Volume 16 • Issue 29 | December 16 - 22, 2003

Book event with death row foes and freed inmate

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Nanon Williams, a death row prisoner in Texas, has just published his memoirs. Recent articles in the Houston Chronicle suggested he may not have committed the murder of which he was convicted.
It’s a long way from Soho to Texas death row, a distance that can be measured in morals as well as miles.
But a group of activists and performers bridged the gap last Wednesday, Dec. 10, when they read from the newly released book of a Texas death row prisoner at the Housing Works Used Book Cafe on Crosby St. Ray Krone, the 100th prisoner exonerated in the U.S., was among those who spoke at the reading held to coincide with the International Day of Human Rights.

“What happened to me shouldn’t happen to anyone,” said Krone, 46, who was originally sentenced to death and walked free last year after D.N.A. evidence cleared him of murder. He served 10 years behind bars in Arizona, the first three on death row.

Nanon Williams, now 29, was sentenced to death for a murder he allegedly committed when he was 17. Last month, Williams published “Still Surviving,” a powerful account of growing into manhood on death row.

“He never thought that he could reach out so far to people being locked up in a tiny little cell,” said Andrea Huber, the former deputy secretary general of Amnesty International, Switzerland, and the founder of the Nanon Williams Support Association.

Prison guards punished Williams for writing the book, Huber said, by transferring him to a ward where every other prisoner has an execution date. Although Williams does not have an execution date, “he’s constantly surrounded by death,” Huber said.

Williams was sentenced to death for a 1992 murder during a cocaine deal in Houston. He admitted to participating in the deal but denied ever pulling the trigger.

Earlier this year, the Houston Chronicle raised doubts about the convictions of Williams and another death row prisoner based on ballistics evidence processed by the Houston Police Department. Six years after Williams’ conviction, a weapons examiner retracted his prior testimony that the victim was shot with a .25 caliber bullet, the same kind that Williams carried, and said instead that the bullet came from a .22 caliber bullet, the Chronicle reported.

In October, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider Williams’ case; his attorney had planned to argue that executing offenders under 18 represented “cruel and unusual punishment.” A federal court judge is expected to review his appeal early next year.

“I will not meekly accept my fate,” Williams writes in “Still Surviving.” “Perhaps even in my struggle, I may become to the world only like so many others who have died on death row—a number soon forgotten by all but those who love me…Or maybe, just maybe, the future will have me in it someday.”

Texas is one of 21 states that allow the executions of offenders who were under 18 when their crimes were committed. Nationwide, 81 young men are now on death row for crimes they were convicted of committing when they were under 18, according to Christina Swarns, an attorney with the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund, who spoke at the reading.

“We need to make so much more noise than we’re making about it,” said Bryonn Bain, 28, a professor of spoken-word poetry at N.Y.U., who performed one of his poems at the reading. Bain also teaches writing to prisoners at Rikers Island.

New York State does not allow the execution of juvenile offenders, which is a violation of international human rights law. The only countries other than the U.S. to have carried out executions of juvenile offenders in the last 10 years are Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, according to Amnesty International.

As activists work to end the death penalty altogether, they are also fighting to remove the U.S. from what they call the shameful list of countries that kill minors. Swarns said there is some hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will one day decide that juvenile offenders cannot be executed, as it ruled last year with mentally retarded inmates.

Taylor Long, 19, an N.Y.U. sophomore who attended the event, said that he planned to continue writing letters and signing petitions against the death penalty.

A member of an Amnesty International group on campus, Long said, “To be old enough to vote and not doing anything is to let it happen.”



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