Directed by Susanne Mason; 2008, 60 Minutes, $34.98 (personal use)
Reviewed by David Preston
De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine. [From the depths I cry out to thee, O Lord]
With one minor change, the opening line of Psalm 129 could have been Fred Arispe Cruz’s personal motto. Cruz languished in the depths of the Texas prison system for nearly a decade before a court finally heard his cry and set him free. In the process, he almost singlehandedly invented a new legal institution: the “jailhouse lawyer.” Susanne Mason’s documentary, Writ Writer, tells Cruz’s amazing story using excerpts from his autobiography, interviews with fellow prisoners, and commentary from some of the attorneys who eventually took up Cruz’s cause.
In the Deep South of the early-1960s, the idea that a lone prisoner, unaided by a legal defense fund or team of media-savvy lawyers, could outflank a brutal prison warden and his minions would have seemed preposterous enough. That this prisoner could have been someone like Cruz—product of the San Antonio barrios, high school drop-out, petty thief, junkie—would have been simply incredible. Indeed, Cruz’s trip was a long and strange one. “When I tell you what I did to get here,” he cautions in the opening scene, “you probably wouldn’t believe me . . .”
In 1960, Cruz was charged with a robbery he hadn’t committed, and when he refused to cop a plea his case went to trial. Cruz wanted to fight the case vigorously; unfortunately, his court-appointed attorney didn’t share his enthusiasm and mounted only a half-hearted defense. Cruz was found guilty and sentenced to a retaliatory 50 years in state prison.
Determined to fight on, but with few weapons at hand, Cruz had a choice to make. “I knew [that] if I wanted to appeal and I couldn’t pay a lawyer . . . I’d have to do it myself,” he observed.
For Cruz, doing it himself meant filing a writ of habeas corpus with a federal appeals court. No walk in the park even today, in Cruz’s era any prisoner filing a habeas writ was taking his life in hand, as this film makes abundantly clear. But first, some legal history.
The term “habeas corpus” derives from a Latin expression meaning, “you may have the body, subject to examination.” A habeas writ requires that the government demonstrate that is has a reason (such as a valid criminal complaint) for detaining the appellant. As a legal precept, habeas dates to the early days of Anglo-Saxon common law and was first codified in the Magna Carta. It is also included prominently in United States Constitution—in Article I, Section 9—and can only be suspended during times of national emergency.
A habeas writ is often the simplest and most effective way for a prisoner to secure his release from detention. Such writs are commonly used to challenge detentions without trial—as with those of US prisoners being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba— request new trials, or request release from confinement for prisoners who have already served their sentences. Ideally, a prisoner’s lawyer would be the one to file a habeas writ, but, in the absence of competent or affordable legal representation, a prisoner may write and file a writ on his own behalf, which is what Cruz did. Alas, writs of habeas corpus are so rarely granted they are akin to winning the lottery: it happens, but not often.
Almost immediately following his conviction in 1961, Cruz began teaching himself the law and filing habeas writs for himself and his fellow prisoners. Some of Cruz’s writs were in neat handwriting on prison stationary; others were not so dainty. When Cruz was tossed into solitary confinement for “agitating” or possessing “contraband literature” (that is, the Constitution), he was forced to scrawl his writs in blood or charcoal across a piece of toilet paper or some other scrap of paper.
Prison authorities regularly beat Cruz for his trouble and suppressed his writs by confiscating or destroying them, claiming (wrongly, of course) that the Constitution did not apply in Texas prisons. One of Cruz’s writs finally found its way onto a judge’s desk, however, and though that request for a new trial was ultimately denied, the die was cast. From then on, the beatings and other punishments only strengthened Cruz’s faith in the final outcome even more.
On his second appearance in federal appeals court, Cruz was found innocent of the robbery charge. He was released on March 9, 1972, but the implications of the writ writing tradition he’d established did not end with his release. A separate suit he had helped to inspire (Ruiz v. Estelle) led to a series of landmark reforms in prisons across the country and established a prisoner’s right to legal assistance and protection behind bars, including the right of self-representation.
Writ Writer is one of those splendid documentaries that watches more like a Hollywood movie. And in fact the resemblance to one movie in particular (Cool Hand Luke) is eerie.
In Cruz’s story, though, the bad guy isn’t some corny, strop-wielding hick, but rather real-life warden C.C. “Bear Tracks” McAdams (the mother of all bullies), with Texas Department of Corrections director Dr. George Beto playing a supporting role as the “brains” behind the operation. Interviews with McAdams and several of his victims (all associates of Cruz) create a chilling image of the Texas prison system as a modern slave state.
There’s even an extracurricular love story too, complete with sordid details.
Notwithstanding the happy ending to Cruz’s prison story, the man was a fragile and complicated hero, and Writ Writer doesn’t gloss over this fact, as it easily might have. The essential tragedy of Cruz’s life was not the time he wasted inside the system, but the time he wasted outside. Still, Writ Writer is essentially the story of a heroic man, a man who, rather than merely cursing the darkness, lights one candle.
What a beacon that faint flicker grew to be.
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