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Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Death penalty debate engenders activism, research, artistic expression

Credit: Jung Song

Last September, the state of Washington executed a death row inmate at the Walla Walla State Penitentiary for the first time since 2001, a move that stirred controversy among proponents of capital punishment and death penalty abolitionists alike.

The inmate in question, Cal Colburn Brown, a 52-year-old Caucasian man as described by the Department of Corrections, was executed for the 1991 rape and murder of Holly Washa.

On the night of the execution, a small group of Whitman students, community members and other activists from around the state gathered in separated and fenced-off “demonstration areas,” representing both sides of the capital punishment debate. Among them was senior Mimi Pysno who went to voice her disagreement with the practice of capital punishment and was deeply affected by the experience.

“It was really somber and more jarring than I thought it would be,” Pysno said of the demonstration.

Pysno is also a member of the Whitman Civil Liberties Union (WCLU). The WCLU, a subsidiary of the American Civil Liberties Union, is dedicated to promoting individual rights of citizens and specifically making students more aware of their rights guaranteed under the United States Constitution, according to Pysno. The official stance of the ACLU is to support a full moratorium on the use of the death penalty and increase public awareness of the “unfairness and arbitrariness” of capital punishment as outlined on their web site. In recent months the WCLU has been inactive, but Pysno is in the process of recruiting new members for the group.

In particular, the 8th Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits the infliction of “cruel and unusual punishment” has been a rallying cry for civil liberty activists such as the WCLU group in favor of abolishing the death penalty.

Colburn’s execution was stayed by the state Supreme Court in 2009 due to these concerns surrounding the “cruel and unusual punishment” argument. At that point, the state was still administering a three-drug cocktail lethal injection, a method that had come under scrutiny due to instances of botched executions in other states.

“The execution in September involved a different drug which was meant to make it more humane,” said Pysno.

As a result, the stay put on the on the execution was lifted and Washington followed suit as many states move to a one-drug lethal injection which decreases the risk of severe physical pain. Despite the use of a more humane method, Pysno still felt compelled to attend the protest at the penitentiary due to her much more fundamental issue with capital punishment.

“I’m against the death penalty because it is fundamentally wrong for the government to condemn an action it engages in itself. You can’t enforce a law you don’t abide by,” she said.

Visiting Professor of Philosophy and General Studies Mitch Clearfield contends that it is important to view the issue of capital punishment at a more basic level by considering how it fits into your personal conceptions of justice. These are the types of discussions Clearfield facilitates in his ethics classes and “Punishment and Responsibility,” a course that deals with the philosophical basis for inflicting punishment. Clearfield usually spends two seminars discussing the death penalty and the manner in which functions of the criminal justice system, like imprisonment (considered kidnapping in most aspects of society), are rationalized.

“There’s a gut appeal to this idea of creating balance and restoring justice. The question philosophers deal with is does it have a rationalization or not? If so, how do we fit the punishment to the crime?” he said.

Clearfield spends significant time analyzing the American criminal justice system, visiting seven or eight prisons in Washington and Oregon alone, and takes his classes to the Walla Walla State Penitentiary, a juvenile justice center and usually one or two other prisons in the area.

“Students visiting the penitentiary are usually really uncomfortable. They see the yard and the kitchen and think it’s okay, but once they see the actual cells with inmates they get uncomfortable. Actually seeing suffering is a real turn-off,” he said.

Clearfield has observed that Whitman students in his philosophy classes are generally very interested in the subject matter, but the college’s location adjacent to the penitentiary doesn’t seem to play an important role.

“Student activism at death penalty demonstrations has been mostly minimal. In 2001 [at the execution] it was a somewhat sizable group. In 2010, from what I understand, hardly anyone turned out,” he said.

According to Pysno, there were about 30 anti-death penalty activists present at the September demonstrations and a hand-full of capital punishment supporters. She admits that on the activist level, it is often difficult to rouse student interest in the issue, partially due to its nominal national news coverage.

“[The death penalty] isn’t talked about frequently on the national stage because it isn’t happening everyday, something that I think carries over to the Whitman community. People aren’t talking about it. It’s much sexier to be standing in solidarity with the protesters in Wisconsin than criminals on death row,” she said.

Junior Tom Everett, a member of the Whitman College Prison Research Group notes that the issue isn’t strongly contested nationally or on the state level because many citizens accept the status quo, whether or not they are personally in favor of capital punishment.

“I think that people have made up their minds mostly about how they feel on the debate, and since the state laws make it seem like voters and citizens are not in control of the legality of capital punishment, most people probably see it as a foregone conclusion,” Everett said.

The debate has gained some renewed national attention this month with a new bill to repeal the death penalty to be approved or rejected in Illinois by Governor Pat Quinn before a March 18 deadline. Illinois would be the sixteenth state to abolish the death penalty. Discourse on the issue of capital punishment also persists at Whitman, whether or not it is at the forefront of most students’ minds.

The Prison Research Group, made up of professors and students representing a wide spectrum of departments, investigates issues in the criminal justice system at meetings and facilitates tours to nearby prisons. Everett chose to join the Prison Research Group to develop a better understanding of the criminal justice system that pervades the Walla Walla and Whitman communities.

The question of capital punishment and the criminal justice system in general are also pursued by the visual and performing arts on campus. The Sheehan Gallery is currently showing “Behind the Walls,” an exhibit that explores the history of the penitentiary through archival materials, including photographs and written accounts. Last month’s One Act Play festival showcased a work by junior David Otten, “The Midnight Chimes,” which dealt with the hours leading up to a death row inmate’s execution from the perspective of the inmate’s family.

Later this semester, Harper Joy Theater will be producing a play entitled “The Walls” that investigates the criminal justice system — this time focusing specifically on the State Penitentiary. Junior Theo Pratt, an actor in “The Walls” has been doing significant research into various aspects of the prison system in Walla Walla.

“Due to the nature of the subject matter I think there’s going to be some controversy. But it is important to acknowledge that capital punishment is a controversial and charged issue that can be found right in our backyard,” he said of the production.

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  • K

    kavita choubeyMar 11, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    what can i tell its a justice every body have a freedom

  • S

    Scott CobbMar 10, 2011 at 11:44 am

    Students interested in activism and the death penalty should consider attending the “Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break”, which is March 14-18 in Austin, Texas (the same week as SXSW).

    Guest speakers include six innocent, exonerated people who spent 50 years on death row for crimes they did not commit: Anthony Graves, Clarence Brandley, Shujaa Graham, Ron Keine, Gary Drinkard and Albert Burrell. Anthony Graves is the most recent innocent person released from Texas Death Row. He spent 18 years incarcerated in Texas, including 14 years on death row, for a crime he did not commit before he was released on October 27, 2010.

    Students who attend the alternative spring break will train to join both the national effort against the death penalty and to help stop executions in Texas — the leading execution state in the country.

    All events are free and open to the public, both students and non-students. The full schedule and a registration form is on the website: