Death Penalty Pilgrimage Melody Ermachild Chavis

As many pilgrims do, I set out on my journey with an exhausted heart. After twenty years of work as an investigator defending prisoners facing the death penalty, I felt worn down by injustice and the accelerating executions. So far, none of my own clients has been killed, but the case of one, a man so mentally ill that he can no longer communicate meaningfully, is very close to an inevitable end.

Thinking that I should probably hike around a sacred mountain or visit a holy shrine, I nevertheless bought a plane ticket to Huntsville, Texas, the capitol of capital punishment. Sometimes when you feel like running from something, I thought, it's better to turn around and face it head-on. I was going to Texas to see The Waiting Room, an art exhibit. The advance publicity explained that sculptor Richard Kamler sought to create"the emotional, visual, physical and social environment of San Quentin's death row waiting room."
I have spent countless hours talking with my clients in that very room, and my friends could hardly believe that I would travel thousands of miles to see a replica of it. But I was impressed that Kamler was opening his show in the heart of Huntsville, and I wanted to meet him. Perhaps art could change my mood.

Before leaving, I researched my trip online. I found the website for The ItYPE the local Huntsville newspaper, and there on the front page was a photo of the elfin_looking artist, with his gray beard, bald head, and lively eyes, his hands folded calmly in his lap as he sat before the replica of a prison visiting room sign: "Embracing permitted only at the beginning and termination of visits." Kamler was quoted: "The state is in the business of killing people and they should not be in that business." I wondered what hostility this statement would draw to the artist and his art.

I had never been to Huntsville. I arrived after dark and drove my rental car slowly, looking for the hotel. I knew it was a city of prisons, but I was shocked to see high brick gun towers looming over the center of the small town. The people here, many of them employed in the prisons, shop in the shadow of these towers. Later I was told that I had driven past the Walls Unit, where the lethal injections are done.

Huntsville has seen more state killings than any other place in the U.S. since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978. Gov.George W. Bush has presided over the deaths of more than 120 people, and has granted clemency to only one. Here, executions have become so routine that only a few people stand vigil outside of The Walls. Sometimes two people are killed on one day, even three.

 The next morning, within walking distance of The Walls, I found the Sam Houston Memorial Museum, and, inside, The Waiting Room. Entering a dimly-lit gallery, I first saw a pendulum of blue light -- a metronome marking time, swinging across cell-like bars. I recognized the familiar rows of plastic chairs bolted to the floor, just like at San Quentin, but this time eerily empty of the clusters of mothers, wives and children I usually see intensely talking, touching, whispering. In twenty years I have never become inured to the pain I witness in the real waitingroom. Then I heard the murmur of voices, and turning, I saw four small televisions playing videos. Some of the people speaking on the films were family members of condemned people, and some were survivors of murder victims. All were telling their stories, some weeping. I leaned in close to hear the voices, for sound filled the large room: the loud "tick-tock" of time passing, and over everything, the amplified "lub-dub" of a heart beat.

Along one wall I found The Last Suppers: prison meal trays Kamler has fashioned out of lead. Incised into each dull gray tray is a name and an execution date -- some very recent. Kamler has sculpted some of the food. I peered at a heavy gray hamburger, a soda can. Several trays are empty, and the inscriptions read: "Refused last meal." I wondered: was he too afraid, too sick, too mentally ill to eat? Was he fasting? Praying? Crying?

A fascination with last meals is a part of the bizarre culture that has grown up around the death penalty, and Kamler has captured it perfectly. I once saw the Texas prison system website, where, at, I scrolled down a long list of food like fried chicken, gravy and chocolate cream pie next to the names of the executed, as if this had been the most important thing about them. There was no entry of whether the dead had been mentally ill, had good lawyers, had been juveniles, or had been innocent. Next to a Latino name, I saw the sad word, "tortillas," and imagined he had wanted what his mother had cooked for him at home.

Standing in the gallery, I gazed at a dense gray apple alone on its leaden tray, and imagined the fruit bright red and living. I thought of biting into it slowly, savoring its precious taste for the last time. Kamler says he chose to work with lead because of its toxicity. Investigating it, he learned that lead poisoning suffered by poor children has been linked with violent behavior. Fascinated by ancient alchemists who tried to turn it into gold, Kamler associates lead with transformation. He thinks of the social transformation we need.

The only color in the exhibit, a red, white and blue print screened onto sheet lead, is titled American Flag: Dead Women Waiting. It shows photos of the 38 women on Texas' death row and brief descriptions of their crimes. Nearly all the women who have killed in Texas, like others all over the world, have killed members of their own families, (often their batterers) or helped men with their crimes.

As I was reading, the amplified heartbeat in the gallery, which had been thudding through my own chest, suddenly stopped. The silence startled me. After a pause of a few seconds, it resumed. This exhibit was not lifting my spirits. I had to admire it, though, for breaking the taboo in our culture against talking about the reality of death at all.

I sat down on one of the plastic chairs to read long gray banners of flattened lead that chronicle the last day of Clydell Coleman, a man who was executed on May 5, 1999. Coleman slept, ate, met with his spiritual advisor, phoned his mother, ate his last meal, was strapped to a gurney, hooked up to an automatic lethal injection device, and, minutes after the fatal dose was begun, he was declared dead. The last entry reads: "Unusual occurrences: None."

Richard Kamler himself, dressed in jeans, was in the gallery talking to people. He said he conceived of The Waiting Room during a visit to San Quentin where he has a friend on death row. "I wanted to make a waiting room that documents this hidden experience," he said. Kamler has been making art about issues since 1976. He has received two National Endowment for the Arts grants and many other awards. His 1996 interactive installation, a piece on gun violence titled The Table of Voices, was shown on San Francisco's Alcatraz Island where 40,000 people experienced it.

An auditorium adjacent to the gallery began to fill with people. Kamler had invited people on all sides of the death penalty issue to take part in what he called a "social sculpture:" a community dialogue. Months of outreach by Kamler and producer Robin Sohnen had brought together about 200 people: murder victims' family members, former prisoners, at least one former correctional officer, defense attorneys and people from the District Attorney's Association. A racially integrated group of women sat together wearing t-shirts that read "Stop the Tex-ecutions."

The date was January 15, 2000, and just blocks away, there had already been seven executions since the beginning of the month. Seven more were scheduled before the end of January. The muffled lub-dub of the heart beat from the exhibit in the gallery could be heard, beating, stopping, beating again.

Kamler, in his opening remarks, said he had wanted to make art that raises the question, "How do we deal with people who break the social contract?" He said "Art can bridge the greatest divides and allow people to look at differences in a new way. When people feel cemented into rigid opinions, only art can slip in -- only artists have elbow room." He said he hoped the dialogue would "have some fluidity."

We first heard from Sissy Farenthold, a determined white-haired woman who had run for Governor of Texas on an anti-capital punishment platform. She argued persuasively about the randomness of how offenders end up on death row, pointing out the tremendous disparity in sentences even between Texas counties. Rural Harris County, with a tough D.A. and conservative jurors, has 53 citizens on death row, compared to 8 from urban Dallas.

Part-way through Ms Farenthold's brief talk, a group of four men who were sitting in the front row got up, tore up their programs and walked out looking disgusted. Richard Kamler later told me that they were family members of murder victims who wanted executions to be carried out. Kamler had hoped the men would stay. As the exhibit moves around Texas, additional dialogues are planned and Kamler said he would try to persuade one of the men to speak from the podium at the next conversation.

Arguably the bravest man in the room was David Weeks, the lone defender of the death penalty at the speaker's table. Weeks is District Attorney of Walker County (which includes Huntsville.) A prosecutor in his 40s who wears cowboy boots,Weeks also serves as President of the Texas Association of District Attorneys. He defended regional disparities in death sentences, saying that each community has a right to set its own standards. He called the death penalty "necessary."

Suddenly a large white woman rose and angrily poured a container of water out onto the rug in front of the speakers' table, exclaiming, "This is blood, sir!" She then stalked out of the auditorium. The near-violence of her act was unnerving. Richard Kamler had asked for "fluidity" but not for a big wet spot on the rug, which someone moved to wipe up. Kamler rose and asked everyone to be calm and try to listen.

David Weeks took no notice of the spill. He went on to tell the horrifying details of the murder of a child. Images of this violence filled the room. Weeks said that by these acts the perpetrator had "forfeited the right to live." A jury had given him a death sentence. Weeks said nothing about what might contributed to such a terrible act, or what might have been done to prevent it. I noticed that Weeks had not raised the notion that the death penalty deters crime. He had argued openly for vengeance.

Joyce Ann Brown, a sturdy African American woman, disagreed. She had spent nearly ten years in prison in Texas, and she knew women who had killed children. Brown said that she did not believe execution to be a harsher penalty than life without parole. She knew that living every day of one's life with having done such a thing was punishment beyond imagining. Originally charged with the death penalty, Brown spoke as a person who came too close to being unjustly executed. Hers was a case of mistaken identity, and it was only through great good fortune that she was finally freed. She mentioned the 13 innocent people freed recently from Illinois' death row.

The room had filled with arguments against District Attorney Weeks. Heads were shaking, legs and arms were crossed, and many rose to debate him. I had come all this way to participate, but I had no energy to repeat all the old arguments, and I knew that someone would say whatever I might have contributed. I decided to listen.

Weeks answered matter-of-factly, conceding the danger racism and class inequalities pose to fairness. He frowned when he acknowledged that every condemned person is poor. He admitted, "the system is imperfect." He said that each prosecutor has "a duty to be compassionate and to question himself." He emphasized his own responsibility for the life and death decisions he makes in asking for the ultimate punishment, which he said he does not take lightly.

An African American woman rose to challenge the power of District Attorneys to make such decisions. She said that in her view the death penalty is not imperfect, that it is designed to be racist and to oppress poor people, and therefore "the system is working perfectly to do that."

Then Renny Cushing, President of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation spoke. While he opposed the death penalty, he seemed to sidestep the duality of the debate altogether. He talked about healing. Cushing told of the murder of his own father, and explained that murder survivors need two things: to know the truth and to be helped to survive the experience of having a loved one murdered. Instead, he said, they are offered only the vengeance of the death penalty, which he called "a cruel trick" and "an impediment to healing." He challenged our society to find ways murder survivors can maintain their loving values -- values which are important to society. He does not know, he said, if he will ever be able to forgive the man who killed his father, but the man's execution would "preclude my ever having a chance at an act of forgiveness."

I knew that I had come to Texas to hear Renny Cushing's words, which sounded like a new language to me, a way out of injustice, and an opening towards justice. Looking around at the reception that followed the dialogue, I saw black people talking with white, people in t-shirts talking to people in suits. Only a few were pro-capital punishment, but the crowd was otherwise unusually diverse. There was a sense of people meeting who needed to know each other.

I met Effie La Mark, an African American church woman from Houston who told me she was here with a group that holds a vigil against nearly every execution. "I pray every day for a miracle, for the abolition of the death penalty," she said. "And I do believe it will be abolished."

Richard Kamler was satisfied with the day. "This is the most divisive issue, because it is about life and death," he said. "Yet art has brought people together in this way." Kamler told me that a retired prison guard had approached him in the gallery and, gesturing towards the record of Clydell Coleman's last day, told Kamler, "This brought tears to my eyes."

On the long flight back to San Francisco, I thought that it's probably always true that if you travel to a place where terrible things are happening, you are bound to meet the wisest and strongest people. If Renny Cushing, with his burden of grief for his murdered father, could work so hard for healing, I felt I could keep going too, with more awareness of the suffering of murder survivors.

I had listened carefully to District Attorney David Weeks. If he and others like him are truly worried, as he had claimed, about the effect of racism and inequality on the system, I think they will some day come to oppose the death penalty. Weeks reminded me of segregationists who later renounced openly racist views, and of politicians who defended the war in Vietnam, but later turned against it. I realized that I am certain that Effie La Mark, the church woman from Houston, is right: capital punishment will be abolished. It will take a long struggle, but Americans will once again turn away from it.

Back home on a rainy day, when I walked into the real San Quentin death row visiting room, crowded with people in damp raincoats, the same old vending machines along the wall, the familiar guards watching over everything, I felt renewed energy for my work. I sat down with my client grateful to Richard Kamler, who has worked so hard to bring this place to light in the wider world. And I knew that after twenty years of near silence, the dialogue has begun.


Popular posts from this blog