Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Re-Examining Lucasville: Essay 6

This is the sixth essay in Staughton Lynd's new Lucasville Re-Examined Essays series, leading up to the 20th Aniversary Conference of the Lucasville Uprising in April of 2013.

By Staughton Lynd, November 2012

Let’s try to visualize the most unfair criminal trial we can imagine.  Let’s make a list of elements that might be part of such an unjust proceeding.

The list might include the following elements:

1. The judge excuses one potential jury member after another who states that he or she could not in good conscience recommend the death penalty.

2. The evidence in support of convicting the defendant consists entirely of testimony by other prisoners.

Each of these elements was present in the trial of George Skatzes, who was found guilty and sentenced to death for the aggravated murder of prisoners Earl Elder and David Sommers. 

In addition, in the portion of the trial concerning Mr. Elder’s death:

3. Skatzes was sentenced to death for allegedly ordering prisoner Rodger Snodgrass to murder Earl Elder. But Snodgrass, a prosecution witness, testified that Elder was still alive when he left Elder’s cell.

4. The medical examiner testified that Elder’s fatal wounds were caused by a broad blade. However, Snodgrass himself as well as another prosecution witness, Tim Williams, testified that the weapon supposedly carried by Snodgrass was a thin, icepick-like shank that made small, round holes.

5. Tim Williams was himself named by two other prisoners as one of the three men who actually killed Elder.  Williams is now on the street.

6. Another prisoner, Eric Girdy, has confessed to being one of those three men. Girdy has repeatedly stated under oath that Skatzes was nowhere around at the time and had nothing to do with what happened.

7. Girdy testified that the weapon he used was a piece of broken glass from an officers’ restroom. The medical examiner testified that he found a shard of glass in one of the potentially lethal wounds made by a broad blade.

8. Girdy’s belated confession was accepted as true by the special prosecutor and Girdy was duly sentenced in the Scioto County Court of Common Pleas.
In the portion of the trial concerning the murder of David Sommers:

9. Several weeks after Skatzes was convicted and sentenced to death for Sommers’ homicide, prisoner Aaron Jefferson, in a separate trial, was found guilty of allegedly committing the same murder.

10. As in the trial of Skatzes, when Jefferson was tried for killing Sommers the medical examiner testified once again that Sommers had died as the result of a single, fatal blow by an instrument like a baseball bat.  Thus two men were found guilty of striking the same lethal blow.

11. An Ohio Court of Appeals determined that there was no way to prove which man had struck the fatal blow, but Skatzes was guilty anyway because of his “complicity” in the murder and his sentence of death should be affirmed.

Nothing has been done to vacate George Skatzes’ death sentence for the aggravated murders of Elder and Sommers.

What Skatzes Says

George Skatzes has written a statement from which the following are excerpts:

Twenty eight years and counting!  I am totally at my wits’ end!  Please let me explain!  Please hear me out!

The testimony by the inmates in the Earl Elder murder was contradicted and undermined by the testimony of the forensic pathologist.  Yet all this means nothing to the courts!  George Skatzes was found guilty and that is that! Justice?

Ohio Jury Instructions 409.56, Other Causes, Intervening Causes, states:

“If the defendant inflicted an injury not likely to produce death, and if the sole and only cause of death was a fatal injury inflicted by another person, the defendant who inflicted the original injury is not responsible for the death.”

[George adds: There is nothing true about Snodgrass’ testimony.  But if, for the sake of argument, we assumed that Snodgrass was telling the truth, since Snodgrass said Elder was alive when Snodgrass left his cell, under Jury Instruction 409.56 Skatzes could only have been guilty of attempted murder.]

In the case of David Sommers, there is no physical evidence to link George Skatzes to the crime.  The inmates who testified against George Skatzes are self-admitted participants in the murder!

We have two people convicted for causing the death of David Sommers by dealing a single massive blow to the head. Two people convicted for the very same act? The object is, of course, to convict at any cost!

Summing up his trial and convictions, Skatzes declares:

"We have a man convicted and sentenced to death only on the word of jailhouse snitches.  It was their word alone without any independent objective and corroborating evidence."

Law Versus Justice

In three aspects of the courts’ proceedings concerning Mr. Skatzes and others of the Lucasville Five, prosecutors have been able to cite and rely on the law as pronounced by state and federal courts.  But that doesn’t mean that these convictions and sentencse are just! It only means that Skatzes, like other Lucasville defendants, is a victim of what he calls “the criminal injustice system.”

Let’s consider three of the judicial doctrines that stand between Lucasville defendants and light at the end of the tunnel.

The Death Qualified Jury
A jury’s recommendation of the death penalty must be unanimous. It takes only one juror in twelve to prevent a recommendation for death.

But under current law in state and federal courts, any potential juror who states that he or she opposes the death penalty under all circumstances will almost surely be “excused,” that is, excluded, from jury service in a capital case.

In contrast, a juror who indicates support for the death penalty is asked another question, namely, "Would you follow the instructions of the judge about the law?"  If the juror answers, Yes, then that juror may be seated even though he or she favors the death penalty just as strongly as opponents of the death penalty oppose it.

The following extracts show the doctrine of the “death qualified jury” at work during the “voir dire” (jury selection process) in the case of George Skatzes.

Juror #1

THE COURT: . . . I have a question I want to ask you. . . . [I]n a proper case where the facts warrant it and the law permits it, could you join in with others in signing a verdict form which might recommend to the Court the imposition of the death penalty?

A:  No, sir.

THE COURT:  You don’t believe you could do so?

A:  I don’t believe so.

THE COURT:  Under any circumstances?

A:  No.

THE COURT:  Could you tell me why?

A:  I had a brother who was murdered and I found it in my heart to forgive that man. I would not have found him guilty to the extent that his life would be taken.

THE COURT:  In other words, you feel that if you didn’t do it in your brother’s case, you wouldn’t do it in any other case, right?

A:  Right. . . .

[DEFENSE ATTORNEY]: . . . Do you feel that this is a teaching of your church?

A:  Not so much a teaching of my church as it is an understanding of mine that I do not create life.  I am not giver of life, so I feel that it’s not my responsibility or within reason to expect me to take a life. . . .

THE COURT:  You may step down.

Juror #8

THE COURT:  . . . In a proper case, where the facts warrant it and the law permits it, could you join in with the other jurors in signing a verdict form which would recommend to the Court the death penalty?

A:  Yes, your Honor.

 [PROSECUTING ATTORNEY]:  . . . We brought you here because we want to discuss with you your views on capital punishment. Can you share them with us, please?

A:  I strongly believe in them. I wish they were enforced more often.

[PROSECUTING ATTORNEY]:  . . . Do you believe the death penalty is the only appropriate penalty in all cases of an intentional killing?

A:  Pretty much.

[PROSECUTING ATTORNEY]:  Does that mean?

A:  Yes.

[PROSECUTING ATTORNEY]:  . . . You can think of the wors[t] crime that comes to your mind and if you find that person guilty at the first phase, we don’t go straight to death.  We have the second hearing at which point you would get additional evidence to consider in making your decision as to what punishment is appropriate. . . .
What we need to know is whether you could set aside your thoughts as to what you think the law should be and follow the law that the Judge gives you?

A:  Yes.

[PROSECUTING ATTORNEY]: If you found someone guilty of a horrible, horrible crime, as bad as you can think of, would you be willing to keep an open mind and listen to the evidence at the second phase before making a decision as to which penalty is appropriate?         

A:  Yes.

[PROSECUTING ATTORNEY]: No matter how bad the crime?

A:  Yes.


THE COURT:  . . . We want you back [to serve as a juror in the case].

With the doctrine of the death-qualified jury before us, there should be no difficulty in understanding why, in such a high percentage of  cases, Lucasville
prosecutors either won a favorable jury decision or entered into a favorable plea agreement.  At one public forum concerning George Skatzes, known to fellow prisoners as “Big George,” an attender who had read the dialogue between the judge and potential jurors  commented:  “Big George is in Big Trouble.”

Studies cited by the American Bar Association and the American Law Institute indicate that the process of selecting a death-qualified jury produces juries that are more likely to convict the defendant during the guilt phase of the trial, and more likely to impose the death penalty during the sentencing phase.  John Paul Stevens, retired Justice of the United States Supreme Court, stated when he was on the bench that this rule “deprive[s] the defendant of a trial by jurors representing a fair cross-section of the community.”  He is convinced that “the process of obtaining a ‘death qualified jury’ is really a procedure that has the purpose and effect of obtaining a jury that is biased in favor of conviction.”

The Doctrine of Complicity

A familiar hypothetical presents the problem of a group of bank robbers.

Robber A is the driver of the getaway car.  While his companions enter the bank, he stays at the wheel of their vehicle, perhaps listening to the car radio or reading the newspaper.  Meantime, the men actually in the bank encounter difficulties, there is a  scuffle, robber B uses his gun, and a bank teller falls to the floor, dead.

What should be the punishment of robber A?  Under Ohio law he can be found to be “complicit” in the entire criminal course of conduct, and presumed to be just as guilty as the man who pulled the trigger.  Moreover, whereas under Ohio law someone guilty of “conspiracy” to rob the bank would not be eligible for the death penalty, under the Ohio law of “complicity” every one in the group would be exposed to the possibility of execution.

After Aaron Jefferson was convicted of striking the same fatal blow for which George Skatzes had been convicted, an Ohio Court of Appeals considered the case.  

The court began its explanation by stating:  “Skatzes contends that his due process rights were violated because the state charged and convicted two inmates—Skatzes and Aaron Jefferson—with the murder of David Sommers, when the evidence suggested only one fatal blow. He argues that these [were] ‘inherently factually contradictory theories’.”

Not so, the court continued.  “The state’s theory was that both Skatzes and Jefferson were complicit in the crime; there was no way to prove who had inflicted the fatal head injury. . . .  A defendant charged with an offense may be convicted of that offense upon proof that he was complicit in its commission.”

The court may not have read the transcript of the Skatzes and Jefferson trials. In closing argument in the Skatzes trial, Prosecutor Daniel Hogan did not say, “there was no way to prove who had inflicted the fatal head injury.”  Rather, Hogan asked the jury to think “about David Sommers, . . . the one where [Skatzes] wielded a bat and literally beat the brains out of this man’s head.”  State v. Skatzes, p. 6108.  And in the Jefferson trial, Prosecutor Crowe told the jury:

If there was only one blow to the head of David Sommers, the strongest evidence you have [is that] this is the individual—I won’t call him a human—this is the individual that administered that blow. . . .  If there was only one blow, he’s the one that gave it.  He’s the one that hit him like a steer going through the stockyard, the executioner with the pick axe, trying to put the pick through the brain.

State v. Jefferson, Tr. at 656-57.

The court also failed to mention that whereas Jefferson was sentenced to many years behind bars, Skatzes was sentenced to death.
Jason Robb was the victim of a prosecution theory about Sommers’ murder that was equally bizarre.  According to prosecution witnesses, Sommers chased Robb from L-2 to L-7, where Sommers was beaten to death by prisoners other than Robb.  Yet Robb was convicted and sentenced to death for Sommers’ murder! 

Ineffective Prohibition of Snitch Testimony

Heightened reliability is required in capital cases.  Convictions based on the testimony of  informants, who are offered reduced charges, parole, or other benefits in exchange for their testimony, are inherently unreliable in the absence of independent and objective corroborating evidence connecting the defendant to the crime.

In recognition of the unreliability of informant testimony, the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association resolved on February 14, 2005, that the ABA

“urges federal, state, local, and territorial governments to reduce the risk of convicting the innocent, while increasing the likelihood of convicting the guilty, by ensuring that no prosecution should occur based solely upon uncorroborated jailhouse informant testimony.” 

Likewise, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice declared in 2006:

"A conviction can not be had upon the testimony of an in-custody informant unless it shall be corroborated by such other evidence as shall independently tend to connect the defendant with the commission of the offense . . . .  Corroboration of an in-custody informant cannot be provided by the testimony of another in-custody informant."

The Lucasville prosecutions ignored the necessity for objective corroboration of informant testimony.  The uncorroborated testimony of prisoner informants, so-called “snitch” testimony, was the principal basis for every Lucasville capital conviction.

One way in which Ohio seeks to guard against the perjury of snitches is by requiring the judge to give the following instruction to the jury.
The testimony of an accomplice does not become inadmissible because of his complicity, moral turpitude, or self-interest, but the admitted or claimed complicity of a witness may affect his credibility and make his testimony subject to grave suspicion, and require that it be weighed with great caution.

However, common sense suggests that reading to a jury a long sentence that begins with a double negative and is made up of polysyllabic and unfamiliar words is unlikely to protect a defendant.  Prosecutors have many ways to make perjured testimony appear convincing to a jury. For example, an informer may describe the scene of a crime with seeming truthfulness since,  after all, often the witness was actually there and simply ascribes to others the actions he himself committed.

The Lucasville prosecutors used a variety of techniques to procure compliant prisoner informants and prepare them for trial.  In Skatzes’ trial, prosecutor (now Ohio judge) Daniel Hogan admitted that Daniel Stead, who prosecuted  the trial with him, had told a wavering prisoner, “you are either going to be my witness, or I’m going to come back and try to kill you.”  In preparing prisoner Robert Brookover as a witness,  prosecutors hit him with a rolled-up newspaper until he stopped beginning each sentence of his testimony with the words, “I’m not going  to lie to you.”  And by bringing potential prosecution witnesses together at the so-called “snitch academy” in Lima, Ohio,prosecutors sought to ensure that their witnesses at trial would tell consistent stories.

Ohio court opinions also emphasize, as a second shield against unreliable snitch testimony, the right of the defense to cross-examine prosecution witnesses.  But this right was systematically obstructed by Lucasville prosecutors. 
Typically, officers of the Ohio State Highway Patrol interviewed potential prosecution witnesses as many as half a dozen times before trial. Summaries of these interviews were then entered into a computer database.  But only when the witness began to provide the narrative that the prosecution desired were his remarks likely to be preserved in the form of a tape-recorded interview or deposition.  This prosecution-friendly final product could then be provided  to the defense in “discovery.”  The database entries might have revealed how much the testimony of the witness had changed over time as it was shaped by interviewers from the state. These entries were often not produced.  But in Keith LaMar’s case, prosecutors successfully impeached the testimony of defense witness Gino Washington by using interview records that had not been produced in discovery.

Defense Alternatives
Lucasville capital defendants were faced with an excruciating choice.

If they had not killed anyone during the eleven days, they had the right to go to trial and try to convince a jury of their innocence.  But their juries would be made up of men and women willing to recommend the death penalty; their trials would be governed by the doctrine of complicity;  and their trial court judges would have no way to assure defendants of the good faith and credibility of prosecution witnesses.

However if, recognizing that the dice were loaded, the defendant elected to pleabargain, the best possible outcome was likely to be imprisonment for life.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

George Skatzes and the Lucasville Rebellion

An article by Staughton Lynd

On: (uploaded 2007)
(date of writing unknown)

From April 11 to 21, 1993, what appears to have been the longest prison rebellion in United States history took place at the maximum security prison in Lucasville, in southern Ohio.(note 1) More than four hundred prisoners were involved. Nine prisoners and a guard were killed. After a negotiated surrender, five prisoners in the rebellion were sentenced to death.

The five prisoners from the rebellion on death row—the "Lucasville Five"—are a microcosm of the rebellion's united front. Three are black, two are white. Two of the blacks are Sunni Muslims. Both of the whites were, at the time of the rebellion, members of the Aryan Brotherhood.

My wife and I know the Lucasville Five and are assisting with the appeal of one of the white men, who has since repented his affiliation with the Aryan Brotherhood. What we have learned should give pause to anyone inclined to dismiss all members of a group like the Aryan Brotherhood as incurably racist. Let me give you a synopsis of the childhood of George Skatzes (pronounced "skates"), his experiences during the 1993 rebellion, and the way that his actions ran out ahead of his organizational affiliation and political vocabulary.

In Marion, Ohio, where George grew up, whites lived on one side of the tracks and blacks on the other. George and his sister, Jackie, were the children of their mother's third marriage. Their parents were divorced when George was an infant and he grew up in his mother's home, where a succession of her boyfriends passed through. The house was in perpetual disorder; George and Jackie were embarrassed by the clothes they wore to school and never invited school friends to their house. George was often beaten by his mother or one of his two older stepbrothers. When he became a young adult, he often tried to help his mother, once working overtime for five weeks and saving all his pay to buy her a freezer and refrigerator. But the gift was unappreciated.

George became aware that the neighbors considered his family to be "white trash." He felt more welcome on the black side of town than by the people next door. One of his best friends was the child of an interracial couple. "I might as well have been biracial myself," he recalls.

How could a person with these views have joined the Aryan Brotherhood at Lucasville? According to George, it was not because of an attitude of racial superiority. "You won't find anyone at Lucasville I judged because of the color of his skin," he insists, and the testimony of many black prisoners, both at trial and in private conversation with my wife and myself, supports this. "One race should not have to die for another to live," George Skatzes says. "We are all people."

Difficult as it may be for someone outside the walls to understand, George Skatzes states that he joined the Aryan Brotherhood because he perceived whites at Lucasville as a minority who needed to band together for self-protection. A majority of prisoners were black. The deputy warden, the warden, and the head of the statewide Department of Rehabilitation and Correction were black as well. On the one hand, all prisoners at Lucasville were oppressed. Conditions in the cell block used for administrative segregation were such that a petition was sent to Amnesty International and several prisoners cut off their pinky fingers and mailed them to the federal government. On the other hand, in Skatzes' experience, white prisoners like himself were punished for conduct that was condoned when committed by blacks.

Still insistent that these were the facts, Skatzes now says that joining the Aryan Brotherhood was "the biggest mistake of my life." In the course of responding to the day-by-day events of the rebellion, he found himself speaking not for white prisoners or for those white prisoners who belonged to the Aryan Brotherhood, but for the entire inmate body.

The disturbance at Lucasville was triggered by an attempt to force prisoners to submit to tuberculosis testing, by means of a substance containing alcohol injected under the skin. A number of Muslims said that receiving the injection was contrary to their religious beliefs, and suggested alternative means of testing. The warden responded that he was running the prison. He made plans to lock down the prison on the day after Easter and, if necessary, to force all prisoners to be injected. These plans became common knowledge. Accordingly, on the afternoon of Easter Sunday, prisoners returning from recreation on the yard overpowered a number of guards and took them hostage, occupying the L block of the prison.

During the next several hours, black prisoners killed five white prisoners believed to be snitches. A race war, like the one during the Santa Fe prison riot a few years earlier, seemed imminent.

At this point, two Muslims approached George Skatzes. George had not taken part in planning the rebellion. He celled in L block and had stayed there when the riot began, in order to protect his property and to look after his friends. The black men who spoke to Skatzes were aware that, as a physically imposing older convict (in his late forties), "Big George" had often been asked to mediate disputes among prisoners. Siddique Abdullah Hasan and Cecil Allen told Skatzes that whites and blacks had gathered on different sides of the gymnasium and the atmosphere was very tense. They asked "Big George" to help them ensure that the protest would be directed against the prison administration, their common oppressor.

Skatzes agreed. He went to the gym and spoke to both the blacks and whites. He put his arm around the shoulders of a black man and said, "If they come in here, they're going to kill us no matter what color we are." He appealed to members of each group to mix with members of the other group.

The next day, April 12, George Skatzes (with a megaphone) and Cecil Allen (carrying a huge white flag of truce) went out on the yard to try to start negotiations. On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, April 13 through 15, Skatzes was the principal telephone negotiator for the prisoners. He took part in meetings of a leadership council representing the three main organized groups in L block: the Muslims, members of the Aryan Brotherhood (ABs), and the Black Gangster Disciples. On the afternoon and evening of Thursday, April 15, he negotiated the release of a hostage guard who was experiencing extreme emotional trauma, accompanied Officer Clark into the yard, and released him to the authorities. He made a radio address in which he said: "We are a unit here. They try to make this a racial issue [but] it is not a racial issue. Black and white alike have joined hands at [Lucasville] and have become one strong unit."

You see the point. The things that Skatzes did, in calming racial antagonisms, in working cooperatively with blacks, in characterizing the rebellion publicly as the work of "one strong unit," both black and white, hardly expressed the worldview of the Aryan Brotherhood. In part, Skatzes' actions expressed his personal decency; they also responded to a practical situation that called for racial cooperation. Experience ran ahead of ideology. Actions spoke louder than organizational labels.

George Skatzes and the black prisoners among the Lucasville Five stand in solidarity publicly and struggle privately to understand each other. During a fast that they undertook together, their list of demands, drafted by one of the blacks in the group, began with a concern for proper medical treatment for Skatzes. At the super-maximum-security prison in Youngstown where the Five are now housed, a number of prisoners began another fast. After about a week, only Skatzes and Siddique Abdullah Hasan were still going without food. The prison approached each one with assurances that their complaints would be addressed. Each refused to break his fast until told directly by the other that he was ready to eat again. Hasan wrote to me: "I chose to stay on the fast to let them know that I was down with George's struggle, too, and I would not sit quiet and allow the system to mess over him . . . [T]hey got the message and know that we are one."

From Prison Resistance to Class Struggle
How, if at all, can this experience of prisoners overcoming racism be extrapolated? What is the relationship of prison resistance to the wider movement for social change?

A good deal of the recent writing about racism calls on white workers to give up "white-skin privilege" voluntarily in order to become legitimate participants in the class struggle. Such a voluntaristic approach to racism is unsatisfactory for exactly the same reason that Marx and Engels found Utopian Socialism to be inadequate. Workers do not become socialists because agitators have gone house to house preaching the virtues of common ownership. Workers become socialists in action, through experience. Thus, Eugene Debs first recognized the need for the broadest possible unity of the working class in economic struggle and founded the American Railway Union to take the place of the separate unions of the railway crafts. Then, after the Pullman strike, Debs came to understand that in a capitalist society, government will always intervene in the economic class struggle on behalf of the capitalist class, and helped to organize the Socialist Party.

Racism, too, will be transformed through experience and struggle. We should anticipate that the objective contradictions of capitalism will again and again call on workers somehow to set aside their antagonisms toward one another, so that they can effectively act together against the common oppressor. As workers'actions change in response to the need for a solidarity in which the survival of each depends on the survival of all, attitudes will change also.

There are at least two obvious differences between resistance in prisons and forms of struggle outside the walls. First, a prison is a total environment. Black and white workers in the larger society typically leave behind the integrated workplace setting when they punch out, returning to segregated living situations in the community. Inside a prison, blacks and whites must survive in one another's company twenty-four hours a day.

Second, anything good inside a prison must ordinarily be brought about by the prisoners themselves, from below, through self-organization. In this respect, prisons differ from the military. Like prisons, the military is a total institution, but in the military, desirable social change can come from above, and did come from above, when the Armed Forces were integrated after the Second World War.

I know another George—George Sullivan, a truck driver from Gary, Indiana—whose experience illustrates the effectiveness of the equal status contract imposed from above in the Armed Forces. George Sullivan grew up in southern Illinois, the same racist setting recalled by David Roediger in the opening pages of The Wages of Whiteness.2

George Sullivan describes the racism he absorbed as a child:

There never was any question in my mind that black persons weren't any good. I knew that, but it didn't necessarily mean they were bad people because everyone knew that a black person's a coward and he won't cause you any trouble. There weren't any around where I lived.

One did come to the house one time, scared me to death. I saw him at the door, there he was, and I didn't know what to do. Any time we would be doing something wrong, one of the comments my mother would make was, "I'll have some big black person come and get you if you don't stop that." So I went to the door and there was this big black person. I just knew that he had come after me. But that's the only association I had. I wasn't taught to hate them. It was like the feeling about animals. Their place is not in the house or it's not where you are. Animals live in the woods. black persons live somewhere else.3

George Sullivan's relationship with blacks changed when he went into the military. The new policy of integration had just gone into effect. George reported to a barracks where he found that he was the only white. After informing the sergeant that there had been a mistake, he was told, "No, we've been having some problems about not integrating enough. As new white guys come on the base they're going to be put in there. You just happen to be the first." Then this happened:

I was a meat-cutter and I got a bit careless. I cut three or four of my fingers. I had them all bandaged up. I had just been promoted to sergeant but I still had my corporal stripes. I was sitting out in front of the barracks and the sergeant came by and he said, "Sullivan, get your stripes on." "I can't sew with one hand," I said, "and I don't have any money to take them over to the PX." He said, "You'll have stripes on your uniform by tomorrow or we'll take the stripes away from you."

I was sitting there by myself just wondering what to do. One of the guys in the barracks who'd heard it, he came out and said, "Have you already got your stripes?" I said, "Yeah, I bought them already." He said, "Well, if you'll go get them I'll sew them on for you." So that was the first thing that really broke the ice. He sat and sewed those stripes on my uniform while we got to know each other.4

Neither George Skatzes nor George Sullivan were, or are, ideological radicals. But they are white workers who have substantially overcome the racism that surrounded them. Both learned through their experience to deal with people as individuals rather than to judge them by the color of their skin.

We need a synthesis of the pressure for social change illustrated by the military policy of integration, with working-class self-emancipation. Prison resistance begins to suggest such a synthesis. There, the common need to survive creates the pressure to cooperate. But prison administrators will not organize that cooperation from above. In fact, prison administrators do all that they can to forbid and break up self-organization by prisoners. Therefore, black and white prisoners must depend on themselves to build solidarity with each other.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the self-organized protest movement of blacks created a model for students, women, workers, and eventually, soldiers. In the same way, the self-organized resistance of black and white prisoners can become a model for the rest of us in overcoming racism. Life will continue to ask of working people that they find their way to solidarity. Surely, there are sufficient instances of deep attitudinal change on the part of white workers to persuade us that a multi-ethnic class consciousness is not only necessary, but also possible.


The single most remarkable thing about the Lucasville rebellion is that white and black prisoners formed a common front against the authorities. When the State Highway Patrol came into the occupied cell block after the surrender, they found slogans written on the walls of the corridor and in the gymnasium that read: "Convict unity," "Convict race," "Black and whites together," "Blacks and whites, whites and blacks, unity," "Whites and blacks together," "Black and white unity."

1. I have written about the Lucasville rebellion in "Black and White and Dead All Over: The Lucasville Insurrection," Race Traitor, no. 8 (Winter 1998); "Lessons from Lucasville," The Catholic Worker, vol. LXV, no. 7 (December 1998) (republ. 2010); "The Lucasville Trials," Prison Legal News, vol. 10, no. 6 (June 1999). I have also written a docudrama entitled "Big George," a play about the rebellion in two acts and twelve scenes, in which the dialogue is drawn entirely from words actually spoken. Those who would like a copy can send a check for $7.50, made out to me, to 1694 Timbers Court, Niles, OH 44446.

2. David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1991), pp. 3-5.

3. George Sullivan, "Working for Survival," in Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998), p. 202.

4. Ibid, pp. 202-203.

Explanation of the Innocence of George Skatzes Regarding the Lucasville Prison Riot in 1993 (2007)

Taken over from: (added 2007)
Date: unknown

NOTE: The following is intended both as a contribution to Defendant Skatzes' forthcoming pleading in response to the State's "Motion to Dismiss Defendant's Petition to Vacate," and as a free-standing explanation of Skatzes' innocence of the two charges for which he was sentenced to death: the aggravated murder of Earl Elder, and the aggravated murder of David Sommers [during the Lucasville Uprising in 1993].

The Elder Killing

Prisoner Earl Elder was killed by other prisoners on the first day of the uprising, April 11, in pod L-6 of the occupied cell block.

The State concedes that there were three separate assaults on Earl Elder.

First, "Elder was beaten severely by inmates when he was removed from the L-2 safe well, where he had locked himself with Corrections Officer Ratcliff." Motion to Dismiss at 15.

Second, after Elder had been taken to cell L-6-60, prisoner Rodger Snodgrass "repeatedly stabbed him."

Third, other prisoners --the State names only prisoner Johnny Roper -- "inflicted further damage.”

However, the State's summary omits crucial details which demonstrate that the wounds inflicted by Snodgrass were not fatal and that the fatal wounds were inflicted in the third assault, with which Skatzes had no connection whatever.

Rodger Snodgrass testified that he went into L-6-60 and stabbed Elder repeatedly with a very thin, long, icepick type shank. Tr. at 4395-96, 4590. He repeated this description of his weapon in State v. Robb, Tr. at 3757, and State v. Sanders, Tr. at 2623. In State v. Skatzes, prosecution witness Tim Williams corroborated Snodgrass on this point, testifying that Snodgrass was able to slide his four fingers through and make a fist out of his hand with the point of the weapon protruding. Tr. at 3072.

The coroner, Dr. Larry Tate, testified that the icepick type instrument made only superficial, non-lethal wounds. He described the difference in appearance between the puncture wounds made by an icepick, and the wounds made by a broad-edged weapon like a knife. Tr. at 4840-44. The lethal injuries to Elder were made by a weapon with a "large edge" like a knife.  Tr. at 4837, 4843, 4845.

Snodgrass also testified that, after his assault on Elder, Elder was "still alive." Tr. at 4395. Williams testified that after Snodgrass left L block, Roper went back into L-6-60 and stabbed Elder about four times with a different weapon, which Williams agreed was a "homemade knife." Tr. at 3072, 3076-77.

It is unclear whether the fatal wounds to Elder were inflicted by Roper, as prosecution witnesses testified at trial, or by other prisoners, using a piece of broken glass, Post- Conviction Petition, Exhibit 19. The State's chief investigator agrees that Dr.Tate, the coroner, found a "small fragment of silver metal along with a chard of glass" in Elder's body.

Motion to Dismiss, Affidavit of Howard W. Hudson, para. 11.

What is crystal clear is that even if Defendant were to [accept] as true all the testimony of Rodger Snodgrass, Tim Williams. and Dr. Tate, Defendant had no connection with the third assault that actually killed Earl Elder. At most he should have been charged with attempted murder or felonious assault.

The Sommers Killinq

Prisoner David Sommers was killed by other prisoners on the last day of the Lucasville uprising, April 21,1993, in pod L-7 within the occupied cell block.

After the initial post-conviction pleadings were filed by Defendant Skatzes and by the State, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, on April 28, 2004, reversed the conviction of John David Stumpf in State v. Stumpf, 56 Ohio St.3d 712, 565 N.E.2d 835, 1990, 1990 Ohio LEXIS 1839 (1990). This Court of Appeals decision is at 2004 U.S. App. LEXIS 8332*, 2004 FED App. 0124P (6th Cir.)

The State argues in its Motion to Dismiss Skatzes' petition at 4 that "post conviction actions are limited to constitutional issues only." Stumpf requires reversal of the conviction of George Skatzes for the murder of David Sommers as a violation of his constitutional right to due process.

Stumpf was convicted as the "actual shooter" of Mary Jane Stout. "At a later trial of Stumpf's accomplice Wesley, however, the state presented the testimony of a jailhouse informant to establish that Wesley was the shooter." 2004 U.S. App. LEXIS 8332 at *3. Stumpf was sentenced to death and Wesley to Life imprisonment for the same act: firing the fatal bullets that killed Ms. Stout.

Citing decisions of the 8th, 9th and 11th Federal Appeals Courts, the sixth circuit panel concluded in Stumpf:

"We now join our sister circuits in concluding that the use of inconsistent, irreconcilable theories to convict two defendants for the same crime is a due process violation." Tr. at *49.

The convictions of both Stumpf and Wesley must be set aside, the Court held. Accordingly, the panel reversed the decision below in State v. Stumpf, and remanded the case "with instructions to issue the Writ of Habeas Corpus in the petitioner's favor, unless the state elects to retry him within 90 days of the date of entry of the conditional writ." Tr. at *70-71.

Understandably, since Stumpf had not yet been decided, the parties in this case have not previously brought before the Court the fact that, in separate trials, Georqe Skatzes and Aaron Jefferson were convicted of striking the same fatal blow that killed David Sommers. Just as in the cases of the two men convicted of firing the same bullets that killed Mary Jane Stout, the convictions of both Skatzes and Jefferson violated their constitutional right to due process and must be reversed.

In State v. Skatzes and again in State v. Jefferson, Coroner Leo Burger testified that the cause of death was one massive blow to the head. He said that the injury could well have been inflicted by a baseball bat. He described "a single injury with a blunt instrument, extremely forceful, not only fracturing the bone, shattering [it] in pieces, but also, separating the natural bone, suture lines." State v. Skatzes, Tr. at 3292-94.

Dr.Burger was explicit that this single blow was the cause of death:

Q. Doctor, do you have an opinion to a reasonable degree of medical certainty as to the cause of death of David Sommers?

A. Yes, cause of death is massive single injury to the head.

Tr. at 3295.

The obvious next question is, Who struck the single, fatal blow?

Addressing the jury both at the beginning and at the end of the trial of Defendant Skatzes, prosecutor Hogan said that it was Skatzes In opening argument in State v. Skatzes, Prosecutor Hogan stated:

“On the third killing of David Summers ["Sommers"] at the very end of the riot, you will hear evidence that Mr. Skatzes wielded the ball bat, smashed Mr. Summers' skull into a number of pieces. He didn't act alone. There were a number of people involved in the beating and stabbing and strangling, but he was the principal offender in that particular killing.”

Tr. at 1542 (emphasis added). In closing argument, prosecutor Hogan repeated:

“[T]hink about David Sommers, the third, the last of the three killings, the one where he [Skatzes] wielded a bat and literallv beat the brains out of this man's head.”

Tr. at 6108 (emphasis added).

However, in State v. Jefferson another prosecutor told another jury that the principal offender was not Skatzes, but Jefferson. Prosecutor Crowe said in closing argument that in 1994 Jefferson had told the Highway Patrol:
"I know that first lick I hit on him [Sommers] did damage. It leaked. I saw the brains leak. I got the blood all over me." Tr. at 656.

This is a reasonably accurate summary of what Jefferson did in fact tell Trooper J. W. Fleming of the Ohio State Highway Patrol in Interview #1264 on June 23, 1994. On that occasion Jefferson told Trooper Fleming: A. So I went to L-7, matter of fact I had a baseball bat with me.

Q. Was it an aluminum bat again?

A. Yeah, it was a Louisville Slugger. Steel bat.

Q. Okay, you're down --he's standing at the bottom of the steps? In front of the showers.

A. Standing at the bottom of the steps between 41 and the shower. I come downstairs, I didn't even ask no questions. I busted him in the back of the head with that old Louisville Slugger.

Q. In the back of the head? A. Back of the head.

Q. Now, right side or left side?

Q. I just swung. I know it hit the back of his head. I tell you what I know that the brain was leaking.

Interview #1264 at 16-20.

Prosecutor Crowe told the Jefferson jury to believe what Jefferson had told Trooper Fleming.

“If there was only one blow to the head of David Sommers, the strongest evidence you have [is that] this is the individual --I won't call him a human --this is the individual that administered that blow. Out of his own mouth. If there was only one blow, he's the one that gave it. He's the one that hit him like a steer going through the stockyard, the executioner with the pick axe, trying to put the pick through the brain. That put that baseball bat into the brain of David Sommers.”

Tr. at 657 (emphasis added).

The prosecution's conduct in convicting Skatzes and then Jefferson for the same offense (a single massive blow to the head that killed David Sommers) precisely parallels the prosecution's conduct in convicting Stumpf and then Wesley for the same offense (firing the bullets that killed Mary Jane Stout) .If the due process rights of Stumpf and Wesley to a fair trial were thereby violated, requiring reversal of their sentences 'and convictions, so were the due process rights of Skatzes and Jefferson.

Because this is a "constitutional issue," Motion to Dismiss at 4, the verdicts and sentences against Skatzes and Jefferson must be vacated.


George Skatzes was found guilty of the aggravated murder of Officer Vallandingham but was not given a death sentence. He is on Death Row solely in connection with his conviction for the aggravated murder of prisoners Elder and Sommers. Both these convictions having been shown to be invalid, Skatzes' death sentences must be set aside.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A Rude Awakening as to How the Justice System Really Works (2007)

I was convicted of three murders during the eleven-day rebellion at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio in April 1993. When I tell people I was not guilty of any of them, they say: But weren't you at SOCF because you were already found to be guilty of a murder? So let me begin with that earlier conviction.

In the city of Bellefontaine, Ohio, in October of 1979, the manager of Rinks Department store was murdered. It would appear that this may have been an armed robbery gone bad. There is more than one theory as to what really happened in this case.

This case went unsolved for nearly three (3) years. Then in mid to late 1982 some inmates wanted to cut a deal to get out of the trouble they were in.

In the summer of 1982 a good snitching inmate doing time in London Ohio Correctional Institution called the Bellefontaine authorities and told them he had information concerning the murder that happened in their town in 1979.

The price for this information would be his freedom, which he gained. Plus other perks.

The next thing that happened, in October 1982 I was indicted for this robbery/murder.

There was no physical evidence whatsoever to link me to this crime.

Mr. Prosecutor used this inmate, one that was doing 37 to 130 years in Lucasville, Ohio's maximum security prison, and his wife to convict me.
Both of these people were indicted for this murder and several other crimes, but they cut a deal. They received immunity for all their crimes for testifying against me. The following questions and answers when Mr. Rogers testified against me are reported on page 1366 of the transcript:

Q. What would you do to keep from going to jail? Would you lie under oath? A. To --

Q. To prevent yourself from being convicted, punished, going to prison, would you lie under oath?

A. I certainly would. I have before.

Of course this is only a very short version of the deals, the injustice in my original conviction. My case is by no means unique or rare. The system is full of cases like mine.

To sum it up, I started out doing a life sentence, convicted of murder on the word of two (2) lying snitches! A good, honest review of the record of case number 83-CR-3, Logan County, Ohio would prove I am telling the truth!

In my opinion these convictions should not be able to stand. Inmate testimony alone put me on Death Row. These convictions were obtained by the use of bribery and intimidation of the inmate witnesses. A review of the record will prove this.

Inmate Lavelle turned state's evidence and testified against other convicts. Mr. Prosecutor told Lavelle, "You are either going to be my witness, or I'm going to try to kill you" (Transcript, p. 4047).

Transcript, p. 4047

How can this type of testimony be enough to convict anybody? 

The prosecutor also told the jury that if I had agreed to snitch, I would have been the witness and Lavelle would have been the defendant. These were his words: 

Transcript, p. 5751.
"Mr.Skatzes had his opportunity and he chose not to take it. Had Mr. Skatzes taken it, they're right. Mr.Skatzes, assuming he would tell us the truth, would be up there on the witness stand testifying and Mr.Lavelle could be sitting over there. I make no apologies for that." Transcript, p. 5751.

Ohio Revised Code 2923.03(D) states in part that:

"...the admitted or claimed complicity of a witness may affect his credibility and make his testimony subject to grave suspicion, and require that it be weighed with great caution."

One would think the above statement makes good common sense, but that is not so. When an inmate testifies for Mr. Prosecutor his word becomes the gospel.

Think about it: Should snitch testimony, uncorroborated by any physical evidence, be strong enough to send a person to his death?

Even before I was indicted for the murder of Earl Elder, statements were made as to who really murdered this man. The powers that be very well know I had nothing to do with the murder of Earl Elder, but since I would not snitch, I got charged and convicted, and sentenced to death.

One of the inmates who was involved in the Elder murder came to my trial and testified against me. This man is walking the streets free now.

Another inmate who was involved in the Elder murder was man enough to step up and confess to his crime. He got a life sentence this past June 6, 2006. Still I sit on Death Row as if this confession never took place.

I was also tried, convicted and sentenced to death for the alleged murder of inmate David Sommers. The cause of death, according to the coroner, was one (1) massive blow to the head.

In my trial I was the one who dealt the one massive blow that killed Mr. Sommers.

In another convict's trial for the murder of Mr. Sommers,

the prosecutor told the jury that he was the one who dealt that fatal blow.

The State's own evidence proves that I am not responsible for the murder of Mr.Sommers.

There is just so much to all this. I don't want to go overboard in trying to explain everything. All I can ask is that you please read about this case.

If you feel the evidence is there to convict and sentence me to death, so be it.

On the other hand, if you believe I am innocent, please help me. These courts will not do their job unless they are made to do so. People power, you getting behind me and making some noise, is the only way justice will be served.

I need the State of Ohio to look at my case with honesty and justice.

Please help me to achieve this.

With utmost Respect

George Skatzes
Published here and here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Staughton and Alice Lynd's Letter to Judge Paul Pfeifer (2005)