Hank Skinner: What should we hope for next?

It became clear on Wednesday night, as we celebrated (“crying AND doing the Happy Dance” as my friend Carol Crowe-Leonard said on Twitter), that there was a lot of remaining confusion about exactly WHAT had been granted to Hank Skinner and what that actually meant. It was a relief to see this clarification posted by Change.org. I urge everyone to read it. It looks like there are still a number of weighty ‘Ifs’ between Wednesday’s indefinite stay of execution and freedom for Hank.

Governor Rick Perry and smiling fans

Smiling Perry and fans

So – if the worst happens and the treacle of the American justice system becomes too thick for reason to prevail at the next phase – what chance remains for a reprieve? Well let’s not forget that even if the Supreme Court denies review, there is the final recourse to Governor Rick Perry to continue the stay for an additional 30 days, and to just TEST THE DNA. Would he give the instruction do so? Well, just as the Texas Board of Paroles is a closed and secretive body, it’s hard to read Governor Perry. Instinct would say it’s unlikely. He’s the beloved figurehead of the ‘Hang ‘Em High state’ after all, and he’s busy fighting the corner of his hardcore Republican fanbase on the matter of the healthcare reform bill right now amidst cries of ‘Lead us into secession, Governor Perry, save us from Washington!’. But those cries also mingle with the ones saying ‘Please, Governor Perry, run for President!’ Looking at his snakeoil charm and devout, if misguided, following, and coupling that with the past form of Texas Governors in acceding to the Presidency*, it’s entirely possible that his unstated ambition is that of one day becoming POTUS. And if so, could he in years to come enter into that race knowing that everyone in the Western world had watched him deny a man his last, earnest chance to clear his name?

Opponents of the death penalty tend to look upon Texas as an almost unassailable mountain to climb – it does after all hold the record as the State with most executions under its belt, by a long way – but I can’t help but feel that whatever the outcome for Hank, we have turned a small corner. Perry is in a difficult position, the rationale of the TBPP has again been called into question, and the entire machinery of the capital justice system, which would allow a man’s life to be callously terminated while exculpatory evidence remains, MUST be under increased scrutiny…

So we need to hope that SCOTUS reviews the case for civil appeal. We need to hope that they agree that a constitutional right exists for Hank to have access to the DNA evidence thus far denied. We have to hope the DNA is conclusively in Hank’s favor. And we have to hope that the evidence of his innocence concludes rapidly with a full pardon and release. Above all, we must hope that everything that has happened in Texas since long before Tim Cole and Cameron Todd Willingham, right up to the present day, will be ringing loud and irrepressible alarm bells in courtrooms and police stations across the land.

That’s a lot of hope. I think we’re up for it!!!

Here’s a video interview with Hank’s daughter Natalie soon after we had news of the stay.

* Governor George W. Bush notoriously once claimed that not one innocent man had been executed on his watch.

An interview with Jonathan Flinner

The Optimism Club has the pleasure of interviewing Jonathan Flinner, whose father, Michael, is a condemned prisoner living on death row, San Quentin, California. Michael’s story can be read here: he has continually protested his innocence since his arrest for conspiring in the murder of his fiancée in 2000. Jonathan, now 20 (2010), has launched himself as a young adult into action to help clear his dad’s name and ultimately see him freed.

Jonathan and Michael Flinner

Jonathan and his dad, Michael, at San Quentin

Q: Jonathan, you’re 20 now, but you were 11 when your dad, Michael, was taken from you and later condemned to death for the murder of his fiancée. Did you understand then what was happening?
A: No. I was just about to turn 11 years old, I don’t believe any child at that age can actually take something like that and grasp it fully, it’s completely mind blowing. I was educated enough at the time to see that something “bad” had happened but nothing to this severity, I just always felt so depressed and alone cause I couldn’t understand it.

Q: What’s your favorite memory from the time you were together?
A: I remember two great days, my father loved to go boating and jet skiing and that was my first time. We had an awesome father/son day out at the beach: it was amazing. The second thing was when we used to play catch, I don’t know why that makes me so happy but I loved playing ball with him just because our bond was so strong at that time.

Q: How often do you get to see your dad?
A: I have seen him ONCE in the past 9 years, due to my location compared to his. I love my father and I wish I could see him more but I’m a full time college student and just don’t have the funds to go out to California. It’s depressing to say the least.

Q: Tell us a little about Michael’s accommodation and his days spent in San Quentin.
A: My father lives in a tiny cell, approximately 5 and a half feet by 9 ft, and spends most of his time praying and writing to his close friends, followers and family. He likes to keep in shape to stay mentally and physically fit.

Q: What aspect of your dad’s existence on Death Row do you find most hurtful?
A: The fact that he is an INNOCENT man. I cannot believe the things that have happened in my life, I’m 20 years old and I have probably lived through more problems than three 80 year olds. Nobody deserves to be on death row, especially the innocent. I haven’t had a father most of my life because of the ignorance of others. I will never get this time back.

Q: What makes you most proud of Michael?
A: His intelligence and his passion. You would think any man on death row would be depressed and upset 23 hours out of the day. My father has a gift of intelligence which he uses every single day, he is a writer and a soon to be published author. The other thing I love about my father is that he never gives up, I love that. It must run in the family.

Q: And how about you? You are studying right now?
A: At the moment I am attending a community college, still doing pre-reqs but I’m leaning toward a degree in the social sciences or in law. I’m doing well, hanging in there. Really cracking down on making this Twitter site all it can be.

Q: What’s the Twitter site?
A: I have a Twitter ID, @DeathRowInmates, aimed solely at raising awareness of my father’s situation

Q: And how is that going?
A: Really great, I have built a following of over 1000 in just one month! So a good audience to tell my father’s story to.

Q: What are your father’s hopes and dreams for you?
A: He hopes that I never get tangled up in a situation like him, he wants me to be happy anyway that I can and hopes that I graduate from college and settle down and get married, he has told me when I have kids he hopes he can be out so he can spend time with his grandchildren.

Q: You spend a lot of time working to raise awareness of your father’s situation – on Twitter and elsewhere. Do you get any time just for yourself?
A: Believe it or not I do! I actually have a lot of free time, time to spend with my family and my little brother, my best friends, my girlfriend. I love to travel and ride my quad and just stay happy. You would think since I’m always online I’m never doing anything for myself but I do, all the time!

Q: Jonathan, it seems like you have suffered many times over. From the loss of your mother, and then of Tamra, and then in a way, of your father too. And yet you seem so full of life, energy and determination. What support do you receive? Where do you find the strength to carry you through all of this?
A: I have done my unfair share of suffering, this whole fiasco started when my mother passed away when i was only 7 years old. Since then my whole life really took a turn for the worse. I wake up every morning and put a smile on my face, I know that there are better things in life to look forward and to be happy about. I find the best things in life and I love them, I surround myself with the most amazing people and I do my share to make sure I am happy and everybody I know is happy. I grow from every negative thing in my life, it makes me a stronger person, it makes me who I am today.

Q: Tell us about Michael’s book “A Portion of Thyself: Essential Reflections From Death Row”
A: This book is one of many he is writing, my father is an amazing writer. This book really captures his way of living now, his everyday thoughts and how he responds and reflects from being on death row, I know you all will love it. It’s due to be published later in February 2010.

Q: What is next for your father? Where is he in the appeal process?
A: More book writing! We aren’t completely sure when the process will begin but I hope to start a campaign to raise money for a really good lawyer for him. That is the main goal at the moment.

Q: If you could ask the people reading this one special favour, what would it be?
A: To pray and spread the word of this campaign, its all about networking and who you know, every little thing counts and I really want to get my father off of death row. These past 10 years have been so terrible for my family and I, constant crying and sobbing, we could really use your prayers.

Q: What words of comfort or advice do you have for others whose parent or loved one is condemned or in peril?
A: Stay strong and never let your head down. I know life is tough, life is going to throw nasty curveballs at you and you have to overcome. There is no time in life to let down your guard and give into depression’s temptation, you are a wonderful individual and you are meant to be happy. Keep smiling and never stop doing what you’re doing, especially if you believe in it.

Q: A final thought to leave us with?
A: I’d like to say “thank you”, this journey I have been on has been a crazy one, to be given this opportunity is absolutely amazing and I thank everyone who supports me, my wonderful grandparents, my awesome friends, my amazing girlfriend. Thank you for always being by my side when I needed you the most, I love you all.

Thank YOU, Jonathan.
For more details about Michael Flinner’s case and the ongoing effort to provide a voice for condemned prisoners, see DeathrowInmate.org.

Author’s note regarding San Quentin: the State of California is currently under moratorium – executions have been on hold since 2006 pending a thorough review of the protocols for the lethal injection procedure. In January 2010, the California Department for Corrections and Rehabilitation issued a deadline for the latest public scrutiny and comments. A number of organised campaigns led to the receipt of over 12,000 comments challenging the procedures, each of which must be taken into account and responded to ‘substantively’ by the State. In the meantime, Governor Schwarzenegger has pledged to cut prison spending in the State vs Higher Education budgets, having last year been criticised for continuing to spend on expanding the prison system, including plans for a new block for San Quentin’s death row, which already houses around 670 condemned prisoners, taking the capacity to over 1200 with proposed double-celling.

We believe Governor Schwarzenegger should encourage legislation to repeal the death penalty statute altogether for California and save the State billions of dollars which could be channelled into more appropriate public spending