Folsom's 93

The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison's Executed Men


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Last Suppers

Above is the last meal of a Texas man executed in November 2006. He requested two double-meat bacon burgers, Freedom Fries, BBQ ribs, onion rings, root beer soda, banana split ice cream, and peach cobbler.

This is one of 500 plates Julie Green, an art professor at Oregon State University, has painted over the last five years. She plans to paint fifty more per year until the death penalty is abolished. According to Julie, in Texas, a condemned inmate cannot request a steak. Or bubblegum. In Maryland, requests are not even offered.

There have been more humbled requests:

And of course, what I think we all want.

Julie’s plates have been displayed both nationally and internationally. In fact, her work was exhibited in the Fort Collins Museum of Modern Art where I live, but unfortunately, I missed it. To read more about Julie Green, Last Suppers, and her other work, visit her at GreenJulie. For more on Folsom’s last requests, you can read about them in a previous blog post.


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You Can’t Win, by Jack Black

I just finished this autobiography, published in 1926, by Jack Black, chronicling his life as a petty thief, burglar, and opium addict. Black’s crime career began at the age of 15 and for the next thirty years, he shuffled in and out of jails and prisons, including Folsom. In fact, Black was in the midst of an eight-year term at Folsom when the infamous break of 1903 occurred. Though he didn’t partake in the escape, he and fellow inmates received the brunt of the guards’ anger over the break—in the form of the straitjacket. Guards P.J. Cochrane and Richard Murphy (called “Dirty Dick” by the prisoners) relished in using the torturous device.

“After the break Folsom was hell. The warden and Captain Murphy began taking revenge on friends of the escapees . . . Warden Wilkinson was removed and Archibald Yell of Sacramento, took his place. He had no experience and was forced to feel his way slowly. He had to depend on Murphy. This put him in virtual control of the convicts and his lust for revenge went unchecked. I was on the list and he soon got me.” 

Cochrane, tightening the jacket, said to Black, “You fellows tried to kill me; now it’s my time.” Black endured the “bag” for over three days, lying on the floor of a dark concrete cell. This punishment caused disfigurement, broken bones, and even death to many California prisoners between the late 1800s and 1912 when Warden James Johnston banished it.

Black, considered an “honorable outlaw,” earning the respect and admiration of not just fellow thieves, but lawmen as well, finally kicked the crime (and drug) habit in the mid 1920s. He published his memoir in hopes of warning young men from becoming criminals and dope fiends. He also hoped to change the ways of prisons—show the institutions that the use of cruel punishments and the death penalty did nothing to deter crime; that it merely made men more vindictive and revengeful. Black became an outspoken advocate for prison reform and opponent of the death penalty.

“What, in a nutshell, is my case against the right people? I contend that more laws and more punishment will mean nothing but more crime and more violence . . . We need more emphasis on prevention than on punishment . . . The secret of the cure of crime—if there is one—is contained in a knowledge of its causes . . . The right people are working on the wrong end of the problem. If they would give more attention to the high chair, they could put cobwebs on the electric chair. They lay too much stress on what the wrong people do, not on why they do it; on what they are instead of how they got that way.”

Black, who took care of his friends and harbored no ill-feelings against his enemies, became the librarian for the San Francisco Call after leaving his life of crime. He wrote several articles for national magazines and penned many prison dramas for MGM. Fame and recognition soon dwindled, as well as his bank account, and it is said that in 1932, Black committed suicide by drowning in New York Harbor, although his body was never found.


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The California Ballot to Watch

In 1913, Jake Oppenheimer, Folsom’s 28th execution, called capital punishment “a relic of the barbaric age,” acknowledging, “I will not be the last to go before this practice is abolished, but  I will be a martyr to the cause.” Abolishing the death penalty has been urged from various groups since the early 1900s.

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In 1925, California Senator, Roy Fellom,  introduced a bill to legislation to abolish capital punishment saying,  “Let’s hope that this horrible spectacle of three men being executed in cold blood by the state of California will be the last of its kind and that the state will never again be subjected to witnessing anything so barbaric.”  He had hoped to save the lives of #49, John Geregac and his accomplices by the passing of the bill, which of course, did not.

John “Smokey” Geregac

Many of Folsom’s 93 expressed their belief that their execution would be California’s last. #55, Ray Arnold said, “If they want to kill me, all right. I am ready to die. I would die gladly if I thought my death would aid in putting an end to capital punishment.”

Ray Arnold

Little did these men know that close to a hundred years later, the debate would be at a fever pitch—and that their own state would be the epicenter of it all. Executions in California have been halted since 2006 when a federal judge declared there to be flaws in the execution process. Come November, California voters will decide whether or not to eliminate the death penalty. According to a September 2011 poll, 48% Californians favor life imprisonment over execution. Right now, it doesn’t appear it’ll be a landslide either way.

According to Death Penalty Information Center there are currently 717 condemned prisoners in California. Across the country, 3, 251 folks are on death row. This op-ed piece, points out that abolishing the death penalty would save the state of California $100 million over three years, putting more police on the streets. It would also fund community programs, educate the  prison population, and force those serving life without parole to work and pay restitution to the victims’ families.

It will certainly be the ballot to watch considering California has the highest number of death row inmates, Texas taking the #2 spot with 321. Where does your state rank?


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Saved by scruples . . . against the death penalty

Former California Governor James Rolph, Jr., wasn’t shy about his opposition toward the death penalty. During his reign as Governor from 1931 to 1934, Rolph promised every condemned man at least one reprieve. He held true to his word, even issuing nine reprieves to Folsom inmate and #80, Pat Nobles. Rolph undoubtedly would have issued more had he not  taken ill and died in June, 1934.

#80, Pat Nobles

Today, a Governor’s obvious scruples against the death penalty is making headlines. Oregon Governor, John Kitzhaber, just declared that no prisoner will be legally executed on his watch. Since his governorship began in 1995, Kitzhaber has allowed two executions to take place in Oregon, but he now admits he regrets those executions.

“I simply cannot participate once again in something that I believe to be morally wrong.”

“It is time for this state to consider a different approach.”

Critics say Kitzhaber is “usurping the will of voters” who support the death penalty, but this decision is not an about-face. His opposition was well-known which impacts the lives of 37 death row inmates in Oregon, one of which was scheduled to die on December 6th. Kitzhaber defended his position, saying . . .

“The reality is that, in Oregon, our death sentence is essentially an extremely expensive life prison term,” Kitzhaber said. “Far more expensive than the terms of others who are sentenced to life in prison without parole, rather than to death row.”

Kitzhaber, a licensed doctor, cites his physicians’ oath, “to do no harm,” as part of his decision. He was recently elected to  an unprecedented third term as governor and there’s no question every move he makes, from here on out, will be closely scrutinized.

Next year, California voters will be faced with the same monumental decision: Should the death penalty be abolished?


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Was Justice Served?

Troy Davis died last night at 11:08 from lethal injection. Strong evidence pointed to another man as the killer of officer Mark MacPhail. There was certainly a tremendous amount of doubt surrounding his conviction and I felt it was tragic that despite this, he was executed. I’m not alone in my opinion; over a million people from across the U.S. and the world supported clemency for Mr. Davis. My heart goes out to both the MacPhail and Davis families, because I think they’re both victims in this case. I don’t know if Davis was innocent, but with such strong doubt of his guilt, capital punishment should not have been considered.

As I’ve mentioned before, I acknowledge the fact that the world has gotten rid of some very heinous individuals, but I can’t help but think about the cost of that; the cost consisting of innocent people. Is the elimination of an S.O.B. worth killing a few wrongly convicted here and there? The Innocence Project has exonerated 273 people, 17 of which served on Death Row. What about those this organization has not been able to save?

In the early 1900s, Jacob Oppenheimer, Folsom’s 28th execution, said in his final speech just before mounting the gallows said,

“Calmly leaving myself of out the question, I want to say that capital punishment is a relic of the barbaric age. It ought not be tolerated. I hope that in every country the time will soon come when it will be abolished . . . I will not be the last to go before this practice is abolished but I will be a martyr to the cause.”

Oppenheimer was just one of many of Folsom’s 93 who called for the abolition of the death penalty. I doubt he ever believed that over a hundred years later, it would still be practiced in 34 states, including California. You can read in an earlier post, about how I talked about whether or not I believed some of Folsom’s condemned men were innocent (yes, I did)!

No matter where you stand on the issue of capital punishment, I think it’s extremely important to know why you feel that way. Before I began this book, I really had no problem with capital punishment, but I also didn’t realize the staggering number of people who have been proven to be wrongfully convicted. I guess I still find myself teetering on this fine line of morality and “justice.”

My hope is that if Davis was indeed innocent, that the real killer is caught and Davis’ name will be cleared. It’s the least the justice system can do.


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Is an Innocent Man Going to Die Tomorrow?

You may have been following the story of Troy Davis, or at least the story that has developed over his pending execution. Davis was refused clemency this morning and is schedule to die of lethal injection tomorrow in Georgia. He is accused of shooting off-duty police officer, Mark MacPhail in 1989. His defense has strongly maintained that this is a case of mistaken identity and seven of the nine witnesses from the 1991 trial have recanted their statements and one man, who did not testify, claims another man admitted to the shooting. In fact, no physical evidence linked Davis to the crime. The case is based on hearsay and circumstantial evidence. Davis has the support of high-profile figures such as former President Jimmy Carter, ex-FBI Director William Sessions, and former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr. Even three jurors from his trial are now in support of clemency.

In 2010, Davis was given a hearing to convince the U.S. Supreme Court of his innocence—an opportunity that the high court has not dealt out to any condemned prisoner in 50 years. He was unable to sway the justices who found, “minimal doubt on his conviction.” The judge, however, admitted that the state’s case was not ironclad.

There is doubt. His defense team said:

“The death penalty should not be exercised where doubt exists about the guilt of the accused. The Board did not follow that standard here. The state’s case against Mr. Davis, based largely on discredited eyewitness testimony and an inaccurate ballistics report, cannot resolve the significant, lingering doubts that exist here.”

Larry Cox of Amnesty International called the pardon board’s denial “unconscionable,” and said, “Should Troy Davis be executed, Georgia may well have executed an innocent man and in so doing discredited the justice system.”

So what do you think? Is the death penalty serving the purpose it was intended to? What happens where a case is shrouded in doubt? The death penalty has ridded the world of some pretty heinous individuals, but it’s impossible to deny that it has also taken innocent people from the world, too.

From Troy Davis, via Amnesty International:

“The struggle for justice doesn’t end with me. This struggle is for all the Troy Davises who came before me and all the ones who will come after me. I’m in good spirits and I’m prayerful and at peace. But I will not stop fighting until I’ve taken my last breath. Georgia is prepared to snuff out the life of an innocent man.”

You can read more about Davis’ case HERE. Be sure to click on “Watch Videos” under “Ger Involved” and learn about Davis’ case and why there is too much doubt. It will leave you completely baffled as to why the parole board has denied him clemency.


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The Death Penalty and the Mentally Ill

First of all, “insanity” is a legal term but in the medical profession, the preferred term is “intellectual disability.”

This is not to be confused with diminished capacity which is defined as an impaired mental condition, caused by disease, trauma, or intoxication but short of insanity, that can reduce the criminal responsibility of a defendant. Not all states allow defendants to offer this plea in response to criminal charges.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Today, the American Law Institute Model defines it as: a defendant is not responsible for criminal conduct “if at the time of such conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law.” The test thus takes into account both the cognitive and volitional capacity of insanity.

Eighteen of the ninety-three men executed at Folsom prison, had pleaded insanity at least once during their legal process.

#41, James Tyren murdered his 2 children

#81, Mike Lami murdered his wife

In 1924, #45 Alex Kels underwent a procedure to have fluid extracted from his spine in an attempt to determine if a suspected case of syphilis had infected his brain, causing him to murder his victim. This test rocked the state of California and engaged governor Friend Richardson and the state prison board in a nasty debate that waged on for weeks.

Robert Wilbur of Truthout wrote a fascinating article entitled, “Killing the Mentally Ill.” I encourage you to read the article—I found it extremely eye opening. In 2002, the United States Supreme Court ruled that it was “cruel and unusual punishment,” to execute an inmate deemed “mentally retarded,” therefore, a violation of the 8th Amendment. And exactly how easy is it for the defense to prove their client is insane, or was during the commission of the crime? In the article, Wilbur talks with death penalty lawyer, George Kendall who often sees those with mental illness face the death penalty. “The prosecutors have the upper hand,” he said. It comes down to money. The state can shell out thousands of dollars to hire experts, where the defense has little money and is faced with the burden of proof. The paycheck these experts walk away with can be well over $200,000.

Wilbur noted one such expert, Michael Welner, MD who is proposing to create a “depravity scale” seeking to add an element of “evil” into the definition of some crimes. He strives to define the “worst of the worst” and help determine the truly evil crimes that deserve the death penalty. Uh . . . how exactly is evil defined? Can a panel of 12 peers determine that?

James L. Knoll IV, a senior forensic psychiatrist, vehemently rejects such a proposal. “Embracing the term ‘evil’ in the lexicon and practice of psychiatry will contribute to the stigmatization of mental illness, diminish the credibility of forensic psychiatry, and corrupt forensic treatment efforts.”

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, a man with an IQ of 69, confessed to a crime he didn’t commit, and after serving sixteen years behind bars, DNA evidence exonerated him.

It is estimated that of the 3200+ inmates on death row in the U.S., roughly 5-10% are considered to have intellectual disabilities. No surprise, but Texas has executed 24 mentally impaired people since 1977—the most out of any state.

In January of this year, Colorado governor, Bill Ritter issued a posthumous pardon to Joe Arridy. After reviewing evidence, Ritter found that Arridy, who had the mental capacity of a toddler, should not have lost his life for complicity to a 1936 murder.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? SHOULD THE MENTALLY ILL BE EXECUTED?


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To Execute or Not to Execute . . .

After undertaking the project of writing Folsom’s 93, I know more about the death penalty than I ever imagined I would. It’s the hottest topic that no one is discussing. It sits in the shadows of health care reform, our wars in the Middle East, and Shwarzenegger’s love child. However, states across the country are making headlines by introducing bills to abolish the death penalty and/or make changes to their current laws. What’s your state up to?

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I was recently contacted by Chris Cassidy who does work for Amnesty International and he shared with me some fascinating facts about the death penalty and its presence in the United States. He put together this infographic to illustrate where the US stands compared to other countries:

As you can see, the US is still going strong when it comes to executions, but we’ve actually slowed down a bit from 300 in 1998 to 106 in 2009. According to The Death Penalty Information Center, by 2009, 129 countries had abolished the death penalty.

Today in California, there are 704 inmates on death row. According to the DPIC, 63% of 800 Californians polled, favor commutation, thus saving the state $1 billion over the next 5 years. Citizens liked the idea of the money going toward education and law enforcement, however, this controversial issue is far from black and white.

BalancedPolitics.org put together the following pros and cons of the issue:

Yes—Abolishing the death penalty:

  1. Financial costs to taxpayers of capital punishment is several times that of keeping someone in prison for life.
  2. It is barbaric and violates the “cruel and unusual” clause in the Bill of Rights.
  3. The endless appeals and required additional procedures clog our court system.
  4. We as a society have to move away from the “eye for an eye” revenge mentality if civilization is to advance.
  5. It sends the wrong message: why kill people who kill people to show killing is wrong.
  6. Life in prison is a worse punishment and a more effective deterrent.
  7. Other countries (especially in Europe) would have a more favorable image of America.
  8. Some jury members are reluctant to convict if it means putting someone to death.
  9. The prisoner’s family must suffer from seeing their loved one put to death by the state, as well as going through the emotionally-draining appeals process.
  10. The possibility exists that innocent men and women may be put to death.
  11. Mentally ill patients may be put to death.
  12. It creates sympathy for the monstrous perpetrators of the crimes.
  13. It is useless in that it doesn’t bring the victim back to life.

No—Keep the death penalty:

  1. The death penalty gives closure to the victim’s families who have suffered so much.
  2. It creates another form of crime deterrent.
  3. Justice is better served.
  4. Our justice system shows more sympathy for criminals than it does victims.
  5. It provides a deterrent for prisoners already serving a life sentence.
  6. DNA testing and other methods of modern crime scene science can now effectively eliminate almost all uncertainty as to a person’s guilt or innocence.
  7. Prisoner parole or escapes can give criminals another chance to kill.
  8. It contributes to the problem of overpopulation in the prison system.
  9. It gives prosecutors another bargaining chip in the plea bargain process, which is essential in cutting costs in an overcrowded court system.

SO WHAT DO YOU THINK? If it came to the voters in your state on whether or not to abolish the death penalty, could you make a definitive decision?


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So you say you’re innocent, huh?

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I’m often asked if I believe any of Folsom’s 93 were innocent. “Absolutely,” I usually reply, but can I prove it? Possibly, but when we’re talking about crimes from well over a hundred years ago, original evidence is long gone. Early investigation methods didn’t include the use of crime scene tape, latex gloves, or handy Ziploc bags to preserve and protect evidence. And DNA? Forgetaboutit! That technology came in the mid-1970s. Universal fingerprinting didn’t come along until the 1940s and before that, correctly identifying suspects by their prints oftentimes proved to be unreliable and inaccurate. At the turn of the 20th century, “beyond a reasonable doubt” didn’t exist and a few of the 93 hung by the threads of circumstantial evidence.

Little could separate the guilty from the innocent: a strand of hair resembling the victim found on or near the suspect, association with known criminals, or the color of your skin . . .

Not surprising, many of Folsom’s condemned minorities were doomed the moment of arrest; referred to in the newspapers as the N-word, half-breeds, or ignorant. Even their court-appointed attorney didn’t always have their client’s best interests at hand, or they themselves experienced backlash over representing a minority. The language barrier provided another opportunity for the law to take advantage of a foreign-born suspect, especially since interpreters were few and far between. Investigators easily manipulated an interrogation or testimony by using words the accused couldn’t comprehend.

Judges also didn’t sequester juries to the extent they do today, nor were the juries protected from “tampering.” After the selection of the 12 peers, newspapermen often printed the full names of the jurors in the next day’s issue. Jurors were even often caught dozing off, or snoring away during the trial. Did the judge reprimand the sleepy juror? No.

For some, the appeals process didn’t offer much hope either. Defense attorneys often bowed out after a jury found their court-appointed client guilty. The condemned man had only the hope that the governor would heed his plea for clemency or pardon.

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Throughout the course of my research, I struggled to see how some of these men could be found guilty. I think it’s ignorant to assume they each received a fair trial and due process of the law. Today, technology has aided investigators when solving crimes and in many cases, free the wrongfully convicted.

 The Innocence Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to proving the innocence of those convicted of a crime they didn’t commit. Since its start in 1992, the organization has exonerated 268 people, including 17 who sat on death row. Despite the advances in crime investigation, it’s apparent these methods can’t always stop innocent people from going to prison and for some of Folsom’s 93, this potentially life-saving technology came too late.


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Would You Like a Hanging with Your Last Meal?

Hanging or lethal injection?

I’m sure you’re rarely asked that, but if you’re a condemned prisoner in New Hampshire or Washington State, you might be given that choice. (In Utah, an inmate can opt to go before a firing squad if lethal injection cannot be done).

Countries around the world still consider hanging their primary method of execution, but in the United States, lethal injection rules the prison roost. California outlawed hanging in 1937, replacing it with the gas chamber at San Quentin. Other states abandoned this method due to botched hangings, such as when Eva Dugan ended up decapitated in 1930 in Arizona. The idea of choosing how to die may seem like an absurd notion, but for New Hampshire’s and Washington State’s death row inmates, it’s a decision they face.

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Hanging

Length matters. In order to facilitate a “perfect” execution on the gallows,  the weight of the prisoner is taken to determine the proper length of the “drop” through the trap door. Decapitation can result from a rope that it too long. If it’s too short, death (by strangulation) can take up to 45 minutes to occur. Today, sandbags are used for a test run the day before the execution. Much importance is place upon the rope, which should be 3/4-inch to 1 1/4-inch in diameter, boiled, and stretched to eliminate recoiling. At Folsom, executioners soaked the Italian hemp for 24 hours, then stretched it for a number of months before the hanging. Records at Folsom indicate that all 93 men died from “instant broken necks.” Upon arriving at the gallows, the prisoner’s hands and legs are bound and a black cap is placed over their head. The executioner secures the noose around the inmate’s neck and at the warden’s signal, the trap is dropped. Folsom’s noose featured a “submental knot,”  which when placed against the back of the neck, ensured the mostdamage to the vertebrae. Ideally, it brought immediate unconsciousness and death within roughly 9-15 minutes.

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Lethal Injection

The United States saw it’s first lethal injection in Texas in 1982. Since then, there have been nearly 1100 executions in the U.S. In fact, tomorrow (April 5th), two lethal injections are scheduled to take place; one in Texas and one in Arizona. So what could go wrong? Plenty. Botched executions happen more often that you might think. The Death Penalty Information Center lists only 31 most seriously botched cases of lethal injection since 1982.

Strapped to a gurney, the condemned prisoner is injected with a harmless saline solution, then as witnesses watch, he or she is given an anesthetic to put them to sleep. Pavulon or pancuronium bromide, is then administered to paralyze the entire muscle system and stop the inmate’s breathing. The piece de resistance is potassium chloride to stop the heart. Botched executions can result from a number of reasons. Oftentimes, they occur due to technician error. Because of medical ethics, doctors are not allowed to administer the lethal drugs. Inexperienced technicians sometimes inject the poison into the muscle, missing the vein. In 1990, an inmate suffered excruciating pain when the inserted needle pointed at his hand, and not his heart. Another culprit of a botched job is a history of intravenous drug use by the inmate. Damaged veins can be uncooperative, causing long delays in the execution.  Some of these condemned men actually helped their executioner find a usable vein. Another reason, are prisoners having unforeseen reactions to the drugs causing painful spasms.  For some, death took up to an hour and thirty minutes to occur.

Every form of legal execution in the U.S. (gas chamber, electrocution, lethal injection, hanging, and firing squad) sports a history of mistakes. I imagine however, the condemned prisoner isn’t necessarily thinking about the potential mistakes in his execution, but the mistake that ultimately led him to this decision: Hanging or lethal injection?

The Modesto Evening News said of Folsom’s 45th execution:

“Kels did not die hard, the guards said who had seen men die thus. To the novices in the death chamber, it seemed that he did die hard—terribly hard. The slightly twitching shoulders, the swaying legs that writhes at first—it must be some such horrible picture that Alex Kels carried in his mind of the death of Ed Meservey, his victim.”

Source for some of the information contained in this post: Folsom Prison Museum and Death Penalty Information Center

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