Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A National Speaking Tour of the CEDP

A National Speaking Tour of the CEDP


The 2009-2010 Campaign to End the Death annual national speaking tour will be a teach-in Tour on the historic link between the death penalty and lynching in the United States. Today there is a critical need to rebuild civil rights struggle and dismantle this country’s execution chambers. This tour will bring together those who have been freed from death row, activists and scholars to explore the role of racism in our criminal justice system, and how and why the death penalty and unjust sentencing can be abolished.

The changing political landscape has created new openings to discuss the continued impact of racism in America on our criminal "injustice" system. That's why the teach-in aspect of this year's tour is important. There is a thirst among many people to learn about historical anti-racist movements - and how those lessons can help in building the struggles of today.


Stephen Bright - Director, Southern Center for Human Rights. http://www.schr.org/ <http://www.schr.org/>

Martina Correia
- Sister of Troy Davis, Innocent Georgia Death Row Prisoner. Board Member, Campaign to End the Death Penalty.
http://troyanthonydavis.org/ <http://troyanthonydavis.org/>

Alan Bean
- Executive Director, Friends of Justice.
http://friendsofjustice.wordpress.com/ <http://friendsofjustice.wordpress.com/>

Yusef Salaam
- Exonerated in Central Park Jogger Case (NYC). Board Member, Campaign to End the Death Penalty

Brian Jones
- Author, "King's Last Fight". Board Member, International Socialist Review Magazine.
http://www.isreview.org/issues/58/feat-MLK.shtml <http://www.isreview.org/issues/58/feat-MLK.shtml>

Darby Tillis - Exonerated Death Row Prisoner from Illinois

Lawrence Hayes - former NYS death row prisoner.

Mark Clements
- former police torture victim, sentenced as a juvenile to life without parole in IL.

Ronnie Kitchen - police torture victim and former IL death row prisoner, freed in 2009.

Marvin Reeves - freed in 2009 after serving 21 years for a wrongfull conviction in IL.

If you are interested in bringing the Tour to your city, please email our National Tour Organizer Lee Wengraf at nyc@nodeathpenalty.org with any questions or to inquire about speakers.

There is a blog for the tour at http://cedptour.blogspot.com/. This blog will be updated with speakers, as well as dates for Tour stops, and reports from different cities on their events, so stay tuned!

Reginald Blanton's mother, Anna Reese, delivers powerful plea for the life of her son

Reginald Blanton's mother, Anna Reese, delivers powerful plea for the life of her son at a rally at the Texas Capitol on Sept 26, 2009. Reginald Blanton is scheduled to be executed in Texas on October 27, 2009. If you can not see the video below, click here to watch it on YouTube.

Click here to sign the petition to urge Texas to admit Todd Willingham was innocent and to suspend all executions.


Thursday, October 8th, 8pm, MonkeyWrench Books (110 E. North Loop)

Former Black Panther and Angola 3 political prisoner Robert Hillary King speaks on his new book "From the Bottom of the Heap: The Autobiography of Black Panther Robert Hillary King." In 1970, a jury convicted Robert Hillary King of a crime he did not commit and sentenced him to 35 years in prison. He became a member of the Black Panther Party while in Angola State Penitentiary, successfully organizing prisoners to improve conditions. In return, prison authorities beat him, starved him, and gave him life without parole after framing him for a second crime. He was thrown into solitary confinement, where he remained in a six by nine foot cell for 29 years as one of the Angola 3. In 2001, the state grudgingly acknowledged his innocence and set him free.

King's story begins with born black and poor in Louisiana in1942. Just a teenager when he entered the Louisiana penal system for the first time, King tells of his attempts to break out of this system, and his persistent pursuit of justice where there is none. King's story remains one of inspiration and courage, and the triumph of the human spirit. The conditions in Angola almost defy description, yet King never gave up his humanity, or the work towards justice for all prisoners that he continues to do today. From the Bottom of the Heap, so simply and humbly told, strips bare the economic and social injustices inherent in our society, while continuing to be a powerful literary testimony to our own strength and capacity to overcome.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Penpal Requests

The following two inmates in Polunsky's general population are hoping to find a pen friend. If interested you can contact them at:

Steve Carrington
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston Texas

Steven Turknett
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston Texas

Monday, September 21, 2009

Christopher Coleman Execution Watch - September 22, 2009

On Tuesday, Sept. 22, Texas plans to execute Christopher Coleman for a triple homicide in which he denies being the shooter and in which 11th-hour revelations have prompted some to question the fairness of his trial. If his execution takes place, we'll broadcast. Spread the word.

KPFT HD-2 Houston 90.1 FM, www.kpft.org/
Streaming live at www.executionwatch.org, 6-7 pm CT
Spotlighting Texas's badge of shame by broadcasting during executions
Currently Scheduled Dates: www.tdcj.state.tx.us/stat/scheduledexecutions.htm

Radio Broadcast Preview
Sept. 22, 2009, Tuesday, 6-7 p.m. Central Time
KPFT 90.1 FM, HD2, Houston
INTERNET: Go to www.executionwatch.org at 6 p.m. CT, click on “Listen”

SCHEDULED TO BE EXECUTED CHRISTOPHER COLEMAN, 37, convicted in a 1995 Houston shooting that left a toddler and two men dead. Although Coleman admitted being at the scene, he has steadfastly denied being the shooter.


A veteran journalist and broadcaster, Otis has contributed to the Pacifica
Radio Network in roles ranging from program management to technology
consultation. He co-hosts KPFT’s The Monitor on Mondays.

Legal Analyst: JIM SKELTON
Jim is a native Texan who has earned a position as respected legal educator and specialist in appellate law. He has appeared before the bench in capital trials as a defense attorney and as a prosecutor.

Featured Interview: To Be Announced.
Reporter, Huntsville, Outside the Death House: GLORIA RUBAC, leader, Texas Abolition Movement.
Reporter, Houston Vigil: DAVE ATWOOD,
board member, Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, www.tcadp.org.


On Thursday, Texas plans to execute Kenneth Mosley. If that happens, we’ll have a show. Details on our website, www.executionwatch.org.

Director OTIS MACLAY omaclay @gmail.com
THEME MUSIC by VICTORIA PANETTI, www.myspace.com/shemonster

”If the execution is canceled, we’ll cancel the show. But only then.”

8.30.09 Poem and Journal from Kenneth Foster

Hello friends, family and abolitionists!

I had a wonderful visit with our friend and brother Kenneth on Sunday at the McConnell Unit. He looks healthy and happy and we were able to take pictures. Unfortunately our visit was through glass, but we have applied for a contact visit through the warden. He recently celebrated his 2nd year off of death row and sent us the following journal entry and poem. Kenneth's words are poignant and inspirational and it pleases me to be able to share them with you all. -- Laura E. Brady

8.30.09 Journal Diary

Here I am to share a few words to those I love, to those that have stood fighting and to those that just need to know how real it is. I’m sure it’s not hard to understand how hard it is to share the inner-chambers of one’s heart. You think to yourself- who cares? Who will understand? But, for those whose hearts have been forged to fight for the higher causes in life we still seem to do it, regardless, because we know it must be done.

Here I am 2 years after I left death row. I sat back and absorbed and observed my day and I peered deep within myself to try and understand what was going on. This is SO necessary, but I know it’s easier for me to do this than for you all out there dealing with everyday life. But, to understand ourselves is a great power, because when we can do that we can unlock the secrets to the universe. Just look around us at what we’ve made and done. The people who make technology, computers etc. - they have unlocked something. You follow me?

And so I continue to try and unlock the complexities of my own life. I still struggle with my new environment. The Penal System is full of problems that you can’t imagine—some made by us, some made by the system. So, I have gone from one struggle to the next. I’ve gone from the lynch tree to the cotton fields. Oppression takes many shapes. But, I always have that knowledge and strength that was instilled in me from those years on death row- a “training” that will never leave me.

It’s often hard to compose thoughts that are so chaotic and painful. But, for those that I share with on a regular basis they know that I remain as determined as ever to overcome this situation and uplift as many around me as possible.

I was fortunate to spend my 2nd anniversary off death row with a beautiful friend from overseas. Originally she didn’t want to come on 8.30, because she thought I would rather spend that day with my family. But, as I have come to see, family is not in blood but in bond. And so sometimes a friend is more esteemed than kinfolk. I love so many of my friends more than those I share a bloodline with and so it was a great day to share with someone like her. I ate good (of course); laughed good and made good on this blessing I was given.

Because life moves so much faster out here it’s hard to do as much writing as I used to. But, you can be assured that I am never stagnant and am always brewing up a plan for success and freedom. And when the time comes you’ll all be aware of some of those plans. Our bill didn’t pass this year, but we’ll try again in January 2011, but I may have a trump card before then.

There remains so many fights going on that need to be supported. Keep your eyes on the work of the Campaign to END the Death Penalty (CEDP), because Texas is not going to let up. So lend an ear, a voice or a signature where needed.

In close, in my best tradition, I’d like to leave a poem that I wrote on my 2nd Anniversary off death row. And I’d just like to ask you all for your continual prayers and support and know that every day I give praise and try to make this chance like on never before. So keep your eyes toward me and know that the tide is just beginning to rise.

Love and Struggle



the days pass,

I tally the months and

the years begin to pile,

but these memories remain as clear as

what I did yesterday and

they also make me

push for my tomorrows

cause I still feel the

urgency of

living life to its fullest degree,

because sometimes we take for granted

the smallest things that

end up meaning the most.

I said it once

and I’ll say it again-




the years of solitude,

the stereotypes and sneers,

Texas’ resolution on being

The Killing Machine,

the loss of friends,

the screams from families who are the new victims,

the children,

the children,

the children,

the contradictions,

the petitions,

all our failures

that made new discoveries,

the love for a brother.

I am covered in a

psychological hurricane

that beats down my brain

and sometimes all I can do is pray

to still the storm, and I have tattoos

that tell stories

my lips can’t!

I feel like an enigma,

because just when I think I’m stable

the slightest thing will

draw my throat tight

and make the tears well in the corner of my eyes.

I can only cast my eyes down and

casually wipe my eyes

stiffen my back

and make it all disappear,

because who could understand what I was feeling!?!

what I have seen!?!

I’m alien in the land of unknown.

and I counted 2 years

and it feels like mere seconds,

but I hold on.

I hold on to

the way I can kiss my grandpa’s cheek

or the way I can lift my daughter

and I realize through all the darkness

there is a light-

even if only candle size-

that can have shattering effects.

so, I flicker on

wavering in the wind gust of

this Texas storm.


is a mantra

bound by rage and love.

4 tattooed with it.

the memory will never succumb.

I remain

with the pain and love

as determined now

as I was then.

unable to stop

this pursuit

of Struggle

we have claimed

as our own!

10th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty Promo Video

The first official 10th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty promotional video is made by the Austin CEDP's Cartel Pagel.


Governor Perry Defends Execution of Willingham and San Antonio Express-News Responds

The Dallas Morning News is the first to get Governor Rick Perry to speak publicly about the wrongful execution of Todd Willingham. No surprise from Perry. He rejects the scientific analysis and thinks Willingham was guilty. It is time for the people of Texas to elect a new governor. Perry has several opponents in the Republican primary and if he survives the primary, he will face the winner of the Democratic primary in November 2010.

Sign the petition to Governor Rick Perry and the State of Texas to acknowledge that the fire in the Cameron Todd Willingham case was not arson, therefore no crime was committed and on February 17, 2004, Texas executed an innocent man.

From the DMN:

Governor Rick Perry today strenuously defended the execution of a Corsicana man whose conviction for killing his daughters in a house fire hinged on an arson finding that top experts call junk science.

“I’m familiar with the latter-day supposed experts on the arson side of it,” Perry said, making quotation marks with his fingers to underscore his skepticism.

Even without proof that the fire was arson, he added, the court records he reviewed before the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 showed “clear and compelling, overwhelming evidence that he was in fact the murderer of his children.”

These were the governor’s first direct comments on a case that has drawn withering criticism from top fire experts.

Death penalty critics view the Willingham case as a study in shoddy – or at least outdated – science, and they consider it the first proven instance in 35 years of an executed man being proven innocent after death.

“Governor Perry refuses to face the fact that Texas executed an innocent man on his watch. Literally all of the evidence that was used to convict Willingham has been disproven – all of it,” said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law in New York that has championed the case. “He is clearly refusing to face reality.”

Three independent reviews over the last five years, involving seven of the nation’s top arson experts, found no evidence the fire was set intentionally. The most recent is a report commissioned by the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

The author, renowned arson expert Craig Beylor, blasts the investigators who handled the Willingham case, finding that they misread the evidence and based their conclusions on a “poor understanding of fire science.”

The commission says it is reviewing the Beyler report and other evidence and will issue a conclusion next year.

The fire took place two days before Christmas 1991, and claimed the lives of Willingham’s three daughters: 2-year-old Amber, and 1-year-old twins, Karmon and Kameron.

State fire investigators and Corsicana fire officials maintained that burn patterns, cracked windows and other signs pointed to arson.

Willingham, 24 at the time and an unemployed auto mechanic, had only superficial burns. He said he’d run outside after Amber alerted him to the fire, looking for the others, and couldn’t reenter because the blaze grew so quickly.

He had a criminal record for burglary and grand larceny. He had once beaten his pregnant wife, and a jailhouse snitch said he’d confessed.

At trial, prosecutors told jurors that Willingham had intentionally left his daughters to die in a burning home.

But myriad scientists say that conclusion of arson was based on outdated training that, at the time of trial 15 years ago, had already been replaced by science-based methods that would have pointed to bad wiring or a space heater.

Willingham protested his innocence to the end. Strapped to a gurney awaiting lethal injection on Feb. 17, 2004, he asserted that “I am an innocent man -- convicted of a crime I did not do.”

The Board of Pardons and Paroles, appointed by the governor, had rejected the appeal his lawyers had filed three days earlier. Hours before the execution, the lawyers appealed directly to Perry.

The appeal included a report from a widely respected fire expert, Gerald Hurst, that cast serious doubt on the arson finding.

Hurst, a Cambridge-educated chemist who was chief scientist for the nation's largest explosive manufacturer, says the signs used as proof that an accelerant had been poured were almost certainly the result of “flashover” – an intense heat burst that causes an entire room to erupt in flame.

The effects of flashover can mimic arson.

In 2004, the Chicago Tribune asked three fire experts to evaluate the case. Their testing confirmed Hurst's report. The case was recently featured in an extensive article in The New Yorker, launching a new round of questions.

Perry, in Washington for a campaign fundraiser today and a speech tomorrow to conservative activists, said during an hour-long session with reporters that he does not believe the state executed an innocent man.

“No,” he said. “We talked about this case at length. One of the most serious and somber things that a governor of Texas deals with is the execution of an individual.… We go through a substantial amount of oversight.”

In 2006, the Innocence Project, using state open records law, obtained records from Perry’s office regarding the last-minute appeal. The governor’s office provided no documents that acknowledged the contents of the appeal or its significance, Scheck’s office said – a “lack of action” that indicates the governor ignored critical analysis.

Perry, whose authority as governor is limited to delaying an execution for 30 days, said he reviewed the case extensively.

“I get a document that has all of the court process. It gives you all of his background, all of the court machinations on the legal side of it, and the recommendation of both my legal side and the courts. It’s pretty extensive amount of information,” he said. “I have not seen anything that would cause me to think that the decision that was made by the courts of the state of Texas was not correct.”

The San Antonio Express-News Editorial Board says that there is "not a shred of evidence" that supports the theory that the fire in the Todd Willingham case was arson, and "the overwhelming evidence is that investigators, prosecutors, court appointed defense attorneys, jury members, appellate judges, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and, finally, Gov. Rick Perry failed and Texas executed an innocent man".
"A lethal failure of justice in Texas""
The one argument that gives even death penalty proponents pause is the prospect that the state might put an innocent person to death. Death penalty cases have multiple layers of appeals and reviews that are intended to avoid such an eventuality. Does that process work?

In recent years, the exoneration with DNA evidence of scores of death row inmates nationwide — including many from Texas — has raised serious questions about the way some death penalty defendants are represented and treated in the criminal justice system. Still, while there have been doubts raised about some cases in which executions have taken place, no one has been able to point to a case where an innocent person was clearly put to death.

That may be about to change. Journalist David Grann, writing in the Sept. 7 issue of the New Yorker magazine, makes a compelling argument that when the state of Texas gave Todd Willingham a lethal injection in 2004, it executed an innocent man.

Willingham was sentenced to death for the murder of his three children by arson. A review of the case by experts finds the determination of arson as the cause of the fire that consumed the Willingham home in Corsicana in 1991 was utterly faulty.

In 2005, Texas created a commission to investigate forensic errors in criminal cases. One of the first cases the Texas Forensic Science Commission reviewed was the Willingham case.

As Grann notes, a fire scientist hired by the commission issued a scathing report. He found that “investigators in the Willingham case had no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no comprehension of ... fire dynamics, relied on discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire.”

In a letter last month to the Corsicana Daily Sun, state District Judge John H. Jackson Sr., who sent Willingham to death row as a prosecutor, responded to the mounting evidence of a wrongful execution. “The trial testimony you reported in 1991,” he wrote, “contains overwhelming evidence of guilt completely independent of the undeniably flawed forensic report.”

In fact, beyond the forensic evidence that Jackson now acknowledges as being flawed, there's not a shred of evidence to support the allegation that Willingham or anyone else started the fire that killed his children. Fire experts believe it was caused by a space heater or faulty electrical wiring. In any case, there was certainly no evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to send Willingham to death row.

The overwhelming evidence is that investigators, prosecutors, court appointed defense attorneys, jury members, appellate judges, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and, finally, Gov. Rick Perry failed and Texas executed an innocent man.

Society should retain the power to apply the ultimate penalty to its most heinous and dangerous criminals. But with that power comes the ultimate responsibility to ensure that the state does not put innocent people to death. The Todd Willingham case suggests that Texas has failed in that responsibility.

Friday, September 18, 2009

What I Want My Words To Do To You - UT Film Screening, September 24

The Center for Women's & Gender Studies at UT Austin
invites you to a screening of the award-winning documentary
What I Want My Words To Do To You.

Thursday, September 24, 2009
8:00 PM
Calhoun (CAL) Hall, Room 100 on the UT Campus (See map)
Free and Open to the Public

What I Want My Words To Do To You offers an unprecedented look into the minds and hearts of the women inmates of New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. The film goes inside a writing workshop led by playwright Eve Ensler, consisting of 15 women, most of whom were convicted of murder. Through a series of exercises and discussions, the women, including former Weather Underground members Kathy Boudin and Judith Clark, delve into and expose their most terrifying realities as they grapple with the nature of their crimes and their own culpability. The film culminates in an emotionally charged prison performance of the women's writing by acclaimed actors Mary Alice, Glenn Close, Hazelle Goodman, Rosie Perez and Marisa Tomei.

A panel discussion will follow the film.
For more information on this screening, call 512-471-5680

Thursday, September 17, 2009

ABC Nightline to Report on Todd Willingham

BC News' Nightline has announced on Twitter that tonight they will be airing a story by reporter Terry Moran on the case of Cameron Todd Willingham. Check your local listings for the time. Here in Austin Texas, Nightline airs after the local 10 PM news, so at 10:30 pm.

Sign the petition to Governor Rick Perry and the State of Texas to acknowledge that the fire in the Cameron Todd Willingham case was not arson, therefore no crime was committed and on February 17, 2004, Texas executed an innocent man.

A Life Cut Short: Todd Willingham

Cameron Todd Willingham, who went by Todd, with his wife, Stacy. The couple's three children died in a fire Dec. 23, 1991, at the family's Corsicana, Texas, home. Willingham was accused of arson and tried for murder.

Watch the full story tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m ET

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Reception for Texas After Violence Project

Thursday, September 10, 6 - 8 p.m., Reception for TAVP friends & friends-to-be, Mi Madre's Restaurant.

Please join TAVP on Thursday, September 10, 2009 for a little bit of music and food, and a few words about why the work of the Texas After Violence Project matters.

Remarks by the Hon. Elliott Naishtat

Day: Thursday, September 10, 2009
Time: 6 p.m. - 8 p.m.
Presentation begins at 6:45 p.m.

Where: Mi Madre's Restaurant
2201 Manor Road, Austin, 78722

Please let us know them you will join them, so that we can make sure we have enough food. Call 916-1600 or write us at info@texasafterviolence.org.

Support their work with a donation today. The Texas After Violence Project is a public charity under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, per an Internal Revenue Service determination letter of August 10, 2009. Contributions to the Texas After Violence Project made at any time after its incorporation on April 10, 2007, are tax-deductible.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Texas Issues Apology For Executing Innocent Man

This week's "Moment of Clarity" video by comedian Lee Camp creates an alternate reality where Texas actually apologizes for killing an innocent man.

In this interview from his appearance on MSNBC, David Grann, who wrote the article "Trial by Fire" in the New Yorker about the Todd Willingham case, says there is "not a single shred of evidence of arson".

Texas Should Admit Todd Willingham was Innocent

Sign a petition to Governor Rick Perry and the State of Texas to acknowledge that the fire in the Cameron Todd Willingham case was not arson, therefore no crime was committed and on February 17, 2004, Texas executed an innocent man.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Screening of State Vs. Reed by Ryan Polomski and Frank Bustoz

Join the Austin Campaign to END the Death Penalty Wednesday, September 9th @ 7pm at UT campus, MAIN 26* for a screening of State Vs. Reed, an award winning documentary about Texas death row prisoner Rodney Reed. A Q&A will follow this event.

(*Note the room change)

Directed by Ryan Polomski and Frank Bustoz.

This 60 minute film documents the questionable murder conviction of Bastrop resident Rodney Reed. Hidden DNA evidence and eyewitness testimony all point away from Rodney Reed, and toward another suspect. For years Rodney's family has fought to expose the facts in this case Join the CEDP in a viewing of this important film. There will be an update on recent developments in the case and of the ongoing struggle to win justice for Rodney Reed.

Monday, September 07, 2009

After Todd Willingham and Sharon Keller Debacles, Where are the Candidates Challenging Members of the CCA?

Where are the Democratic candidates challenging the incumbents on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals who are running for re-election in 2010? The CCA allowed an innocent person to be executed - Todd Willingham. It is the court that one of its own current members says became a national laughingstock years before Sharon Keller said "we close at 5". Keller, its presiding judge, is charged with incompetence and misconduct and could be removed from office.

The three incumbents on the CCA up for re-election in 2010 are: Lawrence Meyers, Michael Keasler and Cheryl Johnson.

Meyers made a laughable, dishonest claim that the CCA has a reputation for fairness in his re-election annoucement. “I am seeking re-election to the Court to continue to be an objective voice and ensure that we maintain our reputation for delivering fair and just opinions,” said Meyers in announcing his candidacy for re-election. Tell that to Todd Willingham, whose last appeal based on actual innocence was denied on the day he was executed, "We have reviewed the subsequent application for habeas relief and find that it does not meet the requirements for consideration under Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, Article 11.071, § 5 as a claim of newly discovered evidence of actual innocence."

The Dallas Morning News blog said "try not laugh" at Meyers' claim that the CCA has a reputation for fairness. Meyers deserves an opponent.

Michael Keasler is one of the most, far-right, conservative members of the CCA and also deserves an opponent. Grits for Breakfast has said, "There is no liberal wing on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. There's a conservative wing, to which Judge Johnson belongs, and a more or less totalitarian wing, in which Keasler and Meyers reside along with Presiding Judge Sharon Keller."

Cheryl Johnson does not deserve an opponent. Johnson was the duty judge on call the day Keller said "we close at 5" when lawyers for a man set for execution wanted to submit an appeal after 5 pm. Keller violated the Execution-Day Procedures of her own court when she failed to inform Johnson about any communications from Richard's lawyers. She testified for the prosecution in the trial against Sharon Keller, saying that she would have not said "we close at 5" like Keller did, but that she would have allowed lawyers for Michael Richard to submit their appeal instead of slamming the doors of justice closed. Johnson should probably be given a profile in courage award.

Currently there are no Democrats serving on the Court of Criminal Appeals, but we hope the Democrats find 2 strong candidates to run in 2010. It does not serve justice to have every member of any court to be all from the same political party. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has been all-Republican for more than a decade. It has become the "worst court in the state" (according to Texas Monthly), if not the entire U.S.

Democrats would have a chance to grab two seats on the CCA, if they find some quality candidates. Usually statewide judicial races are won by the same party that wins the governor's race, but this could be the year that the Democrats could win a seat on the CCA no matter what the outcome of the gubernatorial race is because of the extremely poor reputation of the CCA.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Rice University Teach-In for Troy Davis

The Death Penalty, Race, Institutional Flaws and What You Can Do

In 1991 Troy Anthony Davis was convicted of the murder of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail and sentenced to death in Georgia. In the case Davis pleaded innocent and through out his time on death row he has never changed this assertion. After his first appeal, seven out of nine eyewitnesses recanted their testimony or contradicted their previous statements. Many asserted that the police had coerced them to give evidence implicating Mr. Davis. One of the two eyewitnesses who did not change testimony was himself a suspect in the trial prior to Mr. Davis. Mr. Davis appealed his case to the Supreme Court of the United States and, on August 17th, 2009, the Court ordered a new evidentiary hearing.

On September 24th Rice University’s Amnesty International Chapter will examine this case and the ways in which it reflects the deep inadequacies within the American justice system, especially when it comes to the death penalty and it’s interaction with race. Rice Amnesty urges all who are interested in the case, in the justice system, in fairness and in the abolition of the death penalty to attend.

The event will be held on Thursday, September 24th at 6:30pm. The event will be located in the Humanities Building, number 31 on the campus map, Houston TX, 77005.

For further information, please contact Julia Lukomnik, External Vice President of the Rice university Amnesty International Chapter, at jel2@rice.edu

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Innocent but Dead

That's the title of Bob Herbert's column in today's New York Times.

There is a long and remarkable article in the current New Yorker about a man who was executed in Texas in 2004 for deliberately setting a fire that killed his three small children. Rigorous scientific analysis has since shown that there was no evidence that the fire in a one-story, wood frame house in Corsicana was the result of arson, as the authorities had alleged.

In other words, it was an accident. No crime had occurred.

Cameron Todd Willingham, who refused to accept a guilty plea that would have spared his life, and who insisted until his last painful breath that he was innocent, had in fact been telling the truth all along.

It was inevitable that some case in which a clearly innocent person had been put to death would come to light. It was far from inevitable that this case would be the one. “I was extremely skeptical in the beginning,” said the New Yorker reporter, David Grann, who began investigating the case last December.

The fire broke out on the morning of Dec. 23, 1991. Willingham was awakened by the cries of his 2-year-old daughter, Amber. Also in the house were his year-old twin girls, Karmon and Kameron. The family was poor, and Willingham’s wife, Stacy, had gone out to pick up a Christmas present for the children from the Salvation Army.

Willingham said he tried to rescue the kids but was driven back by smoke and flames. At one point his hair caught fire. As the heat intensified, the windows of the children’s room exploded and flames leapt out. Willingham, who was 23 at the time, had to be restrained and eventually handcuffed as he tried again to get into the room.

There was no reason to believe at first that the fire was anything other than a horrible accident. But fire investigators, moving slowly through the ruined house, began seeing things (not unlike someone viewing a Rorschach pattern) that they interpreted as evidence of arson.

They noticed deep charring at the base of some of the walls and patterns of soot that made them suspicious. They noticed what they felt were ominous fracture patterns in pieces of broken window glass. They had no motive, but they were convinced the fire had been set. And if it had been set, who else but Willingham would have set it?

With no real motive in sight, the local district attorney, Pat Batchelor, was quoted as saying, “The children were interfering with his beer drinking and dart throwing.”

Willingham was arrested and charged with capital murder.

When official suspicion fell on Willingham, eyewitness testimony began to change. Whereas initially he was described by neighbors as screaming and hysterical — “My babies are burning up!” — and desperate to have the children saved, he now was described as behaving oddly, and not having made enough of an effort to get to the girls.

And you could almost have guaranteed that a jailhouse snitch would emerge. They almost always do. This time his name was Johnny Webb, a jumpy individual with a lengthy arrest record who would later admit to being “mentally impaired” and on medication, and who had started taking illegal drugs at the age of 9.

The jury took barely an hour to return a guilty verdict, and Willingham was sentenced to death.

He remained on death row for 12 years, but it was only in the weeks leading up to his execution that convincing scientific evidence of his innocence began to emerge. A renowned scientist and arson investigator, Gerald Hurst, educated at Cambridge and widely recognized as a brilliant chemist, reviewed the evidence in the Willingham case and began systematically knocking down every indication of arson.

The authorities were unmoved. Willingham was executed by lethal injection on Feb. 17, 2004.

Now comes a report on the case from another noted scientist, Craig Beyler, who was hired by a special commission, established by the state of Texas to investigate errors and misconduct in the handling of forensic evidence.

The report is devastating, the kind of disclosure that should send a tremor through one’s conscience. There was absolutely no scientific basis for determining that the fire was arson, said Beyler. No basis at all. He added that the state fire marshal who investigated the case and testified against Willingham “seems to be wholly without any realistic understanding of fires.” He said the marshal’s approach seemed to lack “rational reasoning” and he likened it to the practices “of mystics or psychics.”

Grann told me on Monday that when he recently informed the jailhouse snitch, Johnny Webb, that new scientific evidence would show that the fire wasn’t arson and that an innocent man had been killed, Webb seemed taken aback. “Nothing can save me now,” he said.

The Eye and Tooth Project: Confronting Capital Punishment in Texas

By John Sullivan

Call it the ultimate deterrent; call it retribution, or closure, or simply an “eye for an eye,” Americans have historically supported capital punishment with strong resolve and a clear national conscience. Recently, however, this mandate has weakened as pressures for reappraisal and change kick against the goad of tradition. A national wave of death row exonerations, sparked by nonprofit watchdogs such as The Innocence Project, and former governor George Ryan’s mass commutation of all pending death sentences in Illinois, caused the nation to pause and wonder: How many innocents are housed on death row, how many have already been executed, how many more will die by mistake? Or worse yet, through malfeasance? Horror stories — of blatant racism in jury selection, shoddy, underfunded legal counsel and mentally ill inmates medicated merely to better comprehend their fate and legally qualify for execution — have eroded public confidence in this allegedly objective system that collects, organizes and weighs evidence, convicts perpetrators and puts them to death, all so very righteously.

Actors rehearsing
So many cross-purposes, so much pain: Where is justice here? Click for slideshow

The American Southland has pushed back against this trend but Texas remains most adamant, maintaining its huge lead in executions over all other states, and refining its version of capital punishment to ensure a due process “speedier than the grave.” While most states outside the South have stopped executions, a form of de facto abolition, Texas continues at a pace that leaves the state many furlongs in front of its next competitor, Virginia, 439 to 103. And the bulk of these executions have occurred within the span of two recent governors, George W Bush (152) and Rick Perry (200), who both disdained the standards of international law, the European Union, other American states and many communities of faith. In the words of David Dow, professor of law at the University of Houston and a defense attorney in many capital murder cases, “the day is not far off when (for procedural, political and philosophical reasons) essentially all executions in the United States will take place in Texas.”

To counter what many consider this ultimate abuse of human rights, Amnesty International USA (AI) developed urgent action campaigns supporting appeals for clemency and reform of state laws and procedures that stack the deck against both the accused and the convicted. Much of that national effort focuses on Texas and, most especially, Harris County, which has become ground zero in the American struggle for abolition.[1] Recognizing the power of personal story to convey how messy, ambiguous and conflicted both sides of this issue can be, AI Group #23-Houston launched the Eye & Tooth Project: a series of performance pieces and workshops, some in an interactive, Forum Theatre format based on Augusto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed.” The series is focused on the injustices and cruelties of capital punishment, Texas style. In 2003, the first Forum process began with an intensive weekend workshop culminating in a Monday performance at Houston’s Main Street Theater. An hour before the show, Texas inmate Robert Lookingbill was executed and so the performance began with five minutes of stark silence: a single candle flickering on-stage in an otherwise dark theater to solemnize his passing.

Since that first foray into advocacy as performance, AI-Houston has co-sponsored abolition workshops at AI southern regional sites (Atlanta, Ga.), state conferences (Austin, Texas) and the national Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed (PTO) Conference, and presented an animated-image performance piece to support the efforts of the AI “Weekend of Faith in Action” (Houston), a collaboration with faith-based communities who also advocate for abolition. In 2004, AI-Houston hosted the annual Southern Regional Conference, facilitated a TO abolition workshop for regional AI activists and presented a dramatic collage, “On the Tip of Heaven’s Tooth,” incorporating ensemble pieces and monologues covering the gamut of torture, political murder, unjustified incarceration and the death penalty. The eponymous piece that closed this show incorporated text from five famously heartbreaking cases: the last words from the lips of inmates executed by the State of Texas: Karla Faye Tucker, Shaka Sankofa, James Coburn, Kelsey Patterson and James Vernon Allridge.

Rolling Out AI’s “Rolling Forum”

After a four-year hiatus, AI-Houston re-envisioned Eye & Tooth as a “Rolling Forum” of performances that would visit major Texas cities to support the abolition agenda during the 2009 session of the Texas Legislature. The state capital, Austin, became the project’s primary locale and AI-Houston partnered with two experienced, Austin-based TO facilitators, Kelly Howe and Kathleen Juhl. Howe, a Ph.D. candidate and instructor in the University of Texas Performance as Public Practice program, directs new plays in Austin and elsewhere, sits on the Pedagogy & Theatre of the Oppressed governing board and has facilitated TO projects on a wide variety of issues. Juhl, a professor of theater arts at Southwestern University, also directs and teaches acting and performance studies within a social-justice framework. I represented AI-Houston in the project as a reference source for information on Texas death penalty laws, policies and abolition networks, and as a more or less experienced hand in using TO as a structure for dialogue around the issue of capital punishment. Amnesty International USA supported the project financially through a grant from its Special Initiatives Fund.

As a group, we resolved to continue the primary aims of the Eye & Tooth Project that have endured throughout AI-Houston’s long commitment to the process. Through educational outreach, we hope to increase public awareness of race and class inequities, procedural deficiencies and psychological fallacies hard-wired into the capital-punishment system in Texas. In terms of strategic advocacy, audience exposure to Eye & Tooth content and direct participation in the intensive preparation process by the actors builds on this knowledge base to create more effective allies for murder-victims’ families, death row inmates and their families, policy makers and nonprofit-sector abolition advocates directly involved in efforts to end society’s use of the death penalty. But for this latest “rolling” iteration of Eye & Tooth, we added an additional goal grounded in the real world of legislators, laws and lobbying: Our Austin performance would educate and activate both actors and audience to sign AI and Texas Coalition for Abolition of the Death Penalty (TCADP) abolition and urgent action petitions, and support TCADP in their annual “Lobby Day” at the Texas State Capital.

We adopted Suzanne Lacy’s “Stages of Community Art” structure[2] as an organizing principle for our efforts to research, promote, network and produce Eye & Tooth. This stages framework is based on the following sequence of over-lapping activity clusters that shift from concepts to community involvement to artistic action, and ultimately to gauging the impact of all that effort.

Eye & Tooth Project Sequence

What’s the focus: issues & concepts?
Who’s the focus: who is personally affected & how?
What do you want to accomplish?
What are desirable/sustainable outcomes?

Details to gather; Questions to answer; Nuances to absorb.

Networking – Coalition Building
Who are your allies on this issue?
Where are leverage points for maximum social effect?

Human, technical, financial & spiritual

Devising and implementing the art-based actions

Measuring effectiveness: socially & personally

After Suzanne Lacy’s “Stages of Community Art”

Amnesty International’s overarching human-rights perspective on capital punishment in the U.S. — a system tainted by race and class exclusion and violations of due process, and based on a false promise of catharsis or closure for victim’s families — formed our focus in framing and exploring the issue. We recognized that the unhealed wound left in the life of a murder-victim’s family, or the soul-deadening routine of a death row inmate, or the often catastrophic, and largely unacknowledged, impact of a death sentence on the convicted inmate’s immediate kin are beyond the pale of “average” human experience. So we hoped to devise “forum-able” scenes that offered empathetic opportunities for our audience to try on the skin of a protagonist, or experiment with various action strategies and points-of-view as an ally. Having recognized that, at its root, an individual’s position on capital punishment is deeply personal, often conflicted, and difficult to change with factual evidence, we realized perhaps the best outcome we could achieve would be problematizing an issue often mischaracterized as nonnegotiable, black or white, completely evil on one side, demonstrably just and good on the other.

The combination of skills and specific networks among Eye & Tooth facilitators made for a useful, free-flowing symbiosis. Howe and Juhl made good use of their Austin insider connections to arrange venues for a preliminary workshop, the weekend intensive, a popular, well-situated space for the community performance and a slew of deals on food and advertising. Their artistic networks helped recruit actors for the production, complimentary spoken word and music to flesh out the evening performance, local artists (who were also active advocates for abolition) to serve on a post-performance panel and a remarkable audience turnout. I focused on folding our project into the circuitry of the Texas abolition network hoping to promote the event, to help facilitators and the Eye & Tooth performance cadre assimilate the issue and its implications from multiple points of view and, possibly, to recruit a few additional actors already attuned to the complexities of the issue.

I outlined the ways Amnesty collaborates with other groups on this issue and, in the course of building a coalition of support for Eye & Tooth, the three of us (together and separately) made presentations at local meetings of the Texas Coalition for Abolition of the Death Penalty (Austin and Houston), contacted members of the Texas State legislature and their staff and attended TCADP’s annual state conference where we learned the nuances of strategic messaging, the basics of various proposed bills affecting some aspect of criminal justice vis-à-vis the system of capital punishment, and got sound advice on how an abolition activist could best support Representative Jessica Farrar’s House Bill 682, which mandated total abolition of the death penalty. We also identified and contacted other allies, in Austin and statewide: the Gulf Region Advocacy Center, the Texas After Violence Project, Murder Victim’s Families for Reconciliation and, of course, the local AI chapter in Austin.

Actors rehearsing
After presenting her plea for abolition of the death penalty and reform of the criminal-justice system, Delia Perez-Meyer expresses to a supporter her pain and frustration with the House Subcommittee’s apparent disrespect and disinterest. ("Speaking Truth to Deaf Ears" in performance) Click for slideshow

We recognized that a major factor in recruiting actors for this Eye & Tooth workshop/production would be clearly ideological: Participants should support abolition of the death penalty, or at least favor a moratorium on executions. We knew the public performance could attract an audience with a wide spectrum of feelings on capital punishment, and the Forum would probably generate intense, free-ranging dialogue but, in synch with promoting the long-terms goals of the project, we wanted all the actors to start from similar feelings and beliefs. Ultimately, a diverse group committed to participating in the production process, including UT theater students, members of campus-based groups such as MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan), two experienced TO actors from Houston, one of whom had previously worked with Eye & Tooth, and an array of local social-justice activists.

To provide some concepts and historical overview without overwhelming workshop participants, we focused primarily on the convergence of possible innocence and the irrevocability of execution, equity issues (with primary reference to quality of legal representation), effectiveness of capital punishment as crime deterrent, economics of capital punishment vs. the cost of life without parole, execution of mentally ill and mentally handicapped convicts in Texas, the claim by district attorney’s that execution of a murderer brings psychological closure for the victim’s family, and the social and economic consequences for families of death row inmates. These concepts informed our work with TO image structures throughout the course of the workshop and served as a launching platform for actors to become characters in the real-life death-penalty dynamic. But the authenticity, emotional complexity and conceptual depth of our work made a great leap forward when Delia Perez-Meyer, sister of Texas death row inmate, Louis Castro-Perez, sacrificed a weekend visit with her brother to participate in Eye & Tooth.

I first met Delia in 2007 when the Strand Theatre in Galveston asked AI-Houston to convene a panel of abolition activists to support their production of “The Exonerated.” The panel consisted of Dave Atwood (TCADP/Pax Christi), Clarence Brandley (exonerated former death row inmate), Nicole Casarez (director of the University of St. Thomas Innocence Project), Linda White (Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation) and Delia Perez-Meyer who represented the inmate families perspective and brought with her a show of what may be the world’s largest collection of visual art by death row inmates. As Delia told the audience of her brother’s plight we heard a through-line common to such stories: sparse resources for defense, botched or biased handling of D.A.’s investigation and DNA lab work, pro forma rubber-stamped due process, and the long, excruciating wait to be executed for someone else’s crime. She related her brother’s situation to that of two other inmates, previously executed but probably innocent, Ruben Cantu and Carlos de Luna. Delia spoke from a place of deep strength and unflinching commitment, visibly moving the audience. When I told her about AI-Houston’s ongoing Eye & Tooth project, she said, “I really want to do that. Don’t forget about me.” When she showed up at our orientation meeting in Austin, I knew we could produce something substantial out of this painfully difficult stuff.

Working through Our Dark Materials

While our way of working this issue into theater followed the more or less typical arc of any TO workshop — activation and sensory retuning games, trust exercises and image work leading into scenes — we integrated references to abolition talking points into our frequent processing sessions, and introduced a few para-theatre tools developed in the course of previous versions of Eye & Tooth. The group — including facilitators — moved through an issue-specific sociometry exercise to give us a sense of our collective experience with violence and its aftermath, criminal justice, incarceration, death row and personal ambivalence around the death penalty. We created tableau images focused on conflict that incorporated various actors in the death-penalty dynamic — the victim and victim’s family members, the accused or convicted perpetrator, the death row inmate’s family members, abolition advocates, legislators, D.A.s, judges, prison personnel, et al. — and the actors tried on various skins adopting different attitudes as they shifted functions inside the images. A riff on a traditional exercise, “Trading Masks of Oppression” from Boal’s “Games for Actors and Non-Actors,” delved into the emotional substrate of opposing points-of-view on executions, and the social pressures to keep quiet just to get along. We also used a hybrid form called “Janaka’s Double,” combining TO image theater and fluid sculpture from playback theater, to explore divergences among our inner, spontaneous reactions to the act or possibility of murder, and our publicly expressed views on the justice of the capital-punishment system.

These exercises were invaluable, showing each of us what we had never seen, what we didn’t know, provoking feelings we had never before felt. As always, the authenticity of Delia’s experience was our best teacher. I won’t forget how she drew upon precise, indelible memories to sculpt the image of her brother’s initial hearing: the D.A. declaiming fire and brimstone, the victim’s family members staring daggers, a presiding judge, head averted, dozing in and out of consciousness, and Louis — here, she gently molded an actor into a gesture of disbelief and utter desolation, saying softly, “He was crushed. He couldn’t believe they were accusing him of this … killing his friends, like this. He couldn’t believe they wouldn’t let him go home.”

Ultimately, the TO process magic yielded two scenes. Our “home for the family holiday” scenario, “They Say Death Row, We Say Hell NO,” showed a young college student, caught on TV news supporting an abolition rally at the state capital, attempting to explain her reasons to her family and relatives, all of whom had strong feelings on either side of the issue. A second scene, “Speaking Truth to Deaf Ears,” depicted the frustratingly Sisyphean story of Delia Perez-Meyer’s journey to the state capital, every other year, to advocate before the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee for greater justice and accountability in capital murder adjudication, and plead for her brother’s life.[3] The group felt this selection offered the audience a chance, both to wear the skin of an ally with some distance from the issue, and to stand in the very center of the emotional/rhetorical maelstrom that surrounds capital punishment.

They Say Death Row, We Say Hell NO

The production was a complex assemblage of many moving parts, testimony to the diligence of Howe and Juhl during the networking and coalition-building phase of Eye & Tooth-Austin. The Rude Mechanicals, an acclaimed Hill Country performance collective, hosted our production at their Off-Center space in the heart of Austin’s Latino east side, and Buscando el Monte, an afro-Cuban jazz fusion ensemble, warmed up the crowd outside with an informal block party. Amnesty International and the Texas Coalition for Abolition of the Death Penalty provided materials on abolition talking points, urgent action cases such as Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis, and a TCADP petition supporting Representative Jessica Farrar’s House Bill 682 for complete abolition of the death penalty in Texas. Robert Hoelscher of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation and Bob Van Steenburg, state president of TCADP, artist collaborators, jazzman Alex Coke (“Iraqnophobia,” music for “Wake Up Dead Man”), photographer Alan Pogue, (“Witness for Justice: The Documentary Photographs of Alan Pogue,” photographic images for “Wake Up Dead Man”) and Delia Perez-Meyer comprised the post-performance panel. Austin rapper Gnostic Prophet and a screening of “Wake Up Dead Man” rounded out the evening. Honored guests included Iris Salinas, editor of La Nueva Raza, and attorney Walter Long, core team advisor for the Texas After Violence Project and defense counsel for the late Napoleon Beasley, executed by lethal injection in 2002 for a murder committed when he was 17.

Each scene resonated equally with the audience, so the facilitators chose to Forum both. Most spect-actor interventions in “They Say Death Row…” focused on using assertiveness, building coalitions with like-minded family members and marshalling factual evidence to convince — notoriously difficult with such emotionally charged issues. One intervention, however, diverged from this pattern when a spect-actor introduced a totally different character, a distraught murder-victim’s family member, who confronted the chanting abolition advocates with a show-stopping accusation: “What about me?” The actors were flummoxed by this bolt from the blue — which also departs from the traditional spect-actor protocol focused on replacing protagonists or allies — but Kelly Howe seized the opportunity to solicit our audience for ideas. Various audience members spoke up and a composite plan evolved: A small group of protesters broke ranks to listen without judgment and comfort as best they could while still holding fast to their firm commitment to abolition. This example of Boal’s old-school “simultaneous dramaturgy,” in which suggestions from the audience are played out by the actors rather than physically shown by a spect-actor, clearly demonstrated that the voices of victim’s family members must be prominently included in any legitimate dialogue about alternatives to capital punishment.

Delia Perez-Meyer’s scene, “Speaking Truth to Deaf Ears,” was more difficult for the audience to engage, being situated in the halls of power and governed by rules unique to the world of legislative testimony. The most effective spect-actor strategy involved direct engagement of individual subcommittee members who were distracted, patronizingly officious, disrespectfully involved with phone calls or bantering with aides while Delia made her case. This intervention was problematic for Delia, however; she explained that direct address of individual committee members was totally counter to the norm, especially the idea of upbraiding them for disrespect. Another intervention involved changing the mindset of press who mobbed Delia after her testimony from that of sensationalist paparazzi to potential allies. “Perhaps they could report exactly how the committee members behaved,” said an audience member, “then they would be legitimate journalists.” Delia’s scene was clearly a statement on the collusion of power and media that make it so difficult to speak unpleasant or unconventional truths.[4]

Video from “Speaking Truth to Deaf Ears” by the Eye & Tooth Project, using Forum Theatre to develop more effective allies for individuals on death row (and other imprisoned persons) as well as families of death row inmates and victims’ families. Videography/editing by Bryan Parras (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services; Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say). See more Eye & Tooth videos at: http://www.youtube.com/user/hightechaztec

The panel presented perspectives ranging from murder-victim and inmate families, abolition activists engaged in actively lobbying and focused messaging, and artists who use more subtle craft to open human hearts to the possibilities of empathy. Robert Hoelscher told the poignant story of his father’s murder, how his mother called the young perpetrator’s family and compassionately forgave him, and ended with a plea for more such stories and a testimony to their power: “Let the stories breathe, and ultimately they will compel change.” Delia Perez-Meyer reaffirmed her commitment to her brother and to the many death row inmates she now claims as friends, reminding us that just because people are on death row, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re guilty, nor does it mean they should be excluded from humanity. Once again, her ferocious commitment to the human beings trapped inside this issue shone through as she said, “ … to do this work you’ve got to keep telling yourself, don’t stop, don’t ever stop, have patience, but don’t have too much patience; adapt, deal, negotiate, because it’s necessary to grease the wheels of change in ways the world can understand, but never give an inch back on your beliefs, and never forget, you do what you do, not just out of frustration, or pain, or anger, however justified: you do what do only out of love.” She closed with a brief, heartbreaking observation that for close to a decade-and-a-half, she has not been allowed to touch her little brother.

Bob van Steenburg energized the audience with a roll call of recent victories, some monumental, like this year’s abolition of capital punishment by New Mexico, close votes in Montana and Colorado, and the previous year’s abolition triumphs in New Jersey and New York. He suggested that smaller successes, like the fact that Jessica Farrar’s bill even exists here in Texas and will be officially read in a Texas state legislature subcommittee, are reasons to take heart and amplify our voices. He also offered the astute opinion that abolition may never come to Texas because of transformations in ethics or morality, but rather because it costs so much more to execute than to incarcerate for life. Alex Coke and Alan Pogue portrayed their audio/visual collaboration on “Wake Up Dead Man” as a way to make the facts of death row “real for people beyond logic and canned arguments.” In closing, Alan described the combined impact of Alex’s music and his visual images as “a power beyond argumentation, beyond bias.”

So What Happened, How Much, To Whom, and What Does It All Mean?

Looking at our process in terms of flow and artistic integrity, both scenes compressed and accentuated inherent conflict — Delia’s much more subtly — without resorting to naïve oversimplification. Complexity was not sacrificed for an easy fix; again, Delia’s scene was most problematic, and yet utterly revealing, because the terms of her interactions with legislators were circumscribed by protocols and traditions that seem calculated to disempower and deter ordinary citizens. Through the lens of impacts and sustainability, Eye & Tooth successfully connected actor participants and audience with an issue that most citizens consign to the realm of the Other, or exploit to demonize and exclude various races and classes as a tactic in our fruitless national culture wars. Citizens who would not have known such details were introduced to the function of jurisprudence subcommittees and the mechanics of lobbying and organizing, and were given opportunities for connection with organizations like Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, the Texas Coalition for Abolition of the Death Penalty and Amnesty International that channel information, provide technical assistance and actively seek energetic volunteers. I know that three members of the cast went over to the Capital on Lobby Day, and Kelly Howe spent many hours in those same halls inviting legislators to our event. Nearly everyone who stayed signed the TCADP and Amnesty International petitions. On the other hand, none of the invited legislators actually attended Eye & Tooth. In all honesty, we invited only “friendlies,” who were as sure of our support as we were of their good efforts to reform and humanize Texas law, but it would have been encouraging to see them in the audience, and learn from their contributions to the dialogue. Regardless, the Eye & Tooth project honors them — most especially, Representative Jessica Farrar (House District 148) — for their courageous stands, and their investments of time and effort in abolition issues.[5]

House Bill 682 never made it beyond subcommittee, but it did receive a detailed reading and discussion. Other reform measures ultimately made it into laws that codified standards for attorneys representing indigent defendants in capital appeals cases, raised compensation rates for wrongful conviction and incarceration, and established an advisory “Innocence Commission” to study methods of preventing wrongful convictions. And remarkably, the State of Texas is slated to open its first ever Capital Defense Office, with nine attorneys detailed to manage post-conviction appeals in death-penalty cases. These incremental steps toward reform may seem insignificant on a national scale, but given the grim situation in Texas over the past few decades, the 2009 legislature produced real change in criminal-justice processes that may begin to reverse disturbing local trends.

Eye & Tooth will convene again in Dallas/Fort Worth; the time frame for the workshop/performance is tentatively set for late Fall 2009. AI-Houston also planned to field an Eye & Tooth in Galveston to engage the medical community (through the University of Texas Medical Branch) on the issues of physician involvement in training execution teams, or actually supervising the process on-site, and the uses and abuses of expert testimony in determining whether a defendant accused of murder is mentally ill or cognitively handicapped. The immense damage caused by Hurricane Ike in Galveston interrupted this leg of the project, but Eye & Tooth will not be over until memories of the “Huntsville Death House” are consigned to “the way things used to be.” As Reverend Carroll Pickett, former prison chaplain at the Huntsville unit of the Texas prison system, and now a staunch advocate for abolition, observed in his recent book, “Within These Walls: Memoirs of a Death House Chaplain”: “The death penalty, no longer hidden in the shadows, seems to have emerged as a social issue that is causing soul-searching and has give our nation pause. In that I see hope.” Eye & Tooth also hopes to ratchet up our collective level of soul-searching, to lengthen and deepen those reflective pauses, and to move the painful fate of families who have lost a loved one to violence — and the living hell of inmates on death row — further out of the shadows, and into the light of reason and compassion.

John Sullivan directs the Public Forum & Toxics Assistance division of the NIEHS Community Outreach and Education Core at the University of Texas Medical Branch @ Galveston, Texas. He uses Theatre of the Oppressed, photo/video voice and documentary video in collaborative environmental-justice projects. Sullivan is a member of Amnesty International USA Local Group #23, Houston, Texas, and co-directs the Eye & Tooth Project with AI-23 member Sheli Rae.


[1] The total number of offenders sentenced to death from Houston/Harris County totals 280. The next highest number is Dallas County at 96. (As of February 5, 2009)

[2] Lacy, Suzanne. “Debated Territory: Toward a Critical Language for Public Art." in S. Lacy (ed.) Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art. Ed. Suzanne Lacy. Seattle: Bay Press. 1994.

[3] The Texas Legislature convenes for legislative business every other year.

[4] Before the spect-actor phase of “Speaking Truth to Deaf Ears” commenced, Kelly Howe reminded the audience that Delia Perez-Meyer had donated and enacted her own story, and that this painful outcome really happened more than once. She emphasized that, as potential spect-actors, we were not offering a critique of Delia’s actions but rather were looking for leverage points within (or beyond) the scene where Delia’s issues might pick up traction, gather allies and generate empathy with a wider audience. Delia chose to do this scene because she wanted the audience to see what the advocacy process looks like, and experience a fraction of the frustration activists have felt trying to communicate with and change a previously immovable legislative-judicial system.

[5] In addition to Representative Farrar, supportive legislators include: Senator Rodney Ellis (District 13), Representative Sylvester Turner (District 139), Representative Harold Dutton (District 142), Senator Juan Hinojosa (District 20), Senator Eliot Shapleigh (District 29), Senator Eddie Lucio (District 27), Representative Dora Olivo (District 27), Representative Elliot Naishat (District 49), Representative Terri Hodge (District 100), Representative Lon Burnam (District 90), Representative “Chente” Quintanilla (District 75).

Videography/Editing by Bryan Parras (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say)
Still Photography by Liana Lopez (Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say)
Text by John Sullivan (Amnesty International Local Group #23 / Houston, Texas)

Original CAN/API publication: August 2009