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Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

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The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

In Texas, Death Row Inmates Through the Eyes of a New York Artist

Peter Charlap
Peter Charlap
A supermax prison isn’t the best place to sit for a portrait, but Peter Charlap’s subjects have no other choice.

CHRIS YOUNG, A DEATH ROW INMATE at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, is an avid chess player who can manage multiple games at once without using a board, just by calling out the moves to prisoners in neighboring cells.

Will Speer, another inmate, converted to Judaism in prison and worked tirelessly to get officials to let him wear the Star of David on a chain.

Eugene Broxton, a third inmate, became skilled in the art of origami, sending his creations to people all over the world until the mail room guards began unfolding them before they were sent out, leaving their recipients scratching their heads at flat sheets of colorful paper lined with traces of tiny folds.

“Unless you know how to do it, you can’t fold it back,” says one of those recipients, Peter Charlap, sighing. “So he stopped doing it.”

Over the past few years, Charlap has traveled to Texas to complete a series of five portraits of men on death row at the Polunsky Unit, a supermax prison that houses all of Texas’s male death row inmates—more than 250 of them, each kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day—among its population of several thousand.

An artist and fine arts professor at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, Charlap lives in a state that ruled the death penalty unconstitutional more than a decade ago. To him, Texas is no doubt a bit of a foreign country. But it’s one where, today, he has friends.

Charlap began the first portrait in the series, of Young, in 2010. It took months to get on the prisoner’s visitor list. Inmates are allowed two special four-hour visits per month, speaking through phones across a layer of thick glass. Security doesn’t allow cameras, or even pencils or paper, so Charlap began the sketches of Young back at his hotel room, from memory.

“The first time I went there I remember thinking, how am I going to talk to this person I don’t know for four hours?” Charlap says. But to his surprise, the time flew by. “One of the things that Chris said the first day was, ‘Ask me anything; there are no boundaries.’”


Source: Houstonia, Roxanna Asgarian, April 28, 2016

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