Archive for November, 2007
Last night, the Nashville Student TCASK
chapter hosted Charlie Strobel
at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Charlie shared the story of his mother–recounting moments of her life and describing his journey to forgiveness
after her murder. To hear Charlie speak about forgiveness
, love, and the grace of God was incredibly
powerful, particularly because over twenty students–both undergraduate and graduate–were there to listen and be inspired.
Before sharing his story, Charlie spoke about the 1960s and his time in school. He mentioned standing in the streets with fellow students, united by a desire for peace and a more just society. While the times may look somewhat different now, it was meaningful to recognize the powerful history of student activism and the role students can play in the struggle for justice and non-violence. From first year undergraduates to PhD students, Lipscomb University to Vanderbilt, the group of students was diverse but they were all gathered to listen to the words of a man who has done so much to promote peace, justice, and the love of neighbor.
The story of Mary Katherine Strobel’s murder was emotional. When described, she came across as a woman who gave of herself freely and served others from the moment she woke until the second she went to sleep. Charlie described Mary as the kind of woman who represented the fullest and most pure form of love, a love of grace that offered forgiveness and acceptance. Mary’s murder left her family in shock, but even within this shock they were firm in their stance against the death penalty. One of the most powerful moments of last night’s events included Charlie describing his adamant demand to the District Attorney not to seek the death penalty. After sharing moments of his mother’s life, death, and the mourning of her loss, he spoke with conviction about his stance against capital punishment.
Charlie’s story closed with three points I know I will hold with me throughout my internship here at TCASK and well into the future. He described how forgiving his mother’s murderer freed him from the anguish and pain of the event and allowed him to be at peace. He then talked about his view of the death penalty as a believer, as someone who understands life and death to be within God’s hands rather than at the whim of human action. Finally, he closed with a meditation on love and grace. He left us with this thought: “to truly love someone is the hardest thing anyone can do.” This love, the love that Charlie described last night, was a life altering love that allowed him to forgive in the face of extreme pain and anguish, a love that allows for peace to respond to violent action.
As an intern at TCASK, Charlie’s story reminded me of why I am excited to be here, doing this work. As a Divinity School student and a person of faith, it prompted me to reflect on my understanding of love and my notion of grace. Nashville students will have a powerful voice in this movement–it is an exciting time of empowerment, transformation, and growth.
I stumbled upon this article in the Shelbyville Times Gazette by Clint Confehr from Nov. 21 when I returned to the office from the Thanksgiving holiday. I am still trying to figure it out.
He begins the article by following the sisters of two victims in two cases. One sister, Tammy Ross, whose brother was murdered, is grateful that her brother’s killer (his wife) pleaded guilty and will spend the rest of her life in prison. Tammy Ross didn’t want the death penalty because she wants her sister-in-law to live with what she has done. The other sister, Barbara Brown whose sister Brenda Lane was murdered by Gregory Thompson, has decided over the years that she would like to witness his execution. The article then goes on to discuss Daryl Holton, making assumptions as to why Holton chose the electric chair and posing some questions for consideration by readers.
Several things struck me, a few of which I will mention here: Confehr says that “revenge versus closure is this tale of two sisters.” One sister wants the killer to remain in prison while the other wants the death penalty. From what I can tell, he equates the one sister’s desire for life in prison with revenge while equating the death penalty with closure. I would argue that those equations are faulty and should be reversed.
What will be different for Barbara Brown the day after Thompson is executed? She will have witnessed the execution of a very mentally ill man who murdered her sister over 20 years ago, a sister who by her own account was probably praying for Thompson at the time of the murder. So, killing him would honor her memory? Sadly, because of the death penalty system, she has waited 23 years for the promise of “closure” via the death penalty, when all the while Thompson has been locked up and would remain so. I would argue that Tammy Ross, the sister in the first scenario, will begin to move on, not waiting years for a sentence to be carried out that will change nothing. In prison, perhaps Kimberly Ross, the killer of Tammy Ross’ brother, can come to terms with what she did and finally express some remorse for her despicable actions. The death penalty cuts off such a possibility.
And, as far as Greg Thompson goes. Mr. Confehr states, “Apparently, he wasn’t insane when he killed Brenda Lane.” Just because a court does not find a person to be insane certainly doesn’t mean that they are not. An insanity defense rarely prevails in Tennessee even when mental health experts testify to the person’s illness. In fact, in the last decade, no insanity defense has prevailed in a Tennessee courtroom. As far as Thompson is concerned, he has a 4000 plus page file of severe mental illness history since his time in prison, and what Mr. Confehr does not mention is that prior to the murder of Brenda Lane, Thompson was experiencing symptoms of mental illness, so much so that his family tried to get him treatment but could not afford it. The truth is that the general public still does not understand mental illness and its affect on people’s grasp of reality. Of the four people that Tennessee has executed in the modern era, three had some form of mental illness.
These tragic murders and the effect on family members is devastating. I hope and pray that both Tammy Ross and Barbara Brown can find some healing and peace. But, I also continue to hope and pray that someday, as a society, we will own what the death penalty really is: not closure but revenge. I hope and pray that we will stop spending millions of dollars to kill people for killing people and instead spend the money to prevent crimes from occurring in the first place. If three of four people who have been executed in Tennessee were mentally ill, might lives have been saved if we had spent money to reach them before these tragedies occurred?
We recently finished our Fall 2007 Newsletter and put it online: CLICK HERE
We hope you enjoy it! Also, we had to shorten my personal reflection on the Daryl Holton execution. Being the literary giant I am (kidding of course), I thought it would be nice to post the non-truncated version on the blog.
On September 12th, 2007 at the Nashville Riverbend Maximum Security Institution I witnessed and publicly protested a state killing for the first time. When I arrived, a thick fog was rolling over the small valley where the prison sat, the air was thick and moist, and I shivered in my wool coat. I held my breath at 1:00 a.m.—the moment that the execution took place–and thought to myself, how did it come to this?
The long day began at the TCASK office on September 11th, where we fielded media inquiries. “What significance does an electrocution have?” “This man wants to be executed, why is TCASK protesting Daryl Holton’s execution?” I had already faced the same exact questions from friends and family. This execution, I explained, represented what TCASK’s movement, the abolitionist movement, stands for. I did my best to find the right words: “I cannot accept that we as a society are participating in the calculated execution of this human being, furthermore, one troubled with mental illness…and a life filled with such sorrow.”
After traditional TCASK office hours, I rendezvoused with my friends Hector Black and James Staub, and we made way to 2nd Presbyterian Church, where Rev. Stacy Rector and Rev. Jim Kitchens led a service for Daryl Holton. It was a beautiful service, throughout which I prayed that Daryl would not feel any pain during the electrocution.
At 9:00 p.m. we arrived at Riverbend and walked through grassy slopes into the designated “protesters” area. I made eye contact with one of the guards and wondered what he thought of us. We started the vigil with a stirring prayer by Rev. Sunny Dixon. The reverend prayed for the lost lives of the four children that Daryl had taken (killed?): Kayla (4 years old), Eric (6), Brent (10), and Steven Holton (12). The reverend also prayed for the Holton family and Daryl’s grief stricken mother, immediately images of my mother’s face flooded my mind. When we remembered Daryl, we remembered the man who served this country as a Gulf War veteran and we remembered the loving father and husband.
The noise from the generators and prison guards shuffling around our fenced area was a reminder of the gravity of what was transpiring. State killings do not happen frequently–especially in this state. Later, Naomi Tutu spoke of the perils of state killing and asked us, “How would you like to be judged by the worst thing you ever did?” Hector Black shared the tragic story of his daughter’s murder and his reconciliation with the murderer, whose dark past and remorse for his actions supplemented Hector’s graceful act. James Staub spoke solemnly about his mother’s murder, and the killer, who was never found. Both are murder victims’ family members and both oppose the death penalty.
While we can never rationalize such acts, we can attempt to understand them. I believe though that Daryl’s mental illness and his actions leading up to his execution should be held for consideration. Daryl suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and was hospitalized for severe depression. He also dismissed his counsel and waived his rights to appeal. Furthermore, because of an unusual law we have in Tennessee, Holton was able to opt for electrocution as opposed to lethal injection. These issues of Daryl’s case came and went to pass; they passed at 1:26 a.m. as Daryl Holton was pronounced dead.
At TCASK, we seek nonviolence over violence, and we want to end the killings that follow a killing, so we look to find the positives amidst the clouds of negativity. The fog that rolled into the small valley where Riverbend stood cleared away as we left the prison grounds homes. As I drove home, I tried to discern what was positive about what I had just experienced, and I realized that I had been surrounded by amazing people—people that stand out (literally) for peace and justice. There is a supernatural bond created between the people who experience and protest tragedy. I also found out that my prayers at the church were satisfied: Daryl’s electrocution was quick, and the autopsy indicated he did not suffer.
At the end the fog cleared, but I still feel engulfed by it. I pray that Holton was able to escape his inner darkness and find peace, and I pray that this state can escape from the murkiness of injustice and realize that the death penalty accomplishes nothing, but only takes us deeper into the shadows.
“I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky–seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” (Heart of Darkness).
The state of Tennessee appears poised to go forth with the scheduled executions of Pervis Payne on Decmeber 12 and Paul Dennis Reid on January 3. However, it is likely that federal courts or the United States Supreme Court will intervene as has been the case thus far. The US Supreme Court recently took a case in Kentucky (read more HERE about Baez v Rees) to rule on the constitutionality of the current lethal injection protocols. The current protocol’s three drug cocktail, which is implemented in Tennessee, poses a major risk of a very painful execution. The first drug administered, sodium thiopental, is a barbiturate that elicits unconsciousness of the inmate. The second drug, pancuronium bromide or pavulon, paralyzes the inmate. The third drug, potassium chloride, induces cardiac arrest. The problem is that current protocols do not require for a check of consciousness between the administration of the 2nd and 3rd drug. If the barbiturate has worn off, the inmate could be conscious when the potassium chloride hits their veins, causing an extreme burning sensation and eventually stopping his heart (while still conscious).
However, as profiled in this Nashville Scene article by Sarah Kelley, the state of Tennessee is not phased by this growing national concern. “I have not put any stop to them, and our own Supreme Court has ruled that it is constitutional,” Bredesen told reporters following a speaking engagement at the Marriott in Cool Springs earlier this month. “My current intention is to proceed ahead with processing what Tennessee law says you’re supposed to do.”
For once, can we please look like a state that is proactive in death penalty public policy. Actually, I’ll take that last statement back as Judge Aleta Trauger ruled that the current lethal injection protocols were unconstitutional. This issue is being looked at by the highest court in the land and yet the state of Tennessee continues to press on even as one of its highest judges dissents. Gov. Bredesen could just as easily stay these executions until the Supreme Court rules, but I guess it would be too logical to afford these inmates, the lawyers and judges involved a break in the legal process. The Governor himself acknowledges that the federal courts will most likely intervene. “I don’t know that for sure yet, but it’s sure looking that way,” Governor Bredesen said. Puzzling.
TCASK’s Stacy Rector was also quoted in the article. “I think there is uncertainty, and as much as I’d love to say we can count on no executions at least until the spring, I don’t think we can say that,” says Stacy Rector, director of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing. “You can’t let your guard down too much because things are changing every day.”
Things are certainly changing. Although the US Supreme Court will rule on the protocols and at some point executions will go forth, lethal injection is a small part of the overall policy of the death penalty and it is under high scrutiny. It is only a matter of time until all of the troubling issues of the death penalty will be under high scrutiny as well.
Last night, 60 minutes did a story on Greg Thompson (read the story and view the video). Greg Thompson was convicted of the murder of Brenda Lane on January 1, 1985. Overall, the story was a good one and will serve to shed more light to the public on the troubling issues of mental illness and the death penalty. The 60 minutes correspondent, Lara Logan asked some questions that I thought were blunt and inopportune to the moment–however, she also did an excellent job in allowing the public to truly see Greg Thompson and to fully view his current delusional and psychotic thought process.
Ms. Logan asked Thompson what would happen if he were to discontinue his regimen of 10 pills a day and bi-monthly injections. “In a few days I would like lose my mind and it would be trying to explode on me,” he replied. “I got in a fight with the guards a lot of times, you know. Tried to kill a few.” Ms. Logan asked he if had ever tried to kill any of the guards. “No,” Thompson said. “But at the time they was turning into insects. And I wanted to kill them…Yeah, they were giant insects,” Thompson said. “They was acting just like the guards, but they were aliens. And I had to kill the aliens. They were attacking the world.”
While statements like these support the mental illness claims that Thompson’s attorneys Dana Chavis and Steve Kissinger are purporting, the 60 minutes story took us back further to the murder itself. Thompson is able to recount the murder in explicit detail. Also it was Thompson who gave clear directions to the investigating officer as to where to find the body. Ms. Logan asked Frankie Floied, the investigator of the murder, what was going through his head when having the phone conversation with Thompson to help find the body. “How calm he was,” the investigator remembered. “There was no remorse. There was no passion. It was just matter of fact. ‘If you’ll take, you take this road, this road, this road and this road.” He later remarked that Thompson was “Cold, impassioned. Just a cruel person.”
Mental illness is widely misunderstood. I don’t believe a sane person would behave the way Thompson did, giving explicit directions and indicating little remorse to what had transpired. Our legal understanding of mental illness has not kept pace with our medical knowledge. Thus, to be deemed “mentally competent” to face execution, a person is only required to know that they are going to be executed, and know why. Ms. Logan asked Dana Chavis a tough question following up on this point. “If he knew what he was doing at the time, and he was competent to be executed at the time that sentence was given, why shouldn’t he die for what he did?”
“I think the fact that Greg Thompson can remember things does not detract from the fact that at the time of the crime he was suffering delusions and he was hearing voices,” Chavis said.
“Never brought up at the trial,” Logan pointed out.
“That’s correct, never brought up at the trial because the trial attorneys did not consult with the proper people that would have seen those clear signs of Greg’s psychosis at the time, the clear signs of psychosis that everybody agrees about right now,” Chavis said.
Thompson’s current mental illness should not be under examination–the man is clearly mentally ill. However, the crux of this case is whether or not the state will retroactively look at his mental illness at the time of the murder for which he was convicted for. I find it tough to argue with this statement that Chavis made. “For over 20 years, prison doctors have administered very powerful anti-psychotic drugs to Greg Thompson. I don’t know of any doctor that would prescribe or force that type of medication upon a person unless they believed they were truly psychotic,” Chavis replied.
60 Minutes also interviewed the only surviving family member of Barbara Lane who feels that she and her family deserve justice and the execution of Thompson. What Thompson was convicted for was reprehensible but I hope that Ms. Lane saw the final statement that Thompson made in the interview and could find forgiveness, without an execution, for a very troubled human being.
“If you were executed what do you think would happen to you afterwards? What comes next?” Logan asked.
“Well, I know that the dead can speak,” Thompson said.
“The dead can speak? You think you would die?” Logan asked
“I think it’d be a horrible ending,” Thompson said. “Because if the dead can speak that means you got thought in the grave. You got thoughts going on in the grave. I don’t know about that.”
The AP just released a news story that the New Jersey Legislature will vote within the next two months to abolish the state’s death penalty and replace it with life without parole. If approved by the legislature and Governor Jon Corzine, New Jersey would become the first state to legislatively abolish the death penalty since its reinstatement in 1976. Read more here.
On Sunday evening, November 11, 60 Minutes on CBS will feature a story about Tennessee inmate Gregory Thompson entitled, “Insanity on Death Row.” Greg Thompson was convicted of killing Brenda Lane, in Coffee County in 1985. Thompson, in a delusional state, believed that the Ku Klux Klan was pursuing him and used Lane’s care to attempt an escape. There is little doubt that Thompson committed this tragic murder, but there is also little doubt that Gregory Thompson is also severely mentally ill.
For some time prior to Lane’s murder, Thompson’s family had noticed extreme changes in his behavior. They had attempted to get Thompson psychiatric help but were unable to afford the cost of care. Since the crime, he has been diagnosed with severe schizophrenia, and in 2001, the state of Tennessee asked that a conservator be appointed to make decisions for Thompson as he was not sane enough to be entrusted with his own care.
The story of Gregory Thompson highlights the lack of understanding within the criminal justice system of those with mental illness and that population’s vulnerability in such a system. Since his incarceration on death row, prison doctors have treated him for his severe disorders, including delusional thought process, psychosis, flight of ideas, auditory and visual hallucinations, mania, paranoia, self-mutilation, and suicide attempts.
TCASK is grateful that the legislative study committee examining the death penalty in Tennessee is charged with looking at the system’s treatment of those with mental illness. Sita Diehl, Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Tennessee, is a member of the study committee.
Please tune into 60 Minutes
on Sunday evening to learn more about this story.
In yesterday’s New York Times, an article appeared about the cost of capital cases and the drain of the death penalty on state resources. Particularly, the article highlighted a high profile case in Georgia, the case of Brian Nichols who was charged with killing four in a courthouse shooting in 2005. The cost of his defense so far has totaled $1.2 million. Legislative cuts to the budget, in addition to the high cost of his case, have left the public defender system in Georgia with no money. Until the bills are paid, the judge has delayed the trial. Read more here.
Yet again, the questions remain: How much are we as citizens willing to pay to maintain the death penalty when options like life without parole exist? When will we acknowledge that in order to have a fair and accurate system, states will have to spend significantly more on the death penalty system…money which states don’t have to spend?
The Tennessee Comptroller’s office recently testified to the legislative study committee that Tennessee has no idea about the amount of money that taxpayers are currently spending to maintain the death penalty–a policy as serious as the death penalty, and we don’t know what we spend on it.
However, we do know that Tennessee is at the bottom of the rankings in education and that many of our citizens don’t have health care. We do know that we need more police officers on the streets and more resources for crime prevention.
What will it take for us to determine our dollars are better spent to prevent violent crime rather than to kill offenders? How long will we throw our money into the black hole of the death penalty?
On Tuesday, the Tennessee Death Penalty Study Committee met for several hours, hearing from Tennessee prosecutors about how they decide when to seek the death penalty in a particular case. The Executive Director of the TN District Attorneys’ Conference, Wally Kirby, testified that the guidelines upon which prosecutors currently rely in seeking the death penalty are the 15 aggravators listed in the statute. At least one of of these aggravators must be present in order for the death penalty to be sought in a particular case. Kirby contended that prosecutorial discretion actually allows the DA not to seek the death penalty in a given case, even when aggravators are met. Other factors which come into play in the decision making process of the DA are: the likelihood of a conviction, the particular community standards, and the desires of the victim’s family. However, in making his point, Kirby reiterated again and again that DA’s are human and can differ on their opinions concerning which cases merit death and which don’t. In fact, he stated that one could put 20 DA’s in a room and 10 of those attorneys may want to seek death on a particular case while the other 10 do not.
The committee also heard from Davidson County District Attorney General Torry Johnson about his office’s creation and utilization of a list of guidelines in making a decision to seek the death penalty. One of the policies that Johnson’s office employs is an open file discovery process in which the defense attorney can see the DA’s files on the case prior to trial, allowing for everyone to be on equal footing, which cuts down on appeals later. Attorney Richard McGee, representing the State Post-Conviction Office, noted his own experience of the process as a defense attorney and how fair Johnson’s system is. The question continually raised by committee members is why such guidelines could not be implemented across Tennessee. Though Johnson noted his system has worked well, he was concerned with statutorily applying his guidelines to all DA’s offices in Tennessee with the possible litigation that could ensue.
What became clear to me during the meeting and was named by committee member Charlie Strobel of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, is that from the very start, the system relies on individuals with particular histories, personalities, biases, and community pressures to decide whether or not to seek death in a particular case. Such a system is unfair and arbitrary from the outset. The DA’s are correct when they state that no matter what procedures are put into place, there will always be some measure of discretion by individual DA’S.
Of course, I still believe that a set of consistent guidelines for all DA’S offices would and should be utilized in Tennessee to make the system more fair and consistent than it is now, but even with such measures in place, arbitrariness and unfairness will still exist. Without meaning to, the DA’s made the case for why the death penalty can never truly be fair. In the end, the only real way to ensure that the death penalty is not arbitrary and unfair is to abolish it.
Read more about the committee meeting here.