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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

Blogging Occupy USA, for October 1-2: Over 700 Arrests in NYC, Protests Spread Elsewhere

Here’s a running blog on the weekend’s protests spreading out from Occupy Wall Street now to many other cities, the aftermath and next plans. New items added at top, as I take a break from my anti–death penalty writing. All times ET....


11:25  The Nation's Peter Rothberg on how to support Occupy Wall Street  (and keep sending those pizzas).

11:20  Occupy Boston tweets: "Official plans: Tomorrow at 8 AM we will march from camp to Fox News for a march and protest. All are invited."

11:00 New NYT piece:  Occupy encampment in NY now a ... tourist destination.  Or maybe they are just drumming fans.  Paging Ginger Baker.

10:30  Occupy the Nation site focuses on protests across USA, live weeds from multiple cities, events.

10:10  Lot of tension earlier this evening at NYC site but then calmed.  Great tweets all night, and ongoing, by my friend @

8:30  Donations of food and lodging handled here.

6:50 MoveOn is having "Virtual March on Wall Street."   No bail needed.

5:55  God backs the protests.  #OccupyInTheSky

5:25  New NYT piece on the commanders of NYPD--the "white shirts"--taking surprisingly "hands-on" (literally) approach to dealing with protestors.  "The prevalence of white shirts around Zuccotti Park signals how closely the department monitors high-profile events. Strategies are carefully laid out; guidelines for crowd-dispersal are rehearsed; arrest teams are assembled. It is all in an effort to choreograph a predictable level of control."  With some obvious failures.

5:00  More local feeds to follow (added those below):  OccupyRichmond, OccupyKSt, OccupyProv, Occupy_AlbanyNY, OccupyAppleton, OccupyNH.   Waiting for OccupyTheWH.

4:35  Yes, they're everywhere.  Follow the action in S. Carolina at @Occupy_SC.  And @OccupyCincy, and of course @OccupyLA and @OccupyChicago.  And your choice: @OccupyBoston and @OccupyBeantown.

2:45 Thanks to @DhaniBagels for noting this, which unites my two current main issues, a sign at protest yesterday in NYC:   "I won't believe that corporations are people until executes one."

2:30  Good guy Mark Ruffalo, who visited Occupyers yesterday (as we reported), back today with op-ed in The Guardian : "We Are the 99 percenters." Sez he: "It is a thing of beauty to see so many people so in love with the ideal of democracy, so alive with its promise, so committed to its continuity in the face of crony capitalism and corporate rule. That must and should be celebrated. That must and should be respected and admired."

12:50  This will cause a ruckus.  NYT posts two new videos from bridge -- courtesy of NYPD -- and then flatly declares, "The release of the videos seemed to back the police’s contention that it was the marchers’ choice that led to the police arresting about 800 people."

12:20  Andy Borowitz tweets: "The protesters totally stole the idea of Occupy Wall Street--from Satan."

12:15 The great Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism with lengthy post, and this: "So far, the JP Morgan donation [to nYPD]  is an isolated example. But the high odds of continuing deep budget cuts at the state and local level open up the opportunity for corporate funding of preferred services, and with it, much greater private sector influence on the apparatus of government. This is a worrisome enough possibility to warrant a high degree of vigilance by all of us."

12:00  Interviews from OccupyBoston. 

9:55 Video from San Francisco, which also hosts a famous bridge, I hear. And good video at Vimeo on Brooklyn Bridge arrests.

9:50 Classic NY Post front page headline on yesterday’s action: ”S#!T Hits the Span.” See here.

9:10 Tweet from Richard Robbins, @rich1: “How many protesters are disenfranchised Obama supporters? Could he win them back by showing he hears them?” Presume he means”disenchanted,” however.

9:05 Jail photo from a few hours ago. Not fun and games.

8:30 New NYT piece: ”Every Action Produces an Overreaction.” And with this on Liberty Park: ”Brookfield Properties, the developer that owns the land and offers it for public use, is presumably sending few notes of gratitude to the police. In a statement, a spokesman said the company was ‘extremely concerned with the conditions that have been created by those currently occupying the park,’ and was ‘actively working with the City of New York to address these conditions and restore the park to its intended purpose.’ Good luck with that.”

8:25 New NPR piece on plans for”long-term occupation.”

8:15 Daily Kos diary shows how NYT changed its original story on yesterday’s protest and arrests to take blame off police, they charge. To be fair, piece still quotes activists a lot.

8:10 Noted Nation grad Micah Sifry, once an Occupy sceptic, now writes how it has grown.

8:00 Good morning. From the @OccupyWallSt twitter feed: ”There were 600 people arrested over several days during the 1999 Seattle WTO protests. The NYPD just arrested 700 in 5 hours.” Then there’s these helpful tips: ”How NOT To Get Arrested.”

12:20 Occupy goes Hollywood! Or at least Hollywood Reporter. Nice story there just now with cool photo of Mark Ruffalo, taking a break from his great anti-fracking work to visit Wall Street site and comment. Also quotes from Yoko Ono and Russell Simmons. Susan Sarandon also has stopped by.

12:05 Frances Fox Piven: “We desperately need a popular uprising in the United States”


11:55 Over 430 comments on NYT’s main protest story right now.

11:50 One of the Occupy movements that most participants in the US seem to reject is OccupyPalestine.

11:45 And the number keeps rising: Wash Post places number of arrests in NY today at a whopping 700.

10:40 Yes, it is Occupy USA, as we claim in blog head, so here are today’s demos in little Asheville, NC, and larger Seattle, And even larger Chicago. Not to mention the great state of Maine.

10:35 Some media reports do include charges that the police rerouted the protesters today so they could be arrested. And here’s an Alternet reporter’s account of being trapped on bridge.

10:25 Videos from today, more here from our old friend Kevin Gosztola at FDL.

9:50 NYC arrest count now tops 500, NY Daily News reports.

9:05 Photos and text on Occupy spreading to LA with march today. Just in time for baseball playoffs, a reported launch in Tampa today.

9:00 Great shot of activist holding the front page of the new Occupied Wall Street Journal.

8:30 To catch up: police arrested twernty-four “Occupy Boston” protesters outside Bank of America

8:25 Enjoyed the “WE’RE not the criminals!” chant on the bridge. Also, the perennial “The whole world is watching!” Grandpa here should note that I was in the crowd the first time the latter chant gained fame—in Chicago, August 1968, police riot, Democratic National Convention.

8:20 Apparently there was a Mark Ruffalo sighting at the encampment in NY.

8:10 Finally the protests make the NYT op-ed page, with a column by Nick Kristof—he has some unkind words for some aspects while being generally supportive. Charging that demands are unclear or nonexistent, he offers a few.

8:05 If you missed the first semi-official list of “demands” from the General Assembly.

8:00 As I followed at Twitter, at least 400 arrests at the Brooklyn Bridge late this afternoon and early evening. Here’s the NYT write-up. One of its freelance reporter was among the busted, and her saga got wide play on the web.

7:55 James Fallows of The Atlantic still on case of coward cop who pepper-sprayed defenseless folks in NYC.

Greg Mitchell’s new e-book vs. the death penatly is Dead Reckoning: Executions in America (and just $2.99).

Family of Hate Crime Victim Pleads for No Death Penalty for Killers

In a remarkable letter, the family of James Craig Anderson—victim of an apparent racist hate crime and driven over by a truck to his death on June 26—has asked the state of Mississippi and federal officials to take the death penalty off the table in considering the case of the seven white teenagers who allegedly murdered Anderson.

The case drew national attention and a surveillance tape of the murder drew wide airing.

A letter written by Anderson’s sister, Barbara Anderson Young (who reportedly speaks for the family) as reported by CNN.com, states: “We ask that you not seek the death penalty for anyone involved in James’ murder…. Our opposition to the death penalty is deeply rooted in our religious faith, a faith that was central in James’ life as well.”

The letter also explains there is a second reason: “We also oppose the death penalty because it historically has been used in Mississippi and the South primarily against people of color for killing whites. Executing James’ killers will not help to balance the scales. But sparing them may help to spark a dialogue that one day will lead to the elimination of capital punishment.”

Deryl Dedmon, 19, of Brandon, Mississippi, one of seven white teenagers (and the only one presently in jail) pled not guilty at his arraignment on Friday. He is being charged with capital murder and a hate crime.

CNN reports the teens beat Anderson repeatedly, yelling racial slurs. Then Dedmon allegedly drove his Ford F-250 truck over Anderson, age 29, leaving him to die. There is a security tape (see below) from the parking lot where the incident took place. (For other such incidents, current trends and more see my new e-book on the death penalty, Dead Reckoning.)

Why Did the Left Loudly Protest the Troy Davis Execution—and Few Others?

In vivid contrast to the intense protests surrounding the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia—online, at the site of the state killing and in the media and political spheres—there was little clamor this week from the same quarters when Manuel Valle was put down in Florida. Progressives, who seemed to be re-energized in fighting capital punishment in America, went silent, for the most part. Remember those tens of thousands of tweets the day Troy Davis was executed? Almost nothing on Wednesday re Valle.

You might say that few chose to enter the Valle of death.

The next execution set for the US: Marcus Ray Johnson, next Wednesday in Georgia. Will progressives sit this one out as well? Of course, there are many other issues to be concerned about, and limited time. But the almost total absence of protest surrounding the vast majority of executions is troubling.

I’m afraid this kind of pick-the-easier-fights attitude is just the latest example of what has doomed efforts to abolish the death penalty in the United States in the past. You can’t be against capital punishment and then make exceptions for the death row prisoners who appear most deserving (if anyone does).

The Davis and Valle cases are perfect examples.

There was some, or much, doubt about Davis’s guilt, a long history of proclaiming his innocence and witnesses recanting left and right. He was a gentle figure in jail, charismatic, with an appealing family, who drew personal affection and support from visitors and celebrities. He was a poster boy for those who oppose the death penalty largely because they fear innocents may die along with the guilty.

Manuel Valle? The media in Florida delighted in referring to him continually as a “cop killer.” Well, from the evidence, that did seem to be true. He had also allegedly shot a second policeman. There appeared to be no strong grounds for doubting his guilt. He was a Cuban national whose story and personality were grim, and he drew little political or media attention. If anything, he was the poster boy for cop killers who deserved to die, perhaps several times over (if that was your belief).

So, on one level, it is easy to understand why Davis became a cause celebre for the left and Valle was basically ignored. But how can you be against state killing and yet make any exceptions? (See much more on this in my new book on this issue, Dead Reckoning.) Valle was executed in the exact same manner as Davis, with a lethal injection, after a brief, no doubt cruel (for the prisoner) last-minute delay for the inevitable US Supreme Court go-ahead.

One could cite other factors to consider. Valle had been on death row for 33 years, more than half his life. Does this amount to “cruel and unusual punishment”? Stephen Breyer certainly thought so (as I noted yesterday), in becoming the lone Supreme Court justice to vote for a stay of execution. Then there was this: Valle’s chance for a final clemency hearing never happened due to bureaucratic inefficiency.

And why had he, of all of the dozens on death row in Florida, been chosen as next to die? This illustrates one of the worst, and never-changing, aspects of capital punishment—it is always targeted arbitrarily, almost randomly. Few on death row ever get executed. You can’t even say, “Well, at least they kill all the cop killers,” because—they don’t.

I could go on, but to me it hardly matters: No matter the circumstances, the state should kill no one. Davis may have been a “beauty” of a death row inmate and Valle a “beast” but one should oppose the state killing anyone. And that’s why the silence on the left over the Valle killing, while understandable in part, was so disappointing. As Steve Earle says, “My deal with Troy Davis and everybody else like that is: I’m opposed to the death penalty for anybody.”

Greg Mitchell’s new e-book isDead Reckoning: Executions in America. It covers the issue right up to the Valle killing.

Justice Stephen Breyer's Moving Plea to Spare the Life of the Man Executed in Florida Yesterday

As I reported yesterday, with several updates, the state of Florida executed Manuel Valle, 61, last night, using a new formula in its chemical cocktail for a lethal injection. He had been imprisoned for thirty-three years after being convicted of kiling a cop in 1978. One of my updates dryly revealed that the US Supreme Court, as expected, had denied a stay.

What I didn't know was that Justice Stephen Breyer had backed a stay, and issued an important, moving, and one hopes, influential dissent that will have a long life. For that reason, I am reprinting it below in its entirety, minus the citations.

* * *

The State of Florida seeks to execute Manuel Valle for a crime for which he was initially sentenced to death more than 33 years ago. Valle asks us to consider whether that execution following decades of incarceration on death row violates the Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.”

I have little doubt about the cruelty of so long a period of incarceration under sentence of death. In Lackey and in Knight Justice Stevens and I referred to the legal sources, in addition to studies of attempted suicides, that buttress the commonsense conclusion that 33 years in prison under threat of execution is cruel.

So long a confinement followed by execution would also seem unusual. The average period of time that an individual sentenced to death spends on death row is almost 15 years. Thirty-three years is more than twice as long. And, such delays are uncommon.

The commonly accepted justifications for the death penalty are close to nonexistent in a case such as this one. It is difficult to imagine how an execution following so long a period of incarceration could add significantly to that punishment’s deterrent value. It seems yet more unlikely that the execution, coming after what is close to a lifetime of imprisonment, matters in respect to incapacitation. Thus, I would focus upon the “moral sensibility” of a community that finds in the death sentence an appropriate public reaction to a terrible crime. And, I would ask how often that community’s sense of retribution would forcefully insist upon a death that comes only several decades after the crime was committed.

It might be argued that Valle, not the State, is responsible for the long delay. But Valle replies that more than two decades of delay reflect the State’s failure to provide the kind of trial and penalty procedures that the law requires. Regardless, one cannot realistically expect a defendant condemned to death to refrain from fighting for his life by seeking to use whatever procedures the law allows.

It might also be argued that it is not so much the State as it is the numerous procedures that the law demands that produce decades of delay. But this kind of an argument does not automatically justify execution in this case. Rather, the argument may point instead to a more basic difficulty, namely the difficulty of reconciling the imposition of the death penalty as currently administered with procedures necessary to assure that the wrong person is not executed.

Because this case may well raise these questions and because I believe the Court should consider them, I vote to grant the application for stay.

Greg Mitchell's new e-book, Dead Reckoning: Executions in America, traces the fight over the death penalty in the USA right down to the events of the past week.

Another Execution Today In Florida—Amid Protests Over Use of New Chemicals

[See updates below]  As I noted here last week, the next execution  in the USA is set for today, at 4 pm, with the state-ordered killing in Raiford, Florida, of Manuel Valle, age 61. Valle was convicted of killing one highway patrol officer and wounding another—thirty-three years ago. So he has spent more than half his life on death row. Invariably the media refer to him simply as “the cop killer.”

It would be the first execution in the state since February 2010. A long-shot appeal has been filed at the US Supreme Court.

The daughter of the murder victim responded to news of the final date for the execution by saying: “Woo Hoo!”

Despite protests over the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia last week, that state has set another execution for October 5.

The execution is drawing added interest as a kind of “test” of a new execution “cocktail” of chemicals. Executions in several states have been slowed by questions about the effectiveness of the chemicals, and protests by activists led to a leading supplier refusing to continue to send lethal chemicals to death rows. Interesting piece here on a noted doctor trying to stop this “test.” (The state Supreme Court just ruled against him.)  For more background on lethal injection process go here.

Now the head of the Danish company that supplied one of the chemicals to Florida has written Gov. Rick Scott protesting its use. From the Guardian report: “Doctors and legal experts warn that pentobarbital is untested and could inflict extreme suffering on prisoners as they die. In his letter to Scott, Staffan Schuberg wrote that the use of his company’s drugs in executions in Florida ‘contradicts everything Lundbeck is in business to do—provide therapies that improve people’s lives.’ ”

A Florida weekly lists some facts about Florida executions, including pay for executioner (just $150 for the deed) and limit on money spent on final meal ($40).  

UPDATE:  With just minutes until the start of the execution, lawyers are scrambling with three different appeals, raising issues about the drug cocktail, the quality of Valle's original defense, the fact he never did have a final clemency hearing, and the claim that 33 years on death row amounts to "cruel and unusual punishment" or even, by European standards, "torture."   A new Guardian story updates it all. 

UPDATE 2:  As of 5:30 pm, the execution is delayed, pending some response from U.S. Supreme Court.  The Miami Herald, and then other Florida papers, reported that the execution had been completed, then retracted their stories.  Massive media fail.  Here's the Herald's retraction.

  U.S. Supreme Court denies stays, execution -- and test of new chemical cocktail -- presumably going forward.

UPDATE 4 Valle killed at 7:14 p.m.  Unless the Florida media got it wrong again.  As far as we know, execution went as planned, with new lethal cocktail performing its killing function as planned.  

See my new e-book Dead Reckoning: Executions in America for a lengthy probe of current execution practices, and much more.

Steve Earle: Still a Leading 'Hard-Core Troubadour' Against the Death Penalty

It was hardly a surprise that my favorite songwriter/actor/novelist Steve Earle got involved in activism surrounding the execution of Troy Davis by the state of Georgia last week. He was among the many celebrities who signed the petition calling on the state to grant Davis clemency. Earle told an interviewer, “My deal with Troy Davis and everybody else like that is: I’m opposed to the death penalty for anybody. It’s a big deal, that possibility of a person being innocent and being executed.” But politicians afraid to look weak keep the death penalty in place in America, he charged.

Earle, now 56, is no latecomer to the cause.

In fact, he has probably been the most consistently outraged and active in the musical world (especially with the passing of Johnny Cash) since the early 1990s when he penned his first protest song, “Billy Austin.”  Later he wrote “Ellis Unit One” about prison personnel “putting down” prisoners in Texas (it was used for the Dead Man Walking soundtrack) and then “Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song),” about a death row prisoner he befriended. That man, Jonathan Nobles,  asked Steve to witness his execution, and Earle agreed to do it—a rarity among celebrities—and, then wrote about it brilliantly (as I recount in my new e-book, Dead Reckoning).

Earle, who spent his own stint in prison on drug charges, has also performed at numerous anti–death penalty benefits and joined activists camping out overnight outside the US Supreme Court. In 2010 Earle was awarded the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s Shining Star of Abolition award.

I interviewed Earle (one of my favorite songwriters going back to “Guitar Town”) about all of this a few years ago, and in meeting him a couple of times since he always brings me up to date on his efforts—although he’s also been very active in Farm Aid and with the Stop Landmines campaign, among others. He even had a weekly show on Air America a few years back. And in December he will sing and talk (along with wife Allison Moorer) during The Nation’s annual cruise

Somehow Earle has found time to move to New York City and Woodstock with swell singer Moorer, appear as an actor in The Wire and Treme (though he got killed off in a key plot point last season), and keep on touring and recording (his tribute to Townes Van Zandt won him another Grammy).

A few years ago, I was delighted when Steve told me that he was working on a novel—he had just published a collection of short stories—loosely inspired by the infamous “Dr. Toby” who “treated” Hank Williams just before he died at the age of 29. That resulted in Steve’s new novel, with the title taken from Hank’s final single, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive (also the title of Earle’s latest CD).

Still, one of his most important pieces of writing remains a lengthy account of witnessing his friend Jonathan Nobles’s execution, first published by Tikkun and then widely elsewhere (an excerpt closes my Dead Reckoning book).

Minutes from death, Nobles had told Earle, “Steve, I can’t believe that I had to go through all this to see you in a suit coat.” Here’s how Earle concluded his piece.

When he finishes reciting he takes a deep breath and says: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” The warden, recognizing the prearranged signal he and Jon had agreed on, nods toward the unseen executioner and Jon begins to sing.

“Silent night / Holy night…”

He gets as far as “mother and child” and suddenly the air explodes from his lungs with a loud barking noise, deep and incongruous, like a child with whooping cough. “HUH!!!” His head pitches forward with such force that his heavy, prison-issue glasses fly off his face, bouncing from his chest and falling to the green tile floor below.

And then he doesn’t move at all. I watch his eyes fix and glaze over, my heart pounding in my chest and Dona squeezing my hand. Dead men look… well, dead. Vacant. No longer human. But there is a protocol to be satisfied. The warden checks his watch several times during the longest five minutes of my life. When the time is up, he walks across the room and knocks on the door. The doctor enters, his stethoscope earpieces already in place. He listens first at Jon’s neck, then at his chest, then at his side. He shines a small flashlight into Jon’s eyes for an instant and then, glancing up at the clock on his way out, intones: “6.18.”

We are ushered out the same way we came, but I don’t think any of us are the same people who crossed the street to the prison that day. I know I’m not. I can’t help but wonder what happens to the people who work at the Walls, who see this horrific thing happen as often as four times a week. What do they see when they turn out the lights? I can’t imagine.

I do know that Jonathan Nobles changed profoundly while he was in prison. I know that the lives of people he came in contact with changed as well, including mine. America’s criminal justice system isn’t known for rehabilitation. I’m not sure that, as a society, we are even interested in that concept anymore. The problem is that most people who go to prison get out one day and walk among us. Given as many people as we lock up, we better learn to rehabilitate someone. I believe Jon might have been able to teach us how. Now we’ll never know.

The full title of Greg Mitchell’s new e-book is Dead Reckoning: Executions in America. He previously wrote, on the same subject, Who Owns Death? with Robert Jay Lifton.

Wardens Who Protested Troy Davis’s Execution: A Rare Breed

In the waning hours of protests against the execution on Troy Davis by the state of Georgia last Wednesday, one action drew particular notice: a group of six former wardens and correctional officials pleading for clemency and suggesting that prison staffers be allowed to refuse to take part in the death process.

"While most of the prisoners whose executions we participated in accepted responsibility for the crimes for which they were punished,” the wardens’ statement read, “some of us have also executed prisoners who maintained their innocence until the end. It is those cases that are most haunting to an executioner….

“Living with the nightmares is something that we know from experience. No one has the right to ask a public servant to take on a lifelong sentence of nagging doubt, and for some of us, shame and guilt. Should our justice system be causing so much harm to so many people when there is an alternative?”

This public statement was quite unusual for such officials—even in retirement—as I’ve learned in many years of researching capital punishment. (My new e-book on the subject, Dead Reckoning, was published this weekend.) Occasionally, an official will voice callous views or, even more rarely, refuse to take part in the process, but generally they explain that they derive no pleasure from planning to put someone to death, and are intent only on making the process tolerable for everyone involved, including the inmate.

It’s a long way from the days, not so long ago, when many executioners expressed a certain pride, even pleasure, in their profession. Half a century ago, Camus reported that an assistant executioner in France referred to colleagues’ allowing themselves “the fun” of pulling the hair of the condemned man on the guillotine—it was unclear whether the heads were still attached to necks at the time. The same fellow spoke of a chief executioner who was “batty about the guillotine. He sometimes spends days on end at home sitting on a chair, ready with hat and coat on, waiting for a summons from the Ministry.”

When the legendary executioner Albert Pierrepoint was called to testify before a British commission on capital punishment in 1950 he took a somewhat different approach, but still stood proud. Asked if people often asked him about his official duties, Pierropoint replied: “Yes, but I refuse to speak about it. It is something I think should be secret…. It is sacred to me, really.” (Later, in his memoirs, he came out against capital punishment.)

There is little boastful language among executioners in America today, of course. The words supervisors use most often are “professional,” “dignity” and “my job.”

“As prison officials, we just adopt the policy of going about our business in an extremely professional and sober manner with the policy handed to us by those in the legislature,” a director of public information for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice once said. “There’s a high degree of professionalism and dignity that we demand in the performance of this duty.”

Charlie Jones, a former prison guard now warden at Holman Prison in Alabama, oversaw his first electrocution in “Yellow Mama” in 1988. He claims he’s “totally responsible for it, and yeah, it affects you. That’s not to say it’s not right, that the guy don’t deserve it, or that the death penalty ain’t right. That’s not for me to say; it’s just for us to do, by law. I don’t feel guilty about it. I don’t carry the load for what the inmate did.”

A Missouri warden at Potosi felt he hasn’t experienced any personal “problems” following an execution. “You wonder, before you’ve done one, what it’s going to be like,” he reveals. “But it just doesn’t seem to have had any adverse psychological effect. Perhaps it will later on, I don’t know.” Asked what would happen if it did, he replied, “I’d find another job.”

Without a doubt, by their own testimony, wardens find lethal injections much easier to administer than previous forms of killing. Many cannot shake images of electrocutions and gassings they witnessed.

Bill Armontrout, warden at the Missouri Penitenitary, directed several executions, mainly with the needle, and claimed he has “made peace with myself on this thing by knowing that the fellow that’s being executed has had every chance of appeal. When you know that the case has been scrutinized this closely, then it makes you feel much easier. I believe in the laws of our country. And I do personally believe in the death penalty. It may not be a deterrent for the next person, but it is for that person.” He even went down to Mississippi once to help a friend with his first execution, or as he put it, “do a complimentary one for him.”

Armontrout claimed he never had to “manhandle” a prisoner onto the gurney, leading him to believe, probably falsely, that none of them felt any “animosity” toward him or his staff. Still, killing an inmate a warden has been watching over for years—as a ward of the state, so to speak—can be traumatic, even while feeling the prisoner deserves it. Armontrout considered one prisoner he executed, Tiny Mercer, a “friend”—it was “hard doing him.” He said he was also close to Mercer’s widow and seemed a bit perplexed how she could act so friendly and yet inevitably greet him with, “Bill, God loves you, but why did you kill Tiny?”

A Florida official, Bob McMaster, wondered what his reaction would be when he witnessed the first of many electrocutions. Then he saw “how clinical, how straight out with precision” it was, and “there was very little gore. The only thing that was shocking perhaps was realizing that I was going to see somebody killed. People don’t normally see death. It’s not something you looked forward to with glee or anything like that. It’s strictly a professional duty in that sense, and I had very little reaction. It was just my job.”

He explained further, “Now I know what to expect. I know how it’s going to be done, and it’s not something that you have a significant reaction to. You have respect for it, though. You respect that a group of men are carrying out the most severe punishment that is administered by law. It’s not something to be taken lightly. After all, you are seeing a death.” This experience made McMaster ponder the question of mortality. “Everyone’s days are numbered,” he observed, “and we should all be a little more concerned about making good use of those days while we’re here…"  

Greg Mitchell's new e-book is Dead Reckoning: Executions in America. He previously wrote another book on the subject, Who Owns Death? with Robert Jay Lifton.

Brits Finally Compensate 'Bloody Sunday' Families

For some it appeared inevitable, for many it seemed like a day that would never come. But today it happened: the British government disclosed today that it would, at last, compensate families of the fourteen Irish citizens killed in Londonderry on “Bloody Sunday” in January 1972.

One of the families has already announced that it would not accept what could be called in this case “bloody” money.

“We acknowledge the pain felt by these families for nearly forty years, and that members of the armed forces acted wrongly,” a spokeswoman for the Defense Ministry said. “For that, the government is deeply sorry.”

Last June, after a twelve-year inquiry, the Lord Saville probe of the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” killings came to a climax with the release of his mammoth report. It found that the shooting of the marchers, largely young people, was completely “unjustified.” None of them were posing any threat to the British paratroopers, and many, as long charged—“How long must we sing this song?” as Bono famously sang—were shot in the back or while crawling away injured. Prime Minister David Cameron apologized. As U2 asked, “There’s many lost but who has won?”

The families on that day expressed profound relief and sense of delayed justice in emotional speeches outside the Guild Hall in Derry shortly after the report’s release, especially with the conclusion that all of the victims were indeed “innocent.” It also found that many of the soldiers lied in their testimony.

The final two sentences of report summary: “What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the army and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed. Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland.” (My story here at that time.)

Certainly, I can recommend highly the 2002 Paul Greengrass film Bloody Sunday, one of my all-time favorites, which certainly anticipated these findings, and has a key character based on the “whistleblowing” paratrooper known as Soldier 027. A key adviser was Don Mullan, who wrote the best book on the subject, Eyewitness Bloody Sunday (which helped spark the Lord Saville probe) and became one of my long-distance friends after I wrote about the book and movie. You can watch the trailer for Bloody Sunday below, as well as a U2 song with footage from that day:

Another Execution Set For Tonight, This Time in Alabama

Note: For my latest death penalty piece, go here.

The third state-sanctioned killing of an American prisoner in two days is set for tonight at Holman Prison in Alabama. It will follow the deaths last night of Troy Davis (who proclaimed his innocence to the end) in Georgia and Lawrence Brewer (who acted proud of what he had done) in Texas. Alabama’s governor has turned down a final request for clemency and promised not to intervene.

Derrick Mason, now 37, is accused of shooting 25-year-old Angela Cagle twice in the face during an early morning robbery. He is waiting to hear from a last-minute appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court challenging the competency of his counsel.

His plea to the governor included a letter from retired Madison County Circuit Court Judge Loyd Little, who sentenced Mason to death. Little said he now realizes the death sentence was not appropriate in this case.

[UPDATE: The execution did go ahead as scheduled.  Another is set for Florida this coming week.]

Mason would be the fifth prisoner to die in an Alabama execution this year. That would match last year’s number. The state has the highest number of prisoners on death row per capita for any state: forty-three per every million in the population.

The inmate is black and his victim was white.

A Birmingham News editorial this week called for a sentence of life in prison instead:

…if the people of Alabama are going to allow the state to put murderers to death in our name, we must have a system of capital punishment that is fair and consistent. There are too many disparities in the way the death penalty is applied in Alabama, whether it is based on the race of the victim, the status of the accused, the quality of the defense for the accused, even the location of the crime.

It is worth noting that just this week, the attorney general’s office, which has pushed to execute Mason, had a different view of what makes for a suitable sentence for another murderer who shot someone in the head. In July, Pamela B. Terry pleaded guilty to the 2009 murder of her husband of two months, Steven Charles Slaughter. He was writing Terry a check to reimburse her for wedding expenses when she shot him in the back of the head at her Ardmore home, the AG’s office said.

Greg Mitchell co-wrote the classic anti–death penalty book Who Owns Death? with Robert Jay Lifton, His latest book is Atomic Cover-Up: Two U.S. Soldiers, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Greatest Movie Never Made.

The Other Execution Tonight—the Man Who Dragged James Byrd Jr. to His Death

If you are inclined to question capital punishment, it is not hard to protest the scheduled execution tonight of Troy Davis in Georgia. His case contains much doubt about his guilt, and the racial aspect (black man as victim of white-dominated justice system) is undeniable. What really tests a principled position against the death penalty are cases like Lawrence Brewer.

That’s why I was happy to receive, just a few minutes ago, an e-mail from the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Of course, it calls for last-minute action to save Davis. But it also includes this key section:

“We should also note the odd juxtaposition of the two executions scheduled for exactly the same time this evening. At 7 pm EDT in Georgia, racism plays a part in the execution of Troy Davis. At 6 pm CDT in Texas, Lawrence Brewer is to be executed for his participation in the infamous racist hate crime dragging murder of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, in 1998. Please join NCADP in opposing the executions of both men. We stand against all executions without reservation.”

[UPDATE:  Brewer was executed at 7:21 PM ET.  He refused to make a final statement.]

The Brewer case certainly tests one principles (as did, for example, the McVeigh case). There is the matter of the brutality of the crime. Not only was it racist in origin but evidence suggests Byrd was alive for most of the ordeal, losing body parts as he was dragged and ultimately decapitated. Then there is the fact that Brewer (and at least one of his colleagues, also on death row) was a white supremacist.

Also: he is unrepentant. In July, in his only interview with the media since the arrest thirteen years ago, he told a Texas TV reporter: “I have no regrets. I’d do it all over again to tell you the truth.”

Nevertheless, Byrd’s only son, Ross, has campaigned against the execution of Brewer, as a member of Murder Victims For Reconciliation (a group profiled in the wide-ranging book I co-wrote with Robert Jay Lifton agianst capital punishment, Who Owns Death?). Yesterday he told Reuters: “You can’t fight murder with murder. Life in prison would have been fine. I know he can’t hurt my daddy anymore. I wish the state would take in mind that this isn’t what we want.”

It will be interesting to see how many of those who protest the Troy Davis execution will also raise their voices against the state murder of the horrid racist killer Lawrence Brewer.

Greg Mitchell’s latest book is Atomic Cover-Up: Two U.S. Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagaski, and the Greatest Movie Never MadeHis book with Robert Jay Lifton is titled  Who Owns Death? Capital Punishment, The American Conscience and the End of Executions.

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