Page 24


THREE DAYS before Christmas, we got a visit at the Observer office from two activists who had traveled more than 5.000 miles to visit the Ellis I Unit of the Texas Department of Corrections in Huntsville. They had come from Stockholm to see one of the 291 prisoners in this state now sitting on Death Row a prisoner whom very few people in Texas have heard of, but whose name has become known in Sweden’s largest city. The activists, Barbro Malmer and her husband Lars Arnestam, are members of Amnesty International, the human rights organization that runs a worldwide campaign against the death penalty. Malmer, 33, works in Stockholm for a government agency and Arnestam, 40, is an economist at a telecommunications company. By a matter of some coincidence, their lives have intersected with the life of Carl Johnson, a prisoner who was sentenced to death in 1979 after being convicted of shooting and killing a security guard at a Houston food store in October of 1978. MalMer has been writing to Johnson for almost a year. She is one of a small group of Stockholm activists who correspond with Texas Death Row inmates. They write to give prisoners hope and to let them know of organized efforts in other parts of the world to bring executions to a halt. \(Sweden abolished the death penalty more than 60 As it happened, Malmer was in a TV studio last October working with an Amnesty International telethon that was coordinated with the showing of the documentary “Fourteen Days in May.” The documentary raised troubling questions about capital punishment in the United States and was viewed with great interest in Sweden. Several reporters were on hand to cover the telethon. “While Barbro was in there,” Arnestam recounted, “there came in a telex from London telling that Carl Johnson, the A NOTE TO OUR READERS Twice a year, in an attempt to experience a fleeting sensation of what a vacation would feel like, we take an extra week between issues. Now is one of those times. Our next issue, then, will be dated January 27. We wish all our readers, and especially those financial supporters who helped keep us afloat into 1989, a happy and hopeful new year. guy Barbro had been corresponding with, was to be executed in one week.” The journalists instantly saw the local hook. They interviewed Malmer about her correspondence with Johnson. On October 8, a photo of a somber-looking Malmer holding a prison mug shot of Johnson took up most of the front page of Expressen, Stockholm’s largest daily a tabloid which resembles our own San Antonio ExpressNews in more than name. A huge headline said “MIN VAN AVRATTAS PA TISDAG”, meaning, “My friend will be executed on Tuesday.” Tuesday came and went, however, without Johnson’s execution, thanks to the lastminute intervention of the Capital Punishment Clinic at the UT Law. School. A lawyer from the clinic persuaded state district Judge I.D. McMaster in Houston to delay the execution. It is now set for February 9. These developments also were reported by the Swedish newspapers, though, as far as we could tell, not a word appeared in the Texas press about Johnson’s case. Malmer visited Johnson on December 21 and again on December 23. She said the prisoner seemed to be calm and said he was reading and thinking a lot. She and her husband couldn’t get over the incongruity of the banner that greeted them at the entrance to the Death Row unit. “They had written ‘Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,’ ” Arnestam said. “That was fantastic!” We asked the Swedish couple what they would tell Texans who might take a more casual stance toward the execution of a convicted murder than they take. Malmer said she would argue that you can’t change the past, only the future that an execution accomplishes nothing. “It’s a question of forgiveness,” she said, expressing the belief that only in forgiveness is there hope for a better world. Arnestam pointed out that his country is one of many in the West that have found that they can maintain order and security without the death penalty. “The fact is,” he added, “that in almost all the countries that have abolished the death penalty, the death penalty has been abolished against the will of the majority of the people. And change in opinion has been accomplished after the abolishment of the death penalty.” Arnestam spoke of the need for legislators to act with courage and to “be a little ahead of the majority of the population.” As far as practical politics is concerned, this statement tells us only that Arnestam lives rift THE TEXAS 1 0 server JANUARY 6, 1989 VOLUME 81, No. 1 FEATURES Frontier Violence By Debbie Nathan 4 DEPARTMENTS Dialogue 2 Editorial 3 Political Intelligence 19 Books and the Culture A Conversation With Bob Eckhardt By Studs Terkel 6 Legalized Corruption By Ronnie Dugger 7 The Orwell Tradition By Tom McClellan 9 Oswald’s Plot By Michael King 10 Memories of RFK By Richard Ryan 12 The Flowering of Black Expression By Lorenzo Thomas 14 Literary Soul By Rosalind Alexander 16 Hill Country Family Affairs By Louis Dubose 18 Afterword Que to Vayas By Louis Dubose 23 in Sweden and not in Texas. But he is probably right when he says that public opinion on the question of capital punishment is not rock solid. A recent Texas Poll, for example, showed that 73 percent of Texans are opposed to the execution of retarded convicts. This is a key aspect of the Texas death penalty that is now being challenged in court. Already two legislators Rep. Juan Hinojosa of McAllen and Rep. Bob Melton of Gatesville have stepped forward with a bill for the upcoming legislature that would prohibit the execution of the retarded. This is a starting point. The world is watching our state’s practice of putting prisoners to death \(even if it seems And just one small step away from barbarism will bring us closer to the community of nations that have discovered that they are just as well off without capital punishment. D.D. EDITORIAL Eyes of the World Upon Us THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3