Thursday, December 4, 2014

Props to Meg Kissinger for sticking with death penalty story

From Texas, Meg Kissinger continues her tenacious reporting on the State of Texas' relentless effort to execute a Wisconsin native with extreme mental illness.

It's not a sign of weakness or misplaced priorities to bring such cases to light.

I witnessed a Texas execution in 1995 when working on a death penalty series for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and in a retrospective story I wrote years later, below, I point you to information there about the inherent flaws in Texas' death penalties practices:
The Capital Times
© Copyright 2006, Madison Newspapers, Inc.
DATE: Saturday, October 07, 2006

BYLINE:  James Rowen


Polling tells us that the Nov. 7 advisory referendum to reinstate Wisconsin's death penalty will pass.

So expect the far right to push for a full-fledged state constitutional amendment legalizing capital punishment and aligning once-progressive Wisconsin with Southern and Western states, where capital punishment is rooted in lynchings.

See "The Rope, the Chair and the Needle: Capital Punishment in Texas, 1923-1990," by James W. Marquart, Sheldon Ekland-Olson, Jonathan R. Sorensen, University of Texas Press, 1993.

Texas leads all U.S. states in death sentences.

That's why, to complete a series on capital punishment for the Milwaukee Journal, I traveled to Texas in 1995 to talk to James Marquart, one of the book's authors, carry out other interviews and witness an execution.

Before I place some of my Texas experience into the Wisconsin debate, let's set aside some irrelevancies that clutter death penalty discussions.

Like the relevancy of the Bible.

Sure, the Old Testament talks about an eye for an eye, but it also proscribes death for drunkenness, gluttony, premarital sex, proselytizing Israelites to convert and gathering wood on the Sabbath.

So unless you want to fill up the world's largest death row with various weekend woodcutters, young lovers and the entire Jews for Jesus movement, let's focus on one real question:

Will putting some murderers to death -- and it will only be some because good lawyering will always save wealthier defendants (three-word reminder: Orenthal James Simpson) -- deter murderers from killing?

And here is where I offer up my Texas experience.

When processing my request to serve as an execution media witness, Texas prison officials suggested I arrive in January 1995, when they were to try something new: two executions on the same day.
With a death penalty proponent taking office as governor -- one George W. Bush -- why not show off their death penalty's smooth operation by gearing it up twice in a day?

So I got myself to Houston, then drove north to the small city of Huntsville, where Texas executes its condemned prisoners inside the fortress-like death house known as "the Walls Unit."

Inside the Walls Unit and at other stops, I interviewed prison employees, academics and several death row prisoners, including the two men headed for what prison officials were calling "the back-to-back."

If you believe that capital punishment deters murders, you'd have thought the extra publicity about "the back-to-back" would have turned potential Texas killers more peace-loving, at least temporarily.

So imagine my surprise when I picked up a newspaper in a Huntsville cafe and saw that a different double execution had knocked the "back-to-back" to the back pages.

Frank Picone, an ex-Houston police officer -- a person trained to uphold the law, mind you -- had murdered his two young sons, shooting one boy with a shotgun as he slept, then drowning the other.

A few days after reading that Picone had turned a nasty custody dispute into his own domestic massacre, I witnessed, on Jan. 31, 1995, another homicide -- the execution of 33-year-old Clifton Russell Jr. in the opening half of "the back-to-back."

At 18, Russell and another teenager, William Battee, were charged with beating a man in Abilene to death and stealing his car.

Russell had pleaded not guilty, but was convicted. After 15 years on death row, and without a single rule infraction, prison officials said, Russell got the injection and moaned when it stopped his heart. His death suggested that lethal injection is not as humane as some proponents believe, though the eye-for-an-eye crowd argues it's not painful enough.

Nevertheless, Texas isn't going to bring back "Old Sparky," though its retired electric chair is displayed prominently in the Texas Prison Museum on Huntsville's downtown square.

And what about William Battee, Russell's co-offender?

Tried separately, Battee pleaded guilty and was incarcerated -- then was released, only to reoffend and return to prison before Russell was executed, prison officials said.

Therein lies another problem with capital punishment: It's not applied uniformly, state-to-state, county-to-county, criminal-to-criminal.

As for Frank Picone -- the ex-cop turned double child killer?

He got life imprisonment.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps Meg Kissinger will finally be awarded a well deserved Pulitzer Prize for her investigation reporting on the mental health crisis in Milwaukee.

dudleysharp said...

Fact checking?

"The attorney general's brief included an affidavit from the state's director of mental health services for the Texas prison system, Dr. Joseph V. Penn, stating that none of the 14 mental health staff who have met with Panetti since 2004 have "identified any clinical signs and symptoms indicating a psychiatric diagnosis or required the need for additional mental health or psychiatric treatment such as psychotropic medications."