08/12/2011 18:56

The Weeds that Bind


Remember that "strange fruit"--African Americans hanging from that "good ol' oak" in the middle of the town's square, burned and dismembered before throngs of white, and sometimes smiling, spectators? This wasn't only the Death Penalty's popular form throughout chattel slavery and up until the early 1900's but is the grave in which the Death Penalty's roots are deeply embedded. Eventually, the people began to decry this barbaric "justice" and to appease society's conscience; the Death Penalty took on a lynch mob-turned-superficial-trial-type setting. Then, execution by electrocution spread like weeds across American civilization.

In 1972, slavery's ghost haunted the Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia(92 SCT 2726; 408 US 344), a case challenging the constitutionality of the Death Penalty's arbitrary infliction against African Americans who committed murder or rape, but not European Americans who committed the same crimes. As opposed to uprooting these deadly weeds by abolishing the Death Penalty, the laws governing its application were merely mowed down (because of its over-broadness allowing arbitrary application). Four years later (1976), these weeds were back in the yard, along with new Death Penalty statutes systematically narrowing death penalty eligible crimes and the juries sentencing discretion. A mere "legislative-gauze". For these "new" statutes didn't do away with the mentalities that led to the Death Penalty's arbitrary infliction.

Each jolt and scream of the condemned in the electric chair jolted the conscience of American people. One too many times the condemned burst into flames, and civilization attempted another step away from its primitive and barbaric past, only to stumble over those weeds, falling on yet another "humane" substitute for executions: the condemned, strapped to a gurney resembling a horizontal cross, I.V, in his veins, looks to his left and sees the stone faces of the victim's family behind a viewing glass, then to his right, the distraught and crying faces of his family behind a separate viewing glass. In a few moments, a lethal concoction of chemicals (banned from use on animals by the American Veterinary Medical Association) will poison the life-streams flowing through his veins until he's murdered.

A relic of crucifixion? After all, the second chemical (procronium bromide) in lethal injection's 3-chemical concoction is a powerful tranquillizer that paralyzes the diaphragm, causing asphyxiation, and paralyzes the body, hiding the condemned's suffering from the onlooker. The latest and more sophisticated form the Death Penalty has taken.

Death Penalty advocates would have you think Americans still uphold the blind principle of an "eye for an eye." Though in recent surveys, the majority of Americans say they would vote for life without parole over the Death Penalty. The Supreme Court said the 18th amendmentagainst cruel and unusual punishment"must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society. "So why didnt the American Government abolish the Death Penalty in accordance to society's evolved standard of decency revealed in those surveys? Specifically, why did Texas, Governor Rick Perry merely make life without parole a "sentencing option" in Texas, instead of abolishing the Death Penalty? What advantages does the Death Penalty offer society to justify its existence? Here's my case against the Death Penalty.


Nothings Changed

Since its not enough that innocent people have been executed and await execution, from a legal standpoint, shouldn't the fact that the majority of Death Row prisoners have been found guilty under the following conditions:

A jury devoid of their peers (which opens the door to subtle prejudices)

Mistaken or perjured testimony (e.g. jailhouse snitching)

Faulty police work (e.g. Houston Crime Lab)

Coerced confessions

Inept defense counsel

Circumstantial evidence

Illegitamize their convictions? Even if Death Row Prisoners were justly convicted, the majority don't fall into the "worst of the worst" category, whichsupposedlyjustifies their death sentence.

According to Death Penalty law, the Death Penalty may be sought against someone who, for example shoots and kills someone while stealing their wallet (there has to be a murder and another felony, e.g. burglary or robbery): whereas, someone who murders someone every day of the week with a chainsaw may receive multiple life sentences at the most. Because the former crime is considered more gruesome than the latter, the convicted is labeled the "worst of the worst"too violent to even be imprisoned around the chainsaw murderer, and therefore, deserving of death.

One of the Death Penalty advocates biggest arguments for its use is that it deters violent crimes. Yet, how can they argue deterrence when the Death Penalty is not used to deter all violent murders (though all murders are violent)? Remember the chainsaw murderer? Here we are 34 years since Furman, and one of the reasons the Supreme Court cited in the ruling the Death Penalty unconstitutional as it was applied then, still exist now--- it's being inflicted arbitrarily. They even observed that the Death Penalty seems to stimulate criminal activity, as the higher crime rates in death penalty states than in non-death penalty states continues to show.

Furthermore, in Furman, Thurgood Marshall (first African American Supreme Court Justice) said "if the death penalty is used to encourage guilty pleas and thus to deter suspects from exercising their rights under the sixth amendment to jury trials, a state" could not profess to rely on capital punishment as a deterrent. "I remember how prosecutors tried to coerce me and several other prisoners (some successfully) to plead guilty for a life sentence by threatening us with the Death Penalty. And if prisoners refused to buckle under that threat (as I did), forcing the state to spend hundreds of thousands of tax payers' dollars in a capitol murder trial, after prosecutors utilize jailhouse snitch testimony, manipulates the jury by igniting subtle prejudices they may harbor, and the defendant's inept legal representation, to say the least, he may wish he had taken that life sentence!

Before Death Penalty advocates can hope to argue deterrence, those they wish to deter from committing capitol murder must be aware of its imminent threat. The Majority of Texas death row prisoners I've spoken to have confessed that the Death Penalty never crossed their minds when they were in the free world. Studies show now, just as Thurgood Marshall stated in Furman, "it is extremely unlikely that much thought is given to penalties before the act is committed, and even if it werea murderer rarely expects to be caught and usually assumes that if they are caught they will either be acquitted or sentenced to prison."

If death penalty advocates wish to argue deterrence, they can at least come up with a commercial concept akin to crashed cars as a result of drunken driver, or deteriorating brains as a result of drugs. Maybe they can utilize "Death Vans" like China does, driving city-to-city executing Death Row prisoners in the communities they committed their crime in.

One of the most interesting things I've found is as opposed to imprisoning Texas' death row prisoners the same way they are now, but in general population under a life sentence, at half the tax payers' dollars (saving approx. $1 million per prisoner; multiply that by the 430 death row prisoners currently in Texas), the state would rather spend $2 million includes appeal costs, which would make sense. Here's why: Texas allocates $25,000 to court appointed attorneys for indigent death row prisoners (which over 90% are) post conviction appeals. Though Texas lawyers protest that $25,000 is not enough (e.g. California's death row appellant attorneys spend $25,000 just on investigation, and can bill the court up to $142,375), Gary Susswein, American-Statesman staff member, revealed in his 5-26-02 article that more than $5 million of the "not enough" funds allocated for Texas death row appeals, not only went unspent for the past 5 years at the time of the report, but was funneled back into the general state budget to fill state deficits. Perhaps this one of the reasons Texas Governor Rick Perry chose to make life without parole a mere sentencing option, preserving the Death Penalty, and the funds it brings the state.


Moral Deterioration

"The deleterious effects of the death penalty are also felt otherwise than at trial. For example, its very existence 'inevitably sabotages a social or institutional program of reformation.' In short, 'the presence of the death penalty as the keystone of our penal system bedevils the administration of criminal justice all the way down the line and is a stumbling block in the path of general reform and treatment of crime and criminals."

--Thurgood Marshall

Furman (408 U.S. 344,2792)


In Benedict Carey's, "When Death is on the Docket, the Moral Compass Wavers" (New York Times, 2-7-06) he reported groundbreaking research conducted by Stanford psychologists on prison staff members who work on execution teams. These psychologists found "that prison staff members who work on execution teams exhibit high levels of moral disengagement (a process people utilize to buffer themselves from their own consciences to engage in or permit acts that go against their morale) and the closer they "came to killing the prisoner, the higher their level of disengagement was." These "members of the execution team were far more likely than guards not on the team to agree that the inmates had lost important human qualities." Otherwise, their conscience wouldn't allow their involvement in the execution of these inmates.

Some of the "justification" they cited to morally disengage themselves were religious support such as an "eye for an eye" (quoting the Old Testament),speculation that the prisoner could escape and kill again-though escapes by Death Row prisoners are rare, and the ones that have occurred in Texas have never resulted in another killing. This reasoning forgets that murderers like the chainsaw murderer, who can't receive the Death Penalty, are imprisoned in a less secure environment than Death Row prisoners-and consideration of the cost to society for caring for such prisoners (though it's cheaper to care for the prisoner than to kill him).

Also highlighted was how the level of disengagement was about as high in a prison worker that participated in an execution for the first time as it was for those who had been a party to more than 15. Further, members of the execution support staff, specifically counselors working with the prisoners and victim's families, though initially "highly morally engages," were found to share the same level of moral disengagement as those involved, after being only a party to 10 executions. In other words, while those on the execution teams had to morally disengage themselves as much for each execution, the more those mere parties to the execution aided it indirectly, the more their morals deteriorated until they shared the same mentality as the executioners. Thus why psychologists said, "Shifts in moral judgment are often unconscious, and can poison the best instincts and intentions. "Sounds like what Thurgood Marshall said in the above quote. Yet, the weeds "bedevilment" don't stop spreading here.

The Psychologically torturing, sensory-depriving 23/24-hour solitary confinement of Texas' death row has and continues to push prisoners to various levels of despair. Some prisoners lie in their own waste, mutilate themselves, and have committed suicide by a sheet or via the state (dropping their appeals to expedite execution). Sick and tired of this dehumanizing and deteriorating environment, several dedicated prisoners and I found the movement called D.R.I.V.E: Death Row Inner-communalist Vanguard Engagement. DRIVE implacably stands against the Death Penalty, while demanding as close to humane treatment (because confinement under a sentence of death can NEVER be humane) as possible as long as we have to be confined. We strive to create a sense of dignity and brotherhood within these walls through standing in solidarity with our fellow prisoners-turned-brothers, while relaying avenues the death row community can and should utilize to attack these oppressive forces that creates our environment, as opposed to permitting our own emasculation, and ultimately our destruction which amounts to the destruction of humanity (see ).

On one occasion, Warden Hirch of Polunsky's Unit Death Row, walked through Level 111 (where prisoners are subjected to the highest level of sensory deprivation) where they had the DRIVE activists encaged. When DRIVE activist Kenneth Foster confronted Warden Hirch about the deteriorating conditions, Warden Hirch responded, "Well, you shouldn't have come to Death Row. It's a lot of taxpayers that could give a shit less what you have, and think you have too much!" Doesn't this sound like one of the several justifications guards on the execution teams used to justify the condemned so-called deserving of death? Warden Hirch's "justification" allowed him to morally disengage himself, even if subconsciously, to permit the deteriorating conditions to persist, which only leads toward the deterioration of the minds and spirits of the death row prisoners he oversees. For these reasons the Death penalty is so inherently unjust, anything associated with it is equally inherently unjust; because it must function through the same corrupted flow: from the law legalizing the denial of human right to life, to the minds of those who morally disengage themselves to assist (whether directly or indirectly) in the taking of these lives.

What enriches civilization, fear or love? Dr Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.,through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can't murder... murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can't establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can't murder hate. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that "But what is "light"?

I once read about how a tribe in a northern region of South Africa responds to tribe members that commit criminal offences. The tribe members are not ostracized, labeled "the worst of the worst," and then executed. Instead, the tribe forms a circle around their member and for days reminds him how special and beautiful he is. Can you imagine how uplifting and reconciling this could be? We should allow this light to guide us. I am not saying we should follow this practice literally. But let's analyze how we conduct business inside our homes. Think of the person you love most; perhaps your mother. Now envision finding out she committed capitol murder and the state is seeking the Death Penalty against her. Would you want her to die?

Consider the victim's mother's pain. A pain she would want no mother to feel; yet the condemned's mother feels that same pain until the point of her child's execution, and even beyond. None of this pain is minimizing crime rates. However all the time, there's compassion in these respective homes-family members sharing love to heal the pain, valuing each other's lives the same.

We demonstrate our higher selves in the home, but feed our baser-selves by not seeing our daughters, sons, brothers, and fathers outside the home. Civilization doesn't exist when it only exists inside the home. Only when we begin to see ourselves in others will we attain that which we have been unsuccessfully seeking through perpetuating the very atrocities we strive to prevent. It's time we try an alternative. Let's uproot these weeds, throwing them to our primitive past, and allow civilization to flourish. Tell your state representative "life over death" because the death penalty is KILLING US ALL morally, spiritually, and physically.


Omari Huduma aka Reginald Blanton 2008/09