The Darkest Hour: Isolation and Death Row in Texas Prisons

Documentary Film and Book Discussion with Dr. Betty Gilmore

Thursday, January 22, 2015
5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Vanderbilt University, Furman Hall 114

Complimentary Pizza!

Facebook Event Page

Join us for a screening of the documentary film, “The Darkest Hour,” and a discussion with Dr. Betty Gilmore, co-author (with Nanon Williams) of the companion book.

The Darkest Hour Vanderbilt Event-1

We live in the age of racialized mass incarceration. An age in which tens of thousands of human beings are caged in solitary confinement every day. Some for decades at a time. The documentary film, “The Darkest Hour” exposes the inhumane impact of extreme isolation experienced by those incarcerated nationwide.

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Photo Gallery: Rally to Stop Executions, September 15

Photography by Luke Myers.


1. There are no rich people on death row

  • 85-90% of people on death row were financially unable to hire attorneys to represent them at trial. They are assigned public defenders with much higher caseloads and fewer resources than private law firms.
  • Public Defender’s offices in both Nashville and Memphis have reported chronic underfunding and understaffing, to the point of not being able to take on a new case (Memphis Commercial Appeal and TBA).

2. There are racial biases in the system

  • A study of capital sentencing in Tennessee from 1981 to 2000 found that defendants with white victims were 3.15 to 75 times more likely to receive the death penalty than defendants with black victims (ABA report, p 284).
  • More than 1 in 4 black inmates condemned to death in Tennessee from 1977 to 2001 were sentenced by all-white juries (Amnesty, p 40).

3. There is too little oversight and accountability for judges and lawyers in capital cases

  • A 2007 study by the American Bar Association found that the TN death penalty system falls short on 10 key points, including Inadequate Procedures to Address Innocence Claims, Lack of Meaningful Proportionality Review, and Failure to Preserve DNA Evidence in Capital Trials. These issues remain unresolved today (ABA report).
  • A prosecutor in Shelby County has been publicly reprimanded by the TN Supreme Court for withholding evidence in a capital trial, and yet faces no disciplinary consequences from the DA’s office (Memphis Flyer).

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The Death Penalty’s Hidden Damage to the Family of the Executed

Guest Post by Susan Hudson McBride

It was April 19 of 2000 when Tennessee executed Robert Glen Coe. That date stands out for me the way a birthday or holiday does. Robert’s family had been driving over to see him as often as they could manage. Each time they came a small group of friends would meet them at a local restaurant allowing them to debrief. This family, Billie Jean, Bonnie, Jimmy, and Frances, would stand by Robert until the drugs that snuffed out his life were administered. And when Robert was gone they would be left behind to grieve and maintain a picture of him as a beloved brother who was set up from childhood to walk a dark path.

It was forty years since the state had executed anyone and they chose a man who was so mentally ill he was given several medications to keep him as close to sane as drugs could do. Robert was different every time someone saw him. He could be thoughtful, terribly funny at times, and then turn on a dime into an angry, difficult being. His affect said there was something not quite right with him. His sisters had seen him horrifically abused by their father. When their father would rape one of the sisters Robert would try to stop it, but he was too small. The father would turn on Robert body slamming his head into walls and throwing him into a fast flowing creek near their house before he knew how to swim. At school he was called names and bullied. When the legal team requested mercy, the poverty, abuse, and lack of local resources and intervention for this family would not be enough for the governor of Tennessee to question the insanity of Robert being strapped with a death sentence.

In 1999 the sabers began to rattle loud enough to get the machinery of death cranked up. Robert had been locked up since 1979 and for some reason the DA’s office needed Robert to die twenty years later. Robert was accused of killing an eight year old girl. Philip Workman’s name, right alongside Robert’s, was accused of killing a police officer in 1982. The deaths of a child and a police officer would reignite the anger of a public who knew little about the facts of either case. It became a media event.

Something happened in the minds and heart of people prior to Robert’s execution. They began to ask questions. Local activists, musicians, and videographers donated their time and expertise to get a message out that something wasn’t quite right. When Robert’s family came to town a core group of people began to hear their story that had not been mined when Robert went to trial. At a gathering of mental health experts one psychologist who had worked on the case said to me, “It’s really too bad he didn’t have a family.” How, I wondered, did a legal team manage to completely overlook a family? Clearly his trial attorneys had been entirely incompetent in their representation of Robert.

Once dates for an execution were set Robert’s family began to come over more often and spend weekends attempting to sort out what was about to happen. A growing number of locals would show up to wish them well. At a house on Acklen Avenue near Hillsboro Village it was not uncommon for there to be a living room full of people singing and eating together with the Coes. They were from a little backwoods town in west Tennessee and quite unused to this sort of attention. We all grew on one another.

One day the family was waiting on a call from Robert while Ann Charvat and I were working on funeral arrangements. Robert called me to the phone. He wanted to know, “What’s the cheapest way to bury me?” I’m aware I’m talking to a man who is in reasonably good physical health about his planned death. I tell him that it looks like cremation is the least costly. “Okay,” he said. “That’s what I want. I’m real worried that my family is gonna have a big price to pay and I want it to be as little as possible.” His concern turned to him being pleased when he learned that several local churches were covering the cost and his family would not have to carry any of the debt. A local funeral home contributed the entire service at their cost with no profit to anyone. It was an odd victory on the way to killing a man.

In spite of the intent by the state to heap up a hateful end to Robert’s life it was the kindness of friends and a few strangers who allowed him to die in relative peace. That the family would be the ones left to suffer fell on very deaf political ears. The forgiveness they have shown makes them all the more remarkable.

Robert’s family continues to reach out to family members of those facing state execution in Tennessee.

Susan Hudson McBride first considered the death penalty as an issue at eight years old when her mother took her on a field trip to see Alabama’s “Yellow Mama,” the state’s legendary electric chair. Since time she has been involved with prisons as an activist for thirty-six years and as part of death penalty legal teams for twelve of those years. In 1998 she began work with murder victims’ family members including the loved ones of those who had been executed. Presently she is a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Why Does Colin Dayan Support This Initiative?

Dr. Colin Dayan is Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University.  She is the author of The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (2011) and The Story of Cruel and Unusual (2007), as well as many other books, articles, and op-eds.

Dr. Dayan writes:

How cruel and unusual is the practice of humane and sanitized death? In Baze v. Rees (2008), the Supreme Court upheld Kentucky’s method of lethal injection. It rejected the claim that the effects of the 3-drug protocol qualified as cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment. Even though the paralyzing drug pancuronium bromide leaves an improperly sedated inmate unable to move or cry out, but conscious and in excruciating pain, the Court ruled that the procedure is more humane, more dignified than others. In other words, it is less disturbing to witnesses. 

The Tennessee Department of Correction has announced that only pentobarbital will be used to execute death row inmates despite a shortage of the drug.  In other words, our state will use the single-drug lethal injection method instead of the three-drug method it has used in the past. But since the drug is in short supply individual pharmacies can concoct recipes to make it, increasing the risk of an agonizing, degrading death.

The “painlessness” of lethal injection depends on an excessive saturation of the body with chemicals.  This “ethics of care” always remains what Sister Helen Prejean once called “an elaborate ruse.”  The familiar surround of a clinic, as I once wrote in “The Blue Room in Florence,” “offers the guarantee that this body-altering penetration has the prestige of a healing process.” But the odor of death cannot be redeemed.

The process of “humane” killing has unlimited resources at its disposal: to benumb, paralyze, and exterminate.  We remain the only country in the so-called “civilized” world that practices execution, though nineteen states do not have an enforceable death penalty statute. When will Tennessee join them and stop “tinkering with the machinery of death,” in the words of Justice Harry Blackmun?

To view the full list of signatories to our open letter to stop executions in Tennessee, click here.

If you are a student or educator in Tennessee, and you would like to add your signature to this open letter, click here.

If you are not student or educator in Tennessee, but you would like to support the open letter, please sign this petition.

And join us for a Death Penalty Teach-In on Monday, January 27 at 5:30pm in Vanderbilt’s Alumni Hall 201!

Open Letter to Governor Bill Haslam

As students and educators, we seek to understand the world and to share our understanding with others through a practice of critical thinking and responsible action.  Therefore, we cannot remain silent as Tennessee plans to execute people in the name of justice.

We call upon Governor Bill Haslam to suspend all scheduled executions immediately, and to commission a full and transparent review of capital punishment in Tennessee.

A 2007 American Bar Association report on Tennessee’s death penalty laws, procedures, and practices found that “the State of Tennessee fails to comply or is only in partial compliance” with its basic recommendations.  These include the following areas for reform:

  • Inadequate Procedures to Address Innocence Claims
  • Geographical Disparities in Tennessee’s Capital Sentencing
  • Excessive Caseloads of Defense Counsel
  • Racial Disparities in Tennessee’s Capital Sentencing

These issues have not been resolved in the current system.  For example:

  • Since 2012, three men on Tennessee’s death row have had their convictions overturned: Ndume Olatushani (Nashville Scene), Timothy McKinney (Democracy Now), Michael Rimmer (USA Today).  The state has officially exonerated three people: Michael McCormick (2007, after 20 years on death row), Paul House (2009, after 23 years on death row), and Gussie Vann (2011, after 17 years on death row) (DPIC).
  • There are persistent geographical disparities in capital sentencing.  For example, more than a third of all death sentences in Tennessee arise in just one county: Shelby County (Memphis – only 14% of the population of Tennessee) (The Nation).
  • In Shelby County, public defenders have caseloads that are 3 to 4 times higher than the national average (ACLU).
  • African Americans make up approximately 43% of Tennessee’s death row population but only 17% of the state’s total population (TADP).

In addition to these ongoing structural flaws in Tennessee’s death penalty, we now face new issues concerning the method of execution:

  • In 2011, Tennessee and several other states had to turn over their supplies of sodium thiopental, one of the drugs in the three-drug execution protocol, because of the circumstances under which it was acquired (New York Times).
  • A lawsuit was brought against the FDA for allowing the drug to be imported by state corrections departments without proper inspection and approval (Death Penalty Info).
  • This year, Tennessee switched from a three-drug protocol (involving sodium thiopental) to a new one-drug protocol (pentobarbital).  But it is not clear how the state intends to secure a supply of the new execution drug.  Neither drug is manufactured in the US, and pharmaceutical companies based in the European Union have banned the use of their products for state execution (The Tennessean).
  • This year, Tennessee legislators passed a law that allows compounding pharmacies to mix drugs without a prescription (NPR).  This law would permit the state to order execution drugs directly from a compounding pharmacy in Tennessee, bypassing EU trade restrictions.
  • In April 2013, Tennessee legislators amended a law guaranteeing confidentiality to any “person or entity involved in the procurement or provision of chemicals, equipment, supplies and other items for use in carrying out a sentence of death” (TCA Section 10-7-504(h)(1)).  This means that a compounding pharmacy in Tennessee could accept a contract to produce execution drugs without disclosing its name to the public.

This series of events raises many ethical, political, and practical questions: How can we be sure that execution drugs prepared by a compounding pharmacy would not produce unconstitutional pain and suffering?  Doesn’t the public have a right to know who is making the drugs used to execute people in our name?  And why are we using drugs otherwise meant to heal people in order to kill them?

There are also enduring ethical, political, religious, and practical reasons to oppose state execution:

  • Those of us who identify as people of faith demand the suspension or the abolition of the death penalty in Tennessee because our faith in the God of life compels us to seek justice that is truly equitable and that restores to life that which has been broken. As people who bear witness to the power of healing, we call upon the Governor to set about healing the demonstrably wounded and wounding death penalty system in Tennessee.  Because Governor Haslam is also a person of faith who believes in the God who fosters life and who asks us to do the same, we ask that he halt and address the problems in this current system that foster neither justice nor life.
  • Since 1976, over 140 people have been exonerated and freed from death row in the US.  That’s one innocent person for every ten people who have been executed.  How many more innocent people have we executed, and how many are still slated for execution?  (One For Ten)
  • 88% of leading criminologists in the US do not believe that the death penalty is an effective means of deterrence.  This view is supported by empirical evidence; for example, the murder rate in death penalty states is consistently higher than the murder rate in non-death penalty states (Death Penalty Information Center).
  • Many people across the political spectrum believe that the death penalty fails to provide closure for the family members of murder victims (Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, TADP).  Some Tennesseans, such as Hector Black, have found peace through restorative justice after the loss of a beloved member to murder (NPR).
  • No one knows how much the death penalty costs in Tennessee because a full study has never been conducted in this state.  But in other states, death sentences have proven to be far more expensive than other sentences for first degree murder, and we have no reason to believe that our state expenditures would be significantly different.  For example, a 2008 study in Maryland showed that a death penalty case (including investigation, trial, appeals, and incarceration) cost an average of $3 million; that’s $1.9 million more expensive than non-death penalty cases (TADP and Death Penalty Information Center).  Taxpayers in Tennessee have the right to know how much it costs to maintain the death penalty.  Couldn’t we use money saved from stopping executions to open cold cases and to address the social conditions that drive violence and crime?

For these and other reasons, we call upon the Governor to halt executions until we can be sure that the system is working in the service of justice rather than against it.

As students and educators who seek to foster critical thinking and responsible action, some of us believe the death penalty should be abolished, while others believe it should be suspended until systemic flaws are fully addressed.  But we stand united in our critical opposition to the death penalty as it is currently practiced in Tennessee.


To view the signatories of this letter, click here.

If you are a student or educator in Tennessee, and you would like to add your signature to this open letter, click here.

If you are not student or educator in Tennessee, but you would like to support the open letter, please sign this petition.