Getting a Glimpse of Life on Death Row

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“The death chamber stretches out, its shape like a crucifix.”
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Italian journalist Mario Marazziti confronts the topic of the death penalty in an intimate and moving way in “13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty.”

A death sentence is the ultimate punishment. InThirteen Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty(Seven Stories Press, 2015), Mario Marazziti, an Italian journalist and activist against the death penalty, shows the vast number of people who are impacted by death row and why the stakes are so high for us all whether we are on death row or not. This excerpt, which describes some of the people that Marazziti met while visiting death row, is from Chapter 7, “Voices in the Silence.”

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“No sandals, no visible toes, no tank tops.”
—Rules for death row visitors

The unspoken aim of death row is to break the wills of the prisoners and to emphasize the idea of their inhumanity. In that way, when the day of the execution arrives, it will seem that the person whose life is taken is in a sense not really a human being. But against all odds, Dominique Green has grown up in here. He’s become a man. He writes poetry, he paints. His art expresses anguish. There’s a rose, emerging from a man’s eyes, with tears that drip from the thorns and travel far, like a letter sent from prison. There are small spaces, intertwined bodies, grilles and bars everywhere. The death chamber stretches out, its shape like a crucifix.

John Paul Penry has grown here, too, and learned how to read a little, even if it is clear that he will never be a grown-up in any of the ways we understand that word to have meaning. When I met him, the US Supreme Court had annulled his sentence twice, saying the lower courts did not take his disability into account, but each time the state of Texas has had the last word and he is still on death row.

Eddie Johnson used to call himself “the Warrior” in his letters. He was under eighteen when he was arrested, and eventually ended up here on death row. He’s always been at war with the system, fighting a losing battle.

Meeting Death Row Inmates

Dominique Green had become pen pals with Stefania Caterina and a couple of my friends, Luis and Barbara, living in Rome. Stefania, a clever, sensitive woman living near the Vatican, is a member of the Community of Sant’Egidio. It was thanks to her and Dominique Green that we all entered death row for the first time.

After several years of letters back and forth with Dominique Green, I wanted to meet him in person, which meant traveling to death row in the Polunsky Unit in West Livingston. I wrote several letters to the administration and thought I had been placed on the visitors list. I booked my flight and hotel room and went to Texas. After I arrived, I was told that I did not yet have permission to visit and that it was not clear whether I would be granted permission in time. But it turns out that there are special, more lenient, rules for members of the media. A way in was available to me after all, so long as I entered as a journalist.

It turns out there’s one day a week when members of the media are allowed to enter death row, so long as the inmates and their lawyers agree. It is one of the contradictions of the American penal system. It is a closed system, a total institution that is not governed by the same rules and ideals that apply in the world outside. Nevertheless, there is some transparency, and in keeping with the idea of an evolved democracy, the media have easy access. This access can be understood in two ways. In one, a mature democracy should have nothing to hide and death row should be no exception, so it is positive that the media can penetrate prisons. But there is also a different way of seeing the situation—as yet another flagrant example of the unequal power among human beings, where members of the media have special rights while friends of the condemned have no rights at all.

So I filled out the media request form and asked my assistant at RAI, the Italian public television network, to send, as required, an official request from the office in Rome. I contacted RAI’s New York bureau and got the contact details for some TV production partners in Texas. In Houston, I hired a two-person TV crew at my own expense, for a rate of one thousand dollars per day, and on the scheduled day the three of us entered the prison. The State of Texas was playing with me; I was going to play, too.

I had no intention of making a film. All I wanted was to meet Dominique Green, John Paul Penry, and Eddie Johnson, friends of mine. But since I had the crew with me, I started to film. I was not conducting interviews, I was filming life on death row, talking to my friends while my friends were talking to me. To be precise, life was flowing and the camera was just recording. Death row is all about extremes: either no life or lots of life.

The meeting room where we were is painted white and has a bulletproof glass wall down the middle. There are seats for visitors on one side of the glass wall and cubicles for the inmates on the other. Visitors speak to inmates on an old black phone.

Beyond the meeting room, behind the sturdy walls, armored doors, and bullet-proof glass are three hundred convicts in white jumpsuits emblazoned with the letters DR, constantly reminding them of their appointment in Samarra.

Dominique Green

“As far as violence, that’s one thing you have to throw away, because it’s something you cannot succumb to in here. Because you have no [way to] win. If you do anything the repercussions are so drastic, you lose. So it makes no sense to act that way. If anything, try to outthink the oppressors. Since you know [that’s what] they’re trying to do to you, don’t give them a reason to do something to you.”

John Paul Penry

“I remember the first time I came here. That was back in 1980, the exact day was March 9, 1980. Yeah. It seems like a big old dream to me that has never come true. You know… a big old nightmare for me. You know, come to find out—one of the guys said, ‘Johnny, you need to wake up and face reality [as it really] is.’ I said, ‘I am.’ He said, ‘No, you’re not.’”

Eddie Johnson

“I [had] completed eight years of school. I was still in [high] school when I came here…. Being here on death row has matured me and educated me a lot. But I wish I could have continued studying.”

John Paul Penry

“There’s another inmate who taught me how to read the Bible. John 3:16. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.’ I read that scripture. He quoted [it to] me over and over again, and told me that I’m doing good. He said now that was a test. This here is a real test. So he told me pick up a pen, or a pencil and a piece of paper and he taught me how to write my letters. You know, like, ‘Dear So-and-so, How are you doing? My name is Johnny Penry.’ That’s how I started my letters out. Told of how long I’ve been on death row. My first letter, I got a response.”

Dominique Green

“I forgave my mother a long time ago. You know, she put me through a lot coming up. I hated her for a while. But, you know, that was before I understood and I really took the time to look at the life she had. And doing that I realized that she was just continuing the cycle. Her mother went through things and passed it on to her and she went through things, and tried to pass it down to me. But I didn’t pass it on. I was the person who broke the cycle. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to break it quick enough, and I found myself here.

“But I broke it. Because I raised two little boys, my two little brothers and so far they got me, you know, with their success, to the point that I did good. From how I grew up, being in this position now, I would say that growing up the way I did, being in a cycle of violence, it prepared me for a situation like this, even though it wasn’t supposed to happen like this. So I can adjust to it, and not let this place wear on and get the best of me, because I’ve been mentally prepared a long time, though I didn’t know it. You know, it’s funny how everything works itself out, but that’s what happens.”

Eddie Johnson

“They segregate us into levels: Level 1, Level 2, Level 3. Level 1’s are regular, they get to have radios, typewriters, and appliances and go to the commissary. And have a visit once a week. Level 2’s aren’t allowed to have any appliances at all. They take our t-shirts, socks even, and underwear, right? And they give us what they call state. State attire and it’s pretty much just thrown-together. It’s two thousand, twenty-five hundred people and everybody’s got to share it like. Most of us elect not to wear them at all, but they only let us buy hygiene [products] on Level 2, and stamps. That’s all. And only two visits a month. On Level 3, we can’t buy nothing at all. And we aren’t allowed to have no deodorant, no toothpaste, nothing, man. All we can buy is postage, that’s all.”

Dominique Green

“We come with a whole other approach of how we handle the system. We don’t throw piss or shit on them, or stuff like that. We go through the processes of the grievances. Try to work things out, and if we have to, we file lawsuits. Which is something other prisoners don’t think about because they’re conditioned into reacting. And they don’t get the way we act. Whereas we’re taught to be more patient, more understanding. To think more about how to make things happen. Because in reality, if you send us to die, well, I mean it just puts so much of your life in perspective. It makes you look at things in a whole other way. Where you just want to be who they want you to become or who they want you to be.”

Eddie Johnson

“I talk to the dudes that are, like, in the next cubicle from mine. We can’t see each other, but we can hear each other. We talk sometimes about a lot of our experiences in the world, our experiences here. Just a lot of different things, we compare thoughts and opinions, ideas. All that stuff.”

Dominique Green

“You know, we debate. We argue, we do everything to just pass the [time] and at the same time to keep our humanity, right?”

Eddie Johnson

“Signing my letters ‘Sir Eddie’ [instead of ‘Eddie the Warrior’] means that I know now I am not an animal. I don’t have to express it like that. I’ve matured to the point where it doesn’t matter what they think. Because I know in myself that I am not an animal, right? And that I’m a human being just like everybody else. I use ‘Sir’ with my name, because that’s how I feel. I feel worthy of life. You know what I’m saying? The kind of respect that every human being’s got.”

John Paul Penry

“I remember when I had a date and it was a real scary one. I came within three hours of being executed and that’s about the closest I ever got. So far, I’ve had four dates and the fourth one, it got real, real scary. And I smoked me some cigarettes, drank me some tea and I was still, my head was still messed up over that. Right now it’s still messed up. I can’t help but think about it.”

Dominique Green

“When a society will stoop to lawlessness to, I guess, eradicate lawlessness, basically what you’re saying is you’re going to become killers to kill killers. And to do that, you throw all the rules out the window. So innocent people, retarded people, mentally impaired people—all of them gonna get caught up in that wheel because lawlessness doesn’t care. I mean, it’s all about exacting revenge and so that’s what always makes the death penalty wrong: the fact that to enforce it there are things you have to do away with. There can be no fairness. You have to break the rules to get what you want, to murder people. That’s the thing about a killer. When somebody wants to kill someone, do you think they’re thinking about how to do it fairly? It doesn’t make sense, trying to kill somebody fairly.”

Eddie Johnson

“By the same laws, the people who made capital punishment legal commit murder, commit capital murder also. So the dude who injects the fluids in our veins, he commits murder under their laws. So, it’s not justifiable at all because they’re saying it’s all right for him to kill us, but it’s not all right for somebody else who’s not a part of their group to kill somebody. So it’s just a big contradiction.”

Dominique Green

“How many people here in death row are innocent? You know, I’ve done legal work and I do any legal work for any prisoner who asks me for it. I’ve come to believe that it’s between 10 and 30 percent.

“I’ve seen so many cases that are just rife with errors and the attorneys didn’t do nothing, the investigators didn’t do nothing. The police were rushing to solve the case. And it’s not like [the accused] had any money to fight. So they weren’t no different than me. It’s just that in their case what you look for—the only thing that could probably save them—is the number of errors that were made. That’s all it comes down to.

“I think the last poem I wrote was maybe one month ago. I’ve recently started helping other prisoners that are trying to write poetry and stuff like that, so I’m more like an editor now. I show them how to compose poems, create stanzas, and all this. I’ll walk them through the poetry process, because one thing poetry initially did, it made me want to write more. Poetry opened the door for me to write articles and stories, so I use it as a vehicle to teach other people how to write. It starts off with poetry, but slowly it evolves to something else.

“Each time, it costs like $2.5 to $7 million to execute one of us. There are 320 capital cases in process right now. I was going to show that with those numbers you just spent between one and seven billion dollars to kill 320 people. I mean, you could take that money—the price that they are paying to kill me—and invest it in my life. I could have a beautiful future. But they don’t invest in our lives. Instead, they invest in destroying.”

At 7:59 pm on October 26, 2004, Dominique Green dies by lethal injection. He is the 331st convicted murderer to be executed in Texas—and the 938th convicted murderer to be executed in the United States—since 1976. His last words are, “There was a lot of people that got me to this point and I can’t thank them all. But thank you for your love and support. They have allowed me to do a lot more than I could have on my own . . . I have overcame a lot. I am not angry but I am disappointed that I was denied justice. But I am happy that I was afforded you all as family and friends. I love you all. Please just keep the struggle going . . . I am just sorry and I am not as strong as I thought I was going to be. But I guess it only hurts for a little while. You are all my family. Please keep my memory alive.”

The coroner writes on his death certificate, “Cause of death: Homicide.”

Dominique Green

“Since I got here, it’s just trying to defy the system and get out, if that can be. Just—I don’t know, man—that’s the only thing I guess that really pushes me to accept these days and carry on the struggle: the fact that I could be fighting for all the chips or I could be fighting for nothing. The only way I will find out is to keep fighting.”

Excerpted from 13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty, by Mario Marazziti, and published by Seven Stories Press, 2015.

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