One day when I was a young schoolgirl, I was home from school sick with the flu, when the television show I was watching was interrupted by a sudden announcement: “Caryl Chessman is now in the death chamber, the cyanide pellets have now been dropped.” And a few moments later, “Caryl Chessman is dead.” This was the first time I was aware that the State of California was killing people, and it was many years before I would learn that Mr. Chessman had been given a stay of execution, but it had been too late as the pellets had already been dropped. I still recall, though, the chilling and horrifying realization that this was being broadcast about an actual human life. I wished I had gone to school sick rather than be part of the dreadful day. While in prison, Mr. Chessman wrote four books, all national bestsellers. Mr. Chessman maintained his innocence throughout his twelve years in prison. There had been only circumstantial evidence against Mr. Chessman.
Violence Breeds Violence
On June 16, 1944, then 14 year old George Stinney became the youngest person to be executed in the U.S.during the twentieth century. Young George was taken into custody after the disappearance of two little white girls, ages 8 and 11. Within an hour, and without counsel or family present, the 90 lb. Mr. Stinney confessed to the murder of the girls. Listen to recollections here from family members of both the accused and the victims. There was no physical evidence presented against him and the jury only took ten minutes to deliver a guilty verdict. Due to the volatile racism of the era, the African-American family of George Stinney fled South Carolina, leaving young George to face un unjust system all alone. George came from a small, loving family and was reportedly a good student.
Many people around the world are mourning the recent loss of Troy Anthony Davis. Davis was convicted of the murder of a policeman but most of those who testified against him later recanted. There was no physical evidence against him. Police had circulated his photo, making it unclear if those who identified him saw his photo or saw him at the crime scene. Jurors stated that they would have never voted for conviction had they known then what they later learned. The Supreme Court of the US denied Davis his last chance at life, and at any form of justice. Amnesty International, NAACP, Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, Pope Benedict XVI and many others supported Mr. Davis in his quest for life and justice. Impersonal state agencies, far removed from the individual, decide whether that individual will live or die. There was doubt about his guilt. With the advent of DNA, we have learned that our system of criminal justice is seriously flawed, with one person after another being found innocent of their alleged crimes. Despite overwhelming evidence that Mr. Davis was an innocent man, despite the lack of any physical evidence tying him to the crime, despite the doubt of his guilt, Mr. Davis was nonetheless executed by the State of Georgia at 10 PM on September 21, 2011. For many people, his death was also the end of any semblance of trust in a failed US criminal justice system, one that appears more concerned with control than truth or justice. What we know for sure is that Mr. Davis was a human being who wanted to live. Troy was also reportedly a good student from a loving family. He was, like George Stinney, also black. Minorities are over-represented on Death Row. So are poor people.
Convicted of Being Different
Over in West Memphis, Arkansas, three young misfits were convicted of murder, once again without physical evidence, nearly two decades ago. These boys were white, but they were markedly different from the rest of their community. One was somewhat Goth in appearance, wearing black and listening to heavy metal, all three were adolescents. When three little boys disappeared and were late found murdered in a grisly fashion, the boys who appeared different were easy targets. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., commonly known as the West Memphis Three, spent half of their young lives imprisoned due to a shoddy criminal justice system. They were recently released, free of all charges, yet with the stigma of being felons to remain on their shoulders. Damien Echols was on Death Row and the other two men were serving life sentences when there were released. Filmmaker Joe Berlinger made two documentaries about the plight of these three young men and a host of celebrities supported their release. “Free the West Memphis Three” was emblazoned on tee shirts supporting the men. (You can watch Paradise Lost, the documentary about these three, online.)
I now live in the State of Texas, which is known for the high number of executions. Texas executes the mentally ill, too. In 2000, one mentally ill prisoner asked to be executed under a full moon in exchange for waiving his right to appeal, and thus Larry Robison, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was executed on January 21, 2000. And mentally retarded individuals have also been included in these ghastly statistics, too. Johnny Paul Penry, with an estimated IQ of 56, did not understand why he was going to be put to sleep but thought it was “a cruel thing to do.” When our current Governor, Rick Perry, was debating other Republican contenders for the nomination as candiate for the President of the United States recently, the crowd at the Reagan Library burst into rousing applause at the mention of his execution record, a higher number than any other governor in the modern era, interrupting the moderator before he could complete asking a question of Governor Perry. Death is popular in some quarters, it seems. The US joins China, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia as nations that execute their citizens. As a deterrent, capital punishment has failed.
Mourning the Lack of Justice
For those of us fighting for years for justice for Troy Anthony Davis, this is a time of mourning; for those of us fighting for justice for all the innocent, regardless of species, today is yet another day to mourn the violence in the world.
Violence is not the answer; violence is what needs to stop.
End the death penalty.
Stop the needless killing.