Rusty Nelson on Peace and War

By Rusty Nelson

The death penalty in the US looks a lot like it did in 1986. In fact it looks so similar that, for the 87th time, I’m tempted to throw up my hands and give up any hope that capital punishment will be abolished in my lifetime. But, while the recent execution of Troy Davis in Georgia underscores grim similarities, it also gives us some reasons to work harder than ever.

It was amazing to have Juan Melendez in Spokane right after such a high-profile state killing, and I hope you were able to hear him speak. Unsure about Juan’s dates on Florida’s famous death row, I had to ask him about Willie Jasper Darden, seldom mentioned these days as one of the likely-innocent men tortured and killed to make it safe for states to continue to kill their own citizens.

Willie was killed in 1987. It was painful for Juan to hear the name. He said, “He was a good friend, a mentor to all of us.” We exchanged memories about Willie: his trial in which the prosecutor told the jury he wished he had a shotgun so he could blow that nigger’s head off; the defense witnesses who were never called to testify; his five times on death watch where a window made the electric chair his constant companion; calls for clemency from Pope John Paul II, Jimmy Carter, and Mother Teresa; correspondence from all over the globe, often answered in calligraphy on lined, notebook paper. Willie was our friend and our inspiration for a quarter century of tilting against executions while most civilized countries were shoving lethal punishment as far as possible into the dark past.

Juan had an even closer friend on the row named Jesse Tafero. After Tafero was set on fire during his electrocution, I put his picture on the front of an issue of The Handful of Salt. Years later, Sonny Jacobs came to Spokane to talk about her exoneration and release from Florida’s row. She and her husband, Jesse Tafero, had been charged with the same crime. Their innocence was acknowledged after Jesse had already been burned to death.

Juan says it took a miracle for him to get out of prison alive, although he was innocent and had an alibi. He’s right. The dice are loaded against poor people charged with murder, and the Supreme Court says innocence is no reason for it to interfere.

It’s my belief that Troy Davis was innocent, but Georgia will not be punished for his murder (Florida offered Juan and Sonny no apologies as they were finally ushered out of the death house). In fact, Troy’s family was charged for the expense of taking his body to Atlanta for an autopsy before they could take him to Savannah for burial. If the autopsy bothers you, consider the physical exam he was given before the execution. And that is not the Cruel and Unusual part. For 20 years, he was constantly reminded that he was going to be killed while he held out hope that the courts would acknowledge the crimes of the police and prosecution in pressuring witnesses to perjure themselves. Perhaps a judge would demand to speak with the witness whom others fingered as the person who actually killed the off-duty policeman. Perhaps the pardons and parole board would keep its promise not to execute while there were still huge doubts that his trial had been fair. Once, he had a last minute stay. The night he died, he was given a last second reprieve by the U.S. Supreme Court, extending his life for three more hours of uncertainty before an untried cocktail of poisons was pumped into his arm.

Innocent people executed in the U.S? Yes, I can give you names and incidents, but don’t take my word for it. Sr. Helen Prejean follows two cases of wrongful executions in her second book, The Death of Innocents. The second half of the book, by the way, is a wonderful way to get up to speed on the issue of capital punishment in the United States.

Perhaps you’ll want to get involved with the PJALS death penalty project. It can be rewarding, but there have been some very bad moments. Good news is rare, and sometimes it is fleeting, as well. And our group has more at stake than ever. Three of our colleagues have close family members on three different death rows.

Washington has played it safe on innocence, but we haven’t quite figured out what wrongful executions are. We tend to send the volunteers, the suicidal prisoners, to the front of the line, but we’ve had to take some condemned men off death row because they were improperly charged in the haste of a prosecutor to get a notch on his belt. Unfortunately, when a fairly progressive state, like Washington, kills a prisoner, it offers encouragement to more rabid states, and it gives cover to error, misconduct and murderous deception in jurisdictions with pipelines to death rows. Harris County, Texas is one such jurisdiction, but you may not have heard much about Chatham County (Savannah), Georgia, the home of Troy Davis. Since re-instatement of capital punishment, five condemned Georgia prisoners have been exonerated and released. Two of those were from Chatham County. Another man from Savannah was executed three years ago after 34 years under sentence of death on testimony as flimsy as that against Troy Davis.

The execution of Troy Davis was a travesty, but it was nothing new. Every execution is wrong and represents a failure in our systems of courts and law enforcement. But our country is hardly ripe for reform as we crow about our successes abroad with the summary executions of Osama bin Laden, and now Al-Awaki, a U.S. citizen. Torture and summary executions have been around for centuries, but the U.S. has, until recently, been very modest about taking credit for this kind of homicide.

Davis’ execution was a public mistake. Our Spokane vigil at Salem Lutheran Church was small, but hope and determination mitigated our grief. Democracy Now and MSNBC were in Jackson, Georgia to let a part of the world see the bizarre spectacle created by a state shouting “justice!” while pushing aside truth and mercy. We in the abolition movement are hopeful that Americans will continue to be squeamish, if not outraged, each time a life is taken in one of our antiseptic death chambers. We will continue to oppose each state killing.

If you are not yet ready to scrap the whole, anachronistic system of killing healthy, incarcerated human beings, join me in taking a small step toward civilization. Contact your state and U.S. legislators and ask them to introduce and support bills that would make it illegal to execute innocent people and hold jurisdictions and prosecutors accountable for gratuitous death sentences.

It’s time for our state and our country to stop the killing.

The Death Penalty Abolition Group meets Wednesdays, November 2 and 16 and December 7 and 21, at 35 W. Main.