On a Tuesday last March, the state of Mississippi executed Larry Matthew Puckett, a 35-year-old man convicted of sexually assaulting and killing his boss’s wife, 28-year-old Rhonda Hatten Griffis, in 1995. Matt, as his family called him, was an Eagle Scout at the time; he had just graduated from high school and was days away from leaving for basic training with the Navy before he was arrested. From the beginning he insisted on his innocence, claiming that his former employer had killed his wife in a rage upon discovering her and Matt together in her mobile home. Although his story contained inconsistencies, there were red flags. Griffis was beaten to death with a club, yet her blood was nowhere to be found on Puckett’s clothes, just on her husband’s. Nor was Puckett’s semen found on her body.
The Mississippi Innocence Project reviewed his case in 2008, primarily due to concerns over the role of one of two now-famously discredited medical examiners whose testimony had sent innocent men to death row. But neither man was central to his case. Nor was there DNA to test. No further inquiry went forward. The courts upheld his conviction.
But Puckett’s family continued to believe him, particularly his mother, Mary. When his lawyers pushed to fight for his sentence to be commuted to life without parole, she recalls, “We always protested and said no, that’s not what we want for him. We want him to come home.”
Mary is petite, with graying blonde hair and blue eyes. Wearing a purple T-shirt, jeans and sandals, she told me her story outside the Texas state capitol in Austin. She and her best friend had driven up that same morning from Englewood, southwest of Houston, to attend the Campaign to End the Death Penalty’s Abolition Weekend, which included the thirteenth annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty on November 3. Organized by a coalition of local and national activists, the march took place on a hot and humid Saturday, just days after the 250th execution carried out under Texas Governor Rick Perry. As different groups set up tables and passed out posters under the trees across from its steps, tourists streamed in and out of the capitol building.
Although Texas is notorious for capital punishment—it has killed almost 500 prisoners since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976—Mississippi has ramped up its executions this year. Puckett was the second of six prisoners killed in 2012 so far. The first was “one of his best friends,” according to Mary, a man named Edwin Hart Turner. “He was a guilty person,” she says, “but he was also mentally ill.” At 18, he had tried to kill himself by putting a rifle in his mouth and pulling the trigger. He survived but was grossly disfigured, often wearing a towel so that people could not see his face. Matt, she said, “was the only person that he trusted.”
Puckett himself spent much of his time on death row writing essays—lucid, first-person reflections, some of which were posted on the website Prisoner Express. One recalls his time in the Boy Scouts and how he overcame his fear of public speaking. Another, “Taking a Stand,” describes a short-lived hunger strike he helped organize among his fellow prisoners at Parchman Penitentiary, in protest of poor living conditions on death row. These ranged from unsanitary plumbing to the fact that the men could only ever wear flip-flops, even on cold days. The protest eventually attracted the attention of the ACLU; In the end, Puckett wrote, “We got pretty much what we wanted, but we didn’t get shoes.”