2017-05-29 13:19:52 UTC
Death Row Inmates' Last Words: Apologies, Thanks, Defiance----Inmates last
words on Georgia's death row show defiance, apologies and in some cases claims
Georgia inmate J.W. Ledford Jr. used his final moments to quote from the movie
"Cool Hand Luke" and toss out an insult.
"What we have here is a failure to communicate. Some men you just can't reach.
So that's why we have here what we have here today. I am not the failure. You
are the failure to communicate," Ledford said just after 1 a.m. on May 17,
before a lethal dose of the barbiturate pentobarbital began to flow into his
"You can kiss my white trash ass," he added. "I'm just shaking the bush boss,
let's do it."
It was one of the more unusual statements made by a Georgia death row inmate in
the final moments. Strapped to a gurney that's tilted toward the witness seats,
condemned inmates are given two minutes to make a last statement.
Many apologize to the families of their victims or thank their own families,
friends and lawyers for support. Others insist they are innocent or rail
against the justice system that put them there.
Georgia is the rare state that makes audio recordings of condemned inmates'
final statements in the execution chamber.
The Associated Press obtained copies of those recordings through an open
records request. Some inmates chose not to make a final statement in the
Kelly Gissendaner, who was the only woman on Georgia's death row when she was
executed in September 2015, sobbed through apologies to the family of her
husband, Douglas Gissendaner, whom she had conspired to have her lover kill.
Then she sang "Amazing Grace" as the lethal drug flowed, though the microphones
had already been turned off by then.
Troy Davis, who inspired rallies and vigils in multiple countries after his
guilt was questioned, maintained his innocence until the end, insisting from
the gurney in September 2011 that he did not kill off-duty Savannah police
Officer Mark MacPhail.
(source: Associated Press)
A Veteran's Journey 'From Jim Crow, to Death Row, to the Free World'----Moreese
Bickham tells his story through the documentary film "Seven Dates With Death,"
produced by local attorney and activist Joan Cheever.
In 1958, white deputies shot Moreese Bickham, a 41-year old black man, in the
chest on his front porch in Mandeville, La., though he was holding his unloaded
shotgun in the air, in surrender. Fallen to the floor, Bickham loaded the gun
and killed them both.
"It was me or them," he told Joan Cheever, San Antonio author of "Back From the
Dead: One Woman's Search for the Men who Walked off America's Death Row,"
published in 2006.
An all-white jury, after 2 hours of deliberation, found Bickham guilty and
sentenced him to death. After 7 stays of execution during just over 37 years of
incarceration at Angola prison, Bickham was released when the death penalty was
lifted in 1972, the oldest person on death row. He was released from prison in
1996 and died in April, 2016, at age 98.
Through an unlikely chain of events, Cheever produced a 10-minute documentary
about Bickham, "Seven Dates With Death," which is making the rounds at film
festivals and is scheduled for public released at the end of 2017. This week
the film was awarded 1 of 13 certifications by Got Your 6 (military jargon for
"I've got your back") along with the TV crime drama "Criminal Minds," the
Denzel Washington film "Fences," the Ken Burns documentary "The Vietnam War,"
and other content that "normalizes depictions of veterans as leaders and
Got Your 6 consists of a panel of "Hollywood people and veterans," Cheever
said, who work to honor the depiction of veterans as leaders, team builders,
and problem solvers with unique strengths. The current review committee
includes Bruce Cohen, producer of "American Beauty" and "Silver Linings
Playbook"; Bonnie Carroll, president and founder of the Tragedy Assistance
Program for Survivors (TAPS); and Bill Rausch, executive director of Got Your
While "Seven Dates with Death" focuses on Bickham's experience as a death row
inmate, it was the draping of an American flag on his coffin during the final
credits that gave "a positive military dimension to his story," according to a
press release. He served in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Marcus Island from
December 16, 1943 until he was honorably discharged on January 6, 1946.
"I'm really tickled about the Got Your 6 honor because this is Memorial Day
weekend and I come from Military City, U.S.A," Cheever said. "Also, I think one
of the things that got Moreese through those 14 years on death row and 37
'inside' were his faith, but also the discipline of the military. The more I've
been reading about his service [in his papers], I can see it."
Cheever told the Rivard Report that of the 300-plus death row inmates paroled
and released from prison whom she sought out for her book, her favorite was
"There were many wonderful people I met writing the book," she said, "but his
story is so compelling and his attitude was really incredible for someone who
went through so much for a crime that would not have happened had he been white
- to spend 1/2 your life locked up, defending yourself. But he never had any
bitterness at all in 19 years of our friendship. He had 7 dates with the
electric chair, but he survived."
Through Bickham's friendship with Cheever and her family, he and his wife,
Ernestine, visited San Antonio many times as guests in her home from their own
home in Oakland, California and later a small town in Oregon.
"He's fished in the Blanco River and he spoke to classes at UTSA and the
University of the Incarnate Word," Cheever said.
After she arranged a private tour of the Alamo for him, he was made an honorary
Texan and given the flag that flew over the Alamo the day he was there.
Crosspoint, which provides transitional housing for released federal prisoners
on the Eastside, honored their friendship with the Bickham/Cheever Garden
because Bickham loved to garden in prison and shared the produce with inmates
and guards. He also was ordained a Methodist minister while in prison and
earned a GED and certification as an auto mechanic.
The creation of "Seven Dates With Death" was as happenstance as her son
Austin's choice of college - Ithaca College, in upstate New York.
His roommate, a film major named Mike Holland, was interested in social justice
issues and wanted to make a film on capital punishment.
"Austin said, 'Then, you need to talk to my mother.'"
To narrow his focus, Cheever suggested Holland feature Bickham's story, "from
Jim Crow, to death row, to the free world." She believes he succeeded, making a
documentary that in places is hard to watch and in just 10 minutes encapsulates
reams of material, including 8 legal pads of journaling the former inmate gave
her. The film reenacts the shooting, prison life and release, as Bickham
narrates his story. While his Southern accent expresses his persona subtitles
were needed for understandability.
Holland finished the film and graduated from college, but Bickham didn't live
to see it completed. Holland plans to continue making films and see where it
Cheever, her husband Dennis Quinn, and Holland have traveled to 4 film
festivals to present the film, but Cheever always returns to San Antonio by
Tuesday evening. That's when the Chow Train, Cheever's healthy food cart, opens
its windows and feeds the hungry.
Cheever comes from a military family. She is the granddaughter of Col. Charles
E. Cheever Sr. (now deceased), Judge Advocate General for Gen. George S. Patton
with the Third Army (SAT) in World War II. Patton appointed "his lawyer" to be
the supervising prosecutor for the Dachau War Crimes trials and Col. Cheever
was a member of the Nuremberg legal team of prosecutors.
Joan Cheever's father, Lt. Col. Charles E. Cheever Jr. of San Antonio, is a
1949 graduate of West Point and served in the Air Force as a jet fighter
instructor and Air National Guard.
Chase Hawkins corresponded with death row inmate----Jacksonville Catholic held
out hope for his friend before execution
Chase Hawkins, a parishioner at St. Jude Church in Jacksonville, wrote his last
letter to death row inmate Marcel Williams April 20. Williams was executed 4
"I'm not giving up hope. But I know that there is a possibility things may not
go our way. ... Killing, no matter who, no matter why, no matter if they're
guilty or innocent ... killing is always wrong. I also know that the person
reading this today is not the same person who arrived on death row all those
years ago. I think you are a changed man and a good person. I know you are my
friend. I hope you get to read this. Because of timing and the activity this
week, if you do read this, it could be your last letter from me. I'm crying to
think that. And I hope it's not so. I don't regret writing you. I will never
forget you, and you have made a lasting impression on my life. I love you. Have
courage. Have faith. Have hope. "Always your friend, Chase" For more
information about the Death Row Support Project, visit brethren.org/drsp
On April 20, Chase Hawkins sat down as he had countless times for a year to
write to his friend. With the 8 executions planned in Arkansas between April
17-27, losing his pen pal became a frighteningly real possibility.
Since October 2015, Hawkins, 26, a member of St. Jude Church in Jacksonville,
had corresponded with death row inmate Marcel Williams through the Death Row
Support Project, which facilitates communication with those on death row.
"It was late that night, after the execution just happened, I wrote out a
letter to Marcel and I realized it would probably be the last one I would write
and realizing that halfway through I was crying about that," Hawkins said.
"There were moments I had to stop and question about 'I am crying over this
person who did this horrible thing' ... but he was human and someone I came to
Hawkins encouraged Williams to have courage, faith and hope, and that he was
"not giving up hope."
It was the last letter Williams would receive from Hawkins. Williams was
executed April 24 along with Jack Jones, the 1st double execution in the United
States in 17 years.
"I braced myself for it. With Ledell (Lee)'s execution (April 20) I was living
with what was already going to happen to Marcel," Hawkins said. "You still hold
out hope for all these last minute motions."
Williams was convicted in 1997 for the abduction, rape and murder of Stacy
Errickson. He spent the next 20 years in prison.
"You don't end up on death row for petty theft or anything. They've done really
bad things," Hawkins said. "And so it is hard to reconcile that, but as I wrote
Marcel more and more, the person that I was writing to was very different. We
can never know what is in someone's heart, but he was different than the man
that went in there."
A new friendship
A pro-life advocate, Hawkins was compelled to get involved somehow with death
row ministry when he saw a simple, yet powerfully worded sticker in St. Jude
Religious Education Director Paula Price's office: "Who would Jesus execute?"
He wrote to Williams, a Catholic, about twice a week, starting out with
handwritten letters but moving to email. Hawkins, an internal auditor at a
Conway bank, would share about "anything and everything" that he was doing in
When he started, Hawkins did not think for a minute he'd get attached. He was
writing to Williams because "it was the right thing to do."
"It really helped writing Marcel to see a more human side to these people. To
see his interests, his life leading up to this, his fear going into this."
Generally, the correspondence was kept upbeat and hopeful rather than focusing
on the impending reality.
"I remember the last letter I got from him was probably 2 weeks before," his
death, Hawkins said. "It was just a quick note - Hey how are you doing, things
have been really busy here, but I'll write you longer when things settle down,
have a good weekend."
'Let them live'
The fate of Williams' victim, and those of other death row inmates, was no
doubt "horrendous," Hawkins said, adding he would never be angry at the
victim's families for supporting the death penalty.
"I've never seen it as justice so much as revenge, which is, of course, a
normal human emotion we experience, but that should not play into our justice
system. ... I do feel for those victims' families. I can't understand how it
might make them feel better to see that, I don't know how that would bring them
closure, but again it's not something thankfully I've been through," he said.
"To think about the process of having your last meal and sitting in a cell and
being moved to the death chamber where they're going to strap you down to let
people who want to see you die, let them watch. Even though they didn't have
compassion or mercy, their victims suffered immensely, we're taught always to
show compassion and mercy even to the most hardened sinners."
While Hawkins and Williams had discussed meeting at some point, it turned out
to be at a North Little Rock funeral home April 28 during Williams' visitation.
"I did go up and greet 2 females, presumably family ... I went up and said,
'Hi, my name is Chase. I've been writing to Marcel for over a year now. He was
a good man and I'm very sorry and we'll miss him,'" Hawkins said. "It was as
simple as that, but it made me feel better for doing it. It offered me a sense
of closure being able to at least say what little I did to the family."
For now, Hawkins said he is taking a break from writing to death row inmates,
to deal with the emotions of losing his friend.
"People do change. I certainly obviously haven't murdered anybody or anything
along those lines, but I've certainly done things I'm not proud of," Hawkins
said. "I've changed from 5 years ago and I'm just 26 and 20 years on death row
is certainly time enough for people to change. We're certainly not asking to
let them go free - let them live."
Minneapolis art museum to remove gallows-like sculpture
The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis will remove a gallows-like sculpture,
following protests by Native Americans, who say it brings back painful memories
of the mass hanging of 38 Dakota men in 1862.
'Scaffold,' by Los Angeles-based artist Sam Durant, addresses the history of
the death penalty, which according to some local audiences brings in the
reference to a specific event in Minnesota history related to the US-Dakota
War, says a blog of Walker Art Center.
It was set to be unveiled in June, when the museum's Minneapolis Sculpture
Garden reopens after a reconstruction project.
Meanwhile, Walker executive director Olga Viso issued a statement, apologizing
for not anticipating how provocative the work would be. She said she had spoken
with Durant, and he was open to removing the sculpture.
"As director of the Walker, I regret that I did not better anticipate how the
work would be received in Minnesota, especially by Native audiences. I should
have engaged leaders in the Dakota and broader Native communities in advance of
the work's siting, and I apologize for any pain and disappointment that the
sculpture might elicit," she wrote in an open letter.
She, on that note, clarified, "This composite forms what Durant intends as a
critique-"neither memorial nor monument"-that invokes white, governmental power
structures that have controlled and subjugated nations and peoples, especially
communities of color, throughout the history of the US."
Viso further wrote, "Yet despite my and the Walker's earnest intent to raise
understanding and increase awareness of this and other histories in our
American democracy, the work remains problematic in our community in ways that
we did not sufficiently anticipate or imagine. There is no doubt that what we
perceived as a multifaceted argument about capital punishment on a national
level affecting a variety of communities across the US may be read through a
different lens here in Minnesota. We also acknowledge that the artist's intent
to create a work meant "as a space of remembering" may be misread. Because the
structure can serve as a gathering space, which allows visitors to explore it
in un-ceremonial ways, we realize it requires heightened attention and
education in all of our visitor orientation and interpretation."
Adding, "This is a deep learning moment-and will not be the last-for the Walker
and its relationship with Native audiences. I pledge that we will continue to
learn actively, and in public, and to create pathways for listening and
supporting the full range of conversations that this work will engender as they
evolve in the weeks and months ahead."
Vegas Judge Had Long History of Prosecutorial Misconduct
In the legal world,prosecutors are rarely called out by name. Their misconduct
is usually attributed to unidentified prosecutors or the "State" in rulings by
appellate judges. But as a Las Vegas prosecutor, Bill Kephart - now a judge -
achieved a dubious distinction: He was chastised publicly.
The Supreme Court of Nevada took the rare step in 2001 of ordering him to prove
why he shouldn't be sanctioned for his behavior in one of his cases with a fine
or a referral to the state bar for "violation of the Rules of Professional
Conduct." The ruling was disseminated statewide and, in Kephart's own words,
"professionally embarrassed" him. In his response, he wrote that the ruling had
"already had a great impact" on him and promised that there wouldn't be "a bona
fide allegation of prosecutorial misconduct against me in the future." The
justices nevertheless fined him $250.
The Supreme Court's rebuke was particularly notable in Nevada, where the judges
are elected and part of the state's insular legal community. They typically
rule unanimously and seldom come down too hard on prosecutors. As one retired
chief justice put it: "Picking fights with district attorneys might not be the
best thing for [a judge's] career continuation." But Kephart's behavior
challenged that status quo, compelling 1 or more of the justices to issue
dissents in several cases, saying his behavior called for convictions to be
Overall, the Nevada high court has noted prosecutorial misconduct in at least 5
of his cases over a dozen years, not including his actions during the trial of
Fred Steese - who was tried by Kephart for a 1992 murder and ruled innocent 20
years later after exculpatory evidence was found in the prosecution's files. In
the cases in which Kephart is not named, he is the prosecutor whose misconduct
In 1996, the court noted "several instances of prosecutorial misconduct" in a
sexual assault case. The conviction was upheld, but 1 justice dissented, saying
that Kephart had "infected" an already "muddled case" and it warranted
reversal. (In 2001, a judge granted the defendant an evidentiary hearing and he
In 1997, the court reversed the murder convictions of 2 men based entirely on
the "deliberate" and "improper comments" made by the prosecution during cross
examination and closing argument. The DA's office had sought the death penalty,
which in Nevada increases costs by about a 1/2 million dollars on average,
making this and other reversals based on Kephart's behavior expensive screw-ups
for taxpayers. (Both men were retried and convicted again in 1998, 1 sentenced
to life in prison and the other to death.)
In 2001, in the case he was fined $250, the court said Kephart gave the jury a
misleading explanation of the standard for reasonable doubt when he instructed
them: "you have a gut feeling he's guilty, he's guilty." A justice said at a
hearing that the remark seemed "like deliberate misrepresentation." The court
upheld the conviction, but noted that Kephart's "improper remark was
particularly reprehensible because this is a capital case and the remark was
gratuitous and patently inadequate to convey to the jury its duty..."
In 2002, the court took issue with Kephart for assaulting a witness. During the
trial of a sexual assault case, Kephart said he wanted to demonstrate how the
victim said she was choked, pressing his forearm into the defendant's neck
while he was on the stand. The court upheld the verdict, but noted there was
"absolutely no reason" for Kephart's behavior, which went "well beyond the
accepted bounds of permissible advocacy." One justice dissented, saying "the
instances of prosecutorial misconduct were pervasive and substantial...an
accused who takes the stand runs many risks. One of them should not be that the
prosecutor would physically assault him or her."
In 2008, the court tossed out a murder conviction in another death penalty
case, saying, among other issues, the prosecution's misconduct was
"significant" and "occurred throughout the trial," including Kephart's remarks
during jury selection and in closing. One judge dissented, saying the
prosecutorial misconduct and other issues didn't require reversal. (The
defendant eventually pled guilty in 2014.)
In 2002, Kephart prosecuted another highly contested murder case against
Kirstin Lobato, then 19, which has garnered national outcry for the meager and
sometimes contradictory evidence against her. Lobato was recently granted an
evidentiary hearing and is represented by the Innocence Project. This month,
the prosecuting officer for the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline filed
misconduct charges against Kephart for a media interview he gave about the case
last year, in which he said it "was completely justice done." Kephart's
"statements could affect the outcome or impair the fairness of Miss Lobato's
case," according to the formal statement of charges. The statement said Kephart
violated several rules of the judicial code of conduct. He has not yet filed a
Kephart, who joined the DA's office in the early 1990s as a brash young
attorney, once got in a shoving match with a defense attorney. Another time a
judge had to admonish him for repeatedly shaking his head, making faces and
rolling his eyes. His behavior eventually led to minor reprimands from the
Clark County District Attorney's Office, according to several people who worked
with him during that time. In 2002, after Kephart's reasonable-doubt flub, the
entire DA's office had to complete a 2-hour ethics course and continuing legal
education classes, which the deputy district attorneys tagged the "Kephart
CLE." That same year, Kephart was briefly banned from trials. Regardless, he
later became a chief deputy.
Kephart also was called before the state bar for his behavior in Steese's
murder trial, but, according to lawyers at the hearing, his boss made an appeal
on behalf of him and the other prosecutor on the case, and neither was
Kephart declined several requests for comment.
Despite these repeated critiques of his conduct, Kephart was voted onto the
bench in 2010 as a justice of the peace and in 2014 moved to the Eighth
Judicial District Court of Nevada, where he today he presides over civil,
construction and criminal cases.
A service courtesy of Washburn University School of Law www.washburnlaw.edu
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