50Th ANNIVERSARY ISSUE Stopping the Texas Death Machine BY SISTER HELEN PREJEAN Thank God for The Texas Observer. I admire the way it calls attention to the plight of those who live on the underside of history: welfare recipients, homeless people, the unemployed, those without health care, the imprisoned, death row inmates. It’s a spunky, truth-telling, question-raising publication that is not afraid to expose injustice and call for accountability. I admire the Observer because I know that the publishers and staff are passionate about the common good, not the whimsicalities and obsessions of the rich and famous. While everyone is ooh-ing and ah-ing at the surface beauty of the tapestry of the Great American Dream, The Texas Observer slips behind and notes the gaps and tears and broken threads in the Body Politic. Which news organizations can we point to who are real truth tellers in our society? Not media conglomerates, beholden as they are to corporate sponsors. Give me the scrappy, call-it-as-we-see-it Texas Observer any day. Through thick and thin for 50 years it has kept its spunky self out there. And so with confidence I turn over to the Observer the Epilogue of my soon-to-be-published book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions Regretfully, in this book far too many stories, including the one in the epilogue, come from Texas, which in 2004 accounts for fully half of all U.S. executions while the rest of the country is quietly going about shutting down the machinery of death. ril he journey continues. In April of 2004 Susan Sarandon telephoned me to tell me that James Allridge, a man on death row in Texas with whom she has been corresponding, had a date of execution of August 26, and she felt the date was real. She was shaken. I could hear it in her voice. She had written to James for eight years and come to know him as a person, alive and filled with insight, allow ing the alchemy of 17 years on death row to transform his life. On several occasions when I visited Susan in New York, she had shown me James’s art. Using ordinary colored pencils, he had found a most amazing way to draw light out of flowers. “What should I do?” she asks. “Just what you’ve been doing,” I answer. “Be his friend. You give him dignity.” She said that she’d visit him, but try to keep it quiet. \(Which proved to be impossible. Media awaited her when she One month later when Susan and I talked, she dropped a bombshell: “James wants you to be with him if he’s killed.” I said, “Oh no, Susan, you should be with him. You’ve been his friend for eight years.” She said, “No, no Helen, you saw the film, this is what you do.” I thought, What is this? Life imitating art imitating life? That’s how it came about that on August 26 when James Allridge became the 325th person killed by the state of Texas, I was with him as his spiritual adviser. His appeals lawyer, Jim Marcus of the Texas Defender’s Service, and his hardworking team did their utmost to save James’ life. They had a video made of James’ transformed life and sent it to the six members of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, hoping to convince them to grant clemency, and in the petition to the appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court James’ legal team presented two new constitutional issues: The first asked: Does the Eighth Amendment prohibit the state of Texas from incarcerating a prisoner for 17 years, rehabilitating him into a model inmate, who enhances the safety and stability of the prison society, and then executing him based on the erroneous prediction that he would pose a threat to society if sentenced to life in prison? As had happened in the case of Karla Faye Tucker, James Allridge once again raised the question: Why kill a person who is rehabilitated? The second questioned the constitutionality of the Texas capital sentencing statute, which, though demanding that a jury find proof beyond reasonable doubt for guilt \(a requiredetermining punishment. The Texas statute requires that for a sentence of death to be imposed a jury only need determine the probability that a defendant would continue to pose a threat of future dangerousness to society. The injection of the word probability, however, drains the “beyond a reasonable doubt” of any meaning \(it would be like telling the jury it could convict if they believedbeyond a reasonable me of the “future dangerousness” argument, I couldn’t help wondering if jurors in capital cases already face the impossible task of analyzing people’s past actions to determine the “worst of the worst” murders, how on God’s green earth can they be expected to predict how human beings might act in the future? At least past actions yield tangible evidence that can be examined, but what is the content, the raw matter for predicting future actions? Doesn’t it fly in the face of “due process of law” to punish people for what they might do in the future? The issue of “future dangerousness” raises a constitutional challenge particularly for Texas, which is one of only three states to allow this highly speculative consideration to play a crucial role in life and death decisions made by juries. study of 155 Texas capital cases in which prosecutors hired 52 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 12/3/04
You May Also Like
The Texas Rangers are tasked with investigating corruption and crimes by public officials. Those officials are rarely held accountable.