Friday, October 12, 2012

How Shaka Sankofa Passed His Time Before Meeting the Extraction Team

            The first urge when reading an execution log is to believe the prisoner's actions in the last hours of life were a reflection of guilt or innocence. Those last hours when someone knows he or she is going to die—and not of old age or an incurable illness, but after too much pentobarbital administered by the State of Texas has a reality all its own and nothing to do with what came before.            
            Second you must forgive the guards who may be challenged by the English language but are there, basically, not to observe but to watch, something entirely different. They are there not to describe behavior but to avoid it, to make sure the condemned doesn’t “act out” or “go off on staff” or try to commit suicide. Finally don’t always believe that use of brand name products connotes product endorsement. If an inmate was eating a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup a few hours before execution that doesn't necessarily mean Reese’s is the bomb, so good that every condemned man or woman would choose it over M&Ms or Snickers for a last taste of sugar. It just means that’s what was available in the commissary. As with everything else in an information-glutted society we’re now getting more details on state-sponsored death and unlike drone strikes or assassinations the release is completely authorized. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice revised its Death Row procedures this summer and the Texas Attorney General ruled the document is public record. That's important because as always the state prison system headquartered in Huntsville remains the go-to institution on all issues execution-related. After the recent update there’s a new warning to guards that “Staff must not accept a stay of execution from the offender’s attorney,” well yeah. That makes sense.
            Any keep-on-person medication must now be turned over and administered by medical staff, to avoid the obvious. A few years ago a condemned Texas inmate managed to swallow a potentially-lethal dose of medication and was rushed to intensive care, nursed back to health—and then whacked. There’s much much more and it’s now yours to read thanks to Attorney General Greg Abbott. “The Mountain View Unit Warden shall," for example, "ensure that a female offender brings personal hygiene and gender-specific items to the Huntsville Unit," containing the holding cells and execution chamber, "as appropriate.” That also makes sense in a way. The offender—inmates in Texas are universally called “offenders,” as opposed to “prisoners,” which might have an unwanted political connotation—fills out a religious orientation statement, decides whether his or her body will be donated, writes out a list of last visitors, and a record of his or her past commissary purchases is provided to staff, reason unknown, although presumably in order to assure last minute availability for purchase. “On the morning of the day of execution prior to final visitation, all of the offender’s personal property shall be packed and inventoried.” The inmate does that his or herself. This step is often missed in movies that imitate the final days of the condemned.
             These written execution summaries recently released by the state also detail the prisoner’s last hours, it’s actually something the condemned spend a lot of precious time on, sorting and re-sorting limited belongings and deciding who gets what when the present owner is gone. The same decision must be made about the inmate’s prison trust fund, basically his or her spending money, usually provided by family: it’s unclear if those who are about to die can bequeath to others who will die later. What's most “interesting” to us on the outside, however, is the beginning of the “Execution Summary Log,” seven days out, with observations and notes on the prisoner’s behavior, first every 30 minutes and, as the needle gets closer, every fifteen. Reading how the condemned spend their last hours you get an idea of the sense of unease as if no one knows how to use remaining minutes—so they try to do everything, or nothing at all. Shooting hoops in the exercise yard. . . listening to Metallica . . . eating Reese's . . . that’s how Cameron Todd Willingham passed the hours, among other activities, back in ‘04. Most everyone devoted time to rearranging worldly goods. There was a lot of writing but less reading that you would expect: No mention of the Bible for example. A good analogy about time-use might actually be financial, it’s like having a lot of bills coming due at the same time and very little money and not knowing exactly where to spend it, because there’s not enough to go around. So you waste it instead. 
            The four inmates whose execution logs have been released include three men and one woman. Two Caucasians and two blacks. Two who were put to death more than a decade ago after a thumb-down by then-Governor Bush, and two by incumbent Rick Perry. One admitted her crime, one was widely believed to have been guilty and relied unsuccessfully on other means to escape death, and two were very probably innocent. The four: Karla Faye Tucker, executed in 1998 for her part in a gruesome murder she admitted helping commit; Shaka Sankofa, aka Gary Graham, done in 2000 for a robbery-homicide in a Houston parking lot which he may not have done; Cameron Willingham, who has become the poster boy for anti-death penalty activists, executed for an arson that killed his three daughters, following an investigation and trial that are now discredited; and Marvin Wilson, "lethally-injected" in August 2012 for the murder of a police informant, a crime he did not convincingly deny, basing his appeal instead on a low IQ. Although Texas prisoners are specifically exempted from the state’s stringent open records laws Attorney General Abbott has recently ruled the execution logs can be released. Like his predecessors Abbott seems to have been moved by the state’s strong adherence, surprisingly, to transparency, one of the few issues that both parties in Austin seem to agree on. So, too, there is the need to satisfy the public’s fascination about executions—and then there’s the Lone Star State, period. To many Texans there are only two kinds of people, good ‘uns and bad ‘uns and the bad ‘uns who kill get the needle. The Texas public wants a couple of pounds of flesh, wants to see payback, so politically release of these logs was a good decision, eventually leading perhaps to the hoped-for televised spectacle that polls have shown the public really desires. Either that or gladiator games.
            While praising General Abbott, however, we should note that the value of these logs, which could be a rich resource for research and investigation of both man and the state’s baser instincts, was already diminished the moment Abbott made his decision. The inmates whose last hours have already been chronicled by the state were presumably unaware that their final movements would be made public. In the future—once the grapevine gets active, and the condemned know that their final days will be publicized—that knowledge will doubtless influence how they spend their last moments. Like final statements and final meal requests, future logs may be tainted by self-awareness, by playing to the “audience,” which is us.

            Entries written by the guards watching Shaka Sankofa described him like a caged tiger, as trite as that may sound. This isn’t soul on ice, it’s fire instead: sleeping fitfully, pacing back and forth across his cell like the captured cat he was there was no rest, no coming to terms with his fate. It was Sankofa’s seventh trip to the Death House and he seemed to know it would be his last with a bloody-minded born-again Christian governor in office. By then Bush was running for president on a law-and-order platform and would eventually okay the executions of 153 out of 154 condemned inmates on his watch—this was a death foretold. The scenes in the cell make for a pretty impressive one-man show worthy of Denzel but starring Shaka instead. There’s not much dialogue—“pacing in cell” and “laying in bed awake,” this was like the death of the born-again Christian Karla Faye Tucker a celebrity execution. Sankofa was visited by Bianca Jagger and Reverend Al Sharpton and both the Klan and the Panthers demonstrated outside the prison with Rangers present in case. Before being strapped down on the gurney, according to the log, Sankofa had even taken a goodbye call from Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston. Sankofa went into a long rap as his final statement, still claiming innocence, rather eloquently one must say, and putting his “murder” in revolutionary perspective. Long before her death Karla Faye was visited in her cell by Governor Bush’s general counsel and future US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, apparently carrying the news that she would die. Among the last visitors who stood outside her holding cell and talked to her, per the guards, was the head of the Texas prison system, a Republican lawyer and criminal justice fixer from San Antonio named Allan Polunsky. In both cases what was discussed is known only by the lawyers who aren’t talking.
            While Sankofa’s death was very public, attended by much media—family and friends of both the condemned and victim—like the others who were put to death his time in the cell was not public until now and arguably more poignant for that fact. He paced, as has been noted. He went through his things. He read the newspaper, apparently following his own case in the media. He did what we all do, multi-tasking because he was pressed for time. “Offender sitting on toilet, also brushing his teeth.” Didn’t get much rest even when he could close his eyes: “Offender was waken from sleep by Officer Duff for count purposes.” He talked to himself and to the inmate in the cell beside him. He made his bed (everybody makes his or her bed, perhaps with the hope he or she will return to it) and got a clean jumpsuit. The pre-execution routine is relentless. Those early morning prisoner counts even in the final hours, are they really necessary? Sankofa refused a physical. And then came the explosion. Filmgoers are used to the long walk with clergy and warden, a la The Green Mile, or something with Jimmy Cagney, made popular through the years. Sankofa hadn’t seen the movie. He fought instead. That’s when the “Extraction Team” appeared, a group of well-padded guards, described by those who know as kind of looking like RoboCops, used to take dissenting inmates to their deaths. One of the last notations in the long log has Sankofa sitting of the floor of the van on the way to the execution chamber after he lost the fight with the E Team. A USA Today reporter who witnessed the execution said later that Sankofa was fighting again as he was strapped down to start the IV.
            While the attorney general has released these logs, as valuable as they are, the state has been more hesitant about film. Video of at least part of Sankofa’s encounter with the Extraction Team was taken but General Abbott’s predecessor as attorney general, incumbent U.S. Senator John Cornyn denied all requests for its release years ago. Tucker also made a video sent to Governor Bush apparently pleading for mercy which the State of Texas has also consistently refused to make public. Still, we do see something of the condemned here if only through words, a few sentences here and there written by people who were interested in security not history or sociology.
            Karla Faye Tucker the day before her death: “Sitting on bunk talking to officers about her busy day and how worried she was due to the amount of stress her being at the unit has put on the staff.” “Stated she was writing an outline for Chairman Polunsky on inmate rehabilitation to submit to the Board for future reference.” “Lying on bunk looking at wall.” Like withholding the videos, there does seem to be an effort by the guards to put final moments in their best light, to skew the image of the people we as a society have decided to separate from, to make it look like they were more accepting of fate than perhaps they were. Again in the case of Tucker, the last entry on her last day reads: “Standing at cell door with a smile on her face talking with Warden Dessie Cherry.” That was shortly before the end. It’s probably safe to say she expressed other emotions as well, which weren’t noted. That same emphasis on the positive is apparent in the notations on Marvin Wilson, a more recent execution. “Talking with grand kids with a smile on his face.” Several notations mention him smiling in his last hours. Okay, he may have been a cheerful guy. But maybe he had other feelings as well? Like: “This is bullshit?” Or, “This is fucked up?” Back in the day, like twenty years before, down in Beaumont he's supposed to have capped a brother who ratted him out in a drug deal. So far so good. Then he told someone about it, which is a recurring theme on Death Row, bragging about the act after the fact. A potentially fatal mistake, in this state. Fast forward. In contrast to Shaka Sankofa who took photos with his family (what's that caption in the family album?) Marvin Wilson combed his hair before his last family visit, got an insulin injection and was for a while on his final day playing chess in his cell, which might belie his argument that his intellect was too low to understand the charges against him. Tucker wore, the guards noted, “prison whites, personal shoes” in the Death House. What does one wear to one’s own execution? Sensible shoes sounds sensible. Karla Faye refused meal trays (“Sitting on bunk writing. Stated she [is] fasting and was at peace”), refused a shower, and “declined to watch television when asked if she wanted to watch the news.” The only news she cared about she'd already heard.
         Guards noted Willingham chatting with a neighboring inmate, Bobby Ray Hopkins, a former bull rider and drug dealer who was condemned to die for knifing two women. But nothing about what they said to each other. We’re not asking here for Socratic meditations, the meaning of good and evil or even last guesses about the meaning of life. But a few words about the last roundup might be enlightening. Hopkins was apparently reticent generally. On the gurney, before the poison started to flow, he told the warden that he had no statement, “at this time.” The most pitiful of the four seems to be Willingham, in the good sense of the word “pity.” Although not mentioned in his execution log the rumor is that as he was strapped to the gurney Willingham used his free hand and last minutes of life to try to give his ex-wife—who campaigned for his death—the finger. 
            Ultimately it’s still Shaka Sankofa who most attracts our attention, both in the cell and outside. Even liberals in Texas argued that the then-Gary Graham’s history of bad-acting on the streets of Houston had been so extensive that the death penalty was not acceptable but still understandable. If that was true he was being executed, in Texas terms, as a bad ‘un despite limited and contradictory evidence of the crime in question. One condemned man who was housed near Sankofa, a Hispanic from Ft. Worth who followed Shaka to the gurney took time in his final statement to praise Allah. Sankofa was an earlier wave of this same polemic. 
            Missing in the recent death penalty debate—you may have noticed—is Barack Obama. Not surprisingly for a president who doesn’t court controversy no federal prisoner has been scheduled for execution so far during his term in office. There are 58 men and women on the federal government’s death row, 35 of them minorities, the highest number from—you guessed it—Texas, according to a reliable death penalty website. Presumably the issue will come up eventually. It’s a good bet that Obama, like Bill Clinton, will come down on selective use of the needle in those cases where the public is most demanding and the facts are clearest. As he is not opposed to all wars, only dumb wars, one supposes he is only opposed to dumb executions. His work limiting use of the death penalty in Illinois while serving in the state Senate is not much to go by, the issue is different for a president who must enforce the law than for a senator who only has to write it. And we still owe Attorney General Abbott a debt of gratitude for taking away some of the mystery of the condemned's last hours.


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