At their January meeting, members of the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement emptied the contents of four red mesh onion sacks onto a square of tables in the center of the meeting room at the S.H.A.P.E. Community Center in Houston where they have been meeting for over 25 years. Out of these bags tumbled the only possessions of Alvin Braziel Jr., who had been executed Dec. 11.
Anxious to talk, Braziel called this reporter around 2:30 p.m. on his execution day. He’d gotten the phone number from Workers World newspaper and had heard it given out over Houston’s Pacifica radio station. He then asked for the number to call the Abolition Movement to speak with Director Deloyd Parker.
Folks gathered to hear this man who would be dead in a few hours. For the next period over a speaker phone, Parker and others at the center talked, prayed together and shared stories with Braziel. When they hung up at 5 p.m., officers walked Braziel to the death chamber where he was legally lynched one hour later.
Although Braziel was allowed five family members or friends to witness the execution, no one was there. Without family or friends to leave his property, he had asked Parker to come to Huntsville and collect his things.
“We went through the bags and found a few prison-issued clothes, a bible and other religious books, letters from friends, commissary receipts, dishes, and food he purchased from the prison commissary — corn chips, jalapenos, giant dill pickles, sardines in Louisiana Hot Sauce and a chemical-laden squeeze tube of spicy cheese,” explained Joanne Gavin. “He must have been a loner because prisoners usually give away their property to others on the row when they leave to be executed.”
Typical of many of the 2,700 people on death rows around the country, Braziel was Black, poor, lacking social skills and with little-to-no family support. Alone on his last day on Earth he got solace speaking with people he had never met, like many of the 25 prisoners executed in 2018.
Death penalty rates continued downward in 2018 as they have over the last decade. Executions and death sentences were down, as was public support for executions.
The Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., is a national nonprofit organization serving the media and the public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment. On its website you can read:
“As the number of sentences and executions held steady at historically low levels, the cases that resulted in new death sentences or executions continued to exemplify systemic concerns about the death penalty. Those executed in 2018 included prisoners with serious mental illness, borderline intellectual disabilities, and childhood trauma or neglect. In many instances, they had given up their rights or had inadequate representation, unresolved claims of innocence, and/or non-unanimous jury sentencing recommendations.
“The geographic isolation of the death penalty was especially stark this year, with more than half the year’s executions taking place in Texas, while the rest of the country conducted a record low number of executions.”
The capital of capital punishment
While death sentences even in Texas were fewer, each of the seven people sentenced to death in Texas in 2018 was a person of color — three African-Americans, three Latinxs and one Asian — as over 70 percent of those sentenced in the last five years have been. A high of 48 people were executed here in 1999, with single digits in nine of the last 10 years.
Washington state’s supreme court ruled in 2018 that capital punishment violated the state’s constitution because it “is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.” Washington became the 20th state to abolish the death penalty.
Both people exonerated off death rows in 2018 were foreign nationals; the DPIC underlined the difficulties noncitizens encounter dealing with the U.S. injustice system. Death row exonerations in the U.S. have risen to 164, including Vicente Benavides Figueroa in California and Clemente Javier Aguirre in Florida.
Lethal drug suppliers’ violations
With the execution process coming under fierce scrutiny in the last few years, some states passed laws to prevent the public from discovering which companies sold them lethal injection drugs. Investigative journalist Chris McDaniel with BuzzFeed News discovered both Texas and Missouri were obtaining drugs from compounding pharmacies with serious safety violations. Unlike regular pharmacies, compounding pharmacies are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. They are accountable to no one. (tinyurl.com/ydgepw2r)
In Missouri, 17 prisoners were executed with drugs from a St. Louis pharmacy that the FDA considered high risk due to numerous health violations, including reselling drugs that had been returned to them by customers.
Buzzfeed’s McDaniel reported that in Houston the Greenpark Compounding Pharmacy’s license has been on probation since November 2016, when the Texas State Board of Pharmacy found that it had compounded the wrong drug for three children, sending one to the emergency room, and forged quality control documents. Texas has imposed 48 violations on Greenpark in the last eight years, including selling out-of-date drugs and unsanitary practices.
Activists with the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement held a press conference and demonstration on Dec. 3 outside Greenpark Pharmacy, generating news coverage and customer outrage.
A continuing “Phone-in Friday” has encouraged activists to make repeated phone calls every Friday to the pharmacy, demanding they stop selling execution drugs, which is a violation of the Code of Ethics for Pharmacists. Their phone number is 713-432-9855 and the owner is Ken Burns.
The compounded drugs Texas uses have caused serious pain and burning sensations to those being executed, as reported by witnesses to the executions. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has called lethal injection “the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake” and noted the “cruel irony that the method that appears most humane may turn out to be our most cruel experiment yet.”
In March 2018, Alabama tried to execute Doyle Lee Hamm, a 61-year-old prisoner with terminal cancer. Prison personnel spent two-and-a-half hours sticking Hamm’s legs, ankles and groin with needles to set up an IV line. The prison finally called off the execution. Hamm said later he was hoping they’d find a usable vein, so the torture would stop. After a legal settlement, no new execution date will be set. (tinyurl.com/y7tnafgt)
As 2019 begins, 18 executions are already scheduled, though some will be stayed, some overturned, some possibly commuted and some rescheduled. These include seven in both Texas and Ohio and four in Tennessee.
In Texas, John King is scheduled to be executed April 24. He is one of three racists who dragged a Black man, James Byrd Jr., to death in Jasper, Texas, in a high-profile case in 1998 that outraged people around the country.
A disaster defined by racism
The death penalty in the U.S. is a disaster defined by the racism inherent in the criminal justice system — from the cops to the prosecutors to the judges. The death penalty is a direct descendant of lynching. More than 8 in 10 people lynched between 1889 and 1918 were lynched in the South, as were more than 8 in 10 of the almost 1,500 executions in the U.S. since 1976, according to the Equal Justice Initiative based in Montgomery, Ala.
African Americans are less than 13 percent of the U.S. population, but 42 percent of the 2,738 people currently on death row and 35 percent of those executed since 1976.
Examine the facts: innocent people being executed, incompetent lawyers, a lack of funding for proper investigations, foreign nationals denied their rights under international law to consult their consulates, people executed despite serious mental illnesses or mental disabilities, prosecutors hiding exculpatory evidence and the use of jailhouse snitches.
Combine these with the pervasive racism and anti-poor bias in all capital cases, and the only fair solution is to abolish the death penalty completely. The Alvin Braziels of this country would live. Governments would save billions, and the families of the accused would not become victims along with their loved ones.
Since 1995, Rubac has been a leader of the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement.