In Memory of Darryl Hunt

I am saddened to learn of the death of Darryl Hunt.  On Sunday, he was found dead, slumped over in his car in a shopping center parking lot in Winston-Salem, NC.  The immediate cause of his death has not yet been released, but who can doubt what lies at the root of the cause — state-induced trauma.

In 1984, Darryl was accused and convicted of a murder and rape that he did not commit.  Despite the lack of any credible evidence, Darryl spent almost 20 years in prison for these crimes.  The State of North Carolina sought a death sentence but fell short of its goal; a good thing since Darryl would likely have been executed by the time DNA and a subsequent confession by the killer proved, to even the most ardent doubters, that Darryl was indeed actually innocent.  His journey of injustice is captured in the documentary The Trials of Darryl Hunt.

As a young lawyer, I observed Darryl’s numerous loses in court from a distance.  I knew his appellate attorneys and saw them build a stronger and stronger legal case showing that an innocent man had been wrongfully convicted.  I felt their — and my — hopes for justice rise at each stage of review, only to have judge after judge deny relief.   A DNA test exonerated Darryl of the rape in 1994, yet his request for a new trial was denied.  It would be another 10 years, when the actual killer was identified, before a judge would order a new trial and, ultimately, release.

I was fortunate to cross paths with Darryl a few times after his release.  He was always humble, polite and giving.  When I invited him to speak to my small Access to Justice class at Charlotte School of Law, he was glad to do so, despite requiring a long drive at night.   As he had done for so many others, he showed my students and me amazing grace in the face of extraordinary loss.  His peaceful presence and advocacy for others after prison stands as a testament to how forgiveness is a much more desirable path than anger and resentment.

Nonetheless, no man can be carefree after losing 20 years of freedom because of racial bias and institutional arrogance, waiting day after day for those in power to hear his pleas of innocence.  The stress Darryl suffered in prison, and then the stress suffered adjusting to the “real” world, must have taken an extreme toll on his body and mind.  I am not surprised to learn that he suffered from both cancer and depression.   Perhaps he was living under a death sentence after all.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Depression Kills Redux

The suicide of Robin Williams brings to mind how tragic severe depression is, how it impairs rationality and concern for others, and how it takes so many people from the families and friends that love them.  For me it brings back memories of most of the death row inmates I have known, their families and their victims.

In January 2013, I blogged about a death row inmate, David Lawson , who suffered most of his life from severe depression (pasted below).  David was executed despite that significant evidence of severe depression at the time of his crime was withheld from the sentencing jury and that the trial attorneys allowed David to testify that he wanted to be executed, one more suicidal plea of a mentally ill man.

May Robin Williams’ death improve the conversations about and availability of treatments for depression.

____________

Even as I began death work, executions seemed a distant possibility, events that could be stopped. Then came David Lawson. By early 1994, the real possibility of his execution began to sink in.

 

David was represented by two lawyers in my office: Marshall Dayan and Jim Moreno. Marshall, a long time death penalty activist in The South, had represented David since 1988; they had grown very close. Jim, a hippie from The North, joined the Resource Center at the same time I had. Jim and I had become like brother and sister, protective of one another in the strange death penalty landscape new to us both.

 

David had shot a man and his father during a home burglary gone bad, some fourteen years earlier. The father lived; the son did not. David was suffering from severe depression at the time of his crimes, something that was not revealed at David’s trial. Indeed, none of his extensive mitigating social and psychological history was presented. Rather, the only witness presented at trial was at the sentencing hearing. That witness was David himself. The sole purpose of his testimony was to let the jury know that David wanted to die.

 

Questioned by his own attorney, David was first asked about his criminal record. It was minimal “two cases of breaking and entering some years ago in Stanly County.” He also admitted that he had assisted the State “involving some criminal matters in Stanly County some years ago.” Then David’s attorney got to the heart of the matter:

Q: At this time would you tell the jury what your request is regarding their decision?

A: I’d like the death penalty.

Q: Would you care to tell us why you want the death penalty?

A: To be locked up in prison for something I did not do, is truly cruel and inhuman. I didn’t do it. I don’t care what anybody says. I’m innocent. That to be put in prison for life, that’s not right. You think I done it, gas me. [David was not innocent but knew saying so would really piss off the jury. He did not want to risk them having any pity for him.]

Q: And you’re–you know what you’re asking?

A: Yes, sir.

Q: You know it’s my responsibility to try to save your life?

A: Yes, sir.

Q: That’s all.

Lawson v. Dixon, 3 F.3d 743 (1993). The jury granted David his wish and sentenced him to death.

 

Fourteen years later, on Feb. 28, 1994, in a dissenting opinion from a US Supreme Court Order denying review of David’s case, Justice Harry Blackmun described his concern about what happened at trial.

At the time of his trial, the record suggested that David Lawson suffered “significant psychopathology,” anxiety, depression, hostility, and a likelihood of deficient impulse control. He generally lacked the ability to communicate with his attorney or to understand the nature and seriousness of the charges against him. He thought of suicide and once had attempted it. It is hardly surprising that he told his sentencing jury: “You think I done it, gas me.” Lawson’s counsel, taking his cues from Lawson, neither investigated nor presented any evidence of his client’s mental problems, which might have established statutory and nonstatutory mitigation, which, in turn, might have meant the difference between life and death.

Without deciding the merits of these claims, I conclude that they cast considerable doubt on the reliability and constitutionality of Lawson’s sentence of death.

Lawson v. Dixon, 510 U.S. 1171 (1994).

When the Bell Tolls

David Lawson
David Lawson

Very often, those who kill in the depths of a depression become very different people when they receive treatment in prison. In a sense, they become the people they were meant to be. Such was the case with David Lawson.

I got to know David through Marshall and Jim, reading their briefs and listening to their stories. They, and others who came in contact with David, spoke of his deep remorse and concern for others. He sounded insightful, even philosophical. David was much more human than the horrific acts he committed fourteen years earlier might suggest.

One of the travesties of justice with our death penalty system is that we execute people who are no longer the same persons they were at the time of their crimes or even the same persons that a jury of twelve decided should be put to death. For the attorneys representing such prisoners on appeal, this transformation makes it easier to fight for life, but it makes the defeats excruciatingly difficult.

David had had numerous execution dates. When the US Supreme Court denied review of his federal petition in February 1994, we knew to expect another date. We also knew that this date could stick.

On Friday, April 11, Marshall received a letter from the warden of Central Prison. Never a good omen. Word spread quickly through our office suite, and we gathered in Marshall’s office. “An execution date has been set in David’s case,” Marshall said somberly. “It is June 14th.”

What do you say to someone who receives notice of the exact day and time that their client and friend will likely be killed? “I’m sorry,” is all I could come up with. Marshall was closing down his computer and putting some books in his satchel. “I am going to see David,” he announced. We all just stood there, as Marshall slid by us and out the door. Jim was close behind.

Depression Kills

Even as I began death work, executions seemed a distant possibility, events that could be stopped. Then came David Lawson. By early 1994, the real possibility of his execution began to sink in.

David was represented by two lawyers in my office: Marshall Dayan and Jim Moreno. Marshall, a long time death penalty activist in The South, had represented David since 1988; they had grown very close. Jim, a hippie from The North, joined the Resource Center at the same time I had. Jim and I had become like brother and sister, protective of one another in the strange death penalty landscape new to us both.

David had shot a man and his father during a home burglary gone bad, some fourteen years earlier. The father lived; the son did not. David was suffering from severe depression at the time of his crimes, something that was not revealed at David’s trial. Indeed, none of his extensive mitigating social and psychological history was presented. Rather, the only witness presented at trial was at the sentencing hearing. That witness was David himself. The sole purpose of his testimony was to let the jury know that David wanted to die.

Questioned by his own attorney, David was first asked about his criminal record. It was minimal “two cases of breaking and entering some years ago in Stanly County.” He also admitted that he had assisted the State “involving some criminal matters in Stanly County some years ago.” Then David’s attorney got to the heart of the matter:

Q: At this time would you tell the jury what your request is regarding their decision?

A: I’d like the death penalty.

Q: Would you care to tell us why you want the death penalty?

A: To be locked up in prison for something I did not do, is truly cruel and inhuman. I didn’t do it. I don’t care what anybody says. I’m innocent. That to be put in prison for life, that’s not right. You think I done it, gas me. [David was not innocent but knew saying so would really piss off the jury. He did not want to risk them having any pity for him.]

Q: And you’re–you know what you’re asking?

A: Yes, sir.

Q: You know it’s my responsibility to try to save your life?

A: Yes, sir.

Q: That’s all.

Lawson v. Dixon, 3 F.3d 743 (1993). The jury granted David his wish and sentenced him to death.

Fourteen years later, on Feb. 28, 1994, in a dissenting opinion from a US Supreme Court Order denying review of David’s case, Justice Harry Blackmun described his concern about what happened at trial.

At the time of his trial, the record suggested that David Lawson suffered “significant psychopathology,” anxiety, depression, hostility, and a likelihood of deficient impulse control. He generally lacked the ability to communicate with his attorney or to understand the nature and seriousness of the charges against him. He thought of suicide and once had attempted it. It is hardly surprising that he told his sentencing jury: “You think I done it, gas me.” Lawson’s counsel, taking his cues from Lawson, neither investigated nor presented any evidence of his client’s mental problems, which might have established statutory and nonstatutory mitigation, which, in turn, might have meant the difference between life and death.

Without deciding the merits of these claims, I conclude that they cast considerable doubt on the reliability and constitutionality of Lawson’s sentence of death.

Lawson v. Dixon, 510 U.S. 1171 (1994).

The Ripples of Trauma from Sandy Hook

Hearing the news about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre last Friday triggered deep emotional pain across America and the world, even though few of us knew anyone close to those murdered.   Parents with young children held them tighter.  Children said prayers for the children lost.  In a darker place, many who have experienced loss through gun violence began to re-live their own trauma.

The ripple effects of senseless violence are long and deep.  Psychological trauma hits the hardest those caught in the immediate splash – the witnesses, the survivors (those closest to the event and the victim), and the perpetrator (assuming he or she lives).  The trauma spreads to friends of the survivors and of the perpetrator and to those who hear details about the killing.   It also spreads over time to those who later get to know the survivors and the perpetrator.

I have never had a loved one lost to gun violence or even murder, though my husband’s sister was murdered long before I knew him.  But as a lawyer, I have represented and have grown close to clients who have killed and then been killed by state execution.   I have heard things no one should hear and have seen things that no one should see.   The psychological trauma has taken its toll.

One of the consequences of psychological trauma is that its dysfunctions can re-emerge at any time, overwhelming your mental functioning.  You never know when the symptoms will be triggered.

I was running errands on Friday, when I first heard about a shooting at an elementary school.  Instinctively I knew it best to wait until I got home to learn more.  When I did, an overwhelming sadness enveloped me, and it has not lifted.  Thoughts of one of my executed clients, Steve McHone, and his family suddenly crowded my mind.  I write in hopes of stopping the flood.

Steve’s story is similar to Adam Lanza’s story though certainly different in magnitude.   Steve was the same age of Adam when he committed his crimes; he had just turned 20.  In the middle of the night in the idyllic town of Mount Airy, NC, Steve shot and killed his mother in their backyard and his step-father in the kitchen, before he was stopped by his half-brother.

Steve suffered from mental illnesses, which he had self-medicated with alcohol and drugs since the age of 12.  Steve had violent outbursts, once chasing his mother, Mildred, around the kitchen with a knife.  Mildred tried several times to get him psychological help, but the actual treatment he received was minimal.

On June 2nd, 1990, the perfect storm came together – alcohol, severe depression, conflict and guns.  Steve went to a party, got drunk, and got a gun from his family camper.  He fought with friends at the party but nothing came of it.   By the time he got home after midnight, Steve was distraught, threatening suicide.  He fought with his parents and was sent to his room to sleep it off.

In his basement room, Steve drank more and called his AA sponsor for help.  The sponsor did not come.  Steve went into the backyard with his pistol, most likely with the intent to kill himself.  Mildred was concerned about her son and made her way to the backyard too, with thoughts of removing the gun from the family camper, unaware of the fact that Steve already had it in his grips.

No one knows the details of the interaction of mother and son that night, but it ended with Steve shooting his mother.  Steve’s step-father, Wesley, ran to the scene, disarmed Steve and dragged him into the kitchen.  Wesley left Steve alone long enough for Steve to run to the bedroom and get a shotgun kept in the corner.

By this time Steve’s half-brother, Junior, was present.   Steve shot at Junior, but Wesley intervened and was shot dead.  Steve was subdued by Junior, who Steve begged to kill him.   Impressively, Junior, with both his parents dead, did not oblige.

The State was less restrained.  Steve was executed by the State of North Carolina on November 11, 2005, at the age of 35, fifteen years after his crimes.   I witnessed his pre-meditated killing.   I also witnessed the trauma suffered by three of his four siblings who had forgiven Steve and who had begged the Governor in vain to stop the execution.  So, goes the circle of violence and the traumatization.

I bristle when I hear people suggest that more guns in the home and in the schools are the answer to our country’s problem of violence.   I also bristle when I hear people suggest that we must arm ourselves to protect us from criminals.   I have met these criminals and they are us.  They are our brothers, our husbands, and our sons.   They are also our friends and our neighbors.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the pain and grief caused by Adam Lanza, but we must not become paralyzed.  We all have much work to do in our own backyards:  to become more knowledgeable and understanding about mental illness, to become more perceptive of those in psychological distress, and for all our sakes, to remove guns from easy reach of those in distress.

The Crime

Ernest Basden was convicted of shooting and killing an insurance salesman, Billy White, in rural Eastern North Carolina in 1993.  The plot of the story is like a poor man’s soap opera.  Billy’s wife, Sylvia, wanted her husband dead.  After failing to accomplish this goal herself using poisoned berries, Sylvia talked Lynwood Taylor into killing her husband.

Lynwood knew how the system worked; a small-town drug dealer himself, he was an active police informant.  He knew better than to do the deed himself.  After
asking around town for a partner in crime, he turned to his nephew, Ernest, who was renting a room from Lynwood’s mother, Ernest’s aunt.  Ernest was down on his luck, chronically depressed and apt to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs.  Lynwood provided Ernest with the needed drugs and alcohol, and after initially resisting, Ernest was convinced to help kill Billy.

Lynwood and Sylvia devised a plot.  Under false pretenses, Lynwood arranged for Billy to meet him at a deserted plot of land late at night.  Lynwood plied Ernest with alcohol and drove him to the designated spot, where they waited in the dark.  When Billy arrived, Lynwood introduced himself and then excused himself.  Ernest got out of the car, picked up a shotgun, and shot Billy twice.

It did not take long for this tale to come to light.  Lynwood and Sylvia were arrested. Ernest turned himself in.

Of the three, Ernest was tried first.  He was sentenced to death on Good Friday, April 9, 1993. Sylvia and Lynwood Taylor both avoided death sentences.  The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals was troubled that Ernest, “an intoxicated, manipulated rube,” was the only one to get a death sentence:

Moreover, notwithstanding (or indeed perhaps because of) the greater cunning of Taylor and Sylvia White, they have been treated much more leniently than Basden.  The State did not bring Taylor to trial until four years after Billy White’s murder, and then permitted Taylor to plead guilty to first-degree murder; he received a sentence of life imprisonment.  Similarly, the State did not seek to try Sylvia White for almost four years after the murder of her husband and then allowed her to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and second-degree murder; she too received a sentence of life imprisonment.  Prior to that conviction, the State tried and convicted Sylvia White for the 1973 unrelated murder of her stepson (Billy White’s son and namesake) whom she suffocated with a plastic bag when he was four years old; the State did not seek the death penalty for that murder and White received a life sentence for that crime too.  [See Basden v. Lee, 290 F.3d 602 (4th Cir. 2002).]

According to one prosecutor, Taylor was given leniency in his sentence for Billy White’s murder because he helped the state win a conviction against Sylvia in the stepson’s case. The problem with this excuse is that Ernest’s testimony against Sylvia was equally if not more critical to the conviction.  In any case, Ernest’s attorney sought no favorable treatment, and Ernest received none.

There were other serious flaws with Ernest’s death sentence. Ernest’s trial attorney had to withdraw from the case when he was stricken with cancer; the new lawyer was given only six weeks to prepare for trial.  The trial was a disaster, most notably when the lawyers put Ernest on the stand, to no good end.

When the post-conviction team contacted the jurors, all but one stated that he (or she) never intended that Ernest be executed.  That one juror, then deceased, had told his fellow jurors that he “knew” first-hand that death sentences were overturned on appeal and that Ernest would get another trial and never be executed.  The jurors were sufficiently convinced and gambled with a death sentence.  They — and Ernest — lost.

From Psychology to Psychiatry

After my first year of seminary, I married my best friend from college.  Paul was a seminary student as well.  He planned to be a church pastor.  But with his “radical” beliefs (consistent with mine), we knew that securing a pastorate was a long shot.

Paul and I both had to work to make ends meet.  My first jobs were at a health food restaurant, a book store and a clothing store.  Paul worked as a psychiatric aide at the State psychiatric hospital just outside of Louisville, Ky.   He worked with significantly impaired patients and with significantly abusive co-workers.  I admired his courage.

I hoped for more meaningful work that was also more lucrative, i.e. paid more than minimum wage.  During one of my daily reads of the want-ads, I ran across a position for a part-time psychiatric aide at a local private hospital.  It was very tempting, but I was fearful.  Could I deal with unpredictable, perhaps violent, individuals?  Paul encouraged me to give it a try.

Becoming a psychiatric aid was my first foray into the professional world, and I found it fascinating.  I assisted patients with illnesses that ranged from personality disorders to major depression to schizophrenia.  I took every opportunity to learn from doctors and nurses about psychiatric symptoms, causes and treatments.

A couple of experiences stand out as instructive for my future work.  One evening, a young woman was brought to the ward by the police.  She was so out of her head that she had to be physically restrained.  The woman had reported thoughts of putting her new born baby in the oven.  Her preliminary diagnosis was post-partum depression, with psychotic features.  The doctor called the staff into the lock-down room for assistance.  “Watch this,” one of the nurses said to me.  The doctor gave the woman tied down on the bed an injection of sodium pentothal.  In just a few minutes, the woman was sitting there having a cogent conversation with the doctor.  Wow!  I imagined her brain before drugs and after drugs.  Sometimes your brain on drugs is a good thing.  The woman was able to return to her baby in just a few weeks.

The second experience was my observation of an electroshock therapy session.  The patient was, like me, a seminary student.  He was deeply depressed and had grandiose religious delusions.  We had had some conversations on the ward about his religious views.  Sometimes mental illness draws upon what you believe to be true and amplifies it.  Now the student/patient lay unconscious, strapped down with electrodes connected to various parts of his body.  As the electricity was turned on, the nurse pointed to the man’s ankle.  His flesh was vibrating.  The room suddenly seemed very hot.  For the first time in my life, I thought I was going to faint.  I excused myself.