Out of Time in Arkansas

It’s done. The state of Arkansas executed four death row inmates in the span of eight days. From April 20 – April 27, inmates Ledell Lee, Jack Jones, Marcel Williams and Kenneth Williams, all paid the price of their crimes by being put to death by lethal injection. Eight death row inmates were originally scheduled to die in Arkansas over that span, but half were spared. During that eight-day span, Arkansas also made history by performing the first double-execution the United States has seen in 17 years. Jack Jones and Ledell Lee were both killed Monday, April 24, just hours apart. The article below appeared in The New Yorker on May 8.

Arkansas wanted to execute all eight inmates featured above in April. Half were spared. The names of those not spared are in bold. The inmates, clockwise from top left, are Don Williamson Davis, Bruce Ward, Stacey Johnson and Ledell Lee;  bottom left, are Jack Harold Jones, Marcel Williams, Kenneth Williams and Jason McGehee (Photo: Arkansas Department of Correction).

By the opaque reasoning of capital punishment, the state of Arkansas grew some unknowable fraction safer on the evening of April 24, when Jack Jones, a fifty-two-year-old, overweight, hypertensive, diabetic amputee, was strapped to a gurney in the Cummins Unit prison and administered drugs to successively sedate him, impair his breathing, stop his heart, and kill him. According to the state’s timeline, the process was a model of efficiency, taking only fourteen minutes to complete—less time than one might spend registering a vehicle at the Little Rock D.M.V. This was significant, as the night’s work was just getting started. Arkansas was staging the first double execution in the United States since 2000. Three hours later, Marcel Williams, a forty-six-year-old man who also suffered from diabetes, obesity, and hypertension, was strapped to the same gurney, injected with the same cocktail of drugs, and declared dead within seventeen minutes.

Jones’s and Williams’s executions were the second and third in a four-day period; at the same facility, on the preceding Thursday, Ledell Lee, aged fifty-one, became the first prisoner to be put to death in Arkansas since 2005. A fourth man, Kenneth Williams, aged thirty-eight, who had been on death row since 2000, was executed at Cummins on Thursday, shortly before midnight, when his warrant was set to run out. These four were among eight men whom Arkansas sought to execute in eleven days. With the state’s supply of the sedative midazolam due to expire at the end of the month, the proposed schedule came to resemble a lethal clearance sale. To socioeconomics and race—the known and inescapably arbitrary factors in the application of the death penalty—we may now add a novel dynamic: the shelf life of benzodiazepine compounds. There is a banal horror in the bureaucratic diligence that noted the drug’s expiration date, calculated how many people might be killed before it passed, and generated the warrants that Asa Hutchinson, the state’s Republican governor, signed.

McKesson Medical-Surgical, Inc., which distributes vecuronium bromide—a drug that is commonly used during surgery but that can also be used to stop a person’s breathing—filed suit against Arkansas, claiming that it had been duped into providing an ingredient of the cocktail. Four of the executions were blocked by court order. The Eighth Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual” punishment served as a measure of the elastic morality that facilitates the death penalty: does it constitute cruelty to infuse the condemned with a sedative, rather than a stronger anesthetic, particularly if, as attorneys for Jones and Williams argued, the circulatory conditions of the men might impair its effectiveness?

The rush of executions is notable not only for its barbarism but also for its contrast to prevailing thinking about capital punishment. Support for the death penalty peaked in 1994, with eighty per cent of Americans in favor. Last year, a Pew study found that the number had fallen to forty-nine per cent—the first time since 1971 that less than half of the public supported it. The declining crime rate accounts for part of the drop: in the mid-nineties, murders were twice as common as they are now. At the same time, the idea that death serves as a deterrent to other criminals has been consistently unsupported by evidence. Data from the Death Penalty Information Center shows that, in the past forty years, there have been eleven hundred and eighty-four executions in the South, compared with four in the Northeast, yet homicide figures in 2015 were nearly seventy per cent higher in Southern states than in Northeastern ones. The death penalty is about retribution for past offenses, not prevention of future ones.

There is also a growing awareness that it is perhaps impossible to create a justice system that both executes criminals and avoids killing innocents. The sclerotic appeals process insures that years, if not decades, will pass before the condemned meet their state-authored fate. But streamlining the process only increases the likelihood that innocent people will die. Since 1973, a hundred and fifty-nine inmates on death row have been exonerated of the crimes for which they were sent there. A prisoner in Ohio named Ricky Jackson spent thirty-nine years on death row before a key witness admitted to lying in the testimony that led to his conviction. Jackson is alive solely because of the inefficiency of the system that sought to kill him.

That complexity has been reflected in the politics of death-penalty prosecutions. In January, Bob Ferguson, the Washington State attorney general, proposed a bill that would eliminate the death penalty in his state. The same month, Beth McCann, the Denver district attorney, announced that her city was done with it. In March, Aramis Ayala, the state attorney for the Ninth Circuit, in Florida, announced that her office would not pursue capital punishment in any cases. Her office was in the midst of prosecuting Markeith Loyd, who is accused of murdering his pregnant girlfriend and a policewoman. Ayala said, “I’ve been unable to find any credible evidence that the death penalty increases safety for law-enforcement officers.” She added that the expense of death-penalty appeals drains resources from other prosecutions. In response, Governor Rick Scott removed the Loyd case, along with twenty-two others, from Ayala’s jurisdiction—an action she is challenging in court.

Last year, the Presidential election was won by a man who had demanded the death penalty for five young black and Latino men who were convicted of a brutal rape in Central Park that they did not commit. He appointed an Attorney General who had successfully fought to vitiate federal prohibitions on the execution of the mentally ill. He chose a Supreme Court Justice who, in his first major vote on the Court, cast the decisive one, in a 5–4 decision, to allow an execution to proceed—that of Ledell Lee, who died minutes later.

These are the actions of powerful men in service of outmoded ideas. We in this country are unaccustomed to mass executions carried out under government auspices. We would prefer to believe that such things happen in less evolved locales. Yet that is precisely what the state of Arkansas set out to achieve. The condemned men perpetrated a litany of horrors, but the rationales for putting them to death—a decades-delayed catharsis for the victims’ families, a lottery-slim chance that some future violence will be deterred—are as close to their expiration as Arkansas’s supply of midazolam.

Source: The Banal Horror of Arkansas’s Executions -By Jelani Cobb | The New Yorker

Jelani Cobb has been a contributor to The New Yorker and newyorker.com since 2012, writing frequently about race, politics, history, and culture. He is the author of “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.”

✻​ Arkansas Wants to Execute Seven Inmates Before Their Drugs Expire -By Garrett Epps | The Atlantic
✻​ Four Arkansas Executions Are Tied to the Expiration of a Drug That Does Not Work in Lethal Injections -Jessica Wapner | Newsweek
✻​ Fourth Arkansas Execution in Eight Days Prompts Questions About Inmate’s Movements -By Mark Berman | Washington Post
✻​ After Arkansas Executions, Lawyer Criticizes Use Of Capital Punishment | NPR
✻​ A Century of Death: 196 Executions, 15 Governors, and Arkansas’ Deadliest Day | KATV
✻​ Bearing Witness to Executions: Last Breaths and Lasting Impressions -By Alan Blinder and Manny Fernandez | The New York Times



Herman's House (Paper)Herman Wallace’s world for much of the last 41 years had been a solitary prison cell, 6 feet by 9 feet, when he left a Louisiana prison on October 1. Wallace was freed by Chief Judge Brian A. Jackson of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana who ruled that his original indictment in the killing of a prison guard had been unconstitutional. Wallace was moved from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, LA by ambulance to the home of a friend and supporter, Ashley Wennerstrom, a program director at the Tulane University School of Medicine. Three days later, on October 4, Wallace died of cancer in New Orleans. He was 71.

Wallace had been one of the “Angola 3,” convicts whose solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, an 18,000-acre prison farm on the site of a former plantation, became a rallying point for advocates fighting abusive prison conditions around the world.

He was serving a prison sentence for armed robbery when the correctional officer, Brent Miller, was stabbed to death in a riot at Angola in April 1972. Mr. Wallace and two other men were indicted in the killing. Two of the three — Albert Woodfox and Mr. Wallace — were convicted in January 1974.

The two were placed in solitary confinement, where they joined Robert King, who had been convicted of a different crime. For decades to follow, the three men were locked up for as much as 23 hours a day. Amnesty International published a report on them in 2011, and they were the subject of a documentary film, “In the Land of the Free,” directed by Vadim Jean.

In the film, Teenie Verret, the widow of Brent Miller, said of the killing, “If they did not do this — and I believe that they didn’t — they have been living a nightmare.”

George Kendall, who was a lawyer for Mr. Wallace and who confirmed the death, said in an interview that his client’s original conviction was “a travesty” based on shoddy evidence, and that the men had been kept in solitary confinement because they had been members of the Black Panthers, the black nationalist group. Officials worried “that they would organize the prison,” he said.

Even from solitary, Mr. Wallace worked to improve prison conditions and to press his own appeals, Mr. Kendall said. He answered mail from people who had heard about his case.

Then in 2001 Herman received a perspective shifting letter from Jackie Sumell, a young New York artist, who posed the following provocative question:

What kind of house does a man who has lived in a 6-foot-by-9-foot cell for over 30 years dream of?

Thus began an inspired creative dialogue, unfolding over hundreds of letters and phone calls and yielding a multi-faceted collaborative project that includes the exhibition “The House That Herman Built.” The revelatory art installation—featuring a full-scale wooden model of Herman’s cell and detailed plans of his dream home—has brought thousands of gallery visitors around the world face-to-face with the harsh realities of the American prison system.

There are 2.2 million people in jail in the U.S. More than 80,000 of those are in solitary confinement. Herman Wallace had been there longer than anyone.

Herman’s House is a moving account of Wallace’s unending struggle for freedom and the powerful expression it found in Sumell’s project, which began as a game and turned into an interrogation of justice and punishment in America. It is also a testament to the transformative powers of art and imagination.

Sumell was with Wallace after his release. Though Mr. Wallace was weak, drifting in and out of consciousness, Ms. Sumell said, “He was very well aware of the fact that he was in Ashley’s home, and he was a free man.” Indeed, his final words as he departed this Earth were‘I am free. I am free.’

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Sources: Herman Wallace, Freed After 41 Years in Solitary, Dies at 71 -By John Schwartz | NY Times

Film Synopsis by Herman House.org, Herman House.com, and PBS POV

Herman’s House premiered on PBS’s POV July 8, 2013. Watch the full-length film here until November 3, 2013. Check here for local screenings or to order a copy of the DVD.

*Robert King was released from prison in 2001; Albert Woodfox is still in prison in Louisiana.


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Maryland Becomes the 18th State to Abolish the Death Penalty | HRW

Maryland on May 2, 2013, became the sixth US state in six years to abolish the death penalty, continuing a trend to end this inherently cruel punishment in the United States. Maryland’s governor should commute the sentences of the five men who remain on the state’s death row.

Gov. Martin O’Malley on May 2 signed a bill abolishing the state’s death penalty and replacing it with the sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. However, the law does not directly affect the five inmates in the state awaiting execution. O’Malley has said he will determine on a case-by-case basis whether to commute their sentences.

“By repealing the death penalty, Maryland joins a growing group of states in rejecting a cruel and inherently unjust practice,” said Alba Morales, US criminal justice researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Governor O’Malley should build on his tremendous leadership on this issue by commuting the death sentences of the five men still on death row.”

Maryland’s repeal of the death penalty is just the latest sign of growing momentum against capital punishment in the United States. With the addition of Maryland, 18 states and the District of Columbia have rejected the death penalty. Legislatures in several other states are considering bills to repeal capital punishment. Parallel with these developments, the number of executions in the United States has declined in recent years – with a total of 43 executions nationwide in 2011 and again in 2012, compared with 85 in 2000.

Human Rights Watch [and this blogger] strongly opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an inherently irreversible and inhumane punishment. Furthermore, the death penalty is inevitably plagued with arbitrariness, racial disparities, and error. In the US, 142 people have been released from death row since 1973 after presenting evidence of their innocence. Kirk Bloodworth, the first person in the United States to be released from death row by DNA evidence, was at the May 2 signing ceremony.

In Maryland, as in many US states, application of the death penalty has been marred by significant racial disparities –four of the five men on Maryland’s death row are African-Americans whose victims were white – and wide discrepancies between jurisdictions. People were far more likely to be sentenced to death, for example, if they committed their crimes in Baltimore County as opposed to the neighboring city of Baltimore.

Since the repeal bill makes no provision for the five men on death row, they could still be executed after exhausting all their appeals. Under the Maryland constitution, the governor has the power to commute sentences. O’Malley should ensure that the death penalty is never again used in Maryland by immediately commuting the sentences of all five death row inmates, Human Rights Watch said.

The new law’s failure to make the repeal of the death penalty retroactive is contrary to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the US is a party. All state governments are bound to abide by its provisions. The covenant states that if a law reduces a criminal penalty, that law should be retroactive. The US included a reservation when it ratified the treaty in 1992 that it would not adhere to this provision, stating that, “US law generally applies to an offender the penalty in force at the time the offense was committed.”

“Maryland did the right thing by ending government-sanctioned killing,” Morales said. “The 32 states that still allow the death penalty should follow Maryland’s lead and end this inhumane practice.”

Reprint: Maryland Abolishes Death Penalty | HRW

Death Penalty in 2011 | Amnesty International

Countries that carried out executions in 2011 did so at an alarming rate but those employing capital punishment have decreased by more than a third compared to a decade ago. Only 10 percent of countries in the world, 20 out of 198, carried out executions last year.

People were executed or sentenced to death for a range of offenses including adultery and sodomy in Iran, blasphemy in Pakistan, sorcery in Saudi Arabia, the trafficking of human bones in the Republic of Congo, and drug offenses in more than 10 countries. Methods of execution in 2011 included beheading, hanging, lethal injection and shooting.

Some 18,750 people remained under sentence of death at the end of 2011 and at least 676 people were executed worldwide.

Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception regardless of the nature of the crime, the characteristics of the offender or the method used by the state to carry out the execution. The death penalty violates the right to life and is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.

Amnesty International: U.S. Death Penalty Facts