Monthly Archives: March 2014

Optimism, Outrage and Grief: NH Activist Visits Texas Death Row, Part 2

Since I wrote “Fighting for Life, From Texas Death Row,” much has happened to the inmate I was working with, Robert Will, and myself.  Following my successful efforts to find him experienced pro bono lawyers who worked with his Texas court-appointed attorney, Rob’s case was remanded from the federal courts to the Texas state court.  This is significant as in Texas, as once you have reached the federal level, there is nowhere to go but to the Supreme Court for relief.  Surprisingly, in February 2014, the Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Rob based on both actual innocence claims and prosecutorial misconduct.

Bobby Garza

Given that Rob’s case is being handled exceptionally by his new lawyers, last summer I began to assist a man named Bobby Garza who had recently been given his execution date.  I met Bobby by accident when at an earlier visit to Texas death row, the guards mistakenly placed him in the visitor’s booth with me instead of Robert Will.  Several months later I wrote him a letter asking him if he had sufficient help and support now that he had been given his execution date.  I received a letter back which explained his desperate situation.

After Bobby’s court-appointed lawyer abandoned him after submitting an inadequate clemency application, I and a friend who was working with me on his case asked Texas civil lawyer Mary Felps of Descending Eagles, who had been working tirelessly pro bono with death row inmates, to visit Bobby. Together the three of us helped him write his own appeals pro se as no other lawyer would take on his case.  Actually, one other lawyer wrote out a quick brief, but when it was denied, he never appealed it to the higher courts.  We did.

Bobby Garza was on death row under Texas’s “Law of Parties” rule, which states that if an individual is present at a murder, s/he is just as culpable as the person who committed the murder.  There was no evidence he was present except for a coerced confession, which he quickly recanted.  Nonetheless, after appealing all the way to the Supreme Court, he was executed on September 19, 2013.

I stood with other protesters outside the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas, looking on helplessly as Garza’s younger brother and sister sobbed in shock during Bobby’s execution.  After the execution the prison released his property, and his children and younger siblings fixated on the mesh bag containing all that he left:  a pair of sneakers, a bible, underclothing and some papers.  His son quickly put on a plain white t-shirt, which he wore with pride; his daughter cuddled with a washcloth, trying to smell a man who no longer existed.  Another son vacantly walked up to people saying, “They killed my Daddy.”  Then the prison officials took everyone over to the funeral home where Bobby’s body was laid out.  The children wailed, and the family kissed him, or held his hand, not having touched him since he was imprisoned ten years earlier.  I noticed that there was still scotch tape on his arm; tape that was used to hold down the IVs which administered the lethal drugs into his system.

There is no possible way I can convey the horror of that day.  Many will call it justice, but is it justice to leave yet more pain and suffering on this earth?  Every day Bobby’s mother visits her son’s grave, and his family and friends are still grief-stricken.  Execution does not end the suffering.  It often brings more.

Today I assist another young man, because to just be against the death penalty is not enough. Signing petitions is not enough.  In Texas, the men live in solitary confinement, not even with a television as companionship.  Studies show 10% are innocent.  Most have families.

Even when we know a person is guilty we have to ask ourselves why life in prison is not a severe enough punishment.  Pre-meditated murder is a horrible thing, however, few of the criminals on death row are there because they killed out of pre-meditation.  They killed impulsively, using poor judgment, and often the mitigating factors that contributed to this poor judgment were age, low IQ, alcohol or drug impairment, a lifetime of abuse causing a lack of forethought, and mental illness.  However, when the State kills it does so with calculated pre-meditation, and with cold intent.  It is time we asked what kind of people we want to be as we move forward as a society.

Ann Wright2Ann Wright lives in Lee, NH and is an active volunteer in NH’s efforts to repeal the death penalty

HB 1170 and Organized Medicine

By Len Korn, MD

dr_len_kornOn March 12th the New Hampshire House voted overwhelmingly (225-104) in support of HB 1107, to repeal the death penalty in NH and replace it with life without the possibility of parole. The fate of this bill is uncertain, however, as it heads to the Republican-controlled Senate.

We came this close to repeal once before in NH when Governor Shaheen vetoed a repeal bill in 2000. This time, Governor Hassan has said she would sign a repeal bill as long as it did not include Michael Addison, NH’s only prisoner on death row. NH has not executed anyone since 1939.

This time it feels different as repeal has become a non-partisan issue, with great support from religious groups, libertarians, fiscal conservatives as well as most liberals. But this is an issue that has both supporters and adversaries. The Senate will be having a Committee hearing shortly, and a vote to follow, so the time to voice an opinion is now.

Where does Organized Medicine stand on the Death Penalty?

Organized medicine in the US has long been opposed to the participation of physicians in the execution process. In July 1980 the American Medical Association adopted Policy E-2.06, with many subsequent updates, prohibiting physicians from participation in legally authorized executions. In October 2000 the American Psychiatric Association approved a Position Statement advocating a “Moratorium on Capital Punishment,” citing “weaknesses and deficiencies of the current capital sentencing process including considerations in regard to the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.” The American Board of Anesthesiologists incorporated the AMA’s position in February 2010.

The AMA and other specialty medical societies leave to the individual however the ultimate opinion on the morality of the death penalty.

Personal opinions about the morality, ethics, fairness, even cost-effectiveness of the death penalty continue to evolve in our country in the direction of repeal. In New Hampshire’s physician community, support for repeal of the death penalty appears to be the prevailing view. The New Hampshire Medical Society in 2013 conducted a survey of New Hampshire physicians to gauge the opinion of physicians on many issues including repeal of the death penalty. Of the 588 physician responses, repeal was favored by 65% of those expressing an opinion.

My own opposition to the death penalty reflects the ethical tenets inherent in my vocation as a medical doctor. I present three of those tenets here:

  • First, the Hippocratic oath, which is the bedrock of the practice of medicine, compels physicians to “do no harm.” As physicians we are taught the importance of preserving life. We do this because it is right in so many crucial ways to have a society and a people who believe in the sanctity and moral obligation to preserve life. Administering the death penalty requires participation by a physician and requires that physician to take a human life, a significant contradiction to the oath we physicians have taken.
  • Second, the death penalty comes from the idea of doing unto someone what they have done to you. Yet this belief in taking an eye for an eye is no longer a principle by which we live as a society. As physicians and as psychiatrists, we teach our patients that responding to violence with violence is wrong. We preach against bullying. We intervene in cases of violent behavior in our offices and hospital emergency rooms. Condoning the taking of a life through capital punishment condones taking an eye for an eye, which goes against the tenets of a civilized society.
  • Third, contrary to the popular belief that the death penalty brings “closure” to the families of victims, the use of the death penalty is often a more negative and painful experience for the family than a sentence of life without parole would be. This is because death penalty cases can take decades or longer, and this prolongs the suffering and trauma for families who have lost loved ones to murder. Like a wound left open, it prevents whatever healing might take place after such a horrendous crime and loss. Capital punishment also exposes attorneys, judges, judicial and prison personnel to the trauma of participating in an execution, which often turns out to be a deeply troubling experience. Many end up suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

These are not the only sound and compelling reasons why I and so many others oppose the death penalty, but they are the ones that speak most strongly to the goals and beliefs of the medical profession.

But ultimately, the final lines of John Donne’s 17th century poem “No Man is an Island” make the case for ending the death penalty so profoundly:

“Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I’m involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know
for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.”

In closing, I want to encourage all physicians who want to abolish the death penalty in New Hampshire to call or email your state senator, and any other state senator that you may know.* Our voices are respected greatly, but they need to be heard!

Please feel free to contact me as well at Information on the campaign to repeal the death penalty is available at

Dr. Korn is a member of the Board of Directors of NHCADP

A version of this appeared in Seacoastonline 4/1/14