Friday, June 4, 2010

Cracked? Not So Much

Earlier this tear, Renée Feltz wrote an excellent article for the Texas Observer entitled “Cracked”, wherein she documented the many systematic errors which exist in the process that the State of Texas uses to determine if a condemned inmate is mentally retarded. The piece is an example of investigative reporting at its best: well researched and documented; timely; and as apolitical as possible, given the subject matter. I encourage you to read Cracked in its entirety; I have a feeling that once you do, the Texas Observer will probably find its way onto your browsers favorites list.

As it happens, I actually knew the subject of the article, Daniel Plata. In 2007, we lived one section apart on C-Pod, and so went to adjoining outside rec cages quite often. I have no psychological training beyond PSY101, which certainly does not touch on how to design a rubric for testing the mentally retarded. My observations are, therefore, purely those of a layman, so take them as such. That said, Daniel had real cognitive deficits, which were blatantly obvious to anyone who bothered to pay attention. He was widely known in the Row as “an Atkins case,” in reference to the standard set in Atkins v Virginia. To me, it pushes far, far beyond the limits of credibility that any licensed clinical psychologist would not have noticed in a matter of mere moments that Mr Plata lacked a real understanding of what was going on in the world around him.

I liked Daniel Plata; I should admit that upfront. He was a decent, soft-spoken man, who had the courage to be both Mexican and anti-gang, which is an extremely rare combination around here. He prayed the Rosary several times a day, and when you spoke to him, he earnestly attempted to listen and understand, though he was often embarrassed when he couldn’t grasp the subject matter at hand. His English was not very good, but then again, neither was his Spanish, to be honest with you. My most vivid memory of Plata occurred outside. It was late afternoon, and the moon was out at maybe ¼ phase. He seemed somewhat entranced with it, and eventually I had to ask him what he was thinking about. He jumped a little when I spoke; I think he had honestly forgotten that he was not alone. After a moment of silence, he explained that he didn’t understand “por qué se cambia la luna algunos días” (why the moon changes some days)? I smiled, and tried to explain it to him using only words, but quickly determined that I was going to need to use different tactics. Utilizing what was at hand, I converted the circular drain into the sun, the basketball into the Earth, and a crunched up coke can into the moon. After a few minutes of moving them all around in circles, I succeeded in simultaneously looking like a dumbass to the guys inside (who had no idea what I was doing) and in getting the point across. He was beaming with pleasure, which was pretty contagious. I later learned that he immediately went back to his section and spent the rest of the night explaining his new discovery to anyone who would listen. I was truly overjoyed to learn of Daniels reversed and subsequent life sentence.

When reading an article such as “Cracked,” I think it is tempting to assume that some “good” will inevitably come to pass. How horrible, we think; I’m just glad that someone important will have a chance to do something about this. I’m not sure if such comments constitute simple moral evasion, or maybe just signify a coping mechanism for dealing with a sense of post-modern ennui. Whatever their real significance, my point here is that nobody more “important” than you will ever read “Cracked,” or any article calling for a change to the status quo. As cliché as this quote has become in the years since Ghandi spoke it, you really do have to be the change you want to see in the world. All the rest is wasted time, wasted energy, wasted life.

As good as “Cracked” is, it merely points to the existence of a judicial iceberg. Most of the mentally retarded men here have no such advocate as Ms Feltz, and Dr. Denkowski is not the only “Dr Death” tirelessly working to buttress a weary and corrupt capital punishment scheme. I’d like to add my own two very tarnished cents to Ms Feltz’s exceptional work, and I will do so using the case of Steven Lynn Long #999514.

Mr Long and Mr Platas intellectual motors could be said to race in the same league, but they are very different types of men. Plata was basically a big, happy oaf, sort of like a lost puppy dog willing to follow just about anyone back home. Not so Steven. Looking into his eyes is like seeing an open wound. He has literally been abused by everyone he has ever known, and reading his case file made my heart physically hurt.

As is so often the case when taking a superficial look at capital crimes, the facts seem to cry out for the harshest punishment legally available. It is not my place to excuse or condone or pardon Steven the mistakes he has made in his life. Regardless of what was done to precipitate Mr Long finding himself standing in front of a judge, the courts are supposed to blindly present him with a fair trial, something which absolutely was not done in this case. Not by a long shot. At some point in the future, I may actually break down the mechanics of his trial for you, but for now I want to focus on the issue at hand: that the Lone Star State continues to blatantly disregard both precedent and nationally recognized standards of decency, and that they do so both knowingly and willingly, in order to send mentally retarded men to Death Row.

For starters, here you can read a psychological assessment conducted on Mr Long by Dr Daneen Milam. If you read it, be sure to take it to its bitter conclusion; like a good horror novel, it gets more shocking as it progresses. Dr Daneen’s credentials are clearly laid out in point one and I think it should be patently obvious that she is more than qualified to analyze someone like Mr Long. This is exactly the type of mental health review that should be completed before a trial, not after it.

If the report doesn’t outrage you, then consider this; as a taxpayer, you are ultimately footing the bill for Mr Long’s trial and appeal, neither of which were legal in the first place, and which will ultimately be reversed. Whatever Mr. Long’s sins, the choice to prosecute him for death was made by the District Attorney of Dallas County. You have only him to thank for the waste of several million dollars which ultimately could have been better spent on schools. Mark my words: they will be wasted funds. You can read into that whatever you like; this one is mine.

A few items rapidly came to mind as I read the report. The first was surprise that Steven would agree to display such personal information in a public forum. I had a chance to discuss this with him the other day, when I recreated in F-Sections dayroom. I don’t think he really knew what to make of my questioning his motives, so used to criticism is he. Once he understood that I was not ridiculing him, he admitted that there were a lot of things in the report that were “bad”, but concluded with, “I don’t care what happens to me. What they are doing is wrong. I don’t want the same thing to happen to anyone else.” In case you missed it, this is called empathy, and it is a quality that nobody back here is supposed to be able to manifest. And yet, I keep coming across it in spades. His decision rings a chord one octave lower than Kevin Vargas: a desire to change the world for the better, even at great personal cost.

Another item which struck me upon reading the evaluation was the mountain of information which was not told to the jury. You will see this scathing criticism made by Dr Milam on many occasions. There is really only one way to explain such a plethora of information not being adequately researched and prepared to viewing by the jury: sheer incompetence on the part of Mr Long’s trial counsel (another item I seem to be confronted with on a nearly constant basis). Pay special attention to points ten and thirteen for some egregious examples of this omission of needed data.

There was a total and systematic failure by education officials to correctly identify and address Steven’s needs as a child (see point eleven). Does anyone really doubt the point that if he had received proper special education treatment instead of consistently being “placed” in subsequent grades, that he would not currently live on Death Row? Whatever Mr Long’s ethical failings later in life, we in society clearly turned out backs on him first. One of these days, we are finally going to figure out that the human detritus we toss into the wake of our techno-commercial preoccupations never truly goes away. This living refuse bides its time in shadows and silence, and eventually gets its revenge. Where the devil was the CPS during Steven’s early life, when he was given a 12 pack of beer for his 13th birthday? As I said, it’s enough to make ones heart hurt. Point number twenty-seven literally made me put the report down and do some sets of push-ups, so guilty and angry did I feel to have had this man sentenced to die in my name (I was, after all, still technically a citizen at the time of Steven’s conviction).

The most important factor at present is this: Steven Long has been tested four times now for mental retardation, and in all four tests he scored a 62 or a 63 in the WAIS-III. He erred in exactly the same ways on all four tests, which were administrated over a period of several years. Even an individual with a genius level IQ and eidetic memory could not have clustered his scores so closely. It is statistically impossible that someone with Steven’s IQ could remember exactly how he answered in a test given over 24 months prior, and then replicate these answers to a degree that a professional psychologist might be fooled. This equivalency of scores annihilates the prosecutor’s charge of “malingering”, to state the case in simple terms.

Now, he did what he did. Though Steven regrets many of the choices he has made in life, that is really immaterial from an ethics standpoint. I also do not condone Steven’s behavior on the Row. It is, frankly, inexcusably bad. That, too, is immaterial to the issue of whether he should have been sent here at all. My defense of him is entirely based on principle. What matters going forward is: how are we as a society going to respond to him? Texas has clearly made its choice: keep this man in a 60 square foot cage until the courts can rubber stamp his life into the ground. I feel we should take another path: there are secure prisons where people like Mr Long can live out their lives in a structured and limit-controlled environment. The functions of “Justice” would be served, namely to prevent society from experiencing further harm at Mr Long’s hands. At the same time, we gain the ability to have acted nobly, rather than committing the final act in a long chain of moral evasions. Texas is known nationwide for executing the mentally retarded. (Even the cartoon Family Guy has made direct reference to this fact.) I think that your elected officials believe that this is a non-issue, which bathes them in a terribly poor light, but that is a subject for another day. If you are a Texas resident, and this issue resonates with you, consider writing your State Rep a short email. Tell them that executing the mentally retarded is not an acceptable act in a truly moral society, and that it is past time to bring this wretched practice to an end.

“If everyone howled at every injustice, every act of barbarism, every act of unkindness, then we would be taking the first step toward a real humanity.”

Nelson DeMille.

Photos of Steven Long

If anyone would like to write to Steven his details are:

Steven Lynn Long #999514
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

© Copyright 2010 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved.


Jodee said...

Hi there..I tried to google the story on Steven Long as for some reason I cant open up any of the pages through PDF files that are posted. I couldn't find any information about him or his crime. Is there a link you could send me too please and also can I email Bart at all please? I have sent many letters but I get no replies so wondering if they are even making it through to him. Many thanks....Jodee

Tracey said...

Hi Jodee,

I am not sure why you are unable to open the PDF file on this entry. You can email Thomas (as well as other inmates) via JPAY as long as you know their inmate number