Da'rryl Durr on the death penalty
In a telephone call from death row, Da'rryl Durr describes capital punishment as 'murder by the state'
guardian.co.uk Tuesday 20 April 2010 20.00 BST
"We don't say a prisoner was executed, we say he was murdered by the state," says Da'rryl Durr, speaking from Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown. He was there on formal deathwatch until Monday, when he was transferred to the state's maximum-security facility in Lucasville to await his execution.
Durr, 46, had been placed on Ohio's death row on 10 January 1989, for the murder of 16-year-old Angel Vincent. When I spoke to him on the telephone last Saturday evening, he had less than 72 hours to his time of execution.
Vincent was discovered missing from her home in Elyria, Ohio, when her parents returned from a night out on 31 January 1988. Just 20 minutes earlier her mother, Norma Jean O'Nan, had spoken to her on the telephone; Vincent told her that a friend, Deborah Mullins, was in the house with her. Mullins, she said, was waiting for her boyfriend, Da'rryl Durr, to arrive.
Several days later, Vincent's mother confronted Mullins about her daughter's whereabouts. Mullins suggested she had probably "run away". Three months later, on 30 April, Vincent's decomposing remains were discovered by some boys playing in a local park, though they were not immediately identified.
After examining the remains, the deputy coroner concluded that the remains were those of a young girl who had died as a result of "homicidal violence". The extent of her decomposition made it impossible to ascertain if there had been any ligature marks, scrapes or skin tears, but the deputy coroner declined to rule out strangulation, citing the flexibility of the internal cartilaginous structures of the victim's neck. Due to the severe infestation of bacteria present on the remains, testing for the presence of spermatozoa was also inconclusive, rendering it impossible to confirm whether or not Vincent had been raped.
Durr was charged with her murder five months later. Following his arrest for two unrelated rapes – to which he pled guilty on the advice of his lawyers, but then later denied – Mullins went to the Cleveland police and told them Durr had murdered Vincent. X-rays on the body in the park then confirmed the remains to be those of Vincent. Durr stood trial and, although there was no physical evidence to connect him to the crime, he was, on the sole testimony of Mullins, found guilty of aggravated murder, rape, robbery and kidnapping. He was sentenced to death and placed on Ohio State Penitentiary's death row.
There appear to have been some racial overtones in the case against Durr. He is African American. Angel Vincent and Deborah Mullins are white, as is Durr's former common-law wife Janice. At a later review of the original trial's verdict and sentence, Durr's attorney William Lazarow attempted to have the original trial judge, William McAllister, taken off the review due to remarks he was alleged to have made in chambers while the jury were considering their verdict. Durr's trial lawyer Jerry Milano signed a sworn affadavit in which he stated that McAllister said he "wanted to see [Durr's] nigger ass in the chair for messing with white women". The judge denied making any such comments, but Milano stands by his statement. The request to have McAllister removed was denied. A policeman in the case also told Durr's stepfather that he didn't like him because he looked "like Martin Luther King".
Despite several appeals and hearings, Durr remained on death row. Yet he appears to have used his time in prison in as constructive a manner as the limitations of his existence would allow. He taught himself law, then volunteered to advise and assist other prisoners in legal and civil matters, helping imprisoned fathers to establish and preserve their parental rights. He staged a hunger strike in his early years of imprisonment, to get the cells on death row cleaned and painted, and has made numerous donations to a children's charity that raised funds through the selling of craftwork. Durr also embraced religion and encourages others to lead a spiritually healthy life.
I ask Durr how the other prisoners "on the row" react when an execution has taken place. "There is a grieving process. Some guys fast," he says, "others give away money. Some go into a self-imposed solitary confinement, not wanting to talk to anybody. They won't talk to guards, won't talk to other prisoners. They get traumatised.
"These are people that we live around – you get to know each other's families, their life stories. You learn how damaged people are when they come to prison – but you also see how guys change and make growth in their lives while you have known them. By the time the state murders that man, you wonder: what was it all worth?"
Durr's voice is measured and dignified, which I find remarkable for a man within hours of being strapped to a gurney and given a lethal injection. He knows I am a journalist, but expresses no bitterness or anger. I ask if he thinks he has grown in prison. Is he the same man he was 22 years ago?
"Of course not," he says, assuredly. "Change is inevitable. But growth is optional. I have studied law, religion, history and people. But I try to communicate with people on a level that I might be able to make a change, not only in my life but in their lives."
He tells me it has been important not to stagnate on death row. "If there is a difference that you can make in the life of another person, you want to make that difference. After I have spoken to you, I want to feel that I have taken something from our conversation and it has made me a better person – and I want to leave you the same way."
After 22 years of confinement, I find his calm reasoning impressive. "If there is something that enriched you from our conversation that you can share," he says, "then please let people know there is humanity even in these places."
I have read of his claims of innocence, but now, speaking to him, knowing what he faces, I am embarrassed to ask if it's true. Yet I feel I should, to give him a chance to say it out loud. I take a deep breath and ask him outright. "Yes, absolutely," he says without hesitation. Clearly I am speaking to an intelligent, empathetic, rounded human being. The idea of his life being wilfully extinguished fills me with dread. "You should know that it is really not about any issues you have," he says. "If you have bad judges, it doesn't matter if you are innocent or guilty."
Durr then tells me about a fellow death-row prisoner, who maintained his innocence for 15 years. The state refused to DNA-test a piece of evidence: blood on a tennis shoe that he said was his, and not the victim's, as argued by the court that convicted him. Finally, the test was allowed and he was proved right. Yet no court would allow his appeal. If the then governor of Ohio had not granted the prisoner clemency, he would be dead. Instead, his sentence was commuted to life without parole. "This is what happens in the state of Ohio," Durr says.
Last year, Durr asked for DNA-testing on biological material belonging to Vincent. This was allowed and the test came back negative. Officials then refused a second test, saying the first test only came back negative because the evidence was old and had been mishandled. The second test related to Vincent's necklace. Though records show it has never been out of police custody, that too is said to have been mishandled – the DNA test was denied.
In a last-minute attempt to stay his execution, Durr's lawyers submitted the argument that he was allergic to the anaesthetic used in the administration of the lethal injection. They needed more time, they said, to investigate his medical records. "My lawyers have filed with the judges," Durr says, "but it's the same three judges who threw out my earlier claims. You can expect that they will deny me again."
How does he feel towards Vincent's family? "I would hope, if they think I did this and harmed their family, that they could forgive me. I understand their pain, their loss, having suffered the same thing myself – and I'm sorry, I really am. I maintain my innocence, but that doesn't negate the pain they feel and I'm sorry for their pain. I really am."
I ask how his society, the people of Ohio, feel generally about the treatment of people in his position. "I think they support the process as they are led to believe it operates. People are given a candy-coated version of what a prisoner's life is like. But the average citizen will never experience it. If more people actually knew what one year, two years, three years of prison life was actually like, I think more people would be appalled. They would press politicians and other people in society to make effective changes in prison conditions, so we wouldn't have the reoffending rate that we have, or the intra-prison violence.
"In America, they spend more money incarcerating people than they do on educating people. You're talking almost $2m to murder someone on death row. If they took that money and gave you 30 years to life or 20 years to life, they could use the rest of the money and educate five people who want to go to college."
Finally, I ask Durr why the state insists on killing people; what they think it achieves. (There have been 37 executions in Lucasville since 1999 – with one a month scheduled for the next 11 months.) But it is too late for him to answer. Our time is up. "I'm sorry," he says, "this will probably be our last call."
Except it wasn't. Durr was transferred to Lucasville on Monday, after all his appeals were turned down. The same day, the governor of Ohio, Ted Strickland, refused his appeal for clemency, and on Monday night the supreme court rejected his lawyers' application for a stay.
But this morning, I was allowed to make a final, brief call to Durr, two and a half hours before he was due to be killed. This time when he picks up the phone, his voice is deep and sombre. "Hey," he says, "how's your spirit this morning?"
I tell him I was thinking about him, and it isn't good. I ask if there is anything else he would like to say.
"Yes," he says. "Please give my love to everybody that supported me and tried to help me. And when you write about me, do me a favour and please – are you familiar with St Paul's treatise on love?" I tell him I am. "Tell them that's what I believe: in faith, hope and love – and that the greatest of these is love."
Da'rryl Durr was killed by lethal injection today, right on schedule.
Burn in Hell scumbag