Twenty years ago, Scott Langley, freelance photojournalist and human rights activist, got in his car, camera in trunk, and drove three hours to Huntsville, Texas on the night of an execution.
“I had never been to a prison before in my life. … I didn’t really know what to expect, but I knew I just wanted to go stand outside the prison, see what was happening, and take photos,” he said.
When Langley got there, he said there was no media, photographers, or film crew.
“There were six people outside the prison during execution. That’s how much of a common, normal routine this was in Texas,” he said.
Langley decided to take photos of the cross on top of the prison, the brick building where the executions happen, the buildings double doors, and the big clock over them.
“I put my camera down at one point and just kind of fixated on that clock and I just watched that minute hand tick closer and closer to six [time of execution in Texas] and when it finally struck six, my whole perception of the death penalty changed.
“Literally, across the street from where I stood, someone was dying. A prisoner was being killed by the government. And I never really thought of it in those very visceral terms,” he said.
From that point on, Langley said he knew he wanted to be an anti-death penalty activist.
Langley discussed his experience working as an anti-death penalty activist at an open forum on Feb. 27.
His slideshow, “A Timeline of an Execution,” narrates what happens during the death penalty process, using non-staged photos he has taken throughout the years.
The photos are pulled from different work he has done in Arkansas, Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, and Europe – consisting of prisoners’ family members, photos inside and outside the prison, and crowds of protestors, all of which are used to expose the truth about the death penalty.
Prior to being a human rights activist, Langley said he went to school in Dallas, Texas, where he majored in sociology, and only understood the death penalty from an academic perspective.
His perception shifted when friends recommended he take a class about human rights and America’s disregard of individual liberties.
As part of a class assignment, Langley said he was to pick a human rights issue and an art form to represent the topic.
Langley chose to take photos of execution sites, addressing the issue with the death penalty, because he had a passion for photography, and learned the former governor of Texas, George W. Bush, oversaw more executions than any other governor.
Following the project, Langley was informed of Larry Robison’s execution – a man with severe schizophrenia who murdered five of his neighbors.
“His family tried to help him, they knew he had schizophrenia, they contacted the mental health department to get help. The state of Texas refused to help him because he had no history of violence,” Langley said.
This time around, the execution gained a lot of media attention with more than 100 people in attendance. Langley said he didn’t bring his camera because he wanted to actually protest.
“As I stood there in that crowd, I became fixated again on that clock,” he said. “When it struck six, I was a few yards away from a mother at the moment of her child’s execution. That image is forever burned into my memory. The audio forever burned into my memory.
“To witness that took things to a whole different level in terms of my experience with the death penalty, and the exposure to what the death penalty does to people,” he added.
From that moment on, Langley said he would never leave his camera again. He became aware the media was not reporting the full story.
“I kind of took it upon myself to say, ‘I need to be that person to capture what is going on. I need to tell that story.’ … I feel like the power of photos can change people’s hearts and people’s minds. It did for me,” he said.
Langley’s presentation threads the story of a specific death row prisoner case – Troy Davis, a young black man convicted of killing an off-duty white police officer. Langley said there were no fingerprints, no weapon, and no DNA evidence, only nine eyewitnesses who testified against him.
But upon further investigation from Davis’s attorneys, Langley said seven of the nine witnesses recanted their testimony, stating that they didn’t actually know it was Davis. Some said they were even forced by the police to give the testimony.
Langley said he attended two of Davis’s three execution dates. With efforts from Davis’s family and the news of the recanted witness testimonies, the world began paying attention.
“Over the course of a few years, one million people, including well-known politicians, had signed a petition calling the state of Georgia to stop the execution, to save an innocent man’s life,” he said.
But the judge said the evidence wasn’t enough to stop the execution and a new date was set, Langley said.
“The news shocked the world and it shocked the family. Troy’s mother, who was in otherwise perfectly good health, died suddenly after the news. The stress and emotional rollercoaster was too much for her to handle,” he added.
Langley’s slideshow included photos of Davis’s mother, Virginia, his sister, Martina, Davis’s spiritual advisor, the Rev. Al Sharpton, prayer circles, protestors and activists outside the death row building, prison cells, the gurney, the viewing room, and the death chamber.
“Some protestors crossed the yellow police tape and went into the street, only to be thrown into the ground and arrested immediately, a scene not unique to this particular execution. In states like Texas and North Carolina, people have been arrested for simple acts of conscience and peaceful disobedience,” he said.
From following police reports, Langley said it took 54 minutes for the execution team and a doctor to set an IV in Davis, adding to the trauma of the process. In recent cases, sometimes it has taken as many as two hours for a prisoner to be put to death.
An audience member asked if there was a more humane way than lethal injection.
Langley said most pharmaceutical companies refuse to sell execution drugs to prisons, causing a shortage. Methods of execution such as firing squad, death by gassing, and electrocution are expanding in face of the lethal injection drug shortage.
“The story I just shared currently happens one to three times a month in this country, and until recently, it was once a week. When I started this project, it was twice a week. Today, there have been a total of 1,492 executions since reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976,” he said.
He also said he examined the aftermath of execution, focusing on the families of crime victims. He discussed Bud Welch, whose daughter Julie was killed in the Oklahoma City Bombing.
“Bud talks about the idea of closure and how he feels it’s a myth. … Through the death penalty it’s a false promise and families are forced to relive their pain and loss every time there is an appeal or when an execution happens. Their healing process is continually interrupted and dragged on for decades,” he said
Worldwide, 70 percent of all countries have ended the death penalty, Langley said. The U.S. is ranked in the top 10 of executions in the world.
But with more and more states in the U.S. getting rid of the death penalty, Langley asked, “What does the death penalty teach us? That killing is a response to killing? That retaliatory violence is an acceptable means of addressing conflict? It’s clear it’s an endless cycle. … So, what does this teach us as a society? And, what does it teach our children who watch what goes on?”