The dust from the general election has settled. In the aftermath: a victory for Obama, and a loss for death penalty abolitionists in California. Although the effort to repeal the death penalty through Proposition 34 lost by some 500,00 votes, the intiative was hard fought. On the ballot, the proposition was framed as an economic argument. Basically: California is in a budget crisis and the death penalty is very expensive. However, as the majority of California voters have demonstrated, these economic arguments matter very little when it comes to prisoners on death row.

Isolating death row

The public has an empathy problem when it comes to death row inmates, more so than it has with the average prisoner. Unlike your typical gen pop inmate, death row inmates have been convicted of horrific crimes for which they have received the state’s harshest form of punishment. These prisoners are the very definition of Dolovich’s monsters.

Because they are viewed as monsters, prisoners on death row are sometimes held in isolation. On Texas Death Row, for example, every death row inmate is kept in solitary confinement to await their execution day. As of 2010, 300 men in Texas Death Row are held in solitary. These inmates spend decades upon decades in isolation. To many, isolation of this particular group of prisoners may seem justified. Unlike other populations that end up in solitary, these inmates are not put in solitary because they need to be protected from gen pop. Death row prisoners are in solitary for the mere fact that they are death row prisoners: they are the incorrigible cases, the intractables, the irreducible minimum.

Anthony Graves as a young man

But then there are death row inmates like Anthony Graves.

Graves was one of those incorrigibles housed in Texas Death Row. He spent 18 years in an 8′ x 12′ cell until he was exonerated in 2010 of a crime he did not commit. In those 18 years, he witnessed horrific things that were happening in the solitary units on Texas Death Row — inmates engaging in self-mutilation and committing suicide, inmates who decided to drop their appeals not because they did not believe in their claims, but because they would rather face the death penalty than wait out the judicial process in solitary confinement. Two years after his exoneration, Graves testified in front of a packed conference room during a congressional hearing on solitary confinement (see below). To be sure, Graves’ story is an anomaly, not just because he managed to get out of death row, but because he now has a chance to make his voice heard.

Voices from death row

In general, it’s very rare to hear from inmates, and nearly impossible to hear from those on death row and isolation. Oddly enough, the Texas Department of Corrections has offered one outlet for its death row inmates to be heard — through their last words. The Texas DOC has an amazingly comprehensive database of executed prisoners, their demographics, and their last words (check it out: here).

The voices from Texas Death Row are both touching and maddening. Some are repentant, some indignant, some clearly mentally disturbed. Most of them express words of forgiveness and love. The humanity of these last statements comes through, even though they are presented as blurbs on a government database which, for the most part, is pretty clinical. I’ve chosen some at random to share with you today.


Larry Smith

Larry Smith, executed in 1986: Tell my mother I love her and continue on without me. God bless her. Tell the guys on death row to continue their struggle to get off death row. That’s about it.

Leonel Torres Herrera, executed in 1993: I am innocent, innocent, innocent. Make no mistake about this; I owe society nothing. Continue the struggle for human rights, helping those who are innocent, especially Mr. Graham. I am an innocent man, and something very wrong is taking place tonight. May God bless you all. I am ready.

Leonel Torres Herrera

Delbert Teague, Jr., executed in 1998: I have come here today to die, not make speeches. Today is a good day for dying.

Monty Delk, executed in 2002: I’ve got one thing to say, get your Warden off this gurney and shut up. I am from the island of Barbados. I am the Warden of this unit. People are seeing you do this.

T.J. Jones, executed in 2002: I would like to say to the family, I regret the pain I’ve put you through and I hope you can get over it someday. Mom and Dad, I love you. Take care. I’m ready.

T.J. Jones

Michael Adam Sigala, executed in 2010: Yes sir, I would like to ask forgiveness of the family. I have no reason for why I did it, I don’t understand why I did it. I hope that you can live the rest of your lives without hate. I pray the Lord grant me forgiveness. All powerful and almighty Lord I commit myself to thee, Amen.

Robert Wayne Harris, executed in 2012: I want to tell ya’ll, know that I love you. Billy, I love you, English, Hart and Eloise. Dwight, take care of Dwight. I’m going home, I’m going home. I’ll be alright, don’t worry. I love ya’ll. God bless and the Texas Rangers, Texas Rangers.

It’s impossible to start a dialogue if it’s one sided. Here is the other side. Through these statements, through stories like Anthony Graves’, we can begin to shift the public’s perception of who we are keeping on death row. And maybe the next time California proposes repealing the death penalty, the result will be different.

Note: the cover photograph was taken from this great article about witnessing an execution at Oklahoma State Penitentiary.


2 thoughts on “Oh, the humanity: On death row

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