Marching for the victims of death row

Liliana Segura reports on a march by anti-death penalty activists--including the family members of those on death row--in Texas.

Protesters join in the 13th annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty in Austin, TexasProtesters join in the 13th annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty in Austin, Texas

ON A Tuesday last March, the state of Mississippi executed Larry Matthew Puckett, a 35-year-old man convicted of sexually assaulting and killing his boss' wife, 28-year-old Rhonda Hatten Griffis, in 1995.

Matt, as his family called him, was an Eagle Scout at the time; he had just graduated from high school and was days away from leaving for basic training with the Navy before he was arrested. From the beginning, he insisted on his innocence, claiming that his former employer had killed his wife in a rage upon discovering her and Matt together in her mobile home. Although his story contained inconsistencies, there were red flags. Griffis was beaten to death with a club, yet her blood was nowhere to be found on Puckett's clothes, just on her husband's. Nor was Puckett's semen found on her body.

The Mississippi Innocence Project reviewed his case in 2008, primarily due to concerns over the role of one of two now famously discredited medical examiners whose testimony had sent innocent men to death row. But neither man was central to his case. Nor was there DNA to test. No further inquiry went forward. The courts upheld his conviction.

But Puckett's family continued to believe him, particularly his mother, Mary. When his lawyers pushed to fight for his sentence to be commuted to life without parole, she recalls, "We always protested and said no, that's not what we want for him. We want him to come home."

Mary is petite, with graying blonde hair and blue eyes. Wearing a purple T-shirt, jeans and sandals, she told me her story outside the Texas state capitol in Austin. She and her best friend had driven up that same morning from Englewood, southwest of Houston, to attend the Campaign to End the Death Penalty's Abolition Weekend, which included the 13th annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty on November 3.

Organized by a coalition of local and national activists, the march took place on a hot and humid Saturday, just days after the 250th execution carried out under Texas Gov. Rick Perry. As different groups set up tables and passed out posters under the trees across from its steps, tourists streamed in and out of the capitol building.

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ALTHOUGH TEXAS is notorious for capital punishment--it has killed almost 500 prisoners since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976--Mississippi has ramped up its executions this year. Puckett was the second of six prisoners killed in 2012 so far. The first was "one of his best friends," according to Mary, a man named Edwin Hart Turner. "He was a guilty person," she says, "but he was also mentally ill."

At 18, he had tried to kill himself by putting a rifle in his mouth and pulling the trigger. He survived but was grossly disfigured, often wearing a towel so that people could not see his face. Matt, she said, "was the only person that he trusted."

Puckett himself spent much of his time on death row writing essays--lucid, first-person reflections, some of which were posted on the website Prisoner Express. One recalls his time in the Boy Scouts and how he overcame his fear of public speaking.

Another, "Taking a Stand," describes a short-lived hunger strike he helped organize among his fellow prisoners at Parchman Penitentiary, in protest of poor living conditions on death row. These ranged from unsanitary plumbing to the fact that the men could only ever wear flip-flops, even on cold days. The protest eventually attracted the attention of the ACLU. In the end, Puckett wrote, "We got pretty much what we wanted, but we didn't get shoes."

As her son's execution date neared, Mary created a Change.org petition to save his life, attracting thousands of signatures. "We just thought we would bring him home one day," Mary says. Instead, the Department of Corrections returned his lifeless body.

Describing the night her son was killed, Mary's expression twists into a combination of pain and disgust. After a final two-hour visit, through Plexiglas, with guards looking on, her family left him one last time. As they prepared to drive away, Mary says, a guard told them, "You all are gonna have to leave the property, 'cause the victim's family's coming in--and we don't want them to have to look at you today."

It was a humiliating coda to another exchange, when her son first went to death row. When she asked an official when she might get a contact visit, "the lady said, 'Oh you can't ever do that. You don't get to touch him until they're getting ready to kill him.'" That was sixteen years ago, and she never did.

It's not uncommon to hear descriptions of contemptuous treatment from relatives of death row prisoners. The stigma of having a loved one sentenced to die can bring a paralyzing loneliness--one that makes it hard to find strength in numbers. Though the march has varied in size over time--this year it drew a few hundred people--for those with such a personal connection to the death penalty, the community it represents is a lifeline, no matter how small.

"It's most definitely needed," says Mary. Today she's working with a group called the ELLA Foundation to bring more anti-death penalty organizing to Mississippi, the kind she could have used over the years she tried to advocate for her son. While she connected to a number of activists through Facebook in the months leading up to his death, "We didn't really have a group to support us as a family. Our family supported each other." A group called Mississippians Educating for Smart Justice backed her, she says, "it took a long time."

Plus, she adds, "our lawyers didn't encourage us to reach out to anybody, because [Matt's] case was still active. As long as we had a case pending in court, they felt that we might jeopardize him if we did advocate for him. Now I realize that's just not true."

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NOBODY KNOWS that better than Lawrence Foster, the grandfather of Kenneth Foster Jr. With a broad smile and wearing a blue dress shirt and clean Converse sneakers, the 85-year-old Mr. Foster had driven to Austin from San Antonio. In 2007, his grandson came within an hour and a half of execution before winning the rarest of commutations from Governor Perry.

It was a stunning victory for a grassroots coalition--spearheaded by the Campaign to End the Death Penalty--that succeeded in publicizing the egregious excesses of Texas's Law of Parties, an overly broad felony murder statute that has sent many to death row. (In Kenneth's case, he had been the driver during a series of robberies and was 80 feet away in a car when his accomplice shot his victim. The triggerman, Maurecio Brown, was executed in 2006.)

"If it was not for this [organizing], Kenneth would have been executed in 2007," Mr. Foster says firmly. "There was no individual that could have saved him. This is why we are here now. We are committed against the death penalty."

The march began at the capitol, passing the shops and restaurants along Austin's Congress Avenue, and pausing in front of Governor Perry's house. Marchers carried signs remembering Cameron Todd Willingham and Carlos DeLuna, two men whose innocence became all but certain only after they were dead and buried.

"If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent's name would be shouted from the rooftops," Judge Anthony Scalia said in 2006, dismissing the notion that innocent people have been killed by the state. More than a year after the execution of Troy Davis, a man whose case led to the rallying cry "Innocence matters," activists continue to shout their names.

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INNOCENCE DOES matter. But so do the guilty, who represent the majority of people on death row. Exonerations may continue to help turn the tide of public opinion against executions, but as Mary Puckett knows too well, they are not enough.

Texas proves this again and again: less than two weeks after the march, Preston Hughes was executed, despite evidence he was framed by police. The abolitionist movement's most important (and challenging) task going forward will be to convince Americans that the death penalty is wrong for all people, even those that commit terrible crimes.

After the march, an African American woman named Barbara Lewis, wearing a purple skirt and black boots, took the mic to address the crowd. Just one year ago, in the fall of 2011, she feared her son's execution was a foregone conclusion. Robert Gattis had been convicted of killing his girlfriend in Delaware in 1990. He had no innocence claim. He had committed the crime. He had faced execution several times. Like Mary's son, his mother was his primary advocate. Barbara, too, has lost members of her family to murder, too. But she is not what death penalty supporters think of when they talk about "victims' family."

Barbara never gave up, working with local activists to publicize Robert's case before he was scheduled to die in January of this year. A petition described how the jury never heard about the brutal and systemic sexual abuse he endured as a child, which was described by once expert as "catastrophic." It described how during his years on death row he showed consistent remorse for his crime, maintained his relationship with his two sons and mentored other prisoners on death row, as described by guards themselves. "The act of clemency is recognition that even among the condemned there are those who need not be removed from the human community," it read.

On January 17, three days before Robert was scheduled to die, Delaware Governor Jack Markell granted clemency, sparing his life, and commuting his sentence to life without parole. In the process, he gave Barbara a second lease on hers. With her son off death row, today she is fighting for other people's sons.

"Texas, I am your sister..." Barbara said. "I represent hope."

First published at TheNation.com.