In the summer of 2015, Ellie Price travelled to Austin, Texas, to work as an intern for the Texas Defender Service, a non-profit organisation of death penalty attorneys seeking to improve the quality of representation afforded to those facing a death sentence. This is her account of that experience.
“He was basically saying because you’re black, you need to die” – Duane Buck
Before an individual is even put on death row, they may face a great deal of prejudice and bias. The intention to seek the death penalty is decided on by the prosecution, and as result there is enormous divergence between states in the number of cases in which the death penalty is sought. For example, Texas has executed just under five times as many inmates as Oklahoma, the state with the second highest number of executions, since 1976 (when the death penalty was reinstated in the United States) (Death Penalty Information Center). Furthermore, Harris County in Texas ‘accounts for nine percent of all modern US executions’, executing more inmates than any of the other 31 states that still administer the death penalty (excluding Texas) (Blanc, 2016 ). Therefore the state, or even the county, in which an individual resides can have a substantial effect on whether they receive the death penalty.
The actions of the prosecution both before and during the trial can have great adverse impacts on the defendant. Many of us are aware of the way in which the 16-year-old Brendan Dassey was manipulated into making a false confession from the Netflix programme ‘Making a Murderer’. What occurred in his case is not unique. Max Soffar is an inmate currently on death row in Texas who was subjected to similarly questionable interview techniques. Said to be ‘known by the police as having a brain “fried” from drug use and the mental capacity of a 10- or 11-year-old’, Soffar sat through many interrogations lasting several hours each, none of which were recorded and all of which produced inconsistent confessions which clashed with the known-evidence; it was these confessions that were used as the prosecution’s only evidence (Stull, 2016). Charles Sebesta is a former prosecutor (now disbarred) in Texas who was found to have ‘used false testimony and withheld evidence’ to send Anthony Graves, a now-exonerated man, to death row (Houston Chronicle, 2016).
Unsurprisingly, race places a malign role. A study by Ray Paternoster from the University of Maryland has shown that African American individuals are ‘more than three times as likely to face a possible death sentence than whites’ (Pilkington, 2013). Furthermore, research by Mona Lynch and Craig Haney (University of California), in which participants were shown four identical videotapes of staged trials, save the race of the defendant and the race of the victim, found that the participants were more likely to sentence to death a black defendant, especially when the victim was white (Lynch & Haney, Michigan State Law Review, 2011). The study also found that participants were more likely to take into account mitigating evidence for a white defendant. For Duane Buck, an inmate on Texas’ Death row, this racial discrimination came not from the jury, but from a so-called “expert” witness, a psychologist by the name of Walter Quijano, called by Buck’s own defence attorney. When sentencing a defendant to death in Texas, a jury must decide that the individual will be a future danger to the public (Tolan, 2016). Quijano testified that being black increases the risk of an individual’s posing a danger in future, suggesting that Buck was a future danger because he is black. Even more shocking than this was that neither Buck’s lawyer, the prosecution, nor the judge contested this testimony.
‘For me, like everyone else, Death row was a horror show from the very first day’ – Nick Yarris
Once convicted and sentenced to capital punishment, inmates can spend years on death row; the average length of time from sentence to execution had risen from 6 years in the mid-1980s to 16.5 years (The Economist, 2014). This is attributable to the capital appeals process’s being extremely slow. Gary Alvord, a Death row inmate in the state of Florida, spent almost 40 years in prison, and eventually died from natural causes (Sullivan, 2013). That inmates are spending more time on death row means long periods of solitary confinement.
Astonishingly, the majority of death row prisoners in the USA are put in solitary confinement for 22-24 hours a day (ACLU, 2013), in conditions that can drive inmates to the edge. According to Anthony Graves, a former death row prisoner, housed at the Polunsky Unit in Texas, he “would watch guys come to prison totally sane and in three years they don’t live in the real world anymore” (Ridgeway & Casella, 2013). Graves has spoken out about the behaviour of his fellow inmates, talking of how one “would sit in the middle of the floor, rip his sheet up, wrap it around himself, and light it on fire”, how another “would take his feces and smear it all over his face as though he were in military combat”, and finally how a third, Andre Thomas, scooped out his eye and ate it (Ridgeway & Casella, 2013).
Earlier this year, President Obama signed an Executive Order banning solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons, stating that such practices could result in “devastating, lasting psychological consequences…It has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior. Some studies indicate that it can worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones.” (Shear, 2016 ).
Yet the practice has still not been banned for inmates on death row. Nick Yarris, convicted and sentenced to death in 1982 for a crime he did not commit and for which he was exonerated in 2003, has documented the appalling conditions on Death row in his autobiography, 7 Days to Live. He recounts the horrific abuse that he and other inmates received from guards:
Instantly they were on me, their clubs flying, as, over the next half minute, I was beaten so mercilessly that I was grateful to be knocked unconscious after the first few blows… A prisoner housed on the top tier, two floors above me and about three cells along, simply dived head first off the balcony.
“I feel my whole body burning” – Michael Lee Wilson
There are still several methods of execution used across the United States, including electrocution, lethal gas and lethal injection (the last of which is most common). Botched executions have been numerous with each of these methods; flames have erupted during electrocutions, individuals have had violent, painful reactions to the injection, and one individual, Jimmy Lee Gray, resorted to banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber in which he was being asphyxiated. The botched execution of Clayton D. Lockett in Oklahoma in 2014 in part led to the reinstatement of the firing squad as a method of execution in Utah, as it was seen as a more humane form of execution (The Guardian, 2014 ).
“I walked out from solitary confinement out onto the streets with nothing” – Anthony Graves
According to the Innocence Project, an organisation which aims to help prisoners prove their innocence through DNA testing, there have been 337 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the USA, the first of which took place in 1989 (The Innocence Project, 2016). However, the law in 21 of the 50 states does not guarantee you any form of compensation (Slifer, 2014). Even in those states which do offer compensation for exonerees, restrictions such as requiring that the individual did not “contribute to their own conviction” (e.g. did not give a false confession) can impede an individual’s ability to receive compensation (Slifer, 2014 ). Furthermore, unlike those who leave prison at the end of their sentence who receive some support from the probation services, exonerated individuals, due to their innocence, do not receive such support (Slifer, 2014).
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. And because of that, there’s this basic human dignity that must be respected by law” – Bryan Stevenson
Last month, I found out that the second execution date of one of the prisoners I visited whilst in Texas had been set (he received a stay of execution in 2007, when his first execution date was set). Although we cannot hide from the fact that the acts committed by (most) of those on death row are heinous, such offences should not define an individual, just as I do not define the prisoners I met in Texas by the crimes that lost them their freedom.
There are many practical reasons for abolishing the death penalty: the cost of keeping people on death row for upwards of 15 years; the difficulty of acquiring the drugs necessary to carry out executions; the possibility of executing an innocent individual. But ultimately, the argument in favour of abolishing the death penalty is a moral one, best outlined by Stevenson; “there’s this basic human dignity that must be respected by law”. As death row inmates could easily be kept in prison, poisoning, shooting, electrocuting or asphyxiating them is wholly unnecessary, and undermines that basic human dignity.