Story and photos by Scott Langley
My wife, Sheila, likes to quote Christian theologian Dr. Tony Campolo’s famous line “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Coming!” The idea behind it is that when we are faced with dark times (the observance of the execution of Jesus on a Friday), we keep hope, knowing that a better tomorrow is just around the corner (the observance of Jesus’s resurrection on Easter Sunday).
She often says it with a tone of humor around the house, and in not-so-serious situations (“Oh, the groundhog got into the garden again? Well, it’s Friday now, but Sunday’s coming!” “The kids are sick? It’s Friday now, but Sunday’s coming!’)
Sheila recently spoke these words, but the context was much more appropriate. It was on a Saturday, and we had just observed Good Friday; the following day was Easter. As Christians around the world were remembering the execution of Jesus and preparing for the resurrection of hope, I was at the same time debating whether or not to go to Arkansas on the coming Monday to bear witness against the scheduled executions of eight men in the span of 10 days as part of my work against the death penalty.
The reason I was so up in the air about the trip at the last minute was that because on Good Friday, a county judge in Arkansas had ruled that all eight executions could not go forward — because a pharmaceutical company had filed a lawsuit saying they didn’t want their drugs to be used to kill prisoners. (One of the lethal execution drugs was set to expire at the end of the month — which is what sparked the rush to execute the most people in the shortest time span than we have ever seen in the modern death penalty era.)
Then on Saturday morning, a federal judge also ruled that the executions could not go forward. It seemed, momentarily, that I wouldn’t need to go to Arkansas. But anyone who knows how this system works knows that there is a long line of appeals, and nothing is certain until the U.S. Supreme Court has its say.
“It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Coming,” she said as I stood there in my living room, not knowing what to do. This time instead of laughing, I wept.
By Easter Sunday afternoon, the highest court in the land had not yet ruled on the issue, so I cut my family Easter dinner short and boarded a plane for Little Rock.
Arkansas had originally scheduled four double executions over that 10-day period starting on Easter Monday. The plan was two executions per night, for four days between April 17 and April 27. However, on Monday after Easter, already the first Monday one had been called off by the Arkansas Supreme Court (with no reason given), and the last one set for April 27 was put on hold due to a clemency recommendation. But the other six were still in legal limbo, including one for that Monday night.
So on Monday afternoon, still not knowing what was going to ultimately happen that night with the one man still facing death, I made the 76-mile trek from where I was staying in Little Rock to the Department of Corrections’ Cummins Unit, where the state executions take place.
While I mostly came to Arkansas in my capacity as a human rights advocate and activist with a number of organizations, including Amnesty International USA and Death Penalty Action, I also went as a freelance photojournalist. I have been documenting the death penalty around the world for 18 years, and I saw Arkansas as the next chapter of this long-term photo essay.
I arrived there at the prison on this first day in order to join the media who had come from all over the world to report on this historic human rights crisis. As journalists, there were two places we could be: either outside the prison in the protest area of a vast field, or inside the prison in a media room for firsthand accounts from Department of Corrections staff and government spokespeople of what was happening in the death chamber. For this first scheduled execution, I wanted to tell the story of what was going on in the inside, especially given how up-in-the-air things were. I could join my fellow protesters on the outside another time, if it came down to it.
Inside the prison that night, waiting for the State to get a response to its appeal to various courts, I waited for three hours with the media in a room set aside for press conferences and media work. Occasionally a Department of Corrections spokesperson would come out to inform us that they were still waiting for a court ruling — but were proceeding as if the execution would happen at 7 pm, as scheduled. We were told the prisoner had been brought into the execution preparation area, was meeting with a chaplain, and had even been given a “last” meal — even though the most recent word from a court of law was that the execution was off.
7:00 pm came and went. No news.
As I paced the room, I stopped at the table in the waiting room that had a spread of food out for us. There were three trays. On the left, sliced deli meat sandwiches. In the middle, a tray of condiments, and on the right, a huge sheet cake with pink frosting. The sandwich tray had a layer of plastic wrap that was pulled back and sandwiches had been taken by some of the reporters. The sheet cake however, remained covered.
As I stood there staring at this strange sight, a reporter came up to take a sandwich. We both looked at the cake, and she asked out loud, “Do you think this is for later?” The question had come to my mind as well. At what point did the prison want us to eat cake? There was this eerie sense that it was being saved for when we knew the execution would be permitted.
As the hours ticked by, it was a roller coaster of information, and emotions. By the time the case had worked its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, it was late in the evening — nearly 10 pm. And the execution was still on hold.
The State is required to carry out executions before midnight, which is when the death warrant expires. As the minutes began to tick by, getting closer and closer to that hour, I witnessed the State rushing to get everything into place so that if the Supreme Court lifted the stay, they would be ready to beat the clock. Media witness were selected (names literally drawn from a bowl), and prison staff were scurrying around to get them out the door in transit to the execution chamber.
And then at 11:45 pm, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that the stay held — the execution was not permitted to go forward. The spokesperson for the Governor gave a press conference to stress how unfair this had been to the victim’s families. 24 years ago a jury promised them the ultimate punishment to help them heal and get closure from what they had suffered through. And now, they said, thanks to the courts, the defendant’s attorneys, and everyone else who had mounted a campaign to stop this execution, the victim’s families face continued and prolonged suffering.
After this was all said, a reporter asked with a tone of bafflement, “Have you given any thought of not pursuing the rest of the executions?” The sentiment being, in my understanding, that if this legal roller coaster was unjust to the families, then why keep doing it? After all, the State was free to put the brakes on at any point. But we know that the Government does not admit it is wrong, and surely does not admit defeat, and will go to any length to get its way — especially when embarrassed publically as it just was.
After all the talk about the experience of the victim’s families, I asked my own question of the Governor’s spokesperson. “You talked about the victim families. But what is the effect on the death row family members in all of this?” He skirted the question and passed the buck to the other DOC spokesperson who simply said that the death row families are not allowed in the prison on the day of execution for either visiting or witnessing. And then they abruptly ended the press conference, without answering my question.
In their press conference to the media, no one from the State made mention of the fact that the daughter of the woman who had been murdered in the case had forgiven the murderer. This was reported on in an article that appeared online just days before the scheduled execution. The victim’s daughter said she wanted to set an example for her own daughter about what the little girls’ grandmother (the victim) would have wanted. The piece went on to say that she only accepted the death sentence because that is what the jury recommended, but that she would have been fine with a sentence of life in prison. Of course this powerful testimony of forgiveness and reconciliation was buried at the very end of the article, which was headlined “He can suffer. I don’t care.”
Unfortunately, while this stay of execution was a victory, the court’s ruling did not apply to the remaining men facing execution. This would all happen again three days from now.
On one of those days as we waited for the courts to begin yet again their battle of the law, Rev. John Dear spoke at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock for a lecture titled “Peace, Politics and Protest.” In his talk, Rev. Dear stressed the importance of risking reputation to speak about the world that God calls us to envision and live out. This peaceful world would be one without violence, without war, without hunger, without poverty, and without the death penalty. He challenged those of us in attendance to live that vision of the future — even if people think you are crazy. Like Gandhi’s sentiment of being the change you wish to see in the world. Rev. Dear said that, even while knowing we live in dark times, we have the ability to shine the light of a new tomorrow in the way we talk and live our lives.
His message spoke to what I, and others I was with, had come to Arkansas for. People may think we are crazy for taking two weeks out of our lives to stand outside a prison in those dark hours, but it is where we are called to be — because we have a vision of that better tomorrow we want to live in.
On that Thursday, we found ourselves yet again on the way to the death compound, not knowing how the evening would unfold. Already one of the executions for that night had been temporarily stayed (with an appeal from the state) because of a strong innocence claim where DNA needed to be tested. The other execution was even more in limbo as the courts went back and forth, just as they did three days earlier.
Instead of going into the prison this time, I wanted to be in the field of the prison to witness things from the outside. I did this assuming it would be a very small group of us gathered. At the previous scheduled execution, there were only two protesters outside the prison, because people were encouraged to stay in Little Rock for a vigil at the Governor’s Mansion. Both those two protesters at the prison were the people that I came to Arkansas with, as part of my work with Death Penalty Action. So I figured tonight it would just be the three of us.
I was shockingly wrong.
It wasn’t a swarm of hundreds that took me by surprise. It was who showed up. At first it was Lynn Scott, the sister of Jack Jones, the man scheduled for execution the following week, four days from now. She had been visiting her brother at the prison, and wanted to stand there tonight in vigil. As I was talking with her, two more women arrived — Judy Robinson-Johnson and Latasha Logan. Judy is the wife of Stacey Johnson, the man with the DNA innocence claim that was scheduled for this night, and Latasha, his 21-year-old daughter. We learned from them that Stacey’s appeal was upheld a mere 90 minutes before his execution, and his execution would not be happening this month. Like Lynn, they wanted to be there outside the prison as we waited to hear about the fate of the remaining prisoners.
And if that wasn’t enough of a personal connection to the grave situation at hand, the aunt and cousin of the man still facing execution that night showed up.
So here I was, surrounded by family who were preparing for loss within hours, family who were just spared a loss 90 minutes beforehand, and family who were nervously waiting about what the future in four days might look like for them. And here they all were together standing in this vast prison field.
In the State of Arkansas, the family of a death row prisoner are not allowed to witness the execution. It apparently isn’t a law — it is reported that there is a viewing room for them in the death chamber. But the warden has the discretion to decide who executions are open too. Family like Lynn were fighting for the right to be there for their loved one so there would be a least one familiar face of support in the room for the man strapped to the gurney. But this fight would soon be lost. And the families would remain outside in the cold, dark, mosquito and ant infested fields of the prison, surrounded by armed police officers, state troopers, a helicopter, and a surveillance truck equipped with video monitoring equipment — all set up for these distressed women, and the three protestors.
Yet again, the 7:00 pm hour of execution passed, as we waited for appeals to work their way up the chain of command. In the eleventh hour, we were shocked to hear that the execution had been approved by the U.S. Supreme Court to move forward, with the newest Justice, Neil Gorsuch, voting for it to proceed. I could imagine in my mind that frantic process I observed three days earlier inside the prison. The system frantically churning along, to beat the clock.
And this time, the State carried out what it had wanted all along. Ledell Lee was pronounced dead at 11:56 pm.
I stood in that damp field, evening dew covering everything. We tolled a bell for two minutes to mark the beginning of the execution. Huddled together as the deafening bell rang out were some of those family members who had waited it out until the end. There was Lynn, tears rolling down her cheeks, with the heavy reality setting in that her brother was next. It was now known that the State had the permission of the U.S. Government to proceed with these premeditated killings. And as she wept, by her side were Stacey’s family, who couldn’t feel the relief that their husband and father had been spared. There was no room to celebrate, because a man — and his family — had been left behind in the system.
Hugging Lynn, I felt the wet tears fall on my shoulder. A shoulder which would be further drenched by the tears of my friend Randy Gardner who was there, who is suffering from PTSD after his own brother had been executed by a Utah firing squad six years earlier. The air was dense with sorrow, and the police lights glared over us all.
Arkansas had just carried out its first execution in 12 years. While the rest of the country is moving away from using the death penalty (most states do not have it as an option, or do not use it), here was Arkansas moving backwards. And taking so many down that path with it.
Friday morning my team and I woke up after getting to bed at 3:00 am to hit the road for a three-day, four city tour of Northwest Arkansas to show two films and exhibit my photo documentary project about the death penalty. On Saturday, as we drove from one event to the next, we received a message on Facebook from a woman named Gina Grimm, who identified herself as the daughter of Jack Jones, the next man up for execution on Monday. Gina had seen our live Facebook reporting from the prison, and wanted to know if we would be doing that again, because she lived in Ohio and didn’t have the means to be there herself.
We called her immediately. We told her about our work in Arkansas, about the gathering of other death row family members, and then let her talk to Randy — as he knows all too well about the process of having a family member killed by the State.
Long story short, within hours, Gina had a plane ticket that night to come to Arkansas — to meet her birth father for the first time face to face.
Gina Grimm had been given up for adoption early in her life, and never had met her birth parents. Her adoptive parents were supportive of her search to find them when she expressed interest at the age of 18. It was her parents that put her on that plane to Arkansas this fateful day, so that all those years of her written correspondence with Jack could manifest in an opportunity to hug and see each other’s faces for the first time. And it was Randy who picked Gina up at the airport, to get her settled in for the night, and off to death row the next morning for that visit — a visit I cannot even fathom, because just 24-hours later after meeting her biological dad for the first time, Gina’s father was executed.
Again, I found myself in that prison field amongst death row family members. When the 7:00 pm time of the execution came around, we begin tolling that bell once again. And once again, I stood just arm’s length away from family members as their loved one was killed. Gina standing in the field, crying for her father, and Lynn, sitting in a nearby car with a friend, shaking uncontrollably with tears falling from her bowed head, clutching photos of her brother. Both of them so desperately wanted to be with Jack inside, but the State wouldn’t let them. So here we were — the horror of the system, playing out for all to see.
After Gina collected herself, she knelt by a poster that had photos of the eight men facing execution. She stroked the picture of her dad, and talked about how they have the same nose. She said he was a beautiful man, and she clutched his wedding ring that he had given her during their less-than-two-hour visit the day before.
A group of Episcopal women priests were present that night, and led a simple Christian prayer service there on the prison grounds. We recited the Lord’s Prayer in a circle, cheeks wet with tears, saying in unison, “… and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We then broke bread with Gina. It was hard to hold it all together — the liturgical experience of having just observed Christ’s crucifixion on Friday last week, followed by Easter, and then now, to this horror of the death penalty made flesh. We would later find out that two of the four men executed in this seven-day period asked for communion for their last supper. This was a holy week of hell, with intense trauma on all sides, and here in the midst of it all we were witnessing stories of last suppers and of tragic executions by empire — asking ourselves where was the hope of the resurrection.
Still numb from all of this, we got word that some appeals had been resolved for the next prisoner, Marcel Williams, and his execution was set to move forward. Jack Jones, now dead, and Marcel now on the gurney on his way to the chamber. We tolled that bell louder, harder, and longer than we had ever done so before. The State of Arkansas had just carried out a double execution in a matter of hours — the first in this country in nearly 17 years.
The final set of double executions on day 10 had already been reduced to one, even before this all started. The state parole board announced in advance that it would recommend changing one prisoner’s sentence to life in prison without parole. But one man still remained: Kenneth Williams.
Kenneth Williams, killed a man named Cecil Boren in 1999. During the law enforcement pursuit of Williams, he fled from police in a high-speed chase that also killed a truck driver, Michael Greenwood. Greenwood was a father, with 5-year-old Kayla at home, and his wife, Stacey, pregnant with twin boys.
Just days before Williams’s scheduled execution, the Greenwood family found out that Kenneth’s 21-year-old daughter, Jasmine, had an online fundraising page so that she could travel from Seattle to Arkansas to visit her dad one last time, and so that her daughter (age 3) could meet her grandfather for the first time. Jasmine’s plea resonated with the Greenwoods — especially with Kayla, now 22, who has two young boys who also have never met their maternal grandfather.
Kayla and her family decided to pay for two plane tickets so that Jasmine and her daughter could fly to Arkansas the next day. Not only that, the Greenwood family drove from Missouri to the airport in Little Rock to pick them up themselves and drive them to the prison for that final visit.
I learned all of this the day before the scheduled execution when my wife called me and asked if I had heard about this story. I had not, so she read the original article to me over the phone. I was driving, and had to pull over because of the tears in my eyes. To hear a story of not only forgiveness and compassion, but of a victim’s family reaching out to the prisoner’s family as a recognition that they were all in this tragedy of loss together, was incredibly moving. I had the strongest urge to hug the Greenwood family and thank them for being a beacon of light in this dark period in the belly of the Arkansas beast. To me, it felt like that hope of a resurrection that I so desperately was searching for.
And miraculously, I got that chance.
I was with my team at a Little Rock hotel having dinner with a reporter from The Intercept the night before the Kenneth Williams execution. We were actually not supposed to be there. We had a big public event planned that night, but had to cancel it due to a tornado warning. And as we ate there, who walks into the restaurant, but none other than the entire Greenwood family. Stacey and her twin boys, Kayla and several other family members. Before dinner was over, I approached them, hands over my heart, to utter words of appreciation that just didn’t quite seem enough. I asked questions about how they came to this place in their own hearts, and heard more about their perspective on forgiveness. It was absolutely humbling. I told them that if something so tragic ever happens to me or my family, I pray that we respond just as they have — with mercy and compassion.
And if this hadn’t been enough, as my team and I were leaving the hotel, in walks Jasmine and her daughter, and I witnessed the two families — pitted against each other in the criminal justice system — hugging each other with tears in their eyes. Kayla, dropping to her knees to hug Jasmine’s little daughter who would never again meet her grandfather, just as Kayla would never again see her dad. And they held each other — with smiles beaming through those tears.
The night of the first execution in this series, when I met Jack Jones’s sister, Lynn Scott was talking to a reporter from The Arkansas Democrat Gazette. In describing her experience as a death row family member, she said her family and the victim’s family are all feeling inverse feelings. She talked about how the criminal justice system sets it up so that the two sides are against each other — so that when one “wins” the other “loses.” Without any forethought, she mentions a North Carolina amusement park called Carowinds. “There’s this roller coaster, one goes forward and one goes backwards. So you’re passing the other person and you’re going in different directions. That’s what it is,” families on this same terrifying ride, moving in a parallel, yet divergent course.
For all the stories and accounts of cruelty, injustice, and loss here in Arkansas, the Greenwoods, and all the other families involved in what transpired here, brought us stories of hope, of reconciliation, of forgiveness and of mercy. And they showed us that there is indeed a different way, and that we can choose to live in the light. No matter what everyone else says, no matter how dark the stormy skies may be, no matter how much the world sees us as crazy, and no matter how sickening that roller coaster ride may be.
During that weekend of traveling around the state showing films and photos, I visited an Episcopal church that had an art display by death row prisoners, which was paired with the Stations of the Cross (traditionally, a series of images depicting Jesus Christ on the day of his crucifixion and accompanying prayers). It was a moving display of art from within prison walls.
There was also an altar in the front of the room that had a display of eight candles — one for each of the eight men, and each paired with a name card. At this point, one execution had been carried out, so the candle of Ledell Lee was extinguished. The other seven candle flames flickered dimly.
As I stood outside the Governor’s mansion for that fourth and final execution, of Kenneth Williams, I held a candle, singing a song of solidarity for the Greenwood and Williams families, as well as for all those I had met during these 10 days. “Courage families, you do not walk alone. We will walk with you, and sing your spirit home.”
When it was announced that the execution had concluded and Kenneth was dead, the 50 or so of us circled up for a closing, and then we each blew out our flickering flames. Another light extinguished. Another prisoner dead on a gurney, and another set of victims morning the loss of a loved one.
As these candles of life shine and then are snuffed, we are surrounded by an unsettling darkness. But even in that dark place, we know there is a light underneath the surface. However faint and subtle it may be, it is there, warming us with hope.
It may be the dark of night now, but the glimmer of tomorrow’s sunrise is on the horizon. And in that, we know that it might be Friday, but Sunday’s coming.
Scott Langley is a freelance photojournalist and human rights advocate based in upstate New York and is co-director of Death Penalty Action. His death penalty documentary work can be found online at www.deathpenaltyphoto.org. Death Penalty Action can be found at www.deathpenaltyaction.org.