Hanna on the Death Penalty and the Texas Defender Service

We are delighted to welcome this guest post from Dannie Hanna, a graduate of NUI Galway and Cambridge, who worked with the Texas Defender Service which represents people on death row during August-September 2010.

In painting her vision of hope, as only she could, Emily Dickinson described hope as “the thing with feathers… [that] never stops at all… That kept so many warm”. For the 3,254 men and women currently sitting on death row in the United States, Dickinson’s words must possess an added element of importance.

The history of the death penalty in the USA is one littered with tragedy; tragedy for the many victims that it has needlessly created, and tragedy for the way in which it is administered by the American justice system. From one perspective, the numerous cases of innocent persons who have been executed, remind us of the tragedy that is the living nightmare that some of those 3,254 individuals are experiencing right now (see here).

By example, two of the most well known and often cited cases of innocent persons being executed, are that of Jesse Tafero, and Edward Earl Johnson. The case of Jesse Tafero has become the locus classicus for how horrific the actual administration of the death penalty can be. Reports from those who witnessed the execution, state that it required three separate flips of the switch shooting currents through his body, eventually causing flames to shoot outward from his head. Meanwhile, he sat strapped to the electric chair, taking 13 minutes to die. Similarly, Edward  Earl Johnson (forever immortalised in the award winning documentary “Fourteen Days in May”) reinforces the sheer horror of innocent persons who find themselves as the subject of the this warped sense of justice. The spotlight has once more been cast on the frailty of the whole system, both by the former Governor of Illinois, George Ryan’s decision to issue a moratorium on the use of the death penalty in his State, and more recently the posthumous attempts to exonerate Todd Willingham of the murder of his two young daughters.

However, it was not until a recent trip to work in Austin, Texas, with the Texas Defender Service (‘TDS’), an NGO committed to fighting the against the death penalty, that I came face to face with why exactly the guilty – the serial killers, murdering rapists, and child killers must also be protected. It was in carrying out the work, and in meeting the inmates, that I realised; it is not only the innocent who are wrongly executed, but their guilty counterparts also.

Texas has the dubious honour of executing the most persons since the reintroduction of the death penalty in the USA in 1976, and so far has exterminated 16 persons in 2010. The system as a whole reeks of a commitment to capital punishment. This commitment has, in many instances manifested itself as downright indifference to human life. From the countless cases of ineffective, state appointed, defence counsel (see the case of Calvin Burdine) to the recent debacle concerning Justice Keller, which resulted in calls for her impeachment and the relevant State Commission on Judicial Conduct, charging (but inevitably acquitting) Keller with five counts of misconduct. The latter involved a situation where Justice Keller, in full knowledge that a last minute motion for a stay of execution by the TDS was about to be filed, instead left the Courts to return home to meet a gardener. The subject of the motion, Michael Wayne Richard, was executed less than three hours after Justice Keller refused to return to the Courts to accept the motion (see here). It is was against this backdrop that I came to meet with Patrick Murphy and Scott Panetti – two men sentenced to death by the State of Texas for the crimes they have committed, who are currently residing at the death row in the Polunsky Unit, Livingstone, Texas.

In using these two men as a particular example, they provide the perfect case of why those who are guilty of capital murder should not be executed. They are also share some of the many characteristics of the type of people who find themselves on death row; poor, low IQ, suffering from a mental illness and highly unstable backgrounds in general.

In the case of Patrick, along with six other escapees, he was convicted of the killing of a police officer and sentenced to death. Patrick came from one of the most horrific childhoods one could ever imagine. The physical and emotional torture he suffered as an infant could only be described as truly horrendous. The impact that this childhood had on him still resonates with him, and equally so with anyone that hears his story. Patrick still bears the psychological and physical scars from his upbringing. He was never once given the opportunity to make the correct choice in life. It is because of this that Patrick finds himself on death row.

With Scott, the whole Texan Courts have been brought into disrepute. Scott, prior to his trial in 1995, had been placed in mental health institutions, both voluntarily and involuntarily 14 times due to a history of severe mental illness. At his competency hearing, where he was deemed competent enough to be tried for capital murder, he waived his 6th amendment right to legal counsel. At trial, Scott proceeded to represent himself, dressed as a cowboy, continuing the trial using old Western terminology. The low point of the trial was to be when he called, amongst others, the following witnesses; JFK, Jesus Christ and Marilyn Monroe. Despite letting a man with a recognisable mental illness continually humiliate himself in front of a full court, the prosecution continued the trial, eventually securing a death verdict (see here).

Death row inmates in Texas are locked up 23 hours a day, kept in complete isolation, even during recreation time. They are served breakfast at 3.30am every morning. If they do not get up at this time, they are not fed. They are forced to spend the last years of their life in a 10ft by 6ft cell, without air conditioning or even a fan to temper the scorching Texas heat. The only time someone will ever physically touch these men is when their handcuffs are removed, that, and the day that they are executed. These men are subjected to a dehumanising process that lasts until after they are executed.

When the day comes for execution, they are strapped to a gurney, injected with poison costing a grand total of $86.08, and then left to die. The poison injected collapses their diaphragm and stops their heart. Veterinary surgeons have ceased using this technique to put down animals over 20 years ago, as they believe it to be inhumane to the animals. Approximately seven minutes after the poison is injected, these men become no longer persons, but are instead added to the statistics of the “success” of the Texas penal system.

This is a penal system that sees no injustice in exterminating the very persons who should be protected. And while they have may have undoubtedly done wrong, and must pay; we as participants in that very society have no right to choose to exterminate them. For if we accept such a regime, then truly Dickinson’s bird, no matter how hard it may beat its feathers, will forever remain hopeless.

Hanna on the Death Penalty and the Texas Defender Service

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