Three days after Christmas, 1998, Judy Ann LaVergne Walker visited her son Reginald at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Michael Unit. For his 18th birthday she bought him an orange soda and a book from the Left Behind series. He proudly flexed his muscles, bragging that he was doing 500 sit-ups and push-ups every day. She says he told her the guards had been harassing him, bringing in newspaper clippings about his twin brother's trial for allegedly shooting a cop. Judy says she told him to ignore them.
His parole review was a week away, and Reginald said he couldn't wait to get out that summer so they could go to Louisiana and visit his grandmother. Judy told him she loved him, and before she said good-bye, she had the guard take two Polaroid pictures of Reginald in his prison whites.
The next time she saw him was on a cloudy April afternoon in Opelousas, Louisiana. Reginald had gotten out of prison early, but no one was rejoicing. He was dead, and as his family looked at the emaciated corpse in the funeral home, they could not believe it was really Reginald. His aunt, Janet Talton, bought a disposable camera and called the police.
"That's not my boy," his mother said looking at the bruised, battered body. He had lost more than 60 pounds in four months; his sunken eyes were blackened and his muscles had withered, leaving a skeleton draped in stretched skin.
"That's not him," she said. But her mother insisted that it was Reginald, because she recognized the shape of his skull. "He's just in bad shape," she said. He was covered in fresh cuts and had a huge red-purple burn covering his chest. There were holes both in Reginald's shoulder and in the heels of his feet that looked like they had been made by nails. Her boy had been crucified, Judy thought. Murdered.
TDCJ had offered to bury Reginald, but Janet said they wanted him to rest near his grandfather; Judy didn't have insurance, so Janet borrowed a check to pay for the funeral. It bounced. The family canceled the wake scheduled for Friday evening, postponed the funeral and hired a private pathologist to conduct a second autopsy. The doctor demanded $1,700 in cash. "We scraped," Janet says emphatically. No one in their family has that kind of money.
When the coroner cut into Reginald's body, he found that Reginald's heart, stomach, kidneys, bladder, brain, spinal cord and other organs were missing. "And he wasn't an organ donor," says Reginald's older brother Kevin LaVergne. What was TDCJ hiding? Judy wondered. That kicked off her crusade to find out who killed her son, and why.
Reginald LaMond LaVergne was serving a five-year sentence for stealing a kid's sneakers at gunpoint. On December 3, 1998, his twin brother, Robert DaMond LaVergne, was convicted of aggravated assault on a police officer, sentenced to 24 years in prison and was awaiting a second trial for attempted capital murder of a public servant. The family thinks Reginald's death was retaliation.
"I feel it in my heart," his mother says.
"We have to have facts," her sister, Janet, tells her. "We have to know exactly what happened."
This spring Judy filed a federal lawsuit saying that TDCJ violated Reginald's Eighth Amendment rights and alleging that prison guards purposely put Reginald in a cell with an older, stronger homosexual male, allowed Reginald to be raped, didn't report the rape, starved him, gassed him and beat him until his mind broke. Prison reports show that in the month before he died, Reginald started throwing his urine out of the cell and eating his own feces; he was referred to the psychiatric department but never given counseling before he died. "It made me physically ill to read the records, and I've read an awful lot of prison records and never one so bad," says Houston ACLU attorney Robert Rosenberg, asked to consult on the case because of his past success representing clients whose children died in prison. (See "Making a Point," by Wendy Grossman, June 3, 1999.) "It just appears to be typical TDCJ deliberate indifference to his health and welfare. It's just how they deal with mentally ill people."
Because of the pending litigation, TDCJ officials refused to comment on the case or Reginald's treatment in their care. The attorney general's office said it had not yet received the suit from TDCJ and knew nothing about it at this time. Instead of getting Reginald the mental and medical help he needed, prison officials let him die, says Judy's Houston-based attorney Amanda Martin.
Reginald died on April 17, 1999, and on May 17, 1999, his twin was sentenced to life in prison. In one month, Judy says, she lost both boys.
It's a standard urban story of a kid getting his sneakers stolen. According to HPD reports, on February 19, 1996, a 15-year-old was riding his bike down Cinnamon Lane in southwest Houston when three guys he knew waved him over. One pulled a gun and said, "Bitch, give up your motherfucking shoes." The teens took the Air Jordans off his feet and threatened to kill him if he called the cops.
A few minutes later the barefoot boy flagged down a police officer, and the gunman was soon identified as "Head Cracka," a.k.a. Reginald LaVergne. The HPD gang task force said they knew him to be a member of the Black Disciples, a gang whose MO is to make money through robberies and drug deals. Six weeks later officers tried to stop Reginald for trespassing at an apartment complex, but he ran from them, jumped two fences and raced into an apartment, where he was arrested.
Reginald's family says he was a smiling, happy kid who constantly joked and charmed his way out of punishments. He loved all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets, vanilla ice cream, okra and baked pork chops. The youngest of his mother's five children, Reginald never liked to sleep alone. "He wouldn't be by himself," his cousin Alainna Talton says. "He was always with somebody." He used to lie on the floor of her room and talk all night; if she fell asleep, he covered her in whipped cream. His stepfather says Reginald wanted to be a pro ball player; his brother Kevin says he thought Reginald was going to be a preacher. "He always talked about God, and he knew things out of the Book," Kevin says. "It always used to amaze us; I guess he paid attention in services." But there are other, less heartwarming stories about Reginald. He was called Head Cracka because he once hit a guy in the head and knocked him out. "He was strong," his cousin Alainna says. Her 15-year-old brother, Stefan Talton, touches his brow and says he still has bruises from the twins beating him up, and Reginald's aunt can't count the times she had to leave work early because Reginald was in trouble at school.
At 15, Reginald already had 13 priors, including car burglary, curfew violations, running away, trespassing on school grounds and evading arrest. In December 1995 he was expelled from Elsik High School and sent to Alief's alternative school. There, his mother said he had to fight to defend himself from gangs (which she insists he never joined), so he moved in with his aunt and enrolled at Grace Baptist Academy. According to his probation officer's report, he was repeating ninth grade, already had been suspended three times that term and had been expelled for the remainder of the year after assaulting a teacher. His probation officer wrote that detention was in Reginald's best interests because of his "continuous referrals" and "his apparent disregard for rules and authority figures."
Reginald took the district attorney's plea bargain of a five-year sentence for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. In retrospect, his mother doesn't think this was a good deal and still contests the facts of the case. "I shouldn't never let him take the lesser plea," his mother says. "He never had no gun." She says the other boy was embarrassed that he easily relinquished his shoes and lied to the police; she says the police never found a gun and can't prove it. She can't understand why Reginald committed the robbery, since he already had a pair of red and black sneakers. "He didn't need no Air Jordans," she says. "They had all kind of shoes." She says that before the May 2, 1996, hearing, Reginald's attorney scared him with thoughts of a longer sentence. "The lawyer brainwashed me," she says. "He knew he could've fought. I paid him $1,000; he knew the law better than I knew the law." Reginald's brother Kevin thinks he should have just been given time in the juvenile detention center. "He wasn't a troublemaker like how they claim him to be," he says. "He was a good kid. He just got caught up at the wrong time. He wasn't no criminal."
On October 15, 1996, Reginald was sent to the Clemens Unit, before being moved to the Michael Unit in Tennessee Colony. He worked on the hoe squad and constantly complained of back pain, dizziness and shortness of breath; he often said his heart hurt, but his EKGs were normal.
After two and a half years Reginald handwrote a petition requesting a three-hour bench trial. He argued that he had served enough time for a pair of $130 Air Jordans -- especially since he hadn't hurt anyone. The petition was filed, but nothing happened.
Every week Reginald wrote his mother and his cousin Alainna, telling them he wished he could turn back time and that he wanted to straighten out his life. He wrote poetry and covered the envelopes in angels and detailed pictures of masks that said, "Smile now, cry later." His drawings glimmered with the kind of stars shopping-mall airbrush artists spray on T-shirts. He said he loved them, missed them and couldn't wait to be free.
Ralph Chaison drove up to 12707 Bellaire and parked the gray Dodge Ram in front of the Arbor apartments. "Cover me," he said to the other undercover HPD narcotics officer as he got out of the truck. It was February 4, 1998. Chaison and Vonda Higgins were working on a project to infiltrate the southwest Houston neighborhood, learn who the dealers were and eventually bust them. The gang task force had complained that the Black Disciples were dealing in the neighborhood. Since the pair had successfully moved the gang out of the Club Creek area, they were put on the project. They surveyed the area, videotaped trades and in one day saw 30 transactions in an hour. "You just don't see that anymore," Higgins says. "It was like back in the late '80s." Higgins already had made three buys at this location, and they were trying to introduce Chaison's face. The plan was to buy it, bag it, tag it and then meet Higgins's best friend for lunch at Houston's before finishing the paperwork. It was going to be a short day.
Wearing dark blue Dockers, black Converse sneakers and a Polo baseball cap, Chaison walked up to a gap in the wrought-iron burglar-bar fence holding a $20 bill in his left hand.
Standing on the sidewalk two feet away, Robert LaVergne was smoking a Swisher and chatting with another guy. Chaison said he wanted two dimes; he says Robert opened his palm, took a rock the size of a Tic Tac out of a plastic baggie and traded it for the $20. Chaison dropped the crack in his shirt pocket and started to walk away, but he says Robert called him back.
Put it in your mouth, Robert said. Police officers aren't allowed to ingest drugs, and dealers know that; it's a standard test.
Chaison said it wasn't for him, it was for the girl in the truck.
If you're not the law, Robert said, put it in your mouth.
Man, don't put that jacket on me, Chaison said. He told Robert that a cop had killed his uncle. "I shot every line at him," Chaison says. "You name it, I did it, but he didn't buy anything." Chaison says he probably could have walked away, but he wasn't planning to arrest anybody, and he wanted to make as many purchases as he could. Plus, at that point Chaison didn't feel threatened; the spiked fence stretched the length of the parking lot, and Robert couldn't reach him.
You the law, Robert said. And I'm not afraid of the law.
Chaison says Robert lifted his striped white Polo jacket, revealing a 9mm Smith & Wesson Sigma jammed in his jeans. "I said to myself, 'Aw, hell. It's going to be on,' " Chaison says. An ex-marine and Vietnam vet with 20 years' experience on the force (including four shoot-outs), Chaison felt certain that Robert wasn't playing. "You never pull a pistol on a person if you don't have any intentions of using it," Chaison says. "I knew that he was gonna use it."
Chaison looked for cover, but all he saw were skinny trees that wouldn't shield his 250-pound body. He thought about running back to the truck, but he was sure Robert would shoot him in the back. "I'm not going out like that," Chaison says. Robert's gun caught in his clothing, giving Chaison time to reach under his flannel shirt, draw his pistol and begin firing. The first bullet went into the ground; the second sliced through the flesh above Robert's left knee. Robert fell, then scrambled underneath the trunk of a nearby car and began firing.
All Chaison could see was the muzzle of Robert's gun flashing as Robert fired two rapid rounds. Chaison tried to keep his head behind a bare tree, firing one round for every two of Robert's so he wouldn't run out of ammunition while out in the open. He kept firing to let Robert know he was still there and he wasn't going away. Chaison says he yelled at Robert's companion, "I'm a police officer, get down." Then Chaison shouted to Higgins to drop the assist and get backup. When he looked under the car, Robert's gun was gone.
Standing with the open car door as her cover, Higgins, five foot three and 116 pounds, began switching the channels on the police radio. She watched Chaison zigzag, avoiding bullets, and thought that she couldn't let him die because his wife was five months pregnant. Robert changed locations and had a clear shot at Chaison; Higgins fired her Beretta to divert him. "She was like a sacrificial lamb," Chaison says. "She sacrificed herself on my behalf. She did what the ultimate partner would do -- she did what all officers expect of their partners: She was covering me."
Higgins heard the ping of bullets hitting the door she hid behind and began moving to the driver's side when a bullet shattered the passenger-side mirror, went through the window and into her neck. She felt a sizzle, and her vision blurred as the bullet hit her spinal cord; she tried to move, but she couldn't feel her legs. She fell to the ground and maneuvered her head behind the tire. She asked God not to let her die before her mother.
Chaison went to help Higgins, letting Robert hobble across the parking lot toward the brick buildings. Wounded, Robert wouldn't be hard to find.
Higgins asked Chaison if she was gonna die. He said no. She asked him how she had done. He said she'd done good. Again, she asked if she was going to die.
Officer David Weaver, a cop living in the complex, had gotten off HPD's night shift, signed for a UPS package and was watching TV when he heard accelerating sirens and tires peeling into the parking lot. He turned on his scanner and learned that an officer was down. Also a trained EMT, he quickly dressed, grabbed his first aid kit, badge and gun and went to help. When Chaison described Robert to him, Weaver knew who he was talking about. Whenever Weaver saw a "suspicious individual" around the complex, he photographed and identified him; Chaison picked Robert out of a stack of approximately 50 Polaroids.
Hoss, a German shepherd patrol dog trained to locate nitrates and people by following the hottest human scent, led officers to an apartment where the front door was open and the phone was off the hook. (Robert had called his sister and told her someone was trying to kill him.) Nearby, they found a trash bag filled with bloody clothes, 6.4 grams of cocaine in cookie form and a handgun wrapped in a light blue towel. Across the way, Robert was sitting shirtless on his girlfriend's patio wearing shorts and a flowery women's bathrobe. A white cloth was tied around his bloody leg.
"I didn't shoot at those police officers," Robert said when he was handcuffed. "They shot at me."
A spent bullet fell out of his bathrobe.
Several HPD officers testified that they have known Robert for a long time. One officer said that whenever he arrested someone for selling crack, Robert was usually nearby.
Robert's criminal history began when he was 11 and served as a lookout while a seven-year-old's bike was stolen. He has 18 other arrests on his record, including assaulting a mentally challenged 25-year-old man, possession of crack and trespassing. On December 3, 1998, a jury convicted him of aggravated assault on a public servant and sentenced him to 24 years in prison for shooting at Chaison.
Reginald wrote Robert, telling him to do his time easy, stay out of trouble and maybe he could get transferred to the Michael Unit and they could be "cellies." After Robert's incarceration, Reginald's troubles began, says the family attorney. Martin says that in March, Reginald was housed with Ronnie Cousins, an older, larger inmate with a history of homosexual preferences. The suit alleges that sometime that month Cousins "slipped a pill in [Reginald's] coffee and raped him while he was in a semi-unconscious state. After gaining knowledge of the sexual assault, Reginald began to experience major behavior problems and was transferred to solitary confinement."
Martin says Reginald reported the rape to a sergeant, but the warden was never notified and a rape kit wasn't performed. "Problems were dealt with by prison officials on their own time and in their own inappropriate manner," Martin wrote in her petition. "Inmates witnessed prison officials disregarding Reginald LaVergne's outcries for help as he marched and screamed around his cell naked and dirty." She says inmates heard guards taunt and torture Reginald, telling him if he was going to act like an animal, he was going to be treated like one.
It's a tricky case, because other than a body that looks like it came out of a concentration camp, Martin doesn't have substantial evidence of retaliation, aside from convicts' statements that another inmate was treated poorly. The lack of documentation, Martin says, is even more proof that the prison disregarded Reginald's calls for help. A letter from another inmate Martin plans to depose says that one of the Michael Unit guards was friends with Chaison, who told him to get Reginald. When told of the conspiracy theory, Chaison laughed. "I know some TDC guards, but just in passing," he says. "I don't know any personally that I associate with or anything like that."
Reginald's behavior record reports that he didn't always want to get out of the shower, made "obscene gestures" at guards and tried to head-butt an officer. In March, Reginald was placed in administrative segregation, where his mother's lawyer says he lost his mind. "Inmates observed and heard Reginald constantly and daily screaming, begging for help and banging continuously on the cell wall," the suit says.
The month before Reginald's death, his psychological record reflects that he was seen naked, screaming and covered in feces. When he complained about being cramped in his cell, social worker D.M. Shelby noted that he appeared agitated, distressed and depressed. On March 19, 1999, Shelby wrote in the chart that Reginald could parrot what was said but didn't seem to understand anything. Reginald said he wanted to see the warden and asked to be moved out of segregation. He promised to "be good," but Shelby wrote that Reginald "does not appear to grasp concepts of good behavior." Eleven days before his death, medical reports note that Reginald was screaming like an animal, and the nurse wrote a referral to the psych department for evaluation. That same day, it was noted that his feet were ulcerated but Reginald refused treatment. He told psychologist Reed Dobbins that he was sick of being sodomized by other inmates and worried about getting HIV; during that same session Reginald also asked for candy, cocaine and vodka. The psychologist wrote that he had a good sense of humor.
The morning after, Reginald was eating his own feces. Six days later Reginald complained to registered nurse Timothy Sanders that he was not receiving health care or pain medication. Reginald was told to discuss his problems with the psychologist at his next mental health appointment. Four days later, a licensed vocational nurse noted that there were large piles of poop in Reginald's cell, he was thin and needed to see the psychologist.
The next day, he was dead.
Officers were serving lunch when they saw Reginald lying naked on the metal bunk in cell 44. His mattress, clothes and uneaten food were on the floor. Reginald lay with his back against the wall, drool ran from his mouth, and his eyes were open, fixed and dilated. Officers called his name repeatedly and ordered him to come to the door, but he didn't respond. By the time he was handcuffed and carried to the infirmary, he had stopped breathing and his body was cold.
The infirmary's emergency room nurse located a faint pulse, but moments later Reginald's vital signs vanished. An ambulance rushed him to Palestine's Memorial Mother Frances Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 12:57 p.m. on April 17, 1999.
The autopsy found small fragments of hard blue plastic in his colon that looked like he had tried to eat his state-issued razor blade. The doctors noted ulcers on the heel of each foot and fresh abrasions on his cheek, jaw, shoulders and legs -- but they could have happened while transporting the body, the internal affairs report says. As for the large burn on his chest, the autopsy says it is consistent with the mark of the defibrillator used to try to resuscitate him.
Reginald was dehydrated, but not enough to have killed him; he wasn't HIV-positive, and there weren't any lesions on his brain to explain his bizarre behavior. According to the autopsy, internal affairs investigators suspect Reginald had been discarding the contents of his food trays for the past month. Pathologists noted that his body was emaciated and said that recent, rapid weight loss made him more susceptible to infection; his lungs were hemorrhaged and showed edema and congestion. He had pneumonia, they said, and declared the death natural.
The family doesn't believe there was anything natural about Reginald's death. His aunt held a press conference at the National Black United Front, asking if TDCJ thought the family was crazy enough to believe that Reginald died of pneumonia and no one had noticed he was sick or tried to treat him. She spoke on radio and TV stations, demanding to know what really happened to her nephew. "We have this lock-'em-up, hang-'em-high mentality," says Kofi Taharka, chairman of the Houston chapter of the BUF. "Once people are in the system, there isn't as much concern for them as there should be. But they're still human beings."
Janet Talton put up flyers asking people to call the Michael Unit and ask the warden, "What happened to Reginald?" With the BUF, she protested in Huntsville and all around Harris County declaring former TDCJ executive director Wayne Scott a murderer.
Two years later, protests have died down, because Janet's doctor told her to stay away from stress -- and Reginald's mother tries not to think about him; she says she's done enough crying. She had wanted to visit him the Easter before his death, but her car didn't run. "I should've followed my feelings," she says. "I should have found a way to get there."
Less than a month after his brother's death, Robert smiled through Vonda Higgins's testimony at the May 11, 1999, trial. Robert grinned as the now quadriplegic woman talked about how she can't even cough by herself -- in three days a simple cold turned into pneumonia, and she almost had a heart attack when an ingrown toenail she couldn't feel caused her blood pressure to skyrocket.
In the hallway afterward, Higgins says, Robert's mother screamed at her, "She needs to tell the truth. She emptied her weapon on my son." Higgins looked at Judy and said, "Wrong case." (Another officer had recently shot up a boy, but it wasn't her, she says.)
Robert's probation officer, Julie Groh, testified that his mother "tended to really minimize the problems that she was having with Robert. It was hard to believe everything she was telling me, because I think she didn't want to believe a lot of what was happening."
Judy testified that the twins haven't seen their father since they were in kindergarten and "they never got over it." She blames their bad behavior on his absence, and she thinks Robert never got over his brother being locked up. She blames the police, society and the apartment manager who had it in for her son; she doesn't blame herself or her boys. Robert was arrested with 4.2 grams of cocaine on him and later was sent to six months of rehab at Vernon State Mental Hospital, but she insists that "somebody else drugged my son." Yet he was diagnosed as an addict with substance-induced psychotic disorder (he was found face down in the urinal eating his own feces, and one morning after breakfast he ate his cereal box too). Robert's June 21, 1997, hospital discharge summary says Robert started getting stoned when he was 14, smoked up every day by the time he was 15 and used fry (marijuana dipped in embalming fluid) at least every three months. Plus, he told his probation officer that he drank and smoked marijuana laced with angel dust. "He was just doing childish things," Judy said on the stand. "Nothing that was harmful-like."
Judy doesn't deny that Robert was dealing, but she says he had only one rock on him and he never brought drugs into her house. She says Robert told her that after the exchange, he walked off and the police officer shouted that he was under arrest and then shot him from behind. She thinks the police should be going after big dealers, not small fry like her son, who was trying to earn some quick cash. She testified that Robert had no idea that Chaison was an officer when he shot him, but thought he was a crackhead.
The assistant district attorney, Casey O'Brien, argued that dealers don't shoot their customers. And if Robert thought a dangerous dope fiend was after him, he would not have discarded his gun but kept it for protection. Judy said her boy knew right from wrong and would never, ever deliberately shoot someone; she said she feels bad for Higgins, prays for her and hopes she heals, but she maintains that her son not only did not know Higgins was a cop but couldn't see her through the truck's tinted windows. Since the bullet could not be removed from Higgins's spine without causing further damage, Judy said, there's no way that the district attorney's office can prove that it came from her son's gun.
But the casing found near Higgins matched the other shells Robert fired. And the prosecutor argued that Higgins didn't shoot herself. Robert had a gun with Packmire grips and laser sights; the assistant district attorney said Robert knew what he was doing. "He shot to kill her, not maim her," O'Brien said in closing. "He killed her life he ruined her future."
Robert was sentenced to life in prison (concurrent to his 24 years) and fined $10,000.
Vonda Higgins was at a book signing at the Shrine of the Black Madonna when someone handed her a "What Happened to Reginald LaVergne?" flyer that said his brother was the one who shot her. "I took it, but I didn't read it," she says. She didn't know Robert had a brother, and the idea of police retaliation outrages her. "Everybody's concern was 'Let's pray, let's help Vonda,' " she says. "No one was thinking, 'Let's get him back.' "
After the shooting, Higgins received a congressional letter of recognition, HPD's medal of valor and was named officer of the year, to list a few of the awards filling two shelves in her immaculate living room. At first she couldn't feel anything below the neck; now she can move her arms and has faint feeling in her legs. Sitting in an electric wheelchair, she gestures with hands she can't move but which constantly ache from arthritis. She's cold all the time and spends most of her days visiting doctors; she had one operation that transferred tendons so she could move her left arm, and another that fused her left thumb, giving her a permanent grip. She plans to have the same surgery on her right hand, and after that she hopes to learn how to drive -- that's what she misses most, being in a car by herself. "I miss getting up and going," she says. "Now I have to rely on people to assist me with everything -- that's the hardest thing."
She used to live alone, but now she needs 24-hour care; either a nurse or her niece is with her at all times. Higgins recently graduated from Texas Southern University with a degree in administrational justice. She wants to start her master's degree after her next operation, and then maybe earn a Ph.D. She'd like to get certified and teach law enforcement to high school kids or criminal investigation at a junior college. She wishes she could have stayed on the force, but she says she wouldn't have wanted to sit behind a desk watching others go on undercover investigations without her. At the trial, she said she still hoped to someday do undercover stings again.
Higgins is the type of woman who doesn't complain and exudes a warm, happy aura. She says that after the trial, she stopped thinking about the shooting, blocked it from her mind -- when asked about it, she says she can't believe anyone's still interested in her story. She'd rather joke about the ambulance ride when they cut off her favorite pair of Victoria's Secret panties than relive the actual shooting.
While she was in the hospital, Higgins told the man she had dated seven years that if he wanted out, he could leave. "No," he said, "we'll get through this." But a year later she felt like he was doing things out of obligation and that it wasn't a real relationship anymore, so she ended it. He didn't stop her.
Chaison is her best friend -- they were close before, but the shooting bonded them. They talk two or three times a day, go out to dinner and movies, and laugh and joke together. It saddens Higgins that some people don't feel comfortable talking to her now that she's always sitting down. When other officers ask Chaison how she's doing, he tells them to call her (she talks with a headset). If they want to go with him to visit, he tells them to go on their own -- he doesn't share his time. They're both on the board of a nonprofit organization called My Sister's Keeper, a mentoring program for girls grades six through 12 to help raise their self-esteem, boost their confidence and make them stronger women.
"If Ralph would've been killed at the scene, I would've been so upset with myself," Higgins says. It's better that she took the bullet, she says, because she wouldn't have wanted to live without him. "Your life is second," she says. "Your partner is first."
Sitting on her couch, Chaison nods.
If Reginald had lived, he would have finished his five-year sentence in April and been a free man this summer. Judy tries not to think about that too much, she says. She thinks that if she had visited Reginald more often, the guards would have known that someone cared about him and treated him better. Maybe she could have protected him, but she thought that was the prison's job. So now she visits Robert every weekend at the Darrington Unit in Rosharon. His cousin says a guard harassed Robert once and he threatened to call the Black United Front and get it splashed all over the news.
In appealing Robert's conviction for assaulting Chaison, Robert's attorney argued that not only was there insufficient evidence but the jury should have been instructed in self-defense law since Robert didn't shoot until after he was shot and should have been given the option of charging Robert with a lesser offense since Chaison denied being a cop. Robert's conviction was first overturned, but the opinion was withdrawn when the judges of the 14th Court of Appeals met en banc May 17, 2001, and decided to uphold the original trial court's decision. The judges' opinion declared it wasn't self-defense because what Chaison did was legal -- Robert was the aggressor and Chaison didn't have to wait to be shot before lawfully protecting himself. As for Robert not knowing Chaison was a cop, Justice J. Harvey Hudson wrote in the opinion that Robert "suspected he was a police officer, accused him of being a police officer, and attempted to shoot him because he was a police officer. There is simply no other logical explanation for appellant's conduct." The arguments for appealing the Higgins case were heard in December, but the three-judge panel is still deliberating.
Since she lost the twins, Judy has become more protective of her older sons, aged 23 and 30. Both of those boys have had run-ins with the law, and Judy moved into a larger apartment so they could live with her; she likes to have them near her, where she knows they're safe. Judy works long hours styling hair, reads any religious book she can find and spends most of her time praying -- for a while she went to church five nights a week.
She wishes Reginald were with her, she says. She can't think of anything specific she'd like to do besides just be with him. Since he's gone, she needs to know why. She filed the lawsuit; now she's waiting for the prison to give her an answer she can believe.
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