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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Death penalty presentation sparks debate at UNCP

By Hannah Simpson

Jail cell bars. Click. A hallway of cells. Click.  A bed with restraints lying loose across it. Click.

Scott Langley“The Death Penalty Photography Project: A Photo Story About the Death Penalty in America and the Facts Behind the Myths” was presented by free-lance photographer Scott Langley at the 4th annual Robert K. Gustafson Memorial Scholar Series in the Moore Hall auditorium on April 13.

Langley’s collection of over 800 death row photos stands as his art project and his political statement against the death penalty. The photojournalist, who is based in North Carolina, used his photos, accompanied with real life stories and figures, in his travels across the nation to educate on the death penalty on behalf of Amnesty International.

“I kind of wear two hats in my life: one as a photographer and one as an activist,” Langley said.

Langley’s presentation covered a single night: the night a death row inmate would be executed. His photos followed the night chronologically: the last meal, four hours of final family visitation, final phone calls, and a two-hour wait while a decision is made about whether the prisoner should be granted clemency. No people were photographed in his project.

Death row inmates are restrained on a bed and draped in a white sheet, Langley said, while three different men inject the inmate with chemical agents, meant to put the inmate to sleep, paralyze, and then poison. He also said that none of the men with syringes know which needle held the poison.
The family, police and judge watch from behind a window; the family is restricted from making any noise, Langley said. Pictures showed the body being driven to a hospital, the documentation of the death, marked homicide, and a graveyard that featured crosses distinguished by numbers.

Throughout his speech, Langley presented figures to reinforce his photos. Thirty-eight of the 50 states allow the death penalty. Of these, two states allow a firing squad; two states allow hanging, last used in 1996; gassing is used by five states, the last time in 1999; and the electric chair, last used in the summer of 2006, is still legal in 10 states. Lethal injection is legal in all 38 states.

The U.S. is one of four countries to allow the death penalty, behind China, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Langley said 60 percent of death row inmates are black or Hispanic and 95 percent of public defenders may be overworked, under qualified and sometimes drunk or fall asleep during trial.

The death penalty may not deter violence, Langley said, but reinforce it. He emphasized this statement, saying there are 700 murders a year in North Carolina. Five hundred of those are solved and arrests are made, with 20 to 25 tried as capital cases.

Langley said that North Carolina is currently restricted from executing prisoners because the state is investigating whether inmates can still feel the pain of the poison despite their sleep and paralysis. Doctors were recently restricted by the state medical board from assisting in the investigation.
For his work concerning the death penalty, Langley said he has been banned from contact with any North Carolina prisoner. He also recounted a time when he was arrested, and a time when he was beaten with a wooden cross.
Langley’s presentation sparked a heated debate among faculty and students in the audience concerning how he presented his figures and photographs.
“I don’t give a damn about statistics,” Langley said in response to the debate. “It’s about the morality of killing people.”

Langley’s project grew from a college art assignment, beginning with photos from an execution vigil in Huntsville, Texas. The project has been shown across the nation and abroad.
Langley said he hopes that education and facts beyond the myth will eventually stop the death penalty.

The Gustafson Lecture Series was founded by Helen S. Gustafson of Laurinburg, N.C., to honor her late husband, who was a Presbyterian minister and a faculty member at UNCP. The series was placed with the Esther Maynor Honors College, which recognizes and promotes the scholarship of outstanding students.

For more information on the Robert K. Gustafson Memorial Lecture Series, please contact the Esther Maynor Honors College at 910.521.6841 or email

Hannah Simpson is a first year student at UNCP, majoring in Mass Communications and Political Science. She is a member of the Maynor Honors College.

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