January 29th, 2007
Hunger Strike 2 ends, but the movement is still starving.
Knight ended his hunger strike on the 24th with me, Comrade Woods on the 25th, Dickson and Turner both on the 28th; and sources say, though we have no confirmation since he is located on the other side of the pod, Billy Mason also ended his hunger strike. But the question is “Where do we go from here?”
REASSESSMENT - Jan 30th, 2007
Our movement has been going strong for over a year now. Many of you have been with us from the beginning, and many of you are new to it all. Either way, your support has been beautiful and uplifting. However we need all of you now more than ever because of the nature of the anti-death penalty movement here in Texas, we’ve been forced to take up the slack and represent ourselves; fight for ourselves—which is fine. We have already spent the last year highlighting the “problems”. Now is the time that we DRIVE our movement to the next level, that next mile.
In the oncoming days, we will delineate a more aggressive agenda. Though aggressive, there will be positions for EVERYBODY to fill; positions entailing action more than letters and petition drives. We need YOU-the outer comrades to take the time leading up to the day we place these aggressive agendas on the DRIVE table- to introspect. Ask yourselves how much are you able/willing to give of yourselves to this cause? How badly do you want abolition? How badly do you want better living conditions for us until abolition is realized? Do you believe we can move this mountain that has been here for so long?
We have to have an open mind. The reason we are fighting this fight is because activists have been stiff and narrow-minded in their activism. We need the versatility of water, the solidarity of the ocean rising like a storm surge, a tsunami, DRIVing this mountain of oppression into the sea of equality; the sea of Humanity. But we can’t do it without YOU.
The spirit is DRIVing. Will we give ourselves to this divine will, this divine service? Will we open ourselves to be the vehicle through which this struggle is brought to a conclusion? These questions will either be answered in our lifetime or the next generations. The spirit must move; we as people must evolve. Until we bare this burden utterly, carrying this torch, we will be aiding our own destruction, dying in self-created darkness.
Who is willing to help carry this torch, seeing this movement through this dark tunnel of struggle, and unto its conclusion, its answer, the light?
Love and Solidarity
From the trenches,
Reginald “Omari Huduma” Blanton
I was sitting on my lumpy-bunk, at my steel desk sticking out of a concrete wall, in my 12X7 cage, on Death Row, staring at space – the space between each emotion – arousing thought, in search for peace, when an almost too calm voice yanked me back to reality. It was the psyche-man making his rounds.
“How ya doin’ today?” the psyche-man asked, standing at my cage door.
“Not good.” I replied with a what-kind-of-question-is-that look on my face.
“Well, considering your circumstances…”
“My ‘circumstances’ is why I’m ‘not good’.”
“Do you have any psychological problems you want to discuss?”
“How am I supposed to know I have psychological problems?
“Well –hum- that’s a good question.” He stuttered. “Generally, y’all suffer from antisocial personality disorder –”
“Antisocial personality disorder?!!” I interrupted. “Have you ever tested me yourself, have you read any of my records?”
“Then, how can you label me ‘antisocial’?”
“That’s a good point,” the psyche-man said with his hand on his chin.
After this enlightening interaction with this Death Row psyche-man, I began to wonder just how prevalent (or inherent) stereotypes are in the death penalty process. The first thing that came to mind was a study done on stereotypes.
In Robert C. Smith’s book, We Have No Leaders, the author cites a survey that reported “51% of Latinos, 53% of Asians, and 45% of Whites said they believed Blacks were prone to crime and violence.” 1 This survey places the issue of racism on the table. Can we ignore this survey and say that racism was annihilated in the 40 years that passed since the abolition of segregation laws? What implications would this survey have in death penalty cases? Could a person harbouring these opinions serve as an impartial juror on an African American jury? What would it mean if the judge or prosecutor harboured these opinions?
In 1988, it was the practice of Ed Peters, district attorney of Jackson, Mississippi, to “get rid of as many” African Americans as possible when exercising “peremptory strikes” to select a jury (the prosecutors and defense are both allotted 15 peremptory strikes they may use to exclude jurors, though qualified to serve on the jury, they feel won’t rule in their favor. But Law says race can never play a factor in a juror’s exclusion.).2
In Chambers County, Alabama, prior to the jury selection of Albert Jefferson’s 1992 trial, the prosecutor divided prospective jurors into four categories; “strong”, “medium”, “weak” and “black”, while using 26 jury-strikes (peremptory strikes) against 26 African Americans qualified to serve on the three juries empanelled for Jefferson’s trial. An all-white jury convicted Jefferson.3
In one county, located in central Georgia, Joseph Briley, who served as district attorney between 1974 and 1994, instructed jury commissioners to under represent African Americans on the master jury list from which grand juries (juries that decide whether someone should be indicted for a crime) and trial juries were selected. He also, in cases where the defendant was African American and the victim was white, used 94% of his jury-strikes against African Americans.4
Though there are many cases that can be researched to reinforce the existence of these systematic prejudicial practices, looking at the aforementioned cases, one can easily see how the survey on stereotypes plays a critical role in death penalty cases. A prosecutor excludes minorities from serving on a minority’s jury, to amass a jury from those that may harbor prejudices towards minorities. Though all non-minority jurors serving on a minority’s jury may not harbor these types of stereotypes, other subconscious prejudices may influence these minority-devoid juries “in the direction of findings of black culpability and white victimization …black immorality and white virtue …blacks as social problems and whites as valued citizens.” 5 These stereotypes and prejudicial practices give rise to institutional racism.
When racial/prejudicial practices have gone on for any amount of time, these practices may become routine in the subconscious mind. Whereas, people will automatically find themselves having certain aversions or acting prejudicially without readily knowing why. This is the subconscious form (conscious being the other) of institutional racism: racism structured into an intricate system that self-perpetuates racist practices. For example, if a child is raised in a home where the parents behave in a racist manner, this child may grow up adopting the parents’ racist way of interacting with the world, going through life without realizing he’s being a racist.
Laws that perpetuate prejudicial practice may be abolished, but deeply entrenched prejudicial psychological patterns aren’t as easily abolished. This form of racism is like a cancer, not easily detected and deadly. America needs a psychological evaluation to assess the extent of this cancer.
A Lethal Concoction
Capital murder trials are broken down into 2 phases – guilt/innocence phase, then punishment or sentencing phase. In the latter, the defendant should be prepared to be hit with everything but the proverbial kitchen sink, because prosecutors have wide discretion in what evidence of the defendant’s past criminal record and/or bad character (“aggravating factors”) they can use to prove to the jury the defendant deserves death. However, the defense team also has wide discretion in what evidence of the defendant’s character record, background or crime they may present to prove the defendant deserves a penalty other than death. This type of evidence is termed mitigating evidence. There are two types: evidence which humanizes the defendant, exhibiting qualities that make him deserving of life; and evidence that lessens the defendant’s moral culpability or moral blame worthiness for the crime he was convicted of. The latter evidence usually entails, but is not limited to: abuse as a child, alcohol or substance abuse, and mental infirmity.
One study of 29 death row inmates revealed that they all had at least one major head trauma that could have caused organic brain damage. 6 While another study found that 33% of all killers showed significant brain damage. 7 For these reasons, defense teams usually present mitigating evidence of a defendant’s mental infirmity or organic brain damage. Some of the symptoms associated with organic brain damage (impulsiveness, aggressiveness, lack of empathy, recklessness) can be associated with Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD). It’s established among psychologists and psychiatrists that just because a person commits an antisocial act (capital murder) doesn’t mean they have APD, let alone incorrigible criminal inclinations. Yet, prosecutors still use psychologists or psychiatrists willing to refute a defendant’s mitigating evidence of organic brain damage, with an opinion that the defendant is a “sociopath” (an incorrigibly antisocial person) deserving of death.
In the punishment phase of a capital murder trial, after prosecutors present their aggravating evidence, and the defense, their mitigating evidence, the jury will weigh these two sets of evidence against each other. Then, the jury will have to answer a few questions that will determine the defendant’s fate. One of these questions is called the “future dangerousness” question; whereas, the jury has to decide whether the prosecutors proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” that “there is a probability that the defendant would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing threat to society.” For this purpose, prosecutors use these shrinks like Dr. Grigson (a.k.a. Dr. Death), who misled juries in Texas by misdiagnosing defendants with an incorrigible Antisocial Personality Disorder to manipulate the jury into believing the defendant won’t change; thusly proving the defendant’s future dangerousness. But holding true to the American Psychiatric Association’s belief that it’s unethical and unscientific for a psychiatrist to give a medical opinion about the long term future dangerousness of a defendant, Dallas’ first assistant district attorney, Norman Kinne, “obtained the prison disciplinary records of 10 capital murderers whose death sentences were reduced to life in prison after Dr. Grigson predicted that they would kill again. All of them turned out to be model prisoners. One of them was released after his innocence was established. Another enrolled in college after he was paroled.” 8 If a professional can’t predict a person’s future, what makes the Supreme Court think a laymen juror can? When people, who may better relate culturally and socio-economically to the defendant, are excluded from his jury, it opens the door for fundamental errors. If a jury can’t relate to where the defendant came from, they surely won’t understand why he made certain choices in his life. And a jury of this sort may harbor subconscious institutional racism that a skilled prosecutor will manipulate, even if it means getting an “expert” to reinforce stereotypes, like the one mentioned at the beginning of this article, with misdiagnosing the defendant with an incorrigible mental disorder like the whimsy APD. Finally, through the prosecutors careful inciting and guiding of jurors’ prejudices, they manage to convince jurors to presume the defendant to be a future threat, inhuman, and therefore, incapable of change. A lethal concoction of presumptions. Shouldn’t something as definite as death be devoid of something as indefinite as a presumption? Is this asking people to be perfect, or saying the death penalty can never exist?
(Reginald W. Blanton)
1 Robert C. Smith, We Have No Leaders: African Americans in the Post-Civil Rights Era, (New York: SUNY Press, 1996) ch.9, 247.
2 David R. Dow and Mark Dow (ed.), Machinery of Death, (New York: Routledge, 2002) ch.3, 49.
4 Ibid, 54
5 Peggy C. Davis, Popular Legal Culture: Law as Microagression, 98 Yale L.J. 1559, 1571 (1989).
6 “Brain Damage Linked to Violent Outbursts, N.Y. Times, Aug.7, 1990, Cat 1, 8.
7 Price and Mount, “Neuropsychological Correlates of Criminality,” at 2 (Presentation at 1990 Conference of the Society for Police and Criminal Psychology, Albuquerque, N.M.).
8 Steven C. Losch, Death Penalty Law and Practice in Texas, 4th ed., (2000); Clark V. State, 881 S.W. 2d at 701; Barefoot V. Estelle, 463 U.S. 880, 898 (1983); United States V. Kattar, 840 F. 2d 118, 130.