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By Craig Malisow
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By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
Joy Weathers watched from her front porch as the car rolled to a stop.
Martin Draughon stepped out of the back, and Weathers rushed to meet him. It was the first moment of Draughon's parole.
For almost 20 years, Draughon had been locked up on death row in the maximum-security-level Polunsky Unit in northeast Texas. But in the summer of 2006, a federal judge ordered a retrial and Draughon accepted a deal for a 40-year sentence. Almost overnight, he was signing papers for parole.
Draughon was released to live with Weathers at her home in nearby Livingston, a lakeside community about 70 miles northeast of Houston.
Weathers had met Draughon while he was still in prison and was now his fiancée. She hugged him as soon as the two were inside the house. A party had been planned for that night to celebrate Draughon's release. The guests would be arriving in a few hours.
About 20 people showed up, many of them anti-death penalty activists who befriended Draughon while he was on death row. Weathers hadn't met many of the guests, and she told them about the tiny radio station — KDOL — that broadcast from the house. Weathers had become the main voice of a Sunday night show aimed at the prisoners in Polunsky.
Weathers also talked about the prison ministry she had started. All Life Is Precious Ministries was devoted to converting inmates to Christianity and had become a staple of the radio broadcast. Draughon would be the new star of the show.
A few people at the party drank champagne or wine. They hugged Draughon and rubbed his bald head. They told him how happy they were that he was out.
A man from New York roamed the house with a camera. Draughon posed for a few pictures in the kitchen and showed off his prison tattoos.
Gloria Rubac, a member of the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement, pulled Draughon away from the crowd the first chance she had.
"Aren't you worried about being in Livingston? This isn't friendly country," Rubac said.
Draughon responded, "Gloria, I've lived on death row for 20 years. There isn't a rule they got that I can't follow."
Five months later, Draughon was back in prison on a parole violation. The GPS monitoring device Draughon was required to wear had lost signal for about an hour, and he failed to answer phone calls from his parole officer.
Draughon's arrest has set off a flurry of protests from Weathers and members of her ministry, who allege that Draughon is being punished by his parole officer and prison officials who are angry because he participated in the radio show.
Weathers believes that God sent Draughon to Livingston to be part of her ministry. God is still using Draughon and his case, she says, to help other men who have been treated unjustly.
Draughon also believed in the ministry when he was first released. He saw himself as a voice of hope for the men he left behind on death row.
"It was somewhat of my obligation to be there trying to give some hope and encouragement to those guys," Draughon says.
Sitting in prison, with a possible release date of 2015, Draughon now knows that was a mistake.
Martin Draughon does not dispute his guilt in the crimes that sent him to death row. He just doesn't think he deserved a death sentence.
In the summer of 1985, Draughon was driving an ice cream truck on several routes through Houston. He enjoyed the job, mainly because of the women he met. He started dating one of the women, and immediately fell in love with her two children. Draughon's new girlfriend also had a serious cocaine habit.
"He just liked to have a good time. He wasn't a punk. He wasn't a thug," says Draughon's younger sister Felicia, who was 17 when her brother was sent to death row. "I have fond memories of my brother skateboarding on his skinny skateboard with his long hair and golden tan."
The ice cream business soon went under, and Draughon was left with the pressure from his ready-made family. His own drug use had also spiraled into addiction. Draughon needed money.
"I was young, poor white trash, doing the wrong things for the right reasons," Draughon says. "And everything got way out of control."
Gafford drove Draughon to the restaurant, located in far west Houston, just after closing. Draughon waited near the entrance, and Gafford pulled his truck to the rear of the store to wait.
Inside the Long John Silver's, the manager and several employees were cleaning up. A female employee lived nearby, and the woman's younger brother had walked to the store to wait for her.
The manager saw the boy outside, and he opened the door to let him in. When he did, Draughon appeared with a gun and told them to go inside. Draughon forced everyone to the back of the store and told the manager to open the safe.
The mother of the female employee began to worry about her son and daughter. She grabbed a knife from her kitchen and walked over to the Long John Silver's. She peered into the window and saw Draughon pointing a pistol at her children.
Frantic, she ran down the street screaming for help. She found some men standing outside, and the group rushed back to the restaurant and pounded on the windows. One of the men, 21-year-old Armando Guerrero, headed for the back of the store. He didn't want the robber to escape.
When Draughon saw the men banging on the windows, he ran for the back exit. He busted through the door and rushed for Gafford's truck. Guerrero chased after him.
Draughon pointed the gun behind him and fired several shots. Draughon jumped in the truck, and Gafford sped off.
Two days later, Draughon robbed another Long John Silver's. As he ran from the store, a police officer shot at Draughon but missed. Draughon dropped to the asphalt and gave up. He soon learned that he had killed Guerrero.
During his trial, Draughon argued that he hadn't intentionally killed the man. He was only firing warning shots. No ballistics testimony was offered on Draughon's behalf.
The prosecution, however, called a weapons examiner from the Houston Police Department. The officer testified, based on ballistics, that Draughon shot Guerrero point-blank. The jury convicted Draughon of capital murder and he was sentenced to death.
Felicia had traveled from Florida with her mother and younger sister for the weeklong trial. She was on summer vacation between her junior and senior years of high school. As soon as the death penalty was announced, Draughon's mother walked out of the courtroom and collapsed.
"It was wretched," Felicia says. "I never in a million years would have expected the death penalty."
While Martin Draughon was in the early years of his death-row sentence, Weathers was working at NutriSystem diet centers in Houston.
Weathers lived and worked in the Houston area until her father became ill, which prompted her to move to North Carolina. When her father died, she sold the family's marina business and decided to return to Texas.
Weathers had liked Houston, but she wanted to live near a lake. So, she chose Livingston. She found a small place to live and used the marina money to open a deli on the main street that runs through the town.
About the same time, Jim Wolfe, a longtime Livingston resident, had decided to set up a radio station in his 12-room Victorian house. Wolfe had always worked on satellite and radio equipment, and wanted to start the station as a hobby. He really wanted a way to play his massive collection of old rock and blues records.
The station was never intended to be a moneymaker, and Wolfe says he personally funds the station for about $3,000 a month. Wolfe's wife wasn't happy with that idea, and, shortly after the station was up and running, the couple split after 32 years.
Wolfe had frequented Weathers's deli, and the two had become friends. Business at the deli was slow, she told Wolfe, because she wasn't having any luck getting customers into the store. Wolfe asked her to move into his house so she could help manage the radio station. Weathers agreed.
Wolfe didn't set out to broadcast to prisoners. He wasn't certain that his signal would even penetrate the walls at Polunsky. But soon, Wolfe started receiving letters with song requests from inmates.
Then he received a letter from an inmate asking him to track down some case information. Wolfe found the info and read it over the air. The letters started pouring in after that.
Soon, friends and family members of the prisoners were calling and writing the station. They all had messages they wanted broadcast to an inmate.
Wolfe, who speaks with a deep baritone drawl, felt uncomfortable reading letters from women. Especially, he says, when the messages were accented with a couple kisses. Wolfe did his best, he says, trying to read the letters in a high-pitched, sexy voice. It was a complete failure.
Wolfe turned to Weathers, who had been reluctant to appear on the radio because, she says, she sounded like a "big country hick." But Wolfe coaxed her, and Weathers soon felt comfortable. In fact, she says, it felt natural. Weathers began reading the majority of the letters to inmates.
Sunday became the official night for the prison broadcast. The more she heard from prisoners and their families, the more she spoke about the poor conditions on death row.
Weathers realized she was in a unique position. She wanted to teach prisoners about Jesus.
"It was all God," Weathers says. "It needed to turn into a ministry, and the Lord just laid it on our hearts to do that."
Weathers enlisted the help of her longtime friend, Silvia Joplin, to serve as pastor. Joplin, who was living in Michigan at the time, agreed to move to Livingston to start her career as a preacher.
Weathers broadcast a message to inmates asking for a name for the ministry. A prisoner on death row mailed Weathers a drawing of two hands clasped in prayer with a Bible in the background. Written above the picture in colorful script were the words "All Life Is Precious."
The show soon expanded to two nights. Sunday nights were reserved for reading messages to inmates, and a Thursday night show was devoted to preaching.
"This is something God knew needed to exist because of the men in prison. They need to know that Jesus Christ loves them," Joplin says. "You would call us great humanitarians. I think we're doing one of the greatest humanitarian works that anyone has ever done."
Ray Hill has been doing a prison show on Houston's KPFT for 28 years. Hill, who spent four years in prison, has heard the KDOL show and, for the most part, likes what Weathers is doing. In fact, KDOL has a better signal going to death row than KPFT does.
"She isn't as diplomatic as I am, nor is she as sophisticated as I am," Hill says. "But the territory is big enough for the both of us, so I'm kind of glad for that. I don't buy into the religion thing, but that's just me."
While Weathers was laying the groundwork for her ministry, Draughon was becoming a celebrity on death row.
Draughon had received a small flash of publicity during his murder trial for a number of poems he wrote in his jail cell. After his sentencing, one headline read, "Jail poet given death in slaying."
Draughon was later contacted by Niels Graverholt, who operated an anti-death penalty Web site in Denmark. Graverholt had read an article about Draughon in a Danish newspaper, and he wanted to know more about Draughon's case. The two corresponded through the mail, and Graverholt created a Web site devoted to Draughon.
Graverholt posted essays, poems and letters authored by Draughon from death row. Draughon's writing dealt with what he perceived as inhumane treatment of prisoners on death row. When Draughon co-published a collection of poetry with another death row inmate, Graverholt sold copies of the book for $15.
The Web site became a popular forum for anti-death penalty activists, and Draughon became the unlikely face of the fight against injustice. The site also received, and published, hate mail from people who argued that Draughon deserved to die.
When someone posted information about a rape Draughon had committed days before the robbery and murder that sent him to death row, Graverholt almost shut down the site because, he wrote, Draughon had not told him about that crime. But Graverholt kept the site running.
"As far as I can see, most Americans have not realized that the death penalty is not just about getting rid of animals," Graverholt wrote. "Presenting Martin's writings on the website would give these people a chance to understand that if the people of Texas some day executes [sic] Martin they will be taking the life of a human being."
Weathers was familiar with Draughon's case long before she met him. Felicia would often call the radio station to get a message to her brother. When Felicia's daughter was born, she wanted Draughon to know about it.
Draughon eventually wrote a letter to Weathers with suggestions on how to improve the show. She wrote back that she liked his ideas. He had a business mind, she wrote.
The correspondence continued, and Draughon's case, which had reached a federal appeals court, became a talking point during the radio show.
Then the federal judge ordered a retrial for Draughon. Prosecutors had not allowed his defense attorney to independently test the ballistics evidence. When it was finally tested, it showed that the bullet could have ricocheted off concrete before hitting Guerrero. It didn't mean Draughon was innocent, but the judge thought a jury should hear that evidence.
Draughon wrote Weathers asking her to come visit him before he was transported to Houston for his retrial. Draughon figured he'd be shipped to a prison away from Livingston, and he wanted to meet Weathers while the two were still close.
After their first meeting, Weathers visited Draughon weekly on death row. When he was transported to the Harris County Jail, Weathers drove to Houston each week to see him.
"I had an idea that he would get out," Weathers says, "and I knew that he would need a place to parole to."
In a letter posted on his Web site, Draughon wrote, "I have been head-over-heels, crazy, IN LOVE...Let me just say that I was smitten and falling hard, right from the very first time we spoke, face to face. At the start of that first visit, I placed my palm against the glass. What I felt like was a sincere welcome gesture. Joy placed her palm against the glass, over mine. Our hands never came down for the whole two-hour visit. That wasn't planned."
When Draughon learned he would get paroled, Weathers asked him if he would move to the radio station in Livingston. Draughon said yes.
The situation was perfect, in their minds. Draughon would be living just a few miles from his old death row cell, and he'd be speaking to the men he left behind. Weathers knew there would be no stronger witness for her ministry. Draughon agreed to parole to Livingston, and he was named an officer in All Life Is Precious Ministries. Draughon and Weathers decided to get married.
"I believe completely this is where I am meant to be," Draughon wrote on his Web site. "This is not a popular decision with my 2 sisters. All these years, it has been understood, I would parole out to one or the other sister, if and when that time came. Well, all that changed when I fell in love."
Felicia was visiting her younger sister and mother when she received the information about Draughon's parole. Weathers delivered the news with a phone call.
"I've daydreamed about that day my whole life," Felicia says.
Felicia dropped to her knees and started screaming and crying in joy. Weathers told her that Draughon would be released in eight days, and Felicia's head started to spin.
Since her brother went to prison, Felicia had a recurring dream — about two or three times a year — about Draughon being released from prison on a vacation. They would hold hands the entire dream, but Draughon would always be taken away.
The dream was the first thing that flashed in Felicia's mind when Weathers told her about the parole. She fired off questions to Weathers. Felicia wanted to know what she needed to do. Weathers told her not to do a thing, because Draughon had decided to parole to Livingston.
"I felt crushed," Felicia says. "Not to mention me getting robbed, my family getting robbed, of getting to see him after 20 years, and getting to hug him, which was totally getting yanked right from underneath us."
The months Draughon was out on parole, Felicia never saw her brother. She traveled to Livingston once, but only after his parole was revoked. She saw him in the Polk County Jail, where he was waiting for a parole hearing. The two sat and talked at a picnic bench inside the jail. It was the first time they had touched since Draughon was sent to death row.
"I've been in the dark a lot, because since Joy came into his life, she's been his go-to woman," Felicia says. "Things have tapered off a lot since all this. It's really put a wedge between us — he and Joy — that relationship."
Trouble started in Livingston almost instantly.
Three days after Draughon was paroled, Wolfe called the police. According to a report from the Livingston Police Department, Wolfe told officers that he wanted Weathers and Draughon out of his house "due to them lying and causing him problems."
Weathers told police that Wolfe had a problem with her and Draughon being romantically involved. Weathers also told police that Wolfe kept guns in his house.
Draughon had tried to stay out of it. He stood at the sink and washed dishes when the argument began.
Wolfe never filed a written complaint with the police department, and the situation was soon resolved. Wolfe says he and Draughon eventually became friends.
The incident didn't result in a parole revocation, but, according to Draughon's attorney, Sean Buckley, it was definitely a negative mark.
Draughon's parole guidelines were set by the state's Super Intensive Supervision Program, designed for parolees who are considered dangerous or likely to commit another crime. Draughon was required to wear a GPS monitor around his ankle. His parole officer, Jim McKee, would have to preapprove any time Draughon went outside the house.
After a brief stop at Lowe's, the couple went to Burger King, which had not been preapproved. They left Burger King and went to Wal-Mart, and then they walked home.
The following morning, four Livingston police officers arrived at the house to arrest Draughon. McKee had issued a warrant because of the stop at Burger King.
McKee suggested to the parole board that Draughon should be placed in a halfway house, away from Livingston, if Draughon was released from prison again.
McKee would not comment about the case, but, according to documents from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, McKee was concerned about the relationship between Weathers and Draughon. He wrote that the environment in Livingston was not a stable one. Furthermore, McKee was disturbed by the fact that when he asked Draughon a question, Weathers often answered.
During his revocation hearing, Draughon argued that McKee had told him it was okay to stop for food, if he ordered it to go. McKee said he never said that, and Draughon and Weathers called McKee a liar.
"Boy, the big guys must have really made you do this," Draughon said to McKee.
The parole board voted to allow Draughon to be released. Before he could return to Livingston, Draughon had to stop at McKee's office to sign some documents.
While they were talking, McKee pushed the papers to the side of his desk and said, "Draughon, are you sure you don't want to move to Florida? Get out of Texas and go live with your sisters?"
"No," Draughon replied. "This is where my woman is. This is where my ministry is. This is where God paroled me out to, and this is where I'm supposed to be."
McKee said okay, and Draughon returned to the KDOL house.
He and Weathers began speaking of his case on the radio. Draughon wanted to tell the guys he felt like there was a target on his back, but he wasn't letting the system kill his hope.
"I can see now that was my test of faith," Draughon says.
Draughon's GPS monitor began losing signal almost daily. The device would beep, alerting Draughon that his parole officer was unable to track him. Draughon was required to reset the device within ten minutes or call McKee to verify that he was home.
Draughon began writing down everything he did in a spiral notebook. When his GPS would lose signal, Draughon would mark it down in his book. He recorded phone conversations he had with McKee.
Weathers started videotaping Draughon in the house with his monitor beeping. She wanted evidence, she says, that Draughon was where he was supposed to be.
The monitor would often beep while Draughon was speaking on the radio. Weathers had Wolfe install baby monitors throughout the house, so if Draughon was in another room, she could record the sound.
Finally, Draughon was arrested again. The warrant was issued after Draughon failed to answer phone calls from his parole officer for about 30 minutes after his GPS device had lost signal.
Weathers prepared to take the case before the parole board, and she was certain there was no way Draughon could lose. In fact, with the amount of evidence she had gathered, she thought they could prove the entire GPS system was faulty.
"There are so many people who have been screwed by the system, and Martin's case can affect so many," Weathers says.
Buckley handled Draughon's case for the second parole hearing, and Weathers turned over all the video and audio evidence she wanted Buckley to use. She gave Buckley a list of witnesses — people who had been involved with her ministry and radio show — to testify on Draughon's behalf.
Weathers wanted Buckley to hire a private investigator to track down former employees of the company that manufactures GPS devices. She wanted to hire an electrical engineer to testify against GPS.
"I felt that was an overbroad approach. Nobody in that system is going to acknowledge that. They're not going to invalidate their whole system. I felt we should have focused on the specifics of Draughon's case," Buckley says. "He would have been better served staying away from this radio activism thing. He needed to get away from the prison system, and that falls in line with staying away from the whole culture."
The big plans for the parole hearing never materialized. Many of the witnesses were never called before the parole board, and only some of the video was allowed as evidence.
McKee argued that the video proved nothing about the reliability of GPS, and he accused Draughon and Weathers of intentionally causing the device to malfunction.
"I don't think the plan included him going back to the joint," Buckley says. "The whole video thing was put on as a ruse so they could change the system. They had him methodically screwing with the system so they could influence some public policy change."
The parole board voted to revoke his parole, and Draughon was taken back to prison.
Draughon is locked up about 50 miles northwest of his old cell on death row and the KDOL house in Livingston. He was placed in the Eastham Unit, a maximum-security prison near the town of Lovelady.
He's been there about a year, which, he says, is about a year longer than he expected. Draughon arrived at Eastham with a strong faith that the parole board would reinstate his parole on an appeal, the latest of which was filed in January.
Draughon's appeals have been denied, and he now thinks he won't be released until his case is heard before a federal judge.
Draughon spends a couple days a week in the prison's law library, trying to look up information relevant to his case. He spends another couple of days taking auto mechanic classes. One day, while Draughon was out in the prison's recreation yard, he lay down in a patch of grass and fell asleep.
"It's different now just being a nobody," Draughon says. "All that attention I had [on death row] is just evaporating away. It makes me feel alone."
Draughon keeps a picture of Weathers in a red plastic wallet that another inmate made for him. He loves Weathers, he says, but is uncertain of their future when he is released.
Draughon hasn't seen her since he's been at Eastham, because Weathers has been banned from visiting Draughon — or the six other inmates who listed her as a visitor — after an incident this past summer at Polunsky.
Weathers had driven another woman to the prison to visit death row, and, according to the prison's report, several guards stopped her for "driving erratically" through the parking lot.
Her car was searched, and the guards found several bottles of alcohol, which is illegal to bring to prison. Weathers denies the alcohol belonged to her, and she believes that she was banned because of her radio show and prison ministry.
The broadcast and ministry continue to grow. A Monday night broadcast has been added, and according to Wolfe, KDOL has applied for the permits to expand the signal to Huntsville and Houston.
At a recent Sunday show, a woman from Germany, who had married a man on death row, sat in and helped read letters to inmates. Four other women — three from England and one from Italy — arrived at the house to send messages to the men they had married on death row.
All Life Is Precious Ministries has presided over seven death-row marriages. Weathers finds someone to stand in as the groom, and Joplin leads the service. The ceremonies take place in the KDOL studio, and the entire event is broadcast live.
"It's just that connection, I guess, that they want to feel," Weathers says.
As for her relationship with Draughon, Weathers says she is "in it for the long haul," though the couple never was married. Weathers says she wanted a church wedding, but that she and Draughon never had the chance.
She hopes he will return to Livingston if he is paroled out again, but Draughon has told her that is unlikely to happen. Weathers no longer discusses Draughon's case on the show because he asked her to stop.
"Martin's just frustrated and tired," Weathers says. "The Lord has got His hand on him, because this is going to involve so many more people than Martin."
But Draughon doesn't want to be the face of the fight against injustice or a voice for other prisoners anymore. He would just like another chance at freedom.
Draughon sometimes receives letters from other prisoners who have heard about his case on the radio. In one letter, a prisoner wrote that Draughon has become "a bit of a folk hero."
"Right now I'm in the process of gathering affidavits from these people on monitors on just how screwed up they are," the prisoner wrote. "Once I get them together, real evidence, we'll send them to you."
After reading the letter aloud, Draughon says, "Now why is he sending them to me?"
He wants to get away from prison. His dream is to get out and find work as a diver for a salvage company, disappearing under water to search for metal that has sunk to the ocean floor. He read about a company in Houston that hires convicts.
Ideally he'd like to leave Texas. He recently wrote a letter to Felicia asking if she would sponsor him when he comes up for parole. Felicia has not responded.
"I just want to get out and start a life and be left alone," Draughon says. "But it looks like that isn't an option."