Monday, January 19, 2009

Death Row

by Katherine Scardino

I have recently visited someone on Death Row (Texas Death Row, pictured left). In my 24 years of working in the criminal justice field, I have never been there before. I have heard from other people how depressing it is, but it is impossible to put into words the immediate response your mind has to the meaning of this place. You know that you are walking into a space occupied by people who are looking at an "end date". That is something that none of us have to do. We all know, intellectually, that we will not live forever, and that at one point in time, we will die. But, we do not know when. Many of the tenants of Death Row have a date. They know when their heart will stop beating, when their lungs will no longer take a breath, when their brain will cease to function.

The Texas Death Row is located in Livingston, Texas, in the Polunsky Unit. It is about five miles off the main road and sits alone. It is a sad sight. I went there to visit an inmate named Michael Toney. I had been contacted by a lawyer working for one of the big law firms in San Francisco, the kind of law firm that is able to do free legal work for whomever they choose. It is the type of law firm that those who are involved with it just call it "the Firm". The Firm decided to dedicate free lawyer hours and effort to free Michael Toney off Death Row. The Firm, along with another lawyer named Jared Tyler, who works for the
Texas Defender Service, have been successful in getting Mr. Toney a new trial. That is where I enter the scene.

Michael Toney (pictured right) was convicted in Tarrant County in 1999 for a bombing that occurred there in November 1985. Yes, I said "1985". He was accused of placing an explosive device in a briefcase and setting the briefcase down in front of a trailer and subsequently killed three people. He obtained a reversal from the Fifth Circuit and a new trial as a result of misconduct by the State prosecutors in Tarrant County during his trial. It seems that they withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense lawyers, not to mention the fact that witnesses have recanted their testimony and State witnesses had different version of facts used to convict him. You can imagine how bad the problems had to be in a capital murder case in order for the Fifth Circuit to reverse his prior conviction.

I went to see Michael Toney with one of his lawyers, Jared Tyler. Jared and I sat in a cold room waiting for him to be brought in, unhandcuffed, and sat down behind a glass partition on a concrete stool. (Everything that can possibly be made out of concrete is concrete in the Polunsky Unit.) Mr. Toney arrived looking like he had just spent the last 10 years on Death Row. His complexion was pale and unhealthy, which is what inmates look like who have spent many hours in their cell with no access to a regular walk to the store in the sunshine.

I have always wondered about sensory deprivation. Can you imagine not touching another human being for years at a time. There have been many studies about the effect of sensory deprivation on inmates who are segregated or other people who choose to just be alone. Sensory deprivation is the deliberate reduction or removal of stimuli from one or more of the senses. It is one of the most favored measures used by the CIA in its "war on terror". It has so far been used on many detainees at Guantanamo Bay to the extreme - to the point of hallucinations of sight and sound, followed by a breakdown akin to psychosis.

Michael Toney sits in his 60 square feet of space 23 out of the 24 hours each day. During his one hour out of his cell, he must do his errands - like go to the Commissary, bathe, brush his teeth, plus try to work in a little sunshine. Sensory deprivation can change a person’s attitude and personality. It can make you paranoid, psychotic and generally mess up your mind.

I do not want to discuss today the crimes that were committed to cause Michael Toney or any of the inmates to be living at this facility. We all are well aware of the type of crime that results in a death penalty. As I said before, the people who live on Death Row are going to be executed at some point - except for Michael Toney, and I am going to try and work on that. But, they are human beings, even though they are treated and kept as animals. We keep them isolated, alone, no human contact, and then complain when they turn into an animal. We put our captured animals in cages in the zoo, and for the most part, they surely look peeved when I go to visit them. They are angry. The caged animals act angry. We read about an elephant attacking his trainer, a lion mauling a child, or some other horrid act - by an animal who should be in the wild but for us humans who think we must have a sample of their species in a cage for us to look at and point at and laugh at. They act angry - we shoot them. In the Polunsky Unit, when an inmate acts angry, he gets "written up" or deprived of his one hour of sunlight each day. Does anyone other than me see how ludicrous this is?

Michael Toney has something to look forward to. He has hope now. He talked about other inmates being jealous of his new trial. He was ready to get off Death Row and shipped to the Tarrant County Jail, where he will stay until a jury renders a verdict in his next trial. This time, I know that the verdict will be a lot different than the last one and I know that for one reason - all of the evidence will be presented to a jury - not just a part of it.


Anon said...

I hope the jurors can reach a verdict in this new trial..

I think the problem with Toney is that he lies so much. That is what unlimately got him charged and convicted in the bombing. The frightening thing is that if he didn't do it, the is a murderer out there.

I am looking forward to seeing how this turns out.

Diane Fanning said...

Your impression of Death Row brought flashes of unwanted memory into my mind. When I visited, I always had the irrational fear that I wouldn't be able to leave--that when I was trapped between the double locked doors, neither one would ever open again.

L'Itinérant said...

Thanks a lot for this testimony, hard to read. A question : will you defend Mr Toney for free, as the Firm did it ? If you do, please, receive all my admiration.

katherine scardino said...

If I were independently wealthy, I would love to defend Mr. Toney for free, but unfortunately, I am not and therefore, cannot...but, if I am hired - or appointed - I will do everything I can to get this man out of prison. Thank you for your kind comment.

Donna Pendergast said...


Prir to charging Coral Watts in Michigan I had to viit the former death row prison in Huntsille Texas. It truly was a frightning experience. I remember how helpless I felt when the double locked doors clicked behind me.

While my officer in charge of the case was interviewing Watts(to no avail) I had to use the restroom. I was directed the clinic/infirmary a ways away from the room where I was watching the interiew.

As I walked alone through those hallways I was freaked----of course to everyone who worked there it was no big deal.

Scary and freaky!

dudleysharp said...

Of course, many, if not the overwhelming majority, of the soon to be innocent murder victims knew that they would be murdered within moments, as they struggled to stay alive.

Murderers are given the death penalty because judges or jurors find it a just, earned and deserved sanction for their crimes.

The innocent murder victims did not deserve their fate.

As Quaker bilical scholar
Dr. Gervas A. Carey observed, in apparent agreement with Saints Augustine and Aquinas, that executions represent mercy to the wrongdoer, ". . . a secondary measure of the love of God may be said to appear. For capital punishment provides the murderer with incentive to repentance which the ordinary man does not have, that is a definite date on which he is to meet his God. It is as if God thus providentially granted him a special inducement to repentance out of consideration of the enormity of his crime . . . the law grants to the condemned an opportunity which he did not grant to his victim, the opportunity to prepare to meet his God. Even divine justice here may be said to be tempered with mercy." (p. 116).

synopsis of "A Bible Study".from Essays on the Death Penalty, T. Robert Ingram, ed., St. Thomas Press, Houston, 1963, 1992. Dr. Carey was a Professor of Bible and past President of George Fox College.

L'Itinérant said...

Answer to the "biblical scholar" : You shall not kill !
About Michael Toney… He is free since the 3rd of September.