Drawings from death row: art about injustice

An exhibition of works by a prisoner facing the ultimate penalty in the US is showing in the Temple in London.

Next week an art exhibition — Art for Amicus: Who Decides — opens at the Temple Church, in London, that tells the history of the death penalty in the United States.

One of the two artists featured will not be present. He is Kenneth Reams, who is on death row in Arkansas in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day in a cell that measures 6ft by 9ft. At the time of his incarceration, at the age of 18 in 1993, he was the youngest person on death row in the state. The other artist is his French fiancée, Isabelle Watson. Reams anxiously waits for judgment that is expected imminently in his appeal against a conviction that has taken more than 15 years to be heard.

The exhibition opened to critical acclaim in Little Rock, Arkansas, in November 2014 and to excellent reviews at the Bridport Arts Centre, Dorset, in October this year. Bridport was a grimly fitting venue because until the 1990s it was home to Bridport Gundry, the rope-makers responsible for making hangman’s nooses.

The trajectory from Little Rock to London has been one of adversity. Reams has had a difficult time getting materials, being reliant on donations in kind of paper, pens, brushes and at the mercy of institutional regulations as to whether he is permitted access to them: paper has been withheld for being the wrong size, pencils for containing the wrong amount of lead and brushes the wrong length. Nonetheless, he has managed to produce more than 50 works of art — pencil drawings and acrylic paintings — and more than five installations, including a gallows made from matchsticks and a ball and chain.

The art is striking and raw. There is an American flag where the red stripes are nooses, from one of which hangs a black man. There is a geometric painting with 11 large white circles and one black circle depicting the issue of racial discrimination in the selection of jurors in the US. There is a stylised colour painting of an electric chair with the words “Martha” and the date of 1899, a reference to the first woman to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York state.

Reams is emphatic that the art is not about his personal experience but about broader themes such as the history of death row in the US, failings in the American criminal justice system, racial bias and discrimination, and poverty. However, the art is the product of someone who has lived and breathed this system since 1993 when he stood trial; and who has spent more than 20 years inside prison self-educating. It is no coincidence that Reams is a black man from a broken and poor family in a troubled American town, Pine Bluff, in Arkansas.

Reams’s story is compelling; his life story has recently been made the subject of a political cartoon strip by Patrick Chappatte in The New York Times. His mother was 15 and had mental health problems when she gave birth to Reams and struggled to bring him up. She met another man and had two other children. His father had no contact with him. There was alcohol and substance abuse in the house. Reams left home when he was 13. He had a talent for drawing but it could not keep him from descent into bad company on the streets of Pine Bluff. In 1993, aged 18, he was arrested with a friend in connection with a hold-up at gun point at an ATM — the victim was shot dead by a single bullet.

Reams did not have the gun and did not pull the trigger. He and his co-defendant were offered a plea bargain: a life sentence without parole in exchange for a plea of not guilty.

Reams has never denied his involvement but the fact that he did not pull the trigger was irrelevant to him being charged with felony murder. He stood trial, not considering that his role justified a life sentence let alone one of death, while his co-defendant accepted the deal.

Reams was sentenced by a jury with 11 white jurors and one black (three other black jurors having been struck off the jury without reason), represented by an attorney who called no ballistic expert witness and made no investigation to present favourable mitigating evidence. Despite a diagnosis of intellectual disability that would have precluded him from being sentenced to death in most states, he was given the ultimate penalty. His case neatly illustrates the fundamental problem of not having adequate representation at the time of trial.

By contrast, Reams has now had the fortune to have his case picked up by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and to have been represented on appeal by experienced death penalty advocates. His legal team is positive about the prospects of success on appeal. Key issues are the constitutionality of a death sentence for an accomplice; for someone with an IQ level that would qualify as too low for execution in most states; ineffective assistance of counsel; and racial bias in the selection of the jurors.

If he succeeds, at best he is likely to face a retrial and re-enter the roulette wheel that is the jury system in a racially tense atmosphere of Southern justice. It is also a salutary reminder of the difficulties of an underfunded criminal justice system and the limitations of the not-for-profit sector to pick up the pieces ex post facto.

I first met Reams in 2000. I was working as an Amicus intern for one of Reams’s long-serving counsels, George Kendall, then at the Legal Defense Fund in New York. I worked on a small number of death penalty cases and, even in the sample I had, there was a striking pattern of black inmates, all-white (or nearly) juries, allegations of racial bias in jury selection, mental-health issues and ineffective assistance of counsel. Reams’s case stood out because I was asked to assist the private investigator hired on Reams’s behalf to interview potential witnesses, including a ballistics expert for his appeal.

We worked for 12 hours a day tracking down family members, the junior counsel who had been given Reams’s case fresh from law school, a ballistics expert and others, culminating in a visit to speak to Reams at the Varner Unit. Varner was a behemoth of a prison. A vast prairie-like space surrounded the facility; inside it was dark with grey walls. I spent an hour speaking to Reams through a thick glass wall.

I returned to the UK and to the Bar but my contact with Reams continued. He would write beautifully scripted letters to my chambers and occasionally call. The calls were the most expensive in the US to make, such is the monopoly of the telephone company in prisons. Reams would sometimes send pencil drawings; I would send him books. He turned to religion. He met Isabelle Watson and they became engaged. In 2012, with the knowledge that he had acquired about the death penalty and criminal justice, he started creating art sculptures, paintings and drawings. He hopes his work will make people think about capital punishment and solitary confinement.

I began to send him art materials. Sometimes they were returned to the supplier in Washington DC by the prison officials. Reams’s appeal became beset by problems including a lost file; and the four judges lined up to hear his appeal had to be recused. The delay appears incomprehensible.

Reams met David Rickard, a pastor who was pro the abolition of the death penalty. With Rickard’s assistance, the idea of the exhibition developed into a reality. Reams also set up a charity, Who Decides, Inc, that aims to educate the public about death row in the US through art. Its goal is to establish a national museum dedicated to the history of capital punishment in the US.