Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

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…

Racism, the death penalty and Myuran Sukumaran

Myuran Sukumaran (left) and Ben Quilty in Kerobokan's painting workshop
Myuran Sukumaran (left) and Ben Quilty in Kerobokan's painting workshop
How many times will I have to watch as a privileged, white politician pronounces, “We are not a racist country”?

I’m keenly aware that we are a remarkably tolerant and multicultural society. But we have a deep scar of racism that runs thick through our suburbs. And we all know it. Ask an Indigenous person how their day goes. Think of their ancestors being driven off their own land. Think of the hundreds of recorded Indigenous massacre sites across this country, how only a shameful handful are publicly acknowledged.

Raji Sukumaran abandoned her own troubled homeland when her eldest son was a year old. She fled war with her ill husband, from Sri Lanka to London, following a trail of Sri Lankans, all seeking a safer future. London in the ’80s was brutal for the Sukumaran family and within two years Raji was planning to resettle again in Australia. In the last year of her eldest son’s life, I asked him if he’d faced racism as a kid at school in the western suburbs of Sydney. He laughed. Not one day had passed where Myuran Sukumaran did not face racial abuse and physical violence. That realisation was the closest I came to getting a clear insight into the path that led that little boy to his profoundly selfish crime and the final, breathtaking punishment. Never did Myu allow me to talk publicly about his childhood and the barrage of racial abuse that he had become accustomed to as a little boy. Like so many of my friends who’ve faced similar racism as children, they wear it in silence. It’s a part of their history they reconciled themselves to about a decade before they were old enough to vote. As a child, some primordial urge to be happy must allow little people to walk on, head down, through the assault. But the possibility of broken parts of a psyche after such a brutal childhood are, personally, impossible for me to reconcile. And now that my dear friend Myu is dead – executed by the Indonesian state, along with Andrew Chan and six others – it is important for me to air that. He quietly impressed upon me that the decisions he made were his own. He owned them and wanted no excuses offered for his making them. When I began to tweet #boycottbali he phoned me, irritated and anxious, and again asked for me to back off. It was not the Balinese who had made his mistakes. He made his mistakes, he told me. Simple. He blamed no one else for his crimes. Against unimaginable odds, Myu had become a good man.

When faced with the online cruelty of herds of faceless Australian trolls writing about Myu’s fate it was impossible for me not to assume that there was a racial bent to their hatred. At first they seemed so grossly misdirected, until I took into account that thick, ever-present scab of racism. Myu was a brilliantly reformed prisoner. He was honest and loyal, intellectually rigorous, humble and calm. The guards new it; his lawyers knew it; everyone who met Myu knew it.

Many questioned why I stood up for him. I was one of many, although through necessity I became one of the public faces of a community who had relentlessly fought for Myu and Andrew for almost 10 years, including lawyers, teachers, artists, philosophers, journalists and politicians. Why would we stand up for men who had broken the law in another country?

Myuran Sukumaran stands in front of his prize-winning self-portrait.
Myuran Sukumaran stands in front of his prize-winning self-portrait.
I am part of a community who is quite ready to stand up for our beliefs. We are ready to calmly call on other countries to seek compassion, strive for forgiveness and fight for human rights. We should call out bullying and racism in our schools and we should also use our most diplomatic voices to call out injustices in every community, on every continent. My beliefs lie in atheism. The beliefs that bound us in our fight for Myu and Andrew are not solely Christian values. They are fundamental to Buddhist and Islamic beliefs, Hindu, Sikh and Judaist. We weren’t declaring war on Indonesia for our beliefs, but we were standing up, using our voices, clearly and calmly – and if that “affects our relationship” with Indonesia, then so be it. As the world, from my studio, appears to be sliding sideways right now, loud clear voices are a fundamental part of the way out of this bloody mess. Voices are never violent and never threatening if those voices are calling for compassion.

On January 13, 2017, Myu’s exhibition Another Day in Paradise opens at the Campbelltown Arts Centre in Sydney. The arts centre is a short drive from Myu’s primary school and from the high school he attended with Andrew Chan. In prison, Myu was by far the most dedicated student I’ve taught. He was reformed before I met him. Like many of my old mates, Myu was trying to find his place in the world, only he was searching for his calling from inside Kerobokan prison, Denpasar.

Next year it will be 50 years since Australia has committed execution. Ronald Ryan was hanged in Pentridge prison on February 3, 1967. Back then opponents of the abolition screamed that without the vicious deterrent of gallows our society would slide backwards into violent anarchy. In 2016, Iran, America, China, Indonesia and North Korea all carried out executions. I’d suggest that we, 50 years later, are more peaceful than all of them. 2017 is a year for all Australians to stand up against brutality, against violence, against racism and against the death penalty. It is for the most compassionate Australians to sway popular opinion in our region. It is an obligation and it is a responsibility. Internationally, in 2017, we will have the moral high ground, the soapbox, and it should be used. Execution is not a deterrent to young wayward men. No punishment is. But reform is real. Myuran Sukumaran proved it. The exhibition of his brilliant paintings is testament to Myu’s world and to the power of a voice that he worked so hard to create.

Click here to read the full article

Source: The Saturday Paper, Ben Quilty, December 24, 2016

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