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Friday, November 8, 2013

Lynched but Alive -- September 26, 2013

My cellmate recently learned his federal appeal was denied. This ruling can be appealed to the 7th circuit, however, most likely any hope he had of ever being released has been blotted out. The last few days he has been lying on his bunk for long periods of time. Being taken off lockdown has done little to change his mood and even television does not seem to capture his interest as before. From my own experience, little can be done to lift his spirits. Only time can lessen the horror of having nails being driven into your coffin. I feel much sorrow for Anthony who has been my cellmate for almost a year. During this time, I have come to know him well and had hoped his sentence would be reduced. Despite his crime, he has many redeemable qualities. There are also mitigating circumstances the courts continue to dismiss. A protracted death sentence makes no sense in any circumstance, but even more so for prisoners who possess greater aptitude and are unlikely to ever commit another crime. Swift execution is more preferable than to be buried alive.

During the lockdown, prisoners were gradually given more movement and privileges. Telephones and visitation began and workers in the Roundhouse went to their assignments. Until last Friday, only two non-gang affiliated workers were allowed to come out of their cells during the first and second shift. These men were exhausted doing much of the labor in the cell house. Guards on the midnight shift even had the nerve to ask them to come out to pass out trays and pick up garbage and laundry bags. My neighbor was furious to be awakened in the middle of the night and told the guard he could find someone else. There was a short list of cell house help workers who had been vetted by Internal Affairs. Since the lockdown, this has been expanded, but no one with a sexual assault on their record is being permitted to work late at night in the quarter units. This is the policy to address an attempted rape of a female guard at Danville earlier in the year.

Health care passes are beginning to be resumed, although men who require dialysis or other essential care always were treated. For a week or two, prisoners who have diabetes were brought their insulin, but now they go to the Health Care Unit in two lines (early morning and evening). On the last day of the lockdown, "Little Johnny" stopped at my cell in the evening. Johnny is a very easy going and friendly black man in his mid-40s. He is often silly or a bit disorientated possibly due to low blood sugar levels. Although I will make fun of him, my cellmate seems to like that he is almost always in a good mood. Last week, however, he was not his typical self.

Little Johnny told me a prisoner we know was diagnosed with terminal Lou Gehrig's disease. He is being kept at the prison's Health Care Unit infirmary where he will die most likely before the end of next year. Chino was a neighbor of mine before my previous cellmate died of a heart attack. I regularly noticed he was sick and lethargic. He rarely left his cell and had difficulty walking. On a few occasions, prisoners had to shout for guards to radio a medical technician when he was having trouble breathing. Not long after my cellmate died, he was moved to the lower floor in a cell near the door. I periodically kept in touch with him mainly because I bought his snack bags of peanut butter. I did not know whether or not to be sad for him. He had a sentence of natural life without the possibility of parole and he may be better off dying sooner rather than later.

Not long after the prisoners in the med line were locked in their cells, the guard who passes out legal mail stopped at the cell and said, "Mertz." My cellmate jumped down off his bunk to sign a receipt for the mail while it was opened. At the moment, I was channel surfing to see if there was anything worth watching on television while I ate a couple of peanut butter sandwiches. When I saw there was not, I began to change my headphones to my Walkman so I could listen to the Sean Hannity show. There was a commercial break and I asked my cellmate offhandedly if his attorney finally told him he could go kill himself. Anthony said, "More or less," and did not elaborate. Therefore, I thought he was just responding to my joke and I put my headphones back on.

After I finished eating, I went to the sink to wash my bowl and brush my teeth. I was standing a few feet from my cellmate and again inquired about the legal mail he received. He told me his federal appeal was denied and his attorney had sent him a copy of the ruling along with a brief letter. I asked him about the court's specific reasoning and he said he did not know. He simply read the conclusion and the letter. Later in the night he would go over it in its entirety. The fact it was denied was all he cared to know. Prisoners have three levels of federal courts to appeal their convictions and sentences. There is the district court judge, the circuit court, and finally the U.S. Supreme Court. It is exceptionally rare anyone has their appeal heard by the highest court and therefore prisoners only have two chances on federal appeal. I told Anthony before he contemplates suicide, he should at least wait until the panel of judges in the 7th circuit review his case.

I am not aware of all the issues my cellmate presented in federal court. Since he learned about my blog, he has been restrained in talking about his case. Before he was my cellmate, however, I did read his direct appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. Unlike prisoners who are not sentenced to death, everyone on death row has their first state appeal heard by the state's highest court. His issues were almost exclusively limited to sentencing errors. Procedural errors during trial are what direct appeals consist of while collateral appeals deal with evidence and issues which are not on the record. If I had been able to read both, I would have a better understanding of his case as well as his federal appeal. A prisoner cannot raise any issue in federal court unless it was already raised in the state's appellate system.

Despite not reading my cellmate's post conviction appeal, I know a prominent issue was a psychotropic drug he was taking which was discovered to radically affect behavior, particularly when mixed with alcohol. The pharmaceutical company did not learn of the adverse reaction until years after it was marketed. Furthermore, the military has been inoculating many soldiers with a drug to prevent them from contracting malaria. Since Larium began to be used, anecdotal evidence has suggested it causes psychological problems in a percentage of people. Anthony's argument on collateral appeal was that the inoculation caused him to have problems which was sought to be treated with the psychotropic drug. The drug had no warning to never use alcohol and on the night of the murder, he was "hammered." I do not believe this should absolve him of any wrong doing, but it certainly should have been a significant mitigating factor.

When I told my cellmate he still had a chance on appeal, he expressed pessimism. The district court had refused to grant a certificate of appealability on mental incapacity. This meant the 7th Circuit could not even review his strongest argument. It also meant even if his sentence of natural life without parole for the murder was reduced due to other mitigating factors, he was still stuck with 60 years for home invasion. I was not even aware home invasion could carry more than 30 years, but Anthony told me the maximum can be doubled under aggravating circumstances. Extended term sentencing statutes have become pervasive in the U.S.  The general public may be unaware, but nearly any felony conviction has the potential to send a person to prison for the rest of their life.

Before mail was picked up in the cell house, I wrote a quick letter to my attorney. I questioned whether the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in McQuiggen vs. Perkins would permit me to proceed on issues other than actual innocence. The new evidence I have been able to procure may not be sufficient to convince a court. Unlike at trials, the burden is on the defendant to prove his innocence. I have extensive proof but only using evidence which was available at trial and never used. Actual innocence claims cannot rely on what the court considers old evidence. Thus, it is either extremely important that I be permitted to raise other issues such as ineffective assistance of trial counsel to bring in past evidence or to find additional proof. From my prison cell, it is nearly impossible to seek out additional evidence without outside assistance.

With the exception of D and E cell blocks, the penitentiary was taken off lockdown Friday morning. After eating breakfast and watching the news, I felt no reason to stay awake and lay back down. Like my cellmate, I was probably doomed to die in prison. While other prisoners in the unit were excited and yelled out to one another, I was lethargic and despondent. I stuffed some ear plugs in my ears and put a pillow over my head. I did not want to hear them. I did not want to be in prison. I did not even want to be alive. Chino was fortunate to have a terminal disease and die within months. My cellmate and I were doomed to suffer years, possibly decades. I drifted in and out of sleep contemplating the various ways I could kill myself.

When chow lines began to be run, I folded my blanket and got dressed. I did not want to go out, but I had nothing in my cell to eat except peanut butter. Outside the cell house, I was stunned to see an enormous security presence. The movement team had been tripled and a number of guards were suited up in tactical gear. These guards, dressed in bright orange jumpsuits and black body armor, carried batons in their hands. They seemed ready to crack skulls at any sign of disobedience. At certain points along the route to the chow hall, prisoners were pulled out of line to be frisked. High ranked personnel were present including the warden and his top assistant. The overwhelming security seemed ridiculous particularly in contrast to the number of old and crippled men who lived on the lower galleries of C House.

Due to the extra security, pat downs, and repeated halts in movement, I did not return to my cell for almost two hours. I felt like kicking myself for going through such aggravation for some turkey-soy meat balls. Why did I not just stay in bed like my cellmate? Anthony lay in bed all morning and most of the afternoon. I assume he also was brooding his existence and was unmotivated to do anything including going out for chow. For a little while, I listened to talk radio and went over some stocks. I had finally received all the information I needed to evaluate corporations' performance in the 3rd quarter along with their projected growth rates. Eventually, though, I lost interest and lay back down on my bunk. I stared out blankly at my austere and captive surroundings. This was my life. I will live in a cage and endure extreme oppression until the end of time. There will be no meaning or joy, only a long protracted miserable death.

Later in the afternoon, I finally decided to get up. I made myself a large mug of coffee to shake off my melancholy. I noticed my cellmate had awakened and although he had his television on was not paying attention to it. I mentioned that he missed the massive display of force at lunch, but he seemed disinterested. What does the live-undead care about? To be productive in some way I set up my work shop at the front table and made a stock chart.

In the evening, a couple of nurses went cell to cell asking everyone in the cell house if they wanted a flu shot. Never before had this been done during my time in the IDOC. Only prisoners who were very old and sickly were offered an inoculation. My cellmate and I said yes, but I thought it was odd. On one hand, the IDOC wanted to make prisoners suffer and on the other hand we were being offered preventive health care. It reminded me of an episode of the TV show "House," where a prisoner who had an execution date was given medical treatment to prevent him from dying. This is the irony of the criminal justice system. Instead of offering us flu shots, they should be offering us euthanasia. What is the point of keeping prisoners who have death sentences, or the equivalent, healthy? I assume the flu shots are being offered this year to everyone due to the epidemic last year which made not only many prisoners very ill, but many people who work here at Stateville.

Another irony I thought about this week was the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Atkins vs. Virginia which prohibits the execution of the mentally retarded. The ruling was made in 2002, but is being revisited in Hall vs. Florida, #12-10882. Freddie Lee Hall was sentenced to death for the 1978 murder of Karol Hurst, a pregnant 21-year-old woman. Hall and his co-defendant Mack Ruffin kidnapped Hurst and forced her to drive to a wooded area where she was brutally raped and then shot. Later the pair also killed a sheriff deputy. Hall's defense lawyers have for decades argued he should not be executed because his I.Q. is tested between 71 and 80. The State of Florida sets the standard of retardation at 70 and this is the issue before the court. Personally, other than people who cannot understand their criminality, the dumber a murder defendent, the more the reason to give them the death penalty. On the contrary, those who are very intelligent and can be assets to society should be given lesser sentences. My cellmate is not a genius, but is intelligent and has much more potential than most of the prisoners at Stateville.

After I finished my stock chart, I asked my cellmate if he would come down off his bunk and sit by the bars where I was so I could bathe out of the sink with some privacy. He was surprised I had not already done so because I typically wash up after exercising in the morning. I told him I was not motivated to exercise and had stayed in bed much of the day as he had. I continued saying I thought the court ruling he received the night before was upsetting and took away most of my energy. He admitted being very disappointed and was even more glum after reading the court's ruling in its entirety. It seemed the judge was just looking for excuses to deny his appeal. I commented that is what they often do and is why I was concerned the court will agree to dismiss my appeal on any technicality or lapse in affidavits.

Over the weekend, my cellmate continued to lie in bed all morning and most of the afternoon except for chow. Because he is out of commissary food, he wakes up for meals only to go back to sleep. For dinner, yesterday, I went out simply to get some bread and milk, and I skipped lunch today altogether. The Orange Crush continues to be used for additional security during feed lines and I was told while writing this post that they were even conducting strip searches. I will attempt to avoid the oppressive presence as much as possible even if I continue to lose weight. It is miserable enough knowing I may share the same fate as my cellmate than to be harassed by excessive security as well.

Recently I watched a movie on the prison's DVD system called "Last Nice Words."  It was about a teenage boy who falls in love with a ghost. The girl had been dead for many years but continued to be able to take physical form. Her brother had hung her on a tree which apparently had magical properties. As long as her corpse remained hanging, she continued to exist. When her brother learned of their love affair, he threatened to cut her down, but instead hangs himself on the same rope. In the rural backwoods of Kentucky, he stalks and torments her and the boy is eventually forced to cut them both down when he tries to rape her. It is a sad film which in some respects resembles my own existence except I am trapped in Stateville and the only way I can be freed from this miserable place is in death. Thousands of men in the IDOC have been lynched and they just do not know it yet. I see dead people every day and occasionally when I look into my own mirror.