Death Penalty Matters: Executions Gone Wrong

October 1, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Elena Harding

Ron McAndrew is a former Florida State Prison warden who facilitated eight executions in his career. The third execution he presided over was of Pedro Medina on March 25, 1997. At the execution, McAndrew said he noticed the electrician wet the sponge and thoroughly rung it out. The sponge is used to facilitate the current of electricity through the condemned inmate’s body. He said he deferred to the electrician, who had more experience with executions, when he said the sponge was wet enough.

McAndrew said he knew there was a problem when he heard a loud ‘pop’ after the executioner flicked the switch. A plume of smoke billowed out from under electric chair helmet and shortly after, Medina’s head caught on fire.

This happened approximately one foot away from McAndrew who, as warden, stood in front of Medina during the execution. He said the execution chamber immediately filled with smoke and the smell of burning flesh. McAndrew’s voice trembled, as he explained why they could not stop. He said they had to continue because they had just run 20,000 volts and 14 amps through Medina’s body and his head was on fire.

“I was sick all the way through my body,” McAndrew said. “That was the longest 11 minutes of my life.”

He said this execution, along with others, led him to transition from death penalty supporter to abolitionist.

McAndrew spoke at SMU during a Death Penalty Matters lecture Thursday night on stories from inside the death house. The Embrey Human Rights Program sponsored the talk in Dallas Hall’s McCord Auditorium, where approximately 100 people listened to McAndrew’s experience as a prison warden.

Rick Halperin, director of the EHRP at SMU and board member of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, introduced McAndrew as the speaker.

“The death penalty is all about people, many of whom who have done some difficult and terrible things, some of whom are innocent,” Halperin said.

He said the death penalty continues the cycle of victims-it starts with the pain of the family of the victims and ends with the pain of the families of the condemned inmate.

Halperin predicted that in the future, people would look back at the death penalty in horror, appalled at the barbarism.

McAndrew said he grew up believing the death penalty was right, but the closer he got to executions the more he doubted this belief.

Another reason McAndrew changed his opinion about the death penalty was John Earl Bush. McAndrew said Bush was the first person he executed and he had doubts as to whether Bush was guilty.

McAndrew said the death penalty in America is a political tool. He said that politicians use it to gain popularity during elections.

“We play it out, whether the person is innocent or guilty it doesn’t matter as long as we get our pound of flesh,” McAndrew said.

He said he is not soft on crime and then paraphrased Juan Melendez, a death row inmate who was exonerated in 2003, when he said, “it is a lot easier to exonerate from a cell than a grave.”

SMU senior Jonathan Barger said he was inspired to get involved in human rights issues after taking Halperin’s class during the summer.

SMU senior Jordan Johansen, president of SMU’s Amnesty International chapter, said the speakers of the past three weeks have all stressed education to combat the death penalty. She said learning more about issues such as the death penalty is particularly important for privileged SMU students may not have experience with tough issues. She said the last lecture in the series is important because Virginia Dupuy, professor of voice in SMU Meadows School of the Arts, is scheduled to perform selections from Meditations on Nov. 18.

”Art always makes things more accessible to people,” Johansen said. “It’s a powerful medium.”

Special Showing of “When the Levees Broke”

August 30, 2010 by · Comments Off 

By Aida Ahmed

If you’re a freshman or if you’ve been keeping up with our NOLA Now blog you may be familiar with this year’s freshman reading, “Zeitoun”. This week’s fifth year anniversary of Hurrican Katrina culminates in the SMU premiere and discussion of Spike Lee’s documentary of “When the Levees Broke” Tuesday August 31, at 5 p.m. in the Hughes-Trigg Theater.

Director of the SMU Human Rights Program, Dr. Rick Halperin, will be opening the showing with a few words about Katrina and the human rights issues violated in the disaster.

Students are invited to stay for pizza, cookies and drinks and discuss the film.

Holocaust Series Kicks Off with ‘Shoah: a Turning Point’

September 10, 2009 by · Comments Off 

Kellyn Curtis

The introduction to the fall series, Holocaust Legacies: Shoah as Turning Point, featured four mini-lectures that touched on different historical aspects of the Shoah, which is the Hebrew term for Holocaust. The panel included scholars Rick Halperin, Elliot Dlin, Christopher Anderson and Janis Bergman-Carton.

Rick Halperin, director of the SMU Human Rights Program, started off the night by giving a brief overview of how the Holocaust has become a prominent topic of study in recent years. About 20 years ago, a plethora of information emerged that has allowed scholars to delve deep into the causes of the largest mass murder in history – it’s generally accepted that between 5 and 6 million Jews perished during the war.

“The Holocaust didn’t just happen,” Halperin said. “It was an intentional, genocidal event.”

Halperin emphasized that a multitude of historical accounts from the period have helped scholars piece things together, but there are some things we will most likely never know.

“When we speak of the unspeakable, I would argue that the documents cannot come close to telling the story of what happened between 1933 and 1945,” Halperin said.

Following Halperin was Elliot Dlin, executive director of the Dallas Holocaust Museum. Dlin bridged the gap between the silence of Holocaust survivors directly following the war, to where we are now with countless stories and experiences from the period.

“There are so many areas of our lives in which the Shoah is a turning point,” Dlin said. “The world is a different place now than in was before the war.”

Christopher Anderson, Associate Professor of Sacred Music at the Perkins School of Theology, described the music in Hitler’s Germany through the reception of Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn’s music. He explained that the Nazi music policies were subject to a controlled ideology.

Chair of Art History at Meadows School of the Arts, Janis Bergman-Carton wrapped up the program with a discussion on the impact of art looting during the war. She said that the Nazi’s systematic theft resulted in 600,000 missing works or art.

Through the two-month series, Halperin hopes to give students a better understanding how the Holocaust happened and what can be done to prevent it from happening again.

Halperin has also taken students on a winter trip to the Holocaust sites in Europe. Check out the 2008 student-narrated footage of the trip.

For a full schedule of the 2009 program series, visit

Social Justice Film Series Brings Global Issues to Light

November 17, 2008 by · Comments Off 

By Rachel Orr
Members of the SMU community wishing to watch issue oriented films now have an answer to their prayers.

On Friday, the Social Justice Film Series hosted their second monthly movie night at Hughes-Trigg, drawing less than 12 people. The series is a new program at SMU designed to bring student awareness to current issues facing the world today.

Joe Macchia, coordinator of Research & Service Learning, runs the program at SMU and chooses a new film to present to SMU students every month.

? “We wanted an opportunity to bring awareness on issues to our students, but we also wanted to engage them,” Macchia said.

In accordance with National Hunger and Homelessness week,? Nov. 16-22, Macchia chose to partner with the North Texas Food Bank and the Close the Gap program at Meadow’s School of the Arts for this month’s film? Hidden in America.

“We are looking to collaborate with other departments on campus,” Macchia said.? “We do this to ensure that we encompass the whole campus.”

Hidden in America, by Jeff and Beau Bridges, tells the story of a single father who lost his job and has to find a way to provide for his two young children.

SMU student Megan Wilson, attended the showing as an extra credit assignment for her sociology class.

“I really liked the movie,” Wilson said.? “Although it was really sad, it made me want to help in some way.”

The purpose of this movie is to show the audience that more people have trouble paying for food and go to bed hungry than one might expect.?

Colleen Brinkmann, director of Communications and Marketing at NTFB spoke before the film started about the problem of hunger in Texas. Brinkman discussed some of the programs the NFTB has in place for children who need proper nutrition to do well in school and grow up properly.

One such program, the backpack program, gives students meals to eat over the weekend when they are not in school.? While students are in school, they are given free breakfast and lunch, but over the weekend, these students often do no eat and are tired on Monday and not interested in learning.

SMU student Megan Wilson, attended the showing as an extra credit assignment for her sociology class.

“I really liked the movie,” Wilson said. “Although it was really sad, it made me want to help in some way.”

Macchia said he hopes this program will grow and develop, and provide students with a fun, entertaining way to spend their Friday nights on campus.

“We want to bring students in to the student center on the weekend,” he said.

Macchia said he has big ideas for this program in the future. He said in January, he hopes to work with Rick Halperin, SMU history professor and director of the Human Rights Education Program, and present a film on human rights and the death penalty.

Students Schooled on Sexuality, Religion, Death Penalty

November 14, 2008 by · Comments Off 

By Morgan Maddox

Gay rights, religious rights in Iran and America’s death penalty were the hot topics at Thursday night’s human rights panel hosted by SMU’s Student’s for a Better Society (SBS) in the Hughes-Trigg Forum.

Rene Baker, a transgender woman and gay rights activist, spoke of her transition from man to woman. According to Baker, she had her first inclination of being transgender when she was 5-years-old.

“As I grew older, I realized I didn’t fit in with the guys,” Baker said, “but I never expected to transition the way I did.”

Baker was married at the age of 19 and had a son with her wife. However, throughout the marriage, Baker struggled with her identity and went through several phases of therapy. After 21 years of marriage, Baker and her wife divorced.

“Like everyone else, I wanted a chance at a normal life,” Baker said.

In 2004, she began her identity transformation. Two years later, she underwent gender surgery.

“To say, I’m a transgender women really felt good,” she said.

Since completing the final transformation stages, she has been speaking out to educate people on gender issues in the U.S.

“There is really more than two genders in our life,” Baker said. “There is room for variation.”

Alongside Baker on the panel was Mark Gilman, Sec. of the Spirit Assembly of Baha’is of Dallas, to cover education and the life of Baha’is in Iran.

Baha’i has been around for roughly 150 years, but followers have yet to be recognized in Iran as part of a religious community. They are constantly faced with persecution by not only opposing religious believers but the government, as well.

“In the eyes of the law, the Baha’i have no standing,” Gilman said.

According to Gilman, universities in Iran require prospective students to identify what religion they affiliate with by checking a box on their applications. Due to the fact that Iran does not recognize Baha’i, such a box is not available to them. Therefore, their applications are seen as incomplete.

“They have to check a box, and ‘none of the above’ is not an option,” Gilman said.

Gilman recommended students to inform UN leaders of their concern for the Baha’i.

“We can’t let an innocent people parish at the hand of a regime,” he said.

Perhaps most controversial was the panel’s discussion on the death penalty, lead by Rick Halperin, director of SMU’s Human Rights Education Program.

According to Halperin, there are currently 3,300 men and women on death row in the U.S. He added that since 1976, 130 innocent people have been released from death row.

“The death penalty is about people,” Halperin said. “There are innocent people on death row.”

In his opinion, people have the right to be protected from violent offenders. However, he said the question is how to deal with them. He said he believes our nation should create a better system to help rehabilitate criminals.

“People should have the opportunity to become better than the worst moment of their life,” Halperin said.

Savannah Engel, a human rights chairman for SBS, said she was thrilled with the turnout for the panel. She said she hoped the discussions provided students with new perspectives on the issues.

“You can’t make an decision without listening to someone else’s opinion,” she said.

‘Exonerated’ Panel Shows Dark Side of Justice

November 7, 2008 by · 1 Comment 

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