Brandon Vines |  Review of 8/13: Why Abolition is the Only Conceivable Answer to Our Failed Death Penalty

By Brandon Vines

Roosevelt Green proclaimed his innocence right until Georgia executed him by electrocution in 1985. His mother watched calmly and left without comment. Not too far away, at David’s Lounge bar in Macon, Georgia, cheers broke out among the patrons of an “execution party.” A live band played music on a stage decorated by the Confederate battle flag. While the areas around prisons on execution days used to resemble tailgate parties—replete with fireworks, lawn chairs, and beer—today, you are likely to find empty fields and little fan-fare beyond the inevitable news wire reporting the last meal.[1]

A few months ago, I happened to drive by the lot where David’s Lounge once was. The Lounge, execution parties, and even the eponymous David have been gone for years. All that remains is a run-down strip mall largely closed for COVID-19. In many ways, we are witnessing the final steps of the century-long march of executions from the public square to behind the prison walls. The cruelty is still there, the racism is still there. The foundation is as rotten as ever, it is just harder to see. In recent months, we witnessed an unprecedented spate of thirteen needless, rushed executions—more than two per month—that capstone to the cruelty of this rotting core.

 

The remains of one of David’s Lounges (source: Google Maps).

The support for the death penalty as it is carried out in this country is at an all-time nadir.[2] Joe Biden is the first abolitionist president,[3] a resolution to end federal death penalty is working its way through the House.[4] During Abolition Democracy 8/13, Representative Espaillat outlined not just the political support for the bill but also the popular support for ending the death penalty. However, President Biden’s policy calls for replacing death sentences with “life sentences without probation or parole.”[5] That is no better. Abolition of the death penalty does not mean repealing a law and letting endless years in prison be the executioner instead. Abolition means ending the system and building something better in its place.

This essay does not retread the moral arguments against capital punishment, or even the most common practical arguments. Instead, this essay gathers and expands upon several interventions raised by the 8/13 panelists to outline two under-discussed aspects of the death penalty: (1) its ramshackle nature and (2) the unprecedented scope of those harmed by the institution. The endless tinkering of the Supreme Court justices cannot fix the problems the court has identified and, in fact, as the judiciary chases towards the impossible-to-reach constitutional death penalty, they are, in fact, making it every more repugnant to basic human decency. The only path forward is through abolition.

The Death Penalty is Ramshackle

The ‘modern’ death penalty is a haphazard construct. “The machinery of death,” according to Bernard Harcourt, “is handyman work, so makeshift . . . .We’re killing people and it’s put together with Scotch tape and gum.”[6] Liliana Segura described how there was no formal process for being a media witness and detailed her own quixotic path to “witnessing” executions at Terra Haute. Lawyers for the condemned in Alabama are picked up for execution night at country petrol stations and, at Terra Haute, they only have a platform to talk with the press across the road from the Dollar General.

The ramshackle nature of the death penalty is universal. Since 2000, there have been dozens of botched executions,[7] nearly a hundred known innocents sentenced to death or even executed,[8] dozens of death row suicides,[9] deleterious and dilapidated death row conditions, including overflowing toilets.[10] For years, the Mississippi executioner was a retired custodian, without training, who released the cyanide tablet into the gas chamber.[11] Today, untrained prison staff consistently fail to insert the needle correctly.[12] Dr. Jay Chapman, the Oklahoma coroner who essentially created the modern lethal injection protocol, explained: “It never occurred to me when we set this up that we’d have complete idiots administering the drugs.”[13]

As drug companies began embargoing the components of the chemical cocktails used for ‘modern’ executions,[14] states have turned to shadowy deals ranging from illicit cash-for-drugs swaps in parking lots to under-the-table deals with oversees manufacturers of illegal opiates and psychotropics.[15] Faced with a shortage of the chemicals, Arizona has ludicrously offered death-sentenced people the chance to provide their own drugs for the execution.[16] For decades, and particularly since the introduction of lethal injection, the Supreme Court, the government, and advocates for the death penalty have claimed the system is humane and effective. That is unsustainable lie.

The Death Penalty Wounds Everybody Involved

It has been forty-five years since the death penalty was reinstated in Gregg v. Georgia. “The death penalty, as a practice, harms a whole range of people who have not been accused of any crime,” according to trauma specialist Susanna Sheffer, “and still the harmful impact of death sentences and executions on anyone other than the original offender is just not widely recognized.”

The government lawyers are profoundly shaped by their work. “I am often shocked,” Kelley Henry shared, “by the level of rage and hostility that comes at us from the government lawyers…it’s craven bloodlust…I have a hard time separating what they do from premeditated murder.”[17]

Defense lawyers who spend decades in a Sisyphean labor trying to manage just one more delay for their clients—many of whom become real friends. Judges as well are wounded when, as Kelley Henry explained, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ties their hands to set aside erroneous or particularly cruel death sentences.

Capital punishment inflicts deep wounds on our communities, and, in particular, the Black and Indigenous communities. Alexis Hoag described how capital punishment is steeped in systemic racism. “Today, in these same counties where you had the highest rates of lynching against black people, you continue to have the highest rates of capital punishment.”[18] The stain of segregation, anti-black terrorism, and racism remains with us and shapes the injustice of the system.

As the rapid Trump executions show, the body politic is grievously wounded as state murder becomes a mere political pawn. As panelist in absentia Phillip Tomlin (Mr. Tomlin is currently incarcerated on a life sentence after 27 years on death row) wrote, once executions have “served their purpose, you rarely hear from [politicians] again—till the next time they need it.”[19] 

One group of wounded in particular were highlighted during the 8/13 discussion: families. “Of course, hatred from the victims’ families often comes into play,” according to Tomlin, “but [that hate] is encouraged by the government. Their job should be to get the victims’ families the help they need to get through the horrible ordeal. But instead, they fuel their anger and hurt.”[20]

Central to the discussion was the unique and horrible wounds the death penalty inflicts on the families of the condemned. The contributions of Lee Greenwood, mother of Joseph Nichols, who was executed by Texas in 2007, stand out. “Let me say first, it is something that you live with daily, you find a place in your heart and mind to put it, so that you can function day-to-day and live with the heart ache it brings. There is not a hurt like the loss of a child. I have lost both my mother and my father, and the hurt was not as great.”[21]

Ms. Greenwood has met other people who lost loved ones to state murder, and for so many of them the execution was detrimental to their everyday lives, including two women who died very shortly afterwards. She described how each of her children coped differently, but that “not a day goes by where somebody does not refer to him.”[22] Similarly, Phillip Tomlin wrote that, over the course of his four times being sentenced and resentenced to death (three of which were by judicial override), “it was hell on my daughter, Joy, and my son.”[23]

While researching this essay, I uncovered a poem called The Family. It describes the family of Roosevelt Green, who was mentioned in the introduction, during his execution.

 

Annie Green,

mother of Roosevelt,

twenty-eight, of Georgia

convicted of kidnap,

rape, and murder,

of a girl, eighteen

watched his execution

by electric chair.

The papers said she

kept her calm.

A little tight about the lips,

but calm,

the boy a little tight about the thighs

when they strapped him in,

but calm.

[…]

His father,

though he wished to be there,

had to wait outside.

They were afraid

he would not keep calm.[24]

 

Sheffer explained the experience of a family member’s execution is very similar to the homicide of a loved one, except the killer is abstract (i.e. the state) and the death is actively sought by society. This is disenfranchised grief where society revokes all support or acceptance of the grief. Capital crimes arising out of intra-family disputes leave children as both family of the victim and the condemned. “The children are forfeit…the victim’s advocates will not show up for them.”[25]

As a society, we do not understand the full scope of the wounds and trauma we inflict through capital punishment. The universe of catastrophe is far larger than just the victim and the condemned. The family and friends of those executed, the victim’s loved ones, defense lawyers and state lawyers, judges, social workers, prison guards, journalists, ministers, witnesses, politicians, the public, and more are all shaped by the machinery of state-sanctioned death.

Conclusion: The Solution is Abolition, Not LWOP

The 8/13 seminar came together on the first day of a presidential administration that has vowed to end the federal death penalty. Through the discussion, we envisioned how to press forward, how to visualize a true abolitionist future.

Taken together, the 8/13 panelists sketch out how death sentences cannot merely be replaced with life without parole. That would simply switch the method of execution from lethal injection for death by endless, solitary years in prison. The cruelty and inherent racism of the system would be held intact, and the voice of those consigned to die in concrete boxes would be that measure quieter. Replacing the death penalty for life without parole is insufficient, according to Alexis Hoag, “because it still perpetuates all of the racial inequality [and remains] an excessive sentence [while] it puts out of sight these executions so that Liliana and [those who] bear witness and shed light on what we otherwise would not see.”[26] We must do better.

What that abolitionist future looks like is beyond the scope of this article. We should not limit ourselves to penal solutions; we need to unshackle from the past. Community-based justice, restorative justice, and individualized solutions are necessary. The rights of all stakeholders—victims, perpetrators, community members, loved ones—must be taken into account. We need to get to root causes: safe spaces, mental health, housing. We need to treat victims and their family like people not political pawns. We need to respect the family of those who are convicted of capital crimes. Most of all, we cannot forget the human dignity and real suffering of the people involved.

The solution of our failure is not to modify what is fundamentally broken. It is to build anew better. If we simply abolish the death penalty we will extinguish one evil only to replace it by one much more silent but just as inhumane. We should instead “elevate the humanity of those the government has cast aside as the worst of the worst.”[27] That is abolition democracy.

Notes

[1] Georgian, Asserting Innocence, Put to Death, N.Y. Times (Jan. 10, 1985); Maura Dolan, Executions: The South—Nation’s Death Belt, L.A. Times (Aug. 25, 1985).

[2] Gallup, Death Penalty, link.

[3] Fonda Shen, Joe Biden: The First Abolitionist President, Abolition 13/13 (Jan. 21, 2021), link.

[4] H.R.97 – Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act of 2021.

[5] The Biden Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice, JoeBiden.com, link.

[6] Ctr. for Contemp. Critical Thought, Abolition Democracy 8/13: Abolish the Federal Death Penalty! at 1:15:39, YouTube (Jan. 21, 2020), https://youtu.be/U_TYittnpy8?t=4539.

[7] Death Penalty Information Center [DPIC], Botched Executions, link.

[8] DPIC, Innocence, link.

[9] See, e.g., Eddie Burkhalter, Alabama Inmate’s Likely Suicide at Least The Fifth This Year, Ala. Reporter (June 24, 2020), link; Christine Tartaro & David Lester, Suicide on Death Row, 61 J. Forensic Sci. 1656 (2016), link.

[10] See, e.g., Keri Blakinger, Inside Frigid Texas Prisons: Broken Toilets, Disgusting Food, Few Blankets, Marshall Proj. (Feb. 19, 2021), link.

[11] Maura Dolan, Executions: The South—Nation’s Death Belt, L.A. Times (Aug. 25, 1985).

[12] Stephanie Mencimer, State Executioners: Untrained, Incompetent, and “Complete Idiots”, Mother Jones (May 7, 2014), link.

[13] Elizabeth Weil, The Needle and the Damage Done, N.Y. Times (Feb. 11, 2007), link.

[14] Ty Alper, Op-Ed: Why the execution drug shortage won’t go away, L.A. Times (Apr. 13, 2015), link.

[15] Chris McDaniel & Tasneem Nashrulla, Texas Almost Bought Execution Drugs From 5 Men In India Who Were Accused Of Selling Illegal Party Pills, Buzzfeed News (Jan. 26, 2017), link.

[16] Tom Dart, Arizona Unveils New Death Penalty Plan: Bring Your Own Lethal Injection Drugs, Guardian (Feb. 15, 2017), link.

[17] Ctr. for Contemp. Critical Thought, Abolition Democracy 8/13: Abolish the Federal Death Penalty! at 1:19:05, YouTube (Jan. 21, 2020), https://youtu.be/U_TYittnpy8?t=7237.

[18] Ctr. for Contemp. Critical Thought, Abolition Democracy 8/13: Abolish the Federal Death Penalty! at 1:19:05, YouTube (Jan. 21, 2020), https://youtu.be/U_TYittnpy8?t=4959.

[19] Phillip Tomlin, 27 Years on Death Row, Abolition 13/13 (Jan. 18, 2021), link.

[20] Phillip Tomlin, 27 Years on Death Row, Abolition 13/13 (Jan. 18, 2021), link.

[21] Ctr. for Contemp. Critical Thought, Abolition Democracy 8/13: Abolish the Federal Death Penalty! at 1:19:05, YouTube (Jan. 21, 2020), https://youtu.be/U_TYittnpy8?t=2419.

[22] Ctr. for Contemp. Critical Thought, Abolition Democracy 8/13: Abolish the Federal Death Penalty! at 1:19:05, YouTube (Jan. 21, 2020), https://youtu.be/U_TYittnpy8?t=2639.

[23] Phillip Tomlin, 27 Years on Death Row, Abolition 13/13 (Jan. 18, 2021), link.

[24] William Freedman, The Family in Naomi Nye & Paul Janeczko, I Feel a Little Jumpy Around You: A Book of Her Poems & His Poems Collected in Pairs 183–84 (Jan. 1, 1999).

[25] Ctr. for Contemp. Critical Thought, Abolition Democracy 8/13: Abolish the Federal Death Penalty! at 1:19:05, YouTube (Jan. 21, 2020), https://youtu.be/U_TYittnpy8?t=6970.

[26] Ctr. for Contemp. Critical Thought, Abolition Democracy 8/13: Abolish the Federal Death Penalty! at 1:19:45, YouTube (Jan. 21, 2020), https://youtu.be/U_TYittnpy8?t=5300.

[27] Ctr. for Contemp. Critical Thought, Abolition Democracy 8/13: Abolish the Federal Death Penalty! at 1:19:05, YouTube (Jan. 21, 2020), https://youtu.be/U_TYittnpy8?t=4745.

Fonda Shen

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