A Moment of Connection

Photograph of TDS client Thomas Miller-El on Texas death row, by Patrick Patterson.

Dear Supporters,

As we turn to the holidays and the coming new year, I want to take a moment to express our gratitude for your support. This season, we lean into hope – hope for a future where people trapped in the criminal-legal system are treated with dignity. We focus on honoring the humanity of our clients, and we reconnect with our belief that everyone deserves a voice, our understanding, and a second chance. If you are planning on giving this Giving Tuesday, please donate to help us continue our vital work.

As we have expanded our mission at Texas Defender Service, we have sought to design a new logo that reflects our vision of a criminal-legal system that is just, humane, and free from racism and cruelty.

I wanted to share with you what our new logo means to us. As long-time defense lawyers and mitigation specialists, we have spent countless hours speaking with our clients in prison. We sit across from our clients, separated by a thick pane of glass, talking through a prison telephone. At the end of our visits, our clients always put their palm on the glass in a gesture of farewell and connection. For us, our logo is a symbol and a reminder – of the human beings whose lives we are advocating for.


“One particular inmate did not have a spiritual advisor and, knowing how busy I am, Rolando told me that I could use my monthly meeting with Rolando to see that inmate instead. In all my years of meeting with inmates, this is the only time someone has made such a selfless offer.”
-Pastor Wayne Whiteside

When I look at this image, I think of one client in particular: Rolando. Rolando had committed a murder-by-hire when he was a young man. Rolando’s mother, herself a survivor of childhood sexual and emotional abuse, had been a prostitute. When Rolando was a child, she locked him in the bathroom or left him on the doorstep while she was with clients. At age four, Rolando was skinny, malnourished, and lice-ridden. Rolando’s mother abandoned him for weeks at a time. When he was only six years old, Rolando watched his mother carried away on a stretcher after she had attempted suicide by slashing her wrists. She attempted suicide many times again and cycled between psychiatric facilities. Rolando stayed with relatives, who would beat him until he stopped crying. Abused, starved, and ignored, Rolando turned to drugs and crime.

Once on Texas death row, Rolando grew to feel deep remorse for the life he had taken and became profoundly religious. We often talked about his favorite author, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi dissident. Rolando earned a reputation on death row as a kind of Samaritan. He went out of his way to help other prisoners adjust to life on death row and would share encouraging words, and he helped prisoners with intellectual disabilities write letters to their families. Rolando’s pastor said of him, “I truly don’t know anyone who places others ahead of themselves in the way that Rolando does.” Anthony Graves, a death row exoneree, described Rolando’s “wisdom, insight, fortitude, determination, and motivation.” Rolando’s cousin Laura wrote that she and her grandsons loved visiting Rolando “not only because we get to see Rolando, but because of his advice and the way he lives his life help guide us in living our own lives. He is a role model of inner peace and acceptance.” She credited Rolando with her grandsons’ successes, including winning a scholarship to the University of Texas and entering the army. A Catholic nun begged the Board of Pardons and Paroles to save his life, writing, “I am certain that if Rolando’s life is spared, he will continue to grow in love as he has been and so his intention to do good will increase. Please, I beg you to consider giving Rolando a chance to live and go on doing what he is able to do now as never before, live out of love for others.”

Rolando with his niece

But in the end, Texas did not spare Rolando’s life. The Supreme Court denied his final appeal four hours after his execution was scheduled, with a dissent from Stephen Breyer.

In his final words before his execution, Rolando shared his remorse; strapped to the gurney, he looked directly at the victim’s family, sitting just a few feet away, and said, “Words cannot begin to express how sorry I am and the hurt I have caused you and your family. May this bring you peace and forgiveness. To my family, thank you for all your love and support. I am at peace. Jesus Christ is Lord. I love you all.”

Thinking of Rolando now, many years later, I often recall Bonhoeffer’s insight that “we must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or don’t do, and more in light of what they suffer.” And when I see the image of a hand in our new logo, I think of Rolando’s palm on the glass.

With gratitude,

Burke Butler
Executive Director
Texas Defender Service