Archive for the ‘death penalty’ Category

It’s spring break here, which means nothing is happening at work. To pass the time, I decided to borrow Vanity Fair‘s “Proust questionnaire” and see what the main character from Ugly and the Beast had to say.


Long suspected of being an enforcer for the Caridad drug cartel, Axyl Witt was convicted of five homicides in 2002, including the murder of a young woman and her unborn child, a case that later led to the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. Witt was sentenced to death for those killings, and has spent six years in H-Unit, Oklahoma’s death row, pending the outcome of appeals. On the eve of his execution, the 33-year old shared his thoughts on friendship, death, and true love.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Not being here waiting to get dead, that’d be a start. I guess a good day would be like a day where you do some work. Nothing too hard, but just so you felt like you’d done something worthwhile. Then come in and have some supper, have a beer, listen to some music, get laid. Not just, you know, getting laid, but being with a girl who’s into me. This girl I know, if I could be with her one last time, that’d make me happy. She knows me and I think she still likes me, which prolly just means she’s crazy.

What is your greatest fear?
Ah shit, I ain’t afraid of much. This stage of the game, I ain’t even all that afraid of dying. Wouldn’t do me no good if I was.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Genghis Khan. He’s a bad motherfucker, right? What’s that supposed to mean anyways? Who I’m like or who I wanna be like?

Which living person do you most admire?
Muhammad Ali. Even though I think he was stupid to change his name. Cassius Clay was a kick-ass name. He’s an old man now, but I like how he didn’t take shit off nobody. He pretty much did what he wanted and everybody else could go hang.

What is the trait you most dislike in yourself?
I dunno. Prolly not the one I’m s’posed to, which is why I’m here. Wish I had a better handle on my temper. Shit gets me riled that I oughta be able to walk away from.

What is the trait you most dislike in others?
I fucking hate backstabbers and people who are two-faced. Folks who say one thing, do another. They act all like they’re your friends, and then turn right around and screw you over.

What is your favorite indulgence?
Uh, sex. And not just ’cause I been locked up in here so long. I like to fuck. Every which way. Shona, the girl I told you about, now she ain’t nothing to look at, downright pug ugly, but she’s crazy in bed. She don’t go for all that romantic bullshit or make me jump through hoops or nothing. A lotta girls got this whole deal, like I gotta figure out what’s the magic word to get them in bed. They act like hookers, like you gotta say the right thing even if it’s a lie, or you gotta do the right thing, or buy ’em something nice. And it’s all about paying them for their trouble. Shona, though, like if I say, “Let’s fuck,” she just shucks outta her clothes and gets in bed. Plus, she’ll try anything and she ain’t ashamed to say what gets her off.

What is your favorite journey?
I like driving, don’t matter where. Just being on the road is good, eating up the highway.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
People who think just ’cause they’re polite or got good manners that they’re good people. These assholes who talk shit about you behind your back, but then they’re all, “Oh, Mr. Witt,” and “thank you,” and “please.” What’s the point?

On what occasion do you lie?
Whenever the hell I need to. I’ll lie to anybody I think don’t need to know about my shit. And that’s most folks these days. Lawyers, shrinks, reporters, cops. I mean, what’s it benefit me to spill my guts?

What do you dislike most about your appearance?
I never had no trouble getting women, so I guess I look alright. Or is that s’posed to be some kinda deal where I tell you how I wish I could pass for white? ‘Cause I don’t give a shit. I guess a few times, mostly when I was in court, I wished I didn’t have these tattoos. People look down on you for that kinda thing.

Which living person do you hate the most?
The most? Oh, fuck, there’s a whole shit-ton a people I’d just as soon shoot as look at. Hard to pick one.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Fuck shit fucking fucked goddamn motherfucking shit. Had a girlfriend once tried to get me to cuss less. Didn’t work out.

What is your greatest regret?
Aw, Christ. For real? I guess I’m supposed to say, ‘I wish I hadn’t killed them people,” but it ain’t like I was killing nice people. A guy like Vince Marquardt, that was a what-do-you-call-it, a fucking public service, me killing him. I wish I’d done better by Shona, that’s about it. Wish I hadn’t let myself get used by people like Anthony Caridad.  There it is, I said his name.  What’s he gonna fucking do to me now?

What or who is the greatest love of your life?
No sense talking about bullshit like that. You know, Shona, she’s worth more than everybody I know put together, and I’d do anything I could for her, but “love of my life” don’t mean shit. If I could still do anything for her, I would, and I guess that’s love.

Which talent would you most like to have?
I wish I was smarter. Maybe I wouldn’t be here if I had more brains.

What is your current state of mind?
Pretty calm. They tried to give me a pill a while ago, guess they thought I’d be feeling antsy, but I don’t really.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I don’t guess I got one. I figure after I’m dead, nobody much is gonna remember me. Except for the folks who want me dead, and the way I see it, they’re headed for disappointment. Killing me ain’t gonna fix whatever’s wrong with them.

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
That’s a dumb fucking question. I don’t really believe in that shit, but probably a dog. Which wouldn’t be too bad. I like dogs okay.

What is your most treasured possession?
Nothing. You looking at everything I own right here. Clothes on my back. Hell, I guess they ain’t even mine. Property of the State of Oklahoma.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Ever reached a point where there wasn’t one person in the whole fucking world who cared if you lived and whole lotta folks who wanted you dead? Yeah. That’s about all I got to say on that.

Where would you like to live?
Just about any place that ain’t Oklahoma or Texas.

What is your favorite occupation?
Same as the other one: fucking. I like to read okay, but give me a choice between a book and pussy, I’ll take pussy every time.

What is your most marked characteristic?
Depends who you talk to. Prosecutor at my trial said I was a dangerous, violent psychopath. I guess I am violent. Dangerous, okay, but I ain’t a psychopath. I been told I’m a smart-ass.

What is the quality you most like in a man?
I like a guy who’s upfront. Don’t jerk you around or stab you in the back.

What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Nice tits and ass. And I like a woman with a soft voice. Somebody you can listen to talk. And I like a woman who’s honest. A girl who ain’t afraid to tell me what’s what. She don’t gotta to tell me what I wanna hear, as long as she don’t bullshit me.

What do you most value in your friends?
When I had ’em, I liked folks who was loyal. People you could trust. Which is why I only got the one friend left, because all the rest of ’em used me like a fucking doormat.

Who are your favorite writers?
I like reading National Geographic. I like Norman Mailer. Stephen King and Elmore Leonard. And the guy who wrote that book Marathon Man, and that other one about the kids who go crazy on the deserted island. Sucks to your ass-mar. I don’t remember his name, but those was both good books. You know what I hate? Books about lawyers and serial killers.

Who is your favorite fictional hero/heroine?
James Bond, ’cause he’s always got shit figured out. He ain’t really a nice guy, but he does okay. And I like the woman in those Alien movies. She’s fucking tough, but it was stupid to go back for the goddamn cat.

Who are your heroes in real life?
Hell, I dunno. Abe Lincoln, I guess. I can’t think of nobody who’s alive.

What is it that you most dislike?
Bullshit. Screwing around, wasting time with bullshit. Just like this. Why’d I gotta sit around for five days, waiting to die? Oughta just walk me outta my cell and take care of it.

How would you like to die?
You trying to piss me off? Not by lethal injection, I’ll tell you what. I wish I was in a state that still had death by firing squad. I’d rather take a bullet than get a fucking needle full of poison. As long as it was a good shot, I’d take that anyways. Better than getting cancer or something.

What is your motto?
Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.

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It’s not unusual to come across the kind of discussion I found on Absolute Write the other day, in which well-meaning writers try to hash out a safe path through the minefield of racial identities.  If you’re a white writer, is the “racial default” in character descriptions necessarily white?  How do you describe characters who are outside that racial default setting without being racist?  Can you write outside your racial default without being racist?  Can you write outside your racial default and still be authentic?  What happens when you step outside the lines that are supposed to define your racial identity?

I’ll admit, it was very late in the game of writing my most recent project that I even contemplated this question.  Maybe I’m a little dense, but it really didn’t occur to me to ask: can a white girl write convincingly in the voice of a black man?  The overriding feeling I had and the one I still have above all others is that the narrator, Axyl, is an Okie like me.  He was born and grew up not thirty miles from where I grew up.  He was raised by the same kind of working class family I was raised by.  He has the same cadence to his speech and the same uncertainty about how far he’s willing to embrace his redneck upbringing.

I don’t pretend that I have a clue what it’s like to be a black man in redneck America, but I have lived as an outsider in a community that should have embraced me, if inclusion were only a matter of race.  I was kicked out of Sunday school and harassed for being an atheist.  Everyone in town knew about my father’s criminal habits and his lengthy stints in prison, and people talked about it, not always behind my back.

Years later, living in rural Japan, I had a taste of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of racial bias.  Dozens of times people got up and moved, when I sat next to them on the bus or train.  I learned to cut my own hair, because I couldn’t find a single barber or hairstylist who was willing to cut gaijin hair.  There were restaurants in my town where I couldn’t be served and stores where the shopkeepers put up the closed sign if they saw me coming.

These feelings are in my narrator’s experience.  After all, isn’t that the job of a writer: to borrow from our own experiences to inhabit the lives of people who don’t exist?  It’s an odd task and one that can’t require the exactness of journalism.  Approximation is all anyone can provide.

The strangest part in all of this is that after a dozen or more people had read the manuscript and offered critiques, the question of my race vs. my narrator’s race came up many times.  The question of my gender vs. my narrator’s gender came up a few times, but oddly enough no one asked me whether I felt comfortable writing as a multiple murderer.  I’ve never killed anyone, but apparently that discrepancy between my life experience and my narrator’s life experience seemed unimportant next to the question of skin color.

I wonder, too, exactly how long the lines between races will stay sharp.  They’re blurring already, and writers and readers are both trying to figure out how that affects their perceptions of characters.  For an interesting observation on the failure of race to color inside the lines, see sci fi writer Tobias Bucknell’s great post on his experience as a “Caribbean writer.”

President ObamaI think about this today, because of all the hubbub in the news about our new president.  Many commentators have remarked that “a black family in the White House changes everything.”   On certain levels, I have no doubt that they’re right.  The Obamas represent a sea change for racial minorities in America.  Barack Obama even gets mentioned in my book, as some successful counterpart to my narrator.  The son of a white woman and a black (and largely absent) father, my narrator is in the same awkward gap Obama has described being in: too black to fit in with white people or too white to fit in with black people.  Neither one nor the other.  Neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm?

As I contemplate the process of querying this book, I am in uncertain waters.  The book, though it has elements of the fantastical in it, doesn’t truly fit with the “urban fantasy” genre.  I have called it “literary fiction with magical realism,” but perhaps it has too much action to suit literary tastes.  It’s perhaps too raw and ugly to consider itself  “commercial fiction with magical realism.”  I find myself looking at agents who represent “multi-cultural” novels, but I always end up with the same question: Am I out of the running for multi-culti because I am so pasty white?  Will my skin color become an issue more than the contents of the book?

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As I  discovered when I started writing my novel about a death row inmate, it’s not possible to write an apolitical story that involves capital punishment.  Either my character was destined to remain unsympathetic, or I was going to make my readers sympathize with a murderer.  I chose the latter and in making my protagonist sympathetic, I found I’d inadvertently crafted an argument against the death penalty.  Perhaps there are people who can simultaneously sympathize with a person and nod approvingly at his execution, but I’m not one of them.  Yes, he’s crass and mostly without remorse and willing to kill again if it suits his purposes, but he is still human.  Painfully human.  Capable of being hurt.  Capable of being healed.  He’s not a monster, as inconvenient as that is.  Many death penalty supporters would like to believe that all murderers are monsters.  That would make killing them easier.  It would relieve us of our ambivalence and our uncertainty.

Having written that failed-to-be-apolitical novel, I find that the topic of the death penalty catches my eye in the news in a way it never did before.  The same is true for my friends and critique group members who read the early drafts.  I receive all kinds of emailed links on death penalty stories.

Associated Press photo of Andre Thomas

Associated Press photo of Andre Thomas

At the Polunsky Unit in Texas, one of the most notorious death rows in America, an inmate plucked out his right eye and ate it.  Under ordinary circumstances, I might cite this story as an example of the degradation of mental health that frequently occurs among segregated death row inmates.  One small detail of this news item forces me to file it under another heading: the frequency with which the mentally ill are convicted of capital crimes.  You see, this isn’t the first time Andre Thomas has done something like this.  In 2004, shortly after he was arrested for killing his wife, his son, and his wife’s infant daughter, he pulled out his other eye, but he did not eat it.  At the time, he was declared to be mentally competent to stand trial.  Now that he’s blinded himself and eaten his own eye, the Texas DOC is reconsidering its stance on whether he’s sane.

While the US is only fifth in the world for number of executions, Texas leads the pack at home, with 26 in 2007.  The other 49 states account for a mere 16 in the same time period.  For a while, it seemed like more states were backing away from the death penalty, but in December, after nearly half a century of rational, sane judicial rulings, New Hampshire has its first death row inmate.

Similarly, in little St. Kitts, they’ve performed their first execution–a hanging–in a decade.

Jamaica, which has had a 20-year hiatus from executions, is currently trying to clear the way to begin performing them again.  More importantly, they are trying to overthrow the Privy Council’s requirement that anyone convicted in a capital case be executed within five years or have their sentences commuted to life.  Essentially, Jamaica would like to go to the double punishment system currently at work in the US.

It doesn’t surprise me.  We are in the midst of a global recession, and for myriad reasons, as people run short of cash they also tend to run short of compassion.  People in poverty can’t afford mercy and as tycoons and swindlers make off with ill-gotten gains, the little people are desperate for even an ephemeral proof of justice.

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You’ll remember Mark Fuhrman from such media frenzies as O.J. Simpson’s trial for murder.  You may also recognize him more readily as the author of a series of sensationalist true-crime novels, but I recently read his book on the death penalty in Oklahoma.  My interest in the book began as practical research for a novel in which the main character is an inmate on Oklahoma’s death row.  It bloomed into a rather lengthy and intense look at my own attitudes toward the death penalty.

In Kansas, the death penalty gets very little play in the media for the simple reason that the state has not executed anyone since the death penalty was declared constitutional again in 1976.  There are nine men on death row in the state, so there is a chance albeit slim that we’ll eventually see our first execution in more than thirty years.

This only strikes me as odd when I consider the proximity of Kansas to Oklahoma, third in executions, behind Texas and Virginia.  Growing up just a few miles from the border between the two states, the difference between the two was indiscernible, and not only because the landscape is uninterrupted.  Yet attitudes toward the death penalty are sharply different.  Even my staunch Republican Kansas relatives are hesitant to militate for more capital convictions or more executions.

Fuhrman’s book, Death and Justice, gets at some of the elements in that difference.  He’s not a lyrical writer by any stretch, but he manages to hint at the way the line between justice and revenge goes grey in Oklahoma politics and society.  It helps that throughout the book he acknowledges his own biases about the death penalty.  If you read much about the way the death penalty is administered in this country, perhaps it won’t surprise you that Mr. Fuhrman experiences a shift in his understanding as he tours Unit H in McAlester, Oklahoma.

Fuhrman goes into the bermed facility convinced that the death penalty can be administered justly, that it serves a valuable purpose, but he leaves shaken.  After considering the conditions the inmates are kept in (Unit H has the dubious distinction of being the only underground death row in America), the judicial routes by which many of the inmates reached that point, and the prolonged waits for execution, his certainty erodes.  He leaves McAlester convinced that the death penalty is a mistake.  The book is a simple but eloquent statement on the dangers of our current system of incarceration and execution.

Flaws in the judicial system cast doubt on guilt and highlight discrimination, and as Fuhrman realizes, even if all the inmates on Unit H are assuredly guilty, they are being punished twice.  As the faulty system struggles to validate convictions, it forces inmates to serve out a prison sentence while they wade through the appeals process.  In some cases, the inmates may serve ten, fifteen, twenty years or more before they are executed.

At the root of it, as Fuhrman’s own shifting attitudes suggest, is America’s ambivalence about the death penalty.  Supporters are quick to proclaim that they have faith in the system and in the rightness of the sentence, but only the most hardline supporters would agree to radically shortening the appeals process.  Most Americans accept the lengthy appeals process as a hedge against something they know is suspect, both morally and judicially.  We have frequently expressed anxieties about executing the innocent, but more deep-seated are our anxieties about executing the guilty.

If we truly had any faith in capital punishment, we would execute the convicted in short order, without consideration for whether the technique is humane.  That we don’t do this is proof we are trying to back away from the very act itself.

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