The California Supreme Court is currently reviewing a case in which a juvenile defendant received a sentence of 175 years, which the state attorney general insisted “does not foreclose the possibility that he may one day be eligible for parole.”
As a California appeals court said, it is “Orwellian” to consider such long sentences constitutional simply because they are not labeled “life without parole.” The Supreme Court categorically banned life without parole for juveniles who have not committed homicide because they “are not sufficiently culpable to merit that punishment.” That principle applies to sentences with the same effect. De Facto Life Without Parole, New York Times
The Uncertain Fate of Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Lifers
Nancy Sponeybarger was 21 when she arrived to work as a counselor at Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution at Muncy. The year was 1971. “I was fresh out of college and I thought I was going to change the world,” she says and laughs. “Yeah, right.”
What she found was an overcrowded and dysfunctional women’s prison where, as she describes it, “the ‘women’ were girls—and they were invisible. Staff would talk about them right in front of their faces like they weren’t there.” One deputy warden made it a habit to feed her dog in front of them using the “officers’ china”—as opposed to the cheap plates used by inmates. Worse than such minor humiliations were the major instances of abuse. While Nancy left shortly before the arrival of Trina Garnett, a teenage prisoner who was raped and impregnated by a prison guard, she remembers “other women that had gotten pregnant at Muncy.… That was kind of an occurrence that happened. And people kept it very, very, very quiet.”
Soon after arriving at Muncy, Nancy met Sharon Wiggins, who had been convicted, along with two young men, of robbing a bank and killing a customer in the process. Although she was only 17 at the time of her crime, she was sentenced to death. Two years later, a three-judge panel reduced her sentence to life without parole.
African-American and 5 foot 3, Sharon “was this little, little thing,” Nancy recalls. Yet she stood out as someone who would try to protect her fellow prisoners, particularly those who were younger than her. When she saw something that she felt was wrong, she would not keep quiet. “As a counselor,” Nancy says, “I would say, ‘You need to let this go,’ and she would say, ‘It’s the principle of the thing.’ And you know, my counsel was, ‘The hell with the principle of the thing. This is the system and you need to not get written up!’ ”
“As I got to know her a little bit, she was the one person who always made me feel my humanity,” Nancy says.
Nancy left Muncy in 1976. Today she is retired. Sharon never left. Today, she is 60 years old.
“I visit Sharon every month,” Nancy says. She sends her money to help her get what she needs—which these days, is a lot. “Her health isn’t okay. She’s had heart surgery. She has a stent. She has high blood pressure. She has stomach problems. She’s just, you know, she’s 60. Sharon’s 60. She’s not a kid anymore.”
Read the rest of this article, which I co-authored with Pittsburgh-based journalist Matt Stroud, here.
It’s been a little while.
For months now I have been reluctant to revisit this blog, mainly because it makes me feel guilty for having given up on it, but also because daring to post again will bring with it a sense of obligation to post more. And given my general workload, I can’t really do that right now, at least not in a reasonably consistent way.
(Also, I have a fancy official spot at The Nation, which I am also terrible at maintaining. Because one neglected blog isn’t enough!)
But there’s another reason, a somewhat subconscious one, I think, that has led me to avoid this space, and it has to do with my last post.
The execution of Troy Davis. I can’t even type the words without feeling a powerful rush of sadness and disbelief. With a case so famous, that inspired such a global outcry, and whose central players were so unfathomably dedicated and strong, it feels absurd and self-absorbed to describe it as somehow affecting me personally. But it did. I attended the memorial at Riverside Church, and in the weeks and months that followed, I was still committed to the activism. But when it came to my own writing on the death penalty, something just broke. Words failed.
Almost a year later, I am still wrapping my head around it. There are still moments I have to remind myself that they killed him. I try to picture it, to imagine his body being carried out of the prison, just so that I know it’s real. They actually killed him. After all that.
That night is now a painful blur, but the next night, I was invited to go on TV to talk to Keith Olbermann. And it felt so silly and futile. Troy was dead: what good would it do now? And why me? People were out in the streets protesting his murder. That was where I should be. That was where we all should have been. How could this happen? Why didn’t we do more? Why didn’t I do more?
But in media, I’ve learned, when you’re asked to do these things, you do them. And so I did. I was nervous, but my heart was not in it. It felt preening and self-important. I didn’t want to have a staged, semi-scripted debate about the death penalty. I didn’t want this tragedy reduced to sound bites. I wanted to scream that the state of Georgia had murdered an innocent man. And I wanted to mourn.
"It’s not what you say, it’s how you look!" the make-up woman said that night by way of encouragement. And in a way, she was right. I never watched it, but when they sent me a link, which included a photo from the segment, it was written all over my face.
After that, I just wanted to shut up about it for awhile. I went to the CEDP convention in Texas. We mourned.
Then, a few months later, Martina died. And again, shock and sadness and disbelief. Her number is still in my cell. I wrote something then. But I still have not been able to come to terms with the loss. Not just the human loss. But the epic defeat for those who fought so hard, for so many years, to save Troy’s life. I would never declare victory for the executioners. (And I do believe we will win this fight one day.) But I have spent much of the past year feeling defeated.
That’s not to say I haven’t been working on this in other ways. I have been fortunate to be in a position to assign stories by talented reporters, particularly Jordan Smith of the Austin Chronicle, who has written about Larry Swearingen, Hank Skinner, and Rodney Reed for The Nation. Renee Feltz, another great reporter and longtime death penalty foe, has written for me about Duane Buck. I am soliciting pieces by death penalty lawyers. And so on.
And if you’re reading this, you probably know about my work on a different form of lethal sentencing: juvenile life without parole. I had my first cover story, about a prisoner named Trina Garnett, published earlier this year—a proud moment, further sweetened by a Supreme Court ruling that stands to positively affect her. I plan to follow this issue in my writing.
But I also want to go back to writing about the death penalty, which is the issue that inspired me to do this kind of work in the first place. I just got off the phone with a lawyer whose client faces execution in Texas on Tuesday. And soon, I hope to attend a death penalty trial elsewhere in the South.
One of the most powerful things about hearing Troy Davis in his own words was his insistence that he was not unique; the fight was not about saving his life, but about abolishing the death penalty for everyone. As the one-year anniversary of his execution approaches, I will try to keep this in the forefront of my mind.
The Killing of Troy Davis
If the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has its way, Troy Anthony Davis will be killed by lethal injection at 7 pm on September 21. His body will be carried out of the maximum-security prison in Jackson, the word “homicide” printed on his death certificate—the thirty-fourth US prisoner put to death this year.
The killing of Troy Davis would mark a devastating end to a case that inspired a global mobilization against the death penalty. Davis, 42, has faced execution four times in the past four years for a 1989 murder in Savannah, despite serious doubts about his guilt. His conviction hinged on nine witnesses—no physical evidence linked him to the crime—seven of whom later recanted their testimony. Some described being coerced by police. Others point to a different man—the eighth witness, who first implicated Davis—as the real killer. “If I knew then what I know now,” juror Brenda Forrest said in 2009, “Troy Davis would not be on death row.”
Read the rest at The Nation.
I first wrote about Montell Johnson for AlterNet in 2008, but I’d known about his case for years. His mother, Gloria, was a regular at the annual gathering of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty in Chicago, and every year she would give us an update, then leave straight away to visit him in prison, a long drive she did five days a week.
Montell was sick—very sick. He suffered from multiple sclerosis, a cruel disease that assaults a body’s nervous system and that had ravaged his body while he was behind bars. To his mother, this alone was cause for pain. But worse was the fact that Montell was receiving lethally inadequate medical care. In 2007, a doctor gave him six months to live.
Montell was convicted and sentenced to death in 1999 for the brutal murder of Dorianne Warnsley, a 23-year-old woman who was five months pregnant at the time. Her mother, Terry Hoyt, has long insisted that Montell did not commit the crime. Over the years, Hoyt became one of his most ardent supporters—and a close friend of Gloria’s. “She’s like a sister to me,” she told me on the phone over Thanksgiving three years ago.
The history of Montell’s case is perverse and convoluted (you can read the details here). Serving a life sentence in California, Montell was extradited to Illinois to be tried for Warnsley’s murder on the specific condition that the prosecutors seek—and secure—a death sentence.
"The only purpose for California sending Montell to Illinois was so that Illinois could promise to try him and obtain a death sentence," his attorney, Harold Hirshman, told me in 2008. "They were doing their best to help Montell get killed."
"They" included then-California Governor Pete Wilson, who signed the extradition order. As I wrote for AlterNet, "the agreement even specified what should happen if Johnson’s sentence were to change, stipulating that ‘should the sentence of death received … be vacated or commuted’" then was to be sent back to California “‘to remain in the custody of the California Department of Corrections.’"
In 2003, Montell’s sentence was commuted to 40 years by Illinois Governor George Ryan when he famously emptied the state’s death row. But whether due to error or bureaucratic laziness, Montell stayed where he was. By then he had already been diagnosed with MS. In October 2008, Gov. Rod Blagojevich commuted his sentence to time served, based on his illness. By then, Montell weighed 70 lbs and was paralyzed. He could not talk. He ate through a feeding tube.
His mother thought Montell was coming home and that she could finally provide him with the care he so desperately lacked behind bars. “I just went to church and cried and couldn’t sit still. I just got overjoyed,” she told journalist Jessica Pupovic, who co-authored another piece with me in 2009. “I thought, ‘He’s free! He’s free!’” She started preparing her home, on the South Side of Chicago, for his arrival.
But then she got the news: California wanted Montell back. An “air ambulance company” had already been contacted to arrange the transfer of Johnson to California, an almost inconceivable maneuver given not only his condition, but the state’s obscene—and well publicized—inability to provide adequate healthcare to its prisoners.
Gloria sued. She and Montell’s lawyers have fought the extradition order for years. Appeals to Governor Schwarzenegger—including from Terry Hoyt—went unanswered. The last time I wrote to Harold Hirshman, in January of this year, I asked whether Jerry Brown might change course on the case, he said he was waiting to hear.
This week we got an answer.
"Montell Johnson came home today," read the e-mail from Ted Pearson, a Chicago-based activist who has worked on his case tirelessly. I had heard the news the night before, on a conference call with the CEDP board. But seeing those words in my Inbox made it real. I wrote to Terry Hoyt and today she responded, to me, to Ted, to Harold, and to others.
Gloria called me Saturday and I called yesterday, after he got home…spoke to him on speaker-phone .. Gloria said he was nodding and nodding I am so very thankful, now I feel as though Dorianne and I have received ‘some’ justice. It has been a very long struggle to accomplish him being home with his mother, and I am also truly thankful for all of those who helped, in any and every way…
There is very little to add except to say that Terry and Gloria are two of the most extraordinary people I have ever known and written about. Montell’s story is one of overwhelming injustice in so many ways. But their story—of two mothers who met the day of his trial and who, against all odds, have traveled this road together—leaves me in awe every time.