Sept. 21


"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 penalty abolitionist.

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 squad.

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 traffickers.

"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 asked.

"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 Jane Veloso.

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," he said.

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 commercial work.

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 Kazama's life.

"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 goodbye."

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 penalty.

"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

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