Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Jackie Black "Last meal"

One awfully hot, August day I was driving with two friends around Shelter Island, in search of another studio to visit. We did what’s called Open Studio Tour, and it was brilliant to see interiors of summer houses and studios of some famous and not-so-famous Shelter Island artists. It was our sixteenth studio that day. We got inside and next to the cute pictures of chicken there they were. Twenty-two pictures of last meals of twenty-three individuals, who were tried, convicted and executed in Texas for capital murder. Picture of last meal ; date of execution ; education and occupation of convict and his/hers last statement. When I imagined what last meal could look like, it was always the movie version : bloody steak, whiskey, cigar…and all that I saw were set on plain black backgrounds twenty-two ordinary meals. Fries, pancakes, eggs, cupcakes, pickles, hamburgers even one single apple. Basic stuff that most Americans eat every day, and it’s available absolutely everywhere. One convict refused his last meal and asked for it to be given to homeless person. Request was denied. The idea of last meal itself has always seemed absurd to me. It’s outwardly gracious. Like the sentence of death penalty itself wasn’t enough. The consciousness of your last hour, last quarter, last minute. Consciousness that within definite amount of time your life will be over. Your existence done. And the fact that what’s on that plate will be the last meal that you will ever taste. Don’t get me wrong, I realize that these people deserve to be punished for what they have done. But the awareness of the situation like this is horrifying enough. The tradition of feeding a last meal to the condemned dates back to ancient Greece. No dollar limit is placed on an inmate’s last meal request but food items must be readily available in the prison kitchen. Under Texas prison regulations alcohol and tobacco are denied, even though they are often requested, last meal is served exactly two hours before execution.                                                                                                              
Since 1976 when death penalty was reinstated in the United States, over 1000 men and women have been executed. There are twelve states that do not employ capital punishment. They are Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Vermont. These states don’t have higher homicide rates than states with death penalty. In fact, 10 of 12 have homicide rates below the national average. Texas has executed over 300 men and women since 1976. Far more than any other state and about a third of the country’s total.
Ironically USA has got third (after China and Democratic Republic of Congo) highest record of executions. Next on the list are: Iran 66 ; Egypt 48 ; Belarus 33 ; Taiwan 32 ; Saudi Arabia 29 ( 1998 Amnesty International documented cases. Actual figures are likely to be much higher.)
I reached out to some of my friends for their opinions. I’ve noticed that there were no black-and-white, yes//no answers. Many questions though. What about costs? What about human error? What about racism? What about  serial killers cases?
When it comes to costs of execution, Studies in Florida, North Carolina and Texas show the estimated average cost of an execution to be 2.5 million. The Georgia Department of Corrections states that 18,000 dol. is the cost per year to house an inmate in maximum security. It turns out that the monetary cost of a death penalty case is far higher than a lifetime of incarceration.
No white person has ever been executed in Georgia for the murder of a black victim. Statistics compiled by David Baldus who was barrister in Mcleskey v. Kemp case[1] showed that in 2000 murder cases in Georgia in the 1970s, people charged with killing whites were 4.3 times more likely to get death sentence than those who killed blacks.
What about human error during investigation? David Wayne Stocker’s case[2] exemplifies many of the things that can go wrong :
·         The prosecution’s star witness was paid by a crime - stopper program and had drug charges against him dropped.
·         The district attorney’s investigator and the police gave false testimony.
·         Less then two years after Stocker’s trail his lead attorney surrendered his law license and pleaded guilty to criminal charges.
·         Stocker’s other court – appointed attorney had been a lawyer less then a year.
All of these factors seem to ask, how many prisoners were wrongly convicted? Many reversals haven’t come by virtue of the normal appeals process but through diligent discovery by journalism students, investigative journalists, DNA evidence and through work by experienced attorneys-all avenues that are rarely available to the typical death row inmate. DNA testing has contributed to freeing at least 12 of the wrongly convicted. However, DNA evidence is not always available. Often it is not found at the scene of the crime and therefore not available to exonerate defendants. Sometimes evidence was destroyed after trail.
Jonah Lehrer, in his book How we decide[3] claims that psychopaths are dangerous because they have damaged emotional brains. Areas of the brain responsible for experiencing different emotional states, [if it’s happiness or rage] are not developed properly. They are incapable of experiencing regret, sadness, or joy. “Psychopaths have fundamental emotional disorder” says James Blair, a cognitive psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health “they are missing the primal emotional causes that the rest of us use as guides when making moral decisions”. Neuroscientists are beginning to identify the specific deficits that define the psychopaths brain. According to Lehrer’s research the main problem seems to be a broken amygdala, a brain area responsible for propagating aversive emotions such as fear and anxiety. As a result, psychopaths never feel bad when they make other people feel bad. Aggression doesn’t make them nervous. Brain-imaging studies have demonstrated that human amygdala is activated when a person merely thinks about committing a crime. This emotional void means that psychopaths never learn from their adverse experiences. The absence of emotion makes the most basic moral concepts incomprehensible.
I have found that deep hidden conservative side of me demanding its attention – hey these people murdered, with cold blood, several times. Nothing to be doubt.
Do they deserve to live after what they have done ? Do they deserve to die ? Who are we to play God ?
Twenty-two men, one woman. Small pictures of their faces are placed on each page. Jackie’s black Last meal is a contrast of inhumanity of death penalty and humanity and individuality of those in a death row. One of my friends had written : Justice is a human invention which is in reality rarely achievable, but many will not hesitate to destroy lives demanding it. The only thing I knew for sure after leaving the studio, was I didn’t feel like eating that dinner anymore.

[1]. McCleskey was sentenced  for armed robbery and murder. He was African American; his victim was white Atlanta Police Officer Frank Schlatt.  Warren McCleskey was executed in Georgia's electric chair September 28, 1991.
[2] David Wayne Stoker was convicted of capital murder for the murder of 50-year-old convenience story clerk, David Manrrique, while in the course of committing a robbery. Stoker was convicted on October 26, 1987, and sentenced to death the next day in the 242nd Judicial District Court of Hale County.
[3] Jonah Lehrer, How we decide, 2009.

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