Death Row

NEW RESOURCES: Death Row USA, Fall 2009

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund recently released its Fall 2009 edition of Death Row USA, a report detailing death row populations across the United States. According to the report, California, Florida and Texas continue to lead the nation in the number of death row inmates, with California (694) having a death row population almost twice as large as either Florida (395) or Texas (339). In addition, while Florida's and Texas' death row populations have declined in the last decade, California's population has grown steadily, from 551 inmates in 1999 to 694 in 2009.  California has not had an execution since 2006.  Overall, the country's death row population decreased since Death Row USA's report of July 1, 2009--from 3,279 to 3,263 as of Oct. 1.  View the full report here.

Governor Postpones Execution of Inmate Found Unconscious in Death Row Cell

On March 8, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland postponed the execution of Lawrence Reynolds, who was found unconscious in his death row cell hours before he was to be driven to the execution facility. Reynolds, who was sentenced to die for a murder in 1994, apparently took an overdose of pills despite being under a 72-hour watch that includes frequent monitoring by prison guards. He was found unconscious in his cell around 11:30 pm, and was rushed to a hospital in Youngstown, Ohio. Ohio State Penitentiary spokeswoman Julie Walburn confirmed that Reynolds was alone in his death row cell. The state has rescheduled his execution for March 16.  This is the second time the state has postponed Reynolds' lethal injection. He was scheduled for execution in October 2009, but Gov. Strickland delayed executions so the state could review its lethal injection procedure following the failed attempt to execute Romell Broom. Since then, Ohio became the first state to adopt a one-drug lethal injection protocol, a method that Reynolds has challenged.

BOOKS: Messages of Life from Death Row

Messages of Life from Death Row features correspondence from Texas death row inmate Roger McGowen to sociologist and writer Pierre Pradervand.  McGowen’s letters describe his life on death row and point to flaws in the American criminal justice system, especially the arbitrary nature of the death penalty.  The publisher, BookSurge, said the book offers a "unique juxtaposition of carefully selected texts next to the heartfelt and memorable letters written by McGowen ... giv[ing] readers a historical, ethical and pragmatic overview of American criminal justice as well as an inside view of death row in Texas."  Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, said, “This book of letters by a Texas death row inmate, who for over twenty years has been claiming his innocence, has a powerful message of unconditional love, dignity and forgiveness. It has already touched and transformed thousands via its French and Dutch versions. I cannot too warmly recommend it.”

OP-EDS: "Kansas pretends its capital punishment system is working"

Mike Hendricks, columnist for the Kansas City Star, recently described how the state goes through the motions of having a death penalty, but with no immediate prospect of its use after 16 years.  Kansas reinstated the death penalty in 1994; eight years ago, the Lansing Correctional Facility held an open house for the media, showcasing its new death chamber. The room was then sealed and has remained untouched. Ten prisoners await execution, one of whom has been on death row for thirteen years.  “No one that I’m aware of is even close,” said Kansas Department of Corrections spokesman Bill Miskell.  Hendricks wrote: "Wouldn't sentencing the worst killers to life without chance of parole be a whole lot cheaper, simpler and - given the cold-blooded nature of state executions - more morally acceptable?"  A bill to abolish the death penalty is currently before the legislature.  Read full text below.

After 28 Years, Judge Spares Life of Inmate With Mental Disabilities

Edward Lee Elmore, South Carolina’s longest-serving death row inmate, was spared from execution when a state circuit court ruled he suffered from mental retardation.  The sentence reversal came almost 28 years after Elmore was sent to death row in 1982 for a sexual assault and murder, and 8 years after the U.S. Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia that the execution of the mentally retarded is a cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore violates the Eighth Amendment. The decision left defining “mentally retarded” to individual states. Elmore failed and repeated first grade twice, failed and completed second grade once, and did not finish third grade until he was 12. He then withdrew from fifth grade when he was 15. In 1971, at age 12, Elmore's IQ tested at 72 and 58 on separate tests.

BOOKS: That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row

"That Bird Has My Wings" is a new book by Jarvis Jay Masters, an inmate on San Quentin’s death row in California. In this memoir, Masters tells his story from an early life with his heron-addicted mother to an abusive foster home. He describes his escape to the illusory freedom of the streets and through lonely nights spent in bus stations and juvenile homes, and finally to life inside the walls of San Quentin Prison. Using the nub and filler from a ballpoint pen (the only writing instrument allowed him in solitary confinement), Masters chronicles the story of a bright boy who turned to a life of crime, and of a penitent man who embraces Buddhism to find hope.  Masters has written this story as a cautionary tale for anyone who might be tempted to follow in his footsteps, and as a plea for understanding about the forgotten members of society. (From publisher's description).





NEW RESOURCES: Death Row Database Now Available

A new database of death row prisoners in the U.S. is now available on DPIC's Web site. The database contains current sortable and searchable information on death row inmates in each state, including their name, race, county, and date of birth. The information in the database is also editable, meaning that individuals with knowledge of death row inmates may change or add new information. This new database may be a useful tool in exploring how the death penalty is applied. Click here to access the database.  

Vietnam Vet on Death Row Receives His Medals and Waits for Execution

A recent article in the Fayetteville Observer in North Carolina captures the poignant story of one man's life on death row.  James Floyd Davis is a Vietnam veteran who lashed out with a burst of violence fourteen years ago, killing three people including his boss who had fired him a few days before.  He suffers from mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder.  Through the intervention of a therapist who also served in Vietnam, it was learned that Davis was entitled to a Purple Heart and other medals earned during his service.  The army agreed to award him the medals and the prison eventually agreed to let him receive them.  The reporter, Chick Jacobs, sums up the story this way: "This is a story of how one veteran, wounded in body and spirit, reached into the demon-filled darkness of a fellow veteran who lost his way long ago. It's the unlikely tale of how a medal earned in one horror helped bring a touch of humanity to another."  The entire article can be read below: