EARLY TUESDAY EVENING, as the state of Georgia prepared to kill 47-year-old Kenneth Fults, I drove 10 miles west from historic Jackson toward Prison Boulevard, which leads to death row. Along the way, green lawn signs lined Highway 36, advertising “Jesus.” Soon after I arrived, a dozen peaceful protesters began pulling up at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, gathering just inside the gate. A black-clad security squad wearing helmets and riot gear stood watch as vehicles approached; one by one, drivers exited their cars before parking so that German Shepherds could search for contraband.
The prison was not visible from the gate. It sits a mile down the road, beyond Corrections Lake and rows of tall Georgia pines. Portable toilets and long strands of thin yellow rope divided the press area from the area set aside for protesters. At 6 p.m. sharp a white van came for the reporters who would watch the execution; there would be no other official witnesses that night. Yet the activists standing by were acting as witnesses of a different kind. “When they sign the death warrant, they say it’s being done in the name of Georgians,” said Kathryn Hamoudah, chairperson of Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. “Actually, no — you’re not doing this in the name of all Georgians. And we’re going to hold you accountable for this.”
“You’re not doing this in the name of all Georgians.”
GFADP holds vigils across the state each time there’s an execution — this is the fourth in 2016. The group’s website provides a map of 12 protest sites, from Atlanta, some 50 miles north of here, to Macon, 40 miles south. Executions are scheduled for 7 p.m., but vigils will sometimes go late into the night, as courts rule on last-minute appeals. Sometimes, like the night Troy Davis died, the U.S. Supreme Court will order a temporary stay, only for the execution to be carried out later. Other times, something goes wrong. When the state killed 72-year-old Brandon Astor Jones in February, nurses struggled for more than an hour to find a suitable vein, then inserted an IV into his groin. Later, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution described how Jones “fought death” — six minutes into the execution, “his eyes popped open” and he appeared to look at the clock in the execution chamber, as well as the prosecutor who sent him to die. His time of death was 12:46 a.m.
The vigils do not end until the coroner’s van exits the prison gates. So protesters come prepared for a long night. They dress in layers — some have folding chairs — and bring snacks to share. But that night, things were going swiftly. The U.S. Supreme Court had already refused to grant a stay, in a curt two-line order released earlier in the afternoon. There were no dissents.
Yet there was much to be troubled by in the case of Kenneth Fults — or “Kenny,” as people here know him. Fults, who is black, admitted to killing his 19-year-old neighbor, Cathy Bounds, in 1996, shooting her in the head following a string of robberies. He pleaded guilty, hoping jurors would show mercy and sentence him to life. Instead, he was condemned to die. Among those who voted for the death penalty was a man named Thomas Buffington, who later admitted to an investigator, “I don’t know if he ever killed anybody, but that nigger got just what should have happened. Once he pled guilty, I knew I would vote for the death penalty because that’s what that nigger deserved.” Buffington had previously denied harboring any racial bias upon being selected for the jury years before. “No, sir,” he said, when asked if it made “any difference that in this case the defendant is black and the victim was white.”
Jurors who served alongside Buffington were disturbed by the revelations. In sworn affidavits included in Fults’s appeals, one woman said it was “very unfair” that he had been allowed on the jury. Another juror, who acted as foreman, said, “Mr. Buffington hid his feelings about Mr. Fults’s race during our deliberations. As the foreperson, I would have alerted the judge if I had known about Mr. Buffington’s true feelings.”
Perhaps more disturbing was the behavior of Fults’s own defense attorney, who himself was known to refer to his own clients as “nigger,” according to an in-depth piece in Mother Jones, and who, according to jurors, was often asleep during the proceedings. “I saw him sleeping off and on throughout the whole trial,” one juror said in an affidavit years later. “It really bothered me because here there was a man on trial for his life and his lawyer didn’t even care enough to stay awake.” Nor did he present “much information about Mr. Fults’s life or his background,” the juror said. “I have just learned that he went through a lot as a child and that he has been diagnosed as mentally retarded. If this information had been presented at the trial, it would have made a difference to me.”
Such factors would seem to merit a closer look — if not a new trial. Yet, citing procedural rules, the state repeatedly declined to act. The U.S. Supreme Court, which recently granted certiorari in a Colorado case in which a juror expressed prejudice against Mexicans, nonetheless refused to stay Fults’s execution on the same grounds. Nor did the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole feel the need to intervene in the end. The board is “supposed to be a fail-safe when the courts get it wrong,” said Hamoudah, “yet time and time again, they’re not doing their job.”
“He had a racist defense team, a racist juror, he has an intellectual disability, and yet that wasn’t compelling enough? Then what is?”
Hamoudah is from Texas originally — “I’m no stranger to the death penalty,” she told me, or to its racist underpinnings. But the sheer brazenness of it in this case — not to mention Fults’s borderline IQ of 72 — makes the courts’ indifference hard to comprehend. “He had a racist defense team, a racist juror, he has an intellectual disability, and yet that wasn’t compelling enough? Then what is?”
Yet it wasn’t entirely surprising. Hamoudah was outside the prison in 2011 when the state killed Troy Davis, an execution that sparked protests across the world. Hundreds of people filled the prison grounds that night, with many hundreds more across the street. “There was an incredible amount of disbelief,” Hamoudah recalled. Many people held on to some faith that “the justice system is going to work. And it didn’t.” It wasn’t just the question of innocence — the majority of the eyewitnesses in Davis’s case had recanted their testimony — but the racial bias that permeated it from the start. “Even the most cynical of us have hope that … there will be someone who will take a position against this very blatant racism,” she said. But no one did.
“Every case has something,” another activist, Mary Catherine Johnson, told me. “They all are tainted with, you know, bad lawyers, or not bringing in mitigating evidence.” Indeed, in the past couple of years, Georgia has killed numerous prisoners who would not likely be sent to death row today: a Vietnam veteran with severe PTSD; a woman whose boyfriend carried out the murder in question (and who went on to provide spiritual guidance to women behind bars); a man repeatedly diagnosed with serious intellectual disabilities. But when it comes time for clemency hearings, she said, none of this makes a difference. “They are obsessed with the crime.”
Johnson started attending vigils in 2009 or 2010. Previously she had worked with the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in Washington, D.C. “We would protest at the Supreme Court, wear T-shirts,” she said. But much of the job was administrative, “stuffing envelopes” and other such work. When she moved to Georgia, where she’s from, Johnson said, “I heard on the radio one day that there was an execution scheduled — and it just floored me. I couldn’t believe it. Because it felt real all of a sudden.”
Johnson drove down to the prison with her boss, a California native who had protested executions at San Quentin. She was expecting hundreds of people, she said, but found just a handful. “It just hit home,” she said. During the vigil that night, she was especially struck by the way participants “talked about the person — his life, who he was. … All you read in the paper is the crime. But these people were talking about him as a human being. And that just floored me. I thought, ‘This is where I want to be.’”
Among the protesters on Tuesday night were several who had never been there before. There was an older man who works in sales — he heard about the vigil from GFADP, and came down because of what he felt was hypocrisy among Catholics who claim to be “pro-life” but are silent on executions. There was a young Pakistani woman who heard about the execution on the radio the night before. “And I said, no, no, no — this can’t happen,” she said. She drove down to the prison in the hopes of visiting Fults before he died, not realizing the complex series of hurdles necessary to do so.
Just before 7 o’clock, Johnson called for everyone to gather around in a circle. Holding a photo of Fults, she described how his relatives had traveled to Jackson days earlier to have their final visits. A group named New Hope House, with whom Johnson volunteers, keeps a “hospitality house” near the prison for death row families. “I think there were maybe 20 [relatives] last night,” she said, including his children. The gathering for Fults was “a mixture of joy and sadness.” On the one hand, they were gathering as a family for the first time in years — there were meals to share and board games for the kids — but it was a reunion of collective trauma. After the parole board denied clemency, Johnson said, “There were many tears, as you can imagine.” But the prison allowed Fults to stay on the phone with them for hours that night. “They were passing [the phone] around and sharing stories. … He was on a rollercoaster of tears and laughing.”
None of Fults’s relatives came to the vigil. Most had traveled from Mississippi — some from Oklahoma — and “they all felt strongly that they wanted to be in their own homes tonight,” Johnson said.
“It’s very unusual for the execution to go forward at 7 p.m.,” Johnson said. “But it looks like that’s what’s happening now. So it’s probably happening as we speak.” The protesters joined hands. They passed around a list of every person Georgia has executed since the return of the death penalty in 1976. Participants read the 63 names three at a time, followed by the dates that they died. Then they sang Amazing Grace.
It was not yet 8 p.m. when the white van returned to drop off the media witnesses. A Georgia Department of Corrections spokesperson followed. She did not speak to the protesters, but on Twitter, reporters soon put the time of death at 7:37 p.m. A guard in a plain blue uniform approached the vigil. “It’s over,” he said. The guards in riot gear came up behind him, but were told to allow the group to stay a little longer. A few minutes later, the black coroner’s van drove past, carrying Kenneth Fults’s body. The van turned west onto Highway 36, away from the Christian lawn signs, and disappeared from view.