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.

Cameron Todd Willingham and the Death Penalty

I haven’t had the chance to read the article in the New Yorker Magazine by David Grann but Bob Herbert has written a powerful op-ed in today’s New York Times about Cameron Willingham’s execution by the State of Texas.

There is a long and remarkable article in the current New Yorker about a man who was executed in Texas in 2004 for deliberately setting a fire that killed his three small children. Rigorous scientific analysis has since shown that there was no evidence that the fire in a one-story, wood frame house in Corsicana was the result of arson, as the authorities had alleged.

In other words, it was an accident. No crime had occurred.

Cameron Todd Willingham, who refused to accept a guilty plea that would have spared his life, and who insisted until his last painful breath that he was innocent, had in fact been telling the truth all along.

The fire broke out on the morning of Dec. 23, 1991. Willingham was awakened by the cries of his 2-year-old daughter, Amber. Also in the house were his year-old twin girls, Karmon and Kameron. The family was poor, and Willingham’s wife, Stacy, had gone out to pick up a Christmas present for the children from the Salvation Army.

Willingham said he tried to rescue the kids but was driven back by smoke and flames. At one point his hair caught fire. As the heat intensified, the windows of the children’s room exploded and flames leapt out. Willingham, who was 23 at the time, had to be restrained and eventually handcuffed as he tried again to get into the room.

According to Grann and Herbert,  an incompetent arson investigator decided the fire was arson, witnesses decided that Willingham had not tried to rescue his children and there was a jailhouse snitch.   Herbert continues

Willingham was arrested and charged with capital murder.

When official suspicion fell on Willingham, eyewitness testimony began to change. Whereas initially he was described by neighbors as screaming and hysterical — “My babies are burning up!” — and desperate to have the children saved, he now was described as behaving oddly, and not having made enough of an effort to get to the girls.

And you could almost have guaranteed that a jailhouse snitch would emerge. They almost always do. This time his name was Johnny Webb, a jumpy individual with a lengthy arrest record who would later admit to being “mentally impaired” and on medication, and who had started taking illegal drugs at the age of 9.

The jury took barely an hour to return a guilty verdict, and Willingham was sentenced to death.

He remained on death row for 12 years, but it was only in the weeks leading up to his execution that convincing scientific evidence of his innocence began to emerge. A renowned scientist and arson investigator, Gerald Hurst, educated at Cambridge and widely recognized as a brilliant chemist, reviewed the evidence in the Willingham case and began systematically knocking down every indication of arson.

The authorities were unmoved. Willingham was executed by lethal injection on Feb. 17, 2004.

The fundamental problem with the death penalty is that you can’t take it back. 

Now comes a report on the case from another noted scientist, Craig Beyler, who was hired by a special commission, established by the state of Texas to investigate errors and misconduct in the handling of forensic evidence.

The report is devastating, the kind of disclosure that should send a tremor through one’s conscience. There was absolutely no scientific basis for determining that the fire was arson, said Beyler. No basis at all. He added that the state fire marshal who investigated the case and testified against Willingham “seems to be wholly without any realistic understanding of fires.” He said the marshal’s approach seemed to lack “rational reasoning” and he likened it to the practices “of mystics or psychics.”

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed by the State of Texas on no evidence.  Who will pay for his death?