Sitting in Legal Purgatory
Jerry Duane Martin killed a correctional officer as he tried breaking out of prison, and tonight he will be executed. But the man who tried escaping with him, and who some believe is also culpable for the officer's death, hasn't been convicted of the six-year-old crime.
“I don’t want you to be confused and think I’m suicidal or anything like that. It’s not natural for somebody to want to die,” said Jerry Duane Martin at a hearing about his death penalty case in June. He had been on death row since 2009, after he attempted to escape from the Wynne Unit, where he was already serving fifty years. A correctional officer had been killed during the incident. In the presence of his attorneys and prosecutors, Martin was now answering the judge’s questions to determine whether his decision to give up his appeals was rational and truly his own. “I’ve done the wrong thing all my life,” he said. “I’m tired. This is my one chance to do the right thing.”
Martin (pictured below, right) was convicted of the murder and tonight he will be executed by lethal injection. But another inmate who attempted to escape with him—and who some argue is also culpable for the death of the correctional officer—is not on death row. His name is John Falk (pictured below, left), and he hasn’t yet been convicted; his case is in a peculiar and rare form of legal purgatory.
The bizarre story of their escape and the wildly different outcomes in their cases is testament to a much broader truth about the death penalty in Texas: whether or not an execution takes place is the product of a dizzying array of factors. It depends on what county you’re from, who the DA is there, who is appointed as the defense attorney, and how each tiny legal technicality is analyzed up and down a chain of appeals courts. You have little control over what happens once the system is in motion. Martin is being executed by his own choice—he has asserted some control, in other words—but he would likely have faced this moment in several years anyway.
Falk, however, may never be convicted, much less sentenced to death. When his case went to trial late last year, the judge and the prosecutors clashed over the jury instructions. After multiple appeals, a higher court sided with the prosecutors, but now Falk’s lawyers say their client is protected by double jeopardy laws from being tried again for the same crime. That debate is still winding its way through the courts.
Though Falk is fighting a death sentence, his lawyer, Michele Esparza, was painstakingly careful to explain that her client is not in a fighting mood, and he “regrets that the family [of the victim] has not found closure.”
That would be Charles Canfield, the widower of the victim. He has sat through nearly every court date for both Falk and Martin. “They both did what they did. I hope Falk ends up on the same path as Martin,” he told me, his anger palpable and raw, even over the phone. “Falk’s trying every stunt he can to avoid what I hope eventually will take place, which is the same judgment and the same penalty.”
Canfield doesn’t expect to feel relieved after watching Martin’s execution tonight but said that Martin “deserves what is going to happen to him.” And Martin agrees. He speaks with remorse and has said for years that he would rather die than spend the rest of his life locked up under maximum security. In fact, that is why he tried to escape in the first place.
The Wynne Unit holds roughly two thousand male inmates, many of whom on a given day are out in the fields picking okra, peppers, and onions. The correctional officers assigned to watch these inmates still ride horses and carry shotguns and .357 revolvers. Many still wear Stetsons and boots.
You’d expect this place to be out in the middle of nowhere, like many prisons operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, but the Wynne Unit is right in the middle of Huntsville, where the department is based. Only a barbed-wire fence separates the prison fields from a City of Huntsville Service Center, where city vehicles and equipment are stored and maintained. Despite being a city of prisons, the residents of Huntsville feel safe, and some of the city employees leave their keys inside the trucks.
On September 24, 2007, correctional officer Susan Canfield was the day’s “high rider,” assigned to patrol, on a horse, the outside of the fence and act as a last line of defense should an inmate decide to make a run for it. The 59-year-old with short, blond hair was not a lifetime officer. She had worked in retail and customer service for much of her life. Her husband served as a Houston police officer for many years, and he later said he had spent two years trying to convince her not to become a correctional officer. “She had a low voice. She wasn’t loud,” he later described her in court documents. She used to practice scowling for her job, and he’d joke that she wasn’t fooling anybody. “She never looked mean. She was always smiling.”
They’d been married more than eighteen years and had moved out near the forest so she could clear her own trails for her two horses. She also kept four dogs, seventeen goats, and a donkey. She liked boating and motorcycle riding, anything outdoors, and so of all the prison postings, the fields were her favorite. According to her daughter Kara Holub, Canfield “liked being outside so much better, and she felt safer because she was on her horse.”
On that September day, she rode a gray quarter horse named Lucky. The veterinarians called him “Three Dash Three,” which was either branded or shaved on his left side along with a star. Every morning while grooming Lucky, Canfield would feed him a peppermint.
It was foggy that morning, and the roughly eighty inmates who would have normally picked okra were sent to the onion patch, right by the perimeter fence. There were five guards patrolling the fields, in addition to Canfield on the outside. The prisoners’ workday was like any other, with water breaks every hour or so. A little after ten Jerry Martin approached his assigned officer, Joe Jeffcoat, and said his watch had broken and he needed the officer to hold it for him. Jeffcoat knew that it was against the rules to let the inmates get too close, but he agreed to hold the watch.
When Martin was still about twenty feet away, standing to Jeffcoat’s right, the officer heard a sound to his left. It was another inmate, John Falk. Jeffcoat had just enough time to think ‘Have I been set up?’ before he felt Martin, on his right, trying to grab his .357 out of its holster. Jeffcoat yelled for help. He struggled. He felt his right foot being shoved out of the stirrup by Falk. Jeffcoat fell off his horse; maybe he could get the gun back from Martin, who was underneath him. But Martin had the gun. Jeffcoat tried to wrestle it away, but Martin’s arm was free enough to throw the gun. The next thing the guard knew, Falk had the gun and was pointing it right at him. The two inmates took off running.
Other guards chased them, but the prisoners managed to get over the fence and behind some heavy equipment in the city lot. Canfield, the sole officer outside the fence, was the only one left who could shoot at them. She fired. Falk fired back. She fired again. Falk fired again. Both ran out of bullets, but she had a shotgun, which she tried to pull from its holster. Falk came up and jabbed her with his empty revolver, and then he grabbed the shotgun.
Throughout all of this, her horse remained relatively calm. Some of the other horses, having heard shots, were spinning around and rearing and kicking. But Lucky wasn’t. Canfield was “in total control of that horse,” another officer, Larry Grissom, later remembered.
While Canfield and Falk fought for the shotgun, Martin found a truck at the service center, a white flatbed with some toolboxes and the shape of Texas on the door. The keys had been left in it. According to multiple witnesses, Martin climbed in and slammed on the gas, leaving skid marks on the cracked asphalt.
The truck rammed into Lucky. Canfield fell forward and hit the windshield. The truck braked. She flew up in the air and then fell to the ground. A witness heard the “clang of the tools on the back of that flatbed truck.” Martin turned the truck toward the lot’s exit, Falk ran to the passenger side and jumped in, and, as Jeffcoat remembered two years later on the witness stand, “they took off as fast as the truck would go.”
An employee at the nearby City Service Center called 911 and tried to chase them, dodging several bullets from Falk. The two drove to a Guaranty Bank, where they ditched the white truck and held up a woman in the drive-through lane. She drove a big, bright red Dodge Ram, and Falk shoved her over and took the wheel.
Police arrived and chased the truck, managing to shoot its tires out. Falk got about three quarters of a mile before pulling into a grassy field next to some woods. Martin, now manning the shotgun, fired at the cops. Falk exited the vehicle and ran toward a Walmart on the other side of the woods, where he was captured.
The police continued to search for Martin with several dogs. They found the rifle, with three rounds still in it. Two hours passed, and then they found Martin’s boots. They found his clothing hidden in a creek bed under some dirt. And then they found Martin, wearing only his underwear.
Canfield was declared dead later that day. Her skull had been fractured when she hit the windshield. Lucky had been hit with a bullet in the crossfire. Miraculously, by eight that evening, he was still walking; his legs were not broken, or even fractured from being hit by the speeding truck. But the bullet had penetrated between two ribs, and Lucky had to be put down.
In a letter to his brother shortly after his capture, Martin explained that he tried to escape out of a feeling of hopelessness. He was going to be serving most of his life in prison for having shot at state troopers during a standoff in Collin County, near Dallas, in 1994. “You would have to walk a mile in my shoes to understand what drove me to make such a decision,” he wrote. “Twenty-five years is a long-long time to do brother. I barely had twelve done and the next thirteen were overwhelming. I did only what was to be reasonably expected of me to do—win, loose [sic] or draw, I tried for freedom. I lost… I am a real outlaw brother. My prison record speaks for its self [sic]. Now I’m gona [sic] die an outlaws [sic] death.”
“I think he’s accepting responsibility. He realizes why he got the death penalty,” explained district attorney David Weeks. But his tone shifts when talking about Falk, whom he also prosecuted. “Here we had two people,” he told me. “Both were doing life. They escape. They kill a guard, and we’re just going to put them back in the penitentiary? I think as a matter of deterrence, you have to put the death penalty on the table. That’s the only protection the officers have out there.”
Martin’s attorney, David Schulman, has said that Martin simply knows that even if he is freed of the death penalty, he’ll spend the rest of his life in something close to solitary confinement. “He would rather let the state kill him than live the rest of his life under those conditions,” Schulman wrote in the Texas Law Reporter. “Can you say he is wrong to do this? I could not.”
Today, Falk’s lawyers are filing a writ in the Tenth Court of Appeals, claiming that he cannot be tried again because the judge declared a mistrial. Falk lives at the Polunsky Unit, in Livingston, which also houses death row. And even if he is not retried, he still faces a life sentence. In administrative segregation—or solitary confinement—he is alone in a cell for 23 hours a day. Inmates under these conditions generally leave their cells only for showers and an hour of recreation in a cage. They have no physical contact except for when they are shackled by correctional officers.