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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

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To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

“A Year of Killing” - A Photographer's Project

Richard Masterson, 43, was killed by lethal injection in Texas. His last meal.
You’ll see food in many of Henry Hargreaves‘s photographs, but the man is no ordinary food photographer. He uses it to create artistic images which are at turns whimsical, poignant, and thought-provoking. Food is his entry point for discussing and thinking about complex issues or ideas — a way to connect with people he feels a literal or metaphorical distance from.

Whether Hargreaves is comparing the feast of a dictator to the meals of his starving people, exploring the actual contents of fast food items, or chronicling the last meal requests of death row inmates, his work feels accessible and personal; almost voyeuristic. Using food as touchstone, it feels much simpler to look at complicated issues that we might normally distance ourselves from.

Recently, Hargreaves returned to the subject of the death penalty for a series called, “A Year Of Killing.” He originally broached the subject a few years ago with his series “No Seconds” — a project that found him taking photos of the last meals of some of history’s most notorious killers. As he looked at the subject a second time, he felt that the first series missed showing people the sheer number of human beings that we execute every single year.

“On average there are 46 people who have been killed every year,” Hargreaves said. “I think that there’s a real feeling that the executions are saved for the worst, most heinous crimes imaginable and they happen once in a blue moon. So I wanted to illustrate that it’s actually a really common, much more common occurrence than you think.”

“A Year of Killing” is a powerful project — sure to stir people emotionally, no matter what they think about the death penalty.

I recently spoke to Hargreaves about his work and the artist offered insight into his motivations, his creative process, and the unique ways he plays with food.

You looked into the lives of these prisoners through their last meals. What kind of feelings did that evoke in you?

When I was a bartender, people would eat at the bar, and you could tell so much about a person and identify with them just by what they ate, what their drinks were. You could pop them into a little box and get a glimpse inside them.

That’s what I felt like with these meals. Suddenly being able to empathize with these prisoners as if they were real people and not just statistics. It’s a really, really sobering thing to be working with. It’s pretty macabre/meditative. It’s food and death, two things that happen to us all.

All the people (who were executed) in 2016, not one of those people could actually could afford their own defense. It was all public defenders who defended those people. And a lot of those public defenders will have like 30 cases a month, and they’re really ill-equipped. The lawyer who defended Ricky Ray Rector didn’t even argue the simple point that he was mentally disabled, and therefore should not be tried for the death penalty. I’ve got a mentally disabled brother, so I’m able to empathize a lot with people who just don’t make choices and decisions that are in line with what we think is normal.

I was also trying to illustrate with the new series that one in ten people who are sentenced to be executed are found to be innocent while on death row, and are exonerated. With that kind of a statistic — that one in ten people who are sentenced end up being innocent — to me, there shouldn’t even be any conversation.

Yeah. And yet, it’s such a polarizing issue in America. Did you find response to the series to be mostly positive or negative?

I found quite a lot of people felt like I was trying to immortalize the prisoners. It did create a lot of emotions. To me, the purpose of any good art is to be able to hold a mirror up towards the viewer, and they can read whatever they want into it.

I wanted to create something that gets people thinking and stirs emotions. I get it, I can see why people thought that I was trying to celebrate these people because I’m focusing on them and not, for instance, their victims. It’s a valid point. But, I was trying to just empathize as people, not condone.

I think once you’re able to see them as people, you’re able to view the system in a different light.

➤ Click here to read the full article (+ photos)

Source: Uproxx, Allison Sanchez, March 13, 2017

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