $6.75/hour. On January 11th, 1996, Robert was arrested yet again—this time for driving under the influence. He was sentenced to twelve months’ probation, ordered to pay $30 per month for probation services, to complete forty hours of community service, and to pay $530 in fines.
On February 19th, Robert entered a guilty plea to the charges of Possessing a Controlled Substance, Possession of a Firearm during the Commission of a Crime and Carrying a Concealed Weapon. He received a total of three years’ probation for all three offenses. He was ordered to pay $1,235 in legal and court fees, $20 each month for probation supervision, and to complete one-hundred hours of community service.
On February 27th, 1996, Laura was hospitalized “… due to mental illness; and her condition has not improved significantly thereafter.” Records provided by the Georgia Baptist Medical Center described “a diagnosis of major depression, cocaine abuse, alcohol dependence, alcohol withdrawal syndrome… unable to control her drug intake… the claimant has uncontrolled use of cocaine and alcohol.” She remained in the hospital until March 11th.
An 18-year-old Robert Butts Jr. was terminated by Concord Fabrics on March 1st, 1996. He owed a total of $4,088 in court fines, restitution and probation services. He had little education and no skills. Paying these fines must have seemed as unattainable as winning the lottery or flying to Mars. He knew he’d go to prison if he couldn’t pay the money.
“I was overwhelmed,” Robert told me in December 2017. He had no one to help him navigate the legal system. He had no one who could extend a helping hand. He was on his own. He’d always been on his own.
He went to see Marion Wilson. Ironically, selling crack seemed to be the only way out of his legal mess.
Marion Wilson had a problem. He confided to Robert that he’d lost all his money gambling and that someone had stolen the stash of drugs that he sold out of the Milledgeville Manor apartments. Wilson, who was slightly older than Robert, had spent most of his life incarcerated for violent juvenile crimes, and he had to come up with some way to get the money—he owed it to his dealer. Wilson’s plan was to steal a car and take it to a chop shop for cash. He needed Robert to give him a ride.
This ride would forever alter three lives.
On the evening of March 28th, 1996, these two young black men, Robert Earl Butts Jr., 18, and Marion Wilson, 20, drove to the Wal-Mart in Milledgeville, in Robert’s car. Robert and Wilson entered the store and video footage showed them standing in line behind Donovan Corey Parks, a corrections officer and part-time grocery clerk, as he bought food for his recently deceased mother’s cat. Robert and Donovan knew one another; the Parks family lived next door to Robert’s uncle Tony and his family. Robert purchased a pack of chewing gum and the duo followed Parks to his car, which Parks had left in the fire lane in front of the store.
A witness overheard either Robert or Wilson (depending on whose trial one witnessed) asking Parks for a ride. Parks agreed and moved items around in his Acura to make room for both young men. Robert testified that Wilson directed Parks to drive to Felton Street, an older, residential neighborhood. Once on Felton, Wilson told him to stop the car. When Parks stopped, Wilson exited the car, opened the driver’s side door, “snatched [Parks] out [of] the car by his tie,” and dragged him behind the car. Donovan Parks was forced to lie face down on the pavement. While Robert remained in Parks’ car, he overheard Wilson say, “give us all your money,” followed by a single gunshot, which was fired, execution-style, into the back of Parks’ head. Robert testified that he never got out of the car. After hearing the gunshot, Robert claimed that he was “scared,” “upset,” “sick to his stomach,” and “afraid of Wilson.”
In a surreal sequence of events the young men drove the Acura to Atlanta, in an attempt to get rid of the car. Unsuccessful in their search for a chop shop, they drove back toward Milledgeville but Wilson, fearing that police had discovered Parks’ body, knew they needed to dump the stolen car before they got back to town.
They stopped at a gas station near Macon and bought gas. Wilson drove to a wooded area and doused the car with the gasoline and set it on fire. From a Macon phone booth near the burning car, Robert called his uncle Earnest “Bobby” Waller and said that he needed a ride back to Milledgeville. Although it was the middle of the night, Waller drove out and picked up Robert and Wilson.
Waller passed away in 2003. His daughter, Valeria Hightower, gave the following statement in a 2018 affidavit:
“My father told us that when he got there he saw that he had someone else with him. He said that Junior was ‘looking scared, and worried in the face,’ and he described my cousin’s demeanor as ‘withdrawn and frightened.’ But my dad described Wilson, the person with Junior that night, as ‘calm, cool and collected.’ My father asked Junior, several times during the ride, if he was all right. But Junior didn’t say anything to my dad while they rode together. They never got another opportunity to talk about what had happened that night. Junior was arrested and then my father was treated by the police like he’d been an accomplice to the murder. His van was impounded. He was interrogated. Which really bothered my dad, because he did not know what was going on. He knew that something bad had happened and that Robert was too afraid to talk. He thought Junior was afraid that Wilson, or one of his associates, would hurt someone in our family if Junior cooperated with the investigators.”
Robert was arrested outside of his grandmother’s home on April 2, 1996. Wilson was arrested in the bedroom of his girlfriend’s apartment, and the murder weapon was found under her bed.
On that day, the wheels of the justice system began to turn and the State of Georgia made the decision to try each young man separately. During the sentencing phase of Marion Wilson’s 1997 trial, the prosecutor, Fredric D. Bright, told the jurors that “Wilson was the shooter.” Wilson was sentenced to die. He remains on death row to this day.
On November 20th, 1998, a different jury found Robert guilty of Malice, or Intentional Murder, and the necessary aggravating crimes of Armed Robbery, Hijacking a Motor Vehicle, Possession of a Firearm during the Commission of a Crime, and Possession of a Sawed-off Shotgun. When Robert was convicted of murder, along with these aggravating charges, he was eligible for the death penalty. For a death sentence to be imposed, a defendant has to have been convicted of committing a murder during the course of committing another crime.
During the sentencing phase his court-appointed lawyers made a perfunctory attempt to present a mitigation case, during which family, friends and community members should have been called to speak on behalf of Robert, and to explain to the jury what had gone wrong in his life. Despite having a large family, only two women were present—Robert’s grandmother and his great aunt. Neither was prepared to tell the jurors why Robert’s life mattered. His mother was not present, and her absence was not explained to the jurors. I later learned she was in jail in Eatonton, a nearby town, during the trial, and unable to post bond.
No one was prepared to humanize Robert. The jurors viewed him as a monster, a scary gang member, especially as Bright told the jurors Robert was so evil that not even his mother would come to court to defend him. Despite having paid a mitigation specialist $8,000 in state funds, the defense failed to present a mitigation case, an American Bar Association requirement for all death penalty trials. The specialist had gathered many of the records I later found, but she did not prepare any of Robert’s family members to speak for him at the sentencing portion of the trial.
No one told the jurors, or the judge, that Robert’s life mattered.
No one told his story.
Echoing the words he had spoken one year earlier at Wilson’s trial, Prosecutor Bright told the jurors that Robert was the shooter of Donovan Parks. He engaged in what was to be called, during the appellate process, an “inherently inconsistent one-murder, two-shooters theory of the crime.” The jurors, who had been sequestered for the duration of the trial—because of unsubstantiated gang retaliation rumors fostered by the prosecution—heard nothing sympathetic about Robert. The terrified jurors listened intently as the prosecutor stated conclusively that Robert Butts was the shooter and sentenced him to death.
How was it possible that both young men, Robert Butts and Marion Wilson, were the triggermen when only one shot, one fatal shot, was fired from the shotgun found under Wilson’s bed?
Despite years of unsuccessful attempts by Robert’s lawyers to convince the appellate courts that he deserved a new trial, or, at the very least, new sentencing based on the prosecutor’s erroneous statements and the miscalculations and blunders committed by his court-appointed attorneys, Robert continues to survive on death row at the GDCC. Throughout the State and Federal appeals, judges said that Robert had written on his initial form that he had considered his childhood normal. The judges fail to understand that Robert’s crimes stemmed from desperation to pay his legal expenses and his inability, at the age of 18, to make reasoned decisions.
Buying crack for his mother, selling crack to pay legal bills, helping his dealer find a car to take to a chop shop—those were Robert’s choices, we understand that. But God, what choices are those for an 18-year-old to make?
What I learned over a two year period was this: Every person in his life had failed him, from the moment he was born until the day he went to live on Death Row.
Now, in 2018, all of his appeals are exhausted, twenty-two years after the murder of Donovan Corey Parks. Robert’s appeals have failed all of the courts and he now waits for a death warrant from the State of Georgia that could come at any time.
I met with Robert one day, shortly before his 2007 Evidentiary hearing, to explain some of the grim testimony his family members, teachers and our expert witnesses were going to present. He became visibly upset with the realization that the cards had been stacked against him since birth.
To calm him, I told him a story I’d been told as I travelled through the Middle East in 1980. I had interviewed a Jewish woman who had survived the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp, and then had been kicked off of her farm in Rhodesia in the 1970’s. She’d lost everything twice in her lifetime. I’d asked her how she coped with these traumas and, in response, she told me a Jewish folk tale.
The story was of Lailah, the angel of light, who takes babies on a journey through their lives before they are born. When they’ve returned to the womb, Lailah asks them if they want to live that life or wait for another. If the child chooses that life, Lailah taps him below his nose, forming the indentation called the philtrum. The tap is to make the child forget what he’s seen. This story accounts for feelings of déjà vu, miscarriages and stillbirths. I told Robert that, if we are to believe this Lailah tale, then he must have chosen his life for a reason.
Robert seemed shaken as I told this story. But this myth seemed to calm him too, a story that attempts to explain why series of situations, mostly outside our control, happen to us. Had Robert seen the particulars of his story and then actively chosen to live this life? For what purpose? We spent the duration of our visit discussing the theories of free will, choice, and predetermination. If we know that we have chosen to live the trauma that inflicts us, does that empower us?
During his evidentiary hearing in 2007, witnesses told the judge the story of Robert’s life. Their statements gave the judge, and Robert, a much better sense of the circumstances of his birth, childhood and adolescence. Robert cried throughout his mother’s testimony as she told the court how she had chosen drugs over her children and brought violent men into their home. She admitted that she had never told her children she loved them. Robert was also moved by the testimony of his uncle Johnny Waller, who acknowledged that he had known Robert was trying hard to manage, alone in the trailer with his siblings, but had provided little help to his nephew. Robert’s two sisters and brother Tamayo testified. Dominique was incarcerated at that time but his affidavit was presented to the judge for her consideration. Teachers and other lay witnesses travelled to the prison to speak on Robert’s behalf, and to tell the court why his life mattered. They each apologized for not lending him a helping hand when they had seen him struggle. Their heartfelt words meant the world to him.
On the final day of the hearing Robert and I stood together outside the prison courtroom and spoke quietly during a recess. He wore the wire-rimmed glasses my optician made for Robert in 2005. I told him he looked smart in those glasses. He reminded me of our first visit and thanked me for working to help him, for piecing together his story for him.
“I know I told you that my family was normal,” he said. “But now I know just how damaged we were. I thought everyone lived the way we did, until I came here, to death row. That’s when I realized how different my life was from most other people. Now I know just how bad things were.”
Robert and I have maintained our friendship through letters since the 2007 hearing. Even though Robert was not allowed to pursue a GED in prison—“they won’t educate me if they’re going to kill me,”—he has taught himself to draw and to write beautifully. In 2009, with the help of friends, Robert published a collection of his art and writings in a book titled A Portrait of My Journey: Memories from Death Row.
Each year, on my birthday, I receive a card, usually hand-drawn, from Robert. He is a member of my family. I’ve kept all of his letters and drawings, just as I’ve kept cards and letters my children have written to me.
Robert has been on death row at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison since November 23rd, 1998, the day after his sentencing. I visited him frequently from October 2005 through September 2007.
I last saw him on December 14, 2017. He was still wearing the same glasses.
And here we circle back to the beginning of this wretched tale: sometime very soon, very likely in 2018—any day now—Robert Butts Jr. will receive a death warrant from the State of Georgia, for a murder he likely did not commit.
 Dominique Hurt died while incarcerated at Valdosta State Prison on Father’s Day in 2016
 Available at Amazon.com