As a survivor of homicide with 30 years of experience in crime victim issues, Ladyjustice uses integrity and compassion everyday in the performance of her job and full time advocate for many people who are oppressed or forgotten. However, does this compassion extend to death row? At this writing, LJ has to say probably not….unless it is definitively proven that the prisoner has been wrongfully convicted to this “special class” called death row. And another thing…. Why should we have any compassion for any murders in the first place? Although this topic continues to be widely debated with no clear cut answers, this blogger choses to focus on accommodations of death row in selected states and some of the forces that contribute to the status quo.
We begin with an interesting set of facts regarding the debate and actual demographics of death row inmates, compliments of: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/.
(Within the telling graph below, the 1977 average time between conviction and the number of months to be executed was a little over 4 years, compared to the 2009 average of 169 months or 14+ years). What does that say about justice and the times in which we live? Read on, bloggers…
The Debate: When the constitution was written, the time between sentencing and execution could be measured in days or weeks.
A century later, the Supreme Court noted that long delays between sentencing and execution, compounded by a prisoner’s uncertainty over time of execution, could be agonizing, and resulting in “horrible feelings” and “immense mental anxiety amounting to a great increase in the offender’s punishment.” (In re Medley, 1890, as cited in Foster v. Florida, 2002).
But in the wake of the Supreme Court-mandated suspension of the death penalty from 1972 to 1976, numerous reforms have been introduced to create a less arbitrary system. This has resulted in lengthier appeals, as mandatory sentencing reviews have become the norm, and continual changes in laws and technology have necessitated re-examination of individual sentences.
Death-penalty proponents and opponents alike say such careful review is imperative when the stakes are life and death. “People are adamant . . . that every avenue should be exhausted to make sure there is no chance (the condemned) is not guilty,” former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers said in 2001. “The surer you are, the slower you move.” (Atlanta Constitution, October 27, 2001).
The years it takes to carry out a death sentence exact a huge toll – on taxpayers, victims’ families and inmates themselves. Yet without thorough appeals, mistakes in death penalty cases would be missed.
The Intensity of the Debate increased a thousand fold in Connecticut with the case of Michael Ross
[LJ has the distinct honor to know personally some of the crime victim families associated with the many victims of serial murderer Michael Ross through her association with Survivors of Homicide Inc.]
Michael Ross was executed in Connecticut on May 13, 2005. He was found competent and waived his appeals.
Michael Ross was about an hour away from becoming the first inmate executed in New England in 45 years when his lethal injection was abruptly put on hold in 2005. Ross had waived his appeals and accepted his execution. But his former public defenders, along with a death-row expert and a former prison official, raised serious doubts about whether he was competent to make such decisions, or whether despair over his living conditions on death row had caused him to become mentally unhinged – perhaps suffering from death row syndrome.
Ross had attempted suicide three times while in prison, writing after the last attempt of the isolation he felt sitting in a cell 23 hours a day, thinking of his crimes and his impending lethal injection. He once admitted that he was seeking his execution largely because of “a desire to end my own pain.”
2009 Demographics of Death Row Inmates
(According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics: Capital Punishment)
- 56.1% of the death row population is White;
- 41.5% is Black and 2.4% is of another race;
- Men on death row make up 98.1%, while women make up 1.9%;
- The median education level of death row inmates is 12th grade.
- Of death row inmates, 54.7% have never married, 20.5% are divorced or separated, 21.9% are currently married and 2.8% are widowed.
- 8.6% of inmates had a prior homicide conviction.
- 65.7% had prior felony convictions.
- Among all inmates under sentence of death, half were age 20 to 29 at the time of arrest; 11% were age 19 or younger; and fewer than 1% were age 55 or older.
- The average age at time of arrest was 28 years.
- As of 12/31/09, 29.1% of all inmates were age 30 to 39 and 51% were age 25 to 44. 1.2% of inmates are under the age of 25, and 2.6% are older than 65.
- 7,773 people have been sentenced to death from 1977 until 2009.
[Ladyjustice finds it very curious that over 50 % of death row inmates have never married. What does that say about men’s attempts at intimate partner relationships as they build up anger and resentment? They keep trying and fail at relationships with men and women, to say nothing of the intimate partner homicides of those with marriage licenses. In addition, it is very clear that you don’t wind up on death row as a first time offender. These are seasoned criminals….]
Should you be a fan of Hear Women Talk, radio shows, Vicki Childs and Carol Baker featured a lively debate (11-28-2011) on all sides of the issue with guests Paul Peterson, Paul Henderson, and Richard Dieter. Particular facts that were illuminated for Ladyjustice were:
- One expert’s opinion regarding the most prevalent reasons for wrongful convictions is: wrongful identifications and misconduct of police and overzealous prosecutors.
- The “old adage” that the data can say anything you want it to was exemplified during this show when another expert related that 138 people were freed from death row -17 of which were proven via DNA analysis since the 1970’s as a result of a landmark case known as “Furman vs. Georgia.” No…. wait.. data regarding Barry Scheck’s Innocent Project showed that 5 people were exonerated from receiving the death penalty.
- But, but… the DNA exonerations by the Innocence Project are not related to murder cases…
- And… the biggest controversy arose between experts when the discussion turned to those exonerated versus those having the charges dropped due to wrongful prosecutions.
- In the end, some experts on Ms. Child’s show agree that it may be “okay to ratchet down the system” (i.e. abolish death row) in favor of saving those innocent of the charge [Notice LJ did not say “innocent people’] and saving money!
Who knows what the answer is? However, it is obvious that we can no longer afford the delays for the sake of crime victim families. We can’t locate adequate legal representation in sufficient numbers for prisoners; nor can we afford death row accommodations as things stand.
A Review of Selected States:
According to a report from the Office of Legislative Research in Connecticut whose job it is to acquaint state legislators of the issues via research on topics of inquiry, death Row inmates and conditions were reported on as of April 2011 as follows:
1) Connecticut: In Connecticut there are 10 inmates on Death Row. Michael Ross was the last execution in 2005…and the political winds are such that those remaining will be a resident for years to come….
- The longest serving prisoner is Robert Brenton, first sentenced in 1989 , convicted of beating and stabbing his ex-wife Jo-Ann and their 16 year old son.
- The most recent addition to death row is Steven Hayes, convicted December 2, 2010 of the Cheshire home invasion and vicious murders of Jennifer Hawke Petit and her two daughters, Hayley and Michalea. The second trial for accused murder Joshua Komisarjevsky begins this month.
- Six of the ten inmates have not yet completed the initial appellate review by the Connecticut Supreme Court. Four have completed their appeals through the State and U.S. Supreme Courts resulting in denials. All four filed habeas corpus (unlawful incarceration) petitions.
Actual Death Row Conditions
(Example: State of Connecticut)
[LJ- For those who exhibit compliant non-violent behavior]
The Department of Corrections requires that:
1) Death row inmates spend 22 hours a day in their cells;
2) DR inmates are not permitted any congregate activity;
3) DR inmates are always alone- in isolation except when escorted;
4) DR inmates are escorted by at least one staff while in restraints when moving outside their cell;
5) DR inmates are allowed two hours of recreation outside their cells six days per week. This time can be spent indoors including the law library with use of the phone or a “caged courtyard” outside;
6) DR inmates are permitted to access the commissary but with greater restrictions as compared to other inmates;
7) DR inmates may partake in selected religious, educational, social or counseling services by court decree and DOC management /supervision;
8) Any work assignment is restricted to the death row housing units. Prisoners must be secured in their assigned area until the task is completed. [ LJ- Note that other states do not permit work assignments on death row – Read on…];
9) DR inmates are allowed three one hour “non-contact” visits per week.
The Department of Corrections stipulates that all cells must be well ventilated, sanitary, appropriately heated and adequately lighted. They are “equipped” with a bed and furnished consistent with the general population cells. (? Sink and toilet)
Searches are conducted on an irregular schedule at least every 15 minutes by regular staff. Death row prisoners are visited by custody supervisors once per shift. Calls are inspected at least twice a week by the unit administrator.
Clothing that is “not degrading” is provided, the same as the general population.[LJ- I have never seen a degrading orange or beige jumpsuit in my life!] DR inmates can have basic personal items in their cell [LJ- Assume nothing that they can make into a shank, of course!]
Movement and Restraints:
DR inmates are handcuffed behind the back for routine out of cell movement such as : showers, phone calls, visits, recreation. Once the inmate is secured in the area, restraints
are removed and vice versa. DR inmates are fully restricted in front for “professional visits” including attorneys, medical, mental health visits and video conferencing. Such restraints include handcuffs, leg irons and a tether chain. DR inmates are fully restrained behind the back for out of unit movement within the facility.
DR inmates receive “the same quality and type of food” as the general population within their cells. Should inmates use food or food service in a hazardous or inappropriate manner, an alternate meal service is used.
More Selected States:
2) Illinois: As of July 1,2011, Illinois’ death row was officially “null and void.” A state law abolishing the death penalty as Governor Pat Quinn commuted the sentences of 15 men to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Fourteen are now in maximum security prisons. One inmate in is a medium security prison with a mental health facility. In prior years from 1977 to 1999 when the death penalty was reinstated, 12 men were executed. The super max prison known as Tamms in southern Illinois is the most restrictive, while the former death row prison in Pontiac, southwest of Chicago is now a step-down transitional prison.
3) California: Dave Mann, journalist for the Texas Observer reported in June 2010 that the nation’s first super max facility in which inmates are kept in long term solitary was built in 1989, opening its Pelican Bay facility. Forty other states and the federal government followed suit with super max facilities or special segregation units.
- As of 2009. At any given time, there are between 25-100,000 prisoners serving time in permanent or temporary solitary confinement … and this continues to increase.
- As of June 2011,California has 714 inmates on death row.
- A new study showing how much the death penalty costs taxpayers revealed that since 1975 and the reinstatement of capital punishment by then first time Governor Jerry Brown, 13 people were executed at a cost of $308 million each.
Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus, Jeanne Woodward (a former San Quentin warden) stated that the study reveals that the state of California can no longer afford executions and that if death sentences were altered to life without the possibility of parole, they would save a billion dollars in five years.
Although a bill was introduced to ban the death penalty in the legislature recently, it would also have to pass the ballot box. Legislators say the status quo isn’t tough on crime, it’s tough on taxpayers.
- According to an LA Times article in November 2009, the California Supreme court was/is so overburdened with cases, it takes 2 to 2.5 years to file all briefs in preparation for oral arguments;
- For prisoners sentenced since 1978, after automatic appeals have been decided, the average delay, “the judgment of death” and the filing of a California Supreme Court opinion was 8.1 years.
- Delays between the appointment of counsel and filing the initial brief were 3.7 years. However, due to the scarcity of available attorneys, it was more like 11 years!.
- The average delay between the judgment of death and oral argument before the Supreme Court was 7.6 years.
- Again, as of 2009, a study conducted by Senior Judge Arthur Alcaron stated that an average cost per death row inmate per year was $124,150 (which was more than $90,000 more than those housed in the general population.)
4) Florida: As described in a St. Petersburg Times article, September 4, 2011, a Florida inmate on death row named Ronald Clark fancies himself a poet-writer and has a blog through the support of Dina Milito, a California mother. She and her engineer husband set up the blog via Death Row Support as “a means to express himself, as Dina doesn’t believe in capital punishment.” [LJ -How very thoughtful of you Dina, while those murdered by Clark are silenced forever!]
- Clark is one of 397 prisoners on Florida’s death row within a 63 square foot cell.
- Clark was found guilty of two vicious murders involving repeatedly shooting one victim in the head with a shotgun, tying concrete blocks to his body and dumping the first victim in a river.
- With his initial murder years earlier, he reloaded his gun, shot him in the mouth, rolled his body in a ditch and took his cash and boots;
- Currently, three death row inmates blog in Florida, as there are no laws or rules prohibiting it as long as they aren’t paid or seeking a pen pal. The Corrections secretary, Edwin Buss, who recently resigned, is incredulous that this inmate could have a blog. [LJ Ditto!] Buss stated that false accusations are being made on the internet and that there is no practical way in which they can adequately monitor the thousands of pieces of mail received and content somehow reaching the internet via friends.
- As of August 15, 2011, an assistant warden deemed Clark’s blogs via Death Row Poet as a security risk….. And yet, his indictments of the prison system and grievances continue… until the Governor signs his death warrant (Clark’s words).
5) Texas: As of November 2010, a Texas Observer article entitled ‘Solitary Men” reported there were more than 300 inmates on death row in Texas.
- Accordingly, Texas was rated as “probably the most inhumane,” in which prolonged isolation 22 ours per day of confinement in 60 square foot cells is the norm;
- An incident on Thanksgiving Day, 1998 in which seven condemned men suspected of planning their escape during work detail at the Ellis Unit, outside of Huntsville resulted in revocation of all work and recreational privileges.
- Texas is one of two states that allow no television (along with Oklahoma) and one of eleven states disallowing contact visits.
- Other than the recreation cage, they spend 158 hours per week , 8,216 hours per year or 94% of their lives in prolonged isolation.
Supporters of the abolition of the death penalty say that such isolation can exacerbate mental illness. Numerous studies report the increased expense and the fact that no real reduction in violence negates the value of death row. Supreme Court Justice Breyer noted, “astonishingly long delays experienced by inmates were largely the result not of frivolous appeals, but constitutionally defective death penalty procedure.”
Justice Clarence Thomas offered a different opinion commenting on the same 32 year delay in a particular case: “The cruelty of the murder for which the defendant was sentenced to death, he asserted, was caused by the defendant, as the perpetrator of the crime.”
Terminating Thoughts from Ladyjustice….
So… what should be our parting words on this topic? Do we care about death row inmates, regardless of environmental conditions and state statutes? Should we follow the moral principle of humane treatment even for the worst of the worst murderers? That, my dear bloggers is for you to decide individually, and not for Ladyjustice to dictate. I invite you to comment!
Donna Gore is a champion of victims rights and justice. She is a survivor of homicide and has turned her personal situations into a positive approach to life by participating in several areas of victim services. “LadyJustice” is the host of Shattered Lives, Saturdays at 5pm ET.