Folsom's 93

The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison's Executed Men


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The Death Row Chef

Continuing with last meals, I wanted to share a link that my friend Pamela Skjolsvik, a.k.a. The Death Writer, sent me. Check it out HERE. Brian Price is a former Texas inmate who learned to cook during his incarceration. He earned the job of providing the last meal for the condemned inmates of Texas. Last year, Texas discontinued this practice for the nearly executed. Price offered to continue the meals at his own expense. The state declined.

Price’s story will be featured on “Death Row: The Final 24 Hours” airing Monday, April 30, at 10 p.m. ET on the Discovery Channel.


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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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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 Silent Man of Folsom

I’ve come across bizarre stories over the course of my research and for those tales that won’t be in the book, I like to share them on this blog. This is one of those fascinating stories that I felt compelled to spend some extra time looking into so I could bring it to you.

Charles Carson nearly became one of Folsom’s 93 and perhaps the title of the book would have been Folsom’s 94. Carson sat in Folsom’s back alley, or condemned row, for seven years; seven years of solitary confinement. He escaped the noose by never uttering a word.

I should start at the beginning of his story though. From the age of nine, Carson was in and out of juvenile halls and eventually prisons. In the early 1900s, while sitting in a cell at San Quentin, he and a buddy formulated their next crime for after their release. Staying true to his word, Carson followed through with the planned, but unsuccessful, robbery. He earned himself a life sentence at Folsom prison.

Not one to be idle, Carson and six others attempted to make a break for it from the quarry in 1904. Two guards and several of the conspiring escapees were wounded by gunfire. Carson and two others, J. Finley and F. Quijada, were all considered the ringleaders, and each received the death penalty in 1906. A bummer, thanks to Jacob Oppenheimer, Folsom’s 28th execution (but not until 1913). You see, Jake kept attacking and/or killing fellow inmates and guards, but since he was serving a life sentence, he merely ended up being transferred back and forth between Folsom and San Quentin. Prison authorities and law makers grew tired of Oppenheimer’s murderous ways, so they devised a plan. They passed a law in 1905, declaring that any inmate serving a life sentence who is found guilty of assaulting or murdering a fellow inmate or prison official, will automatically be given the death sentence. They figured it was only a matter of time before Jake attacked or killed again.

So Carson’s pals kept him company—for a while. Finley was granted commutation to a life sentence and Quijada? Well . . . he happened to be rooming next to Oppenheimer and as presumed, Oppenheimer himself took care Quijada, a one-armed Indian in 1911.

Back to Carson . . . By 1909, after pending appeals, he still sat in the shadows of the gallows. Then, in September, Carson suddenly and without apparent cause, lost his ability to speak. The warden and prison physician were rendered speechless themselves; Carson’s ailment baffled them. They requested state asylum doctors examine Carson. Amazingly, three years go by without determining a cause of Carson’s continued “mutism.” In 1912, The Oakland Tribune said Carson was, “Broken in mind and body as the result of six years constant brooding in solitary confinement in the death  chamber at Folsom prison.” It earned Carson another reprieve.

Physicians put Carson through many tests, one of which was the “ether test.” Doctors exposed the silent convict to the gas with the hope that while under “the intoxicating influence of the anesthetic he would lose voluntary control of his vocal organs and reply to questions put to him by the doctors.” Carson never made a sound. Despite this test, doctors declared at an insanity hearing, that Carson was sane, due mostly because the only signs of insanity were silence and blank staring. Back to his lonely cell he went.

Warden James Johnston and prison doc, A. E. Ingersoll weren’t convinced Carson wasn’t nuts. So more tests were ordered. Doctors tried “loosening Carson’s tongue” with the help of hypnotist, Dr. G.R. Hubbell, who did his damnedest to put Carson into a hypnotic state. It didn’t work. Hubbell opined that Carson was a malinger since Hubbell’s other mentally ill patients always respond to hypnotism.

“Electricity applied in a mild form” only produced a throat noise from Carson, but it still was the first sound from Carson in three years. Docs then tried the old water trick: tossing the patient from a hot water bath to a ice cold one. Again, no response.

Apparently, doctors grew desperate and threw a bowl of scalding soup at Carson’s face. It didn’t elicit the desired effect. In fact, it didn’t elicit much of an effect at all from Carson.

While riding the waves of yet another reprieve, Carson went up again in front of an insanity jury. Witnesses who testified against Carson at the original hearing, now changed their tune. They told the jury they felt Carson was certifiably insane. The panel decided that Carson finally earned himself a bed at the state asylum in Stockton. While there, Carson was caught smiling—the first observed display of emotion since 1909. Even though this remarkable gesture made the newspapers, it appeared to have little, to no effect on his mental patient status.

Stockton State Hospital/Asylum, 1910

Still under the sentence of death, Carson was given the ether test again—which he passed with flying colors. Carson spent the next couple of years being tested, and in 1915, Dr. F.W. Hatch, who earlier stated Carson feigned insanity, now declared the convict to be insane.

Finally, in 1917, Governor Hiram Johnson commuted Charles “Silent” Carson’s death sentence to life imprisonment. Carson would spend the rest of his life in the Stockton asylum. Johnson told the press, “I am convinced that at least substantial doubt exists as to the man’s mental condition and that after these many years humane consideration dictates a removal of the death penalty.” Much to the doctors’  surprise, even this news failed to induce a sound from Carson. The guy never uttered a “woo-hoo.” In fact, he maintained his silence for the rest of his life.

In 1924, after 15 years of silence and 11 years in the asylum, 42-year-old Carson died from heart disease. Dr. Fred Clark, superintendent of the asylum told the press that Carson, a model patient, spent his time playing cards and reading the newspaper.

Carson went 15 years without speaking. Whether it was self-induced or not, is impossible to determine, but he gained 15 more years of life. Perhaps in the end, Silent Carson had the last laugh.