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Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

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In our Explainer series, Fair Punishment Project lawyers help unpackage some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines - like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine - so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail. We will update our Explainers monthly to keep them current. Read our updated explainer here.
To beat the clock on the expiration of its lethal injection drug supply, this past April, Arkansas tried to execute 8 men over 1 days. The stories told in frantic legal filings and clemency petitions revealed a deeply disturbing picture. Ledell Lee may have had an intellectual disability that rendered him constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty, but he had a spate of bad lawyers who failed to timely present evidence of this claim -…

My death row experience: watching men waiting to die

Texas death row, Polunsky Unit
Texas death row, Polunsky Unit, Livingston,
I was three weeks into life on death row when a killing came calling. Over the course of my twelve years there, I’d eventually see the state kill more than three hundred and fifty men. The first was Warren Bridge, known then as inmate number 668. Warren was white, and tipped the scales at less than 140 pounds. He was only nineteen when he robbed a convenience store and killed the clerk. At thirty-two he’d exhausted his appeals and had an execution date looming. Warren’s execution offered a chance to consider the death penalty not in its abstract form, but in the reality laid painfully bare in front of me. Platitudes retreated at the sight of what was actually happening there on that day. The state was preparing to kill a man.

I didn’t know how I felt about the death penalty at the time. Most people don’t give much thought to capital punishment, and prior to my time on death row, I was among that lot. I never had time to consider the death penalty in its general sense. The moral and economic hang-ups were discussions to be had by policy makers and lawyers. I knew only that I didn’t support it in my case. Advocates suggest that the penalty of death is a deterrent to crime, but I can’t imagine that Warren thought much about the gurney when he decided to rob that store. As they strapped him in and carried him away, he uttered his last words: “I’ll see you.” It was a painful reminder of the inadequacy of final statements for summarizing even the worst-lived human lives.

The soon-to-die were allowed inmate visitors in the hours before their execution. Over the years, a few men chose me as their visitor, based on relationships that I had developed during my time there. Maybe I was a good listener, because I never knew exactly what to say. It was a sort of rapid-fire hospice, counseling men in their last hours and just being a friend. I think my life experiences – having a child at an early age, and not having a father figure in my life, (despite living with both my parents) – equipped me for this odd role as counselor-to-the-condemned. I was twenty-nine years old when I entered death row. What I soon realized was that I had a lot of younger guys around me that the state had sentenced to death. I was quickly thrust into the role of giving this sort of advice because so many of them had come down there and had never heard nor had ever engaged in a positive and constructive conversation.

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Source: Anthony Believes, AG Admin, May 4, 2017. Anthony Charles Graves – known as United States Death Row Exoneree #138, spent 18 ½ years behind bars; 16 of those years in solitary confinement. Mr. Graves spent 12 years of his sentence on death row, and had 2 slated execution dates – for a horrific crime he didn’t commit. Anthony Graves has dedicated his life to educating and empowering his audience thru his amazing story about faith, forgiveness, but equally important accountability. He has been featured on television, radio and on events all around the world creating awareness about the judicial system and inspiring others to make a difference with their lives.


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