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Steven Hsieh

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The University of Chicago Is Bidding for the Obama Library, but Activists Would Rather Have a Trauma Center

UChicago Trauma Center

Activists with Trauma Center Now block the entrance of a University of Chicago hospital construction site on Monday, May 19, 2014. (Students for Health Equity)

University of Chicago Police forcibly removed four protesters blocking the entrance of a hospital construction site Monday morning, the latest clash between university officials and community members asking for an adult trauma center in the city’s South Side.

There are no adult trauma centers in the Chicago’s South Side, where heavy gun violence has struck a toll on the community, especially black youth. The University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) treats trauma victims under sixteen, but closed such services to older patients in 1988. The nearest level one trauma centers from South Side are at Northwestern Medical Center downtown and Advocate Christ Medical Center in the Oak Lawn suburb, both about ten miles away.

Monday’s act of civil disobedience kicked off a week of action, organized by a coalition of community groups demanding that UCMC reopen its adult trauma center. The week will culminate on Friday with a march to the home of university president Robert Zimmer.

The Trauma Center Coalition timed its week of action to take place as University of Chicago officials prepare a bid to host Barack Obama’s presidential library. University administrators released a glowing study Monday, projecting that opening the Obama library in the South Side, the president’s hometown, would create 2,000 permanent jobs for Chicago. But activists say U of C should prioritize correcting the dearth of trauma centers in the area over its bid for the next presidential library.

“President Obama has tried to stop gun violence and create opportunities for young black men, meanwhile the University of Chicago sits in the center of a gun violence epidemic on the South Side and has shown that it does not value black life, by refusing to open a trauma center and save the lives of the young black men dying at their door,” said Victoria Crider, a high school senior and trauma center activist, in a statement.

Research shows that having a trauma center nearby can save lives in a community. A Northwestern University study identified South Side Chicago as a “relative trauma desert in Chicago’s regional trauma system that is associated with increased gunshot wound mortality.” According to a WBEZ investigation, patients from the area face a longer ambulance run time, on average 50 percent longer, than other city residents.

Young activists began pushing to reopen the trauma center in 2010, just months after a drive by shooting claimed the life of 18-year-old Damian Turner. Though Turner was gunned down four blocks from UCMC, an ambulance had to take him to the nearest trauma center, more than nine miles away at Northwestern Memorial Hospital downtown. Turner, a co-founder of the activist group Fearless Leading by the Youth, died at Northwestern ninety minutes after getting shot.

“We are protesting this week because its unfair for this community not to have a trauma center, its heartless,” said Sheila Rush, Turner’s mother, in a statement.

Hospital administrators say opening an adult trauma center would be too expensive, suggesting that it would have to come at the cost of other services, such as UCMC’s neonatal intensive care unit and its burn unit.

“Developing a Level 1 trauma center would be a massive undertaking, requiring significant resources and support, as well as a complex decision-making process involving the city, the state, and Chicago’s trauma network,” UCMC said in a statement.

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Activists don’t buy that claim, pointing to the hospital’s $782 million endowment, as well as a $4.5 billion capital campaign announced this week by President Zimmer.

Damian Turner’s mother, Sheila Rush, told The Huffington Post’s Marc Lamont Hill that the coalition plans on writing a letter to President Obama about the South Side’s “trauma center desert.”

Read Next: Alabama’s backdoor abortion ban goes on trial.

Why This Missouri Death Row Inmate Wants His Execution Videotaped

Russell Bucklew

Russell Bucklew (AP Photo, Missouri Department of Corrections)

A Missouri death row prisoner on Friday requested for a videographer to record his upcoming execution, which he claims is likely to bring him tortuous pain due to a medical condition.

Russell Bucklew, 45, has a congenital defect called hemangioma, which causes clumps of malformed blood vessels to grow in his neck, throat and head. Bucklew’s lawyers say his condition will likely cause him to hemorrhage and choke during his execution by lethal injection, scheduled for May 21. Dr. Joel B. Zivot, an anesthesiologist who examined Bucklew, supported this claim in a written affidavit.

Bucklew was convicted of the 1996 murder of Michael Sanders, as well as kidnapping and raping his ex-girlfriend.

Attorneys say taping Bucklew’s execution would provide key evidence “to better examine whether Missouri’s lethal injection procedures are ‘sure or very likely to cause serious illness and needless suffering’ in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

“If Missouri officials are confident enough to execute Russell Bucklew, they should be confident enough to videotape it.” Cheryl A. Pilate, one of Mr. Bucklew’s attorneys, said in a statement. “It is time to raise the curtain on lethal injections.”

Bucklew is also challenging a Missouri law that shields key information about the state’s execution procedure. Missouri’s secrecy statute protects the anonymity of anyone serving on an “execution team,” including the state’s lethal injection drug supplier. Other states, including Oklahoma and Georgia, recently passed similar laws. Bucklew’s attorneys cite Oklahoma’s botched execution of Clayton Lockett last month, which caused him to writhe and gasp in pain, as the “inevitable” consequence of carrying out the death penalty under a shroud of secrecy.

Bucklew’s motion comes one day after several prominent news organizations filed a landmark lawsuit challenging Missouri’s execution secrecy statute. The Guardian US, the Associated Press and three local newspapers—The Kansas City Star, the Springfield News-Leader and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch—say citizens have a First Amendment right to know the “type, quality and source of drugs” used to execute prisoners in their name.

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According to The Guardian US, the lawsuit is the first known First Amendment challenge to a death penalty secrecy statute.


Read Next: Watch Eric Holder blast the “excessive” use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities.

Watch Eric Holder Blast the ‘Excessive’ Use of Solitary Confinement in Juvenile Facilities

Eric Holder

US Attorney General Eric Holder (US Department of Justice)

US Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday called for an end to the “excessive” use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities, especially condemning the practice of isolating youth who suffer from mental illness.

“Solitary confinement can be dangerous, and a serious impediment to the ability of juveniles to succeed once released,” Holder said in a video statement, posted to the Justice Department’s website. “At a minimum, we must work to curb the overreliance on seclusion of youth with disabilities.”

Holder cites a 2012 study by the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention finding that nearly half, 47 percent to be precise, of the nation’s juvenile facilities lock youth in isolation. Another report from the same office found that more than one-third of youth in custody reported being isolated, with 55 percent saying it was longer than twenty-four hours.

“This practice is particularly detrimental to young people with disabilities—who are at increased risk under these circumstances of negative effects including self-harm and even suicide,” Holder said. “In fact, one national study found that half of the victims of suicides in juvenile facilities were in isolation at the time they took their own lives, and 62 percent of victims had a history of solitary confinement.”

Juan E. Méndez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, said last year that solitary confinement can amount to torture and called for an “absolute ban” on the practice for juveniles and people battling disabilities.

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Holder’s statement comes two months after the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division sought a court order to prevent Ohio’s juvenile corrections system from unlawfully isolating youth with mental illness. The DOJ’s request reported that the state had sent more than 229 boys with mental health needs to seclusion for a total of almost 66,000 hours. One boy spent nearly 2,000 hours in seclusion, while another was isolated for twenty-one straight days. In February, the DOJ criticized a juvenile facility in Contra County, California, for overzealously using solitary confinement.

Watch Holder’s statement, via the National Juvenile Defender Center:


Read Next: The tactics change, but the police state stays the same.

What You Need to Know About Today’s Scheduled Execution in Texas (UPDATE)

Robert Campbell

 Robert Campbell (AP Photo/Texas Department of Criminal Justice)

UPDATE 6:00 PM: The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has stayed the execution of Robert Campbell two hours before he was set to die at 6 pm Central time today. In an opinion, the court decided that new evidence of Campbell’s intellectual disability shows “possible merit to warrant a fuller exploration by the district court.” It was recently revealed that state officials failed to turn over the results of two IQ tests suggesting Campbell may be ineligible for execution. “Given the state’s own role in creating the regrettable circumstances that led to the Fifth Circuit’s decision today, the time is right for the State of Texas to let go of its efforts to execute Mr. Campbell, and resolve this case by reducing his sentence to life imprisonment,” said Robert Owen, Campbell’s attorney, in a statement.


If Texas carries out a scheduled execution this evening, it will be the first state to put an inmate to death since a botched execution in Oklahoma two weeks ago left an inmate gasping and writhing in pain.

Robert James Campbell, 41, convicted of rape and murder in 1991, is set to die by lethal injection today at 6 pm Central time.

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit yesterday denied an appeal that argued Texas’s refusal to disclose its drug supplier puts Campbell at risk of substantial pain. Another pending appeal argues that Campbell is not mentally competent for execution.

Here are some things to keep in mind as Texas approaches zero hour for tonight’s scheduled execution:

Like Oklahoma, Texas refuses to disclose the source of its execution drugs.

Texas purchased a new batch of execution drugs in March, but refused to say where it bought them, arguing that disclosing such information could endanger the supplier.

But Campbell’s attorneys argue that access to key information about the drug source is necessary “to ensure a humane, non-torturous execution.” They cite last month’s bungled execution in Oklahoma as the consequence of conducting executions under a shroud of secrecy.

Since pharmaceutical companies, predominantly based in Europe, stopped allowing their products to be used for the death penalty, states have turned to loosely regulated compounding pharmacies for execution drugs. Attorneys and death penalty critics say relying on made-to-order drugs to execute inmates always puts them at some risk of encountering unconstitutional pain.

Robert Campbell has an IQ of 69. Courts typically set the cutoff for executions at 70.

In another appeal, Campbell’s attorneys contend that their client is intellectually disabled, and therefore ineligible for execution. A medical evaluation last month found that Campbell has an IQ of 69. Clinicians consider an IQ of 70 or below as indicative of mental disability. The US Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the execution of intellectually disabled persons violates the Eighth Amendment.

Attorneys also recently discovered that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) previously withheld two other IQ scores that put their client within range of intellectual disability.

The Arc, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, wrote a letter to Texas Governor Rick Perry asking him to commute Campbell’s sentence to life without parole.

“To ignore experts and cross the line drawn by a more than decade-old Supreme Court ruling shakes the foundation of our legal system for people with intellectual disabilities,” the letter states. “The Arc asks the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to take up this case immediately to ensure that Mr. Campbell’s disability is taken into account and justice can truly be served.”

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Campbell, a black man, was prosecuted in a town criticized for “overt racial bias in capital case selection.”

Attorneys mention in their appeal that Campbell was prosecuted in Harris County, Texas, during a time where prosecutors disproportionately sought the death penalty for African-Americans. A University of Maryland study found that between 1992 and 1999 the county pursued capital punishment for blacks at three and a half times the rate of whites with similar cases.


Read Next: Richard Kim on "the Oklahoma way of death."

A Mother’s Day ‘Week of Action’ to #FreeMarissa

Marissa Alexander

Marissa Alexander walks out of the Duval County Courthouse with her lawyers (AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Bob Mack)

Activists launched a Mother’s Day “Week of Action” campaign on Friday to support Marissa Alexander, the Florida woman facing sixty years in prison for firing warning shots to ward off her abusive husband.

Alexander was initially convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, despite the fact that her husband had attacked her and nobody was injured, and sentenced to twenty years in prison. A circuit judge overturned that conviction on appeal, and now Florida State Attorney Angela Corey is seeking a sixty-year prison sentence for Alexander. A hearing has been set for May 16 to determine whether Alexander qualifies for another “stand your ground” hearing. Jury selection for her retrial is scheduled to begin on July 21.

Members of Free Marissa Now, an advocacy group, demonstrated outside of Corey’s office Friday, inviting people to send cards to Alexander. They also launched a social media campaign to raise funds for her legal defense.

The group also hopes to shed light on the impact of mass incarceration on women. The female prison population grew 832 percent from 1977 to 2007, about double the growth rate of male prisons. Seventy percent of incarcerated women are mothers, the majority of whom served as primary caretakers before they were separated from their children. Alexander, a mother of two teenage twins and a 3-year-old daughter, will spend the holiday under house arrest.

We spoke with Alisa Bierria, an activist with the Free Marissa Now campaign and PhD candidate at Stanford University, about Alexander’s case and the “Week of Action.” (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Can you tell me a little about this Mother’s Day campaign?

Marissa Alexander is a proud mother of three, including teenage twins and a 3-year-old daughter. She had given premature birth to her youngest child nine days before she was forced to defend her life after being attacked by her abusive estranged husband. When she was incarcerated for almost three years for defending herself, she was forced away from her children, including a baby who was still breastfeeding. Her reality as a mother is central to her experience of violence from both her husband and the state. We launched the Mother’s Day Week of Action as a way to build support for Marissa and to highlight the ways in which issues of mothering and reproductive justice really shapes her case and experiences of both domestic violence and incarceration. Those issues are intertwined for so many mothers in the United States, so we wanted to help people make the connections.

What is the plan for the campaign?

We’re starting today. Jacksonville-based organizers will be tabling today in front of State Prosecutor’s Angela Corey’s office. Tabling in front of Ms. Corey’s office is an expression of resistance to her continued prosecution and unjust targeting of this mother. Organizers will have information to hand out and Mother’s Day cards to mail to Marissa, so people can send her their support, hopefully reducing the isolation she’s experiencing while under house arrest. We’ll also encourage people to donate to the Marissa Alexander Legal Defense Fund for her trial, still scheduled for July 28. She’s facing $250,000 in legal fees, and that’s with a pro bono legal team.

Nationally and internationally, we’re inviting people to send Mother’s Day cards to Marissa and other mothers facing prison, violence, or who just need extra support. We invite people to spread the word about Marissa’s case, and share resources about the relationship between mothering and pregnancy, mass incarceration and domestic violence with their communities. We want people to know that this isn’t only impacting Marissa, but its impacting thousands and thousands of other women and parents.

You mentioned that the campaign intends to tie Marissa’s experience to the issue of women, mass incarceration and reproductive justice more broadly. Could you expand on that connection?

First, the majority of women in prison, about 70 percent, are mothers. 1.3 million children have mothers who are in jail, in prison or on probation. When women are incarcerated, it’s particularly devastating to children and families because they tend to be the primary caretakers. When we think about mass incarceration and who is being put in prison and why, we really have to understand that people behind bars are not just individuals that exist without any community or family or people depending on them…. Prisons create a devastating ripple effect across families and communities. On Mother’s Day, we want to celebrate all mothers, including those who are being disappeared into prisons. The US leads the world in the numbers of people caged and, for decades, black women were one of the fastest-growing groups of incarcerated people. Black mothers, in particular, are experiencing the brunt of mass incarceration policies.

Additionally, prison itself enacts reproductive violence. Last year, we learned that people in California women’s prisons were being coerced into being sterilized. In thirty-three states, it’s shockingly legal to shackle incarcerated women while they are in labor. Prisons have a profoundly violent impact on the experience of mothering and giving birth, and reproductive health in general. For Marissa, as a result of being incarcerated and targeted by state prosecutors, her abusive estranged husband currently has custody over her youngest child. To really support mothers, we must urgently address the ways that the prison crisis and domestic violence shape their lives.

* * *

Click here for more information on Marissa Alexander and this Mother’s Day campaign.

States Move to Keep Guns Out of the Hands of Domestic Abusers


Lawmakers in Minnesota and Louisiana overwhelmingly passed bills this month barring people convicted of domestic violence from possessing or purchasing firearms, both states joining a national movement to keep guns out of abusers’ hands.

Minnesota’s bill, signed by Gov. Mark Dayton into law Monday, would expand existing handgun restrictions for convicted abusers to include rifles and shotguns and also prohibit anyone subject to a temporary restraining order from possessing a firearm. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is expected to sign a similar bill, which passed both statehouses unanimously. In recent months, Wisconsin and Washington also passed gun restrictions for domestic abusers with broad, bipartisan support, bringing the tally to four successful proposals this year.

Think Progress’s Nicole Flatlow notes that this wave of legislation comes after years of opposition from the National Rifle Association, which recently changed its position on domestic violence legislation. The NRA actively fought against Washington’s proposal for nearly a decade, successfully defeating bills in 2004 and 2010, before quietly approving this year’s bill. A Huffington Post analysis tied the NRA’s change of tune to public support for such legislation, as well as a recently launched effort to appeal to women.

Federal law already prohibits most people subject to permanent restraining orders from owning or purchasing guns, but the statute does not apply to temporary restraining orders and is rarely enforced to begin with.

More than two-thirds of perpetrators who killed their spouses or ex-spouses between 1980 and 2008 used a firearm to carry out the act, according to the Justice Department. In many cases, the perpetrator was already subject to a protective restraining order.

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Evidence suggests that laws restricting domestic abusers from possessing guns can have a significant impact. A 2010 study, published in the journal Injury Prevention, connected such laws to a 19 percent reduction in intimate partner homicides. In an investigation of gun deaths in Washington, New York Times reporter Michael Luo found that the victim in five instances, all women, had obtained protective orders within the month that they were killed. During a three-year span in Minnesota, more than thirty people subject to active restraining orders were convicted of assaults involving guns.


Read Next: A worshipper in Georgia prepares for church.

‘No Action Taken’ on 97 Percent of Border Patrol Abuse Complaints

Border Patrol

US Border Patrol agents ride ATVs along the US-Mexico border. (Reuters/Mike Blake)

The American Immigration Council (AIC) released a report today suggesting that US Border Patrol agents and supervisors who physically, verbally or sexually abuse migrants systemically escape with total impunity.

The DC-based organization reviewed 806 complaints of abuse by Border Patrol agents and supervisors between January 2009 to January 2012, looking at incidents that occurred within 100 miles of the US-Mexico border. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the umbrella agency for Border Patrol, took no action on ninety-seven percent of fully-processed complaints. Just thirteen complaints led to any action. Of those thirteen, six resulted in counseling, two in oral reprimands and another two in written reports. Only one unnamed agent was suspended as a result of an “excessive use of force” complaint. Here’s a visual breakdown, courtesy of AIC:

“These stark findings exemplify the culture of impunity that prevails at CBP,” Melissa Crow, director of the council’s Legal Action Center, told The New York Times. “Given the tremendous resources appropriated to CBP, the agency must do a better job of holding its officers accountable.”

The report highlights a few cases that illustrate the “culture of impunity” at CBP. An agent who allegedly hit an undocumented migrant’s head against a rock, causing a hematoma, was disciplined with counseling. In another case, a pregnant woman claims that a border agent kicked her during an apprehension, causing her to miscarry. Yet another detainee alleges that an agent said, “Don’t move or I’ll kill you,” as he was being arrested. In these latter two cases, neither alleged perpetrator faced disciplinary action.

The AIC notes that the CBP data, obtained through a federal public records request, accounts for only a “small fraction” of US Border Patrol abuse incidents. The report does not include complaints filed outside of CBP’s internal affairs division, such as civil rights lawsuits—not to mention abuse incidents that never got reported.

Criticism of abuse at CBP has been mounting in recent years, after a spate of killings compelled advocates and lawmakers to call for more transparency and accountability at the agency. At least twenty-one people since 2010 have been killed in shooting incidents involving Border Patrol agents. CBP plans to add another 2,000 border agents over the next two years. An independent review of CBP’s use of force procedures, leaked to the Los Angeles Times earlier this year, blasted the agency for a “lack of diligence” in handling use-of-force incidents.

In today’s report, AIC calls for an independent review of CBP’s complaint procedures, noting that many unresolved complaints from the organization’s review had been pending for more than a year. As of January 2012, at least one complaint had been active for more than 900 days. Advocacy groups say the report confirms their experience dealing with the overly complicated complaint procedure.

“There is no one way to file a complaint. How to file a complaint is unclear. When we do file a complaint, we rarely get a response,” said Vicki Gaubeca, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.

Based on the report’s findings, a coalition of advocacy groups released a set of recommendations to make it easer to file border-related complaints. The groups, including the ACLU, Women’s Refugee Commission and others, recommends that the Department of Homeland Security, which governs over the CBP, streamline its complaint processes by establishing a single online forum, as well as a toll-free hotline, to file complaints.

Read the American Immigration Council’s full report here.

Newly Released Timeline of Botched Execution Reveals Gruesome Details

Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner

Clayton Lockett, left, and Charles Warner (AP Photo/Oklahoma Department of Corrections)

Oklahoma’s top prison official on Thursday released a timeline of the botched execution of Clayton Lockett, who died of a heart attack Tuesday after a failed procedure. In a letter, Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton also recommended that the state halt all executions, pending an independent review of its lethal injection protocol.

Here are the letter’s biggest revelations, as well as some other recent developments in this story:

The morning of Lockett’s execution was marked by chaos.

Prison officials tasered Lockett the day of his execution, after he refused to be restrained for medical X-rays. Shortly after, medical officials observed that Lockett had lacerated himself on his right arm. He was sent to the prison health center to get his wounds treated. A doctor determined that he would not need sutures.

The lethal drugs were administered to Lockett via his groin, a rare method that requires extensive experience and training.

A medical technician had serious trouble finding a suitable vein on Lockett’s body to insert the IV. After determining that his arms, legs and feet offered “no viable point of entry,” the technician inserted the line in Lockett’s groin. This whole process, from searching Lockett’s body to inserting the IV, took fifty-one minutes. The New York Times confirmed with a Columbia University anesthesiologist that placing an IV in the groin can be especially painful and requires “extensive experience, training and credentialing.” The public doesn’t know anything about the technician’s qualifications because state law shields the identities of personnel involved in executions.

Experts are raising doubts about the DOC’s claim that Lockett’s vein collapsed.

The night of the botched execution, Robert Patton told reporters that Lockett’s vein collapsed during the procedure, causing officials to halt the process. The timeline provided Thursday corroborates this version of events, saying that about twenty minutes after the execution began, a doctor “checked the IV and reported the blood vein had collapsed.”

But Dr. Joel Zivot, an Emory University anesthesiologist, expressed to the Times that this theory is “almost certainly incorrect.” Zivot explained that finding the femoral vein is especially difficult, since it is not visible from the surface.

Madeline Cohen, an attorney representing death row inmate Charles Warner, whose execution was postponed after Tuesday’s botching, said in a statement, “[T]he timeline the Department of Corrections has released strongly indicates that the femoral IV was never properly inserted, and the drugs were injected into Mr. Lockett’s flesh, rather than his veins.”

Oklahoma’s prison chief is calling for an independent investigation of the botched execution, as well as an indefinite stay of all executions until the state refines its protocol.

On Tuesday, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin stayed the execution of Charles Warner, another death row inmate, for fourteen days. Fallin has said that she will extend that stay up to sixty days if the investigation is not completed in time.

“It will take several days or possibly a few weeks to refine the new protocols. Once written, staff will require extensive training and understanding of new protocols before an execution can be scheduled,” Patton said.

Anti–death penalty advocates in other states are paying close attention.

Officials in Missouri, Texas and Ohio have all said the incident in Oklahoma will not affect planned executions in their respective states. But attorneys in each of those states have all cited Lockett’s death in calling for moratoriums on capital punishment.

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The planned execution of Russell Bucklew on May 21 raises particularly pressing concerns. Dr. Zivot said Bucklew has a medical condition that is characterized by malformed blood vessels, putting him at risk for “extreme or excruciating pain” during an intravenous execution.

“Missouri is at grave risk of repeating the type of botched procedure we just saw in Oklahoma,” said attorneys Cheryl Pilate and Lindsay Runnels in a statement. “Department of Corrections officials are operating with utter disregard of our client’s medical condition, and their continued secrecy exponentially increases the risk that Missouri will carry out a failed or botched execution.”

Update (4:30 pm): During a news conference today, President Obama called the botched execution in Oklahoma “deeply troubling.” Obama also called on Attorney General Eric Holder to conduct an “analysis” of the execution. He reaffirmed his support for capital punishment in “certain circumstances where a crime is so terrible that the application of the death penalty may be appropriate.”

OK DOC Letter on Botched Execution of Clayton Lockett

Read Next: Oklahoma’s botched execution sparks a new call for abolishing the death penalty.

Living Undocumented: A Conversation With Jose Antonio Vargas


In this still from Documented, Jose Antonio Vargas demonstrates at a Mitt Romney campaign rally in Iowa. (Apo Anak Productions)

Before Jose Antonio Vargas came out publicly as an undocumented immigrant in 2011, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist was already filming the moments leading up to his big reveal. During an early scene of Documented: A Film by an Undocumented Immigrant, Vargas speaks about the DREAM Act with journalism students at Mountain View High School in California, where he once co-edited the school paper. “I’m going to tell you something that I haven’t told a lot of people,” Vargas says. He announces his intention to come out of the shadows, through his now-famous New York Times Magazine essay and to launch “a whole campaign about what it means to be an American.”

Since then, Vargas has toured the country with his advocacy group Define American to change the national conversation about immigration. Documented follows Vargas, from his move to the United States in 1993 through his career as a successful journalist to his current role as perhaps the most high-profile undocumented immigrant in America. Vargas’s relationship with his mother, who he hasn’t seen in more than twenty years, also figures prominently in the film.

We spoke with Mr. Vargas by phone last Thursday about Documented, his advocacy and the future of the immigrant rights movement. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

I read on Facebook that you’re showing Documented at a church in Louisville, Kentucky, tonight.

The campaign director of Define American is actually a minister and he lives in Louisville. So, tonight, for the first time, we’re looking at immigration through a Christian lens.

I can’t believe it. We’re approaching the third year of Define American. The day The New York Times posted my essay on the website is when our organization was born. From the very beginning, the goal was creating a cultural space to have a conversation beyond the usual immigration frameworks: political, partisan, US-Mexico border, “illegal.” A year after I came out, we had the Time magazine cover. That was the first time you had a major publication put undocumented people on the cover saying, “We are Americans, just not legally.” Our organization occupies a unique space within the immigrant movement. To me, it’s bigger than immigration. It’s about citizenship. That’s why we called the organization Define American. We didn’t call it DefineImmigrant.

What did you learn while making this film?

When I outed myself a few years ago, after I didn’t hear from the government, there was a part of me that thought, “Somebody from ICE or INS is going to get in touch with me.” Then nothing was said. Immediately I started traveling and I started filming and filming and filming. I’ve done over 200 events in forty-two states in almost three years. I would say two things. One: I underestimated the gap between what Americans know about immigration and what the reality is about immigration. I had assumed that there was a gap. I would not have anticipated that it would have been this big. People have no idea. The fact that people ask me, “Why don’t you just make yourself legal?” or “Why don’t you wait in the back of the line?” That proves to me that fundamentally, the American people do not have an understanding of how immigration works in this country.

The second thing that I found the most tragic is—when people find out I am not Mexican, or that I’m Filipino—once they find out that I’m not what they think I’m supposed to be, they start talking badly to me about Mexicans. I did not anticipate the level of how many people use the word illegal and Mexican interchangeably. Just assuming that somebody who is Latino or somebody who is brown is Mexican and then making the assumption that he appeared illegal. I mean, that is a tragedy. That is a tragedy with such political, cultural and personal implications that I cannot even begin to describe.

Why did you decide to center the film on your story, and in particular, your relationship with your mother?

The hardest decision to make about this film was to make it this personal. That is not at all what I was planning to do. This is my second documentary. I’m working on a third project that’s going to be related to this. I feel like my creative, artistic life just started. It started three years ago when I could finally own up to who I am and claim myself and call myself an American in front of other people without feeling a sense of shame.

Originally, I thought I was going to do the Inside Job of immigration reform. Then I started watching C-Span and getting clips of politicians talking about immigration reform and why all these illegals should be out of this country. And then I think, “Do I really want to politicize an already over-politicized issue?” Whenever you hear about immigration reform, it’s always from the perspective of politicians, running for some kind of office or running away from themselves. I don’t know what. But that’s always been the case.

So I go, “All right, I’m not going to do that.” So I thought I was going to do “Waiting for Superman meets the DREAM Act.” Then when I started filming, I knew I wanted to do that. Then I made the tough decision to include my mother and basically started connecting these other pieces of the puzzle to my own life. That’s when the film took on a different life. As any documentary film director will tell you, when you’re doing a film like this, you can’t really force what it is. It needs to be what it needs to be. Film in many ways is very literal. When I’m writing, I can always play around with tense. I can always make past present. I can always kind of manipulate and I can always be delusional in a way that’s completely self-serving. With film, it’s like, the camera can’t really lie. It can manipulate to a certain extent. When I connected with my mom on Skype, I couldn’t have written that. There was no writing done. I didn’t even have the language for it.

That was one of the most powerful scenes for me.

I remember watching that scene when we were editing. I had to watch it, and it was like seeing myself for the first time. I’m a 32-year-old man. I’m looking at that scene and thinking, “Oh my god, I’m 12 and I’m on that plane by myself again. And you know, I miss my mom.” Ever since I was younger—when I found out I was this gay, Filipino, “illegal” person that this country thinks I am—I have always wanted to be in control. And I have always wanted to show that nothing can break me. You can put in front of me every challenge, and I’m going to do it. I’m going to cover a presidential campaign. I’m going to write for The New Yorker. I’m going to land an interview no one else is going to get. I’m going to do all these things you said I cannot do. And I never wanted to show any sort of pain or vulnerability. That’s not unique to me. I think all of us, we want to be strong. We want to be in control. This film has been for me, in a way, really cleansing.

You’ve said openly that you’re relatively privileged for an undocumented immigrant. What are the limits to telling your story?

I’m very clear from the very beginning about who I am and who I am not. I have no control, whatsoever, on how people perceive me, from the right or the left. All I have control over is who I say I am. This is why, from the very beginning, I didn’t want to do a film about myself. I was questioning, like, “Who is going to relate to this person?” I am, let’s be honest, at an incredibly privileged position to do what I do. I am probably the most privileged undocumented immigrant in America. While people get deported everyday, what did I do? I made a film. But guess what? I think there is no limit to empathy. There is no limit to humanity. This is why I included my mother and the complexity of that relationship. How do you explain being separated from your mother for twenty years. This is who I am. And this is what the system has done to me, and this is what I’ve done to myself.

There are many, many more stories that need to be told. This is only one of them. There are some aspects of the film that are kind of journalistic in the way they’re framed. Like the scene in Iowa when I’m talking to Romney supporters. And the film, I think, also works in the way that it tries to break misconceptions—about the fact that we pay taxes, about the fact that this is not totally a Mexican/Latino issue.

Ninety minutes of a documentary cannot tell the whole story. But it tells one story, from one perspective. And I get to say that this is a film that is produced and directed by an undocumented person and I have the privilege of telling my own story in the most honest way I can.

Tell me a little bit about how your status as an undocumented immigrant relates to your work in journalism.

Look, when I was growing up—it’s not like I was a kid and wanted to be a journalist. I was really attracted to movies. When I was growing up, learning about America to me was watching movies and watching television. I was really fortunate because I grew up in an area in Mountain View, California, with well-funded, well-stocked libraries. I started watching documentaries by Frederick Wiseman. I’ve always gravitated towards Mike Nichols, watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? countless times. I was exposed to a lot of films before I had even wanted to write. To this day, writing, for me, doesn’t come naturally. Because I never feel like I have enough words. And I never feel like I’m good enough at it.

And then I discovered journalism, and the only reason why I gravitated towards it is because my name would be on a piece of paper. As an undocumented person it means that I don’t have a document that says I’m supposed to be here. But then I thought, “Well, wait a second. If I’m a writer and have a byline, doesn’t that mean I exist on a piece of paper?” So that’s why I started writing. I thought I could write myself to America and I could just keep writing. Journalism, for me, has always been a way of validating my existence. Although I was always ultimately hiding. My name is on a piece of paper, but I’m not supposed to be here.

I heard this interview you did with NPR’s Maria Hinojosa, where you reveal that she’s the first person to ever call you an American journalist.

There are some people in the journalism industry, some of them my own friends, who don’t consider me a journalist anymore. They say that I am now an advocate. And then usually I ask, “What do you think I’m advocating for?” Journalists sometimes use the word advocacy with this kind of like, “Back over there.” I’m sorry. Isn’t Ezra Klein an advocate for something? Isn’t Nate Silver advocating for something? Why is it that a journalist who is a person of color, or a gay journalist or an undocumented journalist—when they do journalism, it’s called advocacy?

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What did you make of Jeb Bush’s recent statement that immigration is an “act of love?”

Define America is a media and cultural organization. I’m not about politics and I’m not about policy. And this is coming from somebody who used to be a political writer. I grew up, you know, in the era of Will and Grace and Ellen Degeneres. In an era when gay-straight alliances were formed in high schools across America. You cannot understate the importance of culture in changing politics. For me, politics is culture. I don’t care about immigration policy. I care about immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants who have been, for too long, under attack in this country. Jeb Bush made a cultural statement. “Immigration is an act of love”—that is a cultural statement. I cannot wait to show the film to Jeb Bush and President Bush. People forget: President Bush was the first president to give a primetime speech on immigration reform. This is one of the issues that he got right and wanted to get right. Jeb Bush made a cultural statement that got completely politicized. That was interesting. Again, I’m someone who has benefited from and grew up during the cultural shift that has made LGBT rights inevitable to this county. We are not there yet when it comes to immigrant rights. The culture has not shifted as much as it should. Getting on the cover of Time magazine is certainly a part of that. Making a film that is about undocumented immigrants is a part of that. Given that we have had a decade of immigration reform being wrapped in such political, partisan terms, I think that it’s time that artists and storytellers and culture-makers be front and center when it comes to this issue, which is a civil rights issue. And I cannot wait for the journalistic community to finally wake up when it comes to that.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

After all the traveling I’ve done, I think it’s proven to me more that a new America is definitely emerging. America is gayer—more and more gay people will continue to come out. More women are leaning in however they want to lean. We celebrated this year the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. Next year, we will be celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, championed by the Kennedy brothers, which irrevocably changed this country. That is why this country is as Asian and Latina as it is. That’s why this country looks like it does. The work that we do at Define American is to honor and represent the cultural shift and the birth of this new America. Three years ago when I outed myself in The New York Times, the question we asked is, “How do you define America?” That is the space, that I, as a filmmaker, as an artist, that’s what I want to occupy. In a country that is evolving and changing, demographically, culturally and politically. Not only am I an American journalist, I would like to think that I am an American filmmaker who happens to be of Filipino descent and who happens to be gay.

Documented opens in New York tomorrow at Village East Cinemas, and will be screening in theaters across the country. Watch a short clip from the film here:


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Inmate Dies of Heart Attack After Botched Execution, Oklahoma Postpones Another

Lockett and Warner

Clayton Lockett, left, and Charles Warner (AP Photo/Oklahoma Department of Corrections)

An Oklahoma inmate died of a heart attack Tuesday shortly after a botched execution using an untested combination of lethal injection drugs caused him to writhe and gasp, leading officials to postpone a second execution scheduled for the night.

Clayton D. Lockett, 38, reacted “violently” to the drugs after he was already declared unconscious, “kicking and grimacing” before officials lowered the chamber’s viewing room blinds and halted the execution, according to Tulsa World reporter Ziva Branstetter, who witnessed the process. Lockett was pronounced dead at 7:06 pm of a heart attack, forty-three minutes after the execution began.

“His body started to twitch, he mumbled something I couldn’t understand,” Dean Sanderford, an attorney representing Lockett, told CNN. “The convulsing got worse, it looked like his whole upper body was trying to lift off the gurney. For a minute, there was chaos.”

“His vein exploded,” said Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton, in a statement to reporters. Patton explained that it could not be determined how much of the drugs in the three-drug procedure made it into Lockett’s body. The combination had never before been used in an Oklahoma execution.

Republican Governor Mary Fallin ordered a fourteen-day stay of execution for Charles Warner, another condemned man who was scheduled to die at 8 pm Tuesday. She also called for a review of Oklahoma’s execution procedures “to determine what happened and why during this evening’s execution of Clayton Derrell Lockett.”

Lockett’s botched execution will surely intensify the nationwide debate over death penalty procedures, as states turn to poorly regulated compounding pharmacies to restock dwindling supplies of lethal injection drugs. Attorneys and advocates have warned for months that using drugs from unverified sources could cause inmates to experience cruel and unusual pain during executions. Earlier this year, an Ohio inmate gasped and snorted during a fifteen-minute execution process using an untested drug cocktail, while another Oklahoma inmate declared, “I can feel my whole body burning.”

Oklahoma is one of several states with statutes protecting the anonymity of lethal drug suppliers. Lockett and Warner had both filed appeals to compel the state to reveal its drug source. The state’s Supreme Court granted an indefinite stay of execution last Monday for the two condemned men, pending review of the law. The next day, Governor Fallin issued an executive order saying the state would defy the high court’s ruling and proceed with the executions anyway. And the day after, the state Supreme Court declared the secrecy statute constitutional, overturning a district court ruling, and lifted the stay execution it had granted just two days prior.

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“After weeks of Oklahoma refusing to disclose basic information about the drugs for tonight’s lethal injection procedures, tonight, Clayton Lockett was tortured to death,” said Madeline Cohen, a federal public defender representing Charles Warner. “Until much more is known about tonight’s failed experiment of an execution, no execution can be permitted in Oklahoma.”

Cohen and other attorneys have called for a third-party investigation of Lockett’s death.

“In Oklahoma’s haste to conduct a science experiment on two men behind a veil of secrecy, our state has disgraced itself before the nation and the world,” said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, in a statement.


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