Saturday, February 09, 2019

Last rites for the condemned

This week the Supreme Court, by the grace of Justice "Balls and Strikes" Roberts, decided they should not make legal abortions completely unavailable in Louisiana. One can only be glad for this unexpected and probably momentary reprieve for women's freedom to control our bodies -- but the report of that case wasn't the Court action which took my breath away.

The conservative five (Roberts rejoining his team on this one) had also voted not to stay the execution of an Alabama death row prisoner, Domineque Ray, because he has waited too long to raise his issue. Justice Elena Kagan explained in dissent:

Under Alabama’s policy, Justice Kagan wrote, “a Christian prisoner may have a minister of his own faith accompany him into the execution chamber to say his last rites.”

“But if an inmate practices a different religion — whether Islam, Judaism or any other — he may not die with a minister of his own faith by his side,” Justice Kagan wrote.

“That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause’s core principle of denominational neutrality,” she added, referring to the clause of the First Amendment that bars the government from favoring one religious denomination over another.

Seems kind of obvious, doesn't it? But apparently the obvious is not good enough when Alabama is set on death.
Anthony Ray Hinton survived nearly 30 years on Alabama's death row trying to convince a racist system that he had nothing to do with the murders for which he was convicted. At great length, and thanks to the Supreme Court on one of its better days, the work of Attorney Bryan Stevenson's Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) forced the state to exonerate him. He tells the story in The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row.

The book is a true tale of horror: local white prosecutors, police, and lawyers needed someone to blame for two brutal murders; Hinton was quite simply the Negro they picked out to convict of crimes that were never really investigated. He had a strong alibi and no provable connection to the murders -- but he'd do as the scapegoat. And so off he was sent to death row at Holman Prison.

And once there, he learned to survive. He learned to survive by learning what the system that sent him away could never envision: that all men, even the many actual murderers who were his only companions, were "not the worst thing we had ever done."

He started a book club among the inmates. They read James Baldwin and Maya Angelou. They yelled to each through the bars. They banged on the bars for hours in acknowledgement when one of them was taken to his death.

Hinton made a friend, one Henry Hays, a white man. Gradually, he figured out that this Henry had been convicted for the 1981 lynching of a black boy in Mobile. (Stevenson's Legacy Museum labels this "the last lynching.") The two men could agree that they both wished their lives had been different. Hinton explains:

Sometimes you need to make a family where you find it, and I knew that to survive I had to make a family of these men and they had to make a family of me. ...

Henry Hays was executed during Hinton's long incarceration:

I could hear that Henry was crying, and my heart broke for him. In the end, none of it mattered. Who you were, what color your skin was, what you had done, whether you showed your victim compassion at the time of his death -- none of it mattered. There was no past and no future on the row. We had only the moment we were in, and when you tried to survive moment to moment, there wasn't the luxury of judgment. Henry was my friend. It wasn't complicated. I would show him compassion, because that is how I was raised ...

At a few minutes before midnight on June 5, I stood at the door of my cell. I took off my shoe, and I started banging on the bars and wire. I wanted Henry to hear me. I wanted him to know he wasn't alone. I knew when they shaved his head, and I knew when the generator kicked on. I banged louder, as did every guy up and down our tier and every tier. ...

One wonders, did the men bang the bars on last Thursday for Domineque Ray, the man the Supremes denied the comfort of the presence of his imam? One imagines they did. EJI makes a plausible claim that Ray's conviction should have been re-examined before the state could take his life -- but this was not to be.
I read Anthony Ray Hinton's story in an audio edition. Highly recommended. This is not the downer you may fear.

1 comment:

Mary said...

Alabama and the fundamentalist religious hold on that state are an embarrassment to Western society and the 21st century.

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