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Opinion | Newsflash: Alabama has been torturing poor people for a long time

Stephen Cooper

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By Stephen Cooper
Former D.C. Public Defender

If you have a high-profile lawyer with powerful friends and you’re tortured while on death row in Alabama, everyone in the nation not only knows about it—overwhelmingly, especially in liberal, progressive, civilized circles of thought and news—they’re righteously appalled.

But poor death row inmates in Alabama (which overwhelmingly describes the population) who’ve got no high-profile lawyer, who are not backed by Columbia University Law School, whose stories are not featured in The New Yorker multiple times, and, who have no well-connected, media-savvy friends and supporters? They can be tortured just as terribly, just as brutally—they can be killed barbarically—and not many people in America, much less the rest of the world, knows a thing about it. Or worse, cares.

Can a rosier conclusion be drawn from reading “The Cruel and Unusual Punishment of Doyle Lee Hamm” in The Nation, The New York Times’s “Death Penalty Madness in Alabama,” “Doyle Lee Hamm execution: Repeated jabbing of death row inmate in attempted lethal injection amounts to torture, says lawyer” by The Independent, or, not dissimilar from CNN’s synopsis, “‘Gory, botched’: Alabama’s aborted execution of inmate was bloody, says lawyer,” in The Guardian?

While colorfully cataloguing the carnage of Doyle’s failed execution, none of these columns—nor virtually any news or opinion piece written about the death penalty in Alabama before Hamm’s horror, or, since—not even the commendable reporting of intrepid abolitionist writer Liliana Segura for The Intercept—goes far enough to expose and effectively condemn the depravity of Alabama’s torturous lethal injection protocol.

This is because media conglomerates, online and print magazine and newspaper publishers, editors, and writers reporting and opining on the “death penalty madness in Alabama,” do not seem to realize or appreciate they’re not writing (and reporting) on a blank slate of savagery—and suffering.

For as I asserted in “[c]all lethal injection the vile torture it is,” not only is it “increasingly more important . . . to use the word ‘torture,’ as a censure, to describe the barbarity of lethal injection[,]” it’s also just as critical in this country that we confront the pattern of “stern-faced state officials, particularly in the South, [who] regularly trot out for extra pay, withered, weakened, beaten down—dying even—old men (and much more rarely, women) to torture them to death. [And, that] [t]his occurs many years, sometimes even decades, after their crimes of conviction.”

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Without this critical context, discussion, and reference to the horrific, historic hell characterizing not only the ancient—but recent history of the death penalty in Alabama—when Jake Bittle writes (for The Nation) that “Hamm’s case will stand as testament to the state’s determination to exercise its monopoly on violence, no matter how impractical, time-consuming, or cruel that exercise becomes[,]” he could just as easily have been discussing the cases of Torrey McNabb, Ronald Bert Smith, and Christopher Brooks, all of whom were executed relatively recently in Alabama—before Hamm’s horror. In all three cases there exists patent, persuasive evidence that appears to directly implicate state officials in their torturous deaths. (Not to take anything away from other recent, potentially torturous Alabama executions like Tommy Arthur’s where there was no visible evidence of physical pain and suffering but, as I observed elsewhere, “maybe the excruciating, cruel and unusual pain Arthur felt—and the resultant torment on his body as the lethal drugs saturated his system—was sanitized from public view by way of a chemical straightjacket?”)

And, when columnist Roger Cohen writes (in The New York Times) that Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn was “unmoved” by “an abomination foretold” (a “‘bit of butchery that can only be described as torture,’ [according to] his attorney, Bernard Harcourt”), he likewise whiffs or at best shanks a plum opportunity to wallop state executioners and particularly Commissioner Dunn—the Baghdad Bob of Alabama’s death row—for repeated instances of torture, and then, lying to cover it up.

When news organizations report on the stainless-steel-sticking or “jabbing” of a frail and dying man but observe only that his lawyer, a Columbia University law professor says this “amount[ed] to torture”—without consideration or discussion of any of the state’s recent atrocities in lesser-known, not-as-well-publicized cases—they dilute and diminish the magnitude of the (most current) evil that has occurred.

For what masterful American writer James Baldwin observed about the effort it takes to become a great novelist is no less true for writers/reporters/historians attempting to convey the continued, cumulative monstrosity of the death penalty in Alabama, and, in all of America: They must “tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then a little more.” They must “mount[] an unending attack on all that Americans believe themselves to hold sacred. It means fighting an astute and agile guerilla warfare with the American complacency[.]”

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As I observed about “[f]inding solace in [another great American writer John] Steinbeck during the time of Trump,” writers writing about the death penalty today must do so “in the most human, most piercing, most painstaking and revealing of ways, [to best] highlight the stories of the poor, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, and the vulnerable.” And as this concerns meaningful reporting on the administration of the death penalty in Alabama, on pace to perpetuate one torturous execution right after the next, this can only happen when this reprehensible fact is finally, fully, and freely acknowledged everywhere: Alabama has been torturing poor people for a long time.


Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter @SteveCooperEsq

 

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter @SteveCooperEsq

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Oh God, Our Father

“We find ourselves mired in chaos once again.”

Larry Lee

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(APR GRAPHIC)

We come to you seeking peace for our country and comfort for our hearts. We have turned to you for countless decades when we faced dire circumstances such as war, health issues and social strife that threatened to turn our citizens against each other.

We have sought your wisdom and counsel. We have sought the calmness that only you can bring to our land.

We have begged for forgiveness and that you rid our hearts and minds of thoughts that betray the foundation our forefathers built this land on.

You have never failed us.

So we lift our voices again. From every corner of this great land, from sea to sea and from horizon to horizon.

Our voices are more diverse than ever before. But rather than celebrating this diversity and reaching out to embrace it, too many voices have instead turned to those same prejudices that time after time have set us back, not moved us forward.

We find ourselves mired in chaos once again. Chaos incited in large measure by voices that betray us and this land we love dearly.

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And as we approach the day when a new cadre of leaders are supposed to take over the reins of our government, there are voices calling for disruption and perhaps violence. At a time when we need sanity, some preach just the opposite.

Oh God, Our Father:

Hear our plea and cast your spirit across this wonderful land so that tomorrow will be greater than yesterday.

Amen

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Education

Opinion | This leader inspires confidence

“It takes a proven leader to make thoughtful, vigilant decisions in times of chaos.”

Jane DiFolco Parker

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(STOCK PHOTO)

There is no playbook in a pandemic. There are no hard and fast rules in a fast-moving crisis. Second-guessing in a crisis, especially from those who have never had to deal with such pressures, is counterproductive.

It takes a proven leader to make thoughtful, vigilant decisions in times of chaos.

Following the uncertainty that defined last spring and summer, Auburn University forged into an unpredictable fall, making necessary tough decisions in the midst of an unprecedented crisis as it transitioned back to campus. Although many institutions opted for fully remote instruction, suspending classes, or even canceling semesters entirely, Auburn committed to creating a safe campus environment while preserving many of the benefits of a residential academic community. 

Despite the pandemic’s myriad challenges, Auburn remained open throughout the fall and had a successful semester, thanks to countless students, faculty, and staff who understood the importance of safety protocols and upheld shared institutional values. Not surprisingly, there was an increase in COVID-19 cases in the first few weeks of the fall semester, but the number of cases declined and remained at negligible levels for the remainder of the term. 

Amazingly, Auburn was able to avoid the employee furloughs, layoffs, salary cuts, and hiring freezes which have befallen other colleges and universities throughout the country. In addition to holding town halls with faculty and staff, I know the university worked diligently to respond to concerns, adjust policies and procedures, and implement safety measures that enabled the institution to continue delivering on its mission of teaching, research, and outreach. The versatility and nimbleness exhibited by Auburn’s leadership, faculty, staff, and students in navigating the extraordinary circumstances resulting from the pandemic are impressive.

As our country grapples with an unprecedented public health crisis and a highly volatile political climate, we know that one of the best ways to support students is to foster a structured learning environment that supports critical thinking, advances problem solving, encourages empathy, and promotes diversity of thought. 

With this in mind, and using the past semester as a guide, the university is preparing to start the spring semester next week with more than 70 percent of classes face-to-face. Although some may disagree with a return to on-campus learning, the decision to do so was made based on careful consideration by the university’s senior leadership. These leaders sought feedback from local, state, and federal medical professionals, shared governance groups, campus representatives at various levels, and other sources, including state government and peer institutions. 

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Last month, Governor Ivey encouraged educational institutions to return to the classroom for the spring. A majority of students and faculty who have communicated their preferences favor returning to the classroom while still providing flexibility to faculty and students who request it. Indeed, there is an unavoidable cost to remote learning — we have seen its negative effect on the mental health of both students and faculty members. 

Although the decision to return to on-campus instruction is supported by many, some have voiced opposition. The changing and uncertain nature of the pandemic often leads to fear and, in some cases, anger. Unfortunately, much of this anger has been directed at Bill Hardgrave, Auburn’s provost and chief academic officer. Recently, this frustration has manifested in a specially-called — and horribly misguided — meeting to take a vote of no confidence. At Auburn, it takes only 50 faculty members of the more than 1,700 faculty to sign a petition calling for such a vote. That is fewer than 3 percent of the entire faculty!

This action is regrettable. It sends a false message about a leader who has stepped up to forge an uncharted path during extraordinary times. Throughout this unprecedented year, Dr. Hardgrave has taken deliberate measures to consult with and to incorporate faculty opinion, and to allow exceptions to in-person teaching when it presented a hardship for a faculty member. He has encouraged innovative approaches to pedagogy and helped deliver excellence, which is the hallmark of an Auburn education and a renowned faculty. 

Auburn President Jay Gogue said recently, “A no-confidence vote in the midst of a global pandemic and social unrest when student, faculty, staff and administration leaders have worked diligently together for the best interests of our campus is unprecedented and destructive.”

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At a time when our nation is experiencing profound divisiveness at all levels, Auburn has a unique opportunity to demonstrate its role as a leader in higher education. Dr. Hardgrave’s proven ability to guide Auburn’s academic enterprise during these unprecedented times is indisputable. His efforts have exemplified The Auburn Creed, demonstrating a belief in education, hard work, honesty, and sympathy for the interests of the university’s students, faculty, and staff.

Not only does a vote of no confidence damage the reputation of an academic leader who has served Auburn admirably for the past ten years, but it damages the reputation of our university among the higher education community, and it undermines its credibility with our students, parents, alumni, community, and accrediting agencies. It does not benefit the university, but rather undercuts the hard work of so many members of the Auburn Family in advancing our mission during the pandemic. I strongly encourage those who wish to express a rational, constructive voice in furthering Auburn’s mission to continue to speak up in support of Dr. Hardgrave and, thus, in support of our university. You are being heard.

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | We lost some good ones this year

We lost some good ones this year, who will definitely be missed as we head into 2021.

Steve Flowers

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U.S. Rep. John Lewis. (LORI SHAULL)

As is my annual ritual, my yearend column pays tribute to Alabama political legends who have passed away during the year.

Sonny Cauthen

Sonny Cauthen passed away in Montgomery at age 70. He was the ultimate inside man in Alabama politics. Cauthen was a lobbyist before lobbying was a business. He kept his cards close to his vest, and you never knew what he was doing.

Cauthen was the ultimate optimist who knew what needed to be achieved and found like-minded allies with whom to work. When he had something to get done, he bulldozed ahead and achieved his mission. He was a yellow dog Democrat who believed in equal treatment and rewarding hard work. He was an avid outdoorsman and hunter and mentored a good many young men in Montgomery.

Alvin Holmes

Another Montgomerian who will never be forgotten was State Rep. Alvin Holmes, who passed away at 81. Like Sonny, Holmes was born and raised and lived his entire life in his hometown of Montgomery. He, too, was a real Democrat and an icon in Alabama politics.

Holmes represented the people of Montgomery for 44 years in the Alabama House of Representatives. He was one of the most dynamic and outspoken legislators in Alabama history, as well as one of the longest-serving members.

I had the opportunity to serve with Holmes for close to two decades in the Legislature. We shared a common interest in Alabama political history. In fact, Holmes taught history at Alabama State University for a long time. He was always mindful of the needs of his district, as well as Black citizens throughout the state. Holmes was one of the first Civil Rights leaders in Montgomery and Alabama. He helped organize the Alabama Democratic Conference and was Joe Reed’s chief lieutenant for years.

John Lewis

We lost another Civil Rights icon this year. John Lewis was born in rural Pike County in the community of Banks. After graduating from college, Lewis joined Dr. Martin Luther King as a soldier in the army for civil rights. Lewis was beaten by Alabama State Troopers near the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the infamous Bloody Sunday Selma to Montgomery march. He became a Civil Rights legend in America.

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He was one of King’s closest allies. Lewis became almost as renowned worldwide as King. Lewis moved to Atlanta with King and was elected to Congress from Atlanta and served 33 years with distinction. Even though Lewis was a national celebrity, he would take time out of his busy schedule to drive from Atlanta to rural Pike County to go to church with his mother at her beloved Antioch Baptist Church. Lewis died of pancreatic cancer in July at age 80.

John Dorrill

Another Alabama political legend, John Dorrill, passed away in January at age 90. Ironically, Dorrill and Lewis were both born and raised in rural Pike County near Troy. Dorrill went to work for the powerful Alabama Farmers Federation shortly after graduating from Auburn. He worked for the federation for 43 years.

For the last 20 years of his career, he oversaw and was the mastermind of their political plans and operations as executive director of the federation. He retired and lived out his final years on his ancestral home place in Pike County. Dorrill was one of my political mentors and friends.

Larry Dixon

Another Montgomery political icon, former Republican State Sen. Larry Dixon, passed away only a few weeks ago from COVID-19 complications at age 78. He served over 20 years in the state Legislature. Dixon epitomized the conservative Republican, and his voting record was right in line with his Montgomery constituency.

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He was known as “Montgomery’s state senator” but his ultimate legacy may be as a great family man. Dixon was a devoted husband to his wife, Gaynell, and father to his two daughters. He was a good man.

Hugh Maddox

Former Alabama Supreme Court Judge Hugh Maddox recently passed away at age 90. Maddox served 31 years on the Alabama Supreme Court before his retirement in 2001.

Richard Laird

One of my favorite fellow legislators and friends, Rep. Richard Laird of Roanoke, passed away last week from COVID-19. He was 81 and served 36 years in the Alabama House of Representatives. Laird was a great man and very conservative legislator.

In addition to Richard Laird, Alvin Holmes, and Larry Dixon, several other veteran Alabama legislators passed away this year including Ron Johnson, Jack Page and James Thomas. We lost some good ones this year, who will definitely be missed as we head into 2021.

Happy New Year.

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Bradley Byrne: Thank you

“Thank you for allowing me to represent you.”

Bradley Byrne

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Congressman Bradley Byrne

This is my last weekly report as your congressman. Serving you in Washington these last seven years has been a great honor, and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity you have given me. I never once walked out on the floor of the House of Representatives when I wasn’t in awe that I was there to speak and vote for you.

I leave Congress with hope and optimism about our country and our part of the country.

American elites, who control most of our news and entertainment outlets, would have you believe that America is a weakening, evil nation. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’d not traveled abroad much before coming to Congress but, particularly given my work on the Armed Services Committee. I’ve traveled a lot more these last seven years. No matter where I went, American power was evident, and I heard from allies and adversaries a clear expectation that we are the world’s leader in nearly every way that matters.

What this has meant for the world is remarkable. The rules-based system we created after World War II, and the example of our democracy and economy changed things on a truly global scale. Global per capita gross domestic product has more than tripled during the last 75 years and the percentage of people living in extreme poverty has fallen from 66 percent to less than 10 percent. Before World War II, there were more autocracies than democracies. Today, 96 nations are true democracies, and less than 80 are autocracies.

What we have achieved at home is equally impressive. We have more rights and freedoms equally enjoyed than any nation in the history of the world. No one can match our standard of living, our health care system, or our ability to face and address the issues that still challenge us.

I know this year has been hard on all of us. We’ve experienced a pandemic, an abruptly sharp recession, riots, and down here two hurricanes. Some of us have lost loved ones or had the disease ourselves.   But, our resilience as a nation and as a region has allowed us to enter 2021 looking forward to widespread distribution of the vaccine and return to a new normal.

America is a strong nation because of our morals and principles: freedom, equal opportunity, hard work, fair play, patriotism and faith in God.   If we ever lose those, we will lose our strength, like Sampson without his hair.

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I said earlier that I am hopeful and optimistic. That’s because these last seven years I’ve had the rare opportunity to see our nation as a whole and not just the part where I live. I’ve met and worked with genuinely good and smart people. And I have an appreciation for the important national institutions which have developed over the decades to provide the structures within which the American people work their will.

My ancestor, Gerald Byrne, came over from Ireland to what was then the colony of West Florida. He escaped poverty and a brutally repressive British occupation of his home country. Here he had freedom to be his own man, opportunity to make his own way, and the courage to take advantage of it all. Over 200 years later one of his descendants would end up in the House of Representatives. That’s amazing, but that’s America.

I want our country to continue to provide these opportunities to all of our people. I want us to maintain our morals and principles. And I want us all to be hopeful and optimistic because we have every reason to be so.

Thank you for allowing me to represent you. I will always cherish the fact you trusted me to speak and act for you. I hope I lived up to your expectations.

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God bless you and God bless the United States of America.

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