Tuesday, 29 March 2011

For Sam

Reading the recent update from Amnesty International on The Green Benches took my mind back the memory of a dear friend, Sam.

Some years back I was involved with Human Writes, an organisation that befriends people on Death Row in the US. As active campaigning against the death penalty is an obstacle to getting good access to Death Row, they entirely focus on providing friendship and support for prisoners.

I was put in contact with Sam,sentenced in 2001. We exchanged letters and soon became friends. He was always very polite and very keen see the world through my eyes. He often said I was his window to the world. We became genuine friends, and I learned more and more about his life.

The Early Years

Sam was born to a family ruled by absolute terror, where no trace of love or care was present. Family rules were enforced with a rod of iron, and minor infringements were brutally dealt with. Sam recalled being locked in a dark cupboard for hours at a time as a punishment. Violence was used against him and his brothers, including beatings with bare-wired cables, deliberate burns and even electrocutions. Further, Sam was subject to sexual abuse by his father over many years.

Sam, did try to get help, but all the Authority figures he dealt with ignored or disbelieved him for years and years. Eventually, the horror of this family home was discovered and Sam and his brothers were put into foster care.

A Trouble Youth

As Sam had fallen through every safety net and suffered serious trauma of every kind, he struggled to cope with adult world. He loved the outdoors and found occasional work in the oil fields of Texas. This was never stable, and Sam found himself getting involved in crime. He served prison sentences for forgery, burglary and for possession of a prohibited firearm.

Sam's Capital Crime

On the 18th January 1998 Sam was collected from home by his brothers in pick up truck. They were heading out to the Texas border to pick up illegal immigrants from Mexico. A 27 year old Hispanic male was picked up, and in the ensuing struggle received 10 stab wounds. The victim escaped from the truck, but died later.

Sam and his brothers were quickly picked up by the police. Sam was subsequently charged with second degree murder while committing a Felony.

Sam always admitted to stabbing the victim, but always denied robbery was the motive. He said that he snapped, as the victim reminded him of his father.

The victim was in full possession of his valuables when found dead.

Sam's Trial

Sam was essentially penniless, so his legal representation was State appointed. In the US, lawyers doing this work get less time and money to defend clients, compared to the rich pickings of defending the wealthy. Therefore, Sam's attorney did a very poor job with Sam's case. Aspects of his defence that should have investigated correctly were not, something that was to have terrible consequences later.

The case against Sam was that the victim was killed when being robbed. As the victim had no valuables taken, the evidence was weak. However, while deliberating, the jury came across and considered a statement made by Sam's brother, stating that Sam had intended to go out and rob someone that evening.

This evidence was not put forward by the prosecution, so how the jury got it remains a mystery. The Judge, instead of declaring a mistrial with the current jury, simply asked them to ignore this evidence and carry on. They came back and found Sam guilty, and the Death Sentence was passed on the 16th March 2001.

The Appeal

Sam appealed the sentence on the grounds that his attorney made fundamental mistakes with his defence. However, the law basically said that any evidence known at the time of the original trial, but not submitted, cannot be considered later. In this way Sam was condemned by the actions of his lawyer.

Another angle, that the statement of his brother should not have been given to the jury, and by the jury seeing what was an unproven, unchallenged piece of evidence they were fundamentally compromised, was rejected.

Eventually, Sam's appeals ran out of road.

Death by Lethal Injection

On Tuesday 29th April 2010 Sam was killed by lethal injection.

First, Sodium thiopental is given. It is a very strong ultra-short action barbiturate, an anaesthetic agent capable of rendering the prisoner unconscious in a few seconds.

Next, Pancuronium is injected. This is a non-depolarizing muscle relaxant, which causes complete, fast and sustained paralysis of the skeletal striated muscles, including the diaphragm and the rest of the respiratory muscles; this would eventually cause death by asphyxiation.

Finally, Potassium chloride is injected that stops the heart.

The Aftermath

Sam was not perfect, he did many things wrong and he killed a man.

However, Sam was brutalised and abused by all those in his life who should have nurtured him. People are not born killers or monsters, they are the product of how they are brought up, and the values this upbringing instils in them. Sam's start in life meant he was damaged from the beginning.

The flaws in the justice system are clear. The quality of justice received is too often dependent on the size of your bank account.

Death Row is full of people like Sam – like in the UK, a dysfunctional upbringing, poor education and poverty are strongly correlated to crime.

Please don't let Sam's death be in vain, or the death of his victim either. The way to prevent such tragedies is makes sure that no child grows up in the poverty and suffer the abuse that Sam suffered, and that everyone is given the chance to contribute to society in a positive way, without inequality or barriers.

The true face of the Death Penalty is an ugly one.


  1. Thanks for the post - both informative and interesting.

    There's a wider problem with the American courts as well. The emphasis is much less on what's right and justice and more about the lawyer 'winning'.

    The description of the lethal injection made me shudder. Especially as the first step is not fool proof and has been known to fail.

  2. Thanks for that Anarchist.

    The American courts are too adversarial, it is true.

    Also, the politicisation of the Judiciary is a problem. High Court Judges are elected, so if the public will for the Death Penalty is strong (like in Texas), a Judge who looks soft on this is unlikely to get elected. This is why I do not wanted elected Police Chiefs in the UK - they could turn very 'populist' easily.

    You are correct about the lethal injection. Mistakes are made, and this can result unimaginable suffering for the victim.

    The Death Penalty, in my opinion, is flawed at every level, except as a means of delivering revenge and retribution. I do not think such ugly Human traits should be a motive for any justice system.

    Also, this punishment is unfairly administered to mostly those who end up the on the wrong side of the tracks in life, when often, like Sam, their circumstances doom them from the start.