Lethal Injustice: Standing Against the Death Penalty and Harsh Punishment
He was a 16-year-old kid when he was brought to the Chicago police station on suspicion of arson murder. He was attached to a ring in the wall, beaten, had his testicles squeezed until he felt as though his head would pop right off his body. The cops told him the torture would stop as soon as he confessed to the Cook County Assistant DA. He refused. He was not allowed to talk to his mother. He was not allowed a lawyer. The torture started again. He confessed.
Mark Clements was labeled a mass murderer. He was labeled mentally retarded. He is one of hundreds of men of color tortured--some with metal rods shoved up their rectums--by Chicago police detectives under the command of Jon Burge. Though Burge has now been sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison, many of the tortured men remain locked up. Clements lost 28 years of his life until he was finally exonerated. Wednesday evening, speaking in the auditorium of the Leavey Library at the University of Southern California--obviously intelligent and in no way developmentally disabled--he said, "If I'd been two years older, they would've thrown me on a gurney." What would have happened then to his accusations of torture? "A dead man can't talk." He recalled, "You sit in prison and you're voiceless because you've been labeled as something that you're not."
Voiceless no more, Clements came to Los Angeles along with Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News and author of Prison Profiteers, and Cameron Sturdevant, a Bay Area activist with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty as part of that organization's national speaking tour.
The event-- Lethal Injustice: Standing Against the Death Penalty and Harsh Punishment -- was moderated by local activist Danielle Heck and sponsored by the USC-campus club of the International Socialist Organization -- which made it very fitting that Wright described "capital punishment" as "those without the capital get the punishment." Or as he put it, the death penalty means "the State can kill you as long as they give you a trial. The State doesn't say your lawyer has to be awake."
Wednesday, March 9th was a fitting date--one celebrated by the handful of students and about 50 community members in attendance -- because earlier that day, Governor Pat Quinn signed into law the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois following years of evidence of wrongful convictions. (California, by contrast, today has more people on death row than any other state and Los Angeles County under D.A. Steve Cooley is, according to Sturdevant, the "death penalty capital.")
Wright sees a direct connection between the death penalty and extreme sentencing. "Once you have the death penalty on the table, everything else pales in comparison," he said and so people don't recognize the injustice of harsh sentences. "In Russia, the maximum sentence is 15 years--left over from Stalin's time. In China, it's 20 years maximum," while in California people are serving life sentences for stealing pizza or videos. In the case I've written about before, there's my friend Duc, serving life for a teenage incident in which not a single person was hurt or injured in any way.
According to Sturdevant, thanks to the Three Strikes law, California prisons now house 40,000 people serving indeterminate sentences that can keep them inside for the rest of their lives. (I do give Cooley credit for saying Three Strikes needs to be reformed.)
Decrying the "two-tiered system of justice," Wright pointed out that while former Alabama governor Don Siegelman has spent millions to defend himself against corruption charges, while he was in office, he put a $400 cap on compensation for court-appointed attorneys representing indigent defendants facing the death penalty. Is it any wonder poor people are inadequately represented in court while being overrepresented in prison and on death row?
Our prison system, said Wright, "is a tool of class war." He thinks some people do belong in prison: "They're sitting in government offices and they're sitting in corporate suites." As for the death penalty, its purpose in his opinion is ideological. He reminded the audience that Bradley Manning now faces a possible death sentence while not a single soldier who committed any of the war crimes revealed by the documents Manning leaked has been charged with a crime.
Sturdevant spoke of his failed efforts to stop the 1996 execution of William Bonin, the notorious "Freeway Killer" who was convicted of the rapes and murders of 14 young men and boys. The crimes were horrific, but Bonin had been victimized by sexual abuse as a child. He was hospitalized in a mental hospital after two tours of active duty in Vietnam but under the Reagan administration policy of deinstitutionalization, Bonin ended up, still mentally ill, on the street. "The State of California was there to kill him," Sturdevant concluded, "but not to provide any help."
Indeed, our prisons have become the very expensive and inhuman substitute for affordable housing, adequate public education, living-wage employment, mental health services, and welfare. And, said Clements, "We're sitting here listening to a government that lies to us saying 'We ain't got no money.'"
Wright cited estimates that from 40-80% of inmates are illiterate or functionally illiterate, but educational programs have been cut. Most of these prisoners will be released at some point and what sort of livelihood are they likely to find? Clements was taking college courses while in prison until, under the Clinton administration, the grants that made this possible were eliminated nationwide. Today, said Wright, Texas is the only state with funding so that prisoners can obtain higher education. Here in California, I'll never forget the struggle Duc went through in prison as state authorities again and again blocked his attempts to finish high school.
"We've had a criminal justice solution to social ills," according to Wright who said that Mario Cuomo, the former New York governor and Democratic icon, took federal funds intended for low-income housing and used the money to build 50,000 prison cells instead.
The speakers stressed that public safety is better served by education, treatment, and rehabilitation rather than prolonged incarceration and State-sanctioned murder.
"We better wake up because we have failed," said Clements. "Where is the love?" He--whose own youth was spent in a cage--today works with youth, the kids who are labeled "out of control" and he warns we have to listen to young people. "A lot of their anger is directed because they have no one to talk to. You got to pat them along to pull them out of the mud."
"We welcome the hard questions," said Sturdevant when an audience member raised the question of victims' families and said if he'd lost a family member to murder, he wouldn't want to see the killer walking down the street.
"I'm sorry if my presence here offends you," said Wright who served 17 years for murder. "Unlike Mark," he acknowledged, "I did it."
But if Paul Wright is a danger today, I believe the only threat he poses is to the continuing injustice of the system.