Rob Will: Innocent and fighting on Texas death row


Credit: Matt Beamesderfer
By: Brit Schulte and Kelly Booker

Rob Will has been on Texas’ death row for the past nine years. He is an artist, a writer, and a revolutionary. He helped to co-found DRIVE (Death Row Inter-Communalist Vanguard Engagement), an organization made up of Texas death row prisoners fighting on the inside to change prison conditions and to resist their executions.           

For years, Rob has organized with remaining DRIVE members to keep the fight on the inside alive. Though he maintains that the larger struggle for abolition is what activists and supporters should be most concerned with, Rob is currently at a critical stage in his own fight. Rob’s last appeal was denied on May 25, 2010. He could face an execution date any day. The time is now to learn about Rob and to organize to stop his execution.

Background of the case

In December 2000, Robert Will was a 22-year-old father of two living on the north side of Houston. On the evening of December 4, police were called on the suspicion that Rob and his friend Alan “Rocky” Rosario were vandalizing cars. Two Harris County sheriff’s deputies responded to the call. Rob and Rocky split up and ran from the officers, with a deputy in pursuit of each. While Rocky was able to escape from the officer following him, Rob was caught by Deputy Barrett Hill.          

After Rob was forced to the ground and handcuffed, Hill radioed in that he had Rob in custody. Soon after, Rocky showed up, coming up behind the officer and shot Deputy Hill in the back, killing him (and in the process shot Rob in the hand). He freed Rob from his handcuffs; the two ran in opposite directions, and Rob was arrested later that day.           

The police never considered Rocky a suspect. His involvement was never investigated. For his part, Rob has never confessed to the crime despite harsh interrogation tactics. On January 23, 2002, after a trial lasting only two and a half weeks, Rob was convicted and sentenced to death.           

Rob says, “After a terribly unfair trial, I was convicted and sentenced to death, despite evidence--which wasn't properly presented--proving my innocence." This evidence includes police radio logs suggesting Rob was actually handcuffed during the shooting and physical and forensic evidence that points toward another man as the murderer.           

After police decided Rob was the shooter, they ignored all evidence of Rocky’s involvement, which is complicated by the fact that Rocky is the son of a Houston police officer. To date, at least five different people (four of whom have come forward with written affidavits) have been told by Rocky, in detail, how he killed Deputy Hill.           

During Rob’s trial, the Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal tried to paint Rob as a “cold-blooded killer,” comparing him with the 9/11 terrorists. Rosenthal said, “What we know from September 11 is that evil exists in the world: it is embodied in Robert Gene Will.” In 2008, Rosenthal was forced to resign after forwarding racist and offensive e-mails and admitting that years of being under the influence of prescription drugs caused “some impairment in [his] judgment.”           

Rob’s trial marred with problems, and so were subsequent appeals. His court-appointed habeas appeals attorney was pro-death penalty. Not only was little to no effort put into Rob’s appeal, it was literally copied word-for-word from an appeal of another prisoner named A.M. Resendiz. Only the men's names and legal histories where changed. It boggles the mind that the Courts can even accept this. And the lawyer denies this indicates "lack of effort.”           

Rob’s latest appeal was denied despite the fact that four people have come forward and given sworn affidavits that Rob was not the murderer of Deputy Hill. One of the judges who heard the appeal expressed doubts about Rob’s guilt, saying, “The subsequent investigation did not turn up any eyewitness, forensic evidence or other indisputable proof that Will was the killer.” In spite of this, there has been no justice for Rob.           

Rob has always argued that his case is representative of the larger problems in the criminal justice system, including racism and, especially in his case, classism: "My case highlights this fact, but is by no means an exception to the way the criminal justice system functions on a daily basis. From the point of arrest, through trial and on into the appeals process, the cards are stacked against anyone who doesn't have hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire an experienced legal team, or perhaps be lucky enough to get pro bono attorneys involved with their case."

Organizing for Rob

Rob's case has entered a critical phase. He was recently denied his final appeal at the federal level; however, his lawyers are fighting for a new hearing based on a new witness affidavit and other issues. Rob could be given an execution date very soon, and his supporters are ramping up his public campaign.           

Rob’s current support team is diverse and committed, with connections currently in Germany, Sweden, the Bay Area, New York City and a growing base in Texas. However, the need for people to get involved in on-the-ground work has never been more imperative.           

Rob’s support network is focusing on legal aid, media outreach, publicity, case promotion, and organizing days of action and protest. The newly formed CEDP chapter in Arlington, Texas and the established chapter in Denton, Texas have recently taken on Rob’s case as their focus. 

Rob's participation in outside struggle has been paramount to his own defense—he has engaged in struggle through his words and art, writing both political statements for marches and articles for progressive forums.           

A committed activist on the inside, Rob was sprayed with burning chemicals and beaten to the ground while occupying a shower cell to protest the execution date of Justin Fuller in 2006. He sustained several injuries, including a lasting scar on his cheek from a bolt on a guard’s shield. In addition to direct action protests, Rob has participated and led many other actions, including hunger strikes.           

There has been some media attention to Rob's case, but it has been mostly limited to small, independent sources. More publicity is necessary to build awareness around Rob's plight. 

Resources for organizing

The first step is for abolitionists to learn more about Rob's fight and how to get involved. His up-to-date Web site at www.freerobwill.org is the hub for recent news and materials to distribute about his case. You can follow Rob on Facebook at www.facebook.com/FreeRobWill or sign the petition targeted at Texas Gov. Rick Perry to investigate the deplorable conditions of Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas, by going to www.gopetition.com and searching for “Stop the Abuse at the Polunsky Unit.          

There are some fantastic video interviews with activists available in both English and Spanish about Rob’s case. They can be found on the website, and folks are encouraged to share them. A selection of Rob’s artwork and poetry can also be viewed on the site.           

As Rob always signs his letters: “Venceremos!” or “We Will Win!”

Lily Hughes and Marlene Martin contributed to this story.