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[Previous entry: "LETTER TO THE EDITOR OF THE SUN MAGAZINE August 9, 2006"] [Next entry: "Belly of the Beast"]

09/22/2006: "Death Row Lessons #1"

I didn't know much about the death penalty nor had I ever heard of a mitigation investigation. Joining an attorney and social worker on a post-conviction investigation changed that. I flew away from my calm studio facing a mountain and immersed myself into a world of testimonies, affidavits and compassion.

This story starts with a boy named Shawn born in New York City. His parents were Barbadian/Bajan, young immigrants in a foreign land. The mother left the baby with the father. The father sent the boy back to Barbados. "Child shifting" is not uncommon especially for immigrants trying to get ahead. Yet, Shawn gets passed around more than usual and eventually lands back with this father and a stepmother in NYC. Shawn has trouble in school. By the age of 15, he is kicked out of the house and in his mid 20's Shawn is part of an armed robbery. He is the "undisputed lookout "in the hold up of a rural convenience store. A clerk is killed. Shawn doesn't pull the trigger, but in North Carolina that doesn't matter because the law says he is part of the crime. He ends up on death row in lockdown with one phone call a year (if no one answers the call it is still counted as the one call), visitors only on the other side of glass, no classes, and about one hour outside his cell a day. The actual shooter gets life without parole. Yet, Shawn didn't kill anyone.

Ten years after Shawn's sentencing, I find myself meeting two women, strangers except for e-mails, faxes and calls, in Barbados to look into the social history of his life. According to a Supreme Court case decided in 2003 called Wiggins v Smith a criminal defendant's attorneys' failure to investigate a client's background and to present evidence of a difficult life history during the sentencing means the defendant wasn't fairly assisted. The attorneys didn't do that for Shawn the first time around. We're looking for mitigating factors, reasons Shawn won't be executed. Life without parole vs. death is the goal for now. One hope too, is that we can prove that he is mentally retarded, because you can't execute someone with an IQ below 70 anymore. The catch is the IQ needs to be assessed at that level when the defendant is less than 18 years of age. Barbados didn't do IQ tests when Shawn was small, bouncing around with multiple adults passing through his life.

"Bad news is good news," Stephanie, Shawn's social worker tells me. She explains that her uncle was murdered when she was 5 years old. What left a lingering impression on her was not the murder, but the fact her family didn't want the murderer to get the death penalty. Not yet 30 years old herself, Stephanie held the hand of a man on death row as he awaited the lethal injection and joined his family at a dinner after his death. She goes into the prisons two-three times a week. Her world, not to mention the world of the clients, is as far from mine as I can possibly fathom. I ask her if she continues to feel a sense of what I call "awe" at her freedom when she leaves the prison each time. She says "yes." I wonder out loud if that when that awe stops, it means burn out, something dangerous to both herself and the men and women she visits with behind glass.

Elaine, the attorney with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, North Carolina has been involved in Shawn's life for over seven years. Her husband also works in this death penalty world as the state's capitol defender. My name was passed onto Elaine, as a filmmaker with a bit of cross-cultural experience and what amounts to about two years of fieldwork, photography and video making in the West Indies.

In preparation for five days of investigating and filming in Barbados, I head to the public library and search the internet to learn what I can about the death penalty. The leading states in executions include Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Missouri and Florida. California, Texas Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio keep the most people on death row. (see Death Penalty Information.). The criminal justice system becomes something starkly different than what my husband and I watch on those dark Alaskan nights when we shift our garage sale easy chairs in front of the monitor, click on the television and watch a crime drama. In one sitting the story progresses, the guilty are caught and the mystery is solved. The reality is nothing so tidy with the death penalty given out wrongly based on everything from sloppy forensics, snitches, deals, the unreliability of eyewitnesses to false confessions and the way juries are selected. The statistics and stories of racial and ethnic bias provoke me to vision the Statue of Liberty lowering her torch in shame. Elaine, patient with my hunger for the story framing Shawn's, tells me if the victim is white, the likelihood of a sentance of death vs. life imprisonment goes up. It is a need for justice in the form she explains that is much more like revenge. The clerk who died the day Shawn took part in the robbery was also, white.

Each morning Elaine and Stephanie wake up in a place most visitors come to laze on the beach, drink rum and relax and instead pull out the laptop, pick up the phone and start planning the day. I'm awed by their devotion and their excitement as we meet family members and learn more about Shawn's life. No tears are held back when a woman, the mistress to Shawn's grandfather, who raised Shawn from when he was about six months to six or seven years, hands us a pile of images of him as a young child. He holds a puppy, poses in front of a Christmas tree, smiles with family members. He looks just remotely like the current image you can find of Shawn on the North Carolina's Department of Corrections list of 167 offenders on death row. What happened in the years between images? What about his family, many of who live in Barbados, with college degrees, professional jobs, families and lives as far from Shawn's as mine? And why didn't the original attorney's on Shawn's case contact his family here?

(to be continued)