Archive for September, 2007
The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing in on lethal injection and the controversial three drug cocktail used in Tennessee and 35 other states. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court decided to consider the cases of two Kentucky inmates who are challenging the constitutionality of the three drug cocktail as cruel and unusual.
The decision to consider the case will likely halt executions in Tennessee until the Supreme Court rules. Most likely no ruling will come before January 2008 thus delaying the scheduled execution of Pervis Payne in December, as well as the executions of Paul Dennis Reid and E.J. Harbison in January.
The issue which the court will address is the constitutionality of the three drug cocktail, not the death penalty itself or the use of lethal injection as a method of execution. States across the country have been wrestling with these protocols, particularly after a botched execution by lethal injection in Florida in which Angel Diaz took 37 minutes to die and sustained severe burns on his arms.
TCASK hopes that the U.S. Supreme Court will finally address the issues with this cocktail that death penalty opponents have been highlighting for years. Regardless of what new protocols might arise from this ruling, the death penalty still asks the state to kill a human being. If we are going to have the death penalty in this country, I most certainly want it to be as humane as possible, but I don’t know how far we can go to sanitize a homicide. It is what it is.
However, TCASK is grateful for the breathing space this action may give us to continue our work to educate and organize citizens on the issue without the cloud of an execution hanging over us. All in all, what began as a potentially difficult week has taken a very hopeful turn.
Read more here.
Today as we wait to hear from the Tennessee Supreme Court concerning their decision to grant the state’s motion on vacating E.J. Harbison’s death sentence, I am relieved that we are, most likely, not facing another execution early tomorrow morning. At the same time though, I am also filled with a sense of sadness and longing.
Lately, I have found myself wanting to know more about Edith Russell, the elderly woman who E.J. Harbison is convicted of killing. I think about Mrs. Russell that January day in 1983 having gone to the grocery store as usual and headed home to put the groceries away. Maybe she was thinking about what she would cook for supper that evening for her husband Frank. Maybe she was thinking about what a brand new year would have in store. Maybe she was listening to the radio and singing along.
When she went into the rental apartment behind her home, she had no reason to suspect anything. And then, her ordinary day turned to terror. She was confronted with intruders, hit on the head at least twice with a marble vase–crushing her head– and left there to die. I wonder about her husband, her children and grandchildren and how they have suffered. I lost my grandmother in a traffic accident and know how hard that loss was on me. I can’t imagine if she had been murdered.
It breaks my heart to imagine Edith’s last moments. It breaks my heart to think of her husband coming home to find her body. What senseless loss…over a TV and a few antiques.
The violence that we do to one another, whatever the reason, confounds me. There is enough sorrow in our world–illness, natural disaster, and accidents–without humanity increasing the suffering with acts of violence.
I know that there are people who read this blog who cannot conceive of why I am against the death penalty after murders as tragic as Edith Russell’s. Someone once wrote to me and said, “you make me sick that you defend these murderers.”
But, I don’t defend murderers, I honor life by opposing violence. I honor life by opposing the awful violence done to Mrs. Russell, and I pray for her family in their healing that certainly will take a lifetime. But at the same time, I honor life by opposing the violence our state plans to do to E.J. Harbison as well. I honor life by opposing the violence done to E.J. Harbison as a small child when he was beaten and burned, when he was hungry and afraid.
I heard a report on T.V. this morning saying that violent crime is on the rise again. The report attributed the rise mostly to guns in the hands of juveniles and lack of enough police officers. Again, I wonder why we don’t use all the money we are spending on the death penalty to address some of these deeper issues in order to keep murders from happening in the first place. Killing a person who is already in prison for life won’t save anybody, using those resources to work on prevention and policing might.
So, though I am so grateful that Tennessee will not be executing E.J. Harbison this week, I mourn for the Russell family and for us as a people. When will we let go of our belief that violence can save us? How many will die before we do?
UPDATE: E.J. Harbison’s execution date has been rescheduled for January 9th, 2008.
Judge Trauger did not rule on a stay of execution for E.J. Haribson on Friday because the state has asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to vacate Harbison’s execution date of September 26. Due to the current injunction on the lethal injection procedure, the Department of Corrections stated that it needs additional time to determine what action to take and is not in a position to move forward with the execution.
The Tennessee Supreme Court must decide whether or not to grant the state’s motion and then reset the execution date. The decision on whether or not to grant the motion will most likely come down today. Read about E.J. Harbison’s case HERE.
This past Friday and Saturday I attended the National Association on Mental Illness Tennessee statewide conference and was privileged to meet many amazing people working in that arena. Just as the death penalty faces a plethora of misconceptions, mental illness advocates must also step over those hurdles. I remember a time when I believed that mental illness was overblown and that medication to treat the affliction were simply made to induce a life of semi-comatose happiness. What I know now, and that I hope all people know are some of the facts I will list below:
Fact 1: Mental illnesses are biologically based brain disorders. They cannot be overcome through “will power” and are not related to a person’s “character” or intelligence.
In other words, these folks have a disease. Something is physiologically attacking their brain causing them to become mentally ill, i.e., sick in the brain. The brain is without a doubt, the most complex organ in the human body, it contains some one hundred billion neurons, which are capable of electrical and chemical communication with tens of thousands of other nerve cells. Nerve cells rely on some quadrillion synaptic connections for their communications. Notice that their are many approximations when discussing the brain because some things in the human body, we simply do not fully understand. Quite obviously, when you are dealing with something that is complex and has many unknowns, many problems may arise.
Now, although I am tempted to make a clever analogy between the anatomy of the brain and the death penalty, I do believe that a more poignant statement is that mental illness is a serious issue and one that is being mistreated in the realm of our application of the death penalty.
Fact 2: Mental disorders fall along a continuum of severity. Even though mental disorders are widespread in the population, the main burden of illness is concentrated in a much smaller proportion–about 6 percent, or 1 in 17 Americans–who suffer from a serious mental illness. It is estimated that mental illness affects 1 in 5 families in America.
This is a very important bit of knowledge here. We have a problem that is concentrated on a small population of Americans. The mentally ill population has every right to say that their population is being marginalized, especially when it comes to access–access to employment, medication, etc. Their affliction unfortunately aligns them with other marginalized populations, e.g., the poor, minorities, mentally retarded. We have many Davids in Goliath’s world all seeking for an improvement to their current condition. However, instead of improvement, we live in a society that seems to provide the perfect injustice to these minority groups. I used that term “perfect injustice” many times while at the conference talking to folks. What I meant by it was that to me, in a society that seeks to provide justice, to help the tired, hungry, weary, poor, the mentally ill or retarded, the minority races– how can this society execute a calculated number of these marginalized populations? Instead, we dole out perfect injustice. These human beings on our death row were poor, they received little or bad education, they had horrific childhoods, they were mentally ill, mentally retarded, they committed a crime, they received counsel with much to be desired, they were ratted out on a deal, prosecutors withheld evidence, new evidence was withheld, judges were influenced, ideologies reinforced. What is the end result to this perfect injustice? The execution of a human being.
Fact 3: Without treatment, the consequences of mental illness for the individual and society are staggering: unnecessary disability, unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, inappropriate incarceration, suicide and wasted lives; The economic cost of untreated mental illness is more than 100 billion dollars each year in the United States.
This one is important. Why are we such a reactionary society? We know all of the problems, Americans are not stupid. We have the best Universities in the world, we are a society built upon the rock solid foundation of academia. Mental illness is a problem that when treated progressively will produce positive results. I like to analogize problems with washing dishes. If you’re done eating dinner putting dishes in the sink without washing them will only cause the food to harden and thus tougher to clean, especially if it’s lasagna. We cannot allow these policies to exist and fester. Who knows how much the death penalty is costing this society when it could be used towards victims families, law enforcement, treatment, education, and so much more.
Last statement from NAMI: Stigma erodes confidence that mental disorders are real, treatable health conditions. We have allowed stigma and a now unwarranted sense of hopelessness to erect attitudinal, structural, and financial barriers to effective treatment and recovery. It is time to take these barriers down.
Well said NAMI, well said indeed.
Yesterday, Judge Aleta Trauger ruled that Tennessee cannot execute E.J. Harbison because the state’s continued use of the three drug cocktail in the lethal injection protocol would present a substantial risk of suffering, a violation of the constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” In her ruling, Judge Trauger stated that if the three drugs are not administered with proper anesthesia, the result could be a “terrifying, excruciating death.”
The state’s 90 day moratorium earlier this year in order to revise the protocols, unfortunately was not nearly enough time to truly address all the flaws, particularly with the three drug cocktail. In an article from the Nashville Scene, Jeff Woods writes about the state’s own witness, Dr. Mark Dershwitz of the University of Massachusetts, in his testimony before Judge Trauger in which he states that there was “something amiss” if an execution takes more than nine minutes. On May 9, only nine days after the new protocols were enacted, Philip Workman was executed, taking 17 minutes to die. Concerning Workman’s execution, Dershwitz states, “it was remarkable to me when I read about it.”
And, the state has yet to test the fluid samples from Workman’s body to show whether he was properly sedated before the searing potassium chloride was injected to stop his heart. The story goes on to suggest that in his 2000 execution, Robert Glen Coe didn’t receive enough barbiturate which would have meant that he was silently suffocating and in intense pain.
The fact that we, in United State of America, a largely Christian nation, in the year 2007 are still having discussions about how best to kill people astounds me. All the time, energy, and resources which are devoted to finding ways to kill people–people who would otherwise live out their lives in prison–could, instead, be used to attempt to prevent such heinous crimes from happening in the first place. Why do we seem much more ready and willing to spend millions, if not billions, of dollars to kill someone after a violent tragedy has already occurred rather than to spend the money on an individual who may be at risk for violence, actually preventing the crime in the first place? How different would our criminal justice system look if all these resources were spent on health care (particularly mental health care), early childhood programs, increased social services, education, job training, and substance abuse programs. Imagine it.
Nonetheless, I am grateful that Judge Trauger took a long, hard look at the facts concerning lethal injection and made a fair ruling. Now, of course, the state may decide to appeal her decision to the 6th Circuit. We will just wait and see. In the meantime, E.J. Harbison must wait as well.
On Friday, in a surprise move, Governor Phil Bredesen commuted the death sentence of Michael Joe Boyd, now Mika’eel Abdullah Abdus-Samad, to life without the possibility of parole. Boyd was scheduled to be executed on October 24, 2007. This announcement came only two days after the execution of Daryl Holton. Though Boyd’s death sentence was upheld by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1998 when they dismissed claims of ineffective counsel, Bredesen acknowledged in his order that the claims of ineffective counsel during Boyd’s sentencing have never been comprehensively reviewed.
Boyd was convicted in 1988 for the murder of William Price during an armed robbery in Memphis. Boyd claimed that he never meant to kill Price but was convicted of felony murder and given the death sentence.
Boyd’s case highlights the substantial problems concerning indigent defense in Tennessee and the lack of adequate representation for those charged with capital crimes. The issue of ineffective assistance of counsel is one of the major issues the legislative study committee on the death penalty is charged with addressing as it begins its work this fall. TCASK is grateful that the Governor acted with openness and fairness in acknowledging the problems with Boyd’s sentence and addressing them. Read more about the commutation.
As E.J. Harbison’s scheduled execution approaches, I can only hope that the Governor will give his case the same scrutiny that he gave to Boyd’s. The issues with Harbison’s case include: police files not turned over to the defense until long after Harbison’s conviction which indicated another man’s involvement in the crime; a serious conflict of interest in that Harbison’s appeals attorney also represented this other man, helping him to avoid charges; Harbison’s co-defendant, David Schreane, who had an extensive criminal record, served only 6 years and committed more violent crime following his release while Haribson, who had no prior criminal record, ended up on death row; none of the powerful mitigating evidence which might have kept Harbison from receiving the death penalty was ever heard by the jury; Harbison was convicted by an all white jury in a county that is over 20% African-American.
If the courts do not provide E.J. Haribson with some relief, I hope that the Governor will examine this case carefully as he determines whether executive clemency is merited. Please call (#615-741-2001) or email the Governor firstname.lastname@example.org and ask him to grant E.J. Harbison clemency.
We are so very lucky at TCASK to have two AMAZING photogs in Harry and Karan Simpsons. I mean seriously, these two are pros. The emotion that these photos represent is matched by the quality of the pictures themselves.
Thank you so much Harry and Karan!
Edit, we have received more pictures that Karan took, the link to see them can be found below.
New set of pictures can be found HERE.
First set of pictures can be found HERE.
In the dusk of a September 11th Southern sky, with a “WHEN WOULD JESUS KILL” sign in my hands and a burning candle in my right hand, I led a procession of twenty twinkling lights from Jackson-Madison County General Hospital to Conger Park in Jackson, Tennessee. Our candlelight vigil occurs in the twilight of the execution of Daryl Holton, a mentally ill veteran who killed his four children in 1997, whose execution by electrocution is scheduled for 1:00 a.m. on September 12th., which will occur in 33 minutes from the writing of this sentence.
The end of a death sentence. As we walked from the hospital to the park in a symbolic gesture of healing for a world who is lost in the darkness of its violence, I could feel the slowness of the walk as if death was surrounding us. Yet, the flickering lights of these twenty people, who stepped out of the crowd of silent complicity, was a witness to the truth that love overcomes indifference. The end draws near.
We walked, talked, sang, and prayed. In the distance the roar of the rescue helicopter rose as it lifted and flew from its hospital landing pad. Technology can save and it can destroy. A man is about to be strapped down to a chair with pads that will receive the shock of his life.
Where is the Christian protest of Christians and the Church’s silence to the screams of this man for help? Why does this man choose this form of execution? O Death, where is thy sting! Right here screams the demon-possessed man. My name is Legion.
Only Jesus can cast out the demons who form the state of the union called Legion. When will we listen to him and obey his command to love our enemies?
Daryl Holton believes he deserves to die. So did a thief on the cross.
We all are thieves who take life from others. But we need to remember the words of the One who gives life: “This day you will be with me in Paradise.”
Daryl Holton has the possibility of peace – an eternal peace. We do, too.
We can believe in the mercy and forgiveness of Him who was executed by the people. We can have peace in the eternal life sentence he gives: “This day you will be with me in Paradise.”
In just a couple of minutes, Daryl Holton’s death sentence ends and his life sentence begins the dawning of a New Day!
To God be the glory! Hallelujah!
The Peace of Christ be with you,
Before sharing my impressions of last night’s vigil, let me introduce myself. I am a second year masters student at Vanderbilt Divinity School and TCASK is my internship placement for the year. I am incredibly excited about working with the amazing community of individuals I have met thus far, especially around such an important issue. Before coming to TCASK, most of my community work has been around issues of economic justice. I recently worked with Interfaith Worker Justice, a national organization committed to bringing the faith and labor communities together. I am also active in the Living Wage campaign on Vanderbilt’s campus and within the local labor community.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from last night’s service and the vigil but from start to finish, it proved to be an unforgettable experience. As a divinity student, the service of Remembrance and Resistance at Second Presbyterian reminded me why I love the church and its people. Standing together with other people of faith and honoring the value of all human life was a powerful moment.
During the vigil itself, I experienced a mix of emotions. I was inspired by the loving community that had gathered, from young students to long-time peace activists. As we sang “We Shall Overcome,” later lit candles and sat in silence, and finally listened as Psalms were read aloud, I felt blessed to be in the presence of so many committed, passionate individuals. However, it was also a time of incredible sadness. I prayed for Daryl and I continue to pray for the Holton family.
Though I was deeply saddened by the cycle of violence that was perpetuated last night, the loving community I find myself a part of leaves me hopeful that a brighter, more peaceful day is near.
At approximately 1:25 a.m. on September 12th, 2007 Daryl Keith Holton was executed by the state of Tennessee by method of electrocution.
My prayers were focused on Daryl receiving a swift and painless death and I thank the Lord that they were granted.
A thick fog swept over Riverbend Maximum Security Institute just before 1:00 a.m., the scheduled execution time.
I will blog further on experiencing my first execution and my first vigil tomorrow.
Peace and good will to all, may Daryl rest in peace.