Friday, April 19, 2013

Matters of Life and Death

Set the Lifers Free

By Reginald S. Lewis

They are mostly sickly old cats now. Their noble gait is slower and measured but their minds far more keen and sharply focused.  In the criminal ecology of the underworld they were ruthless Gombas or shrewd Black Mafia Kings cold-eyed bandoleros or former members of some of the baaadest largest fiercest crews in gangdom. Decades spent in the interminable shuttle of one state prison after another has significantly softened their   moods as well as their hardened exteriors

On June 25, 2012 in the companion cases known as Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs the United States Supreme Court held mandatory life imprisonment without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of the crime violates the Eighth Amendments prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Lifers in the state of Pennsylvania collectively believe that the language in these cases (as well as the mandates in the prior U.S. Supreme Court precedents) gives them legal justification to challenge their convictions for First and Second degree murder. If age is clearly not a distinguishing factor in the Pennsylvania murder statute the logic goes that juveniles and adults are in a “single statutory class.” This is because the Equal Protection Clause forbids “age discrimination.”

And we wholeheartedly agree with the dissenters in Miller/Jackson that this “… decision invalidates the laws of dozens of Legislatures and Congress.” For in Graham v. Florida the Supreme Court wisely noted: “The penalty when imposed on a teenager as compared with an older person is therefore the same “… in name only.” The Court observed in Eddings v Oklahoma (1982) that “youth is more than a chronological fact.”

In reaching its conclusion in Miller/Jackson they stated, "This court had not relied on legislative enactments in the same way.” Instead they chose to rely on the scientific findings that a child’s biological and developmental process and maturation is not complete until they reach their mid-twenties. It cannot be ignored that there are studies in the annals of American Psychiatry which are riddled with evidence of mental abnormalities in adults

In U.S. jurisdictions the doctrine of diminished capacity can be offered to make the offender less deserving of a harsher sentence.  In some cases courts have found that due to drugs and intoxication combined with a mental defect a defendant could not form the capacity to maturely and appreciatively reflect on his acts. The court in Miller/Jackson identifies the mitigating factors that can be considered in each case.

Today many reformed lifers serve as mentors to troubled at risk youth We read stories of them raising funds for college scholarships to poor needy students. Most have undergone a most sincere religious conversion that wed them in a beautiful spiritual fellowship with the Creator

Extending mercy and justice and forgiveness to these long forgotten men and women in the wisdom of the Supremes comports with the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.

Reginald Lewis
Reginald S. Lewis is a widely published African-American poet, essayist, and a playwright, recently transferred from Pennsylvania's Death Row to general population after almost three decades in total isolation.  Information about Reggie Lewis's case is posted on He won first prize for poetry in the 1988 PEN American Center Prison Writing Contest. He is the author of two collections of poetry, entitled, Leaving Death Row (Author House, 2000), and Inside My Head, (www.iUniverse 2002). His third book is entitled, Where I'm Writing From: Essays from Pennsylvania's Death Row (Publish America, 2005).

Reginald S. Lewis #AY2902
SCI – Graterford
Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426

The Good Fight

By Donald Ray Young

Proposition 34, the Savings Accountability and Full Enforcement Act, failed by a narrow 52-48 percent split in California in November 2012.  This is just enough to expose the execution chamber, but not enough for us to forget the wise people on the right side of history – the 48 percent.  Death Penalty Focus, American Civil Liberties Union, and Friends Committee on Legislation of California fought the good fight, unified by dedicated organizations, groups and individuals.  To the hundreds of volunteers who collected over 800,000 signatures to put the SAFE Act on the ballot, to the people who graciously sacrificed their time, energy, and treasure, we honor you and your commitment to abolition.  Thank you!

If this were the last bus, we missed it.  We were double-crossed by a faction of our base.  Where there is execution, hope and parole cannot exist.  You are either against capital punishment or for state-sponsored lynching.  It is truly that simple, no matter how confusing obstructionists wish it to be.  A YES vote on Proposition 34 would have abolished capital punishment in California. . . PERMANENTLY!

Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP) lives and exists in every state, with or without capital punishment. The people of California voted in the current Death Penalty (Proposition 7) on November 7, 1978, and now only we, the people of California, can vote it out.  California would have been the first state to abolish capital punishment via the ballot box.  The first rule of abolition is to protect life by eradicating capital punishment.  Only then can we remove LWOP from the equation.  Even parole-eligible lifers are more likely to die in prison than be paroled.  Wake up, California!  Let us dismantle this killing machine . . . or is it too late?

Death row is where innocence takes a final breath.  Capital punishment has never been concerned with morality; it has always been about brutality.  Conscious people know that America has preserved a legal system that puts people to death, even innocent ones.  You do not need to be an expert to understand that killing is wrong and capital punishment must be abolished by any means.  When chattel slavery was abolished in the 19th Century my ancestors were greeted with Black Codes, Exclusionary Laws, Share Cropping, the Convict Lease System, Chain Gangs, Jim Crow Laws, the Ku Klux Klan... and lynching.  They courageously traveled this torturous path for all of humanity.

The death penalty makes killers out of judges, prosecutors, jurors, prison staff, and the people of the state as a whole.   The courts openly admit that the death penalty is racially biased (McKleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279.)   The two major organizations that were opposed to Proposition 34 were The California District Attorneys Association and the California Sheriffs’ Association.  These are the very entities that overwhelm the justice system with police misconduct, dishonest forensic experts, prosecutorial misconduct and false confessions.  Basic math and history tell us that very few if any California death row prisoners will ever see society.  The district attorneys are calling for the immediate execution of the 20 or so who have fully exhausted their appeals.

Justice Thurgood Marshall of the U. S. Supreme Court wrote in his concurring opinion in Furman v. Georgia, the case that abolished the death penalty in the United States in 1972, “If people were familiar with the truth about the death penalty they would want to abolish it.”  In November 2012 the Campaign to End the Death Penalty declared, “After much thoughtful debate, the CEDP board of directors voted not to endorse supporting the SAFE Act.”  The building is on fire.  We are pulling people out of the flames, while attempting to put the fire out.  Instead of assisting us save lives... delusional minds and organizations selected this moment to discuss the adequacy of fire alarms. If you consider yourself an abolitionist but refuse to abolish, the least you can do is step out of the way! We have work to do and it is a matter of life and death.

Abolitionists are obligated to galvanize the base, persuade the undecided, and engage the opposition.  If you are an abolitionist in fact as well as deed and not just in theory, you would have voted YES on Proposition 34.  If you care about human rights, you voted YES on Proposition 34.  If you wanted to save $1 billion over the next five years and create a healthy economy, you voted YES on Proposition 34.  California is 47 out of 50 states in per pupil spending, so if you care about the education of our youth and wanted to spend more on education than on prison, you voted YES on Proposition 34.  If you believe in your heart that the State does not have the right to legally lynch in your name – leaving blood on your hands – you voted YES on Proposition 34.

We fought the good fight!  And it’s not over.  The struggle will never end!

Donald Ray Young

Donald Ray Young is an innocent man erroneously convicted and sentenced to San Quentin’s Death Row in 2006.  Donald is a paralegal with an Associate of Arts degree in Sociology. He hopes to pursue further education, including a law degree that will aid him in achieving his exoneration. His first book is scheduled for release this year, and he blogs at:

Donald Ray Young
E78474 East Block
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA  94974

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