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Writing for Their Lives: Death Row USA written by Marie Mulvey-Roberts


Writing for Their Lives: Death Row USA written by Marie Mulvey-Roberts


Going well beyond graphic descriptions of death row’s madness and suicide-inducing realities, Writing for Their Lives offers powerful, compassionate, and harrowing accounts of prisoners rediscovering the value of life from within the brutality and boredom of the row. Editor Marie Mulvey-Roberts brings together the writings of prisoners (many of whom are also prize-winning authors) and the words of those who work in the field of capital punishment, whose roles have included defense attorney, prison psychiatrist, chaplain and warden, spiritual advisor, abolitionist and executioner, as well as a Nobel Prize nominee and a murder victim family member. The material is presented through articles, journal extracts, letters, short stories, and poems.


Exposing little-known facts about the five modes of execution practiced in the United States today, Writing for Their Lives documents the progress of life on death row from a capital trial to execution and beyond, through the testimony of the prisoners themselves as well as those who watch, listen, and write to them. What emerges are stories of the survival of the human spirit under even the most unimaginable circumstances, and the ways in which some prisoners find penitence and peace in the most unlikely surroundings. In spite of the uniformity of their prison life and its nearly inevitable conclusion, prisoners able to read and write letters are shown to retain and develop their individuality and humanity as their letters become poems and stories.


Writing for Their Lives serves ultimately as an affirmation of the value of life and provides bountiful evidence that when a state executes a prisoner, it takes a life that still had something to give. This edition features an introduction by the editor as well as a foreword by Jan Arriens. Royalties from this volume are donated to the legal charity Amicus, which assists in capital defense in the United States.


A powerful anthology documenting the thoughts and experiences of those waiting to die



Death Row U.S.A.


Copyright © 2007 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-252-07099-2


On January 11, 2003, a momentous decision was made in the history of the death penalty in the United States. Illinois Governor George Ryan was so concerned about miscarriages of justice that he took the unprecedented step of commuting the death sentences of all the death row prisoners in his state to life imprisonment.

The death penalty dissolves the most fundamental of civil liberties: the right to life. It is maintained by myths-that it deters crime, brings genuine closure for victims' families, punishes only the most heinous criminals, and is administered fairly and impartially. In fact, imposition of the death penalty is determined by place, race, and money and is the product of a collective fear reinforced by ethnic divisions, media competitors, and political ambitions. Capital punishment is a relic of a frontier mentality now so sanitized that the average citizen cannot see the home-grown holocaust buried in the apple-pie image of the American Dream. By refusing to collude with this judicial sham and national shame, Governor Ryan halted the grisly process of state execution, which had been preceded by his moratorium on the death penalty in 2000. The American Bar Association House of Delegates in 1997 adopted a resolution calling for a general moratorium on executions until serious flaws in the nation's capital punishment systemare eliminated. Yet the death penalty remains and, in the words of Justice Harry A. Blackmun, is "fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice, and mistake."

In the 1972 case of Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court declared the death penalty statutes unconstitutional because the dispensation of death sentencing was so arbitrary. Most of the retentionist states redrafted their statutes and bifurcated capital trials into guilt-innocence and punishment phases, allegedly in order to enhance "fairness." The death penalty was thus deemed constitutional in the case, among others, of Gregg v. Georgia and reinstated by a Supreme Court ruling in 1976. Since that date, more than 861 people have been executed in the United States, even though 111 countries have abolished the death penalty. The United States, while proclaiming itself leader of the free world and a model for human rights, lags far behind.

The United States is one of only three countries that carry out eighty percent of the world's judicial executions. It is the only member of NATO and the single "Westernized" country to uphold the death penalty. This is imposed by forty out of fifty-three jurisdictions (which include the District of Columbia, U.S. government, and U.S. military). The most vigorous of all the "killing states" is Texas, followed by Virginia, Oklahoma, Missouri, Florida, and then the rest of the Southern states, which proudly form the "death belt."

Since 1990, the country that has executed the greatest number of offenders sentenced to death for offenses committed as juveniles is the United States. Iran is the only other country known to have executed juveniles since 1992. Amnesty International has campaigned against America for "sending children to the electric chair." The U.S. even signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which under Article 6 prevents the execution of people for crimes committed when under the age of eighteen), although its administration purported to have signed a "reservation" rejecting this part of the treaty-which the U.N. Human Rights Committee has declared to be "unlawful." In short, the U.S. has contravened decrees of human rights organizations worldwide including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and international standards on capital punishment, such as the resolutions taken by the United Nations and the Geneva Convention of August 12, 1949.

Human rights violations also relate to race, which is a determining factor in who gets the death penalty. Even though African Americans are twelve percent of the U.S. population, they constitute forty-one percent of prisoners awaiting execution, while eighty percent of those on federal death row are members of minority groups. Some eighty percent of completed capital cases involve white victims, whereas nationally only fifty percent of homicide victims are white. Prosecutors frequently stack juries with whites and death penalty supporters. An illustration of how the death penalty can be seen as a form of state-sanctioned lynching is evident in the case of William Andrews, who was executed in Utah in 1992. Found in the jury room was a note reading "hang the nigger," along with a drawing of a man hanging from a tree.

People also end up on death row because of poverty. The irony is that if a portion of the cost of incarceration had been spent earlier to provide better education and welfare, these people might well have avoided prison. California spends more money on its prisons than on its schools and universities. It is not common knowledge that for capital offenders, life without parole is more cost-effective than execution. In North Carolina for example, a death penalty case costs tax payers roughly $2.3 million, as opposed to $750,000 to imprison someone in a top-security single cell for life.

By the time of execution, the prisoner facing death may no longer be the same person who committed the crime. Profound personal transformations take place in prison cells. It is important to stress that concern for victims of the death penalty should not detract from compassion for the victims of their crimes. An organization combining both is Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, which advocates forgiveness rather than revenge as the way forward. Other less-visible victims of death row are the families of prisoners. Imagine the agony of a mother witnessing the killing of her child after having been denied any physical contact with him for many years. The deprivation of death row prisoners, from whom even life is eventually taken, mirrors the moral impoverishment and political paralysis out in the "land of the free."

It has been argued that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to homicide and other violent crimes. If this is true, why do states that lack the death penalty have fewer murders per capita than those that have it? Premeditated murder is an aggravating circumstance that often attracts a capital sentence, yet by taking years before it kills, the state imitates what it professes to condemn. As Robert Kennedy stated shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "Whenever any American's life is taken by another American unnecessarily-whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence-whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded."

The United States approves five methods of killing, which it has used against thousands of its own citizens and nearly a hundred foreign nationals. These are electrocution, lethal injection, gas chamber, firing squad, and hanging. Lethal injection has been regarded as the safest of these methods, but, due to gross negligence of protocols surrounding this procedure, it frequently violates the clause in the Eighth Amendment of the American Constitution against "cruel and unusual punishment." Physicians are needed to insert intravenous catheters, rather than unqualified and barely trained prison guards, whose efforts can result in botched executions. Contrary to popular medical advice, Texas believes it is reasonable for inmates to have their last meal two to three hours prior to execution, whereas a gap of at least six to eight hours is needed to ensure that the inmate will not vomit the food and choke to death. The first injection to be administered is sodium thiopental, of which 2.5g is widely regarded by the medical profession as a sufficient dose to ensure that an inmate does not regain consciousness. This is followed by the paralyzing muscle drug of pancuronium bromide and then by potassium chloride, which kills by inducing cardiac arrest. The case for lethal injection as a humane method falls apart completely if the anesthetic fails to work, with horrifying consequences. Few states offer sufficient instructions on dosage to executioners. Unfortunately, Montana stipulates a mere 0.5g of sodium thiopental, "an ultra-short-acting drug," which is only twenty-five percent of the required dose to maintain unconsciousness. An inmate's weight, age, and health are factors that need to be considered in determining the correct dose. But only Florida stipulates that a pharmacist, who is trained to take account of such vital variables, should prepare the lethal injection. If an overdose of pancuronium bromide is injected, the inmate will die slowly of asphyxiation. Mississippi, Florida, Washington, and New Mexico specify a dose over fifty times in excess of the safety margins generally accepted by doctors, while Connecticut stipulates a dose even higher. Of the thirty-six states using lethal injection, only nine stipulate the doses of the chemicals administered while only four of these specify an adequate and effective dosage. Texas, the most virulent state executioner, has had practical problems with about eighty percent of lethal injections, prompting even the inventor of the lethal injection machine it uses, Fred Leuchter, to conclude, "In the final analysis, it looks disgusting."

Days before the sentence is carried out, prisoners are removed from the row and their possessions are taken away from them. They are then taken to a bare holding cell, the "Death House," where they are left in solitary confinement with nothing but a Bible and their legal papers and watched day and night by prison guards. The condemned are systematically stripped of everything, even their dignity, for there is no escape from that watchful gaze. Technically, they are not even allowed to take tranquillizers to numb themselves for the ordeal ahead because regulations insist that prisoners must remain as fully physically and mentally aware as possible. As the end draws near, family members are usually allowed a visit. After they leave, the prisoner's attorney and spiritual advisor, who is often the prison chaplain, remain. Prisoners assigned to electrocution have their heads shaved and also a patch on one leg for the electrodes to be put in place. On the last walk, the spiritual advisor is not allowed to give the so-called dead man walking even the comfort and reassurance of touch.

Prior to execution, the strap-down team will have rehearsed its grisly task with military precision. One member may be assigned an arm to restrain, another a leg. The division of the prisoner into bodily parts helps these prison officers to overlook the fact that they are dealing with a human being. Their militaristic discourse further distances them from the horror of taking a human life.

Language also deflects from the grim reality of death when, for example, a government spokesman refers to certain terrorists as being "eligible for death." Politicians brag of the number of corpses piling up from executions carried out in their states, promising more in the hope of increasing the number of votes in the run-up to an election. President George W. Bush holds the record for personally signing more than one hundred death warrants in Texas. He dismisses the fact that every death row statistic is or was a corresponding human life. In death rows across the United States, more than 3,503 men and women now languish. Their numbers are increasing.

In a book called In Spite of Innocence (1992), the authors reveal that in the span of one year during the last decade, 400 people were erroneously convicted of capital or potentially capital crimes. Recently, more advanced methods of DNA testing have exonerated a number of prisoners wrongly convicted, showing that the forensic evidence used against them was flawed. Since some police departments now destroy DNA evidence, it is imperative that defense attorneys obtain a court order to preserve it. It is extraordinary that in January 1993 the United States Supreme Court ruled it was constitutional to execute an innocent person, as long as such a manifest injustice was preceded by something called a "fair trial." Equally disturbing is the dilemma that if a defendant's attorney does not file evidence demonstrating the innocence of the accused in a capital case within a given deadline after the original sentencing, the evidence is inadmissible at the appellate stage. A prisoner in Virginia appealed for the right to introduce new evidence, even though the twenty-one-day deadline had passed. The response of Mary Sue Terry, the state's attorney general was that "evidence of innocence is irrelevant." The reification of the law in this way turns "due process" into an inexorable death knell. Yet there were hopeful developments in 2001-2, such as the Supreme Court's decisions in the cases of Atkins v. Virginia, proscribing the execution of the mentally retarded, and Ring v. Arizona, mandating that death sentences must be determined by a jury rather than by a judge.

Above all, capital punishment is punishment for those without the capital. The defenses provided by states for the ninety percent of defendants unable to afford a lawyer range from the woefully inadequate to, in eight states, the nonexistent. Court-appointed attorneys are usually inexperienced and underpaid, often working in the states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana for as little as $11.75 an hour. It is not unknown for incompetent lawyers to be asleep during the capital trial, which can last less than a week-hardly enough time even for a "dream team" to present a good defense. Yet some excellent lawyers do work tirelessly and effectively to save lives, including the British-born U.S.-qualified attorney Clive Stafford Smith, Director of the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center, and Bryan Stevenson, the distinguished lawyer and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. Profits from this book will be donated to the British organization Amicus, a legal charity supporting lawyers in capital defense in the U.S. This publication will enable prisoners to literally write for their lives in a number of different ways alongside leading death row professionals who have dedicated their lives and words to this cause.

These writings grew out of an earlier book I edited called Out of the Night: Writings from Death Row (1994). In the years since this book was compiled, the death penalty has accelerated, scarring more deeply the mental and moral landscapes of "the home of the brave." Ironically, death by electrocution, gassing, and lethal injection has become more deeply embedded in the American way of life at the same time that the inner workings of the killing machine have become more transparent. Since Out of the Night was published, at least ten contributors have been killed. For some, the date and method of their execution, details of their last meal, and a transcript of their last words have been posted on certain prison Web sites for all to read. These are a chilling reminder that no privacy exists for those who die in execution chambers across America. The macabre patch of cyber-space is a curious crossroad where twenty-first-century technology intersects with the primitive ritual killing of the citizens of a nation proud of its humanitarian role in the world. But it is the very humanity of those who wait for death, in virtual solitary confinement in cells as small as 6 feet by 9 feet, that emerges most powerfully from this anthology. Here, poets, essayists, and creative writers write from under the executioner's shadow. Their words are a beacon of light arising from a legislative darkness in which revenge, retribution, and the rule of law are authorized by the U.S. legislature to blot out human lives.


Excerpted from WRITING FOR THEIR LIVES Copyright © 2007 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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