A young Irishman who spent the summer working alongside death row inmates in Austin, Texas tells IrishCentral.com why he thinks the death penalty should be abolished.
When most Irish students contemplate a summer internship in the US, they don’t expect to find themselves face to face with convicted serial killers and rapists. But that is exactly where Dannie Hanna, a young man from Ennis Co. Clare ended up this past August while doing pro bono work for death row inmates in Austin, Texas.
Born in Abu Dhabi to an Irish mother and Lebanese father, Dannie spent the first three years of his life in the United Arab Emirates before moving home to Ennis in Co. Clare. The eldest of three boys he graduated in 2008 with a law degree from the National University of Ireland in Galway before moving to the UK to pursue postgraduate study.
With an inherent interest in philanthropy, the 23-year-old established Rotaract, the largest youth voluntary group of it's kind in the world while he was studying in Galway. With over 800 members, Rotaract raised €40,000 ($55,000) for charitable organisations throughout Ireland during his tenure.
With a background in law and special interest in human rights, the Clare man was studying for his Masters at the University of Cambridge when he first got involved with the NGO Texas Defender Service (TDS). As a result of his efforts he was selected to travel to Texas for a five-week internship with the organization.
Speaking to IrishCentral.com, Dannie explained that prior to his trip to Texas, he already had clear views about capital punishment.
“My initial opinion, arising more from "gut instinct", had always been that the use of the death penalty is an abhorrence to mankind.
“However, it was not until I began work with Texas Defender Service (TDS) and saw first hand the horrors that it manifests, that I was able to truly capture why it was such an abhorrence,” he said.
In preparation for his internship in Austin, Texas Dannie took part in training with two London based NGO's who specialize in death penalty work. He also met with Peter Pringle, an Irish man who was wrongly convicted of murder sentenced to death and later exonerated.
When his plane touched down in Austin amid scorching August temperatures, the Clare man soon established that he was a long way from home, not just in terms of distance.
“Coming from the West of Ireland, and having spent a number of months previously in Chicago, Texas is certainly very different. It very much sees itself as Texas, first and foremost, and America thereafter.
“I found that a small bit hard to come to terms with, as public opinion can be extremely conservative at times,” he added.
Despite his earlier work with TDS and extensive training, Dannie admitted that he learnt more in his first two days in the office than in any training exercise he underwent. For the majority of his internship Dannie was based in the Austin office of the TDS where he worked on reviewing the individual cases of death row inmates.
With a total of 785 employees the Polunsky Unit stands five miles south of Livington in Texas. It is here that male death row inmates await their execution. With almost 3,000 inmates, 463 of which are awaiting execution, the correctional facility is the biggest employer in the area. Dannie described the prison as “emotionally draining” and “upsetting” as he detailed a typical day for a death row inmate.
“They (prisoners) are kept in their cell 23 hours a day, every day, until the day of their execution. Their cells are 10ft in length, and 6ft across. They are allowed one hour of recreation time each day, in which they are led to a cage, with a concrete slab, a basketball hoop and one basketball. They are kept in complete isolation from everyone, even during this recreation time.
“The only time someone will ever physically touch them is when the guard takes off their handcuffs. That, and the day they are executed. They are served breakfast in their cell at 3.30am. If they do not eat breakfast at this time, they are not fed for the day. They are strip searched every time they leave their cell (for recreation time, for showering, for visitors),” he noted.
Death row inmates are kept in complete isolation and experience little human contact while they await their execution. When he visited the prison Dannie admits that suddenly “everything became real”.The countless cases he had been tirelessly working on suddenly came to life before his eyes as he met and spoke some some death row prisoners.
One such prisoner was Patrick Murphy, whom Dannie spent over four hours speaking with.
“Patrick was convicted for rape in the early 1980's and had been sentenced to 50 years for such an offence. In 2000, with six other inmates, broke out from the Connally Unit, culminating in a state wide search that lasted six weeks.
“During the six week period, the seven escapees were involved in the killing of a police officer. While Patrick himself did not commit the crime, the law in Texas states that if the group of individuals are seen to commit capital murder as a "joint effort", then they can all be charged with capital murder. Patrick was such convicted and sentenced to die,” said Dannie.
“The atmosphere was a strange one. When I met the prisoners, they were just so happy to have someone to talk to. Yet the backdrop of the whole prison was emotionally draining,” he added.
For a $3 charge prison officials would take your photo with the offending inmate.
After witnessing prisoners living conditions, speaking with death row inmates and working extensively on their cases, Dannie was utterly convinced execution was not the solution.
“From a deterrent perspective - it simply does not work. Statistics show that murders actually increase on the day of an execution.
“From a human rights perspective, the conditions in which the inmates are subjected to are disgusting.
“Finally, from a justice perspective, the system in which the death verdict is given is nothing short of disgraceful - from the provision of ineffective legal counsel on behalf of state appointed lawyers, to the pedantic nature of some members of the Texas judiciary,” Dannie said.
The alternative for Dannie, similar to any lawyer working a death row appeal is life without parole.
“We never deny that some of our clients have done terrible things, and to this end, must pay through confinement. However executing them does not serve any type of purpose, bar making a bad situation worse,” the law graduate added.
Currently the death penalty is enforced in 35 states within the US. The primary method of execution is lethal injection. Since 1976, 463 prisoners have died by execution in Texas alone. In Texas a death penalty case costs an average of $2.3 million, that is almost three times the cost of imprisoning someone in a single cell at a high security facility for 40 years.
Despite international opposition a recent annual crime survey commissioned by Gallup found that 65% of Americans continue to support the use of the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, while 31% oppose it.
Speaking about the murder case of the Petit family in Connecticut where Steven Hayes was recently convicted of a litany of offences including the murder of a mother and her two young daughters, Dannie told IrishCentral.com why he believes that Hayes should not be executed.
“Having been following this case for some time, I can simply say that the facts around the incident are nothing short of horrific. Having dealt with case similar to this, there is always something that resonates when a capital murder involves anything to do with women, and especially so, with children.
“Mr. Hayes is not like normal people, no normal person would do such a thing. But this does not give us the right, as normal persons, to play God and execute him.
“All we are doing is creating another victim from this atrocity. I thus would believe that life without parole is an appropriate sentence,” the Clare man said.
For now Dannie is settling back into daily life in Dublin where he works as a legal researcher with the Law Reform Commission. He continues to stay in touch with the Texas Defender Service and closely monitors the progress of particular death row cases.
It is only now in the days and weeks that have followed his homecoming that the enormity of the experience has resonated. Having no regrets about his experience with TDS, Dannie admits he feels “fortunate not to live in a society” where the death penalty prevails.
Originally published October 22 2010