Death Row

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

David Lee Powell #612
Ellis 1 Unit
Huntsville, Texas
June 1993

In 1990 I embarked on a personal odyssey to investigate capital punishment in the USA.  Like Ulysses it took my studio seven years to find our way home.  The journey resulted in two books both titled Final Exposure: Portraits from Death Row & dozens of exhibitions in galleries, schools & state capital buildings.

It is impossible to enter most of the fourteen death rows we eventually visited & more than impossible (without benefit of a Trojan Horse) to carry the six trunks of photographic equipment, sound recording devices & two assistants into each venue.  We inevitably battled a triple edged sword: obtaining permission from, first, the inmates, who always said no, then the Department of Corrections for each jurisdiction & lastly, the lawyers for each prisoner.   But my secret weapon was my studio rep at the time, Lorie Savel.  Once given a task she was like a pitbull.  She would latch on to them & never take “no” for an answer.  The corrections officers never had a prayer.  Not only did she get us permission to enter & photograph but she would not settle until the DOC gave permission for unheard of “contact visits” i.e. face-to-face meetings with the eight men & women during the course of three expensive trips to two different jails.

The State of Texas’ death row was the Black Hole of Calcutta.  It hosted the largest death row in the USA, committed the most executions & was impenetrable.  The warden flat out refused us on more than one occasion.  The legal team fighting to stop the execution of the infamous Gary Graham (a.k.a. Shaka Sankofa) had heard about our top secret project & begged us to help with his case.  Photography might prove useful in his innocence defense.  Theirs was a unique strategy but even they were of no help in gaining access.

Due to Lorie’s machinations, we slipped into Ellis 1 Unit during Graham’s preexecution lockdown & took pictures, interviewed & commiserated with him.  The entire legal system was poised for his lethal injection within hours but he received a last minute stay of execution just after we exited.  Ironically he lost his battle later that same year.

As happened so often Shaka introduced us to another associate, James Beathard.  Together they published the prison newspaper.  After many handwritten letters between Beathard (who, coincidentally, inspired the Bruce Graham play 'Coyote on a Fence', a fictionalized depiction about his life in prison) & myself, Beathard somehow arranged for us to return to photograph six more convicts.  Later, more negotiations…another trek…another prison & we were introduced to the second of  two female inmates on the project, Pam Perillo.  Each time the gigantic barred gates clanged behind my team, the sights, sounds, even smells permeated the air & reeked of pain.  I vividly remember we were psychologically shadowed by the specter of death wherever we went.  Inmates screamed our names & obscenities whenever we passed down the halls.  Subsequently we suffered through the executions of five of the group—so far.

I am a photographer, not a writer, so it took me almost nine heart-wrenching months to write 26 essays.  David Lee Powell was the last story I wrote.  I kept putting his off again & again due to the simple fact that I did not like him.  His story was not stereotypical.  He was white, middle class, educated & possessed a prodigious IQ.  With us his attitude was one of superiority & condescension.  He strode into the cell spitting bravado & deriding our being there & asking stupid questions.  It is not that I became friends with all the others, but David was hostile & his interview had been problematic.  Lorie & I were on edge for the whole session.
Months later I started receiving early morning long distance phone calls, every day from Texas.  Powell was preparing for another trial &, from his holding cell, he would telephone me—collect.  The interminable conversations cost me a fortune but separated by half the country, iron bars & a strong sense of obligation we became good friends.  Eventually he asked if I would be a character witness in his appeal.  This seemed “above & beyond the call of duty” but, of course, I agreed.  Months later I was on assignment when my studio manager called & told me a marshal had tried to serve me a subpoena.  My mind raced.  Had I failed to pay a bill?  Was I being sued?  At that very moment I codified one of the few absolute truisms in my life: Nothing good can come from a subpoena.

I evaded it.  But like a secret agent, one sunny summer afternoon, I slipped into the downtown office to snoop around.  Fortunately my marshal was out sick.  The superintendent eventually told me that the Texas prosecutor was trying to harass Powell’s witness list by having me testify against him.  There was potential for my being jailed for writing a book.  Before I skulked back home I emptied my ATM bank accounts of all I could withdraw & packed my suitcase.  It is bizarre how you become inextricably linked to some people.  I never intended to show up for the trial.  I was planning to just disappear.  Forever.

By the time it became critical David Lee Powell was resentenced & received the death penalty again.  My testimony was no longer needed.  A few weeks later he called me & informed me this would probably be his last phone call because he was being transferred back to death row.  And he added he was not good at writing letters so this was probably goodbye.

We have kept abreast of his situation for the last several years.  After thirty years on death row Powell sits “on the bubble.”  Rumors have it that he will receive a death warrant within the next 90 days.  His execution is imminent.

I do not presume your opinion of capital punishment.  And we never intended to evoke pity or even sympathy for the individuals portrayed.  Their transgressions can never be forgiven.  The entire exercise was meant to spark the debate about using murder to solve the problem of murder.  Read my book or look at my website.  Then take a look at the film,  Let David Live  It is strange to see David again after these last few years.  He looks older & more frail.  I guess thirty years beneath a death sentence will do that.   And I do miss those crack-of-dawn phone conversations.


Anonymous,  February 9, 2010 at 11:57 PM  

Lou, I almost got to go with you on a couple of these, but not quite!

I see your call of avoiding presumption, and raise you an opinion. I avoid superlatives consciously, but on this one, I can say that forgiveness is the single most powerful force on earth. This talk we hear about "closure" coming by the death of a perpetrator is, of course, an absurd belief. It keeps us locked in a vicious cycle - in the same level of consciousness that allows murder to occur and recur.

The ONLY way out of that cycle is through forgiveness. And it happens, in even the most unlikely situations. But it requires an elevated consciousness that is difficult to arrive at without some impetus from another place. And in my mind, the most compelling reason why we must not kill people, period, is that we take away from them the opportunity to repent for their crimes. That is when closure is true.

arni cheatham February 11, 2010 at 6:35 AM  

I worked with kids of all ages from the early 70's to early 80's and again now in 2008 and 2009. During these years I have had golden children and I've had scary bad kids. I've always believed that within the toughest ones to reach, the hard cases, the ones that everyone deems "untouchables", there is something somewhere within them that is special and should be acknowledged and celebrated. Yes I know there are some exceptions, truly bad individuals, but for the most part those persons end up in our prisons are those that no one has tried hard enough to find their gem and celebrate it. Your journey with this individual and indeed the project as a whole is a story about exceptional effort to do exactly that. On behalf of a society that has let many of these people down, Thanks.

Lucilda Dassardo-Cooper February 11, 2010 at 7:02 AM  

Lou, you bear witness as an artist to allow our society to look at itself. That is the courageous and daring thing to do and it's inevitable it will make your insides twist with all manner of conflicting emotions.
I salute you.
I sincerely hope you continue to mirror our true selves back to us as this is where the artist influence the unfolding of our world and the directions we choose.
Courage, Bro!

Post a Comment

About This Blog

blog (blŏg, bläg) n. 1. short for Weblog 2. online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer 3. diary that is posted on the Internet 4. an experiment to verbalize my observations about the status of photography. It will be eclectic & deal with philosophy & practice of this universal art form. It will strive for periodic commentary about issues many photographers face, like ownership and the economy. It will also talk about pictures and what makes good ones and how to get them. No hardware. No software. No recycled clichés. No whining.