Category: Capital Punishment

Feb 10 2014

“Who Cares?” Killing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

It was raining, I think, when the call came. She just said: “He’s dead.” That’s all I remember. Over the next few days, words cascaded over me: drunk driver, head on, no pain, quickly, dead, dead, dead. Still more days passed, then months, there was a trial. I didn’t go to court. I don’t remember what was said. I was 15. He was only 16. I had a crush on him. I think he knew. Today I can only remember his face by looking at an old photograph. I only have one.

I hope he dies too. I think I said these words or at least I thought them. I hope they kill him. Then Claire’s words, “he must feel terrible for killing my son. He must be in so much pain.” I wanted to smack her for her disloyalty. What a bad mother who couldn’t even grieve her own son properly. How dare she betray him that way? I wanted blood. She told his wife and son that she wished neither him or them any harm. She asked how they were holding up. The wife of the killer just cried. I heard the story second hand. I was seething. WHAT IS THIS? I thought. I didn’t understand… For many years, I just wanted blood…

Every night (early morning), before I go to bed, I visit the Death Penalty Information Center’s website to check whether someone has been murdered by the State. On days when a person has been killed, I say a prayer of forgiveness for the blood that I have on my hands. These deaths, however, barely register in the public square. Out of sight and out of mind. So far in 2014, seven people have been executed in our names. I’ve offered seven prayers and it’s just over a month into the new year.

Capital punishment, one might say, is written about only in whispers.” – Albert Camus

I’m told that support for the death penalty is dropping. Yet 60% of Americans still support state sanctioned murder. In this country, we invent the “other” so that we may kill them, dead. Not in public anymore but hidden behind prison walls. For a country that both loves & fears death so much, we are eerily and strangely silent about state-sanctioned murders be they by lethal injections or drones.

Last April, though it feels much more distant now, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan, were accused of planting two bombs at the Boston Marathon. Three people were killed (including an 8 year old child) and hundreds more were maimed & injured. It was a tragedy that should not have happened. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the alleged mastermind of the crime, is dead and Dzhokhar, the younger brother, is incarcerated awaiting trial. He will be convicted. Of this, there is no doubt.

In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, a number of ordinary people sprung into action to help the victims of this heinous crime. They showcased what’s best about us as human beings, exhibiting selflessness, kindness, and compassion.

On the other side of the ledger, when asked by reporters about the suspect’s condition, the now-former Mayor of Boston responded: “Who cares?” Social media was rife with high fives and praise for the Mayor’s quip. Menino followed up by stating that he wanted the harshest possible punishment (including potentially the death penalty) for the surviving accused bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. There would be more blood shed, a life for a life.

Few could be surprised that many were clamoring for Tsarnaev’s execution. For example, Boston’s then police commissioner, Edward Davis, said that it was fine by him if Tsarnaev was killed. ‘Justice’ must be served.

I did not join the chorus calling for the accused killer’s state-sponsored murder. The 15 year old me would have. But as a grown-woman, I’ve come to understand that vengeance is not justice. The measure of a society’s level of civilization, in my opinion, is how it treats those who have most egregiously transgressed its social norms.

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Jan 20 2014

Those Left Behind: Fighting to Save Troy Davis…

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I just finished the book “I Am Troy Davis” by Jean Marlowe and Martina Davis-Correia. It’s a well-written and poignant account of the years-long struggle to save Troy Davis‘s life. More than that, the book underscores the fact that it’s the entire family who does time when one person is locked up. Everyone connected to a prisoner is impacted by incarceration. This is especially the case when the prisoner is sentenced to death like Troy Davis. Unfortunately, the state of Georgia murdered Troy Davis on September 21, 2011.

I was privileged to participate in an event celebrating the book’s release in December. I read an excerpt about Martina Davis-Correia’s valiant struggle to save her brother’s life while also trying to save her own. I wanted to share that passage and also to encourage everyone to read the book.

It was another bad night of vomiting, retching, and diarrhea. Martina stayed curled up in bed in the morning, listening to the sounds of Mama getting De’Jaun ready and then everyone leaving the house. In another few weeks, her son would be seven years old. In another few months, her brother would have spent ten years on death row. Martina scratched her head, coming away with a clump of hair. She stared at the fistful of hair for a long moment before pushing back the blanket, slowly sitting up in bed, and pushing her feet into her slippers. She had a child to raise and a brother to get off of death row.

It was time to get up.

Martina opened the front door. She took one shuffling step and then another, making it as far as the mailbox, against which she leaned for support, feeling the warm Georgia sun beat down on her face.

“Tina, you all right?” It was her neighbor from across the street.


“I’m all right.”
She let the sun warm her for a few more minutes. She might be dying, but she wasn’t dying today.
 She made her way back into the house and, without fully realizing what she was doing, found herself in the bathroom rubbing a generous amount of Nair onto her head.

When De’Jaun came home that afternoon, Martina was waiting for him on the couch, wearing her favorite dress and her head fully wrapped in a colorful scarf with an African motif. As he approached to give her a hug, she pulled off the scarf, unveiling a shiny, bald head.

De’Jaun jumped back for a moment. Then he wrapped his arms around her and squeezed tightly. “It doesn’t look bad, Mom. You look really pretty today!”

She got up the next day and walked a few steps further. “Come on, let’s walk down the street,” her neighbor suggested the day after that. Martina took her hand and they slowly made their way to the corner and back. When Trevor picked her up to take her to chemo, Martina was fully made up, wearing jewelry and loud Caribbean colors.

“I might have cancer,” she told him when he looked at her quizzically. “But cancer doesn’t have me.”

Martina’s strength slowly returned, and as her renewed strength lasted, she decided that not only was she not dying today, she also wasn’t dying tomorrow. She likely wasn’t dying next week, or even next month. She could take a deep breath, relax, and live her life, without worrying that every moment might be her last. Perhaps her illness was her Creator’s way of telling her: I need your attention. There’s more that you need to do and I need you to do it more abundantly.

If she wasn’t dying today, then she was going to live today.

Jul 11 2013

From Death Row at San Quentin: Letter from Carlos M. Argueta (includes Hunger Strike Action Items)

I open this with a salutation to all those of like-mind, who in solidarity stand as one. My name is Carlos M. Argueta. I come to you from San Quentin´s Death Row. Here in the Adjustment Center (A/C)[1], like other S.H.U. units, we have endured mental as well as physical torture and injustice by the administration and correctional officers for decades. However, the time has come to respond to this injustice and remain silent no longer.

Never again will we be quiet about the discrimination, the inhumane treatment and torturous practices that take place behind these walls. The misuse and abuse of authority by Prison Officials and Correctional Officers can no longer continue to be kept quiet. The injustice being done here needs to be exposed, with the hope that it may be brought to an end.

Maybe then we can be treated with the dignity and self-respect that is entitled to all human beings. For though we are Death Row prisoners who have already lost our physical freedom, we have not ceased to be human and still have the same rights as everyone else: Human Rights and Civil Rights. When we were sentenced to death, we weren’t sentenced to be mistreated, humiliated, discriminated against, psychologically tortured and kept in solitary dungeons until the day of our executions. Never once did the judge say that was to be part of our sentence.

This is why now is the time for us to make our voices heard. To shed light on the injustice that continues to take place here. The time has come to seek to be treated fairly, with human dignity and have our human rights recognized.

For here in the infamous San Quentin State Prison resides a population of prisoners that have been shunned by the state, allowing prison officials to get away with too many rule violations for far too long. That group of prisoners resides in the Adjustment Center. A prison within a prison and a solitary confinement torture unit used to seclude prisoners from the rest of the prison population. It´s a `punishment unit` otherwise known as a S.H.U.[2] for those who have committed an alleged infraction of the rules. Some are immediately placed in the A/C without any due process afforded or write-up. It is supposed to be only for a set amount of time; after that rule infraction is adjudicated. Once that set amount of time expires they are supposed to be released back to general population. Yet, some are held here without any further rule violations or without ever having had one to begin with. It is supposed to be a unit of “Temporary Punishment” of sorts for rule violators. However, it has only been a unit of torture, sensory deprivation and mental abuse. It is where no prisoner wants to go.

Unfortunately for death row prisoners, there´s no choice but to start serving our death sentence here in this unit upon our arrival from county jail. It is home to 102 prisoners and over 90% of us are death row inmates. Many of us have not left this unit since our arrival at San Quentin, never being given the opportunity to program as moderate inmates, which can be considered a custom afforded to all prisoners when sentenced to state prison. We are held here indefinitely since our arrival, with most of us never having violated a single rule. We have been subjected to a different form of treatment and in truth, we are being punished without merit. We have been housed here in this unit under the false pretense that we are being monitored before we can be given a regular program. The reality though is we have been treated to a harsh and psychologically torturous environment. One where throughout the day and late at night, you can hear the screams of those who have been driven over the edge and into mental illness by the circumstances they are forced to live in. We have been subjected to a different set of rules called `I.P. No. 608`[3]. This is a set of rules that mirrors the CDCR Title 15 Rules book[4] (that governs all CDCR inmates) but gives more authority to death row prison officials and administration to do as they please with us and to violate our rights under the cover of “The Law”, to discriminate against us and hold us here in the A/C –Solitary Confinement indefinitely. This concerns a set of certain prisoners for whom they seem to hold disdain and dislike. As that set of prisoners is only a small fraction of the condemned, they have been able to get away with this for decades.

However, the issues mentioned are only the tip of the iceberg for the problems here on Death Row go far beyond this. To cover them all, we need more time, space and patience from you. We want to disclose it all so you can understand why we also choose to peacefully protest this injustice being done. Why we, too, will be joining the national hunger strike, pitching our own demands for change. The change needed here and everywhere else where there is the continued abuse of authority and solitary confinement torture units. That all needs to come to an end for the greater good of humanity.

In solidarity,

 

Carlos

Jun 23 2013

Image of the Day: Texas Death Row Last Words

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(Texas Death Row Prisoners -Click here for a larger image)

May 16 2013

Trying to Kill Black Children, 1960s Edition: Preston Cobb Jr…

I picked up this photograph while antiquing last year. I didn’t recognize the young man’s name or know of his legal case. I was just struck by the photograph. Later, I did some research to educate myself about what happened to him. Predictably, it was another miscarriage of justice. You can read more about his story here and here

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May 11 2013

“Creeping Dehumanization” and the Capacity to Change…

“Emaciated and frail, more than 100 men lie on concrete floors of freezing, solitary cells in Guantánamo, silently starving themselves to death.

Stripped of all possessions, even basics such as a sleeping mat or soap, they lie listlessly as guards periodically bang on the steel doors and shout at them to move an arm or leg to prove they are still conscious.”

These are the opening words of an article that I read last weekend about Guantanamo prison hunger strikers. I felt sick to my stomach as I continued to read but made myself do it anyway.

Then I came across an article about Willie Manning’s impending execution in Mississippi:

“Mississippi is still scheduled to execute a convicted murderer Tuesday despite a lack of physical evidence tying him to the crime and a new admission from the Department of Justice that the forensic investigation was severely flawed.

Willie Jerome Manning, a 44-year-old African-American man, has been in prison for almost 20 years after being convicted for the 1992 kidnapping and murder of Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller, two white college students in Mississippi.”

At the last minute, a court granted Mr. Manning a temporary stay of execution. I took a deep breath and exhaled conscious of the fact that his state-sanctioned murder was only postponed for the time being.

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Sep 22 2012

Willie McGee: the Politics of Race and Rape in the U.S.

Willie McGee (after his arrest)

In the early morning of November 1945, Willie McGee allegedly broke into the house of Mr and Mrs. Troy Hawkins. Mrs. Wilette Hawkins, a 32 year old mother of three, was raped while her 2 year old daughter slept in the bed beside her. The case became a cause celebre drawing people across the world to speak out and act on behalf of the man accused of the crime: Willie McGee.

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Sep 21 2012

Image for the Day: Troy Davis, 1 Year Later…

Image by Ricardo Levins Morales

Sep 12 2012

Musical Interlude: The Mercy Seat

I am still working toward writing something about Johnny Cash. In the meantime, here’s Johnny’s cover of Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat.” The song is a commentary on the death penalty.

Aug 10 2012

From My Collection #9: End the Death Penalty

On Tuesday, the state of Texas executed Marvin Wilson, a man who still sucked his thumb at 54 years old. The state did this in all of our names…

I bought a set of negatives at a flea market about 10 years ago. They were photographs of anti-death penalty protestors at San Quentin Prison on May 13, 1960. Looking at these images actually gives me hope because they remind me that people have always been organizing against the death penalty. It means that some of us aren’t blind to the barbarity and brutality of state-sanctioned murder.

Anti-Death Penalty Protestors at San Quentin Prison (5/13/60) – Prison Culture collection

Anti-Death Penalty Protestors at San Quentin Prison (5/13/60) — Prison Culture Collection

Anti-Death Penalty Protestors at San Quentin Prison (5/13/60) – Prison Culture Collection