PROFESSIONAL-GRADE paint brushes are about 10 inches long, with enough heft to balance in one hand, allowing the artist the control necessary to usher an idea into paint-and-canvas reality.
For more than 20 years, Ndume Olatushani used brushes with handles that were mere stubs. Fearing that a full-length brush could be sharpened into a knife, officials at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tenn., cut them to about a third of their original length. To paint, Olatushani wet magazines and rolled them tightly around the broken ends. Once dry, the hardened pages worked almost as well as regular handles. Olatushani would then prop a canvas on his knee—easels weren’t allowed and his cell barely had space for one anyway—and paint.
The guards didn’t want Olatushani to have a weapon, but he did: The magazine-handled brushes kept him alive, bringing to life the world of his mind decades before he was freed from the monochrome world of prison.
“Art was freedom to me,” Olatushani explained. “I was literally walking in the shadow of death, but I was able to escape into the world I wanted, that I was able to create inside my head. Being able to do that made it possible for me to come through the other end.”
A happy medium
In 1985, after a seven-day trial in which prosecutors withheld evidence, a key witness lied, and an alibi was overlooked, Ndume Olatushani, then known as Erskine Johnson, was convicted of a murder that had been committed two years before. It took the all-white jury less than two hours to sentence him to death.
Thanks to the efforts of lawyers who took on his case pro bono in the ’90s, Olatushani’s death sentence was overturned in 1998. And after nearly 27 years imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, he finally walked away from the Shelby County Jail in Memphis on June 1, 2012.
“The man who bludgeoned Van Treese to death, Justin Sneed, testified that Glossip hired him for the murder. But jurors weren't presented with evidence that Sneed gave contradictory accounts to police about what happened, wrote Sister Helen Prejean, who ministers to prisoners on death row.
Prejean also noted the lack of evidence linking Glossip to the crime.
Glossip's scheduled death will also be the first in Oklahoma since a bitterly divided Supreme Court allowed the use of the drug midazolam in June.
I can’t help but think old William Penn would be proud of Gov. Wolf earlier this year as he made his announcement to halt all executions. Penn was a pacifist and a serious skeptic of capital punishment. His Quaker heritage held that every human being carries the essence of God, and that no one should ever take the life of another, not even the state.
As Pope Francis leads worship on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the heart of Philadelphia, a statue of William Penn will be looking down on him from atop City Hall, and I can’t help but think our Quaker forefather will be smiling — especially as Pope Francis continues to insist that every person carries the image of God in them… and that no one is beyond redemption.
I look forward to the end of the death penalty, and I hope we get one step closer to it as the pope comes to the City of Brotherly Love.
ON A COOL NIGHT in spring 2006, I knelt with a half-dozen friends on the driveway of North Carolina’s maximum-security prison. When officers came to inform us we were trespassing, we asked if they would join us in prayer against the scheduled execution of Willie Brown. Though one officer thanked us for doing what he could not, we were arrested and carried off to the county jail. Willie Brown died early the next morning.
But this isn’t an article about the death penalty.
At the county jail that evening nearly a decade ago, I was fingerprinted, strip-searched, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, and processed into the general population of an overcrowded cell block. When I walked onto the block, I was greeted almost immediately by a 20-something African-American man who asked me, “What the hell are you doing here?” As I summarized the events of the previous evening that had led to my arrest, he decided I was teachable. “You wanna know how I knew you weren’t supposed to be here?” he asked. “’Cause everybody else in here I knew before they got here. We’re all from the same hood.”
“They only kill people like us,” my teacher at the county jail told me that day. “The train that ends at death row starts here.”
Three times in the past month, the Nebraska Legislature voted for a bill to repeal capital punishment and replace it with life without parole. The governor has promised to veto the legislation, and an override vote is looming. Many of the Christian lawmakers made it clear they cast their votes against the death penalty, in part, to promote a whole life ethic.
The leader of the group is Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, a Catholic who put his personal reasons for opposing capital punishment into one easily understood phrase.
“I am pro-life,” he said.
Nebraska lawmakers passed a bill May 20 to abolish the death penalty by a big enough margin to override a threatened veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts.
The measure passed 32-15 in the state’s unicameral Legislature. It would replace the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison.
If lawmakers override the expected veto, Nebraska would become the first conservative state to repeal the death penalty since North Dakota in 1973, the Lincoln Journal Star reports.
After deliberating for 14 hours over the course of three days, a Boston jury of seven women and five men sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 21, to death.
The jury found Tsarnaev did not show remorse for his actions, and they rejected the defense argument that Tsarnaev was brainwashed by his older brother, Tamerlan, who was killed by police shortly after the bombing.
They’re small spaces — sometimes 7 feet wide, 12 feet long. And they’re where some inmates are held, sometimes for days, sometimes for decades.
Religious leaders across the country are speaking out against solitary confinement cells that they say should never be used by juveniles or the mentally ill and rarely by the general prison population.
The debate is taking on new resonance as a Boston jury weighs the death penalty — or a life sentence with 23 hours a day in solitary confinement — for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the convicted Boston Marathon bomber.
Sister Helen Prejean, the Catholic nun and anti-death penalty activist whose story came to fame with the 1995 film Dead Man Walking, took the stand on May 11 in the penalty phase of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial. She said he is “genuinely sorry for what he did,” and told her how he felt about the suffering he caused to the bombing’s victims.
“He said it emphatically,” Prejean said.
“He said no one deserves to suffer like they did.”
News reports about the trial and the jury’s deliberations spark fury online. Tempers rise as commenters express their opinions about what they believe should be Tsarnaev’s fate. For example, when the Catholic bishops stood in front of the courthouse expressing their opposition to the death penalty, many responded with outrage: “He should be made to suffer as much as he made others suffer.” “Let him fry.” “Torture him and then kill him.” Similarly, when Bill and Denise Richard, the parents of the 8-year-old boy killed by the explosion, wrote a letter expressing their desire to take the death penalty off the table, their views provoked ire.
What motivates these different perspectives? Is justice about vengeance, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? Is someone who advocates for life imprisonment soft on crime? Is such a person naïve?
Like many comic book fans, I spent the weekend binging on Daredevil, Marvel’s newest release. The entire first season was created for Netflix, and it dropped in its entirety on Friday. I waited until Saturday night to dig in (longer than some friends of mine), and I was hooked from the opening scene.
It's a scene that opens with Matt Murdock (lawyer-by-day alter ego of the masked vigilante Daredevil) sitting in a confessional. He begins by telling the priest about his father, a boxer who fought harder than his record could ever show. He ends the conversation by asking not for penance, but for future forgiveness — forgiveness for what he’s about to do. “That’s not how this works,” the priest says.
Yet so much of how Murdock as Daredevil works in this latest iteration of the character is how we want it to work. Based closely on Frank Miller’s writing of the character, Daredevil proves to be someone who deals justice unflinchingly. This isn’t someone who hesitates when the situation allows for a grim, overly firm hand. Contrast this with Batman, a character who struggles to commit severe violence even when it seems to be the only option.
A new report by the Equal Justice Initiative documents in horrific detail the nation’s widespread practice of lynching and points to a link between lynching and a practice that persists today: capital punishment.
In the Jim Crow South, lynching declined as officials turned to executions as an alternative method for killing blacks in disproportionate numbers.
This report challenges us to confront our nation’s legacy of racial violence. Sadly, too many Christians were complicit in this violence, which has prompted Christian denominations to apologize and emphasize racial reconciliation. Last week, the Southern Baptist Convention held a two-day race summit in which it urged pastors to do more to diversify their churches.
These are important steps.
But they only mark time if important actions don’t follow.
The National Latino Evangelical Coalition has voted to support repeal of the death penalty, calling it an anti-life practice. Urging their 3,000 congregations to support efforts to end capital punishment across the country, NaLEC joins an increasing number of Christians across the country and internationally who are realizing afresh the moral problems with the death penalty. Most recently Pope Francis went beyond the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church to call the “death penalty inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.”
“After prayer, reflection, and dialog with anti-death penalty organizations like Equal Justice USA,” said Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of NaLEC, in a news release. “we felt compelled to add our voice to this important issue. As Christ followers, we are called to work toward justice for all. And as Latinos, we know too well that justice is not always even-handed.”
On March 20, Pope Francis issued his most forceful call yet to abolish the death penalty, one that seemed to go even beyond current church teaching. Francis’ latest moves could signal a further development in Catholic teaching against capital punishment — and in his relationship with some U.S. Catholics.
“Today the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed,” Francis wrote in a detailed argument to the president of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, based in Madrid.
The pope said capital punishment “contradicts God’s plan for man and society” and “does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance.”
Francis added that executing a prisoner can no longer be justified by a society’s need to defend itself. He addressed two issues prominent in the American context: He declared that the death penalty “loses all legitimacy” because of the possibility of judicial error, and he said “there is no humane way of killing another person.”
Several recent botched executions have given anti-death penalty advocates more ammunition for their arguments.
In his letter, the pontiff also repeated his view, expressed last October, that keeping inmates isolated in maximum security prisons is “a form of torture” and that life sentences are “a hidden death penalty” that should be abolished along with capital punishment.
These are unusually categorical and expansive statements, and they come on the heels of a campaign to abolish the death penalty worldwide, which gained Vatican support at a United Nations meeting in Geneva earlier this month.
In addition, four national Catholic journals from across the ideological spectrum — the National Catholic Reporter; America; Our Sunday Visitor; and the National Catholic Register — earlier this month published an unprecedented joint editorial calling for an end to the death penalty in the U.S. in the wake of those botched executions and increasing doubts about the fairness of the justice system.