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North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act Repealed: Major Setback in Civil Rights

6 Jun

Though many of us have seen this coming since Republicans took over the state legislature in North Carolina, we should take the time today to mourn the repeal of the groundbreaking Racial Justice Act–the legislation which allowed death row prisoners in North Carolina to appeal their death sentences (but not their convictions) on the grounds of racial bias in the jury. (For earlier writing on this blog about the Racial Justice Act, click here, here, and here.)   This law saved lives, and now we have taken a giant step backwards in protecting the civil rights of death row prisoners of color.  Until we manage to entirely end the barbarism of the death penalty in the U.S., we should avidly pursue the reinstatement of the Racial Justice Act in North Carolina and the creation of similar protective laws in other death penalty states.  In addition to offering a much needed avenue for appeal for individuals on death row, legislation like this helps those of us who oppose the death penalty to keep debates over the wildly erratic logic of capital punishment in the public eye.

Keep the 153 men and women on North Carolina’s death row in your thoughts today.  They have suffered an egregious loss, and the hopeless place in which they live has become all the more unbearable.


A Message from Robert Avila

14 Nov

The following words are a reproduction of a letter I received yesterday from Robert Avila. He requested that I post his words on this blog so that he could communicate directly with this website’s readers.  In the interest of not implicating parties unknown to me, I have omitted certain names in connection with Robert’s legal case.  As mentioned in my previous blog post about Robert’s impending execution, I do not know Robert personally nor have I done anything to investigate the circumstances surrounding his conviction.  I post his words here not as a journalistic or scholarly account of the events he describes but as a personal essay from a condemned man who wishes to communicate with the rest of the world.  –Ashley Lucas

Words of Gratitude and Awareness
by Robert Avila

November 2, 2012

I’d like to start off by saying thank you to Andrew Martinez from San Jose, CA, Andrea Ridgard from Ann Arbor, MI, Nancy Loiselle from El Paso, and Jim Dankovich from Birmingham, MI, for their words of encouragement and support.  Of course none of this would be possible were it not for someone whom has touched  my life instantaneously.  Her name is Ashley Lucas.  Without even knowing me personally, she reached out and introduced me on her blog here.  I can’t thank you enough, Ashley, you’re amazing!  This was all made possible by my dear friend Iris.  Words alone can’t describe what this wonderful woman means to me.  Iris, I love you infinitely!

Now then, I want to take this opportunity to tell you what happened to me back on February 29, 2000 so that this doesn’t happen to you or your loved one(s).  That evening around 6 PM at [name omitted]’s apartment in El Paso, TX, while siting in her living room, she asked me if I would watch her kids while she went to night school at the University of Phoenix (El Paso campus).  I said yes because I had done so on numerous other occasions.  Right afterwards she got up from the couch and went to her bedroom with her son [name omitted] (19 months old). I meantime was watching TV.  About 5 minutes later [name omitted] comes to the living room all in a hurry.  I thought it was strange but didn’t pay attention like I should’ve.  She then walks to the front door and tells me, “I’ve got to go.”  I got up from the couch and walk towards her and tell her, “Why are you leaving so in a hurry?”  She tells me, “If you say anything about this to anyone, I’ll have your Mom killed.”  I told her, “What are you talking about?”  She just looked at me and didn’t answer, then left.  I knew she was serious because her brother [name omitted] has connections with this notorious gang in west El Paso.  All she had to have done is called her brother on her cellphone and then he in turn contact his connection, so they could carry out the hit.  I wasn’t about to let that happen to my Mom, so I took the fall.  Back at the apartment I went to her bedroom, no sign of [name omitted].  I then went to the kids’ room and found [name omitted] lying on the floor face up.  His body was motionless and his lips were bluish. I right away picked him up in my arms and took him to the living room where the phone was.  I immediately dialed 911 so I could get assistance on performing CPR (cardio pulmonary resuscitation). As I was doing so, the paramedics arrived and took over.  They were able to get a pulse and immediately took him to Providence Memorial Hospital.  Unfortunately though, several hours later he passed away.  I was then arrested and charged with the capital murder of [name omitted]. On May 7, 2001 I was convicted and sentenced to death.  No evidence was proven in my trial because there didn’t exist any.  I was told that the reason I was convicted was because I showed no remorse.  Well, I couldn’t for something that I didn’t do to begin with.  Anyhow, I’ve stayed quiet long enough.  I can’t just sit back and let the State of Texas execute me for something I didn’t do.  I have the necessary proof that excludes me of this crime.  I just need to have it filed by an attorney.  Right now I have no attorney though.  So stay tuned, as soon as I hear something I’ll be sure to let you all know. . .

The Impending Execution of Robert Avila

28 Oct

Iris Morgenstern has to figure out how to say goodbye.

In her decades of teaching high school in El Paso, Texas, Iris has only had a few students who have stayed in her heart and her life for many years after they graduated.  She taught a boy named Robert Avila in the late 1980s, and today he is even dearer to Iris than he was when he captured her heart as a witty, energetic teenager with a knack for writing.

In an email to me about Robert, Iris wrote:

I met Robert was he was a sophomore in my English class at Bel Air High School. He was crazy enough to sign up for my class when he was a junior and again as a senior.  He has a  very quick mind and was able to analyze literature without any help often looking at different aspects of readings. His writing is usually humorous.

We have kept in touch on and off since then. He was in the Navy and has a 15 year old son.

Those are the basics by they don’t tell anyone about his kind gentle nature and his humorous spirit. He was always making comments about having to bend in half whenever he gave me a hug and asked where I could grow just a couple of inches — tall not wide with a twinkle & laugh in his eyes.

Iris and Robert on January 2, 2012, visiting through the glass.

I have seen Robert help kittens who were only days old. His huge hands held the tiny creatures while he fed them with a dropper or bottle. There was one I truly believed he willed to live.

These are the things Iris wanted me to know about Robert as she tried to figure out what to say to him in their last visit.  Robert now lives on death row, and on the day after his birthday–a few weeks ago–he was given an execution date: December 12, 2012.  Iris, Robert’s family, and some Catholic death penalty activists in El Paso lobbied to have Robert’s execution date changed because December 12 is also the feast day for Our Lady of Guadalupe.  The state of Texas acquiesced and changed the date of the execution, but for a few agonizing days we did not know if his date would be postponed or moved earlier.  This morning Iris wrote to let me know that Robert’s new execution date is April 10, 2013.  The faithful among us might say the Virgen gave him one more Christmas and four more months to live.

Iris is on her way to visit Robert this week, and before she found out about the new execution date, she believed this would be the last time she saw Robert alive.  Before he had the chance to invite her to witness his execution, Iris told Robert that she cannot watch the state kill someone she loves.  It would break her.  Instead, she planned this trip but does not know how to say goodbye.  Now perhaps she will have the chance to see him again before April, but her dilemma has not been solved.  The state of Texas still plans to take the life of a person Iris helped to nurture into adulthood, and these months of reprieve will prove all too short.

I didn’t know how to advise Iris when she called me asking for advice about how to say goodbye to Robert, but I was able to tell her about a young man named Matthew Puckett who was killed by the state of Mississippi on March 20, 2012.  I never knew Matt Puckett, but we had a mutual friend in common–a man named Matt Erickson who asked a whole lot of people to write letters to Matt Puckett in his last days.  I wrote to Matt Puckett shortly before his execution, and after his death, Matt Erickson told me that Matt Puckett had said that my letter and the others he received comforted him in the days leading up to his execution.  Matt Puckett’s mother received those letters after her son’s death and also relayed her gratitude for them to Matt Erickson.

I proposed to Iris that we do the same thing for Robert in these months that remain to him.  If you are reading this blog, chances are that you oppose the death penalty.  I have no idea what crime Robert Avila was accused of committing, and it’s not my job to try or judge him.  What I do know is that I don’t want him or anyone else to die in the name of justice.  The death penalty compounds one tragedy with another, and as a Texan, I do not want Robert to die in my name.  What I know is what a great person Iris Morgenstern is and that she truly loves Robert.  I stand with Iris, with Robert’s family, and with the many families, like my own, whose loved ones are kept from us by concrete, razor wire, and a legal system that values vengeance more than either compassion or public safety.

I’m asking you to write to Robert Avila while he is still with us.  It can be awkward or even intimidating to write to someone you don’t know, so don’t over think what you might say.  Just let him know that you care, that you oppose his execution, that he will not be forgotten.  You can send letters to Robert at this address:

Robert Avila
Polunsky Unit
3872 S. FM 350
Livingston, Texas  77351

Keep Robert and Iris in your thoughts.  When we see people for their full humanity, it ought to be harder for us to condone their deaths. Out of context, Robert might just look like a death row prisoner, but more than that, he will always be one of the students Iris Morgenstern loves best.

Matt Puckett, May You Rest in Peace; a post by Ashley Lucas

21 Mar

At 6:18 PM yesterday the state of Mississippi took the life of Larry Matthew Puckett.  His death was premeditated, and surely both Matt and his family were tortured daily by the knowledge of his impending death.  Since Matt was given a death sentence on August 5, 1996, he and his loved ones lived through sixteen years overshadowed by the terrorizing fact that his execution loomed before them.  Matt Puckett will never again suffer the agonies of this life, but his family surely will not ever be fully at peace again, just as the family of Rhonda Griffis, whom Matt was convicted of murdering, cannot ever be at peace.  We have added one murder to another.  Matt was killed in the name of a very misplaced notion of justice.  He was killed in the name of all Mississippi citizens, and in a sense all of us who live in the U.S. bear some guilt in his death because we are constituents of a federal government that condones state sanctioned murder.  We, the People, have done this to Matt, his mother, and the rest of his family and friends, and I, for one, am deeply sorrowful and ashamed of what has been done in my name, what will certainly be done again many times over until we demand a new kind of justice–one that seeks to make us more humane and less vengeful.

Many of Matt’s supporters believe that he did not commit the murder of Rhonda Griffis, but whether he did or not, his death will not bring her back to life.  Last night those who loved Matt have been cast into a shared category of grief with those who loved Rhonda.  All of these people now must mourn a person whose life was cut short by another person’s hand.

When I attended the Prisoner’s Family Conference a few weeks ago, I met an extraordinary woman named Charity Lee whose very existence is the best argument against the death penalty that I have ever heard.  Charity was six years old in 1980 when her father was murdered.  Her mother was tried and acquitted of murder-for-hire.  In 2007 Charity’s thirteen year-old son Paris stabbed his four year-old sister Ella to death. Charity, like most mothers, loves both of her children immeasurably, and she has, in different ways, lost them both.  Paris is incarcerated in a youth facility and will soon be transferred into an adult prison population where he will likely serve another twenty years before his release.  Charity works tirelessly to help both the families of murder victims and the families of people accused or convicted of murder.  As a member of both groups, she believes that healing and reconciliation among these families is not only possible but necessary.  She started the ELLA Foundation, named for her daughter, with a mission “to prevent violence and to advocate for human rights through education, criminal justice reform, and victim advocacy.”  Charity’s work and that of groups like Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation will one day bring about the end of the death penalty in the United States.  When those who have lost what is most precious to them because of violence demand an end to the state’s ability to kill its own citizens, we should listen to them.

Rest in peace, Matthew Puckett, Rhonda Griffis, and Ella Lee.  Those of us who remain must prevent future murders and seek ways to protect the safety of all people without further violence.

Matthew Puckett’s Last Day

20 Mar

Larry Matthew Puckett is scheduled to be executed early this evening by the state of Mississippi.  Read an earlier post on this blog for more information.  The message below is from my friend Matt Erickson who has been Puckett’s pen pal of several years.

Words from a friend who is in close contact with Matt’s family:

“The execution is scheduled for tonight, 6:00 ET, 5:00 Matt’s time. They are answering the phone at the Governor’s office if you’d like to call, 601-359-3150. This is a first as I’ve been calling daily but only able to leave a message, his name is Gov. Phil Bryant and as I understand from one of Matt’s attorneys, he is NOT running for re-election, so he has nothing to lose politically if he grants a stay. I haven’t seen anything on the net thus far about the decision on his clemency hearing. Matt’s mom said that everything was hand delivered this past Wednesday.

There is a huge rally today at the Miss. state capitol, then they will go to Parchman. And I rec’d a letter from Matt yesterday. His spirits are up, his faith is so strong. Over 5000 signatures went to the Gov. yesterday.”

If anyone wants to do anything else about this situation, now is the time to do it.


Matt Erickson

Help Prevent the Execution of Larry Matthew Puckett in Mississippi; a post by Ashley Lucas

12 Mar

Matt Erickson, a longtime member of the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), recently sent out a very moving email entitled “A friend of mine is about to be put to death,” the majority of which I’ve copied below:

Hi everyone,

I’ve been corresponding with a Mississippi death row inmate named Matthew Puckett since 2006.  He wrote to PCAP requesting any sort of support he could get in terms of helping his fiction writing.  I told him to send me some stuff to critique and we’ve gone back and forth every so often since then.  Of the course of 5-6 years we’ve become relatively good friends, keeping each other updated on our lives – despite the stagnant nature of his situation, he was a good enough writer to make it plenty vivid, and he was always respectful, not asking intrusive questions about my private life, but rather just showing genuine interest in knowing someone.

He’s the only one like this I’ve been writing to; you won’t get an e-mail like this from me ever again.

He always wrote more than I did and it seems I could delay responding for infinite reasons: doing the dishes, getting an oil change, going to the movies, etc.  A couple weeks ago I received a letter from him and left it unopened, because I was “busy” – and now I remember that instead of reading and responding to his letter, I spent most of last weekend organizing my iTunes music.

I finally read the letter this morning and learned that Matt is scheduled to be executed on March 20th, the day we are celebrating the opening of the [17th Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners].  I had no idea the date was so soon – I thought he had described it as years off – and I’m guessing he didn’t know it was so soon either.  His best friend was executed February 8th – after a last minute reversal, then re-reversal – and says the state is really on the rampage now.

Anyway, he told me about this page his mom created:

If you could all go there, it takes like 5 seconds.  Maybe he could get 5,000 signatures.  Maybe it doesn’t matter in terms of stopping this from happening, but it’s what he asked me to do and now I’m asking you to do it if you think he shouldn’t be killed on March 20th.  The page says he’s innocent.  Matt and I haven’t talked about his crime or case in correspondence, and I haven’t pried.  But I don’t believe in killing people or throwing people in the garbage.  And he has described his situation as like a speeding car heading toward a cliff, and he’s pumping his brakes however he can.

Even if you don’t do it, I wanted you all to know about this man.  If you want to know more, please read the letter I’ve attached (Please let me know if you can’t open or read it and I’ll try re-sending).

If anyone would like to do more than sign the petition, let me know.  If anyone can THINK of anything we can do, please let me know.  If you want to write to him:

Larry Matthew Puckett
MDOC #65781
Unit 29-Jay
Parchman, MS 38738

Thank you,

Matt Erickson

Despite my strong commitment to activism, I am often tempted to pass over online petitions because they feel so far removed from the cause itself, but I urge you not to ignore the plea that Mary Puckett’s petition is making for her son Matt’s life.  Please sign the petition, and if you have a moment, write a letter to Matt Puckett.  People in prison need to know that folks in the outside world, even those who do not know them personally, recognize their humanity and think that their lives have value.

Matt Puckett, you and your family are in my thoughts today.  You are not forgotten.

Kerry Max Cook: An Innocent Man Still Seeking Exoneration; a post by Ashley Lucas

4 Mar

Kerry Max Cook with a copy of his autobiography Chasing Justice

In 1978 in Tyler, Texas, Kerry Max Cook was convicted of a murder he did not commit.  He remained in prison until 1999 a court finally released him after he pleaded “no contest” at the conclusion of his fourth trial for this crime.  Cook agreed to plead “no contest,” after maintaining his innocence for more than two decades of legal battles, because he believed at the time that he would likely be wrongfully convicted yet again and sent back to prison if he did not.  The District Attorney all of a sudden offered him a deal: a plea of “no contest” would enable Cook’s release for time served.  Cook took the deal and later found out that the District Attorney in question had recently acquired the results of new DNA tests of the crime scene evidence which definitively proved that Cook did not rape and murder Linda Jo Edwards.  Cook and his legal team only learned of this exculpatory evidence after the plea of “no contest” had been entered, and because of this, Cook has never been legally exonerated.  The murder conviction remains on his record, and at long last Cook is fighting a new legal battle to clear his name.  An excellent blog posting on the Grits for Breakfast site provides further details.

Cook’s autobiography, Chasing Justice, published in 2007, describes in detail the junk science, prosecutorial misconduct, and shoddy police work which contributed to his wrongful conviction.  Cook is also featured in the documentary play (and subsequent Court TV film) The Exonerated by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, despite the popular misconception in Cook’s case that DNA proof of actual innocence would lead automatically to legal exoneration.

When I was an undergraduate at Yale in 2001, I took a seminar about the death penalty, taught by two men who were at the time Yale Law School students.  Our final assignment for the class was to research a death penalty case and write a twenty-page paper on it.  I wrote about Kerry Cook, and in the course of my research, I made contact with him, and with the help of Stanton Wheeler–a law school professor and then Master of my residential college–I brought Cook and one of his lawyers to campus to speak.  Kerry and I have since lost touch, but I remain deeply moved not only by his story but by his willingness to continue telling it despite how much it obviously hurts him to expose himself, his wife, and his son to continuing public scrutiny and judgment.

May you finally receive some relief from the courts, my friend.  I watch your struggle with admiration and hope.  Your continuing work against the death penalty and wrongful conviction serves a cause much larger than your own case, and I am among a great many people who are grateful for your life and your efforts.

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