The politics of macho

In 1992 when he was running for President in a tight Democratic primary race, Bill Clinton rushed back to Arkansas where he was governor to preside over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector.  According to a New York Times article at the time

Mr. Rector, 40 years old, was convicted in November 1982 and sentenced to die for the 1981 shooting death of Police Officer Bob Martin in Conway, Ark. He was also convicted of another murder that occurred two days earlier….

After shooting Officer Martin, Mr. Rector turned the gun on himself, destroying part of his brain. His lawyers said that even though he could speak, his mental capacities were so impaired that he did not know what death is or understand that the people he shot are not still alive.

“He is, in the vernacular, a zombie,” said Jeff Rosenzweig, a lawyer for Mr. Rector before the execution. “His execution would be remembered as a disgrace to the state.”

Mr. Rosenzweig said Mr. Clinton was harshly criticized as being soft on crime in 1980, when he was defeated by Frank White, his Republican opponent, in his first re-election bid. Mr. Clinton defeated Mr. White two years later and has been re-elected three more times.

Bill Clinton needed to show that a Democrat could be just as tough on crime as any Republican.

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin

Twenty-two years later we have Oklahoma governor, Mary Fallin, threatening to defy the Oklahoma Supreme Court while her allies in the legislature start to impeach justices.  Why?  Because they wanted to proceed with two executions.

States like Oklahoma have tried to protect drug companies by passing laws prohibiting the disclosure of what’s in their lethal injections. But attorneys have argued that state secrecy about what’s in those lethal injections violates the ban on “cruel and unusual punishment,” and some courts have agreed, including a court in Oklahoma that blocked Lockett’s execution. When the state Supreme Court backed the lower court, Fallin said she would defy it, insisting the court only had authority over civil, not criminal matters. Then the court shamefully reversed itself, after a state legislator promised to impeach the justices for staying the executions. Fallin forged ahead with the killing of Lockett and Charles Warner.

Now she is investigating what happened.  I think we know already.  Mary Fallin was so anxious to prove her toughness that she abandoned all good sense and tried to execute Clayton Lockett.  We all know how that worked out.

Then there is the critique of President Obama’s foreign policy from those who seek more military intervention in places like Ukraine and Syria.  The President has his own ideas as reported in the New York Times

On a day in which he announced new sanctions against Russia for its continued threats to Ukraine, Mr. Obama said his foreign policy was based on a workmanlike tending to American priorities that might lack the high drama of a wartime presidency but also avoided ruinous mistakes.

“You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference with Mr. Aquino. “But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”

He was mocked in some circles with it being characterized as the “Ichiro” foreign policy after Ichiro Suzuki, the former Seattle Mariner and now New York Yankee who has made a very successful career out of hitting singles.  It shows that one doesn’t always have to hit home runs; home run hitters tend to strike out a lot.

Mr. Obama offered this trip as Exhibit A for the virtues of an incremental approach: He nudged along trade negotiations with Japan, consoled a bereaved ally in South Korea, cultivated ties with a once-hostile Malaysia and signed a modest defense agreement with the Philippines.

“Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force,” Mr. Obama said, “after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and to our budget. And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?”

I was hoping that the era of macho politics was fading, but now, it seems that women governors need prove themselves just a tough as a man.  No one is saying that Clayton Lockett is a wonderful man who doesn’t deserve punishment, but perhaps Mary Fallin should take a page out of the President’s book and slow down.  Mr. Lockett wasn’t going anywhere and neither are the other inmates on Oklahoma’s death row.

Photograph: AP/Cliff Owen


Texas, the death penalty and science

Hard to know where the fault lies:  with Governor Perry who seems to like to execute people without seeming to inquire too much about the circumstances or with the anti-scientific cultural bias that seems to inhabit the state.  Both are at play with the pending execution of  Larry Swearingen for a murder he may not have committed.

Jordan Smith (a reporter for the Austin Chronicle) writes for the Nation

Just over a year ago, in January 2012, Texas Governor Rick Perry marked a gruesome milestone: with 239 executions under his belt, he had officially overseen half of all executions carried out in that state since the reinstatement of the death penalty. Since then, Texas has killed fourteen inmates, solidifying Perry’s position as the governor who has presided over the most executions in history. To date, 492 prisoners have been put to death since the state’s death chamber roared back to life in 1982. By the time this issue of The Nation hits newsstands, the number will likely be 493.

Amid so much state-sanctioned killing there is scant official acknowledgment that the state’s capital punishment system is fraught with problems. As the body count rises, nagging evidence points to the possibility that Texas has executed at least one innocent person, and may be poised to kill more. The arson-murder case of Cameron Todd Willingham, killed in 2004, is the best known, but there are many other cases that raise serious questions about the guilt of people on Texas’ death row.

As it moves down the roster of executions scheduled for this year, the state is perilously close to adding another name to its list of potential innocents: Larry Swearingen, whose case highlights a growing tension in Texas between science and the law. Add to that conflict the all-too-familiar problems of prosecutorial bias and tough-on-crime politics, and you’ve got a recipe for wrongful conviction that, when death is involved, can’t ever be remedied.

I’ve written twice about Cameron Todd Willingham, once in 2009 and again in 2010.  Most people who know about the Willingham case believe that this was a case where an man known to be innocent was executed.  According to Smith, it may well happen again.  Interestingly, both cases hinge on science.

In Swearingen’s case, the courts have demonstrated little tolerance for scientific questions that are not only central to his guilt or innocence, but that have implications for every single death investigation in the state. Until Texas courts— particularly the state’s highest criminal court, the Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA)—accept that understanding science is key to doing justice, the risk that innocent men and women will be locked up, or worse, is inevitable. And in the absence of such a eureka moment, Swearingen, whose latest execution date was February 27, will die despite serious unresolved questions about his guilt.

According to the story in the Texas Observer

When a dead body is discovered, investigators can work out the likely time of death in a number of ways. The first clue is the bugs. It can take no time at all for blowflies and house flies to home in, searching for open wounds and orifices in which to lay their eggs. Between 12 and 24 hours later, when the body is cold to the core, those eggs hatch and the larvae feed on the flesh. The insects offer important clues for forensic pathologists, but it’s also important that they note what the outside temperature was in the days and weeks preceding the body’s discovery. That’s because the higher the temperature, the faster the insects will develop and once entomologists have identified the species, they can determine when they hatched and therefore how long that body has been there.

By day four, bacteria have started to break down the tissues and cells, releasing fluids into the body cavities that produce gases and cause the body to bloat. In summer, a human cadaver in an exposed location can be reduced to bones in just nine days—particularly if there are wild animals around.

Decomposition science is morbid but it can help solve heinous crimes. And it could be the key to figuring out if a man sitting on Texas’ death row was the killer in the gruesome 1998 murder of 19-year-old Melissa Trotter.

In February, nine forensic experts took the stand at an evidentiary hearing for convicted murderer Larry Swearingen to explain that precisely because of this decomposition science, they were sure that Trotter hadn’t been dead very long when her body was discovered— as little as a day; as long as 14. Either way, Swearingen couldn’t have killed her, they said, because at the time of her death he was in jail.

Smith concludes his piece in the Nation

Had Melissa Trotter been killed today, it is hard to imagine that Swearingen would be facing execution without the alleged murder weapon or other evidence first being subjected to DNA testing. The use of science, and DNA in particular, in criminal cases has advanced greatly since 1999. “This is evidence that would routinely be tested if the case was investigated today, and any one of these pieces of evidence could produce a DNA profile that could lead to another perpetrator,” says Bryce Benjet, who is working with the Innocence Project on Swearingen’s behalf. “Regardless of where you stand on the death penalty, I think we can all agree that we should be absolutely certain of guilt before putting someone to death.”

Of course, Texas’ efficient death machinery doesn’t necessarily discriminate between the certainly guilty and the probably or even possibly so. Finality of conviction has long been the force driving justice in Texas, especially as practiced from the bench of the CCA. But DNA has already exonerated forty-seven inmates in Texas—one of them on death row—and inspired efforts to ensure better certainty in convictions, in the state and beyond. Whether the court will accept and apply such science in Swearingen’s case—or in the cases of any of the twelve other inmates scheduled for execution in 2013—remains an open question.

Larry Swearingen’s execution has been stayed until evidence can be reexamined.  Let’s hope this happens before the courts and the state get impatient.  Let’s hope the science is accepted before he is put to death, not after as with Willingham.

Larry Swearingen

Larry Swearingen

Photograph Alex Hannaford

Last meals

Julie Green is an associate professor of art at Oregon State University.  She has also painted at least 500 plates – white with cobalt blue – depicting the last meals requested and eaten by executed prisoners.  It is a grim reminder of our record of state killing but is, at the same time, a record of individuality.  Kirk Johnson wrote in a New York Times story

Julie Green has painted their stories — fittingly enough, on plates, in cobalt-blue paint fired to permanence — along with hundreds of other such chiaroscuro tales of food and death and choice, in a decade-long project she calls “The Last Supper.”

That the world knows what a condemned person was served — indeed, that such information is often part of the narrative of the execution itself, posted on Web sites and in news articles from the prison — is what initially caught Professor Green’s attention.

“The meals were so personal, they humanized death row for me,” she said.

But as she worked — spending six months of each year on the project, and making about 50 plates a year — she came to see the choice of last meal as a window into the soul in an hour of crisis, and also into the strange rituals society has attached to the ultimate punishment.

When I worked for the Virginia Department of Corrections, we all disliked executions.  I would stay up and watch the news until it was over.  Word would circulate about the last meal.  This is why I found Green’s project at once astounding and wonderful.  These men and a few women may have done horrible things.  Some might be innocent.  Others made terrible mistakes, but they are people.

The number of executions has declined in the United States in recent years, from a modern-era high of 98 in 1999 to 43 in 2012. Texas, which has put more people to death than any other state since capital punishment was restored in 1976 by the United States Supreme Court, stopped offering special last meals to the condemned in 2011. But the number of Professor Green’s plates keeps growing: She plans to continue painting as long as there is a death penalty.

Some of the paintings are inspired by long-ago executions, described in news clippings — like the plates she did about two black boys, ages 15 and 16, sent to the electric chair in Mississippi in 1947 on murder charges. They were given fried chicken and watermelon, the records show. Whether they requested that meal is unknown, Professor Green said, but it was dutifully recorded, and so those images — so fraught with racial baggage — went onto plates.

The last meal is one of the very few things over which the condemned has control and the choices show who they are.

But where some critics might see an unduly sympathetic portrait of people convicted of heinous crimes, David Huff, the executive director of the Arts Center in Corvallis, said he saw humanity with all its flaws and foibles. “I don’t think it excuses actions,” he said. “They may have done really bad things.”

“But regardless of what you think about it, you have to accept that these are people,” he added. “They were actual people with likes and dislikes — liking pizza and Coke, or shrimp.”

You can see a slide show of sixteen plated by clicking here.

Photographs Leah Nash

More on Cameron Todd Willingham

A little over a year ago I wrote about the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.  Mr. Willingham was executed in Texas after being convicted of arson that killed his three small children.  After being on death row for 12 years, he was executed in 2004.  After his execution, evidence emerged that he was, in fact, innocent.  Now Jonathan Alter has written a follow-up story.

Alter begins

“Why would you abolish the death penalty when a majority of the voters support it?” Republican Tom Foley asked Democrat Dan Malloy in a robust debate last week to help determine which man should be Connecticut’s next governor. “Why would you do that? It’s arrogant.”

Foley’s claim that it’s “arrogant” for officeholders to substitute their judgment for the wishes of the majority would, taken to its logical conclusion, mean that government could be run by a computer processing polls. Nice platform. Yet even a pandering argument can be revealing. Capital punishment may feel like abortion or gun control—a tired debate where minds can’t be changed. But there’s a discussion worth having about the hypocritical conservative attitude toward the life-and-death power of the state.

The Hawke-Petit home invasion case is the hot news right now in Connecticut with the jury now considering the death penalty for one of the men convicted of the murder and rape of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and the killing of her two daughters.  Her husband survived to testify.  While based on the evidence reported in the press, I believe that the accused men are likely guilty but should they be executed?  I don’t think so.

Everything that I have read about Willingham indicates that there was forensic evidence of arson which was accepted by the jury.  The evidence must have seem overwhelming, just as in the current Hawke-Petit case.  But in the Willingham case, more evidence emerged.

Alter writes

And yet, just when you start thinking the death penalty isn’t such a bad idea after all, another house-fire murder case comes back into view, this one in Texas. Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of murder in 1992 after testimony that the house fire that killed his three young daughters (his wife was elsewhere) had been arson. But the conviction was based on junk science claiming evidence of accelerants where none existed. In the years since, nearly a dozen top fire inspectors have ruled out arson. A jailhouse snitch essentially recanted his testimony.

No matter. Willingham, the subject of a New Yorker piece last year, was executed in 2004. Afterward, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, now clinging to a lead in the polls over former Houston mayor Bill White, seemingly did everything he could to cover up evidence clearing Willingham. Instead of allowing an investigation to proceed, Perry last year fired members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission who exposed the “evidence” used to convict him. (Perry felt the commission was biased.)

“The governor’s office had access to an affidavit that it was faulty science, and either ignored it or dismissed it,” says former Texas governor Mark White (no relation to Bill). White, a Democrat who signed off on more than 20 executions as governor in the ’80s (though none as ill founded as Willingham’s), doesn’t oppose the death penalty. But now he says he’s appalled by how dysfunctional Texas’s criminal-justice system has become. The state, White says, has a huge backlog of DNA kits that have never been examined and too many publicity-seeking prosecutors willing to twist facts to win convictions. Texas, with a history of capital cases in which the defense attorney fell asleep at trial or ignored exculpatory evidence, often boasts more executions in a year than the rest of the country combined.

So now the family is left with trying to clear Cameron Todd Willingham’s name.

The flip side of the Lone Star honor culture is an unusual legal process for people to reclaim their reputations, even posthumously. The Willingham family won a hearing in a special court of inquiry. This week Mark White will deliver the summation in that court. He plans to argue that there’s “compelling evidence” the forensic evidence of arson was nonexistent. “The whole foundation of the case was arson,” White told me. “If there’s no arson, there’s no crime, and, therefore, he is innocent.” Innocent and dead.

I wish them the best.  And I hope the jury in the Hawke-Petit case understands that their decision can be irrevocable.