Last night, I saw a grown man cry like a baby. He was kin to Kenneth Wayne
Morris, executed by the State of Texas yesterday on his 38th birthday. I
was on my way from a capital hearing near Dallas to Texas's death row in
Livingston to visit clients. On my way I stopped in Huntsville, where
Texas conducts its executions. I had 2 thoughts when I saw Morris's
relative, crying in grief while standing among a crowd of people
protesting Morris's death outside the walls of the Huntsville unit, the
prison that contains Texas' death chamber.
My first thought was of a story renowned death-penalty lawyer Bryan
Stevenson often tells, and my second was of a recent Pew Study concerning
I have often heard Stevenson tell about the kind treatment experienced by
a client on the day leading up to his execution. In sum, every hour or so,
a guard or warden approached the client asking if he needed something:
"What would you like for your breakfast today? What would you like for
your lunch, dinner, dessert? Would you like to speak with the chaplain?
Would you like a telephone call home? Would you like a room where you can
meet in private with your family?"
In the hour before his execution, the client remarked:
"Mr. Stevenson, today people have offered to meet my every need. That has
never happened to me before. No one asked if I needed anything when my
father beat me as a child. No one asked if I needed anything when my
family lost its home. No one asked if I needed anything something when my
school placed me and other poor African-Americans in special education,
even if we could have succeeded in regular classes with a little help. No
one asked if I needed anything when I started to run with a gang because
it was the only place I could find safety, protection, and acceptance. No
one asked if I needed anything when my time in state prison taught me more
violence, rather than a skill I could use when I got out."
As I stood outside the prison last night, I wondered not about how Morris,
who is also African-American, was treated on the day of his execution, but
about what happened in the years leading up to his capital crime.
Stevenson's story is a familiar one to capital defense attorneys: we see
the government pouring extraordinary resources into obtaining and carrying
out death sentences after doing next to nothing to help our clients before
they become occupants of death row. Not enough is done when they could
have been helped or rehabilitated.
A study published by the Pew Center on the States helps to explain the
lack of adequate help for our clients earlier in their lives. The study
found that the growth in state prison spending, which has quadrupled in
the last two decades, outpaces state budget growth in every area except
Medicaid – including education, transportation, and public assistance. The
study also found that 1 in 11, or 9.2 percent, of African-Americans are
under state correctional control, compared with one in 45 whites, or 2.2
%. Thus, money that could be used to help disadvantaged African-Americans
in need is spent to imprison them. Notably, Morris spent time in state
prison before his capital crime.
Ideally, society should encourage and help its people to realize their
full God-given potential. At a minimum, it should help youngsters and
their families when doing so could prevent them from turning to crime.
When society fails in this regard, it simultaneously falls victim to crime
and puts one of its own behind bars at state expense. And while prisons do
have an appropriate role in incapacitating dangerous criminals, they are
equally a place where, all too often, inmates who could be rehabilitated
learn, instead, more violence and how to be a better criminal.
Because we fail so dramatically to devote resources to help young people
in desperate need, we often end up paying far more later on.
We know Morris had the potential for rehabilitation and redemption: he
issued a sincere apology to the victim's family in his final statement.
His capital murder and the execution represent yet another failure of
society to help someone who could have been helped as a youth, or
rehabilitated in prison.
(source: Brian Stull, Staff Attorney, ACLU Capital Punishment Project)