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Executing Failure

Brian Stull,
Senior Staff Attorney ,
ACLU Capital Punishment Project
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March 5, 2009

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

Last night, I saw a grown man cry like a baby. He was kin to Kenneth Wayne Morris, executed by the State of Texas yesterday on his 38th birthday. I was on my way from a capital hearing near Dallas to Texas’s death row in Livingston to visit clients. On my way I stopped in Huntsville, where Texas conducts its executions. I had two thoughts when I saw Morris’s relative, crying in grief while standing among a crowd of people protesting Morris’s death outside the walls of the Huntsville unit, the prison that contains Texas’ death chamber.

My first thought was of a story renowned death-penalty lawyer Bryan Stevenson often tells, and my second was of a recent Pew Study concerning prison spending.

I have often heard Stevenson tell about the kind treatment experienced by a client on the day leading up to his execution. In sum, every hour or so, a guard or warden approached the client asking if he needed something: “What would you like for your breakfast today? What would you like for your lunch, dinner, dessert? Would you like to speak with the chaplain? Would you like a telephone call home? Would you like a room where you can meet in private with your family?”

In the hour before his execution, the client remarked:

“Mr. Stevenson, today people have offered to meet my every need. That has never happened to me before. No one asked if I needed anything when my father beat me as a child. No one asked if I needed anything when my family lost its home. No one asked if I needed anything something when my school placed me and other poor African-Americans in special education, even if we could have succeeded in regular classes with a little help. No one asked if I needed anything when I started to run with a gang because it was the only place I could find safety, protection, and acceptance. No one asked if I needed anything when my time in state prison taught me more violence, rather than a skill I could use when I got out.”

As I stood outside the prison last night, I wondered not about how Morris, who is also African-American, was treated on the day of his execution, but about what happened in the years leading up to his capital crime. Stevenson’s story is a familiar one to capital defense attorneys: we see the government pouring extraordinary resources into obtaining and carrying out death sentences after doing next to nothing to help our clients before they become occupants of death row. Not enough is done when they could have been helped or rehabilitated.

A study published by the Pew Center on the States helps to explain the lack of adequate help for our clients earlier in their lives. The study found that the growth in state prison spending, which has quadrupled in the last two decades, outpaces state budget growth in every area except Medicaid – including education, transportation, and public assistance. The study also found that one in 11, or 9.2 percent, of African-Americans are under state correctional control, compared with one in 45 whites, or 2.2 percent. Thus, money that could be used to help disadvantaged African-Americans in need is spent to imprison them. Notably, Morris spent time in state prison before his capital crime.

Ideally, society should encourage and help its people to realize their full God-given potential. At a minimum, it should help youngsters and their families when doing so could prevent them from turning to crime. When society fails in this regard, it simultaneously falls victim to crime and puts one of its own behind bars at state expense. And while prisons do have an appropriate role in incapacitating dangerous criminals, they are equally a place where, all too often, inmates who could be rehabilitated learn, instead, more violence and how to be a better criminal.

Because we fail so dramatically to devote resources to help young people in desperate need, we often end up paying far more later on.

We know Morris had the potential for rehabilitation and redemption: he issued a sincere apology to the victim’s family in his final statement. His capital murder and the execution represent yet another failure of society to help someone who could have been helped as a youth, or rehabilitated in prison.

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