Jan 20 2014

Those Left Behind: Fighting to Save Troy Davis…

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,



Jun 23 2013

Image of the Day: Texas Death Row Last Words


(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


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.

Read more »

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.

Read more »

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

Feb 24 2012

“We Don’t Defend Murderers”: The Case of Jerry Newson

I have complex feelings about the NAACP. On the one hand, it is impossible to imagine where I would be as a black woman in the 21st century without its contributions to the movement for racial justice. In the early 20th century, the organization led a long-term campaign against lynching and during the civil rights era it fought successfully to desegregate schools and public accommodations. On the other hand, time and again I have come across stories about the NAACP turning down the cases of people of color who were not perceived to be “model” clients.

I recently came across the story of a young black man named “Jerry Newson” as I was doing some research about false police confessions. Newson was an 18 year old young man living in Oakland who was accused and convicted of murdering two people in 1948. The case apparently became a sensation at the time.

On October 22 1948, two people were found in a drug store shot through the head “execution-style.” The victims were a pharmacist named Robert Savage (who was white) and his clerk Marjorie Ruth Wilson (who was a light-skinned black woman). The police were quoted at the time as suggesting that the motive for the murders was robbery and that about $600 was missing from the store. This crime shocked the West Oakland community and a number of local resources were deployed to apprehend the culprit(s). The police were under pressure to solve the case and after a few days, they settled on Jerry Newson as the prime suspect for the crime.

Newson was born in 1931 in Louisiana. He came to live with his aunt and uncle in Oakland in 1944. He quit school in the 11th grade and leased a shoe shine stand at the corner of 11th and Broadway.

On October 25, 1949, two police officers J.J. Murphy and John H. Strum found Jerry Newson in a local poolhall and told him that they had some questions for him. They were investigating a robbery that had occurred on October 13th at the Harbor Home projects. The robber had gotten away with $1275 dollars. Jerry admitted immediately that he had in fact robbed the rent office of the Harbor Home projects. The robbery was described as follows:

“Jerry had entered the rent office on October 13 in broad daylight wearing a loud colored shirt. Once in the office, he brandished an empty .45 automatic, belonging to his Uncle James, and ordered the money turned over to him.”

He later told the policemen about the gun, “I forgot to put the cartridges in.” Jerry Newson was no master criminal: he left fingerprints at the scene of the robbery and could be easily identified by the victims of the robbery.

During his questioning about the Harbor Home robbery, the police discovered that Jerry Newson had been acquainted with both Robert Savage and Marjorie Wilson. In fact, he had shined Mr. Savage’s shoes and had “bought barbecue for Marjorie.” The police saw an opening and secured a “confession” about the murders from Jerry.

His lawyer, Robert Treuhaft, offers this account of Newson’s alleged “confession”:

They started interrogating him about the murder, and he said, oh yes, he knew Doc Savage the pharmacist, and he’d been in the drugstore lots of times. They were old friends of his. So they said, “Well, did you do it?” He said, “No, no. I was a friend of Doc’s.” They said, “Well, where were you?” Well, he had an alibi. But he’d been with a friend named Harris. So they went out and arrested Harris. They both denied everything, but they kept them for another week under interrogation with no lawyer; and then took Newson to Berkeley for a lie detector test. Berkeley had the equipment; and they had a man there, Inspector Riedel, who supposedly knew how to use it.

So, what actually happened was that he was in this contraption for some time, totally new to him, and the questions kept coming in a dozen different forms, did you do it, did you do it. And finally he said, “You want me to say I did it. I did it. Let me go home now.” So the press, a dozen reporters, were outside the room waiting for the word, and Inspector Riedel said, “He confessed.” So they all rush in and Riedel says, “Would you write this down?” And he says, “What do you mean? I was kidding. I didn’t do it.” Well, that was the sum total confession.

The first time that Jerry Newson saw an attorney was on October 30th, five days after his arrest. Robert Treuhaft was a Civil Rights Congress attorney whose wife had approached Newson’s family with an offer to help. The first words that Newson said to him were: “I don’t know whether I need a lawyer, I told them all about the Harbor Homes robbery the day they arrested me, and I didn’t do the murders. So what do I need a lawyer for?” Little did Jerry know what he was in store for him. He also told Treuhaft that he had been placed in solitary confinement, interrogated for 18 straight hours, and only been given one bowl of mush during the entire time of his incarceration.

Newson was tried and ultimately convicted of first degree murder on May 18,1950. He was sentenced to die in the gas chamber at San Quentin.

After the trial, Truehaft was contacted by a couple of technicians in the Oakland Police Department who wanted to speak off the record about the firearm evidence. Truehaft explained:

“They called me up and said, “Don’t, whatever you do, let that firearms evidence get out of the courtroom. Make sure that it is preserved.” So then they met with Bert and me privately, in our office. “We know our business,” they said. “We could not find a match. There are always accidental matches. They sent this evidence over to this big-shot in San Francisco, a hot-shot expert. When he couldn’t find a match, they took it away from him and they sent it to this guy in Berkeley. When we heard that he claimed that he had a match, we said we’d like to see it. And we went out to his laboratory, and we rotated the bullets and we couldn’t see it. He had an assistant show us. We only saw what one called `accidentals,’ which you see anytime but which disappear when you rotate the bullets.

“Those photographs though are absolutely phony. That white line doesn’t exist. There’s supposed to be a hairline within the microscope that separates the two fields. We asked him [Kirk] why there was no hairline, why they had to draw the line in by pencil — he said, well, something was wrong with the equipment, and we got this white space in between. Then he drew his pencil lines in such a way that instead of separating the two fields as a properly adjusted hairline should, it goes through the edge of the field of one bullet. When you do that, it’s obvious that everything on either side of the line will match.”

“I’ll never forget those men, Fuller and Davis, good Catholics, who put their jobs on the line by giving us affidavits for use on our motion for a new trial. We lost on the motion for a new trial. Death penalty cases go directly to the State Supreme Court. The Supreme Court reversed the conviction, not on the firearms evidence, but on other grounds, and ordered a new trial. Well, having won on the Supreme Court was a tremendous victory. The guy had been in death row for about a year.”

Jerry Newson was not set free after the Supreme Court reversed his conviction. There were two more trials (with the third trial ending in a hung jury). Truehaft recounts what happened next:

And so, after three trials, the murder charges were dismissed. But Newson didn’t go free. He had pleaded guilty to the earlier offense — robbery of the housing project. For a first offense, an eighteen-year-old would usually get a maximum of five years and he would be out in a year and a half. Well, he was kept in jail for eleven years on that robbery conviction. Every time he came up for parole, Coakley would warn the Parole Board, “This man’s a killer, we know he’s a killer. Something went wrong in his trial, but it’s your responsibility. If you let him out, you’re letting a killer out, a murderer.” And the parole authority never did grant parole. Finally, we went to Court, and finally prevailed on a writ of habeas corpus. But anyway, it’s a long, long history, and it was fascinating.

I had certainly never heard of Jerry Newson and the story is indeed a fascinating one. But it was this sentence that really stayed with me from Truehaft’s account: “The NAACP had refused to take the case. I’d gone to them. I went to a meeting of the executive board, and I said, “Look, we need you in this case.” They said, “We don’t represent murderers.”