SAN QUENTIN, THE MAIN BUILDING, RISES FULL INTO VIEW. This maximum-security prison is in fact a scatter of buildings, a fortressed village built upon rock for the purpose of keeping a few men in and the rest of the world out. But it is the main building that dominates the scene and holds the eye. It draws me up the hill. A lot of concrete and not much window, the structure is a boxy rectangle, functional like an old high school or a hangar. Huge and a golden creamy white, it stands poised above the glimmering waters of San Francisco Bay, its utter stillness crushing the will like a Greek temple.
Getting here has meant months of navigating a labyrinth of red tape. This morning I have already negotiated two on-site security checks. There is one more to go. It is at the top of the hill, in the main building itself. Beyond this last barrier lies death row and LaTwon Weaver.
We make it to the top of the hill. I stand here with David Fermino, the lawyer who has arranged this visit. He says it is at the third check that we find out if we are on the list of approved visitors. He tells me that at San Quentin you can’t count on anything. Fermino, 35, his crown of looping curls cut close, holds himself stiffly, tense.
Secure behind the reinforced glass door and iron-barred gate, a guard views us through a system of angled mirrors. There is a pause; then the gate is set in motion. Slowly it rattles aside on its tracks. A draft of wind rises at our backs from the bay below.
LaTwon Weaver, Fermino’s client, has not spoken to the press since being sent to death row. The events that brought him here are, however, a matter of public record.
On May 5, 1992, Weaver entered Shadowridge Jewelers in Vista’s Shadowridge Shopping Center with the intention of robbing it. Holding a .44-caliber Magnum, he herded the two saleswomen and the owner to the rear of the store. According to witnesses, business owner Michael Broome was cooperating when suddenly Weaver opened fire, shooting him point-blank. Broome fell to the floor, where he bled to death before the eyes of the terrified onlookers. After robbing the store, Weaver fled the scene with an accomplice, Byron Summersville, who was parked outside. The two were later arrested and the jewelry recovered. In a plea bargain, Summersville turned state’s evidence and went free. (Months later he would be arrested for murder and assault with a deadly weapon in an unrelated case and begin serving consecutive sentences of 16 years to life for the murder and 7 years for the assault.) Weaver was tried without a jury and eventually sentenced to die.
There are two unanswered questions in all this: Why, first, did he do it? LaTwon Weaver, a young black man (he was 23 at the time), had no prior criminal” record. Indeed, for much of his life he had assisted his father, the Reverend Ray Weaver, minister of the Southern Missionary Baptist Church in Inglewood. A student in private Christian schools, LaTwon sang in his father’s church choir and played basketball with the church team. He lived with his family until April 1992 when, on the urging of Summersville, he moved to Vista, where he was told jobs were plentiful. Here also he could be closer to his girlfriend and young daughter. Within the month he would kill a man and be on trial for his life.
The second question has to do with the mysterious workings of the criminal justice system. How is it that when two men, one black and one white, are convicted of felonies, the black man is four times more likely to go to death row while, according to nationwide statistics, the other will serve an average six years and then be sent home?
Fermino wears a dark gray suit; I wear a cream-colored sports jacket and a tie. We look like we’re stepping out for an early business lunch instead of into the prison where California houses all the men it has decided to execute. Fermino and I push our IDs under the thick, clear partition.
“We’re here to see LaTwon Weaver." Fermino’s voice bounces off the Plexiglas with a hollow ring.
This is it, the last security check.
From his elevated chair on the other side of the partition, the guard checks our IDs, picks up a clipboard, and runs his finger down the list, searching for our names. Slowly the iron gate rolls aside, its bars cutting into strips a million-dollar view of San Francisco Bay, where waters sparkle and stretch wide and a clutch of tiny wooded isles float like dark green clouds. What is it like being locked in here, withheld from stepping freely into this limitless vision? Love has a dozen positions, a couple of dozen refinements; torture, by contrast, has a thousand subtle varieties. I figure this view is one of them.
IN JULY 1852, the two-masted brig Euphemia was towed across this same bay. Moored in the shelter of Point Quentin, the 45 prisoners housed on board were put ashore and set to clearing the live oak, preparing the site for the First building of the prison facility. The name itself is widely thought to derive from the Christian saint Quentin, a Third-Century Roman beheaded by pagan Gauls and from whose severed throat a white dove issued, flying straight to heaven. Not so. The name belongs to Quentin, chief of a band of Licatuit Indians defeated in a last stand against Mexican troops on this same isolated spot of land. Known in Spanish as Puente de Quentin, the later (false) “canonization” of the Indian chief gives the site its current name.
“Yeah, you’re here,” the guard says, looking up from his list. Pudgy, jowly, he offers the lack of interest of a bridge toll-taker as he checks the clock over his desk. Weaver, he says, should be right down. There are three visiting booths. We are assigned the one closest to the guard. The six-by-six-foot affair made of iron bars and scarred Plexiglas is more in the nature of a cage. Inside are chairs and a table.
In the next booth is an investigator, a woman Fermino introduced to me at the first checkpoint. Plump, middle-aged, she is a colleague of Fermino’s at the California Appellate Project, a state- and federally funded program set up to represent those facing the death penalty. When we were introduced, the woman torched me with a feverish, unwavering gaze. Working on death row, trying to save the lives of men scheduled to die, she does not hear voices; she hears a clock ticking.
“No matter how many times I come here,” she had said, “the experience is always surreal.”
She empties her briefcase, setting a mass of papers and files into stacks. From our cage I can hear and see her, and she, us; but if I would wish for more privacy for this interview, I am also not surprised. On the contrary, it was privacy that I gave away to get here.
Weeks before, I’d requested an interview; and Fermino, arranging time in his own busy schedule, sent in my name to the prison administration, who used computers to thumb through my past. Nothing was found too untoward, and I was approved. But my past, in the meantime, was no longer solely my own affair. My private life had gone public.
This morning in the visitors’ parking lot, Fermino was clear,
“No camera or tape recorder,” he said. In addition, I’d be booted out if I were found carrying into the prison more than one key, one pen and tablet, two pieces of ID (one with a recent photograph), and a few dollars in change. Obediently stashing my equipment, my wallet, and keys under the seat, I took in a mild dose of the same bitter medicine inmates get when they are stripped of what is familiar and helps give them what we each come to understand as our personal identities.
As we made our way to the first checkpoint, Fermino cautioned that we might beI turned back at any of the three security points if, say, there was a mixup with our names or if we somehow weren’t on the list of those approved for a visit. Sometimes the reasons why one is turned back are clear, and sometimes, he said, they are not.
The uncertainty, the suggestion of arbitrariness, the intensely uncomfortable experience of being eyed by guards at each checkpoint. By the time we’d negotiated our way through the last security check, I was so grateful to be inside the prison that I did not think to count what our entry had cost.
Sitting high, the sentinel watches behind thick Plexiglas. Guards in brown pass with holstered weapons, while a few prisoners stroll past in blue denim and avoid others’ eyes. San Quentin houses all those men in California who have been assigned to die. The prison also houses a population of light offenders, barroom scufflers, and petty thieves. Some of these move about the prison with a degree of freedom.
Our cage is on the ground floor. The thick concrete walls have been painted over so many times that undercoats of pale color bleed through, a reminder of what has been said here, all that has been heard. Suddenly this place — its history, its purpose — crashes down on me hard, like a fist.
Fermino has appeared tense and distracted. This, I now recognize, comes from the nature of the place. I have been on prison property for less than half an hour, and already I feel that something essential, vital to myself, is ebbing out.
Dr. John Irwin, sociology professor at San Francisco State University, an ex-convict and author of one of the few book-length studies on jails, claims that “rabble management” is the jail’s true function, achieved, he writes, through isolation. “When we’re isolated, we become something else, not human.”
“It might be better if you leave that for LaTwon.” Fermino points to the chair I’ve fallen into. There is a window on my right through which the waters of the bay glimmer in the blue distance. A reduced version of the view through the reinforced glass door, the scene is still heartbreakingly beautiful. Fermino leaves the cage, heading for food and beverage machines banked against a far wall. The machines offer dozens of choices rotating on mini-carousels. There are costly candy bars, muffins under cellophane, hot drinks, and cold sodas. Nutritionally, these dozens of choices reduce to two: sugar or caffeine. I am too wired to eat, but Fermino, who has bought a bunch of sugary foods for his client, says Weaver is shy about eating and won’t do so unless we eat too. I buy a muffin.
Back in the cage, I trade chairs with the absent Weaver. What’s taking so long? I check on some details of the case with Fermino. Passing the time, he asks if I’d noticed how the guard responded at the First security check when he gave LaTwon’s name. “Oh, I know LaTwon,” she’d said. “He’s a nice kid.”
“You have to understand,” he says, “with so many men locked in here, when a guard remembers a prisoner and has something good to say about him, you can bet he has earned it.”
Fermino says that in his eight years of practicing law, he has never felt more strongly about a prisoner. Weaver, he believes, should not be on death row. He speaks well of his client; I expect that is what lawyers are supposed to do. But, I remind myself, his client is here because he killed someone.
“Here he is...” Fermino stands.
At my back I hear the iron door open and a moment later close. I sit frozen at my place. There is a jangle of keys as a lock is turned. For one long moment it dawns on me that I am locked in a small booth with a convicted murderer. Then I rise and turn.
Weaver turns his face away from us. Cuffed, his hands secured behind him, he has backed up against the door to put his hands through a wide, waist-high opening, like a mail slot. The guard releases the handcuffs from the other side of the locked door, pulls them off with a glint of silvery metal, and then steps away from the cage. Cops-and-robbers TV has made familiar the image of the bad guy in police custody. But the real thing, seen at close quarters, is gut-wrenching. I respect the need for the protocol, but watching one man handle another like a dangerous animal — for both the handler and the one handled — there blooms in me an instant loathing. I struggle to fix my expression. I do not wish to appear anything other than well disposed when Weaver turns. And then he does, and I discover the cocky smile he wears has neatly dispensed with my own dilemma. He has enough smile for both of us.
“You’re wearing sunglasses!”
Catching the unhappy note in Fermino’s voice, Weaver whips the sunglasses off and drops them in the pocket of his denim shirt. But it is too late. Fermino can no doubt imagine the headline — “Death Row Inmate Goes Hollywood for Interview.” He rushes to pump his client’s hand. It is a gesture known in public relations parlance as damage control. They exchange greetings, and then Weaver turns to me, still smiling, and I discover that what I'd first imagined as an expression of smart-ass insolence is in fact mortification smeared across his face like apricot jam — tart, sticky, and not pretty to look at. And of course, now seeing it, I understand why. The business with the handcuffs. Weaver is ashamed to have been seen as a man being handled like an animal.
Uncovered, his eyes are gentle and unguarded. In a place like this, where men have done unspeakable things to others, I imagine that walking through the prison with his eyes uncovered must be like parading past men’s cells wearing nothing but a pair of pink panties. Without his dark sunglasses. Weaver represents a danger to himself.
I extend my hand, stowing away my thoughts as he disposed of his shades. My palm is laid against his, suddenly as touchily sensitive as a raw wound. Pressure, grip, muscle tension, I secretly gauge these, as well as the length of time my hand is held, who releases first. (He does.) A handshake tells much about the body, and the body the man.
LaTwon Reginald Weaver has light brown skin, large dark eyes, and coarse, straight, short-cropped dark hair. Slightly built and of no more than average height, he is nice (if anonymous) looking. At 26, an adolescent air still clings. His uniform, blue denim shirt and trousers, well ironed and a size too big, give him a crisp, vaguely clerical air. I tell him who I am and where I’m from. He then steps to the vacant chair, touches the back, and springs away as if it’s white-hot. He has seen that the chair is next to the window, and the window seat is clearly the best one in the house. (“Where am I supposed to sit?”) His reactions are quick and unthinking, his speech hurried and uninflected. He is urged to take the chair, and when he does, one of those awkward palls in conversation suddenly settles.
Fermino nips at what he bought for himself and urges his young client to eat what has been laid out for him. Weaver unwraps his sweet roll. His hands are well shaped, with long, tapering fingers. I chew on my muffin and say the first thing that comes into my head. His mother, gazing at a family photo album, had spoken fondly of how LaTwon was always the smallest in his classes. Even so, I say, I had not expected him to be quite so slight.
“And I’ve gained 15 pounds,” he says, swallowing a portion of his sweet roll. “I weighed about 140 when I got here.”
I find myself remembering what happened to Leandress Riley, another black man, who was even slimmer (he weighed less than 100 pounds) when he was at San Quentin more than 40 years ago. Today he lives in memory as an executioner’s nightmare. Men on death row often debate the proper way to go to the chair. Is it better to walk in with dignity, to sit calmly, to mask the panic and the horror? Or should they fight? Struggle, kick, twist, spit, scream curses, club with manacled fists? What is the more manly thing to do? For Riley, his ability to make a choice was lost in the hysterical knowledge that he was about to die. He lost it.
The guards carried Riley into San Quentin’s gas chamber screaming and struggling. With difficulty, they were able to strap him into the metal chair and then leave, bolting the door. Then, just before the cyanide pellets were dropped into the vat of acid, Riley managed to pull his slim wrists from the restraints and jump up, racing around inside the chamber, beating frantically on the glass windows, where witnesses and the media watched horrified. Prison officials had to stop the process, open the chamber, and strap him in again. This happened three times. He screamed in terror right up to the end, when he inhaled the fatal gas.
THE INTENTION TO ASK for the death penalty is a serious decision. The district attorney’s office assures the public that they seek the death penalty if the defendant shows a long criminal history. (In fact they never reveal their guidelines, according to Fermino.) Conventional wisdom holds that juries do not like to send young people to death row, so the D.A. is said to consider the age of the accused in the decision to ask for the death penalty. And while certainly the crime itself bears most significantly on the decision to seek the death penalty, the defendant’s family ties and community life help place the crime in perspective and give the D.A. more background in setting forth their request.
Into this life-and-death equation Weaver stepped as a young, clean-cut man with close family ties, no prior criminal record, and a history of community service through his father’s church. Nevertheless, the death penalty was asked for because, argued then-San Diego County District Attorney Edwin Miller, Jr., and his prosecution team, the crime was particularly cold-blooded (the victim was cooperating, and the robbery continued after he was shot and lay dying). Additionally, the impact on the surviving family was “devastating.”
In response. Deputy Public Defenders Jeff Martin and David Rawson said their client simply did not fit the profile of the average defendant facing the death penalty, except that he was black and his alleged victim was white.
State and federal laws mandate that jury pools reflect the diversity present in the community. A review of 1990 census findings left the public defenders’ office, before Weaver’s trial, to allege that North County juries were ethnically biased; they failed to reflect the percentage of minorities in the community. Polling the 1012 people who appeared at the Vista courthouse in response to a jury summons, they concluded from that survey that LaTwon Weaver would not be standing before an unbiased jury of his peers (Weaver’s father is black, his mother Hispanic). Weaver’s defense team was also aware that whites are less likely to oppose the death sentence than are minorities, so they made the unusual request to waive a jury trial. Judge J. Morgan Lester heard the case in what is known as a bench trial. A week after the Los Angeles riots and amid rumors that the killing of the white jeweler may have been racially motivated because of the unrest there. Weaver was charged with first-degree murder. (As Fermino observed, the common practice is for prosecutors to ask for death only when they are fairly sure they can win.)
At the outset, Judge Lester questioned the call for the death penalty. His courtroom was jammed with dozens of family and church friends who had made the 90-mile trip from Inglewood to speak for Weaver’s character and background. Judge Lester told Deputy District Attorney Michael Kirkman, “Look to the sea of support and the background of LaTwon Weaver. Take that back to Edwin L. Miller. I ask that you seriously question whether it is the intent of your office to pursue this as a death-penalty case.”
But the district attorney did indeed intend to do so, and in time Judge Lester heard the case and passed his verdict. Three weeks before Lester formally sentenced him to death, Weaver married Kelly Tapp, the mother of his three-year-old daughter Kayla.
I explain the ground rules of the interview to Weaver. Fermino and I have already agreed that I will not ask questions about what happened the afternoon of the robbery nor about the crime itself, since it may hurt his case if he should get another trial. He nods. “But I have to tell you,” I add, “that with what the jewelry store cameras picked up and the eyewitness accounts, I cannot even hint that you did not kill the man.”
Weaver colors. He meets my gaze, then drops his eyes.
“I never said I didn’t do it.” He speaks low. “Not before and not now.”
At the trial he said he’d spent the afternoon drinking beer with Byron Summersville, who’d planned the robbery. Later, he claimed, in the course of things he had panicked. The shooting, he said, was accidental.
I ask LaTwon to describe a typical day.
“It begins for me at 6:00, when I wake up. I say my prayers, then at 6:30 I turn on the TV and watch the news. After breakfast I lead a Bible study and prayer group. That’s from 8:45 to 10:30. At 11:00 we go upstairs to the yard, where maybe I lift weights. At noon there’s lunch, and I look at Reverend Patterson on TV. I talk with the others in the block. At 2:30 we have lock-down. Lights go out at 7:30.”
“Is that it?”
He nods. “After that, I’m in my cell for the rest of the day.”
Weaver spends 18 hours of each day alone in his cell.
Time, writes David Diehle in his book about death row, is the thing the men have in crushing abundance. A condemned man learns to make picture frames from aluminum foil. He plays poker with the man in the next cell, dealing the cards onto a towel in the corridor. He plays chess with the guy three cells down, climbing on the bars to shout his moves. Anything to make the time slide. Crocheting is popular. The killers of death row hook yarn into hats, slippers, shawls, oven mitts. Knitting is banned because you can kill a man with a knitting needle.
“Television,” writes Diehle, “is the only thing that makes death row manageable. The TV set is called an ‘electric tranquilizer.’ When a Florida lawmaker advised a prison official to strip the sets from the cells, he was told, ‘Fine. You [try and] go in there and take them out.’ Death row could not exist without the tube.”
Weaver’s cell is in the East Block. He lives among a group of older inmates, many who have been locked down on death row for more than ten years. “It’s more relaxed,” he says. “It’s racially mixed, with some Orientals and whites. There is no problem about race there, no threat.”
Race. While it may have always cast its long shadow over the Weaver family, only recently can it be said to have darkened their general optimism. For nearly 30 years, the Reverend Ray Weaver and his wife, Catalina, have struggled against the limits defined by race. This began with their marriage; later their family strove to maintain cordial relations in their multiracial community of Inglewood. “We always got along,” Reverend Weaver said. “They were our neighbors. Whatever their color, it didn’t matter.” For three decades, they accepted that racial equality was a reality they could help achieve. It was only as their son faced the death penalty that their faith in a color-blind America waivered.
“How would you feel,” the minister asked, “if you were accused of killing a black man, and the judge was black, the prosecutor was black, and every member of the jury was black? Would you feel comfortable if that were your child?” His faith was in God, he concluded. “I have no faith in the system.”
STATISTICS SUPPORT HIS WORST FEARS. National and local studies have found that the strongest factor influencing the decision to seek the death penalty is the race of the victim. Black defendants who kill whites are four times more likely to face the death penalty than whites who kill blacks. Locally, San Diego’s statistics are less spectacular if, ultimately, no less reprehensible.
“In San Diego County, you are twice as likely to face the death penalty if you’re a black accused of killing a white,” says attorney Elizabeth Missakian, citing figures from a study done four years ago. More recently, in data gathered from 1978 through March 1995, statistics show that in the 90 cases in which the death penalty was sought in San Diego County, in 80 percent of the cases the victims were white, 6.7 percent were black, and 8.8 percent Hispanic. At the same time, according to a related study, the total number of blacks listed as homicide victims was nine times higher than the number of whites.
Missakian contends it is not that prosecutors sit down and decide to mete out greater retribution for the life of a white person. “It’s just that white lives have inherently more value to the people making the decisions,” she states. “It’s not a conscious thing.”
Fermino argues the contrary. “We have anecdotal evidence that it was once routine for the district attorney’s office in San Diego to refer to black-on-black homicide as ‘ecology killings.’ The more blacks kill each other,” he explained, “the fewer there will be and the better for the rest of us.”
The Government Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, helped confirm in a 1990 survey what defense attorneys nationwide have said for decades. According to Betty Wheeler, legal director of the San Diego chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the survey compiled the results of all the studies conducted around the country over the past ten years and found that in 82 percent of capital cases, the victim was white. “This,” says Wheeler, echoing Missakian, “despite the fact that, overwhelmingly, victims of crime are people of color.”
At the time of Weaver’s trial, Michael Kirkman, his prosecutor, presented some numbers of his own. Statistics at the Vista courthouse, he said, showed that three of five recent defendants facing the death penalty there were Anglos. Two of the five were convicted — a Mexican American and an Anglo. Weaver, he said, was the first black to be charged with the death penalty in North County since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1976. (Kirkman did concede that in all five cases the victims were Anglos.)
According to the prosecutor, Weaver was facing the death penalty because the killing of Michael Broome was a particularly cold-blooded crime. The store owner was cooperating when he was shot; and while he lay bleeding, the robbery continued. The impact on Broome’s family, he said, was devastating.
“Statistics can be made to show whatever you want them to show,” says prosecutor Kirkman, for whom it is the nature of the crime and its effect upon the victim’s family, not race, that defines who faces the death penalty.
Statistics aside, two San Diego County murder cases put Kirkman’s proposition into question. More than a decade ago, Joseph Larroque, a white man, lured Laverne Duffy, a black co-worker, from her office by claiming he needed help with his disabled truck. Duffy was beaten unconscious and taken to Larroque’s home, where he used a razor blade to cut her clothing off, slicing her skin with each stroke of the blade. The 32-year-old mother of two was hog-tied with ropes in a way that slowly strangled her as she tried to wriggle free. Larroque, who later admitted he intended to rape Duffy, ran out of time; he had to go to work. He dumped her nude corpse in a gutter along a rural road. He was eventually sentenced to 35 years to life in prison.
When questioned later about the case, former Deputy District Attorney William Woodward said he didn’t remember much about prosecuting Larroque’s case except that there was a question about whether a confession Larroque made could be used against him. Without it. Woodward said, a conviction would be difficult. Securing a death sentence, he implied, would be next to impossible. According to Woodward, “Race was not an issue as to either the defendant or the victim.”
More closely paralleling LaTwon Weaver’s case is that of Gary Smith, a 31-year-old black man, who came to the aid of a woman who was being robbed. The burly Smith, a carpet layer, caught the robber — Timothy Pemberton, a white 22-year-old transient — who turned on Smith, shooting him at point-blank range four times as horrified bystanders watched and Smith writhed in the dirt pleading for his life.
Then-District Attorney Edwin Miller, who called for the death penalty for LaTwon Weaver, in Pemberton’s case asked for life in prison. In both cases, Miller denied that the race of the victims or the defendants played a role in either decision.
Deputy District Attorney Lisa Chappell, who prosecuted Pemberton, was quoted as saying it was not his race but the transient's age, physical appearance, and lack of a previous record that led to the prosecutor’s decision. The fact that Smith, the victim, was black was irrelevant. It was because Pemberton was “young, slender, effeminate," Chappell said. “He was the kind who could potentially elicit sympathy from the jury. They’d say, ‘God, we feel so sorry for this kid.’ If they felt that way, they certainly wouldn’t have gone for the death penalty.”
LaTWON WEAVER PICKS AT HIS FOOD as he recounts his daily schedule. Like Pemberton, he is young and slender, and if he is not effeminate, he is neither its contrary. He clearly fits the white drifter’s physical characteristics, but this is where their resemblance ends. Unlike Pemberton, Weaver had lived in one place for all but one month of his life. There were dozens of men and women who had known him all his life who were willing to vouch for his character. Would the district attorney be willing to gamble on the death penalty unless they figured it was a pretty sure bet? In seeking the death penalty and getting it, is it not probable that race was a factor?
“Stunned” was the word Deputy Public Defender Jeff Martin used when he heard Judge Lester’s sentence. “Neither this offense nor this defendant qualifies for the death penalty,” he said, adding that the death penalty was properly reserved for the most heinous, aggravated offenses and the most vile offenders. “This case doesn’t qualify on either side of the equation.”
The law tries to establish a hierarchy of evil. Not all murderers, but only a tiny group of the most culpable first-degree murderers, are considered to be so evil that they must forfeit their lives. Aggravating factors are those that increase the defendant’s moral culpability: a significant history of violent crimes, for example, or having killed a police officer, a witness in an upcoming trial, or a child under 12.
Three cases, recent and celebrated, have not only black men who figure prominently but also illustrate what in the courts, as in life, may be understood as a “hierarchy of evil.” In the Jeffrey Dahmer case, black men figure as victims. And there is of course the O.J. Simpson case. Dennis Schatzman of the Los Angeles Sentinel made reference to the racial character underlying the proceedings, saying that the easiest person in the world to convict is a black man. Despite the jury’s verdict, Schatzman would still hold that his statement rings true. “We’re already guilty,” he said, “in the minds of the public.”
Certainly Susan Smith understood this. Hers is the third case (the tabloids called it her “evil deed”) in this hierarchy of evil. Her attorney said the young mother was not fully in control of her faculties when she strapped 3-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alex into their car seats. But if Susan Smith was out of her mind at the time she released the brake and sent her Mazda rolling soundlessly into the lake, she quickly regained enough of her senses to conjure up a black carjacker as her children’s kidnapper. It was to this phantom, this spook, that she pleaded for her babies’ return. To evoke the image of a hooded black man, she knew, would gain currency for her story. And she was right. In the course of the nine-day “ordeal" she manufactured for herself, the nation sent prayers and TV crews to record the search for the mysterious black man before he harmed those fair boys. Because Wisconsin does not have the death penalty, the state could not officially kill Jeffrey Dahmer. O.J. Simpson never faced the death penalty. As for Susan Smith, it took the jury two and a half hours to reject the prosecution’s request for the death penalty and settle on the life sentence. The jury’s unanimous decision saved Smith from death row, leaving her, in her lawyer’s words, in a tiny cell with the ghosts of her dead children for at least the next 30 years. One is left to wonder what sentence would have been pronounced it indeed a black man, a stranger, had taken her children and done to them what she did.
I ask Weaver about racial tension inside the prison. “It’s tough,” he replies. He is prepared to say more, but before he does, he looks across the table, seeking permission from his lawyer. Fermino nods.
When he first came to San Quentin, he goes on, clearing his throat, a tumor was found growing under his arm. The tumor was removed surgically, and he spent five days in the hospital. After that he was kept in medical isolation, unable to mix with the general population for 30 days. Finally, he said, he was allowed to go to the yard, a pen built on the roof, where some of the 400 men on death row get fresh air and a little exercise.
“It was my first day there,” Weaver said. “I was still stitched up and had my arm in a sling. Anyway, I’m talking to some of the men, and they’re against the fence and I’ve got my back to the yard, when one of the white-power guys comes up behind me.” He described a large blond man, six feet tall and 200 pounds. “For no reason he starts beating on me. I went down, and because he’s wearing state boots, when he starts kicking, even as I’m trying to protect myself, right away my stitches open up.
“One of the guards fired down, and that’s when everybody dropped. I was lucky I didn’t get shot.” He reflects on the incident, then goes on. “They cleared the yard, and 50 guys got ten days in lock-down, because that’s one way to make sure the racial thing doesn’t blow. They have to keep the lid on tight.”
As for the inmate who kicked him, “He got sent to the hole,” said Weaver.
When a death row prisoner is sent to the hole, it is for a minimum of one year. He is isolated from the general population and cannot have visitors, except for his lawyer.
“He didn’t care. When you’re on death row, you know you’re not going anywhere. I had a name for trying to meet everyone up front, and, you know, for my Bible study; so that’s why, when he came on me, he didn’t expect to have much of a problem. I’m not really much of a fighter. Besides, my arm was in a sling.” He shrugs. “But that’s it, you still have to protect yourself.
“And then afterwards....” He stops in mid-sentence, looking over at Fermino, again seeking the okay to go on. “After that, some of the brothers told me I should jump on the next white guy I saw. That’s the way it is here. Somebody tries to take you out, you do the same. And it doesn’t matter who it is. I mean, I don’t even know that guy who jumped me.”
“So did you jump somebody?”
“That’s not my way.”
Weaver said that at the time he’d already requested a transfer to the East Block, where he is now housed. “I heard it was quiet and there wasn’t a lot of racial stuff. But," he said, fingering the top of the chocolate milk carton, “you’ve got to be inside a year before they let you transfer. They have to see how you fit in. And any trouble at all — even if it’s not your fault — and that’s it. You aren’t going anywhere. But you see, I was blessed. One of the COs [correctional officers] was in the yard and saw what happened. And later he spoke up for me. That’s doesn’t happen a lot, but he did. Otherwise I’d still be out there dealing with all the stuff that comes up.
Some of the “stuff,” he adds, comes from the guards. “The COs are in here with the rest of us. I mean, they’re in prison, and it works on them just like it works on everybody. They call you names, racial ones; or suppose you don’t, say, move fast enough, they have their stun guns. You can’t go to a CO and say, ‘Hey! I’m having some trouble,’ because he may be the reason for it, or he may report what you tell him to another inmate. You never know. Inside, you don’t know where to look or what’s coming. Only you better keep looking, because something is for sure coming.”
Most of the prisoners inside San Quentin’s death row have often brushed up against the law, perhaps passing through the criminal justice system as juvenile offenders until they find them- selves, as adults, held here at this maximum-security center. Before May 5, 1992, Weaver had never spent a day behind bars. In that inverted value system of prison life, when he was brought here, shackled, he was passed directly into the top rank of prison life: death row. Oddly enough, however, life on death row has its benefits. It is relatively quiet. The men there meet with their lawyers and watch the clock as it moves slowly to that day when all appeals have run out. Withheld from moving within the general population of men resentful and on edge and ready to prove how bad they are, death row inmates find their chances of violent interchange proportionately reduced. But as in the case of Weaver’s attacker, if the men on death row have nothing to prove because they have already trespassed that most urgent of injunctions, “Thou shalt not kill,” then why not (might run the logic) kill again?
Weaver tells a story of the first time he passed through the prison. “I was cuffed, of course. And the CO was walking in front of me. We were passing through one of the blocks, and I heard him call out, 'Dead man walking.’ Right away the other prisoners stopped whatever they were doing and turned to the wall. I’m looking around, wondering who he’s talking about. I didn’t know that’s what’s said when someone from death row passes through. Everything stops. The other inmates move against the walls, not looking and not talking. It took me a while to figure out the dead man walking was me.”
IN DECEMBER 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which unequivocally endorses the right of every human being not to be killed and not to be subjected to torture or to cruel and degrading punishment. The United States signed the declaration.
One month later, Caryl Chessman, 27, on parole for just six weeks from California’s Folsom Prison, was arrested in Los Angeles as the suspected “Red-Light Bandit.” The marauder approached victims parked in lonely spots, flashing a red light resembling that of a police car. He would rob the driver and sometimes drive off with the woman and force her to perform sexual acts with him. Chessman confessed to being the Red-Light Bandit (later saying his confession had been extracted by police torture).
He was found guilty under California’s “Little Lindbergh” law, which provided for the death penalty in cases of kidnapping “with bodily harm.” Chessman had killed no one and had held no one for ransom. Since the jury brought in a verdict of guilty without recommendation of mercy, he was automatically sentenced to death in the gas chamber. There were many who thought Chessman’s punishment was excessive for a felon who had not murdered.
Chessman was sent to death row at San Quentin, where he would become perhaps its most famous resident. His first execution date was March 28, 1952. Then began the famous drama of cell 2455, death row. That prison address became the title of a best-selling book by Chessman, which sold a half million copies and was translated into a dozen languages. It was one of four he would write, often smuggling out manuscripts after he had been forbidden to publish any further. With the success of his first book, Chessman retained a group of lawyers to help him with his appeals, which previously he had handled on his own, having “read or skimmed 10,000 law books.”
The fight went on for 12 years. It finally ended in defeat when Governor Edmund G. Brown, a stated opponent of capital punishment, insisted his hands were tied and he could not save Chessman. By then the prisoner had survived eight scheduled dates of execution, some by only a matter of hours. Millions of persons around the world signed petitions pleading for his life, including the queen of Belgium, Aldous Huxley, Pablo Casals, Eleanor Roosevelt, William Inge, Norman Mailer, Clifford Odets, Christopher Isherwood, Robert Frost, and Billy Graham.
On May 2, 1960, Chessman entered the gas chamber at San Quentin.
At that moment federal Judge Louis E. Goodman granted Chessman’s attorney’s a delay of at least 30 minutes to argue their case. He asked his secretary to telephone the warden at San Quentin. However, as the prison number passed through several persons, a digit was inadvertently omitted. After being verified, the number had to be redialed. By the time the call was put through, Associate Warden Louis Nelson said the cyanide pellets had been dropped.
Inside the gas chamber, Caryl Chessman had turned to a female supporter who was there as a witness and silently formed a final message, “Take it easy...It’s all right...Tell Rosalie [one of his attorneys] good-bye....”
Then he turned to a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner. He had agreed to give the newsman a signal if a gas chamber death was agonizing. Just before he lost consciousness, Chessman stared at the reporter and nodded his head up and down.
LaTwon Weaver bears comparison to the cases of O.J. Simpson, Rodney King, and Mumia Abu-Jamal. O.J. is a rich celebrity who paid millions for a defense “dream team.” Weaver relied on a pair of state-appointed public defenders who, in the opinion of David Fermino, whether because of their own or institutional incompetence, did not provide him with the best defense.
“LaTwon,” he says, “had no dream team.”
As in the Rodney King case, his attorneys were not able to move the trial to a court that mirrored the racial makeup of the accused. Instead, they sought a bench trial. (Fermino calls the choice “disastrous.” Bench trials in capital cases are, he says, extremely rare because the fate of a man is left to the decision, not of 12, but of 1.) While Los Angeles burned following the verdicts rendered in the Rodney King trial, with Judge Lester’s verdict there was only a distraught mother carried from the court and a few church folk murmuring appeals to Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
Finally, Weaver is no Mumia Abu-Jamal. The Pennsylvania journalist, accused of shooting a policeman, has a worldwide following, men and women petitioning to have his case retried. Weaver does not have a handsome head of dreadlocks. He makes no claim for being a political prisoner. Mumia Abu-Jamal recognizes the immense power of the media and understands that his attempts to avoid the death sentence hanging over his head lie to a degree in his ability to use that power.
Weaver, whose performance on IQ tests confirms that he is “slow,” was never a good student. Despite what Summersville told him of job opportunities in the Vista area, he arrived there poorly prepared to compete. Weeks passed and he found no work. With neither a job to go to nor parents to tell him no, early one spring afternoon he started drinking beer with a man he’d not known long, but certainly long enough to refer to him as “a brother.” If, during his defense, his attorneys reminded the court that their client was “slow,” certainly the decision to rob Shadowridge Jewelers would confirm the utter lack of thought that went into its plan, and especially the role Weaver allowed himself to play.
In prison Weaver enjoys watching sports and TV sitcoms. He once organized and led a rock and roll band, and in his cell today he writes songs that he shows no one and no one might ever play. He has a young wife, the mother of his daughter, with whom he is not allowed to spend one private moment. His family makes the six-and-a-half-hour drive from Los Angeles to San Quentin regularly. According to all reports, Weaver was a good kid. He just happened to make one fatal mistake. The poet Langston Hughes reminds us in “Warning” just what that can sometimes mean.
Sweet and docile.
Meek, humble, and kind:
Beware the day
They change their mind.
I want to know what made Weaver change his mind that afternoon. How long were he and Byron Summersville, his buddy, drinking beer? What did they talk about? Where did the .44-caliber Magnum come from? How could someone who had never even had a driving ticket think himself capable of taking the lead in a jewelry store heist? What went through his mind an instant before he fired his weapon, point-blank, at Michael Broome? While the prosecution put it that shooting the jewelry store owner was in the nature of an execution, why then didn’t he shoot him again and again, finishing the deed?
These are questions his trial attorneys should have explored, questions that may, one day, be raised again. These are questions I am not allowed to ask.
EARLY IN HIS CAREER, Art Hoppe, a popular San Francisco columnist and foe of capital punishment, wrote a detailed story about an execution at San Quentin that the editors refused to print, saying it would “give the readers the willies.” According to Hoppe, this reluctance to expose the public to what was being done in their name convinced him that capital punishment was a barbarism that wouldn’t long survive in “our increasingly civilized society. If people couldn’t read about it in detail, surely they couldn’t approve of it in practice.”
Hoppe waged an attack on the death penalty with three basic arguments: Capital punishment does not deter crime; it costs more to execute a criminal than to jail him for life; and “its only conceivable purpose is vengeance.”
The first major report on capital punishment prepared for the United Nations in 1962 concluded that “all the information available appears to confirm that removal of the death penalty has, in fact, never been followed by a notable rise in the incidence of the crime no longer punishable by death.” Yet despite the U.N. findings, in 1976, the Supreme Court, burdened with requests, set forth in Gregg vs. Georgia the right of states to kill their citizens if they wanted to. (Throughout the U.S., among states with and without the death penalty, data over the last three years show violent crime holds steady or drops slightly.)
Amnesty International computes the cost. As they work through the lengthy and expensive appeal process, each death row inmate costs the nation more than $3 million, three times the cost of locking up someone for life.
These data help disprove both the crime-deterrence and cost rationales offered in support of the death penalty. Support for Hoppe’s third argument, that the “only conceivable purpose for enacting the death penalty is vengeance,” comes not from numbers but reports of actual condemned men’s life-to-death journey.
Most condemned men go quietly like Chessman. But there are exceptions. Leandress Riley was one. Robert O. Pierce is another. A black man, Pierce was sentenced to San Quentin death row after being convicted of the murder of a cab driver. He was, at 27, just a year older than Weaver the day he faced the electric chair. Pierce managed somehow to get a fragment of broken mirror into the death cell, and, as he knelt to receive the chaplain’s last benediction, he cut a three-inch gash across his throat. The wound was not deep enough to kill him. As he clawed and kicked, four guards were needed to drag him into the chamber, where his partner in crime waited quietly. Witnesses heard Pierce cry out, “I’m innocent, God, you know I’m innocent. Please Lord, I am.” The blood from the gash in his neck spread over his white shirt as he was forcibly strapped into the chair. As the door was locked, the witnesses heard him scream, “God, you son of a bitch, don’t let me go like this!”
More recently, in August 1995, guards at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary at McAlester went to the holding cell to wake Robert Brecheen, 40, before his scheduled execution by lethal injection. Brecheen was found groggy, breathing heavily, his pupils dilated. He had somehow managed to get drugs and had overdosed. Drifting in and out of consciousness, he was rushed to the hospital where his stomach was pumped.
The husband of Brecheen’s victim waited patiently for two hours while the killer was brought back to the prison and strapped into the gurney. “It was not his job to take his life,” said the man. He watched the execution.
“Certainly there’s irony,” said Larry Fields, director of Oklahoma’s corrections department. “But we’re bound by the law, the same law he violated.” Under a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, it is not sufficient that the condemned pay for his crime with his life. The condemned “has to be aware of his execution and he has to know why he is being executed,” said Sandy Howard, an assistant Oklahoma attorney general.
Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, writes of her experiences as spiritual advisor to convicted felons facing death. “How is it,” she writes, “that the mandate and example of Jesus, so clearly urging compassion and nonviolence, could so quickly become accommodated? Over the years the crimes meriting death might change, but, for the most part, the blessing of God on retaliatory punishment has been unquestioned.” Sister Prejean goes on to cite biblical passages of divine justice meted out to guilty and innocent alike, passages she says are used by those who justify retaliation: the Great Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the slaying of the first-born sons of the Egyptians. According to Sister Prejean, “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord; I will repay” can be interpreted as a command and a promise. But she wonders about this eye-for-an-eye business, how a God who wants to “get even” like the rest of us does not seem to be in question.
The pacifist Mahatma Gandhi declared that if everyone took an eye for an eye, “the whole world would be blind.”
If not fully blind, perhaps, then half mad? At least this is what Art Hoppe was left to wonder; for if the death penalty did not reduce crime but instead cost taxpayers billions, why then, he wrote in the Examiner, did Congress keep adding new federal crimes to those punishable by death? “Polls,” he writes, “showed the percentage of Americans favoring capital punishment was increasing, not decreasing. Today, it’s an overwhelming majority....”
Hoppe complained that what bothered him most about executions was our intellectual dishonesty. Writing in 1992, he reported that “some of the growing majority who support the death penalty say they do so because it’s a deterrent. Last year, there were 23,440 murders in the United States and 14 executions. That works out to one execution for every 1671 murders.”
LaTwon Weaver is only one of the 3000 inmates on America’s death rows — a figure larger by far than any time in world history. According to recent statistics, California leads with 407, followed by Texas (398) and Florida (342). Yet for each of the last 19 years, ever since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to resume capital punishment, no more than about 2 percent of the death row total has ever been executed. Spending a reported annual $90 million on capital cases, California has managed to gas just two inmates (and one of them waived all his appeals).
For every inmate who is executed, there are five new ones to take his (or in the rare case, her) cell. According to a Newsweek essay on capital punishment (August 1995), “To clean up the backlog, states would have to execute a killer a day (Christmas and Easter included) through 2021. Even Texas, far and away the nation’s death-penalty capital, with a third of all executions since 1976, manages to dispatch only about one in eight condemned inmates.”
Amnesty International investigated the judicial process of the hundred or so governments that impose the death sentence (the U.S. and Turkey are the only NATO countries to continue to execute). They found that without exception, the penalty of death is disproportionately meted out to “the poor, the powerless, the marginalized, or those whom repressive governments deem it expedient to eliminate.”
However central race and poverty are to the vexing national debate over the death penalty, those moral and ideological questions are placed in perspective by a simpler fact: People sentenced to death nonetheless live on in prison. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics, as of 1992, the most frequent cause of death for death row inmates is “natural causes.”
"I’M THE YOUNGEST,” SAYS WEAVER, speaking of those who are housed with him in the East Block. “And I think the oldest, he’s 68.” It is with these men that Weaver “shares the word of God. I, myself, believe in the word of Jesus Christ, and that’s what I try and share with others. But there are some who don’t have any interest in the Bible. I understand that. But they have the same problems as the others. Some talk about how they don’t want to live anymore.”
Weaver looks at me. The pupils of his eyes, dark against the whites, show the clarity of one young and healthy. “I haven’t seen the moon or stars in three years. I miss seeing birds in the air and people in regular clothes. Nothing changes here. A day is like a year. Sometimes it goes so slow and hurts so bad, with everything always the same, that some of the men talk about hanging themselves."
“And what about you?”
He colors. “I believe in faith and love. That’s what I try to share, and it doesn’t matter if you believe in Jesus. You can never get too much of faith and love.”
What Weaver cannot offer is hope. But then there are any number of critics who argue that he does not need to, that hope is a gift of the gridlocked California judicial system. This is not, however, a condition peculiar to this state.
Across the U.S. there is a stalemate in the capital punishment system. Bodies are not finding their way before firing squads, into gas chambers or electric chairs, or onto the lethal - injection gurneys. A ferociously dedicated group of defense attorneys like David Ferntino and his colleagues at the California Appellate Project can be said to be “gumming up the works.”
Fermino dislikes the term as much as the concept. “We are here to vindicate the constitutional rights that are our birthright as Americans. Freedom does not come cheaply. I believe in fairness and the right of every person, rich or poor, to the best defense." And as for what is offered by a clogged judicial system, he puts it this way: “Delay does not provide hope. If anything, it increases the agony.”
In addition, judges grant stays of execution, courts devise complex rules, and prosecutors don’t push cases along. At the top of the system is the U.S. Supreme Court, which often splits five-to-four on capital cases, indicating, according to the Newsweek article, “even the Supremes can’t figure things out."
And then there is the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. California’s attorney general, Dan Lungren, describes it as the most liberal of the circuit courts in the country. “Some members appear to have a strong bias against the death penalty,” says Lungren.
According to Newsweek, Lungren had in mind the case of Robert Alton Harris, which embarrassed the state and federal judicial systems in 1992. Harris had been before both the California and the U.S. Supreme Courts six times in his 13 years on San Quentin’s death row. On the eve of his scheduled appointment with the executioner, the Ninth Circuit kept issuing stays, and the justices in Washington kept lifting them. This went on into the predawn hours, when finally an enraged Supreme Court cited the Ninth Circuit’s “civil dis-obedience” and ordered the circuit judges to abstain from any further interference. Harris was executed forthwith.
Lungren notes that the 24-member Ninth Circuit appeals court has several judges who consistently vote against death sentences. This, of course, slows down the process. But with only 8 cases pending before that court, this should not pose a serious problem. But of the 407 condemned prisoners, 120 cases are stalled before the state supreme court because there are no defense lawyers for them. (Constitutional law entitles them to representation.) “We haven’t appointed counsel for anyone in 1993, 1994, or 1995,” says Robert Reichman, a court administrator. “We’re on 1992 cases.” That grants at least three extra years of life for California’s condemned.
“While this may be an area of legitimate concern,” observed Lungren, “we do not have any direct jurisdiction over it; and at a time when my own department is facing cuts of $10 million, it is questionable how much leverage we would have in achieving funding for court-appointed defense lawyers.”
Alex Kozinski, one of the country’s most outspoken and conservative federal judges, wrote in a controversial op-ed article in the New York Times, “We have constructed a machine that is extremely expensive, chokes our legal institutions, visits repeated trauma on victims’ families, and ultimately produces nothing like the benefits we would expect from an effective system of capital punishment.”
SAN QUENTIN’S CAS CHAMBER lies outside the walls of the prison, a few yards from the guards’ mess and across the street from the employees’ snack bar and barbershop. Execution witnesses enter from the street, the condemned man and his guards from inside the walls. Behind the chamber, hidden by a partition, is the machinery room where the guard assigned as executioner prepares the sulfuric-acid solution and eventually pulls the bright red lever that drops the cyanide into the acid.
The condemned is brought down on the elevator from death row late in the afternoon of the day before execution. He is held in one of two death-watch cells, tiny rooms furnished only with toilets and mattresses. Here he spends his last night under the sharp eyes of two guards. His last dinner is cooked to order in the guards’ kitchen. After dinner, he is visited by the chaplains and the warden. He can spend his last night sleeping or chatting with the death watch.
Fifteen minutes before the hour of execution, the condemned man is given a fresh suit of clothes — a white shirt and blue jeans without pockets that might collect poisonous fumes to injure the men who will remove the body. The chief medical officer tapes a stethoscope diaphragm to his chest and examines him to make sure he is aware of what is happening.
In the course of their stay on death row, prisoners fill out a form, checking off if they prefer the gas chamber or lethal injection. Joy MacFarlane, public information officer at San Quentin, describes lethal injection as “humane.”
Among prison personnel, lethal injection is indeed the death of choice, not so much because it works better than other methods of execution, but because it is a medical procedure. It has the appearance of being more “scientific” than shooting, hanging, gassing, or electrocution. It is clinical. The equipment includes intravenous lines, prescription drugs, a hospital gurney, medical technicians, and an execution protocol in which the condemned person is sedated prior to being executed. With lethal injection, there is no obvious damage to the inmate. Officer MacFarlane stresses that the inmate “simply goes to sleep.”
But it is not so simple. According to Stephen Trombley, author of The Execution Protocol, lethal injection is a complex and lengthy operation. Lethal-injection is not a simple matter of injecting a single dose into the inmate’s arm. Three separate drugs are required. Fred Leuchter, who invented the lethal-injection machine, maintains that the Texas procedure of manual injection has meant “about 80 percent of these executions have had one problem or another. In the final analysis, it looks disgusting.” The condemned men routinely choke, cough, spasm, and writhe as they die. Technicians sometimes fail to properly insert the IV line into his veins. In the execution of Raymond Landry, for example, the IV line carrying the lethal drugs burst, spraying the execution team with the fatal chemicals. A new IV line was inserted while Landry was half-dead; he took 24 minutes to die. It took 47 minutes to find Billy Wayne White’s vein, even after he tried to assist the executioners in locating a suitable one.
Leuchter recommends his own machine, which introduces 15cc of 2 percent sodium pentothal over ten seconds, followed by a one-minute wait. This causes unconsciousness. The machine then injects 15cc of pancuronium bromide, followed by a one-minute wait. Finally, 15cc of potassium chloride. Death usually follows within two minutes.
The basic design requirement of the lethal injection machine is that it kill quickly and efficiently and in a way that causes the least pain and distress to the condemned person, the executioners, and the witnesses. Leuchter concluded that the way to achieve this is to give the condemned person a pre-injection of lOcc of antihistamine half an hour prior to the execution. This ensures that choking, coughing, and spasming will be reduced to a minimum. The inmate should also be sedated with a pre-injection of diluted sodium pentothal five minutes before bringing him into the death chamber. According to Leuchter, this helps to make the inmate docile and less resistant to his fate. Forty-five minutes before the start of the execution, the condemned is attached to an IV line delivering saline solution, which allows the lethal drugs to pass more easily into his veins.
With the purchase of his machine, Leuchter offers a training package that is a combination of classroom teaching and “actual hands-on use of the equipment.”
Major Kendall Coody of the Louisiana State Prison helped to execute five men, and he argues that no matter what the procedure, “When you’re there and you see it, when you watch it happen with your own eyes and are a part of it, you feel dirty. You’re killing a man who can’t defend himself, and that is just as wrong as what he did.”
Fred Leuchter takes the scientific approach with his students. “The human body is designed not to be destroyed. The minute you stop the heart, it has a mechanism for restarting the heart. And heart death is the key in all executions. So we have to design a system that, after it destroys the brain, it destroys the heart. It’s crucial to electrocution, to lethal injection, even hanging. They all do the same thing. It results in brain death, and then heart cessation. So anyone who deals with these things is trained in all of the aspects, including the medical. And it makes them better people. It makes them more comfortable with their job.”
"HEY, OPEN THIS DOOR!” he shouted. “Let me out of here!” The middle-aged man pounded frantically at the door. There were voices from the other side, but he could not make out what they were saying. But his every word and movement were being captured by a closed-circuit television camera. The man, who had nonchalantly stepped inside a musty, forbidding cell at a now-unused state penitentiary, had just become part of an art exhibit intended to convey the sensations of imprisonment. The door would open automatically after four minutes.
This offbeat art experience, which ran during the summer of 1995, was intended to immerse the viewers in the realities of prison life. According to the show’s director, some people would panic when they were locked in. Others would just giggle.
In another town, as part of the well-publicized inauguration of a new prison facility, men and women paid for the privilege of spending the night in jail. Proceeds from the event went to charity.
Prison for art patrons is an aesthetic experience. For charity donors it is a tax write-off. For Weaver and other inmates of death row, prison is an ugly reality that was designed, according to John Irvine, for a permanent underclass that he calls the rabble.
Irvine writes that the rabble class is a product of many of our basic social processes. It is related to individualistic cultural values that promote estrangement, to the continuing influx of nonwhite immigrants who are occupationally unprepared and vulnerable to discrimination based on strong racial prejudices; it is also related to the “suspended” social status of American youth. “Young people are rarely admitted to adult social activities and institutions until they are in their twenties. During this extended period of prohibition, they are freed from many adult responsibilities and offered a great deal of leisure time.... [T]hey invent their own social worlds. Some of these worlds are bizarre and deviant, and many of them, notably those in which drug use is prominent, recruit members into the rabble class.” Finally, according to Irvine, “the existence of the rabble class is related to persistent unemployment...especially among nonwhite minorities and black youth.”
LaTwon Weaver found himself, at 23, on “hold” in Los Angeles County where, he knew, a black man could expect to be assaulted by the police, whom society expects to control “disreputables.” Roosevelt Dorn, now a juvenile court judge in Weaver’s hometown of Inglewood, was roughed up by police officers who stopped him during a robbery investigation. They did not take the time to ask him why he was carrying a gun. He was a deputy sheriff at the time. Mervin Dymally, at the time a state senator, was clubbed at a demonstration by a police officer; the congressman said later the officer refused to listen to his attempts to identify himself. John Brewer was forced to lie spread-eagle on the ground after a traffic stop. At the time his father was the highest-ranking black officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. And Simpson defense attorney Johnnie Cochran was once forced out of his car at gunpoint. According to Cochran, who was then an assistant district attorney, the officers said they stopped him because they believed the Rolls-Royce he was driving was stolen.
As an unemployed black male, Weaver was a statistic when he left his home in Los Angeles, where the police force has since come under special critical scrutiny. He fled south, looking for work and the chance to be with his girlfriend and small daughter. Soon he would become a different statistic, joining the more rarefied group of men on California’s death row.
STEVE TOSCI, A BAY AREA ATTORNEY, speaks for an uncertain number when he says that if it is barbaric to execute those who have killed, “Then let it be. Barbarism for barbarians.” District Attorney Lynne Abraham is, like Tosci, a death penalty purist. “I don’t care how many millions it costs, given the billions wasted every year in large cities. Please don’t tell me about cost when [compared to] the rights of the victim. It’s of no interest to me. It’s not even a consideration. Whatever it costs is worth it.” Taking up the issue of “victim’s rights,” Lynne Abraham was catapulted into Philadelphia’s district attorney’s seat.
For Thurgood Marshall, it was the same issue of victim’s rights that brought to a formal end his long tenure with the Supreme Court. His dissenting opinion in Payne vs. Tennessee (1991) argued that because blacks who kill whites are shown to be given stiffer sentences, and because the relatives and loved ones of those same whites will then have an opportunity to address the court during the penalty phase of the trial, certainly the sentences assigned to blacks would prove even more excessive.
Michael Broome’s mother, brother, and wife addressed the court during the penalty phase of Weaver’s trial. They spoke of the painful rebuilding of their lives, of children still dreaming their father would one day return, of their daily fears and nightly grieving.
Janet Yassen of the Victims of Violence Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says people like the Broomes need at least a year for the rage, grief, and loss to settle so they can begin to integrate what has happened to them. The feelings of rage never entirely go away, she says, but gradually the “volume” goes down, and victims can accept other emotions — the appreciation of beauty, friendship, trust.
But in the meantime, Annette Broome, the young widow and mother, was left alone to cope, and it was not easy. “When your heart is broken,” she said in court, “that’s it. It’s broken.”
Reverend Weaver’s South Missionary Baptist Church continues to hold the Broome family in their prayers. The day of sentencing, dozens were in court to speak to her of her pain and of their own loss, the loss of one of their young men. Judge Lester did not hear them. Given their numbers, he said, he thought it would be better if they wrote out their comments. He promised to read them.
In court, Weaver says, he apologized to the Broome family.
“What did they say?” I ask.
“They walked out.”
“You have never had a chance to tell them what you feel?”
“I write a letter every day,” Weaver says, “but I never send them.”
“I don’t know. Maybe because,” he pauses, “I don’t know what words can do. I apologize for what happened — I don’t try to clear myself — just explain that I didn’t mean to do it.” He looks down at his hands. “I know I can’t do anything about how they’re hurting, but maybe with me in here they can move on with their lives. What happened, it’s something that I have to carry with me for the rest of my life.”
There is an awkward silence in which neither Fermino nor I move. He seems to be holding something in. I realize what it is when I suddenly discover I, too, am holding my breath. We can feel it coming. And then when it does, we don’t look at each other or the weeping man.
“His children saying, ‘Some black man killed my father....’ That, and my little girl growing up without her daddy. That’s the worst part!”
Camus has written that every murderer, when he kills, feels innocent, excused by his particular circumstances. Certainly LaTwon is saddened for the Broome children and his own daughter. But perhaps what strikes him most deeply as he weeps is the utter irrevocability of what he has done. At the trial he reported that he was drunk and that the gun went off by accident. But it was he in the jewelry store. And when the .44-caliber Magnum went off, it was in his hand.
He wipes at his eyes. “Sorry,” he says.
RON ROSENBAUM, WRITING FOR the New York Times, speaks of ours as the culture of excuse, of explanation as exoneration. “Talk-show culture has tended to suggest that we can trace all our problems to past abuse of one kind or another, and that once explained, we are absolved. Talk-show culture has been the last refuge of the Enlightenment belief that to understand all is to forgive all.”
LaTwon Weaver grew up in a stable home rooted in the ethics formed from a deeply held Christian faith. I don’t understand what happened that afternoon; and even if I’d been able to ask certain questions and LaTwon answer them, what response can explain what prompted him at that fatal moment to pull the trigger? Sitting with him, I don’t imagine he ever meant to kill a man and effectively end his own life. What he did was pull a trigger.
In Cell 2455: Death Row, Caryl Chessman wrote that there is a difference between one who kills and one who is a killer. For the death penalty purists, such distinctions are both ridiculous and irresponsible. But even these, according to the Newsweek article, are now more willing to narrow the category of killers eligible for death down to a manageable few — terrorists, mass-murderers, contract killers, not the small-time robber who kills in a panic.
The Newsweek article offers, “The other choice, of course, is to summon up the political will to commence executions in record numbers...devoting millions of tax dollars for more prosecutors, and new U.S. Supreme Court policy to give those prosecutors more leeway. In turn that would mean more tolerance of imperfect justice. ‘I tell folks that if they want appeals limited to two or three years, sometime we’ll execute the wrong person,’ says Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers. ‘Of course we will. We’re human.’ ”
THERE IS A THIRD CHOICE, one a growing number of Americans support. An Amnesty International survey in four U.S. states found that people seem to prefer a system of criminal justice that combines punishment for offenders with restitution for the victims. Support for the death penalty as punishment for felony murder drops to about 50 percent when people are offered the alternative of mandatory 25-year imprisonment without possibility of parole, coupled with restitution to the victim’s family from the labor of the offenders.
This is the alternative Sister Helen Prejean believes must certainly one day be adopted. As part of her duties as spiritual advisor, she has walked death row inmates into the execution chamber and stood on the other side of the glass as a witness to their last moments.
“This man about to die is not innocent,” she has written, “but he is human, and that is enough to draw God near.”
Sister Prejean’s God does not countenance the taking of human life under any circumstances. Nor, for that matter, do many of God’s creations. In June 1995, South Africa abolished the death penalty. “Everyone, including the most abominable of human beings, has a right to life,” said the chief judge.
OUR INTERVIEW IS OVER. We stand, waiting for the guard to appear. LaTwon has said that we don’t need to wait. “That’s okay,” says Fermino, smiling at his client. “We’ll wait.” And that is what we do.
Amnesty International defines torture as an extreme physical or mental assault on a person who has been rendered defenseless, and I know America is guilty of torture. It is not just those men whose executions went wrong or who were brought back to life in order to die. I wait with LaTwon knowing that with each day — and despite the judicial backlog — he knows he is that much closer to his death. He killed a man, but in these terms, if I can never presume the vulgar notion that such an act was merciful, it at least does not approach the extended torture meted out here.
The guard appears. LaTwon backs up and places his hands into the slot. As the handcuffs are put on, he turns away from us. Then it is done and he turns back. The gate is unlocked.
“Take care of yourself,” I tell him.
“Stay with what you believe in.” This is his answer.
I repeat, “Take care of yourself.”
He smiles. “It’s how you conduct yourself....”
Then he is taken away. He is not wearing his sunglasses, and for a moment I worry about this, about whether he’ll be all right. Then I try to put him out of my mind. I collect my note cards. At the window, beyond it, water stretches away in a great wide blue dazzle. It strikes me then that LaTwon never once looked out the window. But I am not surprised. What, after all, is worse, to gaze on what one is forbidden to touch and suffer with longing or not look and suffer the choice of blinding oneself?
Fermino nods to his colleague. The woman in the other cage is working with another black man, a death row inmate. So very long ago, she had told me the experience of being here was always surreal. And so it has been.
Outside I take a deep breath. It feels very good to be out in the fresh air. The noon-hour sun is bright. It washes over the building, turning it a buttery, baked color. The Greek temple has become the gingerbread house.
Fermino and I make our way down the hill.
“You see what I mean?” he asks. A breeze blows through his crown of short-cropped curls. “Do you see what kind of person he is? He doesn’t belong on death row. He shouldn’t even spend the rest of his life in prison.”
I know. I agree. But what is to be done?
I thank Fermino, knowing that it is best for a death row defense attorney when the world mostly forgets about his client. The prisoners on death row have done hideous things, and when the bloody details are fresh, the public cries out for punishment, the harsher the better. When the crimes have faded and passions cool, their fight becomes legal or philosophical rather than emotional. If I retell the story of LaTwon Weaver, the world will recall what he has done. Supporters of the death penalty will go after him. He has killed and he must pay with his own life, they’ll say. Critics will cite all the relevant data to support their claim that someone like LaTwon does not deserve to die. Supporters will say race had nothing to do with the matter. Critics will say race had everything to do with it. How can that debate not bring forth all our fears and resentments, our feelings about race and poverty, our definitions of torture, our assumptions of grace?
Fermino and I pass a group of well-dressed college-age youngsters, about 20 and, with the exception of two Asians, all white. They are on a tour of San Quentin. For the most part, they seem subdued, throwing nervous side-glances at Fermino and me. One boy wearing a backpack and music headset trails behind the group as the staff guide leads them up the hill. They are heading for the main building, where men await the hour of their death. As we pass, the boy with the backpack and headset gives the hippie sign for peace.
Later, I will request a second visit to Weaver and, as Fermino had warned, will be denied permission with no reason given.
Fermino has been saying something. I catch myself, looking to him. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening....”
“I love him,” said Fermino, repeating himself. I stop in my tracks, staring at the other man, uncertain of his meaning. His color has not changed. He looks me straight in the eye. “Yes, I love him. And if they take LaTwon,” he adds, “I could not continue to be a part of this system.”
For a moment I can say nothing. Lawyers seldom love their clients, and fewer still declare their feelings. I cannot speak because David Fermino, so quiet and contained, has declared himself in a way that makes unnecessary, even glib, any response I might have. Whether it is LaTwon Weaver the man, the case, or what both together represent, this man has been profoundly touched. And, as if I have taken off a pair of dark glasses of my own, I understand: LaTwon is not a killer. He is a man who has killed — and however much this sounds like a semantic argument, it offers a crucial distinction. He happens to be a martyr to a moment, and even if it should be one of his own making, neither he nor, for that fact, any man should live with the sentence of death hanging over his head.
When LaTwon Weaver stood to receive his sentence, a stillness settled over the courtroom. It went quieter still as the sentence of death was pronounced. It was into that stunned silence that Catalina Weaver, the boy’s mother, threw herself, “You will live!” she cried out. “You will live!”
Fermino and I take the curve at the bottom of the hill and pass out of sight of the prison where, according to the cause-and-effect conditions of that place from which we have just stepped, that shy and vital young person I have just interviewed is a man already dead.
— Hawkins Mitchell