Longform

Devils' Advocate

Karl Whitmire takes in strays. Cats, usually, but sometimes a dog. Once in a while, even a person. Billy Lyster was a stray of sorts -- cute and sweet but not too quick, Karl remembers. And young.

That was 13 years ago. Karl was 35, Billy 21. A friend asked Karl if he had work for Billy. Karl hired him to clean his bathrooms; Billy wanted to move in. Eventually, he did. Karl and Billy fooled around, but kept separate rooms.

The relationship didn't get serious until three years ago, when Billy moved out of Karl's north Phoenix home -- and into a jail cell.

In 1996, a grand jury indicted Billy Lyster on charges of child molestation. According to the police report from one of the incidents, Billy allegedly performed oral sex on a 12-year-old boy from down the street and offered to buy him Nintendo games and other toys in exchange for more sexual contact. At Karl's urging, Billy pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted sexual contact with a minor. Karl says he thought Billy would get six months; Billy got eight years.

Karl replays the day of Billy's sentencing over and over in his mind. He blames the victims, the judge, the system, Billy's lawyer at the time -- but most of all, Karl blames himself for persuading Billy to sign that plea agreement.

He replays the events that led to the initial charges, too, and Karl knows Billy is innocent. Yeah, maybe Billy asked for something, Karl concedes, but there's no way Billy performed oral sex on that kid.

How does he know this? Because Billy refused to perform oral sex on Karl, despite Karl's requests. They fought about it often.

"He would pack his clothes and everything, and be willing to move out of my house rather than suck my dick," Karl says of Billy. "Yet they're saying he sucked these little boys' dicks. And that is why I don't believe it."

So, for the past three years, seven months and 19 days, Karl has devoted himself to getting Billy out of prison, or at least making his partner's life better while he's in. Karl sued the Phoenix Police Department, claiming officers violated Billy's rights when they arrested him. He sued Billy's former lawyer for malpractice. Karl sued the state because he and Billy are not allowed to embrace during visits because they are gay.

When Billy got sick in prison, Karl wrote to the U.S. Justice Department, claiming his lover had actually died in the state's custody and therefore the remainder of his sentence should be dropped. He filed a motion asking the court to review Billy's intelligence, saying his IQ had dropped in prison and thus Billy shouldn't be incarcerated because he doesn't understand his crime anymore. Karl writes often to prison officials. He filed other motions claiming Billy was medicated at the time he made his plea "agreement and didn't understand what he was signing, and that Billy didn't understand his crime because he was molested as a child. He's complained about work conditions at the state prison.

Most recently, Karl asked that Billy be granted furlough to come home twice a year, at Christmas and on Karl's birthday.

And so on. Nothing has come of a single one of Karl's lawsuits or letters, but that hasn't stopped him yet. Instead, he's broadening his efforts. Billy tells his fellow inmates in the sex offender yard (currently, the South Unit at the Arizona State Prison in Florence) about Karl's legal filings, and some write to Karl, asking for help. Karl reads their files and decides whether they have a case to be made -- and if so, he promises to make it. No charge.



But it's Karl's "inmate assistance program" that really fills his mailbox.

When he found out that inmate jobs pay little and that inmates must buy their own toiletries, Karl was outraged.

"If you get a job, at 10, 20 cents an hour, you've got to use your pay to buy soap, shampoo, shaving materials. It's slave labor. It's a sweatshop. And when I found out that these guys have no visits, no friends, no family, they're working for 10 cents an hour and using their money to buy their soaps and shampoos, I took offense on it. I love Billy. I could never make him do without," Karl says.". . . So I got names and numbers, and I sent them a little bit of money so they could buy themselves something. A soda, a candy bar. I just sent $25 to an inmate who asked me if I could help him get a pair of tennis shoes 'cause his tennis shoes are shot. No problem."

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.