Georgia did not listen: They killed her.

Kelly Gissendaner at her theology graduation ceremony

They did not listen; they killed Kelly Gissendaner at a state prison in Jackson, Georgia, Wednesday, September 30, early in the morning.

She is the first woman executed in Georgia since 1945. Her execution was postponed after the lethal liquid was declared improper for killing because it was too cloudy. This decision was made after a series of botched executions, that left the condemned to death screaming and shaking for too long before dying. Just a reminder that the death penalty is first a violent act committed by the state.

All her appeals for clemency based on numerous testimonies that she changed her life were denied and early Wednesday morning Kelly Gissendaner received shots to die.

Now it is the turn of Richard Glossip in Oklahoma. His execution was stayed just before he was going to be executed by lethal injection. He was accused of a hired murder. Many elements have been assembled to assert that Richard Glossip is most likely innocent and was set up by the actual murderer who denounced him for a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty for himself.

None of this matters. The sentence was confirmed, and the delay is only due to the fear that he was going to be another botched execution because of the injection.

Everything was arranged so this little dirty business could go on, they even turn off the microphones, which is allowed since the last incident, so the torture-victim will not be heard.

They want blood at all price, and as Sister Helen Prejean explained, “The system in our criminal justice system, and particularly the administration of the death penalty, is so corrupt, it is so messed up.”

The eye for an eye law outweighs innocence or rehabilitation; that is not justice!

This cynical game must cease. No technology or protocol will change the fact that the death penalty is nothing other than a violent and arrogant form of oppression and has nothing to do with crime reduction or with reparation for victims’ families. It exacerbates violence in society and reinforces the process of dehumanization, adding to economic, racial and gendered forms of dehumanization. As some states are abolishing the death penalty, others are accelerating a kill-them-all policy.

It is time to stop the death penalty!

 

(Photo Credit: Ann Borden / The Emory Wheel)

The death penalty is violent, unjust and should be abolished

Last week, with almost no debate, the Utah State Senate adopted a bill, 18 – 10, that will allow the use of the firing squad, if drugs were to be unavailable 30 days before scheduled execution. Utah used the firing squad in 2010 to execute one person. Wyoming is examining a similar legislation. The 32 states that still have the death penalty are now looking at this method of the past to continue executing people currently on death row.

In the spirit of innovation, the lethal injection was introduced to remedy the question of suffering in the application of the death penalty, ignoring all kinds of emotional suffering. With the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, lethal injection was developed after the veterinarian techniques of euthanasia and was first experimented in Texas in 1984. This method carried the promise of modernity with the help of medical-technology imagery, making the death penalty appear different than in China, Iran or Saudi Arabia, some of the other major countries using the death penalty.

In the United States the delusional belief that there is a method of killing that could be “humane” with no suffering is reinforced by the populist imperialist discourse. Supporters of lethal injection pretended that it was humane because of the anesthetic that is injected first. This reflects a limited view on what suffering means. Nonetheless, a study published in The Lancet recognized that the procedure for killing inmates was less rigorous than those recommended by the Veterinary Medical Association. The concentration of anesthesia received by the condemned during the lethal injection was lower than required for surgery in 88% of the cases. In 43% the level was so low that the inmates must have had awareness of the asphyxiation, burning and the massive muscle cramping which are the three episodes that the products used for lethal injection entail. With the blockage of delivery of some of these drugs by European laboratories on humanitarian grounds, States began playing the sorcerer’s apprentice at the expense of respect for human dignity.

In 2014 the number and intensity of botched executions attracted more national and international attention. In Arizona, Joseph Wood was pronounced dead one hour and fifty-seven minutes after the beginning of the process. In Oklahoma, Michael Wilson screamed that his body was burning. As a result many states passed “secrecy laws” to allow themselves not to disclose the nature or sources of the drugs they were going to use.

And now a number of states are considering and passing laws to allow former methods that used to be considered barbaric, from the firing squad and the gas chamber to the electric chair. All these methods demonstrate that there is a distance between justice and the death penalty, as the executioner and the penal system are removed from the actual death of the prisoner.

Last spring, the American Academy of Sciences published a study showing that 4.1% of the people on death row are innocent. Consider the recent killing of Troy Davis whose prosecution consisted of incoherence and inconsistency. Nevertheless, the State asserted its dominating power, using the racially vindicating desire of vengeance of the family of the victim as Troy Davis was African American and the victim was white. As with Kelly Gissendaner whose execution is still pending, Davis’ sentence demonstrated that the state is not concerned with a true notion of justice or rehabilitation but rather is the diehard instrument of populist domination within an increasingly inegalitarian society.

Some states have freed themselves from the death penalty. The death penalty should simply be outlawed at the federal level, instead of leaving populist assemblies free to chose more heinous instruments of death. As Cesare Beccharia wrote in Of Crimes and Punishments in 1764, “If I prove that this sentence is neither useful nor necessary, I would have caused the triumph of humanity”.

 

(Image Credit: The Atlantic / ycaradec / Flickr)

Tell Georgia not to kill Kelly Gissendaner!

 

Kelly Gissendaner at her 2011 graduation at Arrendale State Prison

In Georgia, Kelly Gissendaner was going to be the 16th woman to be executed in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in 1973. Six women have been put to death in Texas. All the executions have occurred in Southern states. While California boasts the highest rate of death sentence for women, thus far none have been executed.

Kelly Gissendaner could have been the first woman executed in Georgia since 1945.

She was accused of killing her husband in 1997. She didn’t actually kill her husband; she asked her boyfriend at the time to do it. He was sentenced to life in prison with possibility of parole after 25 years. She was convicted of “malice murder” in 1998 and sentenced to death.

Both judge and media presented her as a greedy witch who had masterminded the murder. The plea bargain deal made with her boyfriend in exchange for his testimony against her did not bother too many people.

This case confirms that the death penalty carries the images of sin offerings.

Gissendaner’s first scheduled execution was postponed because of a winter storm on February 25th. The execution was rescheduled for Monday evening, and this time the executioner realized that the drug for the lethal injection was not going to work “quickly and properly” as it appeared cloudy. The recent agony of prisoners in Oklahoma after botched executions had brought international attention, shedding light on the brutality of the penal system of the United States. Nobody wanted to have more publicity added to this already disturbing judicial proceeding.

During the almost 17 years of waiting for a possible execution, Kelly Gissendaner went to school and completed a theology degree. More importantly, she changed her vision on life and expressed sincere remorse. She became a teacher who helped fellow inmates and was qualified as a role model by former wardens. Twenty-four people along with her three children begged for clemency to no avail. Her appeals were all denied. After the first attempt to kill her, more people took action to spare her life. Four hundred clergy sent letters. On February 27, the New York Times published an article, with moving testimony on her favor of a renowned theologian.

Meanwhile, in the spirit of an eye for an eye, the attorney for her husband’s family declared that the death sentence was appropriate for the crime. What she has done since is not worth considering.

These declarations and delays remind us of the demonic dimension of the death penalty; why not kill the condemned immediately if redemption is unattainable. If the vengeance in the death sentence includes that the victim of this revenge must dig her own grave year after year, it just confirms the impossibility of this sentence in a human society. Thus, her execution should be judged as malice murder.

Gender plays a particular role in this case. Kelly Gissendaner appeared as a monster because she transgressed the heterosexual role of the wife and the mother. The 16 women who have been executed since 1973 also transgressed this invisibly present boundary, making their crimes even more appealing for the execution of a death sentence.

The violent pulse of this case demonstrates that there is no equality in sentencing. All this works as a ritual that dehumanizes the condemned. It bans all emotions and allows every one that is involved in the death penalty process to ignore his or her own responsibility in the death of a human being, explains Denis Salas in The Will to Punish. The saga of the chronicle of Kelly Gissendaner’s sadistic delayed execution does not serve justice. It adds to the trivialization of populist moralistic biased judgments with no shame for putting to death a fellow woman.

The only way to remedy this cruel and barbarous punishment is to demand “pure and simple abolition of the death penalty.” as Victor Hugo argued in 1848. But first, Kelly Gissendaner must not be killed!

 

(Image Credit: United Methodist Church / Ann Borden)

Rosemary Margaret Khumalo died last month


Rosemary Margaret Khumalo, affectionately known as Makhumalo, died last month: “Rosemary Margaret Khumalo died on death row on the 15th of July at Chikurubi Maximum Prison before the Constitutional application to set aside her death sentence could be heard by the Constitutional Court.” Khumalo, 59-years-old, had spent the last 15 years on death row.

Human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa commented, “Being on death row for an unduly long period is a violation of one’s rights. I do not know why she was on death row for such a long period time. Either someone did not know what they were doing or they did not want to execute her. It is a blow on the justice system of Zimbabwe.”

Chiedza Simbo, director of the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association (ZWLA), said, “It is with immense sadness that ZWLA celebrates the role Rosemary Margaret Khumalo played in defending the rights of women embodied in the new Constitution of Zimbabwe,”

Rita Nyamupinga, Director of Female Prisoners Support Trust (Femprist) reflected: “Makhumalo was so brave even after being sentenced to death she could smile and share her story without any reservation. She used to say ‘I am telling you because this place is not good, wanzvaka? (you hear?) with a Ndebele accent. She was in there from 1999 when she was sentenced to death for murder. All she wished for was to be released if they could not hang her. She said she had repented but could not bear the torture any longer. She was so prayerful, at times we would fail to pray but she would encourage us to soldier on … Every time we parted she would remind us not to take long before visiting her. At times we would take our time because of the after effects of the previous visit. In February 2014 after the Presidential Amnesty we all thought Makhumalo was eventually going but it was never to be.”

In many ways, Makhumalo’s story is typical of death penalty countries. Sentenced to death, she then waited, often in solitary isolation, for the hangman to come. He never did. The reasons for her long stay are unclear. On one hand, Zimbabwe is a de facto death penalty abolitionist country, largely due to the inability to find someone to actually conduct the executions. On a different, but not opposite, hand, the vast majority of those on death row are poor. As Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe chairperson Virginia Muwanigwa noted: “We want the death penalty to be removed from our constitution and our laws completely. One important reason for this is that it is mostly poor people who often get hanged.”

As in Zimbabwe, so in the United States and elsewhere. A recent US court ruling found that the main cause for death row delays is the State’s foot-dragging and underfunding of its indigent defense system.

But Rosemary Khumalo’s story has a twist. Last year, Zimbabwe passed a new Constitution, which exempts women, men under 21, and everyone over 70 from the death penalty. The new Constitution also does away with mandatory sentencing. For Khumalo and Shylet Sibanda, the only other woman on death row, this seemed promising. They appealed to courts and were denied their appeal because of lack of “urgency.” Khumalo appealed directly to the Presidency, on five occasions, and was rejected twice, and didn’t hear back on three other occasions.

Her lawyers argued from the basis of human and Constitutional rights and due process. Rosemary Khumalo pleaded as a woman, as a human being. She did not say she was innocent. She said she had repented. Those around her confirmed the substance of that claim.

Rosemary Khumalo was so close to release and so very far from freedom. In her last years, she lived with dignity, which is hard won in the killing conditions of Chikurubi. The years were hard, but the real story is not the long years. It’s death row: “‘I am telling you because this place is not good, wanzvaka? (you hear?).” Remember: this place is not good. Remember Rosemary Margaret Khumala, affectionately known as Makhumalo.

(Photo Credit: Nehanda Radio)

The `taint of racism’ for Black Women and Girls On Death Row

Paula Cooper, savoring her freedom

Between Kimberly McCarthy and Paula Cooper lies either a chasm or a tremendous healing.

Texas is poised to execute Kimberly McCarthy, a 52-year-old African American woman accused of having murdered her White neighbor in 1997. If McCarthy is executed, she will be the 500th person to be executed by Texas since the death penalty was reinstated, in 1976. Texas is far and away the leader in this field, with Virginia a distant second.

According to Maurie Levin, McCarthy’s current attorney, the case must be revisited because the proceedings were `tainted by racism.’ That `taint’ is many layers deep and covers much. In Texas, 283 people are currently on Death Row: 39.2% are African American; 29.7 percent are Latino; 29.7 percent are White. Those racial demographics are geographic as well. Texas has 254 counties. In the past five years, 22 counties have sent people to Death Row. It’s not `Texas’ that fills the death rosters … but it is Texas that executes them. Rick Perry holds the record as the U.S. governor presiding over the most executions ever carried out. Texas is #1; Rick Perry is #1.

Nationally, Harris County, Texas, is the top county for executions, both in Texas and the United States. #2 is Dallas County. Kimberly McCarthy’s case was heard in Dallas County. In Dallas County, it was almost impossible for African Americans to get on a jury. McCarthy’s jury had one African American on it. That was no accident, according to Maurie Levin. It was also no accident that the attorneys who sort of represented McCarthy in her earlier forays never touched on the racial composition of the entire proceedings. Why would they? McCarthy was an African American, coke addicted woman worker who was accused of having brutally murdered a 71-year-old White woman. Case closed.

Last week, Indiana demonstrated that there’s a better way. Paula Cooper walked out of prison, not quite yet a `free woman’, but not a prisoner and not on Death Row.

In 1985, Paula Cooper was 15 years old. She was accused of having murdered Ruth Pelke, who was 78 years old. Cooper is African America; Pelke was White. Paula Cooper was convicted of murder and, at the age of 16, was sentenced to death. At that time, she was the youngest Death Row `guest of the State’ in the country.

A local, national, and global campaign erupted at the prospect of a 16-year-old girl being sentenced to death. Two years later, the Indiana Supreme Court agreed, and set aside the death penalty. The Court sentenced Cooper to 60 years behind bars.

In the intervening decades, Cooper has earned a college degree and time off for good behavior. On Monday, June 17, 2013, Paula Cooper walked out of prison.

That’s not all that changed during those decades. The prosecuting attorney in the case came to oppose the death penalty. Even further, Bill Pelke, Ruth Pelke’s grandson, has become a leading death penalty abolitionist. As Bill Pelke explains, “It was about a year and a half after my grandmother’s death, about three-and-a-half months after Paula Cooper had been sentenced to death, where I became convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my grandmother would have been appalled by the fact that this girl was on death row and there was so much hate and anger towards her. I was convinced she would have had love for Paula Cooper and her family. I felt she wanted some of my family to have that same sort of love and compassion. … I learned the most important lesson of my life that night, and it was about the healing power of forgiveness, because when my heart was touched with compassion, the forgiveness became automatic. And when it happened, it brought a tremendous healing.”

When the State of Indiana decided to forego vengeance against a child, to treat the child as one of us, as a sister or a daughter or a simply another human being, a tremendous healing began. The State can do that; it can opt for healing. Tell Rick Perry and Texas right away. Then tell everybody else.

 

(Photo Credit: ABC News)

Fetal homicide, death penalty, and the neoliberal agenda

Last Monday, three young women who had been missing for about a decade were able to escape from their sequestration in Cleveland, Ohio. Ariel Castro, the kidnapper, has been arraigned on seven charges for kidnapping and rape. He could also face the death penalty for fetal homicide, by causing miscarriages on his victims. Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty explained, “The law of Ohio calls for the death penalty for those most depraved criminals who commit aggravated murder during the course of a kidnapping.”

When I first read this, I felt that this was justified. I was outraged by the suffering those women had to go through, and I was relieved that there was a way to punish him by taking his life as he had denied them of their own lives for so long. But then I realized my initial reaction went against everything I believed in, and I was appalled. I have always been adamantly against the death penalty. How can we strive for a just and humane society if our response is to kill criminals? And the argument the prosecutor is using to have him face the death penalty is that he “committed aggravated murder” of unborn fetuses. Looking back, I think that what caused my initial reaction was fear. Fear that this kind of atrocity can happen. Just knowing that these women had been sequestered and tortured, I felt that this could have been me; it was a direct attack on my person as a woman. And I wanted them to take his life away. I was suddenly going to trust the American justice system to decide who can live and who must die. After all, doesn’t he incarnate evil for beating up his daughters’ mother and for abusing women?

What I should be afraid of is the precedent the prosecutor will set if Ariel Castro gets the death penalty. Pregnant women are already being imprisoned throughout the country for `endangering the lives’ of their fetuses. If the precedent is set, will women be in danger of facing the death penalty for having an abortion or a miscarriage?

At the same time, Ariel Castro getting the death penalty sees the abuse of the three women through only one lens, that of their fecundity and womanhood. Why is it that the daily suffering, threats, violence, rapes, trauma, and inhumanity those women were subjected to are not seen as being more important than those unborn fetuses? The violence and abuse they went through is normalized, the press is shocked but not outraged. Instead, the biggest crime was to prevent the birth of those children.

Our understanding of this unfathomable tragedy is constructed around this country’s politics on women’s reproductive rights and the personhood debate instead of seeing it as another example of dehumanized violence. Why can’t we give these women more respect by focusing on their survival? Instead of focusing on their bodies as reproductive vehicles, why can’t we focus on them as women whose spirits enabled them to live and survive?

We need to be more careful and not let our emotions control the way we understand the media construction around such events, no matter how nightmarish they might be. As women, we are vulnerable to neoliberal policies, such as feticide laws, that aim to control our bodies. As citizens, we should question a society that still resorts to the death penalty. For the past week, the phrases fetal homicide and death penalty have been covering up the news nationally and worldwide and they are part of the neoliberal agenda to instill fear in all of us and to reiterate our vulnerability in the face of evil, embodied by Ariel Castro this week. But we need to remember that, just like all of us, Ariel Castro is a member of this society. He does not incarnate evil; he embodies the violence and misogyny of our society.

(Image credit: The Atlantic / Lauren Giardano)

Women prisoners haunt the modern era

President Obama decided not to release all of the torture pictures, but that’s already old news. What was the big deal, anyway? We already knew that torture happened; in fact, we signed on to that program a long time ago. It’s the story of our modern era, a story haunted by women prisoners.

The Women Behind Bars website shows a picture of a smiling, healthy young woman: “Gina Muniz, in 1998, before she was incarcerated in the LA County Jail and the California state prison system for her first arrest, related to the theft of $200 related to a rapid onset of drug addiction-in the aftermath of her father’s death. The theft was bizarrely classified as a carjacking, although no one was harmed, and no car was stolen. Muniz received life in prison; her lawyer told her she was agreeing to seven years when she pled guilty.” Her mother, Grace Ortega, took the photo. It must have been a happy occasion. Six months after Muniz was arrested, she was dead: “Gina Muniz, September 2000, handcuffed to her deathbed and under 24-hour-guard in Modesto Community Hospital. Next to her is her daughter Amanda. Gina suffered horribly for six months from diagnosed but untreated cervical cancer. When it was diagnosed in L.A. County Jail, early and aggressive treatment would more than likely have saved Gina’s life. Grace Ortega, her mother, was finally able to win compassionate release for her daughter two days before her death, so that she could die at home”. Her mother, Grace Ortega, took the photo. Compassionate release.

Today is June 3, 2009. Yesterday, “Texas carried out its 200th execution under the eight-and-a-half year governorship of Richard Perry on Tuesday. Terry Lee Hankins, 34, was executed by lethal injection shortly after 6pm Texas time. He had been sentenced to death in 2002 for the murder of two of his wife’s children in 2001. Terry Hankins was the 16th person to be executed in Texas this year, out of a national total of 30. This was the 1,166th execution to be carried out in the USA since judicial killing resumed there in 1977, with Texas accounting for 439 of them. Another five men are currently scheduled to be put to death in Texas by mid-September….Texas is home to about seven per cent of the population of the USA and is where fewer than 10 per cent of the country’s murders occur. The state accounts for 37 per cent of the USA’s executions since 1977, and 41 per cent since 2001.”

In America, bad men wear pink underwear. In Texas, bad men are executed. Bad women, too, like Frances Newton. In 2005, “40-year-old Frances Newton became the third woman to be executed by the state of Texas since 1982 (and the first African American woman in the modern era) despite the strong possibility that she was innocent.” What exactly is this modern era? Francis Newton was “only the third woman executed by the state of Texas since 1982, and the first black woman executed since the Civil War. Unique in that historical sense, in other ways the Frances Newton case is painfully unexceptional.” Since the Civil War, since 1865? Francis Newton was the third woman executed in Texas since 1982, and the first Black woman since the mid 1800s. Francis Newton is the modern era, and the modern era goes way back.

On May 20, 2009, the New York State Legislature passed Bill S01290A, which “Provides for the care and custody of pregnant female inmates before, during and after delivery; prohibits the use of restraints of any kind from being used during the transport of such female prisoner to a hospital for the purpose of giving birth, unless such prisoner is a substantial flight risk whereupon handcuffs may be used; prohibits the use of any restraints during labor; requires the presence of corrections personnel during such prisoner’s transport to and from the hospital and during her stay at such hospital.” It’s called an anti-shackling measure: “the new law will make New York one of just  four states in the country that restrict the use of restraints on incarcerated women during pregnancy or childbirth. California and Illinois were the first to put any legal limits on the practice — in both cases, after a series of lawsuits forced the states to overhaul their disastrously inadequate prison healthcare systems. Before the restriction, in Illinois, it was standard practice to chain female inmates to their hospital beds before, during and after the births of their babies. As one advocate told the New York Times, “What was common was one wrist and one ankle.” (A policy that, frighteningly enough, looks positively benevolent compared to Kansas’s, North Carolina’s and Washington’s, which allow women to be locked in belly chains and leg irons while they’re in labor, according to a 2006 investigation by Amnesty International.)” Four states restrict shackles for women prisoners during childbirth. Four. That leaves 46 states to go.

Women prisoners haunt the modern era: some die of lethal neglect, others die by lethal injection, others in shackles bear children. We signed on to this program a long time ago.

(Photo Credit: California Coalition for Women Prisoners)