of "Interview with Ms. Burnett Clay and Ms. Helen Phillips."
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VIRGINIA RAYMOND: May sixteenth, 2009. We're here in Austin, Texas, on Live Oak Street, at the home of Jennifer and Walter Long. We thank them for their
hospitality. My name—the person talking is Virginia Raymond. The person behind the camera is Sabina Hinz-Foley, and also in the room are Ms. Clay's daughter, Cynthia Smith, and Danny
RAYMOND: Walter Long is also going to probably be walking in and out of the area. But just to go back, we are going to interview both of you today about two
young men: your son, Keith Clay, and also Johnny Johnson. Is that right? And you consented to be interviewed? Okay, well thank you very much. Ms. Clay, we can start with you. Just tell us a
little bit about yourself, where you were born, how you grew up.
BURNETT CLAY: I, Burnett Clay, was born in
, which is in East Texas, on May the twenty-first, 1933. We was all raised on the farm, it's eleven children. I have
eleven sisters and brothers: five sisters, six brothers who is all still living, thank God for that.
CLAY: I moved to Baytown when I was eighteen-years-old, and there I resided there and married my husband Warren H. Clay. He's deceased. He's been deceased
now for thirteen years, and I have four daughters.
CLAY: I never had a son, but my daughter Cynthia gave me one of the most beautiful sons any mother can ask for, so I thank God for him. We adopted him and we
raised him. He finished high school, he went to Lee College for two and a half years, and after that is when he got into trouble.
CLAY: Very intelligent young man. I still thank God for him today because who he was and how he turned out to be such a loving son. So in 1995 he got in
trouble, and he went to Huntsville in 1996, and when they moved them from Huntsville to Polunsky Unit, which is in Livingston, all the Death Row inmates, so that's where he was from
ninety-eight until 2003.
CLAY: March the twentieth, 2003, was the date of his execution, and in the midst of that, as I would go and visit him, he would tell me about other inmates.
They had families, but they never came to see them, and that they didn't even have the money to buy stamps and their personal items.
CLAY: So, he would share what he had with those who didn't have, and that impressed me very much, to know he had a giving heart like that. So after he was
executed, I still kept my minister visit there in the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, and I wrote a young man who we had been visiting, his name is Dwayne Buck.
CLAY: And I asked him, I wanted to continue my ministry, and I asked him to give me an inmate that did nobody come to visit, and so he wrote me about Johnny
Ray Johnson, and he gave me his PIN number.
CLAY: I wrote the young man, and he wrote me back, and said "I knew your son, K.C., he introduced me to Jesus," he said, "and yes, I would love for you to
come see me." So at that time I started visiting him. That was the year of 2003, because in March my son was gone, so I kept my minister visits alive.
CLAY: So I went to see him. The first time I saw him we introduced ourselves to each other, and he began to tell me about his background. When he was born
his mother gave him away, he didn't know his father, so he says he never really had a home, never really had a family.
CLAY: So he said he never knew any of them so he was just out there, and after he was in foster homes, from home to home, and when he became seventeen, he
just found his family out in the streets, and that's how he became on drugs, and just lived a life of drugs, homeless under the bridges, he said, wherever he could find.
CLAY: So when he got in trouble, he said, that was the reason he never had nobody to even show him any kind of love. So we introduced ourselves. The next
visit that I went to see him, we felt more comfortable talking to each other.
CLAY: So we were talking and he looked at me and he asked me, "I never had a mother, I never had a father, no sisters or brothers, and I never knew how to
love" and he asked me, he said, "will you be my mother?" And I broke down and cried and he did, too, and I said, Yes.
CLAY: He didn't have any books. He didn't have nothing to keep him occupied, and when I left I went to the bookstore, and I bought him a Bible and
dictionary, all kinds of books, literature that he may read: "The God Given Purpose," to give him hope that his life wouldn't be hopeless.
CLAY: And so when I went back he had got the books, and there came a time he told me when they go to rec. their feet cannot be on the ground, so his tennis
shoes had worn out. You see, they had to buy all of their personal stuff. They had to buy their underwear, their socks, their t-shirts, and their hygienes, everything, and their stamps if they
wanted to write somebody.
CLAY: So I called my sister, and I told her, I said, This young man I'm going to see, Helen, I said, he doesn't have any shoes. And I gave her his PIN
number, and the place where to send the money. So she sent him some money to get him some shoes, and after that, the next visit I went, she was with me, because she lived in Baytown and I live
in East Texas.
CLAY: She had came home and the first thing he said when he saw my sister, he raised his feet up, and let her see the new tennis that he had bought. He was
so grateful for whatever you could do for him. And from then, really and truly to me, I loved him as a son, because whatever he need, she and I were there for him.
CLAY: So I was able to visit him up until he was executed, February, what was, February twelfth, 2009, this year. And he had asked me, he had told me he
didn't want his body left there in Huntsville. He said because all they do there is put you in the bag and throw you in the hole, and he said, "I don't want that." I said, Well you being my
son, it's not going to be that way.
CLAY: I said, Now my son, where I live, he's in the Family Community Cemetery. I said, That's where you could be too. He couldn't believe that. So he said,
"this is what I want you to do. I want to be cremated." And I told him, Anything that you want to do, I'll see that it's done.
CLAY: So he was cremated, and I held his ashes for about a month, and then we decided to have a memorial service, she and I, and that's when I began to go to
work. I purchased him a headstone and everything. Did I give you a picture?
RAYMOND: Of the memorial service.
BURNETT CLAY: And of the headstone. Keith has his headstone and Johnny Ray has his. They right side by side.
RAYMOND: No, I haven't seen that.
BURNETT CLAY: Well I've got a picture for you. I've got a program for you. I've got something for you before you leave. So therefore we really bonded with
him, and we were able to—after I sent him those books—he was so intelligent. He was truly a smart young man.
CLAY: If he had had a chance in life—love is the most powerful idea, love lifts you, love draws you, and to know that you are loved, it means a lot. So he
never knew what it is to be loved by a father, a mother, a sister, a brother. He found his home out in the street.
CLAY: And he found a family, he says, about seven of them, that did drugs. He told us everything. So we begin to go see him, I began to minister, she begin
to go see him. And that then, the last three days, she and I were there. They give us from eight to five to visit you know, they gave us three days.
CLAY: We went all of those three days, and in all of those three days, you would never believe the mood that he was in, and the happiness that he
experienced. A man in three days facing death. "Oh," he said, he called me "Mom Dear" and her "Aunt Helen." He said, "I'm ready" because I'm going to a better place than here.
CLAY: He said, because "this dungeon, they treat like you're not human," and to be treated like that, being a man, that breaks his ego down, that makes you
feel like you're a nobody. It makes you feel like you're worthless. But through us ministering to him, he became the man that he—if he had had a chance, he could have been that man in
CLAY: But he didn't have a chance, so therefore we did everything that he had asked us to do. And every day I miss him because he was a guy that gave you an
inner strength, just to see him uplifted—and like he were. And we went the last day, at a quarter to twelve. We had prayer, and the last words he said to us there, he said, "I'm not worried,"
he said, "because I have two angels.
CLAY: Mom Dear and Auntie Helen, who I know love me." He said, "Now, I know what a mother's love is, Momma Clay." That's what he said. So anyway, they took
him away, and we went to Huntsville, and we was down there at the wall, we went to the Hospitality House first.
CLAY: We sit there until it was time for me—me being his spiritual adviser, they let me go over at Huntsville to see him for about an hour. And I wanna tell
you, we had ourselves a good time, he was so happy. He was so happy because the guards that were sitting down the hall from us, we got their attention and they just stood up and looked, because
he was talking about—he said, "I'm ready."
CLAY: He said, "I'm ready to go see Jesus and I'm ready to go see my brother." They called Keith, "K.C." And he said, "Momma don't worry about me," he said,
"because I will see you in heaven." And he had a chance to talk to them on the phone. So I had an hour with him, just me alone, and he talked to her on the phone, he talked to Joanna on the
phone, and I think he talked to Gretcher, and he talked to my brother.
CLAY: And the last thing he said to her. "I'm eating," he said "but I'm ready." And the warden—the chaplain—came back over to the Hospitality House after he
went—after I went. And he came back and he told us, he said, "You know Ms. Clay," he said, "Johnny is ready," he said.
CLAY: "His lawyer called, and he told him, said 'tell my lawyer I don't have anything to say to him, 'cause right now, I'm having a consultation with
Jesus.'" And at six o'clock they let us go over there, to the—I wasn't supposed to witness the execution, but he had asked them if I could be there, me being the spiritual advisor.
CLAY: So they let me go; she, I, and Joanna. And when we got there they had put him in the room, strapped him down, and they were administering—they must
have administered the first drug because he was kind of sleepy. And he looked through the window, they had a mic where he could talk, and we could hear him.
CLAY: And when he looked over there and saw us, he said "Auntie Helen, Joanna, thank ya'll for everything. I love ya'll." And when he said that, he said, "I
will see ya'll in heaven." And he began to sing this song and that's when it really got to me then. "Jesus, keep me near the cross," because I had told him the cross represent everything that
mankind should need.
CLAY: I said, At the cross is love, is salvation, and Jesus shed his blood for the admission of sin. And I didn't even know the young man knew the song, but
he had a hymn book. He told me "I hate to depart with my hymn book," and so that's what he starts singing.
CLAY: "Jesus, keep me near the cross." And he sung, I think about the first verse, and got to the next one, and he just went off to sleep. So after that they
took him to the Huntsville funeral home, where I had had my funeral home at my home to be there to pick him up.
CLAY: So for some reason, I don't know if the funeral home got a mix up or not because we went to the funeral home. And we saw him, and he was still warm,
right after the execution, because I think it took six minutes to administer the drug and he was gone because the doctor came in and pronounced that that was it.
CLAY: So anyway, we were at the funeral home, and my funeral home man had never got there. And I asked the guy, I said, Coleman supposed to have been here at
six thirty. And he told me, he said, "He's not coming." I said, What do you mean? I said, Oh yeah, he's supposed to be here.
CLAY: So he said "Well, Coleman gave me the authority to go ahead, I thought, to start the embalming." I said No, I said, won't be no embalming. I said,
You're not going to do anything to him, I said, because—it's just the way it is.
CLAY: So he goes back, and he calls Coleman, and Coleman told him "she said three weeks ago she called me, and already took care, and made arrangements,"
which I did. I mean, I was right on time to pick his body up. And so, when the funeral home man came back in the agency, at Polunsky Unit that day, Johnny took care of his business, I mean he
wrote a will.
CLAY: "Everything I have, it goes to Mom Dear—Burnett Clay." And they brought the papers to me to sign that his body would be released to me, and when that
funeral home man saw that—he saw the papers, cause they sent it with him over there, he brought that body to Jasper.
CLAY: And he made it to Jasper with Johnny's body before we could even get back home, because that was just the way—Johnny pleads with me; "Don't let them do
nothing to me,"and I had already made all the arrangements, and he had all of the papers, that Coleman was going to pick his body up, because they give you a pack.
CLAY: And in this pack you've got to release everything that you've got to whoever you want to do it. And so it was all released to me, everything was. Even
all his material—well I didn't get it all—he had a diary, all the letters she and I had wrote—and they didn't put it in the packet.
CLAY: You know, we don't know what happened. They just gave us some of his books, and that was it. But we couldn't question that. I was just thankful to God
it worked out the way that he had wanted to. And I'm very pleased with what went down, because he got just what he had asked me to do.
CLAY: So therefore, he's gone, but I have about fourteen more guys that I visit, so I am going to keep my ministry at the Polunsky Unit, on Death Row.
CLAY: I'm going to keep it alive as long as the good Lord blesses me to go and come, because in this I found out, all those young men down there that need to
know that somebody loves them, because they feel like they are nobody, they feel like they are hopeless.
CLAY: I go down there to tell them Jesus loves them, I love them, and I introduce them to how they can come to know the Lord, and it would make a difference
in all their life. And do you not know, a lot of those young men have turned their life around, because when my son was there, he was down there preaching the gospel. Yes he was.
CLAY: He was preaching the gospel. She and I would go in there every week to see him, and every time that we walked in, he had this beautiful smile on his
face, and he would sit there, and he would talk about God's goodness. And he was ready, too.
CLAY: So therefore, it's a need. I wish a lot of people could just go down there just one time, and visit and see what's going on, because they treat them
like their inhuman, but they are humans just like we are, and they need to be loved just like we are, because God loves us all.
CLAY: And I let them know I am no better than you. All sin—all unrighteousness is sin. So therefore, if you do one thing that's a sin, and do another, God
don't look at one sin as bigger than the other. I can't understand that. So, in the midst of that—in the interview I had with National Geographic, I made this statement.
CLAY: I said, Now, if I go and take somebody's life, they call me a murderer, but if you take my life, they're a murderer, too. How can they live with
themselves? It should be a better way. It's a lot of guys down there that really don't need to be there.
CLAY: Good people, good people. And then the death penalty, God is not pleased with that, no way. It would be better if the government could see that, or if
the nation could see that, because a lot of those guys that they take their life, they could have become servants of God, through the experience they had there in the prison. So, I don't
RAYMOND: So I want to come back and ask you some more about some things you said. But before I do that, maybe I can ask Ms. Phillips, what would you like
people to know about all these experiences?
HELEN PHILLIPS: You would really have to go to be—to get the experience. It's real interesting, it's interesting, and when you go down to visit these guys,
when you leave you're uplifted because they are uplifted.
PHILLIPS: They'd be so happy just to see someone's face because they'd be in the cell twenty four/seven. They only get one hour a day to go to rec, and all
that other time they're in the cell. And where they visit at, they can't see too much, but they can kind of see out a little bit, and it's just interesting.
PHILLIPS: Then they get to eat some of the things that they don't get to eat—they don't bring, and they'd just be so happy. And it makes you feel good, just
to ask them, "What do you want to eat out of the machine?" If it's a salad, if it's beef jerky, all that kind of stuff.
PHILLIPS: They'd just be so glad to get it, and it just makes you, well, it makes you kind of sad to see them sometimes so hungry, and then it makes you feel
good to know that you are able to give it to them and they enjoy it. And when you leave there, you're happy because you made somebody else happy, and I think that's what it's all about.
PHILLIPS: It's not about yourself; it's all about somebody else. Because, when Jesus died, it wasn't about him, because he could have saved himself, but he
was trying to save the whole world.
PHILLIPS: So it's—when you go about doing things, you forget about yourself, and you think about the other person because it's not about you, anyway, it's
about the other person.
RAYMOND: Well, Ms. Clay, I'm interested in—how did you get—your ministry is so important to you and to these other people.
BURNETT CLAY: It is.
RAYMOND: How did you get started ministering to people?
BURNETT CLAY: Well, I've always been a big part of the church, and I was a—I'm a mission president, and it's just—I work in the church diligently. That's my
life, and after my son was ministering down there, it made me so happy, it pleased me; he began to tell me about other young men there.
CLAY: You'd go to see him, he never was sad, and I saw something in him that pleased me. And therefore my pastor ordained me as an ordained missionary. I
have those papers in order to do minister visits. So you have to be an ordained missionary.
CLAY: So after I did that, I just began—sometimes she would go see my son, and I would minister other inmates, because he would tell me, "I want you to come
minister to so and so, because he's so down in the dumps. He needs uplifting." And she would visit him, and I would visit other inmates because he said, "I'm not selfish, because there are
other that need this hope that I have."
CLAY: And I began to just—and it didn't make no difference of the color of the people that I'd visit. I visited some of all kinds; Hispanic, Black, Mexican,
just anybody, and I would go minister them. And so that's what really engrossed me to keep this ministry alive, because there's a great need down there amongst those young men.
CLAY: And they got some down there eighteen or ninety years old. They got young men, middle aged men, and old men, down there on Death Row. And some of them
lose their minds. It was a guy, he couldn't stand the pressure. He dug his eyes out and ate them.
CLAY: There was one guy, he was going to be executed like tomorrow, when they went in on tomorrow to get him, he had hung himself. They said they weren't
going to kill him. He was going to kill himself. So it is so—those young guys are treated so bad, I tell you, it just feels like they're not nobody.
CLAY: I go and try to make a difference, to let them know that they are somebody. They are just as much as the people in the outside world.
CLAY: Don't ever beat up on yourself, because we all have sinned and come short of God's glory. So therefore, I can't reach them all, but if you reach one,
and that one reach somebody else, it's just like the word of God. When you plant it, and then you plant it in somebody else, and then it's just—they can make the difference spreading the word
to each other.
CLAY: So it makes a great difference, and I go down there. There are times that I have got up in the morning, I didn't feel like going, but I told the Lord,
I said, It's your will I'm doing. I know you're going to give me the strength, because I have to go about eighty miles one way, but still I go.
RAYMOND: Eighty miles. And do you drive by yourself?
BURNETT CLAY: Yes, me and Jesus, honey. People ask me; "you go down there by yourself?" I say, No Lordy, I say, me and Jesus, we talk all the way down there,
and when I come back I sing in prayer all the way in the car coming back, just to know that I have brightened up somebody's day.
CLAY: That's what makes the difference. That's what makes me happy, to know that I have touched somebody's heart, to let them know Jesus loves them. When
Jesus went to the cross, he could have come down, but love kept him there for the whole world, for everybody.
CLAY: He's not a partiality God. He did it for everybody. So whosoever wills, he said, let them come. But you have to introduce those guys to Jesus, and to a
better way of thinking, to better their lives, because they are really hopeless, and we should really make a difference in one's life. We should.
RAYMOND: And you also participate in the ministry, or visiting?
HELEN PHILLIPS: I visit. I still have a little inmate, Dwayne Buck. I've been visiting him since 2002, and Johnny was so jealous, until—he was so partial
until—he didn't want nobody to visit but my sister and I, and he was such a special person. He was a special person.
PHILLIPS: He was just so, like she said, he was so intelligent, and if you could read his letters, the words, no misspelled, big words, he put them all in
place. He was so concerned about other people, he would tell me all the time—and my husband's name is Gilbert
PHILLIPS: and he never met him but he called him Uncle Gilbert, and I raised one of my little grandsons and his name is Cameron, and he would always say
"Uncle Gilbert and Cameron," and he would always give some encouraging words, "tell Cameron to read as much as he can.
PHILLIPS: Just read, and try to get as much as he can out of school, because it's going to be needed, and that'll keep him out of trouble."
PHILLIPS: And on holidays, he would always send cards, like anniversary. They would make—someone, I guess I don't know if he'd make them or not, but I think
they had crafts, he would make cards, and he would send cards, like on our anniversary, birthdays, and Christmas, and I just have so many cards that he sent.
PHILLIPS: And he just thought about other people, and he was, just like she said, he was so gracious for anything that you would do for him, and just like
she said, he was so happy. At that time, my sister was in the hospital, when he needed shoes, she was sick.
PHILLIPS: I had never met Johnny, so I sent him fifty dollars, to get him some shoes, and the first time, just like she said, the first time I visited him,
the first thing he did—he had never met me, but he knew who I was, because we had been corresponding through letters, and I sent pictures of my family, and he wanted to pictures of the house
and he wanted pictures of the family and he was so enthused about family.
PHILLIPS: It was something he never had. He said, "Send me a picture of family, like you're eating around the table, or a get-together" he said "'cause I
want to see that. That's something I never had." So I sent him pictures. And he raised up his feet, he said "See my shoes?" and he would just smile and that just made me feel so good, just like
I said, it makes you feel so good when you can do something for somebody else.
PHILLIPS: But in order to do that, you're going to have to forget self. And he would write letters, and he needed some books, like he wanted books—he wanted
this book about Obama, The Audacity of Hope, and Tavis Smiley, What I Know for Sure: My Story of Growing Up in America and I went to the bookstore, and they sent the books.
PHILLIPS: I did get my books back, he told me, "I'm going to be sure you get your books back" and just anything you could do for him, he was just so thankful
because it made you feel bad to know that a child would grow up and never had nothing to make him—and I'm thinking that this is what made him do what he did, because he felt like "oh, nobody
cares," and it would make you feel good to do something.
PHILLIPS: And letters he would write, oh and his letters, they were so interesting. He would type all his letters. They were so interesting. You could tell
that he was very, very brilliant, very brilliant. Just like she said, if he had got out, he could have gone to college.
PHILLIPS: He could have been there, because he just knew—I think he read a lot. I don't know if it was his experience that made him like that, but he was a
really smart guy. He was smart.
RAYMOND: Did you keep his letters?
HELEN PHILLIPS: All his letters, I went and bought me a little file to keep all his letters, and his cards, and all of that, and he said, "Well I've got me a
Mom Dear, and I've got me an Auntie Helen." He said, "That's my family," and he said, "You all are the only two women, the only two people in my life.
PHILLIPS: It's small, but I got a family." He was so happy, because he had a family, and that would make anybody feel good to make somebody else so happy.
And just like she said, those three days you would think he would just thrilled about leaving and all of that, but he—
PHILLIPS: he said, "I've got to get my fun in on the three days" and he just opened up and told us everything, just opened up about his life, and everything.
And I told him, I said, You're not a bad guy. He said, "You think so?" I said, No! and I said, You're so handsome! and that just made him feel so good.
PHILLIPS: He said, "You think so?" I said, Yeah! You're a handsome young man, and we took pictures with him. She took pictures with him and I did, too.
And then, down through the time, we would take pictures and he would keep them. But it was just so interesting.
PHILLIPS: And it's still interesting. Just like I said, I'm going to keep going. Maybe I'll find others. I don't think I'll get too attached to others like I
have to Johnny, but in a little time I will, but I still visit Buck. I just had a letter from him day before yesterday, you know a letter.
PHILLIPS: He called me his "big sister," so you know I'm his big sister, because he do have sisters, and brothers. But Johnny had no one, so he called me his
big sister. So when he needs stamps or whatever I'll send him money for stamps and they're both gracious people. But I don't know, we just got attached to Johnny. He was just special.
RAYMOND (to Burnett Clay): You looked like you were going to say something at a couple points.
BURNETT CLAY: Yeah, when she was talking about Johnny, I forgot to put this in. He was down there fourteen years, and when Keith left in 2003, that same
year, when Buck wrote and gave me his PIN number, and I wrote him, all those years he had been there, hadn't a soul been there to visit him.
CLAY: I was the first somebody. Could you believe that? I was the first somebody that visited him. Because the day that—the first time we talked and we
talked, but the second time, when he asked me to be his mother, because he never had one, that's when we truly bonded because I said, Yes I will, because the Bible says you can be a mother
to the motherless and a father to the fatherless.
CLAY: I just played a mother's role, but what made him feel so good, I had my seventy-fifth birthday over at my daughter's house, and oh there were just so
many people there, and he asked me, would I send him some pictures of his sisters, my four daughters, and they all took a picture together, and then I took one with them, and I sent it to him,
and he said "Oh my God, I got some beautiful sisters."
CLAY: And he was truly a part of our family because I talked to the girls about him, and it's just so awful the way those guys are treated down there. And
there are a lot of things going on in the prison that's not their fault, that they punish them.
CLAY: They'll put them in lockdown, and that means that the kitchen is closed, they don't get nothing but peanut butter sandwiches, and when you go down
there to visit these guys, they've got about eight or nine machines with sandwiches, soda, cokes, cookies, and all of that. And they'd just be starved.
CLAY: But God truly blessed me. There were times I didn't know how I was going to make it. I fed them. I went by myself when she didn't come home. But I was
always able to fulfill their needs. Not their wants, but their needs. And a lot of times they would be hungry.
CLAY: They feed them supper about three o'clock, and then don't get nothin' else until the next morning. They never had a balanced meal that would be good
for their health. They just took whatever they gave them. And so, my suggestion to all people, if you have the opportunity, if you have a chance, all you've got to do is go down to that prison,
and just look around, and see all of those guys in there.
CLAY: And do you not know, some of those guys have family! Mothers, dads, and sisters, but they have cut them completely out of their life. They don't even
go visit them. And that is hard. How could a parent's love die because the jury got them in trouble? That's when your love should really be there to help pull them through whatever they're
going through. And it's amazing.
CLAY: And every guy down there, they call me Momma Clay. That's what they call me. Except Johnny, he calls me Momma Dear, but every one of them calls me
CLAY: I had a little letter the other day from one named Juan García, and he told me, he said, "You've gotta come see me," he said, "because if you don't,"
he said, "I don't know what's goin to happen to me." Now he has a mother, and he has two sisters.
CLAY: I have their address, I have their phone numbers, and I relate to them for him, and they haven't been to see him yet. And you know I call them up and
tell them. I said, I go see your son, and he need to see ya'll. And those guys that don't have anything on their books about stamps, I send them a little money when I'm able, because it
really doesn't make sense.
CLAY: They are down there, but everything they get they have to buy. They don't give them nothing.
RAYMOND: How did you find out about Juan García?
BURNETT CLAY: Through my son, Keith. Keith was his little spiritual advisor, and he told me after Keith left, he said, "I'm sure glad you come and talk to
me," he said, "'cause I was strong," he said "but if nobody talk to me about God," his words, he said, "I get weak." So next week, the Lord bless, I'm going to see him. I'm going to see
CLAY: They just reaching out to anybody 'cause they have Ms. Wilcox, and Ms. Cox, their spiritual advisor, their missionary, they go see them, but I don't
know. This happened, I would say, for a reason. Because if it hadn't been for my son, then I wouldn't have been involved in this, but I am so gracious to the Lord that He gave me an opportunity
to try to go down there and make a difference in their life.
CLAY: Just to let them know we care o f and Jesus loves them, and do whatever I can to help.
RAYMOND: You said when Keith started ministering to people you noticed a change in him.
BURNETT CLAY: Oh, Lord, yes.
RAYMOND: Do you know how that change came about in Keith, or about when he started ministering to other—
BURNETT CLAY: I'm going to tell you this. My children always went to church. Keith was in the church, too, all my children. He always said God had a calling
on his life, but he didn't stop to talk to God about it, you know?
CLAY: And he told me one night he was walking—that's after he—I didn't know he was in trouble then—and he came to this church and he said he went and sat on
the steps of this church. He said it was about one or two o'clock in the morning. And he said, as he sits there and he begins to talk to the Lord about he knew he had a calling on his life, but
he had messed up.
CLAY: And he sit there, and he shed his tears and cried about it. And the first year he was in Huntsville, he began to write me and tell me about his
experience with the Lord. And from then on—he was in Huntsville the first year, he went down there, I think it was in September of ninety-six, and ninety-eight they moved him to Polunsky
CLAY: You remember when those eight guys—okay, they moved them there. And he just kept on, if you—I have so many letters, and every letter he ever wrote me,
he addressed it "by the grace of God," and he said that that's how God got his attention, to put him down there, and then he began to teach his word.
CLAY: And he was so devoted. And they said there was a preacher down there, there was a revival going on. And Mrs. Wilcox's husband, he's a chaplain there,
and he visited Keith one day. And when me and my sister went back down there the next week he told me, he said "I'm going to steal your son," he said, "because he's too deep in God's word, even
for me." He said, "He's way above me."
CLAY: That's just how God had implanted his word so he can manifest it to others. My daughter will tell you, God always had a calling on his life, and he
CLAY: He said, but, he had to be there to answer to his call. He told me and my sister, he said, "You know, I'm not ashamed" he said "that's the way God got
my attention," he said, "because if my life hadn't been taken, while I was out there in this world," he said, "I wouldn't have had a chance with the Lord" he said, "but now I do."
CLAY: I got all those beautiful letters and things he had made, and he has a daughter. She's twenty-one, and she'll be twenty-two Christmas Day, and come
September this is going to be her third year at Texas University, the college there in Denton, Texas.
CLAY: She's going to be an R.N. She's smart, and he loved her more than life. Crystal's a smart young lady. Beautiful, she sure is. Loves the Lord, she was
brought up in the church.
RAYMOND: Did she get to visit her dad?
BURNETT CLAY: Oh, did she. She was thirteen, Cynthia, wasn't she?
CYNTHIA SMITH: Yes.
BURNETT CLAY: She was thirteen when he was executed. She'd go down there, me and her, she'd come stay with in the summer and we'd go down there every week to
see her daddy. And she went to the Walls with Cynthia and them.
CLAY: She wanted to go. And she said, "Big Momma, I finally found some closure," she said, "because I was able to go and hug and kiss my daddy," after it was
over with. And she told me, she said, "You know, he talked to me about some things I'd never tell nobody."
CLAY: But what he instilled in her, it took effect on her life, because she finished high school. She's very smart, very intelligent, loved the Lord. So that
made a difference in her life.
RAYMOND: And I hope we're going to get to hear from Cynthia if you'd like.
BURNETT CLAY: Of course.
RAYMOND: Could you tell me about Keith growing up?
BURNETT CLAY: Well he was two years old when we adopted him, and he always knew who his mother were, because a child got a right to know who his mother and
father is. And after we adopted him, he went to kindergarten. But you know when he was about two and a half years old, Keith took sick.
CLAY: He began to have seizures. I was in town one day, and he had one of those seizures, and we rushed him to the hospital, and they kept him two days, and
he kept on having those seizures until he was about three or four years old. And then they sent him to Methodist Hospital in Houston to try to determine why he had seizures.
CLAY: Because I stayed there a whole week with him and they put him on a medication. And when he would go to kindergarten, he'd go to school, he would have
to take his medicine with him. And he outgrew those seizures by the time he was ten years old.
CLAY: And thank God for that. So after that he went to school, and he finished school. And what year did he finish school? He was born in sixty-eight.
Anyway, he finished high school. I never had no problem with him at school. Very intelligent. And I never had to go to school even when he had cut up or acted up.
CLAY: And he graduated. I was so impressed and loved my son so. When he graduated I bought him a brand new Sunbird Pontiac, a blue car, because his favorite
color was blue. And he went to college two and a half years. He sure did. And he got in trouble, but other than that he was a wonderful child comin' up. He really was.
CLAY: He wasn't a hard-headed child. He was just mischievous. So, yeah we loved him. Oh yes, he was spoiled by my daughters, he was spoiled by everybody. He
was spoiled by her. He was the most handsome little boy you ever seen. I have a picture of him. I have his program, I'm going to give you one.
RAYMOND: Do you have a picture with you, of him?
BURNETT CLAY: Mm-hmm.
RAYMOND: In your purse?
BURNETT CLAY: No, it's a brown envelope. I was intending to bring it. I'm going to give you a picture of him and I'm going to give you a picture of me and
Johnny. Yeah, it's a brown envelope, look in my suitcase in the closet, and it's a little brown envelope. Oh he's showing it to her.
RAYMOND: Oh yes I saw that. I saw the program, but do you have another picture?
BURNETT CLAY: I did have one at his prom, and I thought I put it in my suitcase, because I went through everything at my house to find a picture of him, and
it was one at his prom, and I put it in a big envelope and I was intending to bring it but I see, that's the only thing I forgot.
RAYMOND: Well maybe one time I can come visit you and look at those pictures with your permission.
BURNETT CLAY: Okay.
RAYMOND: Now, you raised Keith in Jasper? Is that correct?
BURNETT CLAY: No, in Baytown.
RAYMOND: Oh, in Baytown. Tell me about Baytown and what it was like to raise a kid in Baytown, 'cause I've never been there.
BURNETT CLAY : It was wonderful. They had activities in the schools. I mean, when he made it through his eighth grade, then he went to—well he finished at
Lee High School, Robert E. Lee High. He finished school there, and he went on into college.
CLAY: And Crystal, she finished school in Baytown, his daughter, and they have excellent schools. They have excellent programs. At Keith's trial, they had
the counselor from Robert E. Lee; they had the principal; they had two more people as character witnesses.
CLAY: And they made the statement, "His mother never had to come to school on no account that he had got in trouble or that he acted up." And he was working
for Wal-Mart, and he was in the domestic department, and they made him the manager of it. Very intelligent, but he just got caught up in a crowd of young men, I guess, experiencing that life,
and then he got in trouble. But other than that, he was a terrific young man.
RAYMOND: Let me just ask, because I'm not sure I understood you. At Wal-Mart he was in charge of what department?
BURNETT CLAY: The tile department. They call it "domestic."
RAYMOND: Oh, they call them Mexican?
CLAY AND PHILLIPS: Domestic.
BURNETT CLAY: Well they sell tiles and sheets and things like that. And he always would work. Oh yes he would work.
RAYMOND: Well, you said he got in with this crowd that—
BURNETT CLAY: They had a young man there, was about three young guys hung around the college. You know how guys there, they hang around the school and what
have you. And he just got in the crowd. His name was Shannon, and they got in trouble together. Shannon, he was down there on Death Row too, and on the sixteenth of October they executed him
too, but do you know what?
CLAY: I started visiting him, Shannon, directly after Keith. I began to talk to him because I felt so sorry for his parents, because his mother, she couldn't
take it. She just had a stroke and died, and then the father had a stroke because they had him and the daughter.
CLAY: Helen was his mother's name, and she always worshiped that child. She spoiled him rotten; he could do no wrong. And I guess I said, Maybe, if your
child do wrong, you have to chastise him. You don't go for the wrong things they do. And I began to visit him, and his last three days that he was there before his execution, he asked the
warden, could I be with him, the last three days.
CLAY: And I went to tell him, You don't have to beat up on yourself. I didn't blame him for what happened to Keith because Keith was a grown young man, and
we all have choices. You have choices to take the right road or you have choices to take the wrong road.
CLAY: So I began to talk to him, and after they had done what they did they all wished that they could take it back, and done something different. But since
you can't do it, you go ahead on in life and make the best of it. Don't beat up on yourself.
CLAY: And I began to minister to him, and it was really sad. His mother was gone and his dad wasn't able to be there. He had one sister, and I was there, and
I was able to minister him. And I talked to him and he just cried and he asked me to forgive him, and I said, You ask God to forgive you, baby, I said, it can make a difference in your
CLAY: When I went that last day to talk to him he said he had accepted the Lord. And it makes me good when you can go minister them, the word of God, and
their spirit be uplifted. That's what makes me happy.
RAYMOND: And Shannon—how did you come to start visiting with Shannon? Did he ask you?
BURNETT CLAY: No, he didn't. It was in my heart to go visit him because I didn't want him to think that I thought hard of him because they got into this
CLAY: Keith was in college, and Shannon wore an ankle bracelet all his life. He had been in boot camp. He was just one of those kids that got in trouble. So
one day I wrote him, and I asked him, and he was so delighted for me to come see him, because he didn't have no visitors. He just had one sister, and I don't think her mind was wrapped tight.
So I began to visit him.
RAYMOND: So many questions. Do you need some water?
BURNETT CLAY: No, I got some water right here.
RAYMOND: Okay. So you have been to visit people in the last three days at least several times. I mean—
BURNETT CLAY: Yeah. They can have one visit a week. You know that. So when I go I visit different ones, because I've got about thirteen guys down there that
I have visits, so I just go one at a time. And all my visits now are minister visits. I'm no more on the list as a visitor; I'm a minister visitor.
RAYMOND: But when you've got to stay for the three days, for instance with Johnny, Mr. Johnson, where do you stay?
BURNETT CLAY: I drive back and forth.
RAYMOND: Every day?
BURNETT CLAY: Every day, baby.
RAYMOND: Eighty miles.
BURNETT CLAY: One way. Yes ma'am, yes ma'am.
RAYMOND: Wow, that's a long time. And you [to Phillips] you live in Baytown?
HELEN PHILLIPS: I live in Baytown. Yes, I have a place there where she lives at the home place.
BURNETT CLAY: She have a summer home there.
HELEN PHILLIPS: I have a summer home there. So I go there and we go visit together. And the last three days we went to see Johnny we leave at like six
o'clock in the morning to get there. We couldn't get in until eight, and we stayed there the first day from eight to four.
PHILLIPS: The next day we got caught up, from eight to five, he said, "Ya'll better get back. It's gettin' dark. It's gettin' too late for ya'll to be on the
road. "We got caught up with the time. We stayed until five. And then we couldn't visit Wednesday, but Thursday we were there at eight, and we could stay til twelve.
PHILLIPS: So after twelve o'clock, they took him away, and then we went on to Huntsville, and went to the Hospitality House, and stayed there until it was
over. We stayed at the Hospitality House and she went over to stay an hour with him at the Walls. So around five o'clock was the last time he could talk.
PHILLIPS: He could talk by phone until five o'clock, so he would call. He talked to Joanna and I, and the last time he called he said, "Aunt Helen, it's a
quarter to five. This will be my last goodbye," he said, "I just called to say goodbye."
PHILLIPS: And he said "I want to thank you for everything you've done, all your visits," and he was saying, "Tell Uncle Gilbert—" And I said, What are you
eating? He laughted. He said, "I'm eating some chicken. I said, It must be good. You just smackin' you know? And we laughed about it. He said, "I just want to say goodbye."
PHILLIPS: I said, Remember, sweetie I love you, and I didn't get a chance when I went over to the Walls, they had him strapped down. He looked over in the
corner, and he said, "Goodbye Aunt Helen" and then he looked over and said, "Goodbye Joanna," he said, "I'll see you in heaven." And those were the last words.
BURNETT CLAY: No, he sung his song.
HELEN PHILLIPS: He sung his song afterwards. The last thing—when the last breath left him he faded away on that song. He just—he sung it until he just faded
away and he's—
RAYMOND: The three of you were watching the execution, both of you and Joanna?
HELEN PHLLIPS: Yes.
RAYMOND: What's it like to watch an execution?
BURNETT CLAY: You see, when we got there, they already had him in the room and the IV in his arm, and when we first got there you could tell they must have
administered the first drug to him, because he was very calm. He was very relaxed because when he began to talk, and when he said what he did—First, he gave the speech about how it was down
there in the Polunsky Unit.
CLAY: He called it a dungeon and he said, "People need to know how people are being treated," he said, "because there are people down there that are not
treated like humans." And when he got through making his speech, then that's when he looked over and said, "Thank ya'll. I love ya'll," and he said, "I'll see ya'll in heaven."
CLAY: And then that's when he began to sing "Jesus keep me near the cross" and when he got to the second verse of it, you could tell that was it. And it was
so beautiful. It was no struggle, or no anything. You could see the expression on his face. As my undertaker man said, "That guy died in peace."
CLAY: He said, "the expression he had on his face," he said, "it let you know he really died in peace," which he did. So the next morning, she and I got up,
and we went to the funeral home where his body was, because I told her, I'm going to make sure that that's Johnny.
CLAY: And we got to the funeral home and they pulled him out of the cooler, and we felt his face, we touched him, we talked to him, and all of that. So
that's how that came about. But he did die happy. He said he never knew what love was until he found it with me and her.
RAYMOND: Incredible. I'm going to ask us to pause for a minute because we need to change the tape, but thank you, and then we could continue?
Interview with Ms. Burnett Clay and Ms. Helen Phillips
Burnett Clay is the grandmother and adoptive mother of Keith Bernard Clay, who was sentenced to death in 1997 for a 1994 robbery and murder in Houston, Harris County, Texas. Helen Phillips is Burnett Clay's sister. In Video 1, Ms. Clay and Ms. Phillips discuss Keith Clay's background; his life and ministry on Texas' Death Row; and his execution and funeral in 2003. They also discuss their relationship with Johnny Ray Johnson, another inmate and friend of Keith Clay's, to whom they ministered. In Video 2, Ms. Clay and Ms. Phillips describe growing up in their Church; their religious ministry; and their visits to Death Row. This interview took place on May 16, 2009 in Austin, Travis County, Texas.
1 of 2
Burnett ClayRole: Narrator
Helen PhillipsRole: Narrator
Texas After Violence ProjectRole: Collaborator
Virginia Marie RaymondRole: Interviewer
Sabina Hinz-FoleyRole: Videographer
Maurice ChammahRole: Transcriber
Anna McCorquodaleRole: Transcriber
Mara BensonRole: Transcriber
Maurice ChammahRole: Proofreader
Kimberly Ambrosini-BaconRole: Proofreader
Texas After Violence Project
University of Texas Libraries
Type of Resource:
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