Fighting to Stay Alive, Part 1 Update: Justice for a Few, Part II

root - Posted on 01 January 2000

Since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated, thirty-four mentally disabled prisoners have been executed in the United States.

by Leroy F. Moore, Jr.

In 1916 Jesse Washington, a Black , mentally disabled, young adult, was hauled out of court and dragged through the streets of Waco, Texas. He was then stabbed, mutilated and finally burned while 10,000 men, women and children cheered. What happened to Jesse Washington is not an isolated case and we can't chalk it up to history; we are still healing from the 1998 dragging and killing of a Black, disabled man, also in Texas, named James Byrd. Since the dawning of day individuals with disabilities, especially those of color who are poor, have had to and still are fighting to stay alive.

People with disabilities are not excluded from the brutal history of this country, a history that is still being played out today. Systematic discrimination and harsh brutality by individuals, institutions and the state against people with disabilities has, until very recently, been glossed over. The state has played and continues to play a big role in the physiological, mental and physical abuse of people with disabilities, especially disabled people of color. Look at the days of slavery, the Eugenics Movement, institutionalization to deinstitutionalization, and now the US Supreme Court is looking at the debate over state executions of mentally disabled prisoners. All of the above examples have one key component in common and that is they had the legal backing of the state. When the state institutions have the legal platform to end a person's life or to help create an environment that leads to brutality, it makes it harder for individuals to fight against this injustice because it is institutionalized.

Since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated, thirty-four mentally disabled prisoners have been executed in the United States. The website of LOST SOULS STOP KILLING MENTALLY RETARDED,, reports that many of the prisoners were and are people of color. Since the state of Georgia mistakenly executed Jerome Bowden, a Black, mentally disabled prisoner, the state has issued a ban on executions of the mentally disabled. This case helped the campaign to gain momentum, especially as it won the support of the American Bar Association. Now Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, South Dakota, Tennessee and Washington have also banned the practice.

Even Florida's own Attorney General Bob Butterworth, historically one of Gov. Jeb Bush's strongest advocates for speedier executions, supported the bill sparing persons with mental retardation from capital punishment. However, the bill did not pass and now Florida is the next state targeted by the campaign to end execution of mentally disabled prisoners.

As a researcher and writer on race and disability, I have noticed that the concepts of race, sex, disability and class have not been discussed in the executions of people who are mentally disabled. There are cases like Anthony Porter's and Earl Washington's, both Black men who are mentally disabled and poor. Both were on death row for crimes they didn't commit but confessed to because of their inability to understand what they were confessing. Both men were cleared by DNA testing and other evidence that was buried in their first hearing. Anthony Porter served seventeen years and Earl Washington had to wait until the beginning of this year to be released from custody. Many advocates are working on this issue but I don't see disabled, race and class advocates and organizations coming together with one voice on the execution of people who are of color, poor and have a mental disability.

"Crimes against people with development disabilities, i.e. mental disabilities, have reached epidemic proportions. Although it is similar to elder abuse, child abuse and domestic violence, it remains largely invisible and unaddressed." This statement comes from a report entitled "An Epidemic of Violence: A Collective Challenge", by Daniel D. Sorensen. Sorensen works at the California Victims of Crimes Committee which sponsored the federal Crime Victims With Disabilities Awareness Act. The Act requires the National Crime Survey to begin collecting data on crimes against people with disabilities. It also requires the US Attorney to issue a report on crime and violence against people with disabilities.

This committee helped convince Governor Gray Davis to establish the Crime Victims With Disabilities Initiative. This is the first permanent state government program that addresses the issue of crime against people with disabilities. Although the above accomplishments are helping to get the issue of crimes against people with disabilities out there in the public, it is a taboo subject for many in the disabled community and in the general public.

Is there justice in the US justice system for people with physical and mental disabilities? Many studies have found that individuals with disabilities, especially people with mental disabilities, who become involved in the criminal justice system, are more likely to face injustice if the system does not consider their disabilities and capabilities. According to's story "Stop Killing the Mentally Retarded", most attorneys, judges, law enforcement officers and juries lack the knowledge and skills necessary to ensure that people with mental disabilities obtain equal justice. It goes on to say that appropriate investigations and expert testimonies are costly. The fact is that individuals with mental disabilities lack the resources and income to get a fair trial.
A good example of how money can shape justice in the criminal justice system is Wanda Jean Allen, a poor, disabled, Black lesbian in Oklahoma who was executed in January for the murder of her lover. Wanda's family approached Bob Carpenter to handle the case. Since Mr. Carpenter believed that the case was not a capital case he agreed to represent Wanda for $5000. Wanda's family gave an initial payment of $800. However, the state charged Wanda with third degree murder and announced it would seek the death penalty, refusing Mr. Carpenter's request to drop the case.

In the end Wanda was left with an attorney who had never tried a capital murder case before and had a lack of resources to investigate her mental disability and other key elements in the case. In fact, Mr. Carpenter was quoted in the Associated Press and in the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty's website as saying that he had only learned about Wanda's disability after the case.

Although Allen did kill her lover, did the justice system kill Allen because her family's economic status instantly created an obstacle to her receiving equal justice? Right up until her execution, Wanda maintained she had shot her lover in self-defense, but the scar on her face from her lover's assault and the weapon that made that scar were not included as evidence of self-defense in her case.

The same is true for Michael Manning, a Black disabled young man who is fighting for his life in Pennsylvania's criminal justice system in a self-defense that is detailed on-line at For the past three months, I have been e-mailing Michael's parents to get his story. Their e-mail is

For almost four years the Manning family has been trying to receive media coverage and justice for their 30-year-old, physically disabled son, who is serving a 12 to 30 year prison term in Pennsylvania for what the justice system defined as first degree murder. But Michael and his lawyer, Salvatore Vito, have clearly demonstrated a case of self-defense. On September 15, 1999 a jury of nine women and three men (not his peers) of Monroe County, Pennsylvania convicted Michael Manning for the third degree murder of Harry Burley Jr. on June 16,1997.

Michael, friends, co-workers and family all took the stand and came to one conclusion—he acted in self-defense. According to Michael's lawyer and his parents, on June 16, 1997 Michael was on his way to pick up his mother from work. Noticing he needed gas, Michael pulled into a gasoline station. Michael also noticed he was being followed and subsequently endured an unexpected knife attack by two men. One was Michael's stepsister's boyfriend, Harry Burely, and the other was a drug dealer well known to the Court of Monroe County. After a few minutes of Michael struggling to defend himself, Burely fell to the ground.

The real tragedy began with the investigation and trial. The DA and Detective Thomas Lynott cleared Michael of any charges. However on November 5, 1997 Michael was arrested even though the fingerprints on the knife at the time didn't match Michael's. During Michael's case, justice was nowhere in courtroom. Firstly, there was the lack of fingerprints, and secondly, there were the instructions from the DA to the jury to bring back a verdict or he would have to sharpen his jury selection skills. Although the accomplice in the attack was proven to be a well-known drug dealer who had previously lied in another police matter and was currently on parole, he was allowed to testify.

To completely close the door on justice, Michael's parents found out that Judge Ronald E. Vican made a racial remark at another self-defense case of a Black man, stating, "I suspect this goes back to the cultural thing." He then invoked Michael's name and spoke of the case. The DA made derogatory remarks about Michael's disability after he demonstrated his walk to the jury. These remarks and the lack of awareness of Michael's physical limitations are stunning when you consider that Judge Ronald E. Vican has a noticeable disability and his wife is a physical therapist.

Now it is 2001 and the Manning family is still trying to find justice and media for their son. The latest news is that on April 5, 2001 Michael was scheduled for an evidentiary hearing with a new judge. The judge has a reputation of being a "man of justice". I pray for justice for Michael but he and his family need you, i.e. the Black community, the media, and his disabled brothers and sisters all across the country.

Through e-mail, the Manning family has reaffirmed why I do what I do. Michael's parents have contacted many disabled organizations and on-line disabled groups, but haven't gotten any support. The same goes for certain Black organizations. For example, Michael's parents contacted the NAACP, Jesse Jackson's Rainbow-PUSH organization and the Reverend Al Sharpton. The only response the Manning family has received is from Jesse Jackson, plus the Black media.

Our disabled brothers and sisters of color are fighting to stay alive but we can't do it alone! Here are some resources for more information on how you can get involved in helping rescue people with disabilities who are searching for justice and fighting to stay alive:

For family members who have a loved one on death row who is mentally disabled:
The United Nation Economic & Social Council campaign to eliminate the death penalty for persons who are mentally disabled. Information is available on-line at in "Stop Killing Mentally Retarded" or go to your local Association of Retarded Citizens (ARC). The US Senate will vote on it next session.

For families with disabled youth in the juvenile justice system contact:

The National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice
University of Maryland
1224 Benjamin Building
College Park, MD 20742
(301) 405-6462

Protection & Advocacy
100 Howe Ave. ST 185N
Sacramento, CA. 95825
(916) 488-9955

Victims of crime contact:

International Coalition on Abuse and Disability

Office for Victims of Crime (provided funding to the National Organization for Victims Assistance (NOVA) for the project Working with Crime Victims with Disabilities,, they offer grants and other funding)

Crime Victims with Disabilities Initiative
State Department of Mental Health
1600 9th Ave., Room 100
Sacramento, CA. 95814
(910) 654-6567 - Lisa Bowman

Justice for a Few
Update on Fighting to Stay Alive

Executions of the Mentally Retarded:

Texas : Last year Gov. Bush voted against a bill banning executions of the mentally retarded. He also refused to talk about the highly visible Johnny Paul Penry case. Now Gov. Rick Perry was quoted in the Houston Chronicle of May 31, 2001 as saying, "Texas already has safeguards against putting the mentally ill to death." In the same article he is further quoted as saying during a speech that we (Texas) do not execute the mentally retarded. Has he forgotten about the six mentally retarded Texans put to death since 1982? While the new governor of Texas is hesitating about signing the bill, legislators and the House of Representatives are moving ahead to pass a ban on executions of people who are mentally retarded.

Although Bush is in Washington now, the case of Johnny Paul Penry has fueled the debate on the executions of people with mental disabilities. His lawyer argues that his mental state should bar him from execution, a key element that was overlooked in his original case. In 1979 he was found guilty of the rape and murder of Pamela Mosely Carpenter. Penry has been on death row since 1979 and is White. The June 5, 2001 issue of the LA Times reported that the US Supreme Court overturned Penry's death sentence, stating that jurors were not clearly told to consider Penry's mental retardation as a reason to spare his life. So Penry escapes death one more time, for now. This was not the first time Penry was granted a stay. Last November Penry was hours away from being executed when the court granted a stay.

The official ruling that will consider whether the execution of mentally retarded defendants is always cruel and unusual punishment, and should therefore be stopped as unconstitutional, will be voted on in the fall. More and more states are joining the campaign to ban executions of people who are mentally disabled. Florida has passed a bill, but Gov. Jeb Bush has yet to sign it.

On June 5, 2001 Connecticut became the fourteenth state in the country to exempt mentally retarded criminals from execution. The state didn't stop there. It also wants to establish a nine member commission to study the death penalty, including whether or not there are disparities in prosecutors' decisions to seek death sentences based on the defendants' or victims' race or economic status. Bingo!! These are the issues that I brought up in Fighting to Stay Alive.

I wonder if Wanda Jean Allen a Black, disabled lesbian, as well as many other defendants of color who are poor and mentally disabled have the same access and resources as Penry. Can they get top notch lawyers like his? If you remember from my article, Wanda Jean Allen's lawyer did not discover her mental disability until after the trial. Because Allen's family could not afford to pay the lawyer in full, he could not do a full investigation. Earlier this year Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma denied Allen's request for a stay of execution and a new clemency hearing. Hours later, the US Supreme Court denied her final appeal.

From my e-mails it is clear that many who are fighting to ban executions of the mental retarded haven't consider race as part of the issue. Ummmmm interesting!!!!! This is one more thing to think about my brothers and sisters in California. The LA Times reported on June 5, 2001 that California has the largest population of inmates on death row but has not adopted the ban. In California, because the capital punishment law was approved by a state vote, to ban the executions of people with mental retardation would require a statewide referendum. For more cases of race, disability, class, and the justice system look up Oliver Cruz, Kim Lim, Earl Washington, just a few of the countless cases needing further investigation.

Michael Manning, a disabled, Black man is still locked up on self-defense! In my last article, I laid out Michael's story communicated to me via e-mails with his mother. At the time the article Fighting to Stay Alive appeared, Michael was waiting for his second trial with a new judge. Days after the article, while Ms. Manning was thanking Poor Magazine and me for coverage of her son's situation, injustice was served once again in court. Michael's lawyer appealed the first decision handed down by Judge Ronald E. Vican. The Manning family and Michael's lawyer had had high hopes and had expected that this new judge would notice the blunt injustice of the case. But the outcome was not in Michael's favor and he is still in jail for 12 to 30 years for the June 16, 1997 third degree murder of Harry Burley Jr.

This was not the first appeal that was rejected. A previous appeal was rejected by the Superior Court in 1999. This time Judge Peter J. O'Brian denied Michael's post-conviction appeal in which Michael said he received faulty defense from Salvatore Vito. The appeal also asserted that the questioning of a witness during the trial by Presiding Judge Ronald E. Vican prejudiced the jury against Michael. O'Brien found Vican's questioning "clearly unbiased". Michael's lawyer, Jeffery Velander, said that the way the judge wrote the opinion gives Michael much more latitude in Superior Court. The Mannings are planning to appeal the decision. Michael's new lawyer feels Michael has a very good chance of reprieve when his case is heard in Superior Court. His lawyer goes on to say that it is rare that convictions are overturned in the lower courts.

Media be on the lookout. The Manning family has put together a campaign to inform the media and the public at large of the travesty of justice that their son is enduring. They have contacted Geraldo Rivera at MSN Investigates, Oprah, and various newspapers. While some Americans stand by and watch this injustice unfold, many are closely following Michael's case and helping out in many ways.

Thanks to Michael's family's campaign, a Danish man found out about Michael's case and translated the case into danish and sent it to newspapers and radio and TV stations in Denmark. He also appeared on a Danish TV talk show with the US Ambassador to Denmark and spoke about Michael's case. In addition, Rubin Hurricane Carter's organization took an interest in Michael's case and is looking into the case. Mr. Carter has contacted Michael's attorneys. For more updates on Michael Manning's case visit and sign the petition!!!!!



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