While many of us are culturally unified by various issues and experiences encompassing race, class, and gender there are others who, once upon a time, belonged to organizations which none of us will ever aspire to join, submit a membership card, or inquire about annual dues. The alliances are headed by various state-approved entities where rules and regulations of the guild are determined and outcomes asserted according to a set of guidelines, mandates, and directives. Organizations oftentimes have prominent affiliates and are located in various districts, townships, and provinces across the land, and though most clubs are fraternal, women can also become members if it has been deemed that they, too, meet certain criteria.
Sometimes, however, memberships are deemed to have been instituted in error. Too late, says the various committee chairs: Your intake cannot be retracted. We will in fact move forward.
Five men, Larry Griffin, Leo Jones, Ellis Wayne Felker, Jesse Tafero, and Cameron Todd Willingham, were members of a club which no free person wants to join. Their shared experiences were their executions amid questionable “evidence” related to various crimes.
Two of the men, Jesse Tafero and Leo Jones, were from Florida. Tafero, executed in 1990, maintained his innocence in the 1976 murder of two law enforcement officers at a rest stop off of 1-95 in Broward County. His execution garnered nationwide attention because of its “botched” handling. His state-approved killing was particularly violently, due to the malfunction of the (now-defunct) electric chair. Writing in response to the May 4, 1990 execution, Justice Leander Shaw said that Tafero’s electrocution was a “violent scene with smoke and flames spurting from his [Tafero’s] head.” Only after three attempts did the State successfully meet its objective.
Jones, convicted in 1981 of killing a Jacksonville police officer, was executed in 1998 amid claims of innocence. His “confession,” he maintained, was coerced by the investigating officers who took his “statement.” Several witnesses later came forward in support of his claim of innocence, and court documents in the case supported his assertion.
Convicted in 1981 and executed in 1995 for the murder of Quinton Moss in Missouri, Larry Griffin garnered the support of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and other advocacy groups came to his defense. Although he was executed in 1995, his case was re-opened ten years later. After years of legal wrangling, appeals, and protests by supporters of a new trial, the St. Louis Circuit Attorney, following an extensive case review in 2007, concluded that Griffin was guilty of the crime for which he had been sentenced, and that the State of Missouri had not in fact executed an innocent man. Questions remain, however, regarding his innocence.
Attorneys for Ellis Wayne Felker, executed in1991 at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center (GDCC) in Jackson, Georgia, were refused a new trial for Felker despite having received a plethora of previously unrevealed documents which could have led to a new trial or exoneration. Felker was granted a temporary reprieve (from May-November 1996) due, most likely, to the Summer Olympics in Atlanta in 1996. The State of Georgia certainly could not be marred with the ugliness of an execution during such a global presence. The GDCC was the site of the recent execution of Troy Anthony Davis.
In Texas, which has the renowned feature of being included among the nation’s top five states for executions (Virginia, Oklahoma, Alabama, Ohio are the others), Cameron Todd Willingham’s case comes back into the national spotlight, presumably because of Governor Rick Perry’s quest for the Republican Party’s nomination for President of the United States. In the face of overwhelming evidence that points to Willingham’s innocence relating to the death of his three daughters in Corsicana, Texas, in 1991, Governor Perry has been met with questions regarding his refusal to allow a probe of the Cunningham case during the height of the litigation.
While it is seriously unfortunate that Griffin, Jones, Felker, Tafero, and Willingham have the dubious distinction of having belonged to fraternities that no one wants to join, what’s more regrettable is that factors that assisted in their membership are continuously being utilized in various courts across the nation, including (faulty) eyewitness testimonies, false confessions, flawed legal counsel, jailhouse snitches, and the withholding of pertinent evidence from defense attorneys.
Our jobs on the outside are to continue the dialogue and to work to eliminate factors which invariably lead to the exclusive memberships.