BY RICHARD L. FRICKER
Morning coffee at CHOCS is highlighted by the “roundtable,” a gathering point for philosophers, lawyers, artists, retirees, mechanics or anyone with an opinion. What is said at the table stays at the table.
Then there are mornings when regulars are absent for any number of reasons. Last Tuesday was such a morning, leaving perusal of the morning paper a solitary affair.
Pfc. Johnson was in Iraq just 3 1/2 weeks when a grenade shattered the window of his vehicle killing him instantly. It was his first tour.
Described as gregarious, likeable and inspired to service by a family history dating back to World War II, his father said he looked forward to action. And, like so many young soldiers spent more time fighting boredom than the enemy.
His unit’s mission was helping in the drawdown of American forces from Mr. Bush’s war. It is easy for some to forget that U.S. forces were sent to Iraq based on lies told the American people by President Bush and his inner circle of ultraconservative advisors.
Among the lies were: Saddam had weapons of mass destruction [WMD], Iraq was a close ally of al-Qaida, there were chemical weapons set to be launched at our allies in Europe. None of this was true. Perhaps some of the inner circle wanted to believe the lies were true; most certainly they wanted the American people to believe the lies.
In the run-up to the war groups of Vietnam veterans, as if crying from the wilderness, urged restraint, warning that this was a fool’s mission. Unheeded, the war was launched.
Gen. Tommy Franks became the hero of Bush’s war. Just as Bush had insulted the Arab world by calling the invasion a “crusade,” Franks continued the insult by saying the U.S. didn’t count the Arab dead. In effect telling the Arab world their lives were meaningless.
The sword rattling, invasion, collapse of the Iraq government and army was a lifetime ago, or actually eight years ago. Pfc. Johnson was 12 when Mr. Bush’s war began.
The death of Pfc. Johnson, as we draw down our troops, called to mind testimony given to before the U.S. Senate 20 years before Johnson was born. On April 23, 1971, a young Lieutenant returned from Vietnam asked Congress and the American people, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?”
The young Lieutenant was Sen. John Kerry, who has often been maligned for his statements to Congress that day. A review of his testimony, while starkly truthful and uncomfortable, is certainly instructive.
Young Johnson will not be the last man to die in Iraq. No, that person is among the thousands still deployed, each praying they make it home to family, friends and loved ones. But, that last person is out there, somewhere, and Kerry’s words still echo, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
Randall Dale Adams was a 28 year old in 1976 when he was arrested for the murder of Dallas Police Officer Robert Woods. By the end of 1977 he had been tried, convicted and sent to death row.
His death sentence was commuted to life following the Supreme Court ruling of 1979 barring the death penalty. For the next decade he languished in the Texas prison system, and no one seemed to care.
By the late ‘80s filmmaker Errol Morris had taken an interest in Adams’ case. Morris discovered, among other things, that the police had coached witnesses and suppressed evidence.
Morris interviewed David Harris who was driving the car from which officer Wood was shot. Harris said he knew Adams did not murder the officer because he was the only one there.
Harris was 16 at the time of the shooting and not eligible for the death penalty. When he pointed to Adams, to whom he had earlier given a ride, the police were more than happy to have someone they could execute charged with the murder.
It would be a year before Adams was released. On the day he was released, following a number of court hearings and delays, an Assistant District Attorney was still shopping judges to stay the release. Confronted by a reporter who said, “You understand he’s innocent?” The ADA replied, “If I can keep him in jail just one more day, I’ve done my job.”
Adams went free. His release opened the door – the Dallas DA’s office could be beaten back from the days of Henry Wade and his predecessor John Vance. Until Adams it was a foregone conclusion the DA’s office and the Dallas Police Department would prevail, especially when they wanted to prevail.
Life took a downturn for Adams. After appearing on a few television shows, anti-death penalty workshops and other such public appearances, he faded from public view. He chose to live in obscurity.
His death in Ohio last year went unreported. It wasn’t until acquaintances began to inquire in the last few weeks did the world, Texas in particular, learn that the man whose case shook the Texas judicial process had died of a brain tumor at the age of 61.
While the Adams case did show a crack in the prosecutorial wall, it did not stop the executions. Gov. Ann Richards, despite her socially liberal leans, did little to halt the execution carnage.
Richards was followed by George W. Bush who seemed to revel in the prospect of killing by remote control. It was later learned that his review of a plea for mercy consisted of nothing more than a note from attorney Alberto [Frodo among Bush insiders] Gonzales.
Bush and Gonzales had shared political fortunes in Texas. Gonzales has been Bush’s attorney, Sectary of State and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
As the executions continued Adams faded into obscurity. Across the country more innocent people were being released from prison. Adolph Munson in Oklahoma. In Arizona Ray Krone was released after having been tried twice for the same crime. In Krone’s case it was learned that the prosecutor did in fact have evidence that would have acquitted Krone but withheld it from his defense team.
Krone was awarded $14 million and exonerated on the floor of the Arizona Legislature. The prosecutor was never disciplined, and eventually retired from the Maricopa County DA’s office. Krone now lives on a small farm in Pennsylvania that he has named “Free bird.”
In February 2003, Colin Powell, Bush’s Secretary of State, made an impassioned speech before the United Nations urging them to go to war against Iraq. While Powell described Weapons of Mass Destruction, which would be proven to not exist, and chemical attack weapons, equally non-existent, and links to al-Qaida, which were nothing more that Bush administration fantasy, one segment slipped past the audience with barely a notice.
Speaking of Saddam Hussein’s use of chemicals, Powell told the world, “A source said that 1,600 death row prisoners were transferred in 1995 to a special unit for such experiments. An eyewitness saw prisoners tied down to beds, experiments conducted on them, blood oozing around the victim’s mouths and autopsies performed to confirm the effects on the prisoners. Saddam Hussein’s humanity – inhumanity has no limits.”
Had it not been for the preface about Hussein, and the blood oozing, it would have been difficult to determine if he was speaking of executions across the U.S. or in some other place. In any event the U.S. Secretary of State deemed this manner of death “Inhumanity” with “no limits.”
Powell later said he regretted the speech. His regret was too late – people were already and still are dying.
Mr. Bush got his war. Pfc. Johnson was eight years old.
The war and the death penalty continue. At some point in the future the last solider will be killed in the Iraq war. At some point, in the future history of this country, the last prisoner will be executed.
Pfc. Johnson and Randall Dale Adams never expected to have their names written in history in the manner consigned to them. Would it be too harsh to say they died at the hands of a system that regards political expediency above the blood of honorable men?
What is it we have learned from the lives and deaths of these honorable men?
George Santayana [born Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás], considered a man of letters, left us two comments: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” and “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
Perhaps, the question is, as we stumble toward yet another celebration of our independence, how DO we ask someone to die for a mistake? What DO we tell their families? And how DO we live with ourselves?
– Richard L. Fricker lives in Tulsa, OK and is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer. His latest book, Martian Llama Racing Explained, is available at http://www.richardfricker.com.