Monday, November 22, 2004

'Who can decide who is the worst of the worst and who dies?'

Sister Helen Prejean and her friend and collaborator, the actor Susan Sarandon, tell Alex Hannaford why they will never give up their mission to abolish the death penalty.

A few months ago, 65-year-old Sister Helen Prejean travelled from her home in New Orleans to the Texas town of Huntsville, an hour north of Houston, to pay her last respects to a man she had only known for a few years. James Allridge, 41, had been sentenced to death in 1987 for the murder of a convenience-store clerk in Fort Worth. He had spent 17 years on death row.

"There is no touching, there are no hugs allowed there," she says. "The thing about this contrived, artificial event is that it's not like visiting someone in hospital. James Allridge was fully alive. The only thing that told me he was about to die was my mind and my watch, ticking away on my wrist."

Prejean first visited Allridge at Huntsville's redbrick prison, known as the Walls on account of its imposing fortress-like surround, on August 6. "He was the most gentle, insightful, loving man, and he really thought that because he had changed so much he could challenge the clemency process. He thought they wouldn't kill him." A film made by Allridge's defence counsel, containing interviews with former prison guards who testified that he was no longer a danger to society, was sent to the Texas Board of Paroles and Pardons. They were unswayed, and voted 6-0 in favour of proceeding with the execution.

Allridge was executed by lethal injection on August 26, and his story now forms part of Prejean's second book, The Death of Innocents, published by Random House next month. At Allridge's request, Prejean returned to Huntsville to witness the execution. Before he died, she says, he spoke to the witnesses gathered in the small room beyond the glass partition. "He sounded like he was making a little speech to friends," Prejean says. "He turned his eyes to his victim's family and said, 'I'm so sorry I have destroyed your life.' Then he turned to Christa, a friend who had come over from Switzerland, and said: 'To the moon and back. I came into this world in love and I leave this world in love.' He was so poised."

Since beginning her ministry work in 1981, Prejean has witnessed six executions. Famously, she became a pen pal to Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teenagers who was sentenced to die in the electric chair in Louisiana (and who was executed in 1984). This experience, and their relationship, were related in Prejean's 1993 book, Dead Man Walking, subsequently made into a film by Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon.

For the past 20 years, Prejean has continued to campaign against the death penalty, most recently against the execution of minors. The supreme court is currently hearing a case which will determine whether it is unconstitutional to implement the death penalty against juveniles. If the answer is yes, 75 could be freed from death row. (Between 1990 and 2003, the US executed more juveniles than the rest of the world combined. In the past four years, only four other countries have executed minors - Congo, China, Iran and Pakistan.) Prejean also founded a victims' advocacy group, Survive, based in New Orleans, which counsels death row inmates as well as the families of murder victims.

Prejean remains a close friend of Sarandon's, her collaborator on Dead Man Walking. When the actor first contacted her, more than a decade ago, Prejean had barely heard of her. "I didn't even know what she looked like, and she was suggesting turning my book into a mainstream film. It took her nine months to convince Tim Robbins." Robbins has since adapted the film for the stage, but before it reaches Broadway, Prejean has asked that the script be made available to US schools; the first performance will be at a high school in California.

It was Sarandon who first told Prejean about Allridge's case. "I stay with her and Tim when I'm in New York," says Prejean. "Susan showed me a note from James, and then in April this year she called me, saying he had been given an execution date. She had been writing to him for eight years. You get into the habit of writing to inmates, and when this happens you can't believe the state is actually going to kill them. And then she hit me with the bombshell - James had asked if I could be with him when he died." (Sarandon also visited Allridge shortly before his execution.)

The US occupies an uncomfortable position on the list of countries that still implement the death penalty. In fact, the list reads like a roll call of those nations America views - or once viewed - as hostile: North Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Lebanon, Syria. Since 1976, when executions resumed in the US after a nine-year moratorium, 69 people have been released from death row after evidence of their innocence emerged.

In 1996 a poll showed that 78% of Americans supported the death penalty. A 2004 Gallup poll found that this figure has now dropped to 64% - the lowest in 20 years. According to the Death Penalty Information Centre, public support for execution drops to below 50% when voters are offered alternative sentences such as life without parole.

"The disturbing thing," says Prejean, "is that although 38 states still have the death penalty on their books, over 80% of executions happen in the southern states where slavery was rife. In practice, the death penalty has always been a southern thing. Overwhelmingly, when a black person kills a white person, they are given the death penalty. There is no consistency. Look at the Green River Killer [Gary Leon Ridgway, who last year confessed to the murder of 48 women]. He didn't get sentenced to death. Who can decide who is the worst of the worst and who dies?"

In the Death of Innocents, Prejean recounts the stories of two death-row inmates she ministered to: Dobie Williams, a black man from Louisiana with an IQ of 65, and Joseph O'Dell, a 54-year-old white man from Virginia.

After witnessing Williams's execution, Prejean wrote an open letter to the Louisiana Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "For the first time, I believe, I befriended a truly innocent man on death row," she wrote. "A 38-year-old indigent black man, I believe, was railroaded to death, for the death of a white victim in a small, racist southern town."

Prejean says that O'Dell asked for one evidentiary hearing and a DNA test so that he could prove his innocence of charges of rape and murder. "This was denied and after his death they destroyed the DNA so we will never know," she says. "After the Pope got involved, the governor's office received 10,000 faxes from the people of Italy. Then when Joseph died, the mayor of Palermo made him an honorary citizen and his body was shipped over to Italy and buried there."

Prejean is hopeful that the supreme court will rule against the continued execution of minors; a judgment is expected next spring. "If you are under 18 in the US you can't buy alcohol or tobacco or serve in the military and, ironically, you can't witness an execution. I think the Supreme Court will rule it unconstitutional for the same reasons it ruled against executing the mentally retarded: these people have no culpability for their actions. The rest of the world is watching. The US and Somalia are now the only countries that have not signed up to the Convention on the Rights of the Child."

Speaking from her home in New York, Sarandon says she believes she will see an end to the death penalty in her lifetime. "I have to believe that. It is a very tough thing to participate in that system - for the guards, the jurors, for everybody - because there are so many people involved. And I think that the jury in James Allridge's case was affected. A number of them asked that his sentence be commuted to life because they had not been given all the information, such as his background, when sentencing him.

"The thing that frightens me about the state of our dear nation and our world is this pre-emptive strike philosophy, and of violence as a means of solving everything, whether it is directed against the individual or a country. It is the elimination of all moderation. The most horrific thing about the death penalty - besides the fact that it is arbitrary and capricious and only affects those who have no money - is what it does to society."

She says she has never seen the death penalty as an effective deterrent. "It is archaic - there is a reason why it is outlawed everywhere else."

Sarandon spoke to Allridge over the phone on the afternoon of his execution. "When his last meal came he was a little shocked. He had really convinced himself there was a chance. I don't think he ate anything but had a cigarette instead. I was terrified for him and felt so useless. One of my kids said to me once, 'People don't die, because energy doesn't die, so you'll always be here with me.' When I'm feeling positive, I agree wholeheartedly. When I'm not, I'm not so sure."

By Alex Hannaford 22 November 2004


US death row numbers don't change policy?
The number of prisoners on death row in the United States appears to be falling, mostly credited to a single Governor who commuted the sentences of all the death row prisoners in his state.

Despite Drop in Crime, an Increase in Inmates
US: The number of inmates in state and federal prisons rose 2.1 percent last year, even as violent crime and property crime fell, according to a study by the Justice Department released yesterday.

Race-Based Prison Policy Is Under Justices' Scrutiny
US: WASHINGTON, A California prison policy of temporarily segregating all new and newly transferred inmates by race came under attack at the Supreme Court on Tuesday in a case that pits the justices' tradition of deferring to prison administrators against their dislike of government policies that classify people by race.

A Death in the Box
By the time Jessica Lee Roger was discovered on the floor of her prison cell on Aug. 17, 2002, it was too late. In the 24 minutes since guards had last checked her, she had tied a bed sheet around her neck and, after many attempts over three years in prison, finally strangled herself.

How Denying the Vote to Ex-Offenders Undermines Democracy
For starters, hundreds of thousands of people who are still eligible to vote will not do so this year because they will be locked up in local jails, awaiting processing or trials for minor offenses.

DNA Evidence of Bipartisanship
Last week the U.S. Congress passed the Justice for All Act, which includes provisions of the Innocence Protection Act. As of this posting, the legislation has not yet been signed by President Bush. Attached is an analysis of the legislation prepared by the Justice Project.

Our Two Priority Bills sent to White House
US: The 8th National CURE Convention last June lobbied on Capitol Hill the Innocence Protection Act in the Senate and the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act of 2004 in the House. On Sunday, October 10th, Congress passed both bills and sent them to the President to be signed.

US: A Californian man who beheaded a german shepherd dog he had named after his girlfriend, has been sentenced to 25 years to life under California's three-strikes law.

A long-standing convention not to extradite people out of Australia if they face the death penalty has been abandoned.

DNA fingerprinting 'no longer foolproof'...
The genetic profiles held by police for criminal investigations are not sophisticated enough to prevent false identifications, according to the father of DNA fingerprinting.

Greens want Flood to front Bali inquiry
Greens Senator Bob Brown wants the author of a key report into Australia's intelligence agencies to appear before a Senate committee examining the Bali bombings.

Kids from 3 to 83 years old beat candy labeled "Justice" out of a big Texas-shaped piqata on Aug. 1 as dozens gathered in the Houston City Hall Park to celebrate the 30th birthday of Nanon Williams, an innocent person on Texas death row.

THE LAND OF BIBLES, GUNS, PATRIOTS AND THE 'WORLD ROLE MODEL' FOR HUMAN RIGHTS: The state of Alabama, USA, executed James Barney Hubbard. So what? ... you might say ... America executes prisoners almost every week!

Appealing a Death Sentence Based on Future Danger USA-HOUSTON, June 9 - Texas juries in capital cases must make a prediction. They may impose a death sentence only if they find that the defendant will probably commit more violent acts.

Forensics? In proposing a new death penalty for Massachusetts last month, Governor Mitt Romney offered firm assurance that no innocent people would be executed: Convictions, he said, will be based on science.

Silencing the Cells: Mass Incarceration and Legal Repression in U.S. Prisons People without a voice are not people in any meaningful sense of the word. Silenced people cannot express their ideas; they can neither consent nor protest. They are reduced to being pawns in the schemes of the powerful, mendicants who must accept whatever is imposed upon them. In order to keep people in a state of subjugation, silencing their voices is essential. Nowhere is this clearer than in U.S. prisons.

U.N. Group Seeks End To Executions The United States, Japan, China, India and Muslim nations including Saudi Arabia opposed the resolution. Burkina Faso, Cuba, Guatemala, South Korea and Sri Lanka abstained.

US: Execution Dear Friends, this is so sad especially for our dear friend, San Nguyen. San who lives in Oklahoma worked very hard with the rest of the Vietnamese community to stop Mr. Le's execution. You may remember San from being at CURE's First International Conference in New York City in 2001. San also plans to be at the 8th National Convention this June in Washington. Charlie

Please contact the Governor The Vietnamese-American Community, the ACLU, and many others want the March 30 execution of Huang Thanh Le commuted.

Cherie Blair attacks US over death penalty in Catholic paper Cherie Blair has renewed her attack on America's use of the death penalty. In a book review in the Catholic journal The Tablet, under her maiden name Cherie Booth, she says: "Capital cases are uniquely prone to error and thus call into question whether we can ever be really sure of obtaining the just result.

Death penalty: a lawyer sees the light The observation "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus" is illustrated by the two nations' differing reactions to the use of the death penalty as a legitimate punishment for murder.

OHIO: Judges join dissent on execution delay In Columbus, 5 federal appeals court judges say a convicted killer's request to delay his execution was illegally denied because 2 senior judges participated in the vote.

Stephen Romei: Death knell sounds for US capital law GEORGE Ryan gets my vote as Australian of the Year, even though he's the outgoing governor of the US state of Illinois. There's just no one I admire more right now, not even Greg's Kables Community News Newtwork..

Mexico Awaits Hague Ruling on Citizens on U.S. Death Row Sbaldo Torres, a convicted murderer on death row in Oklahoma, should have been dead by now, his appeals exhausted, his time up.

Jury Passes On Business Of Killing US: This drives the death penalty crowd in the legislature nuts. Yet another jury - another 12 men and women, tried and true, who had all attested to their belief in the death penalty - has refused to join in the killing business.

Ultimate Punishment Scott Turow has long juggled two careers‹that of a novelist and that of a lawyer. He wrote much of his first and best known legal thriller, Presumed Innocent, on the commuter train to and from work during the eight years he spent as an Assistant United States Attorney in Chicago, and he has churned out another blockbuster every third year since joining the firm of Sonnenschein Nath and Rosenthal in 1986.

A Question of Innocence Rubin Carter: Day after day, week after week, I would sit in that filthy cell, seething. I was furious at everyone. At the two state witnesses who lied, at the police who put them up to it, at the prosecutor who sanctioned it, at the judge who allowed it, at the jury who accepted it, and at my own lawyer, for not being able to defeat it.

Amnesty steps up campaign to abolish death penalty Human rights watchdog Amnesty International is urging people around the world to pressure countries to abolish the death penalty.

'LAND OF THE FREE' SET TO EXECUTE TWO PRISONERS BY FIRING SQUAD: Wanted: Willing executioners for two convicted murderers. Must be psychologically sound and familiar with .30-calibre rifles. No victims' relatives need apply.

TEXAS EXECUTES 300th PRISONER Keith Clay was executed tonight, becoming the 300th prisoner in Texas to die by lethal injection since the rogue state resumed the death penalty 20 years ago.

AUSTRALIAN COALITION AGAINST DEATH PENALTY " ... Our nation was built on a promise of life and liberty for all citizens. Guided by a deep respect for human dignity, our Founding Fathers worked to secure these rights for future generations, and today we continue to seek to fulfil their promise in our laws and our society.

Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty Please note the following article shows clearly the hateful, uncaring and anti-human rights attitude as reflected by the Governor of Texas (and most other elected Texas officials).

Bush rules out death sentence review US President George W Bush says has dismissed any chance of a review of America's system of capital punishment.

Amnesty urges Bush to shut death row Human rights watchdog Amnesty International has urged US President George W. Bush to take a "moral stand" and abolish the death penalty after the Illinois Governor dramatically emptied that state's death row.

USA - A NATION IN TURMOIL: As the year 2002 draws to a close, little if anything, has changed in the United States in regards to state-sanctioned killing. Various campaigns, calls for clemency, petitions, and international condemnation, have failed to humanize U.S. politicians.

Here come de Judge - Time to Leave [266]
There have always been examples of rulings and interpretations that have supported the saying "The law is an ass". This is increasingly the case, because even the best intentioned judges are now facing an avalanche of new technologies and social change. But, it is no good making excuses for the judiciary and continuing to accept their strange interpretations. We must recognise that not only judges but the whole legal system will struggle more and more. In the end the whole system will become a farce. This is the way empires end.