Monday, February 07, 2005

Death Row Syndrome: Guest Blogger

Hello everyone. Of course, to date, I'm the only person who has written anything on The Lonely Abolitionist. However, commentary from David Seth Michaels, author of an online abolition email commentary I receive, really struck a core with me and I asked David for permission to reprint his words here (I guess I'm not so "lonely" anymore eh?). I hope you'll take the time to read David's essay. Its quite poignant.

Is Anybody Paying Attention?

As Circus Ross twists and turns and careens through the courts with Ross attempting again to kill himself and the courts trying to decide if he's competent to do so and if his lawyer's license should be punched (see this article, if you haven't already), one of the important parts of the case is the focus on "death penalty syndrome."

In Ross's case the question is whether being confined in horrible conditions on death row for 20 years contributes to subverting his already fragile competence and leads him to demand a state assisted suicide to escape barbarous conditions.

Can you imagine waiting for 20 years on death row? Can you imagine the uncertainty and unremitting anxiety of this? Can you imagine waking each day to the question of whether as the result of someone else's decision you will live or be killed?

By any terms 20 years' actual imprisonment-- leave aside the question of whether an execution will occur-- is a long, long sentence. In Ross's case 20 years is 44% of his life. Compare, if you can, everything that's happened in your life since 1985 with being confined in virtually solitary confinement 23 hours a day on death row. Think, if you were alive then, of 1980, what you were doing then, where you lived. Take a look at photos from then, if you have any. Notice how the color seems weird, especially the reds, and how distant the images are. Look at yourself in these photos: how were you then? Compare yourself to now.

Is there anything wrong with waiting 20 years in uncertainty and fear before a death sentence is carried out?

And what about the conditions in which death sentenced prisoners wait to be killed? There was a story Thursday that all of Connecticut's death row inmates are now on a hunger strike (except the 2 with diabetes). According to Reuters (edited by me):

HARTFORD, Conn. (Reuters) - Five prisoners sentenced to be executed in Connecticut began a hunger strike on Thursday to protest their solitary living conditions which they called "inhumane and tantamount to psychological torture."

The inmates said their action was unrelated to the case of serial killer Michael Ross, whose execution was postponed after his lawyer said prison conditions may have made him give up his appeals.
"What we are doing is simply refusing to eat for the duration, however long," the prisoners wrote. "We are NOT doing this in protest of Michael Ross' execution.

"What we request is not unreasonable: communal recreation," they wrote in a statement released by The Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Instead of spending almost their entire day in solitary confinement, the inmates want time out of their cells and a chance to interact with each other.

"The appeals process takes decades and to endure these conditions of enforced segregation is inhumane and tantamount to psychological torture," the inmates wrote.

Notice what the prisoners are demanding. Does their virtually solitary confinement 23 hours a day have a "penological justification?" Why is it that guards at the Connecticut death row are required to be transferred after 2 years because of the stress of their working conditions?? Think, if you can, of a period in which you had no human contact of any kind. Was it a couple of hours, a day, a week, a month? How many people have been through this kind of isolation and confinement for 20 years?

Connecticut is not unique. The average prisoner executed in the US spends between 11 and 12 years under a death sentence. That's a long time to wait. In 2000 there were 8 prisoners on death row for 24 years or more.

The delay by itself is an important question. Death row in California has 630 people on it and their time waiting is daily mounting. How long can we hold execution over their heads before we say it's enough, it's too cruel, too much time has elapsed? Or put another way, at the margin, what benefit to anyone does an execution have if life without parole is available.

There are two parts of the issue. The first is the elapsing of time itself; the second, the conditions of confinement.

At least two justices of the United States Supreme Court, Justices Breyer and Stevens, believe that long delay violates the Constitution's prohibition of cruel and inhuman punishment. Their dissenting opinions in Knight v. Florida, 532 US 1011 (2001) and Foster v. Florida, 123 S.Ct 420 (2002), in which the Court declined to consider death row delays of 27 years (Foster), 25 years (Knight) and 19 years 4 months (Knight) list decisions from other civilized countries (including the UK's Privy Council) holding that delay beyond 15 years is unacceptable, degrading, shocking and cruel.

But it takes 4 votes to grant certiorari and to have a review in the Supreme Court. One of those four votes is not coming from Justice Clarence Thomas who wrote vicious opinions concurring in the denial of certiorari in Foster and Knight which included this gem:

"Petitioner [Foster] could long ago have ended his "anxieties and uncertainties," ..., by submitting to what the people of Florida have deemed him to deserve: execution." 123 S.Ct at 471.

So much for compassion. So much for refraining from killing and preventing others from killing. The Supreme Court as presently constituted clearly isn't the answer. If Bush makes more appointments, it will continue not to be the answer.

The answer is abolition. As long as there is a death penalty, we're going to have people like Michael Ross who seek a state assisted suicide and render us powerless to stop them. As long as there is a death penalty, we're going to have decades long incarceration of prisoners pursuing appeals that are their right and awaiting execution.

What is wrong with us that we permit these shameful spectacles to continue to be carried out in our names?

Copyright David Seth Michaels 2005

David Seth Michaels is an attorney living and working in Spencertown, New York. For more information on David, please see his website.

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