"An eye for an eye makes us all blind."
Photographer Toshi Kazama's photographs of execution chambers, death row
inmates and victims' families show the reality of the death penalty that most
of us don't see. He also asks a very important question to people who support
the death penalty.
Straps dangle on a wooden chair. There's a faint dark burn mark on the middle
of the seat. It's a chair used to kill death row inmates by electrocution in
Alabama, US. The tailbone of the electrocuted inmate sometimes burns the seat
leaving the mark, said Toshi Kazama, a New York-based photographer and death
Kazama was in Jakarta recently, exhibiting his photographs of execution
chambers, portraits of children on death row and victims' families, mostly from
the US and some countries in Asia. His photos recently lined a corridor in
Plaza Indonesia as part of the Festival "A Week of Celebrating Life" organized
by the Coalition for the Abolition of Death Penalty in ASEAN.
Kazama's photographs show the reality of the death penalty. But he also has a
question to ask the Indonesian public.
In the 18 months of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's administration, 18 death
row inmates, mostly convicted drug traffickers, have been executed by firing
Jokowi considers this a solution to the illegal drug trade and he has the
support of a majority of Indonesians. According to a 2015 Indo-Barometer
survey, 84 % of the Indonesian public supports the death penalty for drug
"I want to ask each and every one of you. Do you have the guts to kill this
drug trafficker or murderer, with your own hands? Can you pull the trigger?" he
"I don't," he said.
Kazama's questions come at a time when Indonesia and its neighbors in Southeast
Asia are witnessing a rise in state-ordered killings. The festival in Jakarta
comes a little over a month after the third wave of executions in Indonesia.
"You have to understand, it's you who is doing the killing, not the
executioner. He's just doing a job for you," he said.
Recently, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose tough stance on fighting
drug crime has encouraged the extrajudicial killing of more than 2,000 people,
reportedly gave a green light for Jokowi to execute Philippine national Mary
Sitting in the Mandarin Oriental on his last day in Jakarta before flying off
to New York via Tokyo, Kazama talked about what had pushed him to work on the
theme of the death penalty.
The chair - called Yellow Mama by the people in Alabama - was the 1st picture
that he took of an execution chamber, he said.
20 years ago, Kazama was a successful commercial photographer who photographed
famous musicians for CD covers and had his work appear in magazines such as
Italian Vogue. "I was a pretty successful photographer and I only thought about
myself," he said.
In 1996, he decided to take pictures of juvenile death row inmates to explore a
different path in his career. "To be honest with you, I thought I would do a
couple of death row inmates and publish them in Time or Newsweek," he said. "I
thought it would help my career. I had that idea in the corner of my mind too,"
Kazama now in his late 50s, has always found the idea of killing someone as a
form of punishment uncomfortable.
Born in Japan, Kazama moved to the US at 15. He remembers being bewildered
watching Hollywood movies in the theater and people cheered when the good guy
killed the bad guy.
The sinking feeling never left him as he grew up. "I got married. I have
children. And this question that I had got bigger and bigger," he said. The
death penalty then became a natural theme for him to explore outside of his
It was not easy to start this endeavor. He found a list of juveniles on
death-row from university research. He learned that a 16-year-old boy name
Michael Barnes in Alabama was on death row.
He called the warden of the Alabama prison to ask permission and was
immediately rejected and told never to call again.
"I was a little amused by this so even though he told me to never call him
back, I called him back. He got angrier obviously," he said. But the warden
told him if the Alabama Department of Corrections gave their permission, he
would have to follow suit.
With the help of lawyers, Kazama asked permission from the Department of
Corrections. After eight months, Kazama received permission.
The warden turned out to be a genuinely nice guy, Kazama said.
Meeting Barnes, his 1st portrait subject with an IQ of around 70, changed
"I had no idea who I was going to meet. I was so stunned. He wasn't a monster.
He was a regular 16-year-old boy who I could easily find in my son's
classroom," he said.
"When that thought came, I started to think what if I was born like him? I
would be on death-row and I would be photographed by this weird Asian
photographer," he said.
He decided right then to treat Barnes as he would like to be treated by others.
Kazama shook his hand and embraced Barnes. The 1st sentence that Barnes uttered
was: "I'm a bitch." The 2nd was "I'm afraid of 1 hour."
Kazama later found out that inmates were given one hour out of their cells
where they exercised or took a shower. Kazama also discovered that being a
"bitch" in prison slang meant that Barnes had been raped by the other inmates.
After taking a picture of Barnes, Kazama said he could not go on doing
commercial photography. "The day after I photographed [Barnes] I had to fly to
New York to shoot CD covers and I usually enjoy shooting these musicians so
much but the depth of the thing is completely different. I felt I could not go
on," he said.
"I never thought I would have no interest in commercial photography because I
enjoy making images of reality. I photograph images that are alive but there's
always a shadow of death behind them because they [the death row inmates] are
going to be executed," he said. "I could no longer wash my hands and say
Barnes' sentence was commuted to life-in-prison after the US Supreme Court
ruled in 2005 against the death penalty for child offenders. The Supreme
Court's decision was based on the case of another child on death row,
Christopher Simmons. Kazama also photographed Simmons.
Kazama said there were other children on death row who he photographed and who
were executed before the 2005 Supreme Court ruling.
Kazama believes the issue of the death penalty encapsulates all societal
issues. "It has [the problem of] poverty. It has [the problem of] education.
Each case shows all the ill parts of society," he said.
Around the world, the poor and uneducated disproportionately face the death
"And as a society, the only solution we come up with is to kill another human
being in the name of justice, or in the name of the victims," he said.
Kazama, who 13 years ago survived an attack that almost killed him, says
revenge does not help victims to heal. He has permanent damage to his hearing
and balance, but he does not want to be burdened by anger and hatred. He said a
lot of victims' families feel the same way.
Kazama said the death penalty seemed like an easy way out. "But it doesn't make
society a better place. We have killed many human beings in our history. We
live over the corpse of dead bodies. It's a cycle of violence," he said.
"An eye for an eye makes us all blind."
(source: The Jakarta Post)
History of the death penalty in the United States
In 1980, the Roman Catholic Bishops of the United States called for an end to
the use of the death penalty in our country. It was the judgment of the bishops
that the use of state-sanctioned executions was no longer necessary and was, in
fact, unjustified in our time and under current circumstances.
They wrote that our nation should forgo the use of capital punishment because
executing people, when it is not necessary to protect society, violates our
respect for human life and dignity. Its application is deeply flawed and can be
irreversibly wrong, is prone to errors, and is biased by factors such as race,
the quality of legal representation, and where the crime was committed. We have
other ways to punish criminals and protect society, they asserted.
At the time, there were 45 states, along with the federal government and the
U.S. military, that employed the death penalty or had the option of using it in
sentencing those convicted of serious crimes. Please note that the phrase used
was not "those convicted of murder." That is because it was only in 1977 when
the Supreme Court, in Coker v. Georgia, declared it unconstitutional for a man
to be executed for raping a woman, and to this day there are several states
that can execute persons even though they have not killed anyone.
Despite their efforts, for nearly two decades it seemed as though nothing the
bishops said could change the hearts and minds of Americans who supported the
death penalty, not even Catholics. Massachusetts and Rhode Island were our only
victories as they discontinued executions, but the Supreme Court in case after
case reaffirmed its constitutionality and in 1994 President Clinton expanded
the federal government's ability to put men and women to death.
However, the conversation changed in 1999.
It was in January of that year when Pope John Paul II arrived in St Louis to
take part in a massive youth rally, preside at a Mass of more than 100,000
faithful, and lead an ecumenical prayer service. During the Mass the late
pontiff, now St. John Paul II, said:
A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life
must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.
Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying
criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at
Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and
unnecessary. (Homily at the Papal Mass in the Trans World Dome, St. Louis,
Missouri, Jan. 27, 1999).
Later that day, during the ecumenical service, His Holiness turned to the
governor of Missouri who was sitting nearby and asked him to spare the life of
Darrell Mease, a convicted murderer whose scheduled execution was approaching.
Gov. Mel Carnahan, a Baptist, was so moved by the Holy Father's plea for mercy
that he commuted Mease's sentence to life only a few days later. The governor's
response was unprecedented and shocking to a lot of people, provoking a
national debate on the subject like never before. Darrell Mease had been
convicted of multiple murders and there was no doubt of his guilt. Why in the
world would anyone show mercy to him of all people?
Of course, the answer to that question was that of all the people in the world
it was the pope who would ask for mercy. From the start of his pontificate he
taught that all life was sacred, even the life of the guilty. He had even
displayed his ability to grant mercy by forgiving Mehmet Ali Agca, the would-be
assassin who shot him in St. Peter's Square in May of 1981.
After St Louis and the ensuing uproar, the public dialogue on capital
punishment was decidedly different. Those advocating for ending its use were no
longer simply ridiculed or ignored. There was still a consensus that they were
wrong, but a serious national debate had begun. It was a debate that forced
national leaders, and the public in general, to think long and hard about what
it is to have our government kill on our behalf. It was not long before such a
debate began to yield results.
In 2002 the Supreme Court, in Ring v. Arizona, struck down the ability of a
judge acting alone to sentence someone to death. The court said that only a
jury could impose such a drastic sentence. Later that same year the same court
declared, in Atkins v. Virginia that it was unconstitutional to execute the
developmentally disabled. Then in 2005, in Roper v Simmons, the Supreme Court
justices stated it was unconstitutional to execute anyone who had committed a
murder under the age of 18. For the 1st time, in a long time, our nation had
curbed the use of the death penalty, and in the Atkins and Roper cases, the
U.S. Roman Catholic Bishops had been a factor in the deliberations. They had
submitted amicus briefs in both instances and had been referenced in the
majority and minority opinions.
After our nation's highest court had made history, it wasn't long before the
states began moving away from capital punishment. New York (2007), New Jersey
(2007), New Mexico (2009), Illinois (2011), Connecticut (2012), Maryland
(2013), Nebraska (2015) and Delaware (2016) have now abolished its use. Another
4 states; Oregon (2011), Colorado (2013), Washington (2014) and Pennsylvania
(2015) have gubernatorial moratoriums in place for the time being. Here, too,
the Church has played an instrumental role.
For example, in New Mexico around 2007/ 2008, the state legislature passed a
bill abolishing capital punishment. The governor at the time was the Honorable
Bill Richardson, a Catholic, and when the legislation reached his desk he did
what he had promised: he vetoed the bill. What few people know is that soon
after he exercised his executive privilege, he was invited to breakfast with
the three bishops of New Mexico. During that meal the bishops explained, in
great detail, the Church's position and why the governor should reconsider his
veto should a similar bill ever reach him again. That happened in 2009 and the
2nd time around the governor signed the bill.
So as of today, we are down to only 30 states, along with the federal
government and the U.S. military, currently employing the death penalty. Most
of those 30 states rarely impose death and instead sentence the guilty to life
in prison without the possibility of parole. Here in California, where we have
not executed anyone since 2006, we now have the opportunity to join the growing
list of states who no longer need to put people to death. This November, voters
can vote yes on Prop 62, which will abolish the death penalty once and for all,
and, if history is our guide, it will be people of faith who lead the way.
A service courtesy of Washburn University School of Law www.washburnlaw.edu
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