May 25, 2007

Death by Default: killing the condemned when they can’t be executed

When I was sentenced to death over 24 years ago, in my ignorance I thought my fate might lie in “Old Sparky,” Florida’s then infamous electric chair. I didn’t realize that the reality is that most of those condemned to dearth are not condemned to die at the hands of the state, but slowly rot away in solitaire confinement until they inevitably die of “natural causes.”

Recently several newspapers have reported that in the past decade more men on death row have died of natural causes than of actual executions. According to these published reports at least 29 men have died on Florida’s death row in recent years while waiting their judicially imposed date with death -- a few more have been stabbed by other prisoners and at least one (Frank Valdes) was beaten to death by prison guards. See, Valdes v. Crosby, 450 F. 3d 1231 (11th Cir. 2006).

The truth is that increasingly those sentenced to death are more likely to slowly die of old age than by execution. Although the state sanctioned serial killers (politicians and judges who exploit the death penalty to advance their own pathetic careers) constantly cry about speeding up executions – most of this is rhetoric – the truth is that they actually only want to speed up executions against those they believe they can actually execute… and many of those presently sentenced to death cannot be executed without controversy that would undermine the credibility of the death penalty itself. See, Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied.

That’s the dark secret of the death penalty in America – when the judicial system screws up and sentences someone to death who legally should not have been sentenced to death; then what do you do with him? In Florida, and many other states, it’s become death by default -- killing the condemned when they cannot be executed by simply letting them slowly rot away in a solitary cage until they die of old age, or other convenient “natural cause.”

Earlier today on the wing adjacent to the one I am warehoused on the guards were making their routine rounds when they discovered death row inmate Jack Farrell laying dead in his cell. Preliminary examinations indicate that Jack, a longtime diabetic, died of a massive heart attack. Another dead of “natural causes” after many, many years of waiting for his court ordered death sentence.

Down the hall from me just a few cells away a man I’ve known many years is slowly dying of cancer. Henry Garcia has been locked up almost his whole life. Now well over 50, he has almost nobody other than the friends he has in here. That’s the nature of the beast – as the years pass the condemned become increasingly isolated from the free world. Both family and friends drift away and we find ourselves abandoned and forgotten. See, Doing Life On Death Row.

When Henry was told that he had cancer they also told him that it was decided by the medical department that it was not “cost effective” to treat him – that the prison would not even attempt to fight the cancer, but would only let him die… death by default. Now Henry must face a slow but inevitable death alone in his solitary cage – and somehow this is supposed to be “humane.”

Maybe that’s what bothers me the most… we are supposed to be a Christian society, a society that values compassion and humane treatment, and yet we will deliberately turn a blind eye towards the inhumanities that exist in our own backyard.

Maybe if Henry was a mangy stray dog starving on the street then someone might care enough to show him compassion. Am I the only one that’s bothered by the fact that my friend Henry Garcia has now effectively been thrown out alongside the road and left to die while the world races by?

Equally so, what does it say about our system when we allow a man to simply rot away, deliberately deciding that he is not worth saving? How would any one of us feel if we went to our doctor today and were told that we had cancer – but that the doctor decided it was not “cost effective” to treat us and that we have already been given up for dead? How can we call ourselves a humane and civilized society when bureaucrats, who are more concerned with their budget than the patient’s life, decide the value of any person’s life?

If I had access to a telephone, I would personally call the Florida Department of Corrections appointed secretary Jim McDonough (phone number 850/488-7480) and ask him why prison doctors are refusing to treat Henry Garcia – why they have decided to simply let him die. But death row prisoners in Florida are not allowed to use the phone, so I can’t… I wish I could get others to. (Can you take a hint? The phone number is above or you can email him at

You have to excuse my ignorance, but even after spending my entire adult life in a cage in solitary confinement condemned to death for a crime I did not commit, there’s still a part of me that believes that there is good in each of us… that there are still people who are compassionate and do care, even about the welfare of the least of our society. That I’m not the only one who finds it morally offensive that any man should be abandoned and left to die alone. I’ve seen the worst of humanity and lived among the evil incarnate. But I’ve seen men society labeled as monsters show genuine compassion for those they live among while the world outside relentlessly gathers in glorified lynch mobs slobbering at the mouths while screaming for our deaths.

Now I look around me at the world I remain condemned to and I see what society doesn’t want to acknowledge… I see that the malice society has for the lowest of low has reached new heights, as society remains deliberately oblivious to the fact that more and more of those we condemned to death decades ago are rotting away and left to die of “natural causes” when they cannot be killed quick enough by the hands of the State.

And nobody cares. What could be more inhumane than to deliberately confine a man to a cage for decades (many now in excess of 30 years!) and when unable to quickly carry out his execution instead let him slowly rot away until he dies? To be deliberately isolated from the free world, abandoned and forgotten by society and given up for dead as if your life means nothing? Henry Garcia is only one of many others presently condemned to the same fate – death rows across the country have hundreds of condemned men and women perhaps even thousands, who will never actually face execution, but will be left to slowly rot away in their solitary cage until they die. Death by default is America’s new means of carry out the death penalty and this form of execution is administered not in minutes, not in hours, or ever months, or years – but in decades. It is a slow and methodically torturous death that is designed to kill the man’s soul long before the body finally gives up the ghost.

Is this what we, as a self-proclaimed “civilized” society intended? As a matter of moral conscience shouldn’t it bother us that another human being has now been left to die in a such a manner? If these men were dogs, every animal rights group in the country would beat the hates of the prison down to save them – why is it so hard for people to show that same measure of compassion to another human being? As Henry Garcia now slowly dies alone and abandoned by the world beyond, his inevitable death will remain as a commentary on the kind of society we have become – and perhaps that is the greater tragedy.

May 20, 2007

"Dead Man Walking"

by Sister Helen Prejean (Vintage Books)

Sister Helen Prejean's book can be considered only as an argument against capital punishment, and on those terms the book has merit for presenting that case passionately and backing its sentiments up with solid data about our criminal justice system. Then, one's feelings about the book are likely to be swayed by one's opinion about that particular issue.

There is much more to this book, however. It addresses themes far wider than our national debate on executions. Sister Helen Prejean has written a gutsy account of lessons she has learned in ministry -- of plunging into unknown territory as a nun, of facing aspects of humanity that confuse her, frighten her, frustrate her -- and persisting in offering her Christ's forgiveness and love to every customer.

Her decision, for instance, to face the families of the victims of homicide, not to convert them but to listen to anything they offer and accept instruction from them, is courageous and moving.

The book will not last because of its political position or because of any special literary merit; it will, I think, survive as a spiritual memoir and, perhaps, as a compelling argument for seeing even our worst offenders as human beings rather than monsters.

The thing that will stay with me about this book is the spare, unflinching, hypnotic tone of the writing. Helen Prejean has a writing style that will not let the reader look away. This is just as true when she is writing lists of facts as it is when she is recounting her personal odyssey. No matter which side of this debate one personally comes down on, her strength as a person is impossible to negate. She is painfully honest, revealing her own human fears and concerns, and recounting her growth as she acknowledges and faces them.

This is a book that is hard to leave and will be difficult to forget.

Reprinted by permission of the author and the Watkins/Loomis Agency

Excerpt from Book

May 11, 2007

Time To Impeach The Supreme Court

America has become a nation of brain dead punks – cowards incapable of thinking on their own. Just look around and you will see these yellow-bellied, pink-pantied wannabe’s all around you. And while you’re at it, look in the mirror – there’s another one. It’s no surprise we can’t win a war and even worse, let out elected leaders deliberately deceive us and get us into a war we had no business getting into in the first place. When other countries look at us they see our weakness – and they laugh at us. We are pathetic.

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area in the late sixties and early seventies at the height of the Vietnam War and can vividly remember how so many stood their ground to protest government when they believed the government was wrong. These were the college kids across America that knew in their hearts that our country was heading in the wrong direction – and they were right. Just look at us today, only a generation later. The same generation that stood its ground against government when they believed in what they were doing has now raised a generation of spineless, self-centered, materialistic spoiled brats who are far more likely to whine when their Ipod batteries run low, than when their Constitutional rights as abrogated by parasitic politicians and conservative judicial activists.

Whatever happened to that generation that stood their ground even when Uncle Sam called out the National Guard and Mayor Daley sent in platoons of armed cops to beat them back at the Democratic Convention in Chicago? I’m not talking about the Height-Ashbury hippies that found peace at the end of a pot pipe, but the idealistic students that marched on Telegraph Avenue at the gates of Berkeley, and countless other colleges and universities across America. These were the educated, the idealistic cream of the crop, America’s future leaders who believed in a cause and were willing to stand their ground to make their voice heard. Where are they today?

I believe in America and I believe in a Constitutional Democracy and it makes me proud to be a citizen of a country that was founded not by rule of government, but by revolution of the people. But that democracy is dead and its battered body, decaying like an abandoned corpse callously thrown out with the trash. The America I believe in no longer exists and in its place is a contemptuous conservative theocracy, a beast that feeds off the individual to give power to this religious dictatorship. Am I the last true American – myself but a man condemned to death by an injustice deliberately perpetuated by the corruption of our judicial system?

I am also a Christian, believing without doubt in the resurrection of Christ as my only hope of salvation, believing in an eternity that can only come through salvation and faith in a God greater than myself. But I must hang my head in shame when I call myself a Christian as I know only too well that the right wing conservative Christians of America are by far the primary cause of the corruption of our Constitutional Democracy… and the cause of its probable if not inevitable death.

Our Constitutional forefathers knew of the evil of allowing religion to control government. The Constitutional mandate of separation of church and state was never intended to take God out of the country, but rather these founding fathers knew that to allow government to become one with any specific religion would ultimately be the destruction of our Constitutional Democracy. Only by separating religion and government could both survive in a balance that they fought to preserve.

But now the right wing conservative “Christians” control all three branches of our government. The beast has risen and taken control, and its evil tentacles have choked the life out of our democracy. The true “axis of evil” is the corruption of the three branches of government by those fanatically committed to instilling their own theocracy, to allow their own religion to rule our government.

Biblical prophesy speaks of the beast and warns that its power will come through the deception of the believers. The beast’s power comes from controlling those who call themselves Christians and blindly follow their leaders. But would a true man of God lead our nation into a modern day crusade against non-Christians? Think about it… What is the war in Iraq and Afghanistan (and before it’s over, the entire Middle East) really about? We already know the Bush Administration deliberately deceived our country. This past week former CIA Director George Tenet has come forth claiming that the Bush Administration also knew of an impending terrorist attack before 911, but deliberately took no action. Why? (Does anyone really ask?)

Is it really so hard to consider whether this contemporary conservative theocracy might have an insidious agenda? We all know that George W. Bush is nothing more than a puppet and the true power lies with the puppet masters that cower behind the scenes and call the shots. And they do have an agenda… they want America to be legislatively and judicially transformed into a theocratic apartheid – and they are winning!

Which brings us back to America becoming a nation of spineless cowards who today take their Constitutional rights for granted and have long forgotten the sacrifices so many made to preserve our Democracy.

What is it that makes America great? It’s not out government, but our people… it’s our 300 million diverse individuals, each with the inalienable Constitutional right to fundamental freedoms. But these freedoms are being methodically eroded. In today’s America, the individual person has become expendable as this conservative theocracy gives the power to government. How many of us have actually taken a moment to read the original “Bill of Rights,” the very foundation of our Constitutional Democracy? How many of us as parents have ever – even once – sat down with our children and talked about our Constitutional rights? When we do actually read the preamble of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, we realize that virtually every right articulated in unquestionably intended to give the individual the power to protect against government – not even one of these rights were intended for the government or for the government to have power over at the expense of the individual. Think about that.

We call ourselves the land of the free and yet America today has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Our prison system has become a virtual industry of government. Equally so the quintessential American Dream is to own our own house, yet the conservation judicial activists on the Supreme Court have decreed that government can take your house and sell it to developers who want to build condo’s – why? Because condo units pay more taxes to the government than a single family home and the individual is expendable for the greater good of government. Where does it say that in the Constitution?

Growing up I watched with awe and reverence as masses of both men and women marched in the streets in anticipation of the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe V. Wade and I believe it was their collective voice that made a difference. Growing up Catholic – even an alter boy at the time – I was indoctrinated to believe that abortion is murder… and maybe it is. But what right do I have to force my belief on another? Our constitution is about individuals’ rights.

Last month for t he first time since Roe v. Wade, the contemporary conservative cabal on our Supreme Court has finally succeeded in compromising Roe v. Wade when by a marginal majority the conservative judicial activists (Roberts, Saclia, Thomas, Alito, and Kennedy) ruled that “partial birth” abortions are unconstitutional. For the first time, since Roe v. Wade this case placed the perceived rights of the unborn fetus over the rights of the women – no exception was made for partial birth abortions necessitated by the health of the mother. Not surprisingly, conservative politicians in many states quickly introduced proposed new laws limiting abortions even further in anticipation of a legal fight in the Courts that they now feel they can win, with the objective of having all abortions ultimately declared illegal. And that will come if up to this court.

What offends me about this “right to life” movement is the blatant hypocrisy – when the Supreme Court conservatives ruled partial-birth abortions to be unconstitutional, they cited to their fundamental belief in the “sanctity of life.” But these very same conservative justices consistently are the ones who also slobber at the mouth like rabid dogs in their zeal to quickly kill condemned prisoners – even the innocent, See, Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390(1993). In Marsh v. Kansas, Justice Scalia even took the position that the claims of innocent people being wrongfully condemned to death is overblown – that there are very few truly innocent people convicted as the system works. And that although the system is not perfect, a few mistakes are acceptable in the interest of the greater good.

Why does the sanctity of life apply to an unborn child but not to an innocent man wrongfully convictred and condemned to death? Where exactly in the Constitution does it say that an unborn child has any rights? Our constitution says nothing about when, as a matter of law, life begins – this fantasy is created by the Supreme Court Justices to juetify their own agenda and that is the textbook definition of judical activism.

Recent polls show that President Bush’s popularity is about as low as any president’s popularity has ever sunk. Some are calling for the impeachment of President Bush. Which is arguably justified in you believe President Bush deliberately misled Congress and our country to it into a war… which I personally do.

But President Bush’s days are already numbered. Already the campaign for a new President is running. Although he can still inflict great harm to our country such as deliberately escalating Mideast tensions and perhaps even instigating a war with Iran and Syria, that conceivably could quickly evolve into World War III, one way or another in November 2008 we will elect a new President… thank God!

But the greater evil is the legacy he leaves behind. If we are truly tired of being force-fed this conservative hypocritical ideology and what to purge our country of its evil then perhaps the time has come to consider impeaching the conservative justices presently on the Supreme Court. These justices are appointed for life and will be around long after Bush is gone, and unless they too are removed from office this generation will see our Supreme Court transform America into a theocracy ruled by five men. The strength of a democracy is that we have the power to demand their impeachment in Congress – but are there enough people in America still willing to stand up for what they believe in? Or are we truly a nation of cowards, unwilling to confront this evil that threatens our constitutional democracy.

May 04, 2007

Does DNA Condemn The Innocent??

This past week the media reported that according to the Innocence Project, the 200th person has now been exonerated by DNA evidence. This sobering milestone was reached when Jerry Miller, a now 48-year old former Army cook was proven innocent by DNA. Evidence from a brutal kidnapping and rape that took place in Chicago in September of 1981 had sent Miller to prison. The victim never identified Miller as her assailant but two parking lot attendants did identify him.

Miller spent 25 years in several Illinois prisons insisting he was innocent before recently being paroled. Through these many years Miller filed numerous appeals challenging the validity of his wrongful convictions; to no avail. With no appeals left, about ten years ago Miller sought out the assistance of the New York based Innocence Project, co-founded in 1992 by renowned attorney Barry Scheck. Agreeing to take the case, Miller was released from prison on parole before the DNA testing was completed. Last week the Cook County Court granted a motion vacating Miller’s convictions and legally exonerating him.

But with all the attention focused on DNA testing, has exoneration by DNA evidence now become the new litmus test for proving innocence? If so, then could it be that DNA is now actually condemning more innocent people than it is exonerating? Through the past 30 years over 125 men and women have been legally exonerated and released from death row; after being found to have been wrongfully convicted and condemned to death. Of that number, only a handful, were exonerated by DNA evidence.

Of the 200 exonerations through DNA evidence, 54 of those were convicted of murder – with less than 10 also wrongfully sentenced to death. Like in the Miller case, the leading cause of the wrongful conviction was mistaken identity, followed closely by faulty scientific evidence. False confessions accounted for only about 25 percent.

There is no question that DNA testing has proven to be a valuable tool in exonerating the innocent. In fact, the very first criminal case in which DNA testing was used in an attempt to prove guilt actually resulted in an unexpected exoneration. The story of how DNA testing came to be utilized in criminal cases begins in Leicestershire, England. In November 1983 a local 15-year old Lynda Mann was raped and strangled to death with her body callously discarded in a field not far from her home. Although the local community searched for the killer, the case went unsolved.

Then almost three years later in August 1986 the body of another 15-year old girl (Dawn Ashworth) was found – she too had been raped and strangled in a manner remarkably similar to Lynda Mann. An investigation led local police to Richard Buckland, a porter at a nearby hospital. Buckland soon confessed to the Ashworth murder, but given the similarities and proximity of the earlier murder of Lynda Mann the police felt that Buckland had to also be responsible for that murder.

Anxious to close the books on both murders the police called upon Alec Jeffries, a professor at Leicestershire University, in England, who while attempting to identify the myoglobin producing gene, which governs the tissues that carry oxygen from the blood to the muscles discovered that DNA is unique to each individual.

The English police thought this new discovery could help them prove that Richard Buckland had also murdered Lynda Mann and Professor Jeffries collected blood samples from Buckland to compare against semen recovered from both of the young victims. The results shocked both Professor Jeffries and the police – contrary to his own confession; Buckland did not commit either murder! The semen taken from both Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth undoubtedly did come from the same man – the same man committed both crimes – but it wasn’t Buckland.

With this DNA evidence now able to identify the true killer, the police launched an extensive manhunt, collecting over 5,000 DNA samples from men living around the Leicestershire area – but no match was found, The cases seemed to be destined to remain unsolved and the killer free to kill again until the police unexpectedly received a call from an acquaintance of Ian Kelly, a baker who lived some distance from the area of the crime. He claimed that Kelly had told him that he had provided the DNA sample for a friend and information led the police to Colin Pitchfork . Pitchfork’s DNA was then proven to be a match for the semen found in both victims. Based on this evidence in January 1988 Pitchfork became the first ever person convicted based upon genetic fingerprinting and was then sentenced to life on both murders.

There can be no question that DNA’s genetic fingerprinting has proven to be an invaluable tool in both identifying the guilty and exonerating the innocent. And that those who are committed to fighting for justice by using DNA to exonerate the wrongfully convicted should be commended for their work. Barry Shack and the Innocence Project, as well as the many universities that now have similar projects, have brought hope to countless victims of injustice and have successfully brought justice to at least 200.

But the problem is that the success of of these numerous DNA exonerations have effectively stolen the limelight. Increasingly, because of all the attention on exonerations by DNA evidence, those who cannot prove their innocence by DNA – because it doesn’t exist or was lost by the state in their case – are ignored. Most of the Innocence Projects today will not even accept cases unless there is forensic evidence that can be subjected to DNA testing. Almost without exception, those exonerated by DNA evidence were convicted of sexual assaults, yet these crimes account for only a small percentage of those wrongfully convicted.

Historically most of those exonerated after being wrongfully convicted (and even condemned to death) never had any DNA evidence to prove their innocence – does this make them less innocent? If society and the judicial system place to much dependence upon DNA to prove a person’s innocence, then ultimately this dependence on DNA evidence as the litmus test of innocence will actually condemn far more innocent people that it will exonerate.

It is an unfortunate tragedy that there are very limited resources available to handle the many thousands of cases in which wrongfully convicted and even condemned prisoners allege innocence. Our judicial system generally has proven unwilling to provide legal support to the allegedly innocent and contemporary politics has resulted in Draconian procedural rules that actually make it almost impossible for a wrongfully convicted person to even argue – much less prove – his or her innocence.

Is it really fair that with all the attention on DNA and the vast majority if these limited resources available to the organization dedicated to fighting the injustices of wrongful convictions are now dedicated almost exclusively to cases where DNA evidence is an issue? What about the larger number of prisoners wrongfully convicted that do not have DNA evidence that are being deliberately ignored and forgotten?

Am I the only one troubled by the fact that in the numerous articles I read proclaiming the 200th person exonerated by DNA evidence this past week, not even one article mentioned that DNA exonerations actually account for only a small percentage of the cases in which the wrongfully convicted and condemned were subsequently exonerated and released? That in fact, DNA exonerations are almost exclusively limited to cases involving and alleged sexual assault and that of the now over 125 men and women exonerated and released from death row across the country in recent years, less than ten percent were exonerated by DNA evidence.

It is not my intent to negate the commendable job, Barry Scheck and many other dedicated lawyers associated with these Innocence Projects are doing. These are the hero’s of all those wrongfully convicted. But it is my belief that they have a responsibility to remind the public that DNA exonerations are actually only the more visible tip of the proverbial iceberg and that the greater mass if wrongful convictions cannot be so easily exposed by DNA testing. Without constantly reminding the public of this undeniable truth the greater injustice will be perpetuated by the very individuals so obviously and selflessly devoted to exposing injustice, as the general public becomes fixated on DNA evidence as the litmus test of innocence. As attention becomes increasingly focused on DNA exonerations inevitably overshadowing the significantly greater number of wrongful convictions that cannot be expose by DNA testing, then ultimately DNA will actually condemn far more innocent people than it will exonerate – and that would be the greater injustice.