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Posts Tagged ‘lethal injection’

As the end of 2009 approaches, 1 in 100 is taking a look back at some noteworthy stories about prison from the past year that may not have crossed your radar.

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Several hundred women prisoners filed suit against the state of Michigan for failing to stop repeated sexual assaults against them by male prison guards. They’ve won at least $50 million in damages so far. Toni Bunton, above, bravely recounted the multiple sexual assaults she endured during her 17 years in prison to the Detroit Free Press in early 2009.

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On December 8, Kenneth Biros was the first person executed in the United States with a single-drug lethal injection, a process that is supposed to be less painful than executions carried out with the typical three-drug cocktail.  Ohio adopted the new method after the botched execution of Rommell Brown, whose execution was halted after Brown suffered for an unimaginable two hours. Kenneth Biros was the 52nd person executed in 2009; Carlton Gary is scheduled to be the 54th, and final, person executed this year.

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This year, the New York Times has run several interesting articles on various prison-related issues. Check out these pieces on flaws in the immigration detention systemchildren with parents in prisona reporter who covers executions in Texas, and an ex-convict trying to stay clean after prison.

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On May 20, Arizona inmate Marcia Powell died after being left in a cage in the desert sun for four hours. Powell had been given psychotropic medication that made her more susceptible to overheating, and nearby prisoners claimed that Powell was denied repeated claims for water. When Powell was pronounced brain dead at a hospital, prison officials could not find record of a legal guardian for Powell, even though she had one, resulting in Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan authorizing termination of Powell’s life support without proper legal consent. Read more about this tragedy here and here.

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This year, the Supreme Court heard two cases arguing that sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole (LWOP) is unconstitutional. Joe Sullivan, above,  and Terrance Graham were each sentenced to LWOP as juveniles for crimes that did not involve murder. Approximately 2,750 individuals in the United States are serving LWOP for crimes committed as juveniles; the United States is the only country in the world that has this penalty for individuals under the age of 18.

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Finally, a fantastic chart from Online Education demonstrating the social and financial costs of prisons. Click here to see the full-size version.

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Happy Holidays, and here’s hoping for a 2010 with fewer prisons.

-1 in 100

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20090204-steve-henley-executedThe Tennessean recently made an interesting journalistic decision: they ran an opinion piece from a staff reporter about her experience covering the February execution of a man named Steve Henley — from a prison witness room occupied by both Henley’s family members and several journalists. The witness room of the death chamber is a place that only prison officials, reporters, and loved ones of the condemned are allowed to enter; most stories reported from there focus on botched executions or grieving family members of the victims. Instead, Kate Howard’s article is a moving depiction of the suffering endured by Henley’s family as they watched him die via lethal injection, told from the fascinating perspective of a journalist in the difficult position of watching and documenting a human being’s final moments.

This article is only available via purchase from The Tennessean website for $2.95, but here are some of the particularly memorable parts:

I spent an hour, an extremely awkward hour, getting shuffled with Steve’s family from one concrete, clockless conference room to another while they counted down the minutes. The warden of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution had brought us into the room himself and let us know right off the bat there were no interviews on these premises. There were six of us intruding on those sacred moments, media witnesses who were told to stay silent…

His pastor, a staunch anti-death penalty advocate, said she couldn’t believe this was really happening after all these years. His son Greg, who said he didn’t comprehend reading that well, was repeating over and over the statement he planned to give later to the press, trying to commit it to memory.

“I forgive the state of Tennessee for executing my daddy. I forgive the state of Tennessee for executing my loving daddy. I forgive the state of Tennessee for executing my loving daddy, and I want you to know he is an innocent man.”…

The blinds were lifted, and Henley was strapped to the gurney. A microphone was coming down from the ceiling for his last statement. He raised his head, turned to see his family, and stuck out his tongue. With his hands strapped down, he tried to blow a kiss. He made his statement. He said he was sorry for what Fred and Edna went through, but he didn’t do it. He said he hoped this procedure would give some peace to them and their family, although he didn’t believe death brought anything but pain. He said he was an innocent man.

Proceed.

His family began to sob. They stood by the window, shouted to him. He told them to quit crying, called them a pitiful bunch. He told them – perhaps his pastor especially – to never quit. “I feel it coming,” he shouted from the death chamber. His head was already down, he snored a few times and went silent. In the witness chamber, it was chaos. They were screaming, sobbing. His daughter began to throw up. His sister and his pastor joined together in the Lord’s Prayer, so impassioned that even the pastor stumbled over the words.

I bit my lip and furiously wrote, knowing my notes were never going to match my memory or capture what was happening in that moment. The color drained from his face. He started to turn blue. And slowly it grew quiet in the witness chamber, too.

Don’t cry. Don’t cry.

I looked at the other reporters. They were still writing. Soon Henley’s sister turned and stared me and the others straight in the face. “Not a tear in anyone’s eye back there,” she said to nobody in particular. “Don’t human life mean nothing to you? You’re like a pack of dogs.”

Not surprisingly, Howard’s piece drew significant public response, including many criticisms for sympathizing with a man who allegedly killed two people. But in an interview with 1 in 100, Howard expressed that she was glad she wrote the story, though she won’t discuss any personal views on capital punishment in order to remain as objective as possible. Her words on the experience:

After a long night and filing my story at 4 a.m. after the execution, I went home and crashed. I took the next day off, but I sat down and wrote mostly because I had spoken with so many colleagues about covering the execution beforehand and thought I’d answer everyone’s questions at once. So I wrote my recollections and posted it to Facebook, where it was read by my executive editor.

He said he wanted very much to publish it as a first-person opinion piece on Sunday’s Issues page. The intention was to put another, less formal version of the events and to essentially allow readers where they’re likely to never go: inside the death chamber.

The public response was tremendous and extremely varied. I got calls and emails in the hundreds. Some were extremely vitriolic, and thought it insensitive to the family of the man’s victims or a piece vilifying the death penalty. Many anonymous commenters said that I’d feel differently if it were my loved ones who were killed by Mr. Henley. But many readers read it as I intended it to be: a heart-wrenching account of a family who killed nobody, watching the death of a father they still loved from behind a glass. I have never heard from Mr. Henley’s family or from the family of the victims, Fred and Edna Stafford.

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Spectacular news from New Mexico– last week it became the 15th state to abolish the death penalty. On March 18, Governor Bill Richardson signed into law legislation instituting life in prison without the possibility of parole as the maximum punishment in the state, replacing lethal injection.

This news is especially encouraging for capital punishment abolitionists as Richardson was a long-time supporter of the death penalty.  An article in the New York Times last month suggested Richardson was considering eliminating the death penalty due to its expensive cost, but he ultimately cited concerns over flaws in the judicial system as his main reason for repealing capital punishment. In his words:

I do not have confidence in the criminal justice system as it currently operates to be the final arbiter when it comes to who lives and who dies for their crime… From an international human rights perspective, there is no reason the United States should be behind the rest of the world on this issue. Many of the countries that continue to support and use the death penalty are also the most repressive nations in the world. That’s not something to be proud of.

Although Richardson is certainly to be commended for his decision, there’s still a catch (or two): the law only applies to crimes committed after July 1, 2009, and New Mexico currently has two inmates on death row, Robert Fry and Timothy Allen. They are not eligible for commutation of their sentences under this law, and Richardson has so far given no indication that he will make exceptions in their cases.

So where does this leave the U.S. for the rest of 2009? Here are some numbers from the Death Penalty Information Center:

  • Inmates currently on death row in the United States: 3,190
  • Inmates currently on death row for the U.S. Government and Military: 60
  • States with the death penalty vs. those without: 35 vs. 15

Contact Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico and congratulate him on his decision to repeal the death penalty, but also urge him to commute the sentences of the two remaining prisoners on death row:

Office of the Governor
490 Old Santa Fe Trail
Room 400
Santa Fe, NM 87501
(505) 476-2200
Email Bill Richardson

To contact your own governor and express support for abolishing the death penalty, click here.

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Update: Read the New York Timeseditorial advocating nationwide abolishment of the death penalty from September 27, 2009.

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