NACOGDOCHES, TX (KTRE) - An East Texas man serving a life sentence without parole is scheduled to marry a woman who helped convict him of capital murder.
The relationship is between Lester Butcher of Chandler and ties to Nacogdoches where Mary Martin lives. Both are 56 years old.
Last year Butcher was found guilty of the capital murder of James Steitler. The 40-year-old victim was beaten, stabbed and shot.
On the day of conviction, Martin verbally told the judge she agreed with the guilty verdict, despite the doubts she speaks of today.
Martin reached out to Lester to apologize. An affectionate bond between the felon and the juror followed. Certainly, the complicated romance is difficult to grasp. Martin agreed to explain how it happened.
Martin and Butcher, separated by a pane of bulletproof glass, pose for a $3 snapshot taken by prison staff. They say they’re in love.
“I feel like I’m in it with him to the end,” said Martin. “I really don’t want to do that with a glass in between us, but I know I may very well have to."
And it will require a four-hour drive to the Allred Unit in Iowa Park, located in North Texas, where Butcher spoke to our sister station from prison.
“I told her in one of the letters, I said, ‘I can’t promise you that I’ll love you for the rest of your life,’ but I said, ‘I can promise you I’ll love you for the rest of mine,’" said Butcher.
The first time they laid eyes on one another was when Martin stepped into a jury box during Lester’s capital murder trial.
“There was no attraction during the trial. In fact, I looked at him thinking he may have done this,” assured Martin.
As testimony continued at the Nacogdoches County Courthouse, Martin wrote in a journal. She also expressed to jurors that she was having reasonable doubt about Lester’s guilt. Then the vote was taken for the capital murder verdict. It was unanimous--guilty.
“I had doubts, and I should have stood up and told them that, but I caved and did not do it,” said Martin.
Lester recalled, “When she came out of that back jury room, my heart kinda broke for her because out of all 12 jurors that came out, you could see tears in her eyes because she struggled.”
Now Martin is living with overwhelming guilt.
“I felt like on the day Lester was sentenced to life without parole, I was sentenced, too,” she said, with a quiver in her voice.
The woman who speaks of an abusive childhood and broken prior relationships says she is coping by receiving counseling and reaching out to Butcher through letters. She mailed the first one the day the automatic life sentence was handed down.
Martin reads from the letter.
"I said, 'I'm juror number 10. Mary Martin. I'm so sorry. I need you to grasp how terribly hard this was for me.'”
Lester recalled the letter.
“And I wrote back, ‘No, don’t worry about it. It’s not your fault. Don’t hate yourself. You tried your best. You did, you know.'”
Then Martin wanted to hear something else from Butcher.
Lester provided the answer.
“Excuse my language. I don’t give a damn what it is," Martin said. "I’m not, nobody’s life is worth taking over nothing. It’s not worth it. I would never do that.”
The letters continued, along with Martin’s daily Emails that are approved and transcribed by prison officials. Eventually, affectionate words surfaced.
“Oh, we must have said something because he told me he loved me,” said Martin while reviewing a letter she received from Lester. “Something I sent him may have triggered that. I don’t know.”
Then came the visits. At the first meeting on Dec. 1, Martin offered a marriage proposal.
“I did,” said Martin, matter-of-factly. “And he, in return, said yes and asked me, and then said, ‘I guess we’re just both crazy, huh?’"
Lester chuckled when recalling the proposal.
“You know, so it was kinda a shock.”
The two have received the blessings of Butcher’s brother, Ricky Butcher. His biggest concern is the likely possibility of cruel remarks directed toward the couple.
“Once that gets out on Facebook, social media, there are going to be all sorts of things said. ‘You’re crazy, you this and you that and everything like that.’ I said, ‘You ready for that? Because it’s gonna come.’”
Martin’s response to that was simple.
“Nobody knows what I went through. And just let me live my life,” she said.
There are many documented cases of women who seek the attention of prisoners.
“I have heard of that, but that has never been me,” said Martin. “I just tend to fall for the bad guys. The good guys are boring.”
But there is a pattern Martin recognizes. She married another prisoner, but he wasn’t in the state prison system, said Martin. When asked about what happened, she said, “I don’t want to talk about that one.”
She attributes the unconventional relationships to a difficult childhood.
“Most of my marriages were with men who were in TDC before, got out, and now some of them are back because of me, 'cause I turned them in for things they were doing. So, unfortunately this was the life cycle I was raised in. This is who I am today.”
It was suggested to Martin that she become Butcher’s friend rather than marry him. Instead, she craves a safe relationship.
“This is somebody I can write to that writes back to me. It’s given me a purpose. It gives me joy,” explained Martin. “I have family now. And I know it’s ironic that it’s the family of man that I helped send to life without parole in prison, but that’s the way it is.”
And over 300 miles away, Butcher can sit in prison thinking,
"Best thing out of this whole thing is I met a good woman, a very good woman. She has a good heart."
Martin has the marriage license and clergy to perform the vows. She wears an engagement ring, and is choosing a dress.
“I’m kinda hooked on him a little bit," Martin said.
Martin has something to look forward to.
The man killed, James Steitler, doesn’t.
Martin started her interview saying, “I want to let everybody know I mean no disrespect to the victim’s family. I hate to pull up these memories back up for them.”
Martin says she is wanting to erase the details of the trial, as well, but does want Butcher to some day be granted a new trial.
“Guilty or innocent, I still feel like I played a part where he’s at, and I’m going to be there for Lester for the rest of his life.”
In the meantime, both will concentrate on one another to start a different kind of life together.
“I couldn’t ask for a better person in my life. I trust in her. I believe in her,” said Butcher.
Martin said, “This is our life. We don’t want to hurt anybody else. We just want to be in love.”
Martin says the wedding will hopefully be conducted on Feb. 20. She’s waiting for warden approval.
She has approval to visit Lester on Saturday. It will be their fourth meeting and the first since he was transferred to the Allred Unit.