Rehabilitated?

James Laster says he wants to make amends to those he hurt

prison

 

DAVID TAFFET  |  Senior Staff Writer

“It took 45 seconds to throw away eight years of my life,” 36-year-old James Laster said, speaking through a glass partition in the visitor’s building at the Ramsey Unit prison in Rosharon. Laster is serving an eight-year sentence at the Texas prison unit south of Houston after pleading guilty to charges stemming from the 2011 gay-bashing attack on Burke Burnett in Reno, Texas, just outside Paris.

Laster said he keeps himself busy in jail. He gets up at 4:30 in the morning and does 300-400 pushups. After breakfast, he works as a teacher’s aide in cabinetmakers class.
“I’m good at it,” he said.

LasterHe said he enjoys showing others who’ve never touched a skill saw or a drill how to use them to build furniture. He called his job therapeutic.

Later in the day Laster said he works on his associate’s degree. He’s taking four classes this semester — government, history, geology and English. After dinner he spends time out in the rec yard, reads, does homework and writes. He has a TV in his cell, but said he rarely has time to watch it.

Laster was charged with three counts of aggravated assault after the October 2011 attack. He pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (his hands and feet).

Burnett said everyone at the party they were attending that night was drunk. He said that when a fight broke out, several people — including Laster — attacked him, leaving him with cuts on his face, neck and arms from a broken bottle, contusions and burns resulting from when he was thrown or fell on a burning 55-barrel drum used to heat the barn.

Laster takes exception to some of the claims, saying Burnett wasn’t thrown onto a bonfire, as some news outlets reported, but fell on the burning drum, and that at least some of what police called stab wounds were from Burnett falling on his own broken beer bottle.

But Laster willingly takes responsibility for his part in the attack on Burnett, acknowledging that as he hit and kicked Burnett, he also called him “faggot,” which led to hate crime charges being leveled.

Another attacker, Micky Joe Smith, who was 25 at the time, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Charges were dropped against a third man, Daniel Martin, after Laster told police Martin had already left the party when the fight broke out. Burnett said he remembers more than two people attacking him, but no one else was charged.

Laster wrote to Dallas Voice in January. In his letter, he said he wanted to make amends to the LGBT community. We get letters from inmates all the time, but there was something introspective and interesting about Laster’s missing. Not only was his contact with us timely, coming as it did within months of a rash of attacks on gay men in

Oak Lawn last fall, he also seemed to be taking responsibility for his actions. So I arranged a visit with him through the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

The prison wasn’t easy to find. Google maps sent me to the wrong place — or more accurately, the map stops about four miles short of the prison’s location. But I was able to find someone who gave me accurate directions.

Laster was a little rattled as he came into the meeting room and sat behind a partition of glass and metal mesh. A guard had gotten him out of his class and brought him to the warden’s office before escorting him to our meeting. He said he’s trying to stay out of trouble, so a trip to the warden’s office can be quite upsetting.

As a result, we were both a little anxious as we began to chat and started by just introducing ourselves to each other.

“I love to write,” he told me. “If I’m frustrated, I can get a pen and paper out. Sometimes I write five pages.”

In part, he said, his writing is what got him to Ramsey Unit. He began taking classes before being moved to the South Texas location. Ramsey Unit is the only prison in the Texas penal system that not only allows a student to get an associate’s degree, but lets them advance their education to earn bachelor’s degrees and even master’s degrees.

Several hundred inmates at the unit are taking classes, Laster said. After he’s released, he’ll be responsible for reimbursing the state for his tuition.

Laster insists he’s not the same person he was when he entered prison. Burnett, reading Laster’s first letter, agreed, saying he didn’t recognize him from before, either.

“For the first two years, they punished me,” Laster said about his current sentence. “Now, I choose to try to do something productive and become a better person.”

He was first incarcerated in a prison near Palestine, where he described the treatment of gays and child molesters and said, “You see how they’re treated. You see the mentality. It begins to mold you.” Then, he said, he decided he was going to act like the kind of person he wanted to be treated as, and his behavior paid off.

Burke

James Laster, above, sits behind a glass partition during the interview for this article. Burke Burnett, here, seen just after he was attacked.

Laster said he’s thankful to be at Ramsey, where fighting isn’t tolerated. He said prisoners who are repeatedly caught in fights find themselves on a bus for another unit.

How did he get here?
When Laster was 15, his mother died. He had no relationship with his father, at the time, and no place to go. Child Protective Services had no options for him.

So some friends took him in and that’s when he got involved in dealing drugs. Within a few months, Laster was arrested for possession with intent to distribute and put into the juvenile detention system, where he was housed with violent prisoners.

“There should be some alternative for non-violent crimes,” Laster said of his first incarceration. “The state surrounded me with violence. All they did was prepare me for this” future of crime and violence.

But Laster is quick to stress that he isn’t trying to dodge responsibility for his actions. “That’s not an excuse, but an explanation,” he said of his assessment of juvenile detention.

When he was released from Texas Youth Commission, Laster lived first in a group home in Marshall and then with his sister, who’s less than a year older than he is. He described his work record outside of prison as spotty, and noted that he spent time in jail more than once, and when he was out, he often supported himself by selling drugs.

In his mid-twenties, Laster had a son, gaining full custody when the child was 18 months old. Laster raised his son himself — right up until the time his son was 7 and Laster was arrested for the attack on Burnett.

His son is still a source of great pride for Laster, whose eyes twinkle as he talks about his boy. “I taught him how to read and write,” he said. “He plays the trombone. He’s in National Honor Society and he’s extremely smart.”

Laster described what he called the best memory of his life — sitting with his son on the sofa, eating cookies and watching Sponge Bob Squarepants — before remorsefully acknowledging that he threw that away. “I chose this [violence and a prison sentence] over my son,” he said.

Laster gets to talk to his son on the phone from prison, but not often enough, he said. Prisoners can only call approved numbers, which must be land lines or cell phones that are billed monthly. His ex has a cell she pays monthly, so that number can’t be on his approved list. That means he only gets to talk with his son when the boy visits Laster’s aunt.

Laster recalled one instance when his son once asked him, “Why are you in there?”

“I told him I was at a party,” Laster said. “I told him I made a very foolish decision and I assaulted someone. I hurt this guy.”

“How hard did you hurt him?” his son asked.

“Pretty bad,” he said, adding that he apologized to his son for not being there for him.

Laster said his son was always a good kid he never had to spank, which means his son has “never seen the violent side of me.” That makes him happy, Laster said, because his violent side scares even him.

“One of the worst feelings in the world is not being in control,” he said. “I don’t like that I’m subject to hurt someone.”

He said that violent side only comes out when he’s drunk or high and he wishes there was counseling available. Since there isn’t, he has taken a course in prison called Christians Against Substance Abuse. But every time they were about to talk about an issue, like anger, the subject changed to the Bible, and since, Laster said, he’s not particularly religious, those classes didn’t help him very much

But classes did encourage him to read some self-help books that were helpful.

“I was mad at myself, at everyone else, at the system,” Laster said of what he has learned about himself. “My go-to feeling was, ‘I don’t care.’”

He described the night of the attack as one that began badly and quickly got worse. Already drunk, he got a ride to the party rather than drive himself. At one point he left and says now he wishes he hadn’t returned.

What’s next?

Laster had his first parole hearing last year. He described it as 10 minutes with people who wouldn’t be voting on whether to grant him parole.

He said they asked him: “Why did you stab this person so many times?” Laster disputed that characterization, telling them that he was in prison for assault with his hands and feet. But, he noted, the parole board sees all the charges as well as his full criminal history, which includes earlier drug charges and two DWIs.

Laster insists he’s planning to remain sober. That’s why, when he’s released, he doesn’t want to return to Paris where he’d be surrounded by people who are still doing drugs.

“My sobriety is very important to me,” he said several times during our visit.

In prison, among other skills, Laster said he has learned welding and hopes to find a job in that field when he is released. He also hopes to make amends to his son for not being there for him during the years he was locked up.

If he serves his entire sentence, Laster will remain in prison until Nov. 2, 2019.

Final words
Before I left Dallas, I asked Burnett if he had a message for Laster. He said nothing in particular he wanted me to relay, but told me I could tell Laster anything I thought was appropriate.

So I told Laster that after the sentencing, Burnett took a year to recover physically and emotionally, but now he’s living near Dallas, has done a lot of good in the community helping other attack victims and has a very happy life.

During the two hours we spoke, Laster repeated that he took full responsibility for his actions, and stressed that he didn’t want anything I wrote to sound like he was making excuses.

So, just before I left the prison, I asked Laster if he had a message for Burnett. Tears came to his eyes, and he thought for a moment.

“I apologize,” he said.

He tried to find additional words, then shook his head.

“Tell him I apologize.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 4, 2016.

—  David Taffet

Perry suspends presidential campaign

Rick-Perry

Former governor and former presidential candidate Rick Perry.

Jesus has told Rick Perry to suspend his campaign for president, and Rick is listening, according to NPR.

Speaking at the Eagle Forum conference today in Missouri, the former governor of Texas said: “When I gave my life to Christ, I said, ‘Your ways are greater than my ways. Your will superior to mine.’ Today I submit that His will remains a mystery, but some things have become clear. That is why today I am suspending my campaign for the presidency of the United States.”

I wish Jesus would have spoken up earlier and talked to Rick about not running for governor. Ever. Anyway.

Perry has had trouble getting any traction since Day 1 in this, his second presidential campaign. He is at or near the bottom of a very crowded field of candidates — Donald Trump, frighteningly enough, leads the pack — and he was forced to stop paying staffers last month.

—  Tammye Nash

Get your tickets for Gay Day at Six Flags

Six FlagsDallas Pride Weekend is just around the corner, which means you’ve gotta budget your time and wallet for how to spend the festivities. Well, here’s a shout-out to one of the best deals out there: Dallas Voice’s Gay Day at Six Flags. For years, we’ve sponsored this annual out-and-proud celebration, that gets you into the park for only $36.50 (plus tax) and includes parking. That saves you more than 50 bucks.  Don’t wait too long, though — you have to buy your tickets online beforehand — they won’t be available at the gate. Click here for the link, and enjoy rides, food and more. This has been a great year to be gay, let your rainbow colors fly.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Rick Perry’s broke. Whoops

Perry.Rick

Former Gov. Rick Perry

Former Gov. Rick Perry stopped paying his staff at his national campaign headquarters in Austin and in early primary and caucus states Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, The Washington Post is reporting.

According to the Post, Perry told his staff on Friday, the day after the first Republican debate, that the money has dried up.

But does the lack of money mean Perry will be the first of the — currently 18 — Republican candidates to drop out of the race? His super-PAC has plenty of money, but since a super-PAC can’t coordinate with a campaign, it had no idea about the cash flow problem at the campaign.

The super-PAC is gearing up to expand its operation, but it’s not clear if that means hiring all those campaign workers.

Either way, Perry said he’s committed to participating in the early caucuses and primaries.

In a poll by NBC/SurveyMonkey, Rick Perry remained at 2 percent support after the debate. The poll showed no one thought he did best in the debate and 2 percent thought he did worst.

—  David Taffet

Anti-LGBT legislator running for state senate failed to disclose affiliation with conservative non-profit

HughesBryan768_jpg_800x1000_q100

State Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola

A vocally anti-LGBT Republican state representative failed to disclose his affiliation with a socially conservative non-profit organization.

State Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, failed to disclose his leadership role on the board of the Wilberforce and Lincoln Center, Inc. in his six most recent personal financial statements.

(Those can be found here: 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014.)

The vocally anti-LGBT Republican who is running for state senate has been affiliated with the Waco-based center since 2008, according to records filed with the secretary of state.

James William Odom, a Baylor University graduate student and former spokesman for the university, founded the Wilberforce Center for Civic Engagement in 2008. An amended filing later added the name Lincoln.

Odom, Hughes, Oklahoma oil and gas executive Jerome Loughridge and Attorney General Ken Paxton, who was then a state representative, were all listed as directors of the organization.

It is currently listed at Odom’s home address in Waco.

Paxton recently filed an amended personal financial statement indicating his affiliation with the organization. But personal financial statements filed by Hughes between 2008 and 2014 do not list his role with the organization despite its active non-profit status.

Per state law, elected officials must list all entities, including non-profits, where they serve as members of the board, on their statements said Ian Steusloff, a spokesman with the Texas Ethics Commission.

The commission administers and enforces state election code and oversees the collection of all campaign and personal finance reports filed by legislators.

Failure to disclose this information could result in a civil penalty of $500.

On the six most recent statements, Hughes is only listed as a trustee of the Mineola Foundation and between 2010 and 2012 a brief stint as a director of Central America Mining America Group. A September 19, 2014 required periodic report, however, still lists Hughes as a Wilberforce Lincoln director.

Odom’s résumé, obtained from his Baylor University graduate student profile, indicates he founded Wilberforce Lincoln under the name the Leadership Foundation in Oklahoma in 2000. At the time he was a Republican candidate for Congress. The institute was “dedicated to encouraging principled leadership in the political arena for the preservation of a culture that respects life and cherishes liberty.”

It did not operate again until 2008 when it turned to articulating public policy issues of interest to churches and other religious organizations, including “sanctity of life, family law and national indebtedness.”

Odom, who declined to comment for this story, wrote it has remained dormant because he didn’t have “time or resources to develop its programs.”

Cody Terry, Hughes’ chief of staff, said he was unaware of the organization’s existence.

First elected in 2002, Hughes is currently running for state senate to succeed retiring Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler. In 2014, on The Anderson Cooper Show, he defended a plank on the state GOP’s platform affirming reparative therapy.

Among those endorsing his senate campaign are Texas Values’ Jonathan Saenz, Liberty Institute’s Kelly Shackleford and Texas Eagle Forum’s Cathie Adams and Attorney General Paxton.

—  James Russell

Maxey files complaint against Paxton with state bar

Glen MaxeyFormer state Rep. Glen Maxey filed a complaint against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton related to his opinion issued last weekend to county clerks. Paxton wrote that although same-sex couples would have to be accommodated, clerks could follow their religious beliefs and not issue the marriage licenses made legal by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Here’s a link to the full grievance.

From a press release sent by Maxey:

Paxton has violated the following Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. The violations are as follows:

*R 1.06(b)(2): Paxton has a conflict of interest because his representation of his client (the State) is conflicted with his own self-interest in demagogic self-promotion to pander to his right-wing Tea Party supporters, even at the sacrifice of the rights of Texans
under the United States Constitution.

*Rule 4.01(a): in representing his client (the State), Paxton has clearly made “false statement of law” to the public, in derogation of the fundamental Law of the Land, the United States Constitution.

*Rule 8.04(a)(1): in assisting and inducing Assistant Attorneys General to make knowingly false statements of fact and law in patently erroneous legal opinions that are flatly inconsistent with the United States Constitution, as declared by the United States Supreme Court.

*Rule 8.04(a)(3): in engaging in conduct involving deceit, dishonesty, and misrepresentation, in issuing the false and misleading opinion.

*Rule 8.04(a)(12): Mr. Paxton has violated the statutes setting out his official duties, including Government Code sections 402.041-402.042, by failing to issue an opinion setting out truthfully “the legal reasons and principles on which it is based.”

*Rules 8.04(a)(3), 8.04(a)(12): Finally, and most egregiously, Paxton violated his sworn oaths of office. Specifically, he violated the statutory oath that he took to become licensed to practice law in Texas. Section 82.037 of the Texas Government Code required Paxton to swear that he would “support the constitutions of the United States and this state.” He has violated both that oath and the United States Constitution.

Additionally, Mr. Paxton violated his State Oath of Office, required under Article 16, Section 1, of the Texas Constitution, in which he stated that he “will faithfully execute the duties of the office of Attorney General the State of Texas, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this State, so help me God.”

—  David Taffet

TCDRS: More Texas compliance with marriage ruling

Screen shot 2015-07-02 at 1.46.04 PMWith all this compliance with the Texas marriage rulings, our governor’s head must be spinning. Here’s the latest from Texas County and District Retirement System:

 

 

TCDRS Compliant With Same-Sex Marriage Decision


At the Texas County & District Retirement System, members can designate their legal spouse as their beneficiary regardless of gender.

This means our systems, website and processes are in compliance with the IRS ruling on recognizing same-sex spouses and the June 26 Supreme Court decision.

If you are a TCDRS member who needs assistance designating your beneficiary, please call TCDRS Member Services at 800-823-7782.

—  David Taffet

Texas Retirement System has no problem complying with Obergefell

Screen shot 2015-07-02 at 11.02.21 AMFor all the bitching and moaning from Texas’ top elected officials, Texas is having no problem complying with the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage-equality decision when it comes to benefits and rights that flow from marriage.

Resource Center has been in touch with Texas Municipal Retirement System about pension issues faced by its LGBT retirees. Here’s an email Rafael McDonnell received in response to a message he left explaining they’re in full compliance with Obergefell v. Hodge, the marriage equality decision:

Dear Mr. McDonnell,

In response to your voicemail message on July 1, 2015, this is to advise you that TMRS is aware of, and intends to comply with, the recent US Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.  As stated in my April 10th letter to Ms. Cox, CEO of the Resource Center, TMRS has been in compliance with applicable IRS requirements regarding same-sex spouses and the TMRS Act allows a member to name any person, spouse or non-spouse, as a beneficiary.

Following the Obergefell decision, TMRS will now recognize the spousal relationship of members in same-sex marriages.  The primary change for TMRS members in a same-sex marriage will be that, since the marriage is now recognized, the member’s benefits and beneficiary designations are now subject to the same restrictions as currently apply to a member in an opposite-sex marriage.  For example, a vested married member must obtain their spouse’s consent to designate a beneficiary other than their spouse or to select a benefit payment option other than a joint and survivor annuity that names the spouse as the survivor.

Sincerely,
Christine M. Sweeney
General Counsel
Texas Municipal Retirement System

—  David Taffet

Attorney General Ken Paxton should resign

James Russell columnIn the seven months that Ken Paxton has served as Texas’ top law enforcement officer, he has slammed the federal government for its immigration policies, the Environmental Protection Agency for its environmental regulations, the Supreme Court for its rulings upholding the Affordable Care Act and legalizing marriage equality nationwide, defended the state’s stringent anti-abortion law and praised in broad terms further deregulation of the Second Amendment.

To be fair, as Texas Attorney General, Paxton’s office must defend the state court lawsuits, including those filed by his predecessor, now-Gov. Greg Abbott. Just like his predecessor he also has ambitions for higher office. Also like Abbott, his statements read like a fundraising letter. While it is clear he inherited a politicized office from Abbott, Paxton has recently done the office nor taxpayers NO additional favors.

Paxton is already under investigation by a Collin County grand jury for violating state securities law, an admission he made freely and then paid a $1,000 fine for. Under state law, it is illegal for an attorney to accept client commissions without registering first with the state securities board. Paxton not only broke the law but also broke a law he helped pass a state legislator.

Despite this revelation on the campaign trail he defeated two Republican challengers, former Rep. Dan Branch and former Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman. In the general election he defeated Democrat opponent Sam Houston, a Houston-area attorney, in a landslide. Of course, in both instances he was boosted by an energized grassroots and the support of wealthy Tea Party backers. They encouraged, or, more likely were encouraged by, his hard-line rhetoric on any number of issues. (Who wrote the talking points remains the question.)

Regardless of what he may actually believe, when looking for a quick political ascendency, look no further then the Texas GOP grassroots and their wealthy backers for advice. From state representative to one-term state senator to the state’s top law enforcement office,he got what he wanted.

Sadly Paxton’s carelessness, irresponsibility and smugness did not end with an admission or a fine, much less at the door of his private practice. He has also taken those traits to his taxpayer-funded office.

Following Friday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, his office issued the requisite statement denouncing the decision. He also predictably, following April’s arguments, released a statement defending the state’s marriage ban.

Despite it being out of his responsibility, he then issued an opinion permitting county clerks and other government officials to decline to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples if it violates their religious beliefs. While responsibly acknowledging clerks may be held liable, he sealed the fundraising envelope when he offered pro bono legal defense to any clerk mired in litigation for the decision. Religious liberty is an inherent right extended to all individuals, including those who genuinely oppose or support same-sex marriage for those reasons.

Even if you disagree politically or morally, issuing a marriage license does not mean you are sanctioning it. You cannot flout federal law.

Sadly that’s not what he told county clerks and potential donors across the state.

Between his politicization of his office and clear disregard for the law as represented by the pending criminal probe and irresponsible opinion on marriage equality, it has become clear Paxton is unfit for office. But in using Paxton’s logic, I can only conclude two things: breaking the law doesn’t violate his religious convictions, but resigning does. Whether or not a criminal indictment decides his professional fate in spite of any religious convictions, however, is an entirely different matter.

—  James Russell

Sen. Rodney Ellis asks DOJ to monitor Texas marriage equality

EllisTexas state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston,  wrote a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch and asked her to monitor implementation of marriage equality in the state.

Ellis cited state Attorney General Ken Paxton’s guidance to county clerks, justices of the peace and judges “advising them that they can refuse to follow the recent Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodge.”

He requested the Department of Justice prevent civil rights violations to “ensure loving, committed couples are able to formally celebrate their union.”

He said religion must not be used as an excuse to discriminate.

—  David Taffet