18 April 2017

Timeline of a Stay of Execution in Arkansas

On April 17, 2017, I was present in the death house compound of Arkansas's Cummins Unit with the media, representing the Catholic Worker, in anticipation of the scheduled execution of Don Davis, who was sentenced to death in March of 1992 for the 1990 murder of Jane Daniel.

Mr. Davis came within six hours of execution in 2010 before he was spared by the state Supreme Court, and had several other stays of execution in addition to that (1992, 2006, 2007, 2015 and now 2017).

Despite the ruling two days prior by a federal judge that stayed the execution of Mr. Davis, the State of Arkansas remained confident that they would be able to get the stay dissolved by a higher court and proceed with the execution as planned. This included moving the prisoner to the Cummins death house unit in advance of the execution date, providing visits with a chaplain, and taking his order for his last meal.

The following is a timeline of observations, commentary and photographs from what transpired that night in Arkansas as the State fought for it's ability to execute the first of what it hopes is several prisoners this month before one of their lethal drugs expires on April 30.

On a personal note:  The chaos, the rush, and the constant lack of reliable information last night made it all the more clear that Arkansas can't handle one execution, let alone a rapid series of them.  I literally saw prison staff RUNNING in the 11:00 pm hour to try to pull this all off before the midnight deadline. I hope these photos give some sense of the roller coaster that both victim and prisoner families, prison staff, lawyers, press and the human rights community was put through. And for what gain? The State of Arkansas is already preparing to do it all again on Thursday. Twice.

5:05 – State Police and Corrections Officers outside the prison entrance as media arrive.
5:37 – Corrections Officers begin arriving for their shift that will last through the night.
Included in the press packet passed out at the prison, a copy of Mr. Davis's execution warrant is included. It begins with “TO ALL TO WHOM THESE PRESENTS COME – GREETINGS:”.
5:41 – Department of Correction's Public Information Officer Solomon Graves informs the media who are gathered in a waiting room that the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals has lifted the stay of execution imposed two days previously by a federal judge. The State will continue moving forward.  Then at 6:50 – Mr. Graves addresses the media to say that the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing the case, and that the execution will be delayed until that decision is handed down.
7:00 – A wall clock in the prison waiting room reads what was supposed to be the time of execution.  At 8:05, Mr. Graves again addresses the media to say that the State is still moving forward with the preparations while the U.S. Supreme Court deliberates.

Below the clock is the spread of food provided to the media: sliced deli meat sandwiches, a tray of condiments, and a large sheet cake with strawberry frosting. Mr. Davis also had strawberry cake for his last dessert.
A couple of hours later at 10:43, Mr. Graves and J.R. Davis (Communications Director for Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson) address the media to say there are no updates from the Supreme Court and fields questions from reporters about the timeline of what is expected, given that the death warrant expires at midnight – just over an hour from this time. The press focus on the question: what constitutes meeting the midnight deadline... does the prisoner have to be tied down by midnight? Pronounced dead? Drugs injected? Neither representative appears to know the answer but stress that there is still time to carry out the execution. At 11:12,  J.R. Davis (pictured) says that the Supreme Court is “very close” to a decision, and the Department of Corrections is moving the prisoner into place.
At 11:13 Mr. Graves tells the media that he will return in five minutes to select the media witnesses for the execution. Only one spot on the three-person media witness team is open to TV and radio outlets. The journalists who are interesting in witnessing circle up to meet to see if there is consensus about who will witness.

1:20 – With no agreement as to who will witness, TV and radio journalists put their names into a bowl, and Mr. Graves draws the one who will fill the spot (pictured below).
11:25 – J.R. Davis checks his phone about updates from the Court.
11:26 – with no news, the three media witnesses are escorted out of the waiting room to a waiting car for transport to the execution chamber.
11:36 – Mr. Graves waits by a phone for the court ruling.
11:48 – The phone never rings, but an unidentified woman associated with the State, approaches Mr. Graves and whispers into his ear. He leaves the room and comes back within a minute with the three media witnesses and announces that the U.S. Supreme Court has halted the execution.
11:54 -  J.R. Davis addresses the media to express the Governor's Office's disappointment that justice would not be served yet again for the victim's family. He emphasized that the media should not focus on the prisoner, but on the devastation this has caused the victim's family.  He said the State would start the execution process over again for the Daniel family. When asked how this back-and-forth was affecting the prisoner's families, he avoided the question.

Despite the State's emphasis on bringing justice to the Daniel family, in an April 11 interview with the daughter of Jane Daniel, it was reported that even the victim's own daughter didn't want the death penalty.  When asked about how she'd feel if Don Davis was executed, Susan Khani said, "I'll be very sad. I know that because the day they found him guilty, I cried because this was senseless, you know, two deaths." The story reports that as a mother herself, Khani showed her son how his grandmother would have acted by modeling forgiveness.   "I forgave him immediately," Khani said. "Oh yeah. But it has nothing to do with him. I did this for my mom because she would never want us to be unhappy. She wants us to be happy and move on, to still laugh and love." Khani said she would have been satisfied with life without parole if that had been Davis's sentence.  (source: Arkansasmatters.com)

The State plans to move forward with the remaining 5 executions scheduled for April 20, 24 and 27.

Other images from around the prison that night: 

01 January 2017

Wedding Photos are Now on Facebook

I am moving away from using this blog site, so encourage you to check out my Facebook page for recent wedding work:

Thank you!

09 January 2016

"We are devastated"

I often find myself overwhelmed with the state of the world when I listen to the news. War, poverty, injustice. Most days, I turn on the news radio in my kitchen as background noise while simply going about my morning routine. I don't allow myself to truly absorb the information I am hearing, because it would just be too much to handle. But on one day this past September, one particular story hit me hard. So hard that I had to go sit in an empty room away from my family and just weep. Sobbing in a way I have not done so for a long time.

The story was about Leon Brown and Henry McCollum, two brothers who were exonerated from death row and prison in North Carolina after spending 31 years wrongfully convicted for a murder they did not commit. The report on this particular morning was about the judgment by a court that the two men were each awarded $750,000 as compensation for their wrongful convictions.

Exterior of North Carolina's death row where Leon and Henry were imprisoned. Photo (c) Scott Langley
My immediate reaction was celebratory - after all, these men deserve this large sum of cash, and the state deserves to be held accountable for their miscarriage of justice. My feelings dramatically shifted when the news reporter interviewed a family member of Leon (who was speaking on his behalf since he was hospitalized at the time for mental illness treatment). Expecting the family member to also have a reaction of excitement, I was shocked when she said this: "We are devastated."

That word. Devastated. It completely caught me off guard. In all my work with criminal justice issues, no interview had ever hit me so hard. Someone just handed the family $1.5 million dollars, and they are devastated? On the inside I knew exactly why. No amount of money could compensate or atone for what Leon and Henry went through. The family member being interviewed went on to say that “Leon was destroyed. … He will never be right again.” His hospitalization was the ninth time he had been in treatment since his release - just one year prior.

If there is one thing you can say about the death penalty, it is that it brutalizes us all. It literally devastates families - on all sides of the issue, prisoners and victims alike. It puts innocent people in prison, and we know innocent people have been executed. I stood outside a prison in Georgia in 2011 when it happened to Troy Davis. I have seen up close and personal, as a photojournalist and an advocate, how the system is devastating families on a regular basis.

De'Juan Davis Correia, the nephew of Troy Davis, outside the prison in Georgia just before his uncle's execution in 2011.
Photo (c) Scott Langley

156 men and women have been exonerated from death row since 1973. Most of them did not receive even a penny, let alone an apology, from the state. Some of them are speaking out against the system and contributing to positive change. Some of them are in and out of mental hospitals. Some of them are just making do. And some of them have committed suicide. Whatever the outcome post-exoneration, we know that these men and women will never be the same. And no amount of money can fix the harm that has, and will be, done.

In October 2015, I walked for three days of a seven day, 83-mile march across Ohio with a group of dedicated death penalty abolitionists. We marched from the death house in Lucasville to the state capitol in Columbus. Among the walkers was Derrick Jamison, who spent nearly 20 years on death row in Ohio for a murder he did not commit. I had the chance to walk and talk with this strong, gentle soul for those three days and 45-miles. I heard both the sorrows of prison, and the joys of freedom. When we passed by the men's death row in Chillicothe, I stood with Derrick outside the prison, taking his photo with the prison as a backdrop. With that prison experience behind him, his feet are taking him forward. And his spirit carried us all forward in this march for justice.

Derrick Jamison, outside of Ohio's death row. Photo (c) Scott Langley
Derrick and I cut the walk short to head to Cleveland to attend a press conference for Witness to Innocence, where 25 other exonerees and their families were gathered. Among those who spoke at the press conference was Kwame Ajamu, who, starting at the age of 17, spent 27 years in Ohio's prisons (including some of them on death row) for a murder he did not commit.

As I stood there photographing Kwame giving his statement to the press, I recalled that morning in my kitchen, just a month earlier, listening to that heart wrenching statement from the family member about how a wrongful conviction devastated the entire family. As I was reliving those emotions myself, I witnessed Kwame, a grown black man, break down in tears in front of everybody - family, friends, and the press. He was soon surrounded by the other exonerees who hugged him and consoled him.

Kwame Ajamu, comforted by other death row exonerees at a Cleveland press conference in October 2015.
Photo (c) Scott Langley
Someone later remarked how rare it is for men in the African American community to cry - especially publically. As I have experienced with Kwame and other exonerees I hear speak regularly, crying every time they tell their story is not abnormal. The experience retold is always fresh. Always raw.  The pain of what Kwame went through, along with his brother who wrongfully spent 39 years in prison for the same crime, is so deep and intense that he has no other option but to weep.

Two months later I was with Kwame on the one-year anniversary of his exoneration by the State of Ohio. He spoke that day at a church near Wilmington, Delaware. I sat in the audience, taking photos from afar, and as I scanned the room, I noted the ironies before us. Here was this black, Muslim man, speaking in a white, Christian church. Kwame was flanked on one side by a huge golden cross - the universal symbol for wrongful execution - and on the other, the United States' flag - for many, a symbol of injustice, violence and oppression. How strange to have all these symbols and realities laid out in such clear imagery.

Kwame speaking at a church outside of Wilmington, Delaware on the one-year anniversary of his exoneration.
Photo (c) Scott Langley

In between speaking engagements for Kwame, we had brunch one day at a friend's home. Gathered around the table was not just Kwame and his story, but a man whose father is a Black Panther serving a life sentence in prison, a mother whose son is currently in prison, and a woman whose brother was murdered by a relative of a police officer who was never charged or convicted. The men and women sitting around the table with these heartbreaking stories are all people of color, living in this broken society. And their stories are, sadly, not unique. This is our America.

Kwame (left) sharing a brunch with other prisoner families and victim families. 
This is our reality as a nation. Our country, and especially our criminal justice system, is in desperate need of repair. In this desperation, we are witness to much devastation of not only the innocent, but all of us who are complicit as our government acts in our names. The first step we can take is to end the death penalty, because there is no place for something so final in a system that obviously cannot get it right the first time. It is then, and only then, that we can begin a true journey as a society to make sure we find a better way.

Kwame retelling his story in Delaware.  Photo (c) Scott Langley
Kwame with his wife LaShawn. Photo (c) Scott Langley
Kwame Ajamu, participating in the "I Oppose the Death Penalty" sign project. 26 other exonerees have held this same sign.
Photo (c) Scott Langley
For more photos of Kwame's visit to Delaware in December 2015, visit the full photo gallery.

11 August 2015

Valerie and Daniel Wedding

This is the summer of backyard weddings, and I have been lucky to have attended some truly gorgeous ones in some gorgeous settings, such as Val and Dan's July wedding in Bondville, Vermont. It was a small family affair at a house that has been in the family since the 1940s. The intimacy and beauty of everyone and everything was wonderful to be present to, and I hope you enjoy these photos as much as I enjoyed being there to witness this celebration of family and of love.

View all the photos at order.scottlangleyphoto.com/valerie-dan.