Human Rights – Facing Death Row

Fifteen SMU students, faculty members and others will travel by bus through the Deep South Aug. 2-10 to visit the people and places involved in operating, reporting on and opposing the death penalty in America. The 10-day experience is designed “to expose people to the physical and emotional aspects affiliated with our country’s use of the death penalty, the majority of which is carried out in the states we’ll visit – Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Texas,” says capital punishment expert/activist Rick Halperin, director of SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program, the trip’s sponsor.

What does justice really look like?

An update from M.B.A. student Diane S.:

It’s 6 a.m. on a humid summer morning, and I’m standing in a commuter lot at SMU anxiously awaiting our departure to one of the most unique opportunities to date that I’ve ever had. We were about to hop on a bus and start our tour through the South for our “death row” trip. Yes, you read that right. Fifteen of us were going to spend 12 days visiting death row facilities and various human/civil rights organizations in Arkansas, Alabama, and Louisiana, among others. The trip, organized by the Embrey Human Rights program at SMU, aimed to educate students and community members about the intricacies surrounding the death penalty, but also the implications it has on society, families and what it ultimately means for criminal justice.

Our trip started in Oklahoma City at the National Memorial honoring the victims, survivors and all those who were affected by the bombing that occurred on April 19, 1995.  I was six years old at the time, but I have recollections of the images broadcasted 24/7 of rubble, people being hauled out on stretchers, despair and anguish. I remember seeing a young Timothy McVeigh in an orange jumpsuit shackled and being led out of a courthouse, and wondering why anyone would intentionally want to cause so much harm.

Fast forward to present-day, and as a 28-year-old woman walking through the interactive exhibits – reading, watching and reliving those same emotions through second-hand accounts – it still didn’t make much sense to me. McVeigh was sentenced to death by lethal injection and died on June 11, 2001. There was no doubt in my mind that his actions were reprehensible, but as a student on a human rights trip I couldn’t help, but wonder: should one’s punishment mirror the crime? Is this the only way to uphold the moral priority of justice?

Outside of the memorial, we met Nancy Vollertsen, sister of death-row exoneree Greg Wilhoit. Greg was wrongfully convicted of killing his ex-wife and spent eight years on death row before he was cleared of all charges in 1993 due to bite-mark evidence. Nancy’s perspective is that of one often forgotten: the loved ones that are left behind when the unthinkable happens. Greg came from a middle-class, conservative family from Tulsa, had never gotten into trouble in his life, and as Nancy put it “sometimes crime just comes knocking on your door.”  At times, her voice would quiver and her eyes would well up proving that time simply is not capable of healing all wounds. Greg spent the remainder of his life as an anti-death penalty activist teaming up with Witness to Innocence, an organization that aims to empower death row survivors in the struggle to end the death penalty once and for all.  He passed away in his sleep in 2014.

Here we were posed with another thought-provoking question: what about those withering away on death row that were wrongfully convicted? I wish I could tell you that Greg’s story was an aberration, but the fact is that there is an overwhelming amount of innocent people sentenced to death every year due to prosecutorial misconduct. Thanks to Witness to Innocence, we were able to speak to six exonerees in different states throughout our travels. Although the details were different, the underlying theme was the same: families were ripped apart, lives lost and injustice was rampant when “justice” should have been served.

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An update from law student Brenda B.:

How do we treat our prisoners, and what does that say about us as a society? Despite being condemned, are prisoners entitled to civil rights (those given to us by a nation because of our citizenship) and human rights (those given to us because we are human)? For the obvious reasons, vulnerable women and children are more likable victims. But in the words of Dr. Rick Halperin, director of the SMU Embrey Human Rights Program, “Who cares about prisoners?” In Georgia, our class explored the complexity and correlation of these issues.

Andersonville 2

Jennifer Hopkins (center) is the cheeriest park guide you will ever meet. Hope Anderson ’16, SMU Human Rights Fellow (left), and me.

We began in Andersonville (officially, Camp Sumter), the largest Confederate prison of captured Union soldiers. An estimated 13,000 soldiers perished in the inhumane conditions at Andersonville: a filthy water supply in an overcrowded area bereft of shelter. Local women bringing blankets and food to prisoners were reportedly turned away by the prison commander. Not surprisingly, following the Civil War, the commander was convicted and executed for war crimes. In a desperate attempt to distance itself from the notorious prison, local officials re-drew county lines to exclude the prison from its territory. The site is now a national park.

Perhaps lesser known is the impact of “colored” troops during the Civil War. The North and South regularly exchanged prisoners of equal ranks, until the South refused to trade “colored” soldiers, considering them “runaway slaves” rather than “free men.” At Andersonville, “colored” troops were used as slave labor. When the South refused to exchange “colored” troops, well, the North refused to trade any soldiers. Hence the need for prisons on both sides.

Our next stop brought us to Atlanta, the home of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, a must-see, state-of-the-art museum, and the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), a non-profit, public interest organization in the heart of downtown. These powerhouse organizations could not be more different, yet their overall mission is alike and their impact is far-reaching.


A cartoon in the offices of the Southern Center for Human Rights aptly describes its important work.

At the heart of its mission, SCHR seeks to end the criminalization of poverty. Its priorities include improving prison conditions, focusing on lack of access to counsel (spending meaningful time with a lawyer), and reforming the bail system that keeps incarcerated people who can’t pay fines for misdemeanors. Active in counties that lack public defenders, SCHR receives no government assistance and relies heavily on donations to support its efforts. In at least one initiative, the support was widespread and overwhelming: earlier this year, its national bailout initiative raised an astounding $1 million to bail out 125 people across the country, including 30 people in Georgia.

Also earlier this year, SCHR made headlines when it successfully represented James McWilliams who was “denied his right to a mental health expert to assist the defense at his 1986 capital trial in Alabama.” The United States Supreme Court reversed his capital case.

“No bells and no whistles, the Southern Center for Human Rights was my favorite place,” said Diana Saleh, an SMU Cox MBA student who plans to run for office one day. Recalling our day, the class seemed to nod in agreement.

Here’s to the SCHR attorneys, investigators, and community. Your tireless work inspires us more than you will ever know.









This post originally appeared on the Law & Human Rights blog.

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Different Kinds of Misery

An update from Jennifer M., doctoral candidate studying prison reform:

Andersonville, Georgia
Standing in a muggy, buggy Georgia field, we tried to imagine Andersonville Prison as it was during the Civil War. Established as a Confederate prison to house Union soldiers, it was originally intended for 8,000–10,000 men.  At its most heavily populated in the summer of 1864, it held 33,000 men. Of the 45,000 who passed through Andersonville, 13,000 died, mostly of diarrhea, scurvy, and dysentery.  The prison closed in May 1865, but in its barely 18-month existence, it earned the reputation of “the most notorious of Confederate atrocities inflicted on Union troops.”

The National Parks Service now manages this historic site, and there is a museum at Andersonville with exhibits about other prisoner of war camps throughout U.S. history.  POWs have suffered terrible physical, material, and psychological deprivation. Some were tortured. But it struck me as I walked around the exhibits and saw how these POWs lived and coped, that such prisoners were almost all united by a common cause, were supportive of each other, and developed a solidarity from which they could create hope.

Raiford State Prison, Florida
Such solidarity would be hard to achieve for the prisoners in Raiford State Prison, in Florida. This facility has 1,200 single-man cells, with three levels of management classification, which includes a “maximum management” unit, aka solitary confinement.  Raiford also houses Florida’s death row. The inmates at Raiford typically have had behavioral problems in other correctional facilities and come from all over Florida. Those convicted of capital murder go there directly after sentencing. Our tour guide, Lt. Cauwenberghs, explained that despite having a chapel, library, and gym, these inmates are not permitted to spend time together in any of these places, because “they will assault one another.” Depending on their classification, prisoners can exercise two, four, or six hours per week, outside in cages, alone.

The extreme isolation that Raiford’s prisoners have to endure, even in the lower security classifications, is not conducive to the type of solidarity that can give some measure of hope and psychological security to POWs, despite other deprivations. The inmates at Raiford are not united in a common cause. In fact common causes would likely be viewed as potential security threats, what French philosopher Michel Foucault memorably referred to as “dangerous coagulations.”  Every aspect of inmates’ day-to-day existence is controlled and scrutinized. Many of the aspects of life that ordinary people take for granted, such as taking a shower or moving from the room you sleep in to another area, only happen with the permission and supervision of correctional officers. All time out of the inmates’ cells is preceded and concluded with strip searches that involve body cavity checks. Human contact is with correctional and, sometimes, medical staffs at the prison, who “handle,” inspect, restrain, and watch the inmates. There are rarely opportunities for association of any kind with other inmates, except for those whose good behavior allows them educational privileges.

We heard from the Lieutenant about some of these educational programs. In response to the links between low educational attainment and criminality, and increased educational programs and lower recidivism, Raiford’s goal is to make sure that as many inmates as possible get their GEDs. It appeared that the Florida Department of Corrections had also begun to grapple with why inmates constantly assault one another when they are not restrained, contained, or otherwise socially incapacitated. The prevailing wisdom is that the men who end up at Raiford are “the worst of the worst,” and there is not much else you can do with them. But the deleterious effects of long-term confinement in extraordinarily locked-down circumstances, and the realization that some of these men will re-enter society at some point, has led to an anger management pilot program at Raiford.

As we passed by the gymnasium, Lt. Cauwenberghs invited us to look through the windows at anger management classes in process. Two groups of about eight inmates each sat in wooden chairs in a semi-circle around female facilitators. The men were about 10 feet from the women. As I was gazing down at these men, our tour guide pointed out that the inmates were sitting in special chairs with restraints. These men were tied to their chairs. I immediately thought of the book, The Girl With All the Gifts, and the chilling opening, in which the author describes a classroom of children sitting in heavy chairs in restraints. This is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, about a world in which a fungus has turned people into flesh-eating zombies, and these restrained children have the virus.  The Girl With All the Gifts explores the ways in which humans rationalize denying their humanity. The book asks another question: how much of our own humanity do we lose when we see any group of others as less than us, and treat them accordingly? All this was passing through my mind, when the inmates in the gym turned and looked at us. All of those faces were black.

Angola State Prison, Louisiana
Our final prison visit was to Angola, an 18,000-acre prison farm and the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Administrative staff boasted that Angola was the size of Manhattan. Angola is like a city. In fact I saw two signs that said, “City of Angola.” The prison houses 3,000 inmates, 85% of which will likely die there because they are “lifers,” and “life means life in Louisiana,” a sort of mantra I heard repeated several times on the tour.

They range in age from 17 to about 80, two-thirds of them are first-time offenders, and the average length of sentence is 88 years. As we cruised the perimeter road, we saw groups of field workers, out in the heat and humidity, working in lines, supervised by a couple of officers on horseback, carrying rifles. The first three years of any inmate’s sentence is spent working in the fields, for no pay. After that time, they can earn 2 cents an hour and request other kinds of work. Every change in circumstances for the better for an Angola inmate is based on good behavior.  “Management problems” go to Camp J, Angola’s version of solitary confinement, with 90 days spent there for each infraction. Of all the inmates I saw at Angola, most from a distance, I saw only two white faces, and the rest were black.

For anyone who was ever in doubt about the links between slavery, Jim Crow, and the current system of mass incarceration in the United States, a tour of prisons in the Deep South will make it clear as day. Harsh sentences, harsh practices, the dehumanizing tactics of the command and control culture of the American prison system, all targeted at poor, under-educated, mostly people of color, is consigning large numbers of citizens to what one commentator has called a “social death.” How did we get here?  Take a look at the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime      whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.  (my italics)

The license to treat prisoners as less than human is enshrined in the Constitution of the most powerful first-world country on this planet. What does this say about America? How much of our humanity do we lose when we ignore the appalling conditions of confinement that are commonplace in this country’s prisons? As Dostoyevsky famously said, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” If we ignore what is happening in America’s prisons, we are bystanders and our collective humanity is compromised.

We are all affected.  We are all implicated.

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Do I Believe in the Death Penalty?

An update from Bettye H., a graduate student:

As a native Texan, I have always known about the prison in Huntsville. We drove past it time and time again on our way from Houston to visit my grandparents in Dallas. I have vivid memories of riding in the back seat of our family Chrysler and staring at the shiny metal fences surrounding the concrete buildings for what seemed like miles – my dad always reminding the family to never stop in Huntsville in case of an escapee. I am not sure when or how, but somewhere along the road my acceptance of the death penalty seeped into my soul as a part of life, and I never questioned it. It was time to question it. I needed to finally be able to answer for myself – do I believe in the death penalty?

The answer was not hard. The answer is so simple that it is embarrassing to admit that I did not see it all along. NO – I do not believe in the death penalty! How could anybody believe in the death penalty? Ignoring the political aspects of the argument – “cruel and unusual punishment”, the systematic corruption of both police departments and our judicial system – the bottomless pockets being filled with favors, the fact that human error is inevitable and innocent people are dying, it is simply wrong at the very core of being human. No one has the right to take a life – no one.

With that being said, however, I still struggle. I have four children – four wonderful young men. There is not a word in the dictionary that describes the depth of my love for these four human beings. I know – from the same place in my soul – that if anyone took them away from me that I could squeeze the syringe, flip the switch, turn on the gas, fire the bullet or drop the floor until their murderer was dead. I would want them to suffer as I would be suffering. I also know that my motherly instincts are normal for most. It is an emotional response and not a literal response.

The worst punishment is life in prison. I saw it for myself. The taking away of your dignity – being strip-searched in front of total strangers, being told to bend over and spread your “butt cheeks” apart, being told to lower your eyes when a female passes by you, being shackled to chairs during meetings, living 22 hours a day in a concrete closet, earning a penny a day, no air conditioning, no heat, no physical contact with your family, no privacy, no nothing. The list goes on and on.

Punish those who do wrong – yes – absolutely. Kill them – no.  The death penalty needs to end. We as Americans are better than the death penalty. We as human beings are better than the death penalty.

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An update from law student Brenda B.:

Evidence shows a direct correlation between the lynchings of African Americans at the turn of the century and the modern use of the death penalty: the more prevalent the lynchings, the more prevalent the death sentence in that same area.

In Alabama, we visited Birmingham and Montgomery, two cradle cities of the civil rights movement that developed in response to the injustices against African Americans between Reconstruction and World War II. Both cities host civil rights museums and memorials to the heroes and heroines of this era (many of whom were children), and both cities are home to three renowned advocacy organizations we visited: the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). In 2018, EJI will open the nation’s first ever museum dedicated to lynchings and racial violence in America.


Most Americans know of the existence of lynchings throughout the South, but few may know of its pervasiveness. The EJI has documented more than 4,000 lynchings in 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950. Described as “racial terror lynchings,” these criminal acts were largely tolerated by state and federal officials, they contributed to racial oppression and segregation, and they left African Americans no recourse to a judicial system, let alone a just and fair one.


Fortunately for us, Birmingham and Montgomery are also home to recent exonerees, heroes in their own right, who took the time to share their powerful stories with us: Gary Drinkard and Anthony Ray Hinton. It is disappointing and troubling that the judicial system that I have come to love failed these two men and many others in such an egregious way. Here are their stories–may we never forget them.

With Gary Drinkard who encouraged me, “I hope you get to become that lawyer.”


A husband and father three, Gary Drinkard was wrongfully accused of the 1993 robbery and capital murder of a junkyard dealer in Decatur, Alabama. The main witness? His half-sister and her husband who were known to burglarize to support their drug addiction and who received a reduced sentence in unrelated charges in exchange for their testimony.

Despite evidence that Gary was home at the time of the murder, and that a severe back injury would have prevented him from committing the murder, Gary spent almost 6 years on death row before he was acquitted at re-trial. When it was suggested that Gary’s mother testify on his behalf and plea for a life sentence, Gary declined: “I got Southern pride, and I told them they can kiss my ass.”

Not unlike the stories we’ve heard from other exonerees, the prosecutor in Gary’s case refuses to admit error and re-open the murder case. When a reporter asked whether he would now pursue the real killer, the prosecutor maintained, “No. He’s walking out the door.”

Gary courageously shared about the humiliation inmates endure and the taunting by guards. Once, as inmates mourned the loss of another inmate recently executed, prison guards openly and loudly ridiculed the executed inmate who had his hands and feet cuffed while guards stuffed cotton into the inmate’s anus to prevent subsequent bowel movements. Other states provide incontinence underwear, a more humane option, for this purpose.

Such circumstances can lead death row inmates to commit suicide. Gary told the story of an inmate who purposefully overdosed on a prison-provided medication. The prison staff revived the inmate, now brain dead, and executed him a few days later. In such cases, is execution a means of justice or vengeance? It appears simply barbaric to me.

Gary attributes his survival in a 5×8 cell to correspondence and writing. Two pen pal organizations shared news and photos of their lives: “That was my ‘out,’ like I was out in society.” He also wrote “silly little poems about the situation, and the anger would go away.”

Once a week, inmates were allowed to visit the law library and learn about “Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty,” an Alabama death row, prisoner-founded and prisoner-run organization established in 1989. “You were really harming yourself if you didn’t take advantage of that,” Gary said. “You were likely to get the same shoddy lawyers [on appeal], and you would be right back in there.” Though he is a free man, Gary lived the initial years after his release in fear that the police would come after him. Prison had its effect long after his imprisonment causing him anxiety and depression.

Gary is a dedicated speaker for Witness to Innocence, the only national organization in the U.S. composed of and led by exonerated death row survivors and their family members. His story touched me deeply, and I asked if he had any words of wisdom to us, law students, in the group: “You have to defend your client. You will meet some sorry clients, and you will have them, but you have to defend them too.”

Anthony Ray Hinton served 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. His case represents the urgent need for reform.


If there is a case that demands reform, it is the story of Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 30 years (30 years!) on death row for a crime he did not commit. The officer who arrested him openly stated, “I don’t care if you did or didn’t do this [murder]. I’m going make sure you are found guilty.” The officer then proceeded to list five reasons why this would happen: 1. Hinton is black, 2. the victim was a white man who was shot, 3. white prosecutor, 4. white judge, and 5. all white jury. The officer them proceeded to say that all that added up to C-O-N-V-I-C-T-I-O-N. The officer spelled it out 5 times.

The first lawyer assigned to his case openly stated, “I didn’t go to law school to do pro bono work.” When Hinton professed his innocence, the lawyer added, “All y’all always saying you didn’t do something you did do.” With ineffective assistance of counsel, Anthony was convicted of capital murder and sent to death row.

What followed for Anthony, a visibly gentle person who claims his mother is the person he loved most in the world, was three years of silence. He would write down his answers to those sought to engage him, until one day, an inmate in a nearby cell began weeping loudly. Surprised by the cries of a man he never imagined crying, he recalled thinking, “No matter what, that person deserves compassion.” Anthony reached out to him and soon learned that the man’s mother had passed away. Anthony comforted him and, in return, he found his voice again. In that moment, he realized two things about himself: that he was loved unconditionally by his mother, and that he had a sense of humor. For example, to escape his “30 years of hell,” Anthony imagined himself faithfully married to Halle Berry, until along came Sandra Bullock. Halle was OK with the divorce and his new marriage. From time to time, he would return to his body to find out if “everything was OK,” and then he would escape once again into his fantasy world.

After the comic relief, the conversation got serious again. Anthony knew what he was up against if he was going to be acquitted. So he demanded that he have not just one, but three experts; that they be white men; must be the very best bullet experts (not just any expert would do); and they must be from the South. Anthony recalled, “Here I am on death row, and I have to worry about one gender and one race.”

Even after three of the best ballistic experts testified that the bullets and the gun in evidence could not support the murder charges against Anthony, both the prosecutor and the attorney general refused to take one hour to look at the evidence because they “did not have the time.” Anthony looked far off, took long pauses, and wiped tears from his eyes. For another 16 years, Anthony sat on death row. Even after the Supreme Court unanimously found Anthony innocent, the state of Alabama has still not issued him an apology or any compensation.

“Race, poverty, inadequate legal assistance, and prosecutorial indifference to innocence conspired to create a textbook example of injustice,” stated Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the EJI in Montgomery, and Hinton’s attorney on appeal, in an interview following Mr. Hinton’s release. On meeting Bryan for the first time, Anthony recalls shaking Bryan’s hand and thinking, “God has sent his best soldier.” Anthony’s powerful story is documented in a 60 Minutes episode.

This post originally appeared on the Law & Human Rights blog.

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Equal Justice Initiative

An update from Grace C., a senior majoring in pre-law:

Today we visited two of my favorite places: the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Equal Justice Initiative. I really appreciate all of the work they do to promote public awareness of human rights issues, especially through litigation.

At EJI, we had the pleasure to hear from Anthony Ray Hinton. My jaw actually dropped when he entered the room because just 5 months earlier I was at EJI for the Civil Rights Pilgrimage and we watched his video. It gave me chills then, but I never even imagined having the opportunity to hear him speak to us today. It really hit me when I heard his story. I mean I can’t even imagine being on death row for 30 years for a crime I didn’t commit. Heck I haven’t even been alive for 30 years, I’m only 21 years old. Not alone being held there for something I didn’t do. It really broke my heart to hear Mr. Hinton’s story. I mean two years later and you can still see how much he is struggling. I got emotional seeing how much pain he was in. He lost 30 years of his life that he will never get back because of corruption. Whats even worse is that the State of Alabama not only refused to spend 1 hour relooking over his case but also to this day has not apologized to him. I mean for goodness sakes what does it take? The Supreme Court of the United States said you were wrong. You were wrong. I can’t believe the state can just take 30 years of someone’s life away for no reason and have no consequences for it.

Mr. Hinton inspired me today. His story really made me mad, and I realized something has to be done. I mean going against a state government is no easy opponent, but this can’t keep happening. This has to end. Mr. Hinton will never get those 30 years back, and nothing can ever make up for what he lost. He lost everything he had. He had no rights. I really am going to pray for Mr. Hinton. I hope he can find peace, and I really hope he can push past this pain he feels. After all of this, he deserves to be happy for the rest of his life. I hope Mr. Hinton can find true happiness. His story is one that can change America. I also want to tell Mr. Hinton that I’m sorry. I know I had nothing to do with anything that happened, but I am sorry that human kind treated you this way. We should all take responsibility for what happened. We made the society we live in. And Mr. Hinton, I will do anything I can to stop this. It’s people like you that make me realize what I can do with a law degree. I can really help people and change America. It will never be easy, but it’s something I have to do.

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An update from law student Brenda B.:


She shot us a quizzical look. “Now why are you going to Parchman?” Beth Henry asked in her sweet, Southern drawl. Outside Catherine’s Exquisite Edibles in downtown Cleveland, Mississippi, four of us, students, had met this bubbly and charming local who could very well serve as the town ambassador.

Mississippi’s Parchman Farm, the second “prison farm” on our tour, is both renown for inspiring delta blues musicians and notorious for its historic, inhumane inmate conditions (not unlike many Southern facilities). “The school brought us there as kids, so that we wouldn’t want to go back,” Beth half joked. Unfortunately, SMU’s visit to Parchman would be limited to a view from across the street: after granting us a tour, Parchman retracted its statement, saying visits were not allowed at this time. A road sign from across the street (below) gave us a tidbit of history.

Beth’s genuinely warm welcome and candid discussions on the town’s present-day racial tensions was disarming to our group of four, colored students. A sleepy, college town still on summer break, downtown Cleveland is picturesque with quaint shops and friendly folks—think SMU’s Snider Plaza only without the cars and the chaos. The only thing more extraordinary about this town that finally integrated its black and white high schools in 2016 is that the Cleveland Country Club still does not accept blacks—whether by rule or by custom, Beth (a member) did not know.

Before we headed back to the hotel, Beth drove us to Dockery Farms, remnants of a bustling cotton plantation and now a public park. A fellow classmate, doctoral student at SMU, and Dallas community college professor, Arlandis Jones, provided some insight into the layout of this plantation (plantations generally followed the same design).  As we drove away from the verdant grounds of this plantation, Beth summed it up: old families and old money is why Cleveland, Mississippi, has a hard time letting go of the past.

Before heading to the next state, we met the inspiring and resilient Sabrina Butler-Smith, a Mississippi teenager who spent six and a half years imprisoned (two of them on death row) after being wrongfully convicted of child abuse and murder of her nine-month-old son. Not an anomaly in the world of wrongful convictions, Sabrina’s case is one of prosecutorial misconduct (witnesses who could corroborate her story as well as her child’s autopsy, which showed severe kidney disease as the cause of death, were never presented to the jury) and ineffective assistance of counsel (the day before the murder trial, Sabrina met for the first time her court-appointed attorney who came to court high as a kite). Her case was reopened by the second-chair attorney who had seen the misconduct and “felt bad” about what had happened.

“You can overturn a wrongful conviction, but you can’t undo a wrongful execution,” said Sabrina who advocates for “court watchers” who keep the court in check by catching misconduct when it happens and not when it’s too late. Sabrina’s passion for life and joy is contagious, and our group invited her to visit SMU so that our school community can hear her remarkable story: “I stay happy. I make jokes. I like bliss. But that’s because God spared my life.”

This post originally appeared on the Law & Human Rights blog.

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“Where do I go to receive justice?”

An update from Jennifer M., doctoral candidate studying prison reform:

“Where do I go to receive justice?”  Anthony Ray Hinton asked this question at the end of his presentation at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, AL. He had just described how he came to be arrested for a double murder in 1985, and the 30 years he spent on death row in Alabama. Mr. Hinton was innocent. The story he told presented a shocking view of the white supremacist culture of the Deep South.

According to Mr. Hinton, the police who investigated his case didn’t think he was guilty, but they worked to convict him, anyway. One of these officers assured Hinton that he didn’t care if he was guilty or not, but he knew he would be convicted because he was black, a white male witness would testify against him, and he would have a white prosecutor, a white judge, and a white jury. For the first 3 years on death row at Alabama’s Holman Prison, Mr. Hinton did not speak. When necessary, he communicated in writing.  As a black man in the Deep South, the culture of white supremacy had already denied him a voice, so why would he bother to speak on death row, where he had also become invisible?

After Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative took his case, Hinton knew that only ballistic evidence could prove his innocence. The bullets that killed the murder victims were supposed to match Hinton’s mother’s gun. As he knew he had not committed the murders, he knew the bullets would not match. Hinton became tearfully emotional twice during his presentation: once when he talked about his mother dying while he was on death row, and again when he recalled telling his lawyer to find a ballistics expert who was white, male, and southern, because he knew that blacks, women, and outsiders would have absolutely no credibility in Alabama. It was indeed a bitter irony that Hinton would have to appease the white male authority that had put him on death row in order to achieve his freedom.

Three white southern ballistics experts compared bullets from Hinton’s mother’s gun with those that killed the murder victims and had found that there was no match. But  Alabama’s Attorney General would not “waste taxpayer dollars” on reviewing the new evidence. Bryan Stevenson had to take Hinton’s case to the United States Supreme Court. This whole process took another 16 years. All nine Supreme Court Justices voted in favor of the retrial that led to Hinton’s release in 2015.

Hinton lost 30 years of his life to a 5 by 7-foot cell, where he had to sleep with his knees pulled up to his chest in order to fit in the prison cot. In the days of “Big Yellow Mama,” Alabama’s electric chair, he had had to smell the odor of burning flesh each time a man was executed, a smell that hung in the air for the whole day following executions.

Anthony Ray Hinton has received no apology and no monetary compensation from the state of Alabama. Where, indeed, does he go to receive justice?

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An update from law student Brenda B.:

“Man cannot outdo God. I don’t hate no more. I love everyone.” – 72-year-old John Henry “Shep” Sheppard, a Rockefeller 15, whose death sentence for the murder of a white woman in 1964 was commuted to life in prison. “I don’t think about the time I’ve spent in jail, but I think about what I did every day.” John Henry encourages new inmates transition to prison life: “These are my children.”

Our second stop brought us to the Cummins Unit, the 16,000-acre Department of Corrections prison in Gould, Arkansas. With an inmate population of about 1,800, this “prison farm” uses inmate labor to grow crops, maintain a dairy farm, produce leather products, and make license plates and road signs. Cummins is the backdrop of the 1980 film Brubaker, starring Robert Redford as the new warden disguised as an inmate who witnesses a disturbing amount of corruption, rape, and violence within the prison. This spring Cummins received widespread media coverage when Arkansas governor, Asa Hutchinson, set execution dates for eight inmates within an 11-day period to beat the clock on an expiring drug used in lethal injections (midazolam).


By April 27, 2017, Arkansas had executed four inmates (three of whom were black), while four others received a stay (three of whom were white). These executions were no less controversial than others that have used midazolam in botched executions in Alabama, Arizona, Ohio, and Oklahoma. Even if an AP reporter witnessing the execution stated the lethal injection “left the prisoner [Kenneth Williams] lurching and convulsing 20 times before he died,” the governor dismissed the request for a full investigation by Williams’ lawyer and the ACLU.


Past the electric fence that qualifies the facility as maximum security, we were soon immersed in the prison subculture with its speak (chock-full of acronyms), its noise (buzzing of doors ahead of us and doors slamming behind us), and its uniforms (white for inmate and blue for officer). Our tour of Cummins consisted of various dormitory layouts: the traditionally portrayed stories of cell blocks, the pod layout with single cells within a public area, and the so-called “general population”: rows of summer camp cots packed into a large room. A fourth area, the so-called “punitive barracks,” had no air conditioner, no mattresses, and a stench of urine that reeked in the Arkansas humidity. A fifth area— brightly lit, plexiglass enclosed, bare rooms—was a “holding area” for inmates awaiting a punitive barrack to open up. Wide glass windows along the corridor separating these units permitted us a view into these dormitories. Shame bubbled within me as we peered in like tourists at a zoo, and inmates peered back. To repair the indignity of that moment, I restrained my gaze from their dormitory and awkwardly nodded or alternately smiled. Some playfully waved, and I waved back.

Outdoors we viewed the large, green space used for daily, hour-long exercise—a precious outlet because inmates are not allowed to exercise in their cells, because “that’s what the powers that be decided,” stated a top-level prison staff. I saw no basketball hoops or volleyball nets. Instead the yard contained some forlorn, black weight-lifting machines whose weights had been removed because of an incident some time ago. My mind raced, and I failed to ask what incident.


With no warning, we were led through the back door of a dark room with chairs facing a window into an adjacent, brightly lit room: the so-called death house, as the execution chamber is called. I silently gasped, my walking pace slowed, and our voices dropped. As our 14-member group filed into the room barely large enough to hold us and the gurney, it hit me that the recent executions had taken place in this very room. The white cinder block walls produced a clinical, hospital feel, while a video camera protruded from the wall opposite the gurney, and a microphone hung above it. The once polished and commanding top-level prison staff dropped her gaze, nervously twitched her hand, and quietly stated that they had “some critics” over the executions. Having never witnessed an execution, she called an imposing, 6-foot correctional officer with a scratch across her face, to explain the process of strapping inmates onto the gurney.

Officers are not ordered to assist with this process, rather they volunteer to assist with strapping in a body part: the right arm, the left arm, the head, the chest, the right leg, the left leg. The importance of having strong inmates is important, she stated, because some inmates with particular physical conditions may require assistance in getting onto the gurney. The efficiency of the procedure seemed logical and reductive: if officers are responsible for specific tasks, it is likely easier to view the process in parts and not whole (mere body parts; not a person).

We concluded our three-our visit with a presentation from a showman-like, deputy warden and four, engaging inmates who lead a sort-of “scared straight” program for new inmates and juvenile groups. At the end of the tour, we realized each person played a part in providing us with an insight into what appeared to be a hellish interplay of order and chaos, adaptation and survival, suffering and small glimpses of hope.


“I served several tours in Iraq. I was in the military. When I go home at night, I sleep like a kitten.” Deputy warden when asked whether his participation in the executions has affected his well-being.

“We’re not a drug rehab facility. It’s not our specialty. We’re a farm.” – Mary Ann Allen, Accreditation Specialist at Cummins Unit, when asked whether the inmates are provided with drug rehabilitation services.

“I’ve never received a psychiatric assessment. Don’t you think they want to know why I did what I did?” – Joseph Breault when asked about inmate services. Having served 37 years of two, consecutive life sentences for three capital murders and 175 felonies, Joseph has completed various degrees and is considering pursuing a doctoral degree. Top-level prison staff had said inmates are provided with psychiatric services upon entering the facility.

“I want to be a football coach. It’s what I love. But I can’t, because I have a felony. So I want to open a barber shop.” – Soft-spoken and clean-cut, Ross Wood on what he wants to do when he gets out. The youngest inmate to share his story, Ross had a physical injury that led to a pill dependence and subsequent criminal activity. He continued his drug use in prison, until he realized he had to make a change: “I’ve gotten my mom back, and she visits me every Sunday.”

This post originally appeared on the Law & Human Rights blog.

Posted in Human Rights - Facing Death Row | Comments Off on Arkansas


An update from law student Brenda B.:

Our first stop was the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum dedicated to the 168 victims and more than 600 survivors of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995.

How does this museum connect to our death row tour? Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, a homegrown, anti-government terrorist, was sent to death row. He died by lethal injection at the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, on June 11, 2001, after the federal judge granted his request to stop all appeals of his conviction. A second man and conspirator, Terry Nichols, received 161 consecutive life sentences. A third man who knew of the bombing plan but failed to warn the authorities, Michael Fortier testified against McVeigh and Nichols in exchange for a 12-year sentence. Also aware of the plan, his wife, Lori Fortier, got off scott-free.

These facts raise interesting questions. How does our justice system assign culpability? Who decides who dies, who lives, and who gets away? The harrowing stories of those who survived the Oklahoma City bombing challenged my views on the death penalty. Is it OK if the crime is heinous? If so, what constitutes heinous?

The outdoor Oklahoma City memorial includes the Survivor Tree, a magnificent, nearly century-old American Elm, which survived the blast, and a reflective pool of calm waters where once lay the street in front of the Federal Building. It is fitting that beneath the Survivor Tree, our group learned about Greg Wilhoit–husband, father, and exoneree.

Unlike those charged in the Oklahoma City bombing, Greg, who passed away in 2014, was cleared of all charges for the murder of his wife after spending 8 years on death row. His story, as shared by his sister, Nancy Vollertson, reminded our group that even when a crime is not committed, a crime can be committed against your family.

Greg’s case is one of ineffective assistance of counsel (a drunk lawyer who prepared nothing for Greg’s murder trial) and junk science (erroneous readings by bite mark “experts” who were fresh out of dental school). A public defender finally represented Greg, and after four more years, Greg was released. But life on death row had changed him.

A bright man and articulate speaker, Greg was often asked to share his story after his release. “What was my worst day?” he would say. Not when his wife died and not when he was charged with her murder, but when he had to give up his daughters for adoption, because he was unable to care for them.

The prosecutor refuses to reopen the case on the murder of Greg’s wife, because he denies Greg’s innocence even after proven in a court of law. Thus, a crime remains unsolved. Greg’s story is mentioned in John Grisham’s nonfiction book, An Innocent Man.

This post originally appeared on the Law & Human Rights blog.

Posted in Human Rights - Facing Death Row | Comments Off on Oklahoma