Friday, December 02, 2011 4:39 PM
According to journalist Anna Clark, last week’s decision by Governor John Kitzhaber to put a moratorium on executions in Oregon “is the latest step in the accelerating movement to abolish capital punishment in the U.S. through state-by-state moratorium’s and voter initiatives.”
Blogging for TheAmerican Prospect, Clark goes on to report that nationwide “the actual number of executions has dropped by nearly a third since the 1990s, which may reflect increasing public ambivalence. Publicity around exonerated inmates is also raising uncertainty even among those who otherwise support capital punishment.” Clark also notes that overall support for the death penalty has dropped 19 percent in the last 17 years.”
This analysis, along with recent headlines about the death sentence a Phoenix jury dealt convicted serial killer Mark Goudeau, got me wondering whether or not this might be one of those rare, fleeting times that the headlines conspire to get the issue of capital punishment off the back page to the forefront of America’s collective conscience. It also sent me back to an arts storybeing passed around the office last summer.
In a piece published by The American Conservative in September, author John Rodden encourages readers to revisit “A Hanging,” a moving, first-person story about the public execution of an unidentified Indian man in Burma. Published in 1931, the 2,000 word essay proved to be literary breakthrough for a 28-year-old author named Eric Blair—who, two years later, would adopt the pen name George Orwell.
“The success of ‘A Hanging’ turns on the fact that its narrative gradually and ingeniously shifts: its final paragraphs generate a perspective that ultimately induces us to consider ourselves the guilty parties—as executioners bereft of any moral high ground—rather than the condemned man,” writes Rodden. “We need to reread Eric Blair’s ‘A Hanging’ for political and moral reasons. We need to be reminded that the guilty are not necessarily—or only—those who are convicted of crimes. Let us pause and consider Orwell’s ending when we presume to sit in judgment and take another’s life.”
Source: The American Conservative
Image byAvia Venefica, licensed under Creative Commons
Tuesday, November 08, 2011 4:03 PM
America has become a cruel country. There are clear examples of this, which Jonathan Schell points to in an article for The Nation. Cheering for execution numbers, as happened in a recent Republican presidential campaign debate; celebrations in the streets following the killing of Osama bin Laden; the Bush administration’s torture, followed by the “brazenness” of both Bush and Cheney, who “publicly embraced their wrongdoing” on recent tours for their memoirs; Obama’s unwillingness to impose legal accountability on any in the Bush administration; and our country’s criminal justice system, including its use of the death penalty and solitary confinement. And though cruelty cannot be legislated, it “can be manifested in legislation,” Schell argues, pointing to a number of cuts “on the right-wing agenda.” Of that long list he writes, “It appears that no one is so unfortunate that he or she is exempt from spending cuts, while at the same time no one is so fortunate as to be ineligible for a tax cut.”
“Cruelty is a close cousin to injustice, yet it is different,” Schell writes:
Injustice and its opposite, justice—perhaps the most commonly used standards for judging the health of the body politic—are political criteria par excellence, and apply above all to systems and their institutions. Cruelty and its opposites, kindness, compassion and decency, are more personal. They are apolitical qualities that nevertheless have political consequences. A country’s sense of decency stands outside and above its politics, checking and setting limits on abuses. An unjust society must reform its laws and institutions. A cruel society must reform itself.
Schell’s piece taken along side a post at utne.com today from Tom Engelhardt on the sad reality of what’s become of George W. Bush’s American Dream, paint a picture of a country that has lost its way. And while both pieces find cause for hope—the protesting of Troy Davis’ killing in the former and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the latter—it’s hard to see past the similar descriptions in both of a country so enamored with its own brute strength that it’s created a monster out of it. “Bush’s American Dream,” Engelhardt writes, “was a kind of apotheosis of this country’s global power as well as its crowning catastrophe, thanks to a crew of mad visionaries who mistook military might for global strength and acted accordingly.” While Shell describes the U.S. as “a country that seems to know of no remedy for social ills but punishment.”
Source: The Nation, TomDispatch
Image by Robert Couse-Baker, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, October 13, 2011 11:55 AM
The highly publicized, highly contentious, state-sanctioned execution of Troy Davis on September 21, 2011, reinvigorated America’s longstanding conversation about the death penalty. A Gallup poll released this morning found that only 61 percent of Americans approve of using the death penalty for convicted murderers, a 39-year low. Our country seems to be the cusp of cultural change when it comes to capital punishment. Do you know where you stand?
It’s okay if you don’t. The death penalty is a morally complex issue, tangled up by competing threads of history, media, the political process, religion, class, and—last, but not least—emotions.
Sensing a need for national conversation about the death penalty, ThinkProgress blogger Alyssa Rosenberg launched “The Pop Culture and Death Penalty Project”—a six-month-long exploration of the intersections between art and crime, morality and mortality. Beginning next Wednesday, October 19, she’ll be hosting discussions about books, television shows, and films that deal with the topic in one way or another. Subjects include Richard Wright’s Native Son, 1938 film Angels with Dirty Faces, and a few episodes of HBO drama Deadwood.
Unfortunately, Rosenberg didn’t include any readings from the alternative press. I hope to fill in that gap for you, highlighting a few articles that tell the human stories of criminals, victims, and everyone caught in the fray.
Could you forgive the man who shot you in the face? The title says it all in this tale of forgiveness, bureaucracy, and racism by Michael J. Mooney for D Magazine. Rais Bhuiyan confronts his assailant ten years later and tries to stop his execution.
- “The executioner is the one that suffers,” says Jerry Givens, a former executioner for the state of Virginia, in this profile from The Daily Beast.
- A writer for The Good Men Project describes the awkward feeling one gets when reporting on an execution.
- One by one, countries are ditching the death penalty, according to an article in The Economist. The West African country of Benin is the latest to abolish capital punishment permanently.
- “Humanism cannot support the death penalty,” begins a recent moral case against capital punishment put out by the Center for Inquiry. “Humanism stands for a social ethics of equality, individual human rights, justice for everyone, and government that defend their citizens. Death penalty supporters appeal to these principles, too. But they narrowly interpret them to justify government killings, and they coldly apply them to the weakest among us.”
Utne Reader has reprinted a number of fantastic articles about the death penalty in the past few years, including “Give Me Death,” in which a lawyer explains why his client volunteered to be executed; “Thou Shalt Not Kill. Unless . . .,” in which a counts down to an execution in Texas, one day at a time; and “At Death’s Door,” an interview with long-time death-penalty activist and Catholic nun Sister Helen Prejean.
- We wouldn’t want to forget the classics. George Orwell’s 1931 essay “A Hanging,” in which he describes the execution of a criminal by the British Imperial Police.
Sources: Center for Inquiry, D Magazine, The Daily Beast, The Economist, The Good Men Project, ThinkProgress
Image from Marion Doss was taken at the “instant bullets from a French firing squad hit a Frenchman who collaborated with the Germans. This execution took place in Rennes, France on November 21, 1944.” Licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, July 21, 2011 1:26 PM
You’ve heard the old phrase “You are what you eat.” A new photography venture called The Last Meals Project amends the adage into “You were what you ate.” Photographer Jonathon Kambouris juxtaposes death row mug shots with a description of the inmate’s last meal, and then superimposes photos of the food on top. The effect is quieting and humbling, bringing the viewer closer to the humanity behind the menace.
Kambouris first became fascinated with death row inmates and last meals after reading a newspaper clipping about the final day of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. “The story spoke of the build up to the execution and described his final moments and last meal,” he told Twenty-Four HoursZine. “When I read that Timothy McVeigh chose two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream as his last meal, it immediately sent a shiver down my spine and left a lasting effect on me.”
“The last meal is the last choice one can make before being put to death, Kambouris explains. “Because of the extreme importance of this ritual, this choice of a last meal is unarguably honest and true.”
(Utne recently covered the moral politics of the death penalty. In one article, Sister Helen Prejean talks about America’s bloody obsession with retribution. In another, a Texas-based writer chronicles a death row inmate’s final twelve days.)
Source: Twenty-Four Hours Zine
Images courtesy of The Last Meals Project and Jonathon Kambouris.
Thursday, November 11, 2010 3:39 PM
Map of usage of lethal injection chair for the death penalty in the United States.
In our latest issue (Nov/Dec) you’ll find a couple fine features on the subject of the death penalty in America; The Texas Observer’s Robert Leleux takes a long and very hard look at the assembly line approach to executions in the Lone Star State, and The Sun interviews legendary capital punishment opponent Sister Helen Prejean, 17 years after the publication of her Pulitzer Prize-nominated Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States.
Whether your interest in executions (you can’t really sugarcoat that word) is fueled by moral outrage or purely voyeuristic curiosity, the internet offers all sorts of resources, history, and creepy diversions.
The Death Penalty Information Center provides everything from the latest news and data to a comprehensive execution database that will tell you, for instance, that of the 45 executions in the U.S. so far in 2010, 17 have been carried out by the state of Texas. The site also allows you to break down data in all sorts of revelatory ways. Want to know what percentage of those executed in any given year have been juveniles, white, or female? The information’s there.
At the Texas Department of Criminal Justice site you can read the rap sheets and final words (where a statement was offered) of the 464 inmates the state has put to death since 1982.
The Dead Man Eating Weblog hasn’t been updated in awhile, but it still offers a sad and oddly fascinating inventory of the last meals of a host of executed offenders. And the artist Kate MacDonald has done a series of stark paintings that capture the aftermath and essential melancholy of those lonely meals.
Finally, the diligent folks over at Executed Today offer a scholarly and obsessively-annotated timeline (updated pretty much every day) of executions throughout history.
The Texas Observer
, Executed Today, Dead Man Eating Weblog
Image by Lokal_Profil, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, September 08, 2010 5:28 PM
The cover story of the early August edition of High Country News features John N. Maclean's expert storytelling and discerning analysis of the recent shift in perception of wildfire arson and those who commit it. In "The Fiery Touch," Maclean establishes a context to his story for those unfamiliar with the primarily Western phenomenon, writing that:
For many decades, deliberately set wildfires were treated more as a nuisance than as a major crime. Rural communities not only tolerated arson in their backyards; they often practiced it as a cultural prerogative, to stimulate new grass on grazing land or to create jobs on fire crews.
His narrative thread is the story of Raymond Lee Oyler, a 38-year-old automechanic accused of starting Southern California's 2006 Esperanza wildfire that killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters. Oyler's case marked the first time that a wildfire arsonist was convicted of first-degree murder (five counts), and furthermore, sentenced to death. Maclean's chilling retelling of the five deaths by fatal burning ("Flames overran the crew with a swiftness that left no time for more hose lays, burnouts or last words—except for one unintelligible radio transmission, the haunting cry of a never-identified young man in extreme distress") and poignant descriptions of family reactions in the courtroom lend humanity to what might otherwise be a dry issue of crime and the legal system.
The precedent set by the strict crackdown on Oyler has been reflected in subsequent trials of wildfire arsonists, in the hopes of deterring outcomes similar to that of the Esperanza fire:
The conviction of Raymond Oyler for murder would have been unthinkable a century or even a few decades ago. Swift justice will not bring any of the victims back to life, but it sends a new and unequivocal sign of community respect for those who suffer irretrievable loss while engaged in defense of lives and property. The Oyler case stands as a warning to every would-be fire starter: Tolerance for the torch has gone the way of the Old West.
Source: High Country News
Image by 96dpi, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010 10:25 AM
This new Amnesty International video is a potent depiction of the sadness and tragedy of the death penalty. "139 countries have wiped out the death penalty," come the words at the end of this very quiet and beautiful short. "Only 58 are left to convince."
Watch the video at the Pleix blog.
(Thanks, It's Nice That.)
Wednesday, June 25, 2008 10:43 AM
Catholics are no strangers to schisms, but breaking secular ties is proving tricky, reports the Catholic newsweekly America (subscription required). When Amnesty International announced its policy supporting the worldwide decriminalization of abortion in August 2007, affiliated Catholic chapters had to decide whether the nonprofit’s work against torture and the death penalty outweighed its stance on abortion.
Unsurprisingly, America found that many Catholic chapters disaffiliated from Amnesty International. “It’s disappointing,” says Monsignor Robert McClory, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Detroit. “On particular cases, we can work together. But the kind of in-depth collaborative work of the past would be stifled by the decision they’ve taken.”
In spite of the controversial policy, some social justice–minded Catholics are finding it difficult to abandon Amnesty International's work completely. Notre Dame’s campus chapter changed its name to “Human Rights Notre Dame” but continues to rely on information from Amnesty’s “Urgent Action” alerts. Across the Atlantic, the predominantly Catholic Amnesty Northern Ireland has struggled with breaking ties, reports Ireland’s public service broadcaster RTÉ, and is considering letting Catholic schools re-join Amnesty International if they can be sure funds raised won’t help support abortion.
Catholic human rights groups may continue to seek new affiliations. America speculates that some may look to abortion-neutral human rights organizations such as the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.
Image by Takoma Bibelot, licensed under Creative Commons.
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